“Aaaaaah!” That one unintelligent phrase summed up everything I was feeling at the moment. And, of course, the slam of the steel door behind me punctuated my scream and caused me to jump like a skittish rabbit. I glared at the brown-green portal, hating everything about it and the crappy Off-Broadway theatre it allowed access to. It was a flagrant reminder that my acting career was as rusted and flaky as the door.
“Stupid casting-agents. Don’t recognize talent when they see it,” I grumble. Going limp against the wretched door, I shove my fingers into my nearly-black hair and pray no one will follow my grand exit. If someone did, it would cause me to tip forward into a murky puddle, which would stain my already well-used thrift jeans and chunky sweater; and because it’s New York in the winter, I would be chattering my teeth in no time. Wouldn’t that just be the crappy icing to the garbage cake of my life.
I heave myself free of such possibilities to wander a little further into the alley. I don’t want to be here but I do not want to go home, and I certainly will not stray into work. I could just walk the street, but that doesn’t appeal to me either. At least hidden back here I can be alone. Maybe I could sink into a dark corner and melt into the shadows. No one would miss me. Not my roommate, especially not my co-workers, probably not even my parents, who don’t support my ‘crazy aspirations’.
My fingers feel blue so I shove them into my pockets before scuffing away from the exit of the alley, and just because I feel like it, I kick one of the many dilapidated boxes, eager to see it crumble. Just like my life. Then I wouldn’t be so alone.
Something shiny nabs my attention, something that doesn’t belong in a sketch alley such as this. A little ray of hope shines through my gloomy cloud of emotions; maybe whatever it was has some monetary value. I could use some of that. Who am I kidding? That kind of stuff only happens in the movies. Whatever the object, it’s probably nothing more than a lucky piece of junk that hasn’t quite experienced the full effects of New York living. I think about that for a moment and realize the trail of my thoughts. I want to trade places with a piece of junk. I’m pretty sure that’s what they call hitting rock bottom.
Still, I am curious. I want to know what kind of object has the determination to remain polished despite its surroundings. I shuffle closer before moving aside the wilting cardboard. “What the heck?” A massive black-purple-bluish iridescent and glowing egg tilted at an aggressive angle sits behind it, lonely. I’m fairly certain I haven’t magically transported into some other realm, but this egg is something straight out of Eragon. Was it wise to touch something I knew nothing about? No, but this is too unbelievable. I have to know if it's real.
Laying my palm flat on the surface, a gentle warmth heats my hand. It’s real alright. I back away from the egg, needing a moment to contemplate what this means. On the one hand, I could be severely hallucinating and in reality I just touched a homeless person, possibly a mangy animal. On the other hand, this could be some sort of valuable art piece made from a precious stone that stays warm instead of naturally cool. Not that I’ve ever heard of anything like that. Or, I could be wrong on both counts, and this is actually some sort of egg for a creature like those in a fantasy novel. If it’s the latter, I don’t know if I could truly accept that as the truth. My luck didn’t lean on the side of good. So...do I risk taking it?
I’m not sure how long I stand there. Eventually, I notice a temperature change, so it must have been longer than I thought. Had I made a decision in that time? No. Without thinking too much about what I was doing, I lean over and pick up the egg to cradle it against my chest. It’s what my mother calls one of my ‘panic pick’ moments.
Now that it is in my hands, I feel some weird attachment to the thing. I take a moment to shove the egg under my clothes. I’m sure I look pregnant, but I feel better about walking the streets. I mean, whatever this thing is, it’s freaking cool. I don’t want some rapacious street prowler following me like a bug to a light.
It takes me a while to find my way home, and not only has it gotten colder—though the egg against my skin keeps me rather comfortable—it has also gotten really dark. You would think there would be plenty of lighting in a city, and there would have been, if a majority of the street lamps weren’t burnt out or struggling to stay alive. On the bright side, I get home in one piece. Small consolation, though. My apartment isn’t the best. I constantly wonder if it is going to collapse, and there are definitely rats in the walls; but Liv and I keep our place clean, well-stocked with rat traps, and she had painted the walls cheery pastels long before I moved in. It looks like Easter has thrown up on the drywall, not my preferred color scheme, but it is absolutely better than dingy gray.
Liv moved to New York to try and make it as a singer. She isn’t that bad to live with, considering I usually draw the shoddy cards of life. I actually had a bit of luck finding her ad in the paper. My biggest complaint—she is nosey. And not just the nosey like someone is just trying to make sure everything is going okay in your life, no, she wants to know every little detail. Especially the things people like to keep private. I’ve learned to just beat her to the punch by answering all her potential questions in one or two sentences. At least she’s never rifled through my stuff, but I still lock my bedroom door just in case.
“Hey, Jilly! You’re home so late! Did your audition go well!?” Liv bubbles at me from the bathroom. She is curling her long auburn hair into big fat waves. The shiny disco mini-dress almost blinds me when I glance her direction.
“Hey, Liv. No, they said I wasn’t the fit they were looking for, and I was so bummed that I wandered around for a bit. I’m tired, though, just gonna go read and then go to bed,” I reply, doing my best to hide my fake baby bump and unlock my door at the same time.
“Okay! Well, I’m going out with Thomas tonight! Sooo cute! I’ll be back super-duper late!”
“Okay, thanks for telling me. Be safe.”
I shut the door before she has the chance to suck me into a full-blown conversation about how she could set me up with one of her guy friends. I am not in the mood. Any relationship she sent my way was doomed to be a disaster. I’ve been told I’m too capricious. It’s not my fault people don’t understand my need for self-expression. Besides, I have bigger things happening right now than possibly dating one of Liv’s man candies.
I plop on the bed, tipping the egg into my nest of blankets, and immediately feel the temperature difference without its warmth. I stare at the shiny iridescent surface until I hear the front door swing open and closed. Clearly the egg wasn’t going to do anything, so with Liv now gone I venture into the pygmy space deemed a kitchen. I have some leftover greasy chili that I swiped from work before the boss rinsed out the pot for the night. It’s drab eating but way better than starving.
I go back to stare at the egg while I eat my chili. It still does nothing. Dropping my spoon into my empty bowl, I sigh. Might as well go to bed, I can’t wait around for something to happen. It has been a long day, mostly I'm tired of thinking.
Once I’m ready for bed, I curl up around the egg. The warmth radiates through my clothes, taking the edge off the chill of my room. I’d figure out my life in the morning, hopefully.
I wake to a tap, tap, tap. If there was some confused pigeon on my window sill ruining my sleep I was going to lose it. The tapping persisted. Grudgingly I push up enough to frighten the winged rat, but there is nothing there. The tapping came again, and this time I’m aware enough to realize the sound is emanating from the egg. Pearl and Bernadette! I scramble from the sheets, my heart pounds in my throat. The thing I found looks like an egg, but I didn’t think it actually was an egg. There’s no mistaking what I’m hearing, something is trying to break out of that shell.
A wet crack crinkles about the room before a fist-sized piece pops from the top corner. A thick black beak the same iridescent blue-black-purple as the shell pokes out, emits a muted squawk, and disappears. The rational part of my brain tells me I should put the thing on the floor so it doesn’t make a mess all over my bed, but I’m in such a state of shock I can’t move. Like an idiot, I stand there in my pajamas watching this thing hatch.
I blink and there before me is drippy-goopy-sticky baby dragon. I blink a few more times just to be sure. I mean, it’s a dragon for Pearl’s sake. Not a large bat or mutated bird. A dragon. My mind is having a difficult time comprehending this development.
The dragon tilts its head to blink at me in a curious way a few times. It chirps, and then another round of a wet sticky sound meets my ears while it attempts to part the eggshell from its body. With the sun shining through my window, I get a look at the dragon’s coloring. It isn’t all that different from the shell, the scales are an iridescent black-blue and tipped in a deep purple. The translucent wings fade from black to deep blue and are also colored with a lovely purple. It reminds me of an opal. Then my brain catches up to what is happening. Oh! Pearl and Bernadette, is that thing trying to move! Full panic mode sets in; I can’t have this thing flapping about my room. It seems to be acting like it wants to be near me, so to curb any movements, I cautiously take a step toward the beast. It notices and settles.
Perching on the edge of my bed, I hold out my fingers for the dragon to smell. It does, and stretches its long neck to nuzzle my palm. I am petting a dragon. This is new territory for me. Where do I consider this development on the luck scale? What does it eat? I can barely feed myself. How big does it get? This is the only apartment I can afford on my meager salary. A thousand questions and millions of concerns race through my brain all culminating in one thought. What the heck am I supposed to do with a dragon!?
“Uhg! I don’t have anything else to feed you. Stop looking at me like that. I have to go to an audition!” My admonitions do nothing to wipe the pitiful look from the dragons face. I’ve already given up a lot for this creature by calling in sick for two consecutive days. My boss was not happy with me last night when I did finally show. There is no way I am going to miss an audition too, despite this being what feels like my hundredth attempt in the last year.
Besides, the last two days I’ve hermited myself in my room attempting to care for the little dragon—I still can’t believe I found a dragon, it’s like freaking Middle Earth comes to New York—I need to get out before I go stir-crazy. I’ve also given it what little meat I can manage to afford, and taken it outside several times for bathroom purposes in the dead of night so no one sees me. The dragon isn’t dead yet, so I must be doing something right.
The longer I stare at the little beast, the more my heart seems to fracture inside my chest. I am getting attached. Crap. That is the whole reason for me not naming it. Taking care of a helpless creature is so not how I planned on my life going. This little winged annoyance is ruining everything. I am supposed to be a Broadway legend by the time I’m forty, and this dragon isn’t allowing me to chase my dream. I should hate it, but I can’t. It’s too stupid cute...and helpless. “Alright, fine, I’ll stay and take you to the park, but this is the last time I’m missing anything for you.”
I am on a rapid trek from the fifth circle of Hell to the seventh with this baby dragon. It’s been a few weeks and this dragon kid is beginning to really drive me bananas. I might be the only person in the modern world with a dragon, which is cool, but it’s also put me a corner. I’ve lied to my roommate countless times, which I don’t love, and I have missed so many auditions. Liv has begun to ignore me, which is annoying. I would rather her be nosey. I’ve even tried to subtly get her to be nosey just so I could talk to someone. She didn’t like my attempts, so I’ve taken to ignoring her as much as she has me. If she doesn’t want to understand then I don’t need her.
It’s all the fault of this baby dragon. I still refuse to name it, and as much as I hate the thing right now, I can’t leave it either. My heart won’t let me walk away because when it chirps and trills, so happy to see me home from work, it brings a smile to my face every time.
At the moment the dragon is staring at me with eyes begging to be taken outside. I sigh. It’s the least I can do since I’m sure it has eaten all of the rats in the building. I definitely haven’t heard any more scratching from the walls. At least outside I get a break from its antics. It’s probably as stir-crazy as I am since I can’t let it out often, although, it seems to know how to hide from people, making my job a teensy bit easier.
I go through our standard ritual of wrapping it in a tight bundle before smuggling the dragon to Soundview Park. It’s actually a great place to go since there is enough tree cover for the dragon to hide or take a dive in the water for some fish.
Getting the dragon there is more of a struggle than it should be. I live a decent distance from the park and the fastest way to get there is by city bus. It’s like the thing wants to get caught, put into a freak show, and possibly get me arrested for harboring an illegal animal, if that law is even applicable in this instance.
When we arrive I set the dragon loose. It’ll come back to me when it’s good and ready. I wander for a bit until I spot the old man on the bench overlooking the Sound. Whenever I come to the park, I make it a point to see if he’s sitting on this bench. It’s usually around the same time when I make it here—sunset—and I can count on the old man to be consistent. Something fascinates me about him. I haven’t put my finger on it quite yet, and, honestly, I’ll be annoyed the day he knocks off because he’s been the one stability in my life as of late.
Normally I would not approach a stranger, but he seems kind enough, and I’m desperate for someone to talk to that isn’t pissed at me or disintegrating to my work ethic.
“Mind if I sit?” I ask.
The old man turns to look at me. I wonder if he thinks my hunched shoulders and wind-styled hair is a sign of something more sinister.
“Sure thing, miss.” He smiles and goes back to his observations of the Sound while I settle next to him.
“My name is Jillian, but I go by Jilly.”
“Jilly, what a nice one. My name is Albert. Albert Boxton.”
“Nice to meet you, Albert.”
We go back to regarding the water as it plays with the shore while the sun sinks ever lower in the sky. It’s pretty nippy out here, and I’m sure my nose is a nice Rudolph shade, but I don’t care. This is peaceful, so I’ll take it.
“What brings you out to Soundview, Jilly?” Albert says just loud enough for me to hear, like he doesn’t want to disturb whatever magic is huddled around us.
“I just needed to get away, my life is in a tailspin at the moment.” I wish I could tell him more, tell anyone more for that matter, but no one would understand what I’m going through.
“Ah, I think I know what you mean. When my wife, Nora, was sick, she insisted I continue to take our evening walks for my sanity. I’m glad she did. Coming here every day while she fought a losing battle really helped me get through a rough time. It still helps even though she’s been gone five years.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, cause that’s what you’re supposed to when someone admits to losing someone special.
“No need for that, Pet. Just telling you how I can relate to your feelings,” he admonishes.
I nod, and go back to watching the sun glisten caps of water. I want to ask him questions about those rough years, but that’s prying and I’m not the prying type. Really, I want to know so I can maybe relate it to what I’m currently dealing with since it’s nice to feel camaraderie in the fact that other people have problems too.
“What seems to be the trouble, Jilly? You look heavy with some jumbled thoughts.”
“That’s an understatement.” I sigh. “I recently had something happen that’s changed my life in a dramatic way, and it’s keeping me from what I came to New York to pursue—acting. I desperately want to follow my dream, but I also can’t give up what’s been given to me despite my anger and frustration at all the headache it has caused.”
“Ah, dreams are funny things, Jilly. They can change and that’s okay.”
“But I still want to be an actress.”
“Who says you can’t even with this new change?”
“I want to act on Broadway”—I let out a pitiful moan—“and I haven’t gotten anywhere from auditions in almost a year and this thing that’s been brought into my life has demanded and so much attention that I haven’t been to an audition in over a month.”
“Ah, that is a conundrum.”
I huff, letting the air ruffle my bangs. We’re quiet for several minutes and in that time, I find myself beginning to agree with what Albert said. Maybe my dreams need to change. It’s a painful thought but one worth considering.
“Ah, well miss Jilly...it’s time for me to head inside. It was nice meeting you. I hope that whatever is putting a burden on your shoulders gets lifted soon. Hopefully, I’ll see you around again sometime,” Albert grinds out as he rises from the bench. I think I hear his knees grind too.
“Same, Albert, same.”
I watch him as he toddles off down the path. I like Albert. A few minutes later, I stand to wander back to the trees to find my dragon.
I smile as I watch Astera wing his way across a speckled night sky. To me he stands out just enough for me to enjoy watching him fly. I’ve been in my new place in upstate New York for a year, and I don’t think there is danger of anyone else noticing.
Watching him as I do each night reminds me of the freedom he brought to my life. My feet may be firmly planted on the ground, but I’m boundless in ways I never thought possible because of him. Sure, I gave up my dream of acting on Broadway, but I get more satisfaction from being in the local productions here in upstate New York. As I watch my fascinating dragon, I wonder how old Albert is doing, or if he’s still around. After that conversation in the park, I uprooted my life for Astera, and I haven’t regretted it.
The abrupt change in my life because of my dragon helped me to know that I just needed an outlet to express myself to be happy. Being on Broadway would have been cool, but it’s no longer the penultimate thing in my life. I’ve discovered another aspect of my uniqueness, thanks to Astera. I’ve found what my soul needed, both as an actress, and in a life-long—albeit strange—companion.