Beep! Beep-beep! Beeeeeep!
I roll over and slam my hand into my alarm clock. Time for yet another boring day of high school. At least it’s my last year here.
After rubbing the sleep out of my bleary eyes for a good thirty seconds, I peel myself out of bed.
Cold blasts into me. It rips through my pajamas, an old T-shirt and cloth pants with penguins slipping and sliding upon them. Goose bumps prickle over my arms and legs. I shiver.
It might be the day before Halloween, but the Michigan winter has arrived already. Frost coats the grass up and down my boring surburban street where nothing ever happens. The few remaining leaves drift down from almost bare branches, dead and brown, the autumn oranges, reds, and yellows long forgotten. A gust of wind swipes through them. Tiny leaf-tornadoes twirl through the air like baby ballerinas.
Schwoooooshhh. Hot air from the nearby vent sweeps over my frigid feet. It doesn’t warm them. The reek of something burning—also known as the reek of using the heat for the first time in several months—swirls around me. I’d almost rather be outside inhaling the crisp, clean, freezing air.
I hurry through my morning routine, showering, dressing, and eating as fast as I can. I pressed the snooze button one too many times. Or maybe it was three too many times.
Back in my room, I do my final check in front of the mirror. I straighten my ponytail. I smooth my dress-code-approved khakis. I double check that I didn’t skip any buttons on my sweater and that it’s right side out today. I don’t need another disaster like yesterday.
Today’ll be different.
In the mirror, a furry gray lump flashes from the floor.
My brow furrows. Wasn’t Moonlight on the dresser with all my other old stuffed animals last night?
She must have fallen off somehow, maybe when the heat turned on or something.
With a sigh, I pick her up and place her back in her spot between a tiger-striped stuffed cat and a gray-and-white one. When I was younger, I might have been a little obsessed with cats, something that wasn’t helped by my dad being allergic to them so I could never get a real cat, no matter how much I begged.
I open my bedroom door. Princess bounces in. Our family dog jumps up and places her paws on my shoulders—something she’s not supposed to do.
But that’s not my rule.
I bury my face in the fur of her neck and rub my hands along her back. She snuffles my neck.
Then she drops down to all fours and bounds away, full of energy that no twelve-year-old half-German-Shepherd should have. Thank goodness for mutts and their good health.
“Hurry up, Betsy. You’re going to miss the bus if you’re not careful,” my mom yells up the stairs.
I clamber down them and grab my bursting backpack from the bench. I hug my mom goodbye.
As usual, the school day inches by. When I get home, Princess greets me with a wag of her tail and a lick on the nose. I pet her for a while, then let her outside, refresh her water, get her a snack, and let her back inside, all the usual pet-owner activities. Once Princess is taken care of and running off to do whatever a dog does, I start washing the dishes from this morning.
What? What in the world would meow at me? We don’t have any cats here, no matter how I wish we did.
I turn around, but the kitchen is empty except for me. Back to the dishes.
I shake my head like that can banish the meows echoing through my skull. I’m imagining things, probably because Halloween is tomorrow so all the school tasks have involved various scary and Halloween-y things like we’re all ten years old instead of seniors in high school.
I glance behind me.
Moonlight lies a handsbreadth away from my feet. Princess stands behind her with a grin.
I wag my finger at the dog. “Princess, you know better. My stuffed animals are off-limits.”
I dry my hands on a frayed towel, then scoop Moonlight up and climb the stairs to my room. They creak beneath my slippers. As I settle Moonlight back in her spot, I frown. Princess must have reared up on her hind legs to get the stuffed cat. Maybe I shouldn’t encourage the dog to put her paws on my shoulders.
I finish my chores, then start my homework. I take a break for dinner with my parents, then it’s more homework. By the time I finish, it’s almost midnight and almost Halloween. With my parents snoring in the next room, I wash my face and brush my teeth.
Seriously? Brain, stop making things up. I know it’s Halloween and all, but I don’t need this right now.
Rolling my eyes, I spit out the toothpaste. I rinse my toothbrush and return it to its cup. If I’m having a mental breakdown, at least my breath will be minty-fresh.
Fine. I open the door.
Moonlight lies on the carpet inches from my slippers.
I look left. I look right. I look down the dark stairs.
Princess is nowhere to be found. No one is.
But the dog must have gotten the cat again.
She’s never gotten the cat before today, a voice whispers inside my head.
I silence it. Princess is the only possible explanation.
I scoop Moonlight up yet again and go to my room. I turn on the light and shut the door behind me.
Something twitches in my arms.
The stuffed cat’s ear flicks.
Okay, brain, I get it. You’re tired and we need to go to bed sooner. I got the message. Stop creeping me out already.
Four needles stab into my stomach.
I hurl that cursed cat away.
It lands on my bed, paws then belly.
Like a real cat.
I back away from it. I grip the doorknob behind me.
But my slippers won’t move a millimeter more. They’re glued to the spot.
A shadow crawls forward, over the carpet and up the bed. It swallows the flickering light of my bedroom lamp.
It reaches for Moonlight.
It caresses Moonlight.
It clings to Moonlight.
It drips down Moonlight’s face, neck, body.
It dyes Moonlight’s every hair black.
Moonlight’s plump, curled body thins and straightens. Her newly inky fur becomes sleek. It reflects the bedroom’s light in a hazy yellow spot.
Moonlight’s beady, button eyes widen. They brighten to a vibrant green, the shade of grass after a rainstorm.
And rises. And stretches. And yawns.
My breath shakes. I turn the doorknob. It rattles in my hand.
The door doesn’t budge.
Sitting on my bed, Moonlight narrows her real-cat eyes. That eerie green gaze drills into me. “Oh, come on. You can’t possibly be afraid of me. I’ve been with you for almost nine years.”
Ho-ly schnikes. I’m having a mental breakdown. That’s the only explanation. Moonlight isn’t a real cat and she doesn’t speak. It’s all in my head. Should I call the hospital and ask to be admitted? Or maybe—
“Catavius H. Cutter, you’re not having a mental breakdown. And I’m a boy, by the way.” Moonlight flashes her—his—junk at me. “I know you couldn’t tell when I was in my stuffed-animal form, but here I am in all my living glory. You can at least refer to me as my proper gender.”
“W-w-what? Why? How?”
“I’m a boy. Surely you know how that works with all that science you’ve been learning.” Moonlight waves a paw at my desk cluttered with textbooks. “Snap-and-bite, it’s always the same with you humans. I swear it was easier a couple hundred years ago when you all believed. Yes, magic exists. Yes, it’s hidden from you. Yes, I’m a talking magical cat who’s lived for hundreds of years. Any other questions?”
“Um, no? Yes. You’ve been living with me as a stuffed animal for almost nine years?”
Moonlight stretches again, his butt in the air and his claws extended in front of him. His tail lashes back and forth. “Yes. That’s correct. Obviously.”
I almost roll my eyes. There’s nothing obvious about this situation.
“And you’ve been stalking me today out of the blue? You didn’t randomly fall off my dresser and Princess didn’t grab you?”
Moonlight hisses, his fangs a dazzling white even in the flickering light.
Wait, when did the light start flickering?
“First off, that dog is the worst. Though, I suppose, she’s no worse than any other dog. Secondly, lamps flicker and sometimes fail when magic’s around. Something about the electricity and magic not playing nice together. As for your other questions—”
“You can hear my thoughts?”
Moonlight winces. His ears fold back. “Only when you scream them like that. Anyway, yes. Today, I had to meet you. The veil between our worlds is at its thinnest for the seventy-two hours around what you call Halloween. Unfortunately, breaking through your refusal to see magic despite all those awful fantasy books you insist upon reading—which, by the way, get almost everything wrong—proved more challenging than I anticipated. Turns out no matter how I move inexplicably and meow at you, you manage to find an explanation.” His black nose juts toward the books on my desk. “Too much science for you, I think. So, I took things into my own paws.”
“Okay, but why? Why did you reveal yourself tonight? Why not earlier? Why not last year or the year before that or something?”
Moonlight’s green eyes soften the tiniest bit. He would have seen how lonely I was as a child, always playing by myself in my room, reading books by myself, writing stories by myself. I have friends now, but they’re more surface friendships than the deep, “I know your darkest secrets” type that I crave.
“I had to evaluate you, even if you guessed my name all those years ago. That was the first clue you might be for whom I was searching. And a major reason why I didn't disappear after you set your imagination aside and dove into science.”
My mind spins. This is all too much.
I drop onto the bed beside Moonlight.
Moonlight’s forehead bangs into my biceps.
I almost jump.
But I don’t.
Moonlight rubs his body against me. A small purr escapes him.
He shuts it down with a grimace. “Yes, well. Why I’m here. You see, I was sent by Lady Amber—”
Moonlight rolls his eyes, a strange movement for a cat, but one that suits him. “Yes, Lady Amber. She’s part of our court—”
“Your court of magical cats.”
“That’s not what we’re called, but I’ll allow it for now. Are you able to listen without interrupting?”
I zip my lips shut and throw away the invisible key.
“Don’t do that in my world or you may not be able to talk until you retrieve that key.”
My jaw drops.
Moonlight bumps his shoulder against me. “That was a joke.”
I nod, but I don’t speak. I don’t want him to disappear or become Moonlight-the-stuffed-cat again, not without a full explanation.
Moonlight sits back on his haunches. With his teeth, he tugs at a curved nail, cleaning it. “I’ve watched you these nine years to assess whether you may become a guardian for something very rare and precious from my world.”
Moonlight bares his fangs in a smile. “I’ve approved you. For now.”
My chest tightens. That “for now” hangs over my neck like a guillotine’s blade.
Moonlight rears back on his hind legs. His forepaws fold over his chest.
“What are you doing?”
Moonlight whips forward. His paws slam into my shoulders, as strong as the fists of any adult human.
I topple backward. My back crashes to the bed. Thank goodness for soft mattresses. “Moonlight, what the—”
Something blasts into my abdomen.
“Oof!” On instinct, I wrap my arms and legs around it. I cradle the large, round, hot stone against me.
“Excellent reaction.” Approval shines in Moonlight’s eyes, his pupils vertical slits.
My bedroom lamp flickers even more, almost a strobe light.
But it doesn’t matter, for the object nestled within my arms and legs provides its own gilded light.
I squint my eyes against its brilliance.
I’m holding what can only be described as an egg. It runs the length of my forearm and is maybe two-thirds as wide at most. Amber veins crisscross its lustrous shell. The scents of cinnamon and nutmeg, of bonfires and fallen leaves, of the ground after an autumn rain washes over me—over us.
It warms me from head to toe.
“Sit up. Talk to her,” Moonlight instructs.
My forehead wrinkles.
But I roll myself and the egg into a seated position. With a grunt, I heft the thing to my lips. “Um, well, yes. Hello. I guess you’re a girl?”
Moonlight’s ear flicks toward the closed bedroom door. “That hellacious dog is lurking around here again. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she is more annoying than the average dog.” Moonlight shakes his head in disgust. “Anyway, yes, technically, she’s a girl for now. Dragons can switch genders throughout their lives.”
“What? There’s a dragon in here?” I almost drop the egg in shock.
My heart stops. I clutch the egg to my chest. Had I dropped it, it could have rolled down my lap and over the bed. It could have fallen off the edge and crashed into the floor and shattered.
I’ll never let it go again.
“Yes, yes, protect the egg at all costs. That’s right,” Moonlight mutters. He straightens and cocks his head. “Introduce yourself.”
My lips brush against the sunshine-bright, sunshine-warm shell. “I’m Betsy. Your guardian.”
Three of those amber veins become sapphire.
Sapphire like my eyes.
Delight shoots through me. Every nerve sparks. My arms and legs tingle all the way down to my fingers and toes.
Moonlight frowns. He destroys that beautiful, addictive delight.
“Hmm, that was worse than I expected.” Moonlight sniffs the egg, then shrugs. “I suppose we’ll just have to see what happens. If you’re a match, she’ll hatch on your seventeenth birthday.”
“That’s next week! What am I supposed to do? How do I take care of her?”
“If it’s meant to be, you’ll figure it out.” Moonlight hops off my bed. He stalks toward a statue of a cat that has been my doorstop for as long as I can remember.
Wow, there are a lot of cat things in here. Hope my new dragon friend won’t mind.
Moonlight’s paw stretches toward that cat statue.
My stomach lurches. “Wait, are you leaving? You can’t leave. Aren’t you going to help me? What if I kill her?”
“Pffft. You think you, an untrained human who’s literally learned about magic tonight, could kill a dragon? No, you couldn’t kill a baby dragon even if you tried, not yet. If you’re not a match, she’ll simply go back to stasis and I’ll find another human to watch for another decade or so and get all the naps in the meantime. Win-win.” Moonlight reaches for the doorstop again.
“Please, Moonlight. Please stay. Or give me a clue or something.”
“Sorry. No can do, kiddo. You’re on your own. But don’t worry, I’ll come back when she’s older. And, um, interesting, you know? Good luck!” Moonlight taps the cat statue.
A thick charcoal smoke whirls around him. A second later, it dissipates.
Only the statue remains.
I hug the egg to my chest. Guess it’s just you and me.