Even if your monster is unique, it is often difficult to disabuse readers of the notion that this thing you gave some passing, dragon-like quality is, in fact, not a dragon. Readers love dragons. If they want dragons, they will inevitably see dragons.
Just as a small child, upon discovering the existence of kitties, now dubs every fuzzy, four-legged thing: “Kitty”. Be it dog, horse, or ottoman. Kitty, kitty, kitty.
Until you, weary author of their world, agrees, “Yes, of course it is.”
Knock, knock. Knickaknicka-knicka. Knock.
The secret club knock was muted, rapped out on the damp planks of the old wooden picnic table, but it must have been loud enough. A dark-haired little girl peeked out from beneath the tablecloth entrance.
“What’s the password?”
The little boy outside tried to stand straighter, the way his brother did. His voice squeaked with nervousness anyway. “I forgot…”
“They told me I can’t let anyone in without the secret password.”
“Nope, that was last week.”
From under the table, his older brother’s voice announced the next piece of club business. “Our treasury is running low. Any ideas?”
“George, please tell Mei to let me in.”
There was a brief pause before his brother, George, answered regretfully. “Sorry, Eli. A club president has to follow the rules, too.”
Eli shuffled anxiously and squeezed one eye shut, thinking hard. “Dynamite?”
The little girl simply crossed her arms.
* * *
George and Eli father, watched from the kitchen window, his hands dead still in the sink’s soapy water. Mr. Baker could not hear exactly what was being said, but the slump of Eli’s shoulders clearly indicated it was not going well. Mr. Baker’s stomach clenched with his own childhood memories. He moved to open the window but hesitated. He instead hurried to the pantry and grabbed a cellophane package of cookies, before popping his head out the back door.
“Eli, buddy? Come here a minute.” Then, quietly, “I think the club might be a little short on snacks today. Would you ask them if they need these?”
As his younger son raced hopefully back across the damp grass, armed with the crinkling package, Mr. Baker returned to the window.
When Eli was welcomed under this time, his father breathed a sigh of relief.
* * *
“Do you have a quarter?”
Mr. Baker turned to see his oldest son sagging against the front door frame, wearing a homemade plastic cape and straw boater hat. George’s freckled face was smushed together in a look of deep disappointment.
“We put together an exhibit to earn money for the club, but so far we’ve only had five people. And Big Dan made us give his money back after I took him through, ‘cause he said it wasn’t worth fifty cents.”
“An exhibit? Why not a lemonade stand?”
“Mei said the neighborhood was lemonade-standed-out.”
His father swallowed a chuckle. “Hmm… she might be right about that.”
Mr. Backer glanced around, instinctively. Sure enough, there was Eli, hovering quietly behind his older brother.
“So, we put together a dragon exhibit!. We could let you in for half-price since things are slow.”
“Wait, a dragon exhibit?” Now, George had his father’s full attention.
“Yeah, like at the circus, when you were a kid. The whole club pitched in finding real-live dragons, making signs, and writing a script and everything. I practiced for hours at presenting it.”
“Yeah. A lot of them. And Eli found the best one!” He turned around to give his brother a loving punch.
Eli, who was practically drowning in a man-sized canvas coat that hung to his knees, nearly toppled over at the sudden expression of brotherly love. He turned pink with happiness at the compliment.
“Really, that’s wonderful!” Mr. Baker winked and ruffled Eli’s hair lovingly. “I knew he’d be a great addition to your club.”
“Yup. So will you come?”
“Let me hit the change jar…”
George let out a whoop of excitement as he shot out the front door.
Eli wrapped his coat-smothered arms around his father’s waist and gave him a hug before following. “Thanks, Dad.”
* * *
When Mr. Baker paid the fifty-cent entrance fee to his own back yard, the little girl holding the sticker-decorated tissue box shook it happily, clinking the few coins together. Mr. Baker couldn’t remember her name, but she was always at all the club meetings. The same age as Eli, but outgoing like George.
Eli gave his father’s hand a quick squeeze. “I have to go do my job. See you soon, Dad.” He disappeared through the backyard gate.
“What is his job?” Mr. Baker wondered aloud.
George just grinned. “You’ll see.”
The side yard fence was lined with a variety of dinosaur toys and crayon-drawings of dragons were taped at a child’s head-height along the siding. Mr. Baker stopped to admire them. “Very nice. That is a lot of dragons.”
George rolled his eyes. “No, Dad. I told you. We have real LIVE dragons. Those are just decorations.” He skipped ahead.
Crisscrossing ropes forced Mr. Baker to duck as they entered the small back yard. It was now nearly covered by an impressive blanket fort.
“Behold!” George shouted dramatically, a little too close to his father’s ear. “Dragons! Lost to the world for a really, really long time, our band of fearless adventurers have adventured a LOT to find and show you dragons of every kind that we could find.”
He paused dramatically by a large plastic bin. “Behold! Water dragons!”
His father peeked in. “Oh, turtles! That’s clever, son. Really clever!”
George bounced excitedly. “But wait! There’s more!” He raced over to the next sheet partitioning the yard and waved.
“This doesn’t look like one of our sheets…” His father noted.
“Everybody brought some. Don’t worry, we’ll clean it all up. Behold!” He shouted again as he waved his dad through. “Flying rainbow sparkle dragons!”
Jars were scattered across the picnic table. Several contained dragonflies. Another sticky-looking jar held interesting beetles. There was even a large jar full of fireflies (labeled “light dragons”).
“The light dragons are best at night,” George informed him. “You really should come back and see them again, then. Second admission is only half-price.”
Mr. Baker paused by a wire cage at the end of the table, with a small green anole inside. He tapped the cage, questioningly.
“Um, does that lizard have paper wings glued on? You shouldn’t use glue on animals, George.”
“Mei’s little sister Jan decorated him. Don’t worry, Mei said it’s non-toxic. So‘s the glitter. C’mon.”
Wasn’t Jan the little girl Eli secretly had a crush on? Mr. Baker apologized silently to the craft-enhanced lizard before letting his son drag him onward.
The next area contained a series of small pet carriers. Mr. Baker took pictures with his phone as George announced their contents.
“Henry brought his very own color-changing chameleon dragon. That empty one was supposed to be a Gila monster. It squirts poisonous blood out of its eyes, but Eco’s brother wouldn’t let us borrow it. And the one in the glass tank is a leg-less snake dragon. Mr. Jacobs let Amery take care of the class pet this weekend.”
A few more startled, safe steps away, George’s father glanced into the last cage and paused. He cocked his head. “Um, is that a rooster?”
George nodded. “Jacen brought that.” He stepped close to whisper. “He said it’s descended from dinosaurs and so that makes it a dragon.” George shook his head hopelessly. “We didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
Mr. Baker dutifully took a picture, then looked around again. “Where is Eli? You said he found one too, right?”
“Don’t worry. He’s just up ahead. But first…” George paused dramatically. “This next dragon is so scary that we had to keep it hidden so little kids and old ladies would not faint at the sight of it. This one was the twins’ idea.”
The twin playful troublemakers from down the street Eli inexplicably admired. Suddenly worried, Mr. Baker hurried through just in time to see the red-headed boys grab sticks and race along the edge of the fence, drumming over the uneven surface of the planks.
A ferocious barking and snarling broke out from the other side of the sun-splintered boards.
“Whoa, boys! Let’s leave the neighbor’s dog alone, okay? Bad idea.”
George grinned up as his father hustled the lot of them through the next hole in the sheets-hung clotheslines. “Scary, huh Dad?”
“It certainly was. Please don’t do it for the next customer, okay?”
This new space had another large plastic bin. Crayoned-paper flames fluttered from tape all around the sides.
“What’s this one?”
George slumped a little in disappointment. “This was my idea. It was supposed to be our grand finale. Fire dragons.”
His father looked reluctantly in, then let out a relieved breath.
George continued sadly. “The library book said salamanders were fire lizards. But all we ended up finding were the water kind.”
“I definitely prefer the water kind.” His father told him. “Especially since you guys aren’t allowed to play with fire, remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” That had clearly not occurred to him. “Well, it’s okay though. Because Eli found something even better than fire dragons!”
His father quickly stopped him.
“Eli? This isn’t anything scary, like the neighbor’s dog or fire lizards, is it?”
“No, Dad. It’s super safe. You’ll like this.”
As Mr. Baker let his older son lead onward, he felt himself grin. This had TOTALLY been worth fifty-cents. Neighbor’s dog and all.
The last area was a quiet corner by the house. No cages or bins or jars. Just Eli in that oversized jacket, standing very still near some bushes. His fingers were electric orange, and the rest of him beneath his coat also appeared to be lightly dusted in what smelled like Cheeto powder.
“Um, Eli is the last dragon?”
“No, Dad. But it likes Eli. We’ve got to be quiet. It won’t come unless we’re all quiet. Go on, Eli.”
All quiet? Mr. Baker looked back and was surprised to see that everyone from the other areas of the exhibit had followed. The kids were now all now waiting to get another peek at Eli’s contribution.
Eli smiled self-consciously before ducking his head to peek under his arm at the bushes behind him. He clicked his tongue softly. “Here Puff. Here Puff, Puff, Puff. Come say hi.” He pulled something bright orange out of his pocket and waved it under his arm at the bushes.
Mr. Baker took a picture with his phone.
Then a few more.
Nothing happened for several minutes.
Not wanting Eli to feel bad, Mr. Baker made a show of checking his watch. “Hey, guys, that’s okay. I don’t…”
“Shh!” George grabbed his father’s arm excitedly. “Look!”
Eli’s face had broken into a smile so broad it could be seen even while he was nearly turned around.
Mr. Baker followed his gaze into the bushes.
There was a glimpse of movement. A shadow passed restlessly over the orange snack that was still extended. A faint snuffling noise. A bird probably. Did birds snuffle?
“That’s right, Puff. Come on.” Eli coaxed.
Mr. Baker raised his phone to take a picture.
The sleeve on Eli’s empty hand filled with a rush of air and his whole coat billowed full. Smiling proudly, he turned for his father to see. Eli standing in a coat full of empty air, except for faint misty vapors curling out, then back in again at the edges of the coat.
“What on earth?” Mr. Baker lowered his phone in amazement. “Wow, that is quite the magic trick, buddy!”
Eli laughed quietly. “It’s not a magic trick, Dad. This is Puff. He’s kind of hard to see, except I found a way to fix that.” He tucked the snack closer to his chest. “Here you go, Puff.”
The coat sucked in slightly as the misty air within seemed to inhale, with a faint rushing sound. A section of mist near the Cheeto took on an orange tint, which swirled energetically through the rest of the mist, making the cloud more visible, and the smell of artificial cheese more pronounced.
Mr. Baker stood dumbfounded, as the cloud breathed in another small gust of orange powder-tinted air. “How are you boys doing this?” He wondered out loud.
“It’s not a trick, Dad. It’s just Puff’s really shy. Like me.” Eli explained in his soft voice. The one he used when other kids were around.
“That’s why Big Dan made us give his money back,” George whispered. “He said we lied about the best part, because Puff wouldn’t come out when he was here. But this is worth fifty cents, Dad. Isn’t it?”
“It likes cheese puffs. So I named him Puff.” Eli explained, practically glowing. Then giggled, as the cloud breathed in again, swirling air in the coat around him.
The snack on Eli’s hand began to dissolve.
A melodic purring sound became just faintly audible.
Then, as the orange tint within the mist deepened, a pair of now clearly visible eyes glinted at Eli’s father.
Inside the coat.
That Eli was wearing.
Mr. Baker dropped his phone and leaped forward, snatching his son up. He ripped the oversized coat off and threw it over the fence, as he pushed his son behind him defensively.
Eli started wailing. George shouted an objection, echoed by other club members. The neighbor’s dog started barking like mad again.
And the mist creature rushed out of sight. A small orange cloud, sailing into the blue sky.
* * *
“Could you please describe the wild animal?” Crackled the voice on the other end of his call. Dropping his phone seemed to have damaged the speaker.
“It was some kind of cloud.”
“A cloud. At first, it was invisible. But it rushed into my son’s big coat. Whoosh. And whirled around like mist and… it started to eat my son’s cheese snack.” As he said it, Mr. Baker realized how crazy this all sounded.
Even before the animal control center rep began lecturing about prank phone calls.
* * *
Mr. Baker wrestled with the drill, as he struggled to keep his footing on the ladder and not drop the expensive new camera he was installing.
“They want evidence.” He grumbled angrily to himself. “I’ll give them evidence.”
Mr. Baker finished driving the screw before looking down at his younger son, who was watching him through the window screen. “E-vi-dence, buddy. It’s what you have to show someone who won’t believe something unless they see it. Like those animal control officers. Are you sure you don’t want to go play a game with your brother?”
The sound of their new gaming station drifted through the window. The one he had purchased at the same time as the camera, in an attempt to keep the boys happy while cooped up in the house.
“Not really.” Eli sighed. “Why can’t I come outside?”
“I’d just feel a lot safer if you stayed inside for a few days, buddy. You could invite your friends over.”
Eli sighed. “George said his friends can’t come over today.”
George’s friends again. Mr. Baker sighed as he continued mounting the camera.
“Puff is my friend.”
“Puff is a wild animal, buddy.”
“I don’t think he’s dangerous.” When there was no answer from his father, another sigh. “I still want to see him.”
“With this camera, hopefully, we all will.”
A little additional proof that he wasn’t crazy would also be nice.
* * *
The camera only worked once.
Puff arrived the next morning, while the day was still misting from the morning dew.
The footage showed the camera adjust its angle slightly, as the motion sensors activated. There was a single brief glimpse that Mr. Baker recognized as one of the eye reflections in Eli’s coat before the camera was suddenly knocked sideways. By the time the camera turned itself back, the cheese puff was gone.
Thinking this was an accident, Mr. Baker reset it. Then tipped over the bins, releasing the unclaimed salamanders and turtles.
While disassembling the blanket-fort for greater visibility that afternoon, he found the camera’s motor arm jammed sideways by a small nut. No way that was an accident. Mr. Baker jury-rigged a protective cover from duct tape and an empty yogurt cup.
An hour later, a whirlwind of muddy leaves splattered the camera, obscuring the camera’s view of the final cheese puff theft. Stolen sometime during the third load of sheets.
Mr. Baker stopped putting out bait.
While the boys gamed through their third day home-bound, Mr. Baker ranged across the internet looking for possible solutions to capturing wily creatures on camera (and whether it was a problem to have salamanders now living in the water meter box).
Despite whiffs of cheese snack while in the yard and several glimpses of pale orange cloud through the windows, he never caught the mist creature on camera again.
* * *
Google: how can you tell if an animal is dangerous
The results didn’t turn up much that looked useful.
One quiz Mr. Baker took idly: “Can You Tell Which Animals Are Dangerous?” He closed it ten minutes later—without finishing—after having been reminded that dogs bite, deer carry deadly diseases, and poisonous spiders are never far away.
The last result he clicked was the only thing that offered any helpful insight. It belonged to a pest control site and reminded the reader that—while most animals aren’t dangerous—you never can tell, so wild animals should always be avoided and removed by a professional.
Though clearly a self-serving article, it did offer a solution: “For prompt and discreet removal, contact us. We handle anything. Guaranteed.”
He made a phone call.
* * *
“You want me to catch an invisible cloud that eats cheese puffs?”
“Right. And it’s able to pass through small holes, so a cage won’t work. I’ve already tried.”
The animal removal specialist slowly scratched his stubbled chin.
“Your website said you can handle anything. Guaranteed. But maybe I need to call someone else.”
The man seemed to sharpen up a little bit at the threat of competition and shook his head, chuckling in a friendly way. “No, no. Of course not. It’s just a kind of unusual request.”
“I may need a few other strays cleaned out of the yard, too.”
“Well, I don’t mind that, if you don’t mind paying by the hour.”
Eli was standing at the back door, frowning disapprovingly at the animal removal man.
“Can I have more cheese puffs?”
“Yes, just stay inside please.”
“How come George got to go play at Mei’s house?”
Mr. Baker hesitated before answering. “Well, because Mei asked if he could come over. And Puff doesn’t seem to be interested in George.”
“Yeah, Puff is the only one who likes me better than George.”
His father couldn’t think of a good response to the matter-of-fact statement before Eli was gone again.
* * *
The first day, the animal removal expert lugged off and released the various unclaimed critters still roaming the remains of the backyard exhibit, including an excess of turtles. Then he spent a few hours inspecting the property. He informed Eli’s dad that there appeared to be no further tracks, scat, or other signs of any of the exhibit’s former inhabitants. All clear.
Mr. Baker pointed out cheese powder coating the hedge.
The man hemmed and hawed. He came back an hour later and announced that he had washed the bushes, and then treated it with something to keep away the cheese-loving cloud.
The opposite of cheese: green smoothie.
* * *
The bushes were cheese-dusted again the next morning anyway, despite Mr. Baker having not left any more snacks out.
Eli’s dad made another call. He waved a mercifully cheerful Eli through to the snack pantry, as he insisted on an early appointment.
The man showed up late, but toting what he claimed was a guaranteed solution. “Leather bag. Airtight when sealed. Tested it myself.” He shook the empty sack demonstratively.
Mr. Baker answered the door a few minutes later to find the animal removal specialist, again.
“Could you turn off the camera? It might be scaring the creature. Wild things are always more sly when nervous.”
Mr. Baker complied.
Ten minutes later: “Would you close the blinds and curtains, too? I want this thing to feel totally safe.”
When the doorbell rang twenty minutes later, it took Mr. Baker a moment to adjust when it was NOT the removal specialist on the porch. Nobody?
“Hi, Mr. Baker.”
He looked down to find three neighborhood kids: Mei’s sister Jan and the red-headed twins.
“Sorry guys. George isn’t home right now. He’s at a friend’s house.”
“Oh, we don’t want George, we want to play with Eli.”
Mr. Baker couldn’t usher them up to Eli’s room fast enough.
* * *
Mr. Baker stayed out of the children’s way for two hours, smiling as he heard them romp around the room upstairs. For once, Eli was being as loud as when it was just him and his brother home. As loud as the rest of the kids.
Eli bounded down the stairs and ran into the kitchen. “Hey, Dad. Do we have any more cheese puffs?”
“Sorry, buddy. I know those are your favorite, but you have eaten a LOT of those lately. Why don’t we bring your friends down and we’ll have lunch.”
Eli’s eyes widened. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll get everybody.” He raced up the stairs at twice the speed, pausing halfway up to yell, “Just don’t come up!”
Mr. Baker’s gut tightened.
He was halfway up the stairs when the animal control specialist poked his head in the front door a moment later.
“Hey. You got a minute?” The man called cheerfully.
“Hang on, please; I have to check on something.” Mr. Baker hurried up without waiting for a response.
The scent of cheese powder intensified as he reached the top. He went straight to Eli’s room, which was now filled with the sound of urgent conspiracy. In retrospect, the sight that greeted him should not have been a surprise.
The room was covered in puffy trails of cheese powder. Everywhere, from the ceiling fixture to the floor vents. It crusted a blanket-lined box tucked inside Eli’s open closet.
Orange also crusted the screen over the open bedroom window, which overlooked the backyard. The neighbor kids were desperately working to scrub away the evidence with wet clothes. Eli was trying to shoo a VERY orange Puff out the window.
Puff was the first to move. It flitted down low to the floor and inched, submissively toward Eli’s father, for all the world like a begging dog. It flattened a few feet away and purred, swirling anxiously.
Eli’s voice was quiet. “Please don’t let that man take him.”
Mr. Baker’s eyes roamed the room again. This time noting the kite on the floor, bubble marks on the cheese-dusted walls, stopping again at the blanket-lined box.
Mr. Baker closed his eyes. He breathed deeply before speaking. “Come for lunch, kids.” He closed the door quietly, then hesitantly walked back down the stairs.
When the animal removal specialist saw his client returning, he broke out in a huge grin. “Good news! Look what I’ve got here.”
He held up the leather sack from that morning. It was now closed around a cylindrical shape and wavered slightly as a quiet sound—like a battery-operated fan—vibrated from inside. The top had cheese powder sprinkled across the opening.
“I finally got it. Doesn’t that just set your heart to rest?”
Eli’s father looked from the man, to the sack, then upstairs.
“Yes, it does.” He replied, finally relaxing. “What do I owe you?”