My cousin has come to spend the night. We are two little girls subject to the curfews of solicitous parents. It’s hard to sleep. The warm summer night calls from the open window and stirs my restless soul. Hours spent with my favorite cousin are limited, and too precious to spend sleeping. But she is obedient and closes her eyes. I’m deserted. I reached for the ever present book on my nightstand and prop it on my chest. The flip of pages breaks the silence, and she’s intrigued.
“What are you doing?”
I smiled to myself. I have her attention.
“What? You can’t read in the dark.”
“Nobody can read in the dark.” She rolled to her side, her back a wall of dismissal.
A few minutes pass, and I turned another page.
“Are you still pretending to read?”
“I’m not pretending, I am reading.”
She sat up. “Let me see that.” She inspected the book, you can almost feel the hope. She wants to believe it’s possible. Magic is always possible when you are nine-years-old.
“I can’t see anything,” she said, and handed it back.
“You have to use your magic eyes.”
“There’s no such thing.”
My magic eyes tell me she is making a face. “Is, too.”
“Prove it.” Bed sheets rustle as she jumped up. She grabbed a random novel from my bookshelf, and plopped back down. The mattress springs squealed abuse.
“What’s the title of this book?”
She thrust it into my hands. I turned the hardcover face up, and leaned forward. After a moment, I said, “The Time Thief.”
She made a strangled noise. “Read it.”
I’m up for the challenge, but the words do not come from the pages. The book is a prop, an instrument from which my imagination is released.
“I think he wants us to let him go,” Kimber said to Tom.
She hovered near the small dragon. Shackled to a giant perch, the creature shifted from foot to foot, looking hopeful. Flashes of purple reflect off his glossy, black body, and he smells like grape Kool-aid. He was an unexpected find, but not out of place in the secret attic study.
The room’s contents suggest the owner, a local teacher, might indeed be a wizard. Bookcases line the walls. Shelves are filled with musty books of muted colors; exotic artifacts and more curious objects are locked behind glass doors. A life-like skeleton, suspended from the ceiling, grins and jiggles though no breeze disturbs the heavy humidity of the day. The dragon dips and nudges Kimber’s hand, the one curled into a protective fist.
Tom stops rifling through the wizard’s desk long enough to give his younger sister a hard glare.
“Don’t do it,” he said, “You’ll get us caught.” He lifted a large stack of loose pages from a drawer—the sheets are aged and covered with lines of calligraphy, the ink is fading, and as he stacks them on the blotter, Kimber’s eyes widen. One page, near the bottom, wiggled as though trying to escape the weight of its brethren. Tom doesn’t appear to notice—he is on a mission. Head bent low into the drawer again, he shifted items that clinked as he rummaged through the deep interior.
Kimber turned back to the dragon. “But he’s just a baby,” she said.
The creature straightened as though indignant and ruffled his wings. His mouth opened wide, displaying a double-row of jagged teeth. He pulled back, arching his neck, and thrust forward, intent, and . . . hiccuped. A wisp of pink smoke rose between them. Kimber laughed, and the dragon slumped. He withdrew into the folds of his black wings and vanished. Only the shackle on his leg remained visible; it slid up and down along the perch with a life of its own.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” Kimber said. She opened her palm and fingered the odd-shaped bit of metal within, a tiny, old fashioned key she’d found in a book downstairs. She gripped the flat, scrolled handle, and pushed the notched end into the lock.
The dragon reappeared, peeking out from his leather cocoon of wings. He and the girl were inches apart, and his eyes whirled with rainbow colors. Kimber gasped, but did not move aside.
“I’ll save you,” she whispered, and turned the key. The lock gave a click, and his chains slithered to the floor. The dragon spread his wings, lifting off and circling through the room, his wingspan too wide for the enclosed space. “Rawk!” he cried, sideswiping the crowded shelves. Books tumbled and thunked on the wooden floor. He veered and struck a lamp. It tipped into the skeleton; the bones broke apart, scattered, and then magically reassembled. The dragon skid to a stop across a low table, carving racing stripes into the polished surface. He teetered and continued fanning the air.
Buoyed by the wind, the stack of spells lifted off the desk, and swirled into an upward funnel before overflowing and fluttering to the ground. A single page snapped upright, the bottom left corner pushed forward, and then the right; it shuffled back and forth, aiming for the open window. The remaining pages squeaked like broken bike horns from where they lay, while the runaway slid up the wall, curled over the sash, and slipped from sight.
Still focused in the drawer, Tom gave a happy crow of victory. “Score! I found it.” He lifted his head and viewed the mess. “Kimber, what did you do?” He paused, his head cocked sideways, listening. The onset of footsteps climbing the attic stairs, echoed in the hall, and the children exchanged panicked looks–it was the slow, ponderous clump of an older man, most likely the wizard.
“Never mind. We gotta go.” Tom pocketed his prize and ran to the window, and climbed out onto a near branch. After a brief moment, he poked his head back inside. “Kimber, hurry!”
“I’m trying!” Kimber said, sidestepping the honking papers and ducking as the dragon circled the ceiling. In the race for freedom, the dragon was faster. He dove and narrowly missed Tom as he swooped out. The swish of his long, scaly tail upended the monstrous ivy creeper sunning before paned glass.
Outside the study door, the footfalls stopped and the doorknob turned.
Kimber straddled the sash, reaching for her brother’s outstretched hands, then made the mistake of looking down to the ground below. Their bicycles looked so small from the third story height. She gulped.
“Tom?” she said, her voice high.
“I’ve got you.” Tom said, and clasping her wrists, gave a gentle tug.
A foot away, the ivy shuddered with life; its long shoots snaked along the floorboards with lightening speed and coiled around her ankle, holding her fast.
She slipped and fell headlong off the ledge.
“Tommy!” she screamed.
Tom grunted, and his fingers dung deep into her tender flesh, even as they slowly slid up with gravity. Kimber swayed, stretched between the tree and the house. She closed her eyes and blocked out the thirty-foot drop. Tom pulled harder, and the vine pulled back, in a tug of war.
The dragon flew in close and settled on a high branch with a hiss.
Hinges creaked as the study door swung wide, and a deep, angry voice called out, “Show yourself, Thief!”
I paused. My cousin exhaled a sharp intake of breath, and sighed—the soft sound of surrender. “I know you’re making that up, but don’t stop. I want to know what happens next.”
And I tell the story into the night, stealing moments of time . . .