I figured I’d see lizards. A hundred or even a thousand of them, clinging to the walls and ceiling. But when I walked into the room, instead I saw Adam and Emily, sitting on the floor. They didn’t look happy. But then, neither was I. “Oh, hi,” I said.
Emily wouldn’t even talk to me. She wasn’t crying. She had her knees drawn up to her chest and she stared straight ahead of her, her face pale and grim. Adam was sort of loosely cross-legged—as cross-legged as you can be when you’re as big as he is. The lizard skittered to the center of the room, and Emily edged back like it was going to bite her. It was small and tense, poised on its wiry legs, regarding the three of us with shiny black eyes.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah,” I said, “so there’s this lizard?” Emily glared.
“Alyssa,” it said. “You must listen, not talk.”
“Wait,” I said, “that’s not fair.”
“Alyssa,” it said again, more insistent this time. “You have failed to contact your mother.”
It just ignored me and went on. “But you have managed these two, which is useful.”
“Um,” I said. “I don’t actually think they’re the ones you meant, because you said they were like me, and honestly—.”
“Please listen carefully.” The lizard took light quick steps toward me. “You are all in a similar situation, and you must work together to understand this, to contact your mother, to get what it is she left for you.”
“OK!” Finally! Something I’d done right. “I talked to my friend, and I think she has it. Or them. Or whatever—she has something.” I looked straight at him—or her—for emphasis, because I wasn’t exactly sure how you convince a lizard of something. “OK? So everything is fine.”
“Everything is not fine.” It stopped to pant for a moment, and it struck me again that it didn’t exactly look well. “You must get what she has.”
Emily didn’t even turn her head—she talked into her knees. “I’m not listening because none of this is even happening.”
“You have nothing to complain about,” I snapped.
“Please,” the lizard said. “The worse you act towards each other, the more difficult it is for me.”
“Why?” Adam’s voice sounded surprisingly high and clear.
The lizard turned from one of us to the next, its tiny head tense. “I am not a lizard.”
Emily spat out an incredulous laugh. “Oh. Great.”
“I am only taking the form of a lizard,” the lizard persisted.
“Why?” Adam asked.
“Because of Alyssa.”
“Wait, what?” I said.
“Perfect,” Emily said. “Of course.”
“I do not know,” the lizard said. “This is one of the things you must find out—must.”
“Look, I just want to find my mother.”
“Yes, that too,” the lizard said.
“I wish,” Emily said, her voice muffled by her knees and trembling with trying not to cry, “that I never, ever saw Alyssa.” Nice.
“I must take the form of something,” it continued, “because otherwise I am difficult to see. The closest I am to something you would understand is—an intention,” the lizard said earnestly. “A connection, really.”
It paused like it was waiting for us to say something, so I said, “That’s nice.” I wondered how long stress hallucinations last. And how often it was that other people seemed to see them too. The lizard walked in a circle on its light feet.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Adam said.
The lizard turned to him as though it was glad that finally somebody was asking reasonable questions. “When two people have a connection—well, think of that connection as a line between two points. The people are the points, the line is the connection. Do you know what a synapse is?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, is it in your brain?”
The lizard, or not lizard, or whatever it was, sighed, and tried again. “You, and any person you connect to. Her,” it told me, nodding its tiny head toward Emily. “You and she have a connection.”
“No we don’t.” We both said it at the same time.
The not-lizard’s shiny eyes flicked from one of us to the other, then it shook its narrow head. “You do. Each connection between people exists, whether it’s negative or positive. Once it is formed, it takes on its own separate reality. If you help one another, you have established a positive connection. If you try to harm one another, it’s negative. There are even neutral connections, but they are all connections, and they all have a presence.” It looked at us sternly, and we were quiet, until Adam shifted around like he was trying to puzzle out something and asked, “What about animals?”
“Pardon?” the not-lizard said.
“What about animals?” Adam repeated. He grabbed onto his ankles, furrowing his brow. “I mean, if I hang out with a really nice dog or something, does that connection exist somewhere?”
“Do you have a dog?” I asked.
He shook his head. Emily rolled her eyes, but the not-lizard took it seriously. “Yes,” it said. “It does.”
Emily made a face. “Well so what? If connections exist—though personally I don’t think that makes any sense at all. I mean, I’ve never seen any of you—.”
“We exist on another plane,” explained the not-lizard, irritated. “Normally, we are all on anotpher plane.”
“Whatever,” Emily said. “That makes me think ‘so what?’ even more.”
“But we affect everything,” the not-lizard said in a quiet voice. “What you see, your lives, your reality, a large part of it consists of the invisible weight of connections like myself. We have accumulated. And so if the balance…,” it paused, “alters, so would everything.”
My skin prickled. I looked at it, and I just wanted it to disappear. “I think you’re just trying to scare us,” I said.
“I am trying,” it said, exasperated, “to make you understand. I am just an expression of a positive connection. I can do nothing of my own accord in the best of times. And this is not the best of times.”
Adam, Emily and I looked at each other without exactly meaning to. “What do you mean?” I asked.
The not-lizard crept towards me on its small legs. “The negative connections—let’s call them the shadows. Normally they too can do nothing. But your mother has done something.”
“She didn’t do anything!” I said. “You don’t know my mother, she would never do anything wrong. She’s not like that.”
“Your mother is connected to what happened, your father was, and so are all of you.” Its voice was low and urgent. “The balance has shifted. This has happened before, but never to this extent.”
“What does that even mean?” Emily said.
“The shadows, and us—the balance of intentions goes back and forth between us, but it is shifting now, going too far towards them, they are taking on more weight, and more weight and—.” It broke off, its voice failing. It rested a moment, its tiny sides heaving, then started again. “Where before I would have been able to help you, already it is difficult for us to even take this form. You must look at your arms.”
“My mother? My father?” I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants. “My father’s dead, stupid.” I saw Emily’s eyes get big, and I was glad. I hoped she felt like crap. But I looked at the lizard. My mother would kill me if she knew I called someone stupid, even if it was a lizard. I was dirty and tired and my hands were covered with grit. It almost made it easier that the lizard thing was blaming my parents, because I knew that was totally crazy. “You know what? I think this is all a big case of mistaken identity. My mom couldn’t have gotten anyone into a situation, especially lizards. She teaches philosophy, OK?” I started to stand up. Because I suddenly realized I could just go. The lizard—or whatever it was—was tiny. It couldn’t stop me. “So I’m sorry I can’t help you but—.”
It ran towards me—it was quick—and right over my hand. I felt its tiny claws prickle over my skin, and I knew: it was real. I felt its leaf-like weight. Then it scampered across and was next to my ear. It stood next to me and said, “Your father has already disappeared. Was that not enough for you?”
I eased back down to the ground. My voice choked in my throat. “He didn’t disappear, he died.”
“Alyssa,” it said.
“Stop using my name all the time.”
The lizard sighed. “Please: Look at your arms. All of you—look at your arms.” I looked over at Emily, who stayed hugging her knees, turned away from me. But Adam looked at his arms, he held them up in front of him and inspected them. So I looked at my arms. They looked regular. Dirty, sure. Sparkly, with that weird dust that comes from being in basements. Skinny. White.
I looked up, about to say that I already knew I was dirty, but the lizard cut me off. “Look harder.”
I brought my arm right up to my eyes, making a big show of how carefully I was looking at it. And then I realized: it did look weird. I tried to swallow away the flutter of panic. Because what looked like sparkly dust was, up close, tiny glowing silver things. I sat up straight and dropped my arm. “What’s happening?”
A high sharp sound came out of Emily.
“Why?” I asked.
“We know it came from your parents,” it said to me.
“No it didn’t.”
“God, would you just listen to the stupid lizard?” Emily said. “Or can you not even do that right?”
I wouldn’t look at her. I asked the lizard, “What do you mean?” in a careful voice
The lizard lashed its tail back and forth. “Something they did. We only know that they were the source. Shadows got stronger, we got weaker.” Its voice was thinning as it talked. “The more time passes, the more the imbalance escalates. We tried to reach your mother, but now she is gone. And so we come to you. You must try to do what we ask.”
“OK, great,” Emily said. “That’s perfect. You want Alyssa, and I get dragged into it, when my great-aunt is sick and my parents are really, really strict and…”
“No,” the lizard said, its voice thin and small but ferocious. “You are part of this too.” The lizard’s voice was ragged, like he was running out of air. “We have chosen you because you are like Alyssa. You must try: get what Alyssa’s mother left you, find her mother to explain it. You must. And do it together. Determine your similar situation. We don’t know how the shadows are tilting the balance, you must find out for us.”
“Well I know I have to find my mother,” I said. “That’s all I’ve been trying to do! But I don’t know where she is,” I said, something weak and trembling in my voice. I tightened my mouth so I wouldn’t cry.
“You must do it together.”
I didn’t want to look at either Adam or Emily to see what they thought of that. The lizard crept towards the wall, I could hear its claws on the concrete floor.
“But how?” I said.
It paused on the gritty floor. “We don’t know—we don’t have the power to do this, we barely have the power to appear and speak with you at all. But.” Its tail lashed the floor. “You can tell if things are working. Your arms, your skin—the worse the imbalance, the more you will vanish.” It started walking again.
But it wouldn’t wait—it tensed its tiny body, scrambled into a crack in the wall, and was gone.