The birds chirped their twittering song in the trees. On the roadside, dandelions were sprouting up between the cracks in the pavement. The day was perfect, the temperature warm, the sky clear and blue. It was the sort of day where all children felt the itch to play outside. Sunlight shone down on the entire town with a cheery gleam. A single cloud hovered in the far eastern horizon. Looking at it, Kris imagined it to be a dragon.
The little red wagon bumped and clattered along down the streets. Kris held on to the sides, careful not to fall out. Asriel hummed a cheery song. His backpack was stowed in the wagon beside Kris. For some reason, he preferred pulling the wagon, Kris and all, rather than simply wearing his backpack. They had never been sure why he didn’t like wearing it. Their own backpack felt kind of comforting on their shoulders. It was like it conferred responsibility and adulthood on them. Like instead of just a tiny second grader, they were grown up.
They jiggled the sides of the wagon. “Hurry up, Azzy.”
He looked back at them. “School doesn’t start for another ten minutes. We’ll be fine.”
Kris folded their arms. Mom did that a lot, and it made people respect her. “We were late yesterday.”
“We’re not late today. We’re halfway there already. Chill out.”
“You’re walking slow.”
“Then you can walk yourself instead of riding in the wagon.” He shrugged. “Your choice.”
Kris huffed, settling back in the wagon. They grabbed their backpack and pulled out a hardcover entitled How to Draw Dragons. Asriel had found the book on a recent trip to the library with Kris. He’d brought it to them with a beaming “Look, Kris, dragons.” He’d thumped it on the table, and Kris had snatched it up, happy to find more material on their favorite creature. They’d been delighted by the careful, glossy drawings inside. The simple diagrams detailing how to turn shapes into scaly wyrms had made their fingers itch to grab a pencil. Now, they lingered over the picture of a Hungarian Horntail. Their fingers skated over the words.
“The average Horntail’s wingspan was an estimated thirty-six feet across,” Kris read aloud. “Hey Azzy?”
“That’s pretty big, right?”
“Yeah, sure is. That’s like fitting, um... it’s like laying nine or ten of you across the pavement. Pretty big for just a pair of wings. Then again, dragons were also pretty big themselves.”
Kris nodded seriously. “Depending on the species. There are re... um, reconstructed—“ they sounded the word out carefully— “skeletons of dragons, called faerie dragons, that were about the same size as a housecat. Wingspans measured only a foot and a half across. Legends claim they were sent-i-ent, and may still exist somewhere in the world. They had telepathy and some psychic magic.”
“Did you read that in your dragon books?”
Kris shook their head. The motion made their headband jar, and they readjusted it, making sure the horns stayed upright. Even after two years of owning it, it was still a little too big. Mom used to wrap it in ribbon to make it fit their head better. “Saw it on TV. Mom said sentient means ‘capable of intelligent thought.’”
“Yeah? That’s cool, Kris. You’re pretty ‘sentient’ yourself.” He grinned at them. Kris smiled back and returned to their dragons.
Kris could tell when they got closer to school. It was easy to hear the other kids playing in the front yard of the school. It was a little loud, and they pulled up their sweater to their nose in defense. They didn’t bite it, as they once would have, instead just inhaling the clean scent of laundry soap. Their fingers kneaded the soft fabric.
Asriel parked the wagon in a little patch of grass near the school. It was specifically marked with “Wagon Patch,” posted on a small sign nearby. Kris had made it themself. He poked Kris. “Come on. You just said you didn’t want to be late.”
Kris handed him his backpack and climbed out of the wagon. They allowed his affectionate shoulder bump, and watched as he walked away. They replaced the book in their backpack and zipped it up. Already, they were planning what kind of dragons to doodle on their paper while Mr. Gerson talked. Maybe a Chinese sun dragon? Kris loved drawing those. It was the twisty, spiraling twirls of their red-gold bodies, like pieces of sauce-splattered spaghetti, that attracted them. And their sun-crowned heads were majestic. Kris repeated the word to themself, under their breath, as they fell into line to go to class. Ma-jest-ic.
“Did you say something, Kris?” Noelle asked. The fawn was standing beside them, her blond hair glossy and neat, her plaid skirt ironed with perfect pleats, fur nicely combed. Kris yearned to reach out and touch that pretty hair, but the one time they’d done that, they’d gotten in trouble for accidentally pulling too hard. They just shook their head.
“Okay.” She smiled a little bit. Kris didn’t respond, too busy looking at her shiny hair. How long must that take to get so pretty looking every morning? Noelle always had it so nicely styled and combed. Kris’ own hair was dull and tended to fly away everywhere, and although it was nice when their family brushed their hair, it usually ended up looking like a disaster if someone tried to put it in any other style than just left down. They usually would mess with the hairstyle if it got in the way of optimal headband-wearing. But Noelle seemed fine wearing her complicated braids and pigtails and curls every day. They tried not to envy how normal she always looked.
Mr. Gerson opened the classroom door. Kris’ gaze swung upwards when they heard his voice. “Come on in, kids. Good to see all of you looking bright and fresh this morning.”
Kris nodded at him. They didn’t necessarily love Mr. Gerson, but the two of them had an understanding. He didn’t ask them to talk in class, unless their hand was raised, and he didn't make them stop fidgeting in their seat. In return, Kris didn’t draw on the desks or hog the toys at recess or try to climb out the window or bite anyone or challenge Berdly to a duel of honor. They have done a few things that made him sigh, like pouring ketchup on their arms and telling Noelle it was blood, but most of the time, they weren’t bad. They didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. And they only rarely got sent to the principal.
They sat down in their seat. Around them, the classroom was slowly filling. Kids were talking to each other. Temmie was hovering above her seat, squeaking excitedly, and it scraped against Kris’ ears. They exhaled, adjusting their headband again. The familiar pressure of it against their ears soothed them a bit.
Pretend you’re a dragon, Kris thought. Flying above the clouds. The only noises are the sound of wind. It’s chilly, so you’ve gotta flap your wings extra hard.
To complete the pretend game, Kris flapped their arms, super fast. They made a roaring sound, but it was only under their breath. Nobody was allowed to roar in class. It was one of the class rules.
“What are you doing, Kris?” Berdly asked them. He had that screwed-up look on his beak, like he smelled something really bad. Kris stuck out their tongue at him. They didn’t have to explain themself to him. He wasn’t going to understand anyway.
“Are you trying to be a bird? Because you can’t be. You’re just a human. I’m a bird, and someday I’m going to fly away from you cretins.”
That made Kris mad. They flapped their arms again, making a cawing noise, specifically to make him mad. They thought it worked, because his face got even more scrunched. “Headbands and mocking my culture aren’t going to make you fit in, Kris. You don’t even talk to anyone except your big brother. And you always hold your mommy’s hand when going inside. I bet you’re not even going to go to college when you’re grown up. You’re just going to stay at home with your mediocre abilities, pretending to be a dragon or whatever.”
Oh, that was it. The duel of honor could continue despite the rules. Kris bared their fangs, launching themself at him, roaring as loud as they could. They pushed him out of his chair and onto the ground, clawing and scratching and pulling out feathers, and they were fierce like a lion, like an erupting volcano, and they could hear screaming but they didn’t care, and Berdly’s magic cut into their hands and arms but it didn’t hurt at all because Kris was an angry dragon—
Green magic grabbed them and pushed them down into the ground. Kris couldn’t move at all, but that didn’t stop them from growling and hissing and spitting. They fought against it, but their body was cold. They couldn’t move.
“Kris, that’s quite enough,” Mr. Gerson said gruffly. He pulled them off Berdly. “Principal’s office. Go. You ain’t allowed to attack other students. Berdly, are you feelin’ okay?”
He was crying, which filled Kris with satisfaction. The power of anger shined deep in them. It drove out any bad feelings of guilt, for now. They got to their feet once Mr. Gerson let them go. The sound of Berdly’s sobbing explanation followed them all the way down the hall to the office. Feeling vindicated, they adjusted their headband. They had won this round with Berdly, for now.
Kris returned in time for math lessons to start. They surveyed the classroom behind their bangs. Berdly was wearing a bandage and a scowl. The other children sneaked glances at Kris as they sat down in their desk. They didn’t say anything. They kind of felt bad now. Mom was going to be upset at them, they knew. And Azzy would be disappointed. He worried about them all the time even when they were good.
Mr. Gerson handed Kris a worksheet. He clapped his leathery hands together. “Now, kids. We’re going to be discussing fractions. What can you tell me about fractions? Temmie?”
“tEM nus fractions!!” she exclaimed. “it’s WeN one numbr gOES over AnOther!”
“Wha ha ha! That’s absolutely right.”
Mr. Gerson went on, but Kris had already stopped listening. They examined the scrape on their elbow. No blood, but it kind of hurt. They picked at the edge. Ouch, now it hurt more. They inhaled through their nose, trying not to make pain noises.
Going to the principal hadn’t been fun. She wasn’t very happy that Kris had already fought someone so early in the morning. A small, tight ball of shame formed in the pit of Kris’ stomach as they thought about it, and they squirmed in their seat. Ms. Principal Lady had gone on and on about Kris needing to be better and not disappoint their mother. She’d said Kris was a special child, but they needed to make better choices. Special. Kris hated that word. But maybe they deserved it. They were bad today, after all. They shouldn’t have hit Berdly, even if he was a stupid doodoo butt.
They zoned out, watching Noelle brush her hand through her hair. Temmie was taking notes, though they were hard to read. Berdly sneezed. The clock ticked to eight forty-six.
Something like a crackle of static burst in their ears. Kris shook their head, trying to dislodge the sound, but it grew. Sound washed over their ears. Their hands stilled on the desk. Their heart beat wildly in their chest.
*Welcome to Monster Math!
Kris’ heart stilled in their chest. Just beat once, like a pebble bouncing across the lake and sinking into the water. No more beats. Their entire body went icy cold. Fear washed through their veins. What was happening?
Mr. Gerson kept talking, but the sounds washed over Kris, drowning out everything. They couldn’t stop it.
*Ready to start? Get ready to solve all these problems as fast as you can!
Kris’ hand moved without their permission, reaching out and grabbing a pencil. It felt strange and wrong and numb and they wanted to scream, but when they tried, nothing happened. Nothing. Their face didn’t even move. It felt cold, like they were already dead. Maybe they were. Their fingers wrapped around the pencil in a grip completely different from their normal way of holding it. They could hear Mr. Gerson explaining the math, but it was gone. Their breathing felt wrong and heavy. They instinctively tried to grab their sweater for comfort, but it didn’t work. What was happening?
The pencil skated across the page, guided by Kris’ hand. Numbers were scrawled in a messy-yet-careful script. Kris wanted to scream. Nothing. Nothing. They couldn’t even struggle. It was fear like nothing they had ever felt.
*50, 49, 48, 47, 46...
The seconds kept passing, and they kept on panicking. Maybe they were dying, maybe something was wrong with them, maybe a ghost or a spirit had grabbed them and was yanking them around like a puppet. They didn’t know. They wanted it to stop.
*5, 4, 3, 2, 1! Time’s up!
Kris’ hand shot out unnaturally fast and returned the pencil to the side of the paper. They stared down at the rows of solved fractions. They honestly didn’t know which were right or wrong. It just... felt strange. Their hand shook. It was like they’d banged it on something.
*Great! Your score is 20 out of 30. Would you like to try again?
It was a cheerful voice. It reminded them a little bit of their dad. Not much, but a little. What a weird voice to be possessing them. Maybe they were actually dying? Maybe it was the Angel Kris learned about in church? They didn’t know at all. All they were, was scared.
The yes was something more felt than heard. Something lurched inside Kris. It was like their body disintegrated, then reformed. They were sitting at their desk again. The pencil was in their hand. A worksheet sat in front of them. The problems were different, but it was very similar to the last one. Mr. Gerson was talking again. Noelle brushed her hand through her hair. Temmie took scribbled notes. Berdly sneezed. The clock ticked to eight forty-six.
Kris was very, very afraid.