You are reading Fiddleblack #16
The plastic lizard must be moving by itself. Ava sometimes found it facing an entirely different direction on the other side of its ceramic pot. A few times in recent months, she noticed it on the floor near the white wicker plant stand. The first time, she’d assumed the dog had knocked it off with his tail, and she put it back, carefully placing it so its nose poked out of the ancient fern. Today the lizard was on the floor, and this time pretty far away from the plant stand. And it looked decidedly not-plastic, with smoother, more subtly-colored scales. It seemed to be cowering—unsuccessfully trying to blend in with the white baseboard.
Years before, one of her children had stuck the plastic lizard in the dirt under the fern’s foliage. There it had stayed, an ironic decoration which still made Ava smile—at least on Tuesdays, which were her plant-watering days. About three weeks ago she found the plastic lizard on the rim of the bathroom sink by itself. A little warning bell had rung in her head, but she decided, instead, to go with the oddity as a happy reminder of how it had been to have her children’s toys all over the house. Messy, but also familiar and homey to find a toy in a new place. Nothing really to worry about.
But now Ava wondered if someone was playing a trick on her—substituting a real lizard for the toy. But what would be the point? It wouldn’t be that difficult for her kids to do if either of them lived in Los Angeles anymore. As practical jokes went, it was right up their collective alleys. But if either of them had planned such an elaborate scheme—most probably involving a friend of theirs who still lived here—someone would have called and asked leading questions. And there was no one else she knew who would even bother to play a trick on her.
In the meantime, what to do? If she left a live lizard in the house, the dog would find it and the poor thing would die of fright, or inept mangling. She could turn a bowl over on it, and then get out the old cage from when Mickey had that horrid tarantula. What did this lizard eat? She prayed it didn’t eat crickets because it was such a pain going to the pet store all the time to buy live food. Maybe it ate fruit, like iguanas. But it didn’t look like an iguana.
She was getting ahead of herself. Ava shook the plan out of her head. And the lizard she’d seen on the floor was gone. But the plastic lizard was right where it belonged facing out of the fern.
“Shit,” she said out loud. Was this something she should tell her new shrink? Hallucinating small harmless reptiles? It was disconcerting seeing something that wasn’t there. But what a ridiculous thing to see. Ava shook her head again and left the family room. She opened the door and called the dog back in.
“Would you tell me if I was crazy?” she asked Pumpernickel. He looked at her but didn’t answer, which was sort of a relief when she thought about it. “Have you seen a lizard in the house?” she asked him. He wasn’t even looking at her any more but had trotted off to check if anything had fallen on the kitchen floor. As if he ever got that lucky.
The next Tuesday Ava picked up the fern without even looking for the plastic lizard. She carried it in to the bathroom to water along with other plants she’d already brought in. She ran water in the sink, turning on the sprayer to clean the leaves of the philodendron. Her eye caught movement. She lifted the fern fronds and there, definitely cowering now, was a live lizard. He stopped still, but his grey color stood out against the loamy brown of the plant soil.
“Poor baby,” she said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” Ava reached slowly to turn off the sprayer. She looked over at the little table on which she kept guest soaps and perfume samples in a basket. She tipped the basket, hoping the contents wouldn’t spill too loudly and scare the lizard into running away down the sink or somewhere difficult like that. She was lucky it was a fern—the fronds were flexible and wouldn’t break. Ava lowered the basket over the plant. As she walked into the kitchen holding the pot and the basket tightly together, she tried not to think about little lizard teeth gnawing at her fingers through the holes in the basket.
It was going to be tricky getting the lizard out from the fern. She grabbed a wide salad bowl from the dish drain and turned it upside down on top of the basket to keep it in place. Then she looked into her neatly ordered tupperware shelf for a temporary home. It had to be one with a lid she wouldn’t mind poking holes in.
Pumpernickel roused himself and came into the kitchen hoping there would be an extra meal. “Out,” Ava said, surprising the dog in mid-tail-wag. He slunk out, looking guilty. Dogs were so satisfying, Ava thought for the umpteenth time. They believed they were bad even when they hadn’t done a thing, unlike kids, who would proclaim their innocence even when caught red-handed. Or men.
What was she doing? She didn’t really want to keep a lizard. Ava looked at the contraption she’d assembled on the counter. If she let it go outside, something would probably eat it. But maybe that was best, nature’s way. She sighed and picked up the plant, carefully holding the bowl on top of the upended basket.
She chose a spot in the flower bed. There was an old azalea shrub the lizard could hide in if he wanted to. She carefully removed the bowl and the basket, and tipped the plant sideways. A flash of movement. The plastic-again lizard lay upside-down in the dirt with its decidedly unnatural yellow underside displayed to the sky.
Was this how people lost their minds? Ava took a deep breath and tentatively reached a finger to the lizard’s belly. It was rough to the touch and definitely not alive. She sat back on her bottom on the little walkway. She concentrated on her breath like she was learning to do in yoga class. Did she have a brain tumor? Schizophrenia? What else would cause a person to think a plastic lizard was alive?
Dan, the boys’ father, usually came over (albeit reluctantly) if there was some kind of crisis with the house. If she called him, he would think this was a crazy cry for attention. Her friends would think she was telling the story to be funny. Like when there was a rat in her pristine house, and she told them about it to purge the embarrassment from her mind. Her boys… But she didn’t want to worry them. Who else did she even see any more? Old colleagues from the elementary school? No, in the eight years since she’d retired, they’d barely kept in touch.
Ava missed being a librarian. The combination of the children’s excitement and energy, and the quiet and comfort of doing all those lovely rote tasks. Making labels, ordering the shelves, stretching the sticky plastic covers over the new paperbacks. She took early retirement to make the best of the bad economic situation in the schools. Librarians weren’t likely to be called back to duty any time soon. Especially older librarians. Ava volunteered sometimes in a local literacy program, but it didn’t provide the balm of a daily routine.
“What are you up to?”
“Um, working. Can I get back to you in a little bit? I’ve gotta get something out for this meeting later.”
Ava walked the phone to its cradle on the kitchen wall. It was a very old fire-engine red phone that had come with the house. You had to jam the buttons down for the tone to sound. She and Dan used to joke that it was The Red Phone, direct line to the White House. They’d pick it up and tell the President all about their sons while Mickey and Jason sat nervously listening in the dining room. Eventually the kids figured it out—or had they known all the time? The President of the United States was not on call to hear about their behavior, good or bad. She hadn’t felt sorry about trying to fool them, though of course it hadn’t been her idea. Dan had done it one day when he was fed up with the chaos at dinner. The house had been so noisy. Sometimes she had to scream to be heard.
The voice on the other end sounded distracted. “Mom?”
She’d interrupted him too.
Well, she’d wanted them to have their own lives. Prided herself on sending them out into the world at every opportunity so they’d be good at it. And the family, well, it was broken, wasn’t it? So they were moving on. Girlfriends, jobs, apartments, their own families soon enough. Maybe they’d do better than she had. Though she still couldn’t figure out what she’d done wrong. Well, no point in dwelling.
And if she did start thinking about it all, then she wouldn’t be able to tell her new therapist that she hadn’t been perseverating. There was a word. Perseverance was good. Perseverating, not so. Obsessing more like it, though she guessed therapists avoided saying that word because it was too negative and might seem judgmental. And therapists didn’t seem allowed to be judgmental any more.
Ava had an armful of grocery bags poised over the counter when the phone rang later that afternoon.
“Hi sweetie.” Had there been something in her voice that made Jason feel he ought to call back? She certainly hadn’t meant to make him feel guilty.
He did sound concerned. “Wha’d’you call about? Everything okay?”
“Oh, sure honey, let me just put these groceries down.” She levered them on to the counter and walked with the phone to the breakfast nook—the cord was so stretched out these days it barely curled. She opened the door to the back and let Pumpernickel in. “Stay away from the counter,” she said to the dog.
“How is old Pumpie?” asked Jason.
“Hungry. Always hungry.” Ava settled herself just in case Jason made time to chat. She pulled the paper napkin stack out of its holder and began folding them into triangles. The phone settled on her shoulder and she wondered again why cordless phones were harder to balance than these old fashioned attached phones. The weight of the cord, maybe?
Jason talked about the project he was working on, something to do with a remodel. He was a very junior architect and mainly carried coffee. Today, they’d asked him to research some energy idea, some new green material, and he was thrilled.
“But what did you call about?” he asked, finally.
She plunged in. “Did you ever want your toys to come to life? Or think they had?”
“Gosh, Mom, I don’t remember.” Jason sounded like she’d asked a really pointless question. “There’re lots of books where things come to life. Toys, I mean. So I probably did.” Jason started enumerating stories, like the great student he had been. “The Nutcracker, the Toy Story movies… I guess Pooh was sort of that, and Pinnochio… Return of the Twelves…”
“Well, I tried to go through the closet to Narnia when I was little,” Ava said.
“Yeah, Mom, you’ve told me.” Now he managed to sound both impatient and indulgent.
Ava couldn’t bring herself to mention the lizard.
A few hours later Mickey called. Well, at least they call back, she thought, even though Mickey sounded bored and a bit perplexed by her attempts to talk about toys coming to life.
She went to check on the lizard. It was still plastic.
It was all in her head. It had to be, right? And if it were only in her head, she could and should ignore it. If the furniture started being alive, or if she started talking to people who weren’t there, then she could tell someone that something was going on. She hoped her mental health insurance paid for inpatient care. She might want to investigate, because it wasn’t something she’d ever looked up before.
Instead, she went on Google. After an hour or so Ava discovered that a lizard could symbolize pretty much anything that wasn’t soft and fluffy. Freud made some big deal about the tail-losing capacity of lizards—something to do with castration, of course. But lizards also symbolized death, rebirth, wisdom, the devil, evil, dreaming and the ability to see the future. Small though they were, the whole dragon-thing—power, ancient magic—seemed to rub its symbolism off on their smaller (and realer) relatives.
While she was at it, Ava checked out various lizard species. As far as she could tell, “her” lizard was very common. An anole. It ate crickets or meal worms. It liked warmth but then, all lizards did, even the ones who swam. It would probably cost about five dollars, even at an expensive pet store.
But she wasn’t going out to buy a lizard. So what was she doing?
As she pulled the covers down on her bed that night, Pumpernickel settling onto his bed in the corner of the room, Ava wondered if her visions of the lizard were some kind of wish-fulfillment. But for what? Another pet? Who would want a lizard when they had a dog? The only wish she really had was for Prince Charming, or some reasonable facsimile thereof (even Appropriately-Aged Third-in-Line-to-the Throne-Guy would be great). Most of her friends were still married or looking unsuccessfully themselves, and she never met anyone new. She couldn’t bring herself to put up an online dating profile. Plus she’d have to join an old people’s dating site. Completely humiliating.
She couldn’t ask the therapist to decode this lizard thing for her without talking about how she’d thought a plastic lizard was alive. More than once. She really didn’t want to bring it up at all. Everything was fine, really.
Ava pulled the sheets and blankets up around her. Oh, she did love her bed. Her sheets perfectly ironed. One good thing about not having children in the house any more. Ava had time to iron sheets. There was nothing like it. She didn’t even mind the ironing. In fact, she kind of loved it.
Ava reached for her bedroom reading glasses. There were pairs strategically placed all over the house. On the bedtable, there were three books to choose from—a book of Mary Oliver poems, a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and the latest Clare Fergusson mystery. She picked up the mystery.
The next day was her birthday. Her 57th.
Ava woke up bright and early, just as she liked, got in a vigorous walk with the dog, pulling him along from smelling and peeing as she powered through the neighborhoods. She stopped only to admire gardens and smell roses. She liked that she stopped to smell roses. It worked for her on every level from immediate pleasure to an appreciation of herself for how well she was living in the moment.
She was at the breakfast table reading the paper when Mickey called. Her boys seemed better about remembering her birthday now that they were older. Those online calendars probably helped. Rosalie from the school called too—she always remembered birthdays—and Ava’s brother Will, who lived in Boston. The paper was full of interesting tidbits and she did the crossword puzzle, not even saving it for later.
And then, just as she was contemplating one of the last Across clues, something darted along the floor at the edge of her peripheral vision. She whipped her head around and saw a live lizard. The same size and color as the one before, but really, it could be one from the backyard this time, right? Ava slowly inched her chair back. She kept the lizard in view as she rose, and it shot forward into the corner, trapping itself. Ava looked around for something to keep it there, to block its way out. Newspaper too flimsy, coffee cup the wrong shape and size, what about the cream and sugar tray? Ava took everything off it and held the tray in front of her like a shield. Her heart was beating like she was about to face a tyrannosaurus. She bent her knees, hearing them crackle even over the sound of her blood rushing. She lowered the tray, sliding it across the floor so it made a little triangular pen in the corner.
Ava slid the chair over so its leg would hold the tray in place, and walked across to check the ceramic pot. The plastic lizard was gone.
If she went back and looked in her makeshift pen in the corner, would the lizard be plastic again? The way things seemed to work, it absolutely would be. A quick glance back assured her that it was still the smaller, grayer live lizard.
She hadn’t been thinking about the lizard,. She’d been doing the crossword puzzle for God’s sake, and that always filled her brain nicely. She hadn’t even thought about Dan, though in the eleven years since he’d left, she usually caught herself wondering if he’d call on her birthday. He was the usual topic of her pointless obsessive thinking, but truly truly truly he hadn’t even crossed her mind today (yet?). Was his complete lack of interest in her, the woman he used to love, lurking in her unconscious so that now she was hallucinating a live lizard? That was so convoluted.
Ava paced around the living room, causing Pumpernickel some distress outside. He looked in the glass-paned door to the back and yipped at her. Or maybe he could smell the lizard and wanted to get in and eat it. If Pumpernickel smelled the lizard then it must be there, right?
Maybe she should just ignore the whole thing. Pretend it hadn’t happened. She was pretty good at ignoring disturbing things, after all. An indication of incipient insanity might be a good thing to ignore. As good as, say, a husband having an affair. But ignoring that hadn’t exactly worked out for her, had it?
Okay, enough—back to the present. What should she do now? If she removed the tray and the lizard was plastic again, she could just leave it there in the corner. Or she could throw it out. Another choice—she could put the lizard back on the plant and basically forget anything had happened and promise herself that she’d be blind to any further live lizard sightings.
An alternate scenario—if the lizard was now alive and stayed that way, she could keep it in a cage. Or she could just let it run around the house, and follow the being-blind-to-weirdness option. She could also call the dog in and see if he even noticed the lizard. Dogs loved to chase lizards, which would solve her problem in a whole other way. It might involve cleaning up blood, but how much blood could a little lizard produce?
What made her so scared? She prided herself on being good with the natural world, animals, blood, vomit, children.
She could do this. She could.
Ava planted her feet as far back from the corner as she could, and pulled the tray out of the way, jumping back as she did so. There it was. Stock still, but real, alive. She went to get the dog to do her dirty work for her, and stopped with her hand on the doorknob.
What kind of a monster was she? Feeding the lizard to her dog. He was certainly fair game in the food chain. But it was cruel and potentially messy. On the other hand, mightn’t she be able to tell from the dog’s reaction if the lizard was real? That information might be too important to pass up. But it smacked of an old episode of “The Twilight Zone” where aliens pitted humans against each other in games. A more prosaic version of gladiators and lions on display in her own personal coliseum/breakfast nook.
Even worse, what if the dog and the lizard became friends like in a Disney movie? And started talking to each other in the house and planning adventures? Ava had to laugh at herself for that scenario. If that happened she would call the guys in the white coats immediately.
Ava decided to shoo the lizard out of the corner and then get the dog and see if he noticed anything. She approached the corner hissing like she would to get rid of a cat. No luck. The lizard was petrified by fear, or instinct. But what was she thinking? She couldn’t live in the house with a loose lizard, even if it might obliterate whatever bugs escaped her compulsive cleaning. She’d never sleep again. As it was, it was going to take her at least a week to get over her creeped-out-ness.
Ava backed into the kitchen keeping an eye on the grey spot that was the lizard. She pulled out the salad spinner basket and tiptoed up to the corner. Keeping her legs as far away as she could—but bending them slightly so she wouldn’t tweak her back—she lowered the basket slowly. But it didn’t fit far enough into the corner. She had to scooch the lizard out by nudging it gently with the back of the basket. At this indignity, the lizard ran straight at Ava. She dropped the basket quickly, but not before the lizard escaped out from under it and ran directly at Ava’s flipflop. Terrified, it bit down on the first thing it encountered, which happened to be the side of Ava’s foot. It hurt—stung, mostly—and Ava hopped onto the unbitten foot, heading for the kitchen and a paper towel. When she returned moments later she saw that the lizard had disappeared, but that the edge of the basket had caught its tail, which lay twitching slightly and bleeding onto the hardwood floor.
Ava sank into a chair, her foot crossed into her lap. She squeezed at the wound, trying to get as much blood out as she could, in case of infection. She would need to find out if there was anything she could catch from being bitten by a lizard. Salmonella? She remembered hearing something about that a while ago. Happy Birthday! A very small, possibly imaginary reptile has given you a deadly disease!
Ava tied the paper towel around her foot by sticking the ends between her toes. She went to the refrigerator and reminded herself of the vet’s phone number, then stood on one foot in the kitchen talking on the red phone.
“Yes, I have kind of a strange question.” Ava twirled the stretched out phone cord as if it were a jump rope. “Can you get anything from being bitten by a lizard?”
The voice on the other end asked a question, a question that perhaps it asked daily from the lack of concern it expressed.
Ava answered, “No, not much blood.’
“I don’t know what kind he is, I just found him in the house. But he looks pretty common, you know, like, maybe an anole?”
Reassuring words came through the phone.
“Okay, but are you sure?”
The voice suggested she see her doctor and maybe take a course of antibiotics, just in case.
“All right, I’ll make an appointment.”
The lizard’s tail had stopped twitching but lay in a small puddle of blood. Before she left, Ava put on a pair of disposable gloves and approached the mess. First, she picked up the salad spinner basket and put it in the sink, turning the water to its hottest setting and spraying it at the basket. Then she picked up the tail, scrunching her face as she put it in a plastic bag. She smeared the puddle of blood with paper towels, scrubbed with organic disinfectant and discarded the bag with the tail and the red and brown mottled paper towels in the bin out back, so Pumpie wouldn’t be tempted to check out the kitchen garbage.[/smallcaps]
The lizard—or what was left of it without its tail—was nowhere to be found, and Ava let Pumpie in. She tried to call him to the corner to see if he smelled anything but either the disinfectant had obliterated the smell completely or the dog just wasn’t interested in whatever scent remained behind. She had looked for a blood trail and checked the plant to see if the plastic lizard was back. Neither.
The clinic was indeed crowded and she sat with her book for at least an hour before someone took her to a room. There she waited again, hoping not to finish her book before the doctor came in and left her with only the old issues of Road and Track and Golf Digest.
When the doctor finally came in, a warm smile on his face, hand outstretched to greet her, she reminded herself that this had all been worth it, because here was someone who could help. She pulled her foot over her knee, telling the doctor her story about how there was a little lizard in the house and she’d wanted to trap it to put it outside, but it had gotten scared and bitten her. The doctor commiserated, asked her about the lizard, looked up something on his little internet pad and said it didn’t sound like a poisonous lizard—that would be extremely rare—but he’d look at the bite and give her a prescription just in case. She loved this man. He was helpful.
Ava reached down to pull off the band-aid she’d placed over the tiny cut. The doctor’s hand was there first, and he asked, “May I?”
Ava nodded. He pulled gently at a corner of the plastic and peeled the band-aid off. Under it was completely clear, unbroken skin.
Ava stared. The doctor looked at her.
“You must have done a very good job with the cleaning. That, or you heal very fast!” He was trying to make a joke, but Ava was mortified.
“I even put Neosporin on it, and that can’t be gone. It was only a few hours ago.”
The doctor shook his head, and reached down to spread the skin that had been under the band-aid. “Are you sure it wasn’t the lizard’s blood that got on you?”
“Gosh,” said Ava, grateful for the opportunity to backtrack. “I don’t know. But I’m sure I felt the little teeth.”
“Well, no need for antibiotics, then.” The doctor looked up from her foot to examine her face. “Are you all right, though? Everything okay?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” said Ava. “I’m just so sorry to take up your time. And I’m more than a bit embarrassed.”
“No worries,” said the doctor. “Just keep the little pests out of your house, if they bother you.” He held out his hand for Ava to shake. She did, and smiled, knowing that her cheeks were suffused with the blood of humiliation.
Pumpernickel greeted Ava at home as if she weren’t a crazy person who had gone to the doctor when imaginary lizard teeth broke her skin. She examined the house with the dog at her side, looking for lizard evidence. She snapped her fingers in various corners to get the dog’s attention but he seemed utterly uninterested in the familiar corners of his house. Ava thought about borrowing a bloodhound. But was there even a lizard scent to follow? Plus, it wasn’t like she knew anyone with a bloodhound.
Ava’s birthday was not going as planned. For one thing, the side of her foot still hurt, in spite of the official decree of no damage done. She sat at the breakfast table, dog at her feet, reading the paper, and nervously looking up for signs of a small grey reptile moving in the shadows of the furniture. It was distracting. At least tonight she would get out of the house. She’d meet friends for her birthday dinner, maybe even drink a few margaritas. She hadn’t had a relaxing evening out in eons. She hadn’t even had a meal out in eons, unless you counted the Library Luncheons every other month, and those were buffet style and never felt quite like the pampering experience that eating out should be.
Dinner was fun, though Ava mostly listened to her friends’ stories. They had stories and she didn’t, but then she mainly hung out with a dog and a lot of books. She always had books to recommend. So she really had only other people’s stories, but she was okay with that. She supposed she could now tell her very own lizard story, but she wasn’t going to share that for all the chips and guacamole in Los Angeles.
Dropped off at home, Ava turned and waved, then closed the front door behind her. She had allowed herself to forget the loneliness that lurked in the air around her most of the time. She knew the tequila was crucial in fooling herself, but it was nice to feel cheerful for a few hours. She was really quite pleasantly tipsy. She let the dog out and poured herself a large glass of water, drank it down and then poured and drank another to offset the effects of the alcohol. She let Pumpie back in and they went upstairs.
Sleep came easily. Ava dropped off, propped on her pillows and holding her book. She felt the book fall out of her hands and reached to turn off the light, settling in on her side as she did every night, pillows plumped under her neck. She was dimly aware that on this night another birthday had come and gone. She’d had her bouts with insomnia before, but these days she pretty much fell off the planet into unconsciousness and stayed that way until the sun came up. If sleep came hard, due to agitation, rumination and/or anger, Ava’s best strategy was to run through the Nonfiction section of the library by Dewey Decimal number—a feat of memorization that kept her mind away from anything dangerous.
Tonight no unhappy thoughts breached the armor of alcohol in her brain. She floated, then sank, into the warm night, the cool covers, the …
And her eyes opened to heart-pounding panic. The lizard crouched on the neatly turned sheet, eight inches from her nose. She sat up, too surprised to even let out a yelp. The lizard was tail-less, a scabby stump just visible as Ava clutched the covers to her chest. Her quick change of position lifted the sheets and slid the lizard off the bed.
Had he been trying to communicate something with his intense stare? The image of the lizard in close-up hovered on the back of her eyelids when she blinked.
Ava turned on the light. She could feel her blood thumping at her eardrums. Her body had lost all memory of relaxation or sleep. She examined the sheet for any evidence of the lizard, wondering how long a lizard might bleed from losing a tail and if her favorite sheets had bloodstains. But nothing. And Pumpernickel was clueless, stretched on his bed, ears flapped back, eyes closed. Ava listened for the sound of tiny running feet. Nothing. She didn’t want to, but if she was ever going to sleep again, she needed to find the lizard. Put it somewhere. So she inched her way over to the edge and looked over the side of the bed. Not a thing out of place.
Shit shit shit.
Now she’d have to lean down and look under the bed. What if she pulled up the bed skirt and the lizard was right there glaring at her?
Maybe Pumpernickel would protect her. Yeah, right. He snoozed on, oblivious. Ava couldn’t bring herself to check under the bed. She drew her knees up to her chin, huddling into the jacquard upholstery of the headboard.
A horrid thought—maybe it had gotten under the covers. Ava shook them out and discovered—nothing. Nothing under the pillows either. By this time, Pumpernickel was awake. Ava saw the look in his eyes. “No, you may not come up. Go lie down.” He went, but he looked even more mournful than usual.
How to calm herself down and get back to sleep? Maybe start with the path of least resistance, her body. Her brain would follow, or anyway, it was supposed to. Ava closed her eyes and concentrated on her breath as she’d been taught in yoga classes. In, out… And the thoughts flew in, distracting, unbidden, unwelcome. Breathe, breathe. Breathe, breathe. Whenever her eyelids started to fall, the gaze of the tailless lizard in hi-def close-up startled them open again. Ava forced herself at least to try to pay attention to her breath again.
It wasn’t working.
Ava considered her options. Even if she slept now, what would happen tomorrow? What was she going to do if she got scared to be in her own house, her own bed, her sanctuary? If this were ever to stop, she had to confront these demons, or this particular demon, preferably as soon as possible. Figure out what the lizard was doing here, or at least figure out what it (he? she?) was doing in her brain.
What she really wanted was to be unconscious. If she was unconscious the creature could walk across her forehead and she wouldn’t notice.
Drugs. The answer was drugs—okay, well, a prescription. Ava smiled and felt relief course through her system. There was Ativan left, she knew it. It was powerful stuff and worked like a charm. Before the kids were born, she’d had to take it to get herself onto an airplane, and though she didn’t need it for that anymore, she’d kept the prescription going, thanks to a very understanding doctor. Sometimes, well, sometimes it helped.
Ava checked the floor for any evidence of the lizard. None. Still, she ran on tiptoe to her bathroom. She opened the child-safe medicine holder that she’d bought when Mickey started crawling. She still kept the “dangerous” stuff in there. As if the thin plastic box and cheap combination lock would stop either a drug-seeking teen or a burglar. She fished out a pill, swallowed it dry, and sat on her bed waiting for the relaxation to kick in. Breathe, breathe. She dozed.
Ava was sure she had slept only a little. She turned off the light and moved over to sleep on her side so she could take better advantage of the lovely careless haze settling in her brain. As she readjusted, she heard a sound. She forced her eyes open and squinted in the trace of light that filtered through the curtains from the street lamp. Dimly visible, Pumpie was having a dream, whimpering and moving his front paws. And next to him on the floor, a shape that might be the lizard. No tail still.
Her first instinct was to ask it what it was doing. And why not? She always talked to animals. The birds in the yard, the neighbor’s cat (when Pumpie wasn’t there to scare it away), other dogs passing by. She spoke to Pumpernickel all the time as if he were completely fluent in English. So what if this particular animal didn’t actually exist?
Ava leaned over the edge of the bed, careful to keep her center of gravity back far enough so that she wouldn’t fall off. The floor seem to pull at her a little more than usual.
“Hello,” she whispered.
The lizard seemed to incline its snout down just a nanometer.
Ava narrowed her eyes to see the lizard more closely. “Are you going to be around for a while?”
This time it didn’t move.
“I’m guessing that’s a yes,” said Ava, “Of course you are.”
The lizard blinked.
Ava sighed. What did she think she would get out of this anyway? A truce? An understanding? How could this be understandable?
“Is there something I’m supposed to do?” she asked. “You know, like start believing you’re really there? or pretend you aren’t? or feed you or—or something?” Her voice trailed off.
The lizard seemed to incline its head again.
“Well, which one?”
Pumpernickel woke up on his dog bed and stretched. He tilted his head at Ava, like he was wondering what she was saying to him, and she smiled. When she looked back at the spot on the floor where the lizard had been, it had vanished.
Ava descended to the floor in languorous stages, now not worried at all about being on lizard-level. It was all feeling pleasantly vague. It was a long time since she’d been awake to appreciate an altered state of consciousness, other than the results of a glass or two of alcohol. The combination of having children and working in a school had made her fear drug tests and career-ending and embarrassing explanations, explanations about sadness and the need to occasionally escape. The sorrow stayed in a lovely enclosure at the very back of her mind, rotating around for a nice view of each side of the prism—the end of the job, the marriage, the parenting that was so deep in her soul. It was nice to examine all sides of her dilemmas from a distance instead of having them press in close her. She settled her back against the side of the bed and waited.
Was it morning already? Ava moved her eyes to the digital clock on the bed table. Her brain lagged behind her eyes at least by a few seconds. It was 3:06 a.m.
When she re-settled her eyes and brain to the spot where the lizard had last appeared, it was there again. Still. Just as still as the plastic version of itself.
Ava put out her hand, like she would for a dog to sniff. She looked at the lizard, and felt that she was being hypnotized like a snake charmer but the other way around. Her eyes seemed attached to the lizard’s, like she might not be able to break the gaze. She breathed out and, not even sure if she was speaking aloud, asked:
“So. What do you want?”
The lizard didn’t move, but she heard the word YOU in her head just as if she had heard its normal progress through her eardrums and into her brain.
She answered, nodding, “Okay.”
The lizard was motionless, but seemed attentive.
“But what is it about me? What should I be doing?” Ava’s voice felt lazy. The drug made it hard to feel her questions with any intensity. Then she felt a prick of irritation surface. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
“You don’t want to be alone.” It was not a question. It was a statement. And it was true. She was fucking sick of being alone.
“Indeed,” Ava drawled, eyebrows raised to acknowledge the perspicacity of the tiny creature. “How did you know?”
The lizard stared at her, somehow managing to radiate disbelief.
“Okay,” Ava said. “Kind of obvious.” She felt a need to lie down, right there on the rug. Stretch out and have this conversation in a more comfortable position. She carefully straightened her legs and the lizard moved back, probably to get out of her way. Ava settled herself on her side, propping her head on her hand. This wasn’t going to be comfortable for long.
“Do you have a name?” she asked.
“Like you could pronounce it,” she heard in her head.
Ava felt the corners of her mouth lift. “Good point,” she said, accepting the sarcasm as if she were used to having conversations with lizards who had teenager attitude. She knew when to back down and when to pick a battle.
The lizard blinked, his eyelids closing and opening quite slowly. Was he trying to show her he was bored? Do real lizards get bored or even have eyelids?
Ava let out a giggle. She was stoned. Her fears had been washed away with the chemical occupation of her brain and she discovered she was actually enjoying herself. Maybe this is my big brush with magic, she thought, the one I’ve wanted since I was a old enough to listen to stories. Had she said that out loud? Did that even matter if this was all magic? If this was some kind of supernatural encounter, the lizard would surely know what she was thinking.
“Yup,” it said. It seemed very satisfied with itself. Or was it satisfied with her and how she was catching on?
“Okay.” She knew she’d managed to say that out loud. “So, what’s the point? Do I get a prince at the end? Or a sword or a treasure? Or what?”
She heard, “You need to get out more.”
Ava laughed. Heartily, loudly. Laughed so hard that there were tears, and Pumpernickel, worried, came up and tried to lick her face.
She pushed the dog away and managed to choke out her question. “Is that the big message?” And then her tears became real tears of sorrow. “That’s it? I need to get out? I knew that.” The tears became a torrent of questions. “Do you want me to sign up on dating sites? Do you want me to take sushi-making classes? What?” She groaned, raised herself up and pulled the bedskirt over to wipe her eyes. “How is this my fault? And what does it matter to you anyway? One middle-aged woman not living life to the fullest? Why do you care?”
“Don’t you want me to care?”
“I don’t even know if you exist.”
“Does it matter?”
“That’s not fair.” Ava was angry now. “If you’re going to talk to me, you have to give me answers. I have a shrink for asking me questions.”
The lizard seemed to acknowledge her point with another slow blink of the eyes.
Ava stared at him. “So tell me what to do.”
She heard it distinctly this time. Out loud. “Go to sleep.”
It sounded like as good an idea as any.
Pumpernickel’s wet nose was not helping her rouse herself from the floor. She knew she should at least feel guilty enough to let him out. He would need to pee. His walk was always first thing in the morning. Before newspaper, coffee, email. And he was even more of a creature of habit than she was.
Ava stood up with a pounding head and remembered. She searched the floor for the lizard. And there it was, or at least, there was something that might be it. Ava walked in the direction of a small grey item halfway between the wall and Pumpernickel’s bed. Oh. It wasn’t plastic anymore. But also, it was no longer alive. And it looked like Pumpernickel had tasted it experimentally since it died, but had lost interest. She knew he hadn’t killed it because there wasn’t very much blood. A lot less blood than when it had lost its tail. A few drops. And these most kindly shed on the hardwood floor instead of the ivory bedroom rug.
Why did everyone always think “poor thing,” when they saw dead animals? Something about their innocence, maybe. She could feel tears starting in her eyes. She picked up the lizard’s body, took it into her bathroom and flushed it down the toilet. She washed her hands thoroughly and made her bed. She dressed in her morning walk outfit and went down the stairs.
On her way out with the dog, Ava stopped at the fern to see if the plastic lizard was back. It wasn’t.
Anna Boorstin was educated at Yale University, where she majored in film studies. She worked as a sound editor on such films as Clue and Real Genius and served on the board of Motion Picture Sound Editors. While raising her children, Anna also served on several school boards, and whenever possible, volunteered to work in their libraries. She reads compulsively, manages her 28 year-old book club’s website, and writes essays and fiction.