Prameela Kottapalli

The Dragon in the Clouds

I once heard the children say that Boy looked like a ghost. He did, in a way; he had chalky skin as thin as faded parchment, watery eyes the color of a storm-tossed sea, wispy black hair that curled around his ears like tendrils of dark smoke. But it wasn’t his appearance, or even his extreme tempers or mood swings that made me bite at my fingernails and grind at my teeth. It was the fact that he reminded me of a different type of phantom, one I loved and hated and feared and missed. One whose face in my mind was blurred at the edges, fading with every passing day, but whose livid shouts and racking sobs were always fresh in my memory. Boy reminded me of shadowy corridors, of flashing red and blue lights, of thundering footsteps, but also of lazy summer strolls, of warm hands, of sprinkler runs and rain dances. They said Boy was smart but sick, just as my ghost had been. So I stayed away from Boy because I didn’t understand him– just as I couldn’t even begin to understand the face that haunted my dreams.

On a morning like any other, I sat at the old, gum-soiled table in the corner of the summer school classroom, leaning back in the too-small chair and watching as the children entered the room with their colorful backpacks and holographic lunch boxes. Boy, as always, arrived last, and with him came the whispers of shadowy corridors, the echoes of thundering footsteps–and my ghost. I straightened in my chair and tore my gaze away from him, biting at my fingernails.

I spent the rest of my volunteer day folding paper cranes and coloring world maps, immersing myself in the clamor of a classroom full of seven-year-olds. During lunch, the children all formed a circle at the center of the room to sing songs and share stories. Boy sat outside the circle, grey eyes watching from afar. I turned away and the voice of my ghost receded, replaced by childhood chants and lunchtime ballads.

“Can you keep him some company?” The teacher asked once she had pulled me aside after lunch, nodding towards where the solitary Boy fidgeted with puzzle pieces on the classroom floor. “He’s so quiet today,” she said.

I inhaled sharply, wanting to tell her that a quiet day for Boy was a good day for us, that at least he wasn’t yelling or crying or throwing a fit. But there he sat alone, hunched intently over a puzzle, dark hair clinging to his forehead, wafish and pale. Wraith-like.

Biting hard into my lower lip, I nodded. “Of course.”

My feet heavy on the carpeted floor, I approached Boy. “Hi,” I said.

He didn’t respond. I took a deep breath and sat down beside him, watching his thin, blue-veined fingers fly effortlessly over the puzzle in an almost robotic manner. I recalled the way my ghost used to manipulate numbers, how the invisible gears in his mind would spin faster than his hands could move.

Precise. Mechanical. Smart, but sick.

Rubbing the back of my neck, I asked Boy what he was making.

“A dragon,” he said. His voice was surprisingly gentle, soft with the ringing delicacy of wind chimes. “A dragon in the clouds.”

A dragon in the clouds. I released the breath I didn’t know I was holding.

“It’s beautiful,” I told him.

He turned over a jigsaw tile in his small, pale hands, running his thumbs along the edges. The cinnamon-and-sugar aroma of fresh dough wafted through the muggy classroom air, and my gaze shifted away from the puzzle piece between Boy’s fingers and towards the children on the other side of the room. They were decorating cookies, powdering their aprons with icing sugar. “Why don’t you play with them?” I asked.

He stopped fidgeting with the puzzle tile. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes.” I realized that I’d never wanted to know anything so desperately.

He moved the piece so that it interlocked with the other tiles. “On some days, I feel this way, and I’m happy, and that’s when I play,” he said. He rotated the tile so that its border refused to connect with the neighboring piece, the glistening red scales of the dragon chafing against the gauzy white haze of the clouds. His movements were slow, measured, but his pale hands seemed to tremble under an unseen weight. “But then other times, I feel like this. Sad. Or angry. And sometimes... I just want to mess it all up.”

He began to tear his dragon apart, but stopped before he had disarranged more than a few pieces, sagging his shoulders.

For the first time, I looked at him–and he looked back, with shining wide eyes the blue of an endless sky. I thought of flashing blue and red lights, but also lazy summer strolls. Sprinkler runs. Dancing in the rain. Sometimes, I just want to mess it all up.

“You know what I mean?” He asked, his voice high and brittle.

I rubbed the wetness from my cheeks. “I’m starting to.”

He nodded, seeming to sit up straighter. Gingerly lifting one of the puzzle pieces, he pressed it into the palm of my hand. I closed my fingers around the tile and shut my eyes.

My phantom’s face seemed to materialize in the dark. He wasn’t a blur or a foggy imprint anymore. He wasn’t just love or hate or confusion. For the first time, I saw more than the flashing lights and heard more than the thundering footsteps. I saw him, and I thought I noticed the ghost of a smile.

“Can you help me with my dragon?” Boy asked.

Opening my eyes, I examined the puzzle for a few moments before setting my square down in its place. It was the dragon’s eye.

“I think I can.”


About the author: Prameela Kottapalli, 17, lives in Northern California. While she's still a junior in high school, she looks forward to studying the humanities in college and embarking on great adventures. Everything she's ever enjoyed in life has stemmed from her love of storytelling. She has previously been published in her high school literary magazine. Note: See more of her work in the poetry section of issue two.