Chapter 1 – The Dream

 

Once again, Sam London found himself wandering in the desert. After fourteen consecutive nights of the same dream, this brown-haired, blue-eyed twelve-year-old had reached his breaking point. As he looked out on the now all-too-familiar landscape, an overwhelming sense of frustration billowed up inside him. He wondered if tonight would prove as utterly pointless as all the other nights spent in this place. Then again, maybe this dream did have a point lurking about, but Sam was simply missing it by waking up too soon. Whether it was the alarm ringing him out of bed for school or his mother’s operatic singing in the shower--the only place she claimed had Carnegie Hall–like acoustics--Sam was consistently roused to reality before anything of significance occurred.

 

Adding to Sam’s frustration was the fact this was a lucid dream, which meant he was fully aware he was dreaming. Unfortunately, for some reason it wouldn’t allow him to take advantage of this favorable circumstance. The only other time Sam had experienced lucid dreaming, he had bestowed superhuman powers upon himself and saved the world from an army of bloodthirsty werewolves. In contrast, on night three of Sam’s desert odyssey, he attempted to defy gravity, only to learn that falling in a dream hurts about as much as it does in reality, at least until your eyes open. No matter what he tried, the Sam in this dreamworld was, as he considered it, as “un-special” as the Sam in the real world.

 

That word “un-special” was a wholly Sam creation. He used it to describe people who lacked a definitive skill or purpose. In Sam’s eyes, some kids were born to play sports, some had a genetic predisposition to genius, and others were natural artists with boundless creativity. Sam London couldn’t boast any of these qualities. He was just your average kid of average height with average looks and average grades. And except for its recurring nature and other peculiarities, his dream was like Sam--pretty average.

 

Each night for the last two weeks, Sam was transported to a desolate two-lane road surrounded by a seemingly endless desert. The only hint of civilization was a gas station that sat about a half mile up the highway. The night before last, Sam was able to reach the station and have a look around. Much to his dismay, the structure proved as stark as the landscape. The shelves in the mini-mart were bare, and worst of all, the ICEE machine refused to function. But Sam was not the type to give up easily. He held on to the hope that this dream would reveal a surprise or two. Though he did entertain the thought, if just for a moment, that this environment was on some level a metaphor for his life.

 

In addition to inspecting the gas station, Sam had used his time to explore several rocky outcroppings that peppered the terrain. Though he had yet to find anything of interest, there was one remaining possibility. The largest of the outcroppings was positioned about three hundred yards from the station. Sam had been avoiding this formation, as it was the tallest and consequently the most intimidating of the bunch. But tonight was the night to leave no stones unturned, no matter how high they were stacked.

 

Time was not on Sam’s side. His alarm clock was ticking down to seven a.m. At any moment he could be yanked from his slumber--and his search. With that squarely in mind, Sam sprinted to his target--a mountain of granite boulders piled high atop granitic bedrock. The formation stood at least thirty feet and culminated in a plateau, which could very well be hiding the answers Sam so desperately sought. He picked his first “step,” a large misshapen boulder that was easy to climb. His sneakers slid a bit against the gritty rock face--his hands could have used some of that chalk real climbers relied on. But soon enough he was within a few feet of his goal. Yet this part of the climb would prove especially difficult, as the rock had given way to loose bedrock and leverage was a precious commodity.

 

Sam reached out for a crook in the surface. Grabbing hold, he attempted to pull himself to victory, but the rock crumbled beneath his grip, and he suddenly found himself sliding back toward the ground. He scrambled, his arms moving like the tentacles of a panicked octopus, trying desperately to hold on to anything that would stop his rapid descent. He finally made contact with an area of the rock that jutted out a few inches. He clutched it and began the process of pulling himself back up the side of the formation.

 

By the time Sam hurled himself over the edge of the plateau, he was thoroughly exhausted and downright filthy. He stood up and surveyed the scene. Except for the spectacular view, this plateau was just as exciting as the ground below. He sighed--the frustration had officially transformed into resignation.

 

“Why?” Sam said aloud for the universe to hear. The universe didn’t bother to answer. He decided he would no longer wait for his alarm or his mom to rouse him from his slumber. He was going to protest the dream by waking himself up. He quickly found it was easier said than done. Sam tried jumping up and down but remained in the desert. He shook his head briskly but only succeeded in making himself dizzy. He shut his eyes tightly, squeezing hard, then opened them again to see . . . he was still there. So Sam went for all three moves: he shook his head, clenched his eyelids, and stomped his feet hard on the rocky surface.

 

“Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” Sam shouted.

 

He brought his foot down hard on the plateau and the earth shook beneath him, a quick and powerful tremor that drove him to his knees. A cloud of dirt plumed around him and he choked on the dusty air. Sam was blinded by a veil of grime, but as the murkiness melted away, he found he was no longer alone in this desert. When the dust settled, Sam’s eyes narrowed and his lips parted in absolute bewilderment. The creature that stood before him was at least fifteen feet tall. It had the head of an eagle framed by a majestic crest of white feathers. Its beak was hooked downward to a sharp, lethal point. Emerald-green eyes glowed in the sunlight. Wings that were a mix of tan and pure white feathers extended several feet from its body. Although at first glance it appeared to be a bird, Sam’s eyes were distracted by the beast’s chest, which was covered not in feathers but in fur. A chestnut-colored coat spread across its body to its four powerful legs, massive paws, and a long, tufted tail. This eagle was also a lion.

 

Sam stood as still as a statue. The answers were before him, but he had forgotten the questions. He tried to form words as the creature stared down at him. He could feel its warm breath against his face.

 

And then he heard the faint sounds of an overcaffeinated radio deejay.

 

“Good morning, Benicia! Wakey, wakey! This is your wack-wack-wacky morning zoo with Bob and Bob!”

 

“Oh no. Not now . . . ,” Sam groaned, realizing his alarm clock had gone off. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. He fought to stay in the dreamworld, to ask the questions he had been saving up these past two weeks. Even the creature seemed disappointed as Sam drifted back to reality.

 

Sam awoke in his bed, alert and practically vibrating. He slammed his hand down on the alarm to silence it, then slipped out from under the covers and headed straight for his bookshelf.

 

Sam’s room was a testament to all the efforts he had made to find his special gift that would enable him to stand out. A guitar and a drum set sat in one corner, the discarded remnants of his attempt to find his musical muse. A short distance from the instruments was a collection of sports paraphernalia: a hockey stick, a soccer ball, even a cricket bat. His most recent endeavor was positioned in front of the sports equipment--an easel holding a canvas. From the looks of it, Sam appeared to be documenting his lucid werewolf dream in acrylic. But even by subjective standards, the result was an unmitigated disaster.

 

The rest of Sam’s room was devoted to animals both real and imaginary. Dragons and pandas, panthers and abominable snowmen, it was a hodgepodge of creatures represented through posters, figurines, and stuffed animals. For as long as Sam could remember, he’d always had an affinity for animals, especially the mythical variety. He thought they were cool, and he loved that each was special in its own unique way, a trait he no doubt envied. Some would later note that Sam’s specialty lay all around him and he was simply oblivious.

 

Sam’s bookshelf was chock-full of tales of fantastical creatures. Through picture books, encyclopedias, and graphic novels, Sam’s obsession sprang to life. He ran his finger along the spines of his impressive collection until he reached his selection. He pulled it out and cracked it open. The book was titled The Visual Guide to Extraordinary Animals and provided an illustrative catalog of creatures most people considered make-believe. Sam shuffled to his destination, spread the pages wide, and gazed at the creature from his dream. The artistic rendering was so vivid it could have been a photograph.

 

“A gryphon,” Sam said aloud as he read the page heading. His eyes shifted to the description:

 

 

One of the most ancient and powerful of all extraordinary animals. Highly intelligent and immeasurably strong, the gryphon is the guardian and protector of the world’s magical creatures. Few men have laid eyes on a gryphon and lived to tell the tale. Those who have survived reported unusually good luck in the days that followed. Even those individuals who didn’t actually see a gryphon but were merely in its presence experienced a surge of luck, often related to wealth.

 

Although they are not violent by nature, a gryphon will attack if provoked. Examples of provocation include endangering the creatures a gryphon is sworn to protect or threatening a gryphon’s gold. Gold is considered a weakness of this extraordinary animal. It is highly attracted to the precious metal and is known to horde it in massive amounts. As such, most of the human deaths associated with these creatures are due to a victim’s foolish attempts to steal the gryphon’s gold.

 

 

It was always every man for himself at breakfast in the London household. Sam was usually the first one downstairs, and he’d snag himself a bowl of cereal or the occasional doughnut--if by some miracle they had made it into the grocery cart that week. This morning he sat at the tiny kitchen table and sipped a glass of orange juice as he thought back on his nightly adventure. He wondered if just dreaming of a gryphon would bring him good fortune. God knew he and his mom could use it. She had been working two jobs for as long as Sam could remember. During the day she was an art teacher at the local high school and at night she taught art history at a nearby community college. She happened to be an extraordinarily gifted artist, and Sam had always hoped her talent had been passed on to him. The werewolf painting had effectively dashed those hopes. As for working two jobs, his mom claimed it was necessary in order to save money for Sam’s future. She constantly encouraged her son to dream big and dream often, and she wanted to make sure he never felt trapped in any way.

 

“Oh good, you’re up,” Sam’s mom said with relief as she entered the kitchen.

 

Her full name was Odette Alexandra London, but everyone called her Ettie. She was thirty-five years old, with long auburn hair, crystal-blue eyes, and a slender, if lanky, build. Ettie was pretty, even prettier when she smiled, which she did often. Sam’s mom was exceedingly upbeat. Though Sam couldn’t help but believe there was something missing from her life. Like him, Ettie didn’t have many friends. She also never dated, even though she had been single since Sam was a baby. She didn’t talk much about Sam’s father, Marshall London, and Sam had no memory of him. The only picture Sam had of his dad was taken before he was born. It was of Ettie and Marshall at Fontana Lake in North Carolina. The two of them were smiling happily as they stood beside each other on the shore with ducks, geese, and swans floating in the distance.

 

Sam wondered what happened to that seemingly happy couple. Although he was curious about what led his father to leave, he rarely discussed the topic with his mother. He didn’t believe she had totally gotten over it--as evidenced by the fact that whenever he asked about his dad, Ettie would respond with “Let’s not dwell on the past, Sam” and quickly change the subject.

 

“I was worried you hadn’t showered yet,” Ettie confessed, adding with a tinge of guilt, “I’m pretty sure I used all the hot water.”

 

Sam wasn’t surprised. She always used all the hot water. Her concerts often went long and apparently required a lot of steam. Ettie grabbed the carton of OJ from the fridge and poured herself a glass. She settled in across from Sam and exhaled. Sam remained quiet, his mind in overdrive.

 

“I picked up cookies yesterday,” she offered. “The variety pack you like. They’re in the cabinet. You want to take a package for lunch?” Sam nodded, still not entirely present.

 

“I just said the word ‘cookies’ and you didn’t even blink. What’s wrong? You’re not sick or anything, are you?”

 

“No, I’m fine, Mom. I’m just thinking.”

 

“Thinking? This early in the morning?” She considered him. “You had that dream again, didn’t you?”

 

Sam nodded. “And this time it was different.”

 

“It was?” Ettie said, intrigued. “Talk to me.”

 

“You really want to know?” Sam asked.

 

“Are you kidding? Of course I want to know. I’ve had to hear about this dream every day for the last month--”

 

“Two weeks.”

 

“Well, it’s felt like a month. What was so different?”

 

“I saw something,” Sam said in a cryptic manner.

 

“Okay. What?”

 

“It was a . . . gryphon,” Sam responded tentatively.

 

Ettie smiled and nodded, as if she’d been expecting this. “Oh. A gryphon. One of those lion-bird things, right? That’s cool.” Sam spotted the underlying skepticism and quickly countered.

 

“It’s not like that, Mom. I think it means something.”

 

“And I think it means something too, sweetheart. I think it means you read a lot of those books. And have all those posters plastered on your walls.”