I know who I am, but who are you?
You're not looking like you used to
-No Doubt, "Sunday Morning"
Monty stepped through the gate out of his yard, to find a middle-aged Hispanic man warming up a grill.
"How are you not hot?" he said, and took a swig of his beer.
"'Hi Hector, how are you doin'?" said the chef sardonically. "'Mind if I join your little barbecue?' 'Oh, no problem, neighbour. Did you bring any chips or anything?'"
Monty stepped back through the connecting gate, reached down, and returned with a cooler. "Yep," said he, with a grin. "Or anything."
After much consideration, Hector decided to forgive his neighbour. Perhaps the addition of a cold bottle of Budweiser helped too.
"Where's Flo?" enquired Monty.
"She ran to the store. We are out of buns."
"How long do you expect her to take?"
The older man raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Have you ever tried to buy stuff on July 4th?"
"No, I get all my shopping done ahead of time. Beer, ice..." Monty considered a moment. "That's pretty much it."
"And then you mooch off your neighbours?"
"No, just the one."
Hector gave an affected sigh. "Stand back, I'm about to light the fire."
"I didn't know you cared. So, was it just going to be you and Flo?"
"Nah, everyone else will be around about the time the first burgers are ready. Fire in the hole."
The match Hector tossed fell to the coals in the bottom of the grill, and promptly went out.
"Gosh," said Monty. "Call the fire department, you've got a four-alarm blaze going on there."
"Kindling. I need kindling."
"You need a propane grill, I'll tell you what."
"That's cheating. Hang on a second."
And so Monty held, while his neighbour darted inside, and presently returned with crumpled newspaper and lighter fluid, both of which he applied liberally.
Monty raised his dubious voice. "I don't think that's-"
"Quiet. I'm already running late."
Monty shrugged, took a discreet step further away from the grill, and tried to memorize the location of the hose. There it was, right by the -
There was a dull whump, and Monty spun back to face his friend, concern writ large on his face, to find the last remains of a fireball, and Hector flinging himself back from the device to end recumbent on the lawn.
After a few seconds of surprised gasping, he looked at his neighbour and managed a sickly smile. "Do I still have my eyebrows?"
Monty gave his friend a brief glance, then a longer, more searching one. "Uh, no, actually."
"Really?" said Hector. He swore as he reached up and found nothing but a rough, hairless expanse. "Does it look all red and burned?"
"More like...green and scaly. What was in that lighter fluid?
"I don't know. Lighter fluid stuff. Hand me my tongs."
As Hector gazed at himself in the cooking implements' polished surface, his jaw fell further and further open, unheeding, initially, of even his wife's arrival.
"I got those wheat hot dog buns you like-" said Flo, before stopping in astonishment. "What - what happened?"
Hector, despite Monty's efforts, got gamely to his feet. "Uh, honey, there was a little...accident with the lighter fluid, but I'm going to be fine." He clasped his wife in his arms and attempted to beam reassuringly. "Just fine."
"Did you use too much lighter fluid again?" Flo, still shocked, was running on metaphorical autopilot. She took a closer look at him. "And what happened to your eyebrows?"
"Probably the lighter fluid had some sort of bad reac -"
"It's spreading," Monty said.
The couple blinked. "What?" said Flo.
Monty stepped closer, peering at Hector. "It's spreading. Are you allergic to anything?"
Flo stared at her husband. She stepped back, a look of deep concern on her face, her hand rising toward her mouth. "Hector..."
The same raised his tongs once more, and found that the strange rash, as he thought of it, was visibly advancing over his forehead, as well as downward toward the . "How..." he breathed.
"I...we need to get you help!" And with that, Flo turned and ran for the house and the telephone.
"What...what's going on?" Hector's head began to spin, and his legs felt unsteady. He sought some place to sit, and Monty, that stalwart companion, guided him to the cooler.
"There's something going on with...with my hands," said Hector, and the same started trembling. Green scales were already spreading over them, and, even has he watched, the tips of his nails grew cruel and jagged claws.
"My hands! How am I supposed to grill now?" Hector grabbed Monty by the collar, and drew him close enough for his increasingly sulphurous breath to wash over him. "How am I supposed to grill?"
Monty sought to disentangle himself. "Is that what you're worried about? Priorities, man!" He succeeded in his escape, thrust himself away, and fingered the holes in his garment, rent by Hector's freshly-grown claws. "Aw man, this is my favorite shirt!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's just-" The Hispanic man buried his face in his hands. "What's happening to me?" He raised his head, and Monty took a step back; his neighbour's head had been almost entire transmuted to that of some sort of iridescent green lizard, much like a -
"Dragon," whispered Monty.
Hector begged his pardon.
Monty cleared his throat, trying to draw his cellular phone from his pocket with suddenly-palsied fingers. "You look like a dragon." He stabbed at the phone, then shoved it in front of his neighbour's nose. "Here."
Hector snorted in surprise, which made a noise much like that of a tractor starting up. "What the.."
"Don't panic," Monty advised.
"I wasn't going to until you mentioned it," Hector growled through his mouthful of rather sharper teeth. Slowly, he turned his head from side to side. With his new snout - or perhaps it was a muzzle - he had great difficulty bringing both his large, golden eyes to bear on the tiny device, and he winced as a new pair of horns broke the skin on his forehead. His breathing grew shallower and quicker, and he suddenly drew his head back. Monty had quick reflexes, and stepped back, drawing his cellular phone out of the line of fire where it would not be affected by his friend's sneeze.
It would turn out to be a line of fire in truth as well as in metaphor, as Hector's sneeze produced not a mist of spittle, but a gout of flame, which would've seared both Monty and his cellular phone. As it was, it merely dug a gout of flame in the lawn and scorched Hector's Birkenstocks.
Both men stared.
Everything...looks different," Hector said, gazing vacantly into the middle distance. "Everything smells different." He looked at his neighbour sharply. "What were you doing before you came over?"
Monty blanched. "What I do in private with my teapots is none of your business and it's completely legal and it's not important!" He pointed. "Look at your feet!"
Hector looked at his hands. The telltale green scales had already enveloped most of his toes, without his notice. They rapidly moved up his legs, his new claws just as bestial as his first set. Curiously, the progress of the change seemed to be hindered at the knee on his left leg, even as his feet reshaped, growing longer, and perhaps more knobbly.
"Why is this one slower? What's wrong with it?"
"You're turning into a dragon here, so I'd say quite a lot," quipped Monty, to a glare from his neighbour. "Sorry."
"Maybe it's because that's the knee they had to fix." Hector closed his eyes for a bare instant, and became lost in the memory; the weight of his pads, the horrible feeling as the opposing player struck his leg, the cold realization that he'd never play again. He opened his eyes at a snort from Monty.
"I gotta tell ya, neighbor, you got a dragon's head, dragon hands, and a mismatched pair of legs. You look pretty silly."
Hector stared at him, and then began to laugh.
By the time he finished, the change had enveloped both arms, and he could feel muscle and sinew pressing against the skin. He wasn't sure if the muscles were new, or if he had simply allowed himself to grow soft and indolent. However, he was quite certain that his shoulders had not been as broad.
The strange affliction crept up his stomach, and across his chest, burning away fat, changing his body to a twisted mockery of himself in his prime.
Flo returned, eyes red-rimmed. Both men looked away awkwardly, and she stood by silently, just as helpless to stay the changes as Hector himself.
He closed his eyes, then, for he did not want to look upon the changes wrought by whatever malevolent force was molding his body against his will, nor the concern of his wife and friend.
Presently, the strange feelings stopped, and Hector looked upon himself, as best as he could. Barring the uncommon realism of his "costume" he was much like a normal man dressed up as some sports team's mascot. He would have expected to feel relief that the changes were not more drastic, but, curiously, he merely felt unfulfilled, as if there was a task he had not finished somewhere.
"Is it done?" enquired Monty cautiously.
Suddenly, Hector's hands twisted, becoming more and more like talons, suited only to hold flesh for him to rend. His legs shifted in their seats, even as the pelvis itself changed, his sinews and bones displaced by those of the ancient predator, equally ready to perch upon some rocky crag or to launch the great lizard into the sky.
Not only that, reflected Hector morosely, but he had split his favorite shorts.
A thought struck the hapless man. "My ring!" he cried! "Get my ring off before it - "
The gold band upon his finger rent under the pressure of Hector's growth, falling to the ground. He stared at it and uttered an oath.
"It's okay baby," said Flo, as she bent to pick it up. "We'll get it...resized?"
"Why are you looking at me like that? What now? Why are you shrinking?" Hector blinked. "Oh."
It was, oddly, the same itch he had felt before sneezing fire, rolling outward from his stomach, down his spine, along his limbs, as the world grew smaller and smaller.
The worst part was when he lost his "Kiss the Chef" apron.
His spine, which had previously allowed him to remain on two legs as a human would, now forced him into a beast-like configuration, on all four limbs.
"Your butt!" cried Flo.
"Holy crap, Hector, what's going on with your caboose!" cried Monty.
Hector found that his flexibility extended to his spine as well. The same spine which was extending itself into a scaly, reptilian tail, one which he whisked in frustration, and not a little fear.
"My azaleas!" said Flo.
"Sorry," growled Hector. He was level with the roof of the house now, even on all fours. The back yard felt remarkably cramped, where it had felt spacious and airy only minutes before. He glumly reflected on how quickly things - and people - can change. And come to think, what would his friends would say when they arrived? The barbecue was ruined!
"Well," Monty said presently, "at least you don't need matches any more."
Hector stared at him coldly. As it happened, large dragons with yellow eyes which had until recently been just another suburban householder were naturally quite adept at staring.
"We..." Flo swallowed, uncertain. "We need to figure out what caused this."
"Maybe it was the lighter fluid," Monty suggested, his voice a study of calm. Too calm, Hector thought.
"This right here?" Flo reached for the innocuous-looking bottle. Her nerves were, quite understandably, somewhat shaken from seeing her beloved change into a dragon, and so she missed, knocking the bottle onto the smouldering coals.
"Quick!" said Monty, "get it out before -"
The heat from the coals melted through the thin plastic of the bottle.
This time, the flare-up was much larger.
"Burned on the Fourth of July"
by Eulalie "Nequ" Quentin