Once Upon A Nightmare

By mickeyjohn All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Romance

we all fall down

I wake up without any dream-memories from Alexander, or any of my own. Last night, Genn led me inside her room, opening a door to reveal another room. Except for a bed and one dresser, it was otherwise filled with racks and piles of Genn's clothes. "There wasn't enough space in my closet," she whispered.

Stretching, I shuffle into Genn's room, but find her with a sleeping mask over her eyes and mouth open in a light snore. What time is it? I don't think it's that early, because I can see light in the room, but maybe she isn't an early riser. On her dresser is a picture of the three siblings. Alexander and Armand look maybe thirteen, Genn only eight or nine. They pantomime the pose 'See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.' Alexander's hands are over his ears as Hear No Evil.

Maybe it is early. Maybe I can get down to the kitchen and find some food without anyone seeing me.

Walking backward into my closet spillover room, I try and find something to wear from her unending piles of clothes. Normally, I can't summon enough attention to even color coordinate myself in the morning, but when I find a pair of old-fashioned breeches and a bomber jacket, my mouth tips a little in pleasure. I tiptoe into the hallway and my plan is dashed as I almost collide with Armand.

"Sorry," I say breathlessly.

"That's okay." He looks much better than he did yesterday—almost perfect in his typically reserved way. "Going downstairs to breakfast?"

I stare at him. "There's breakfast? I thought Nightmares didn't eat, you know, people food."

"Not for nourishment, no." He raises an eyebrow. "Doesn't mean it won't taste good. There's usually something served for breakfast and dinner. It's sort of a family check-in point."

"Oh." I stiffen. "Is . . . Alexander there?"

"Possibly," he replies, studying me as if trying to gauge why that might be a problem.

"You know, I'm not that hungry." I try to get back to Genn's room, but Armand reaches out to block me. He says nothing, only looks at me, and I sigh. "He's sort of mad at me."

Still not a word—just a slight lift of the eyebrow.

My stomach growls and I give in. "Okay," I say as we walk down the hall. "But if he lights me on fire at the table, you better give me a nice eulogy." He hasn't asked why Alexander might be mad, and I tell myself I'm unbothered by his lack of concern.

He isn't even looking at me, his face set in a frown I'm not sure he's aware of. There's something so sad about his expression, I'm all at once eager for any way to get that rare smile out again. We reach the double staircase and I tap his arm. "Tell me the truth. Did you guys slide down this banister all the time when you were kids?"

He turns to me as if snapping out of a daze. "What?"

"This stair banister. It's perfect for sliding. And it's a double so you could race."

No smile, but his eyes are amused. "Maybe once."

I peer down the length of the banister then back at him. "Want to?"

"Slide?" He seems unable to tell if I'm joking. "Not . . . particularly."

"Your loss." I shrug and start to climb on, broom witch style.

"Wait." His hand catches my arm. My heart skips a beat and I swallow at the involuntary reaction to his touch.

"Yes?"

"It's slick, and steep, with no stop at the end. And you're . . ."

I give him a flat look. "What? Scrawny?"

His lips twitch. "I wouldn't say scrawny. I would say . . . delicate. Like the figure in a music box."

"Scrawny," I affirm.

"I'll go first," he says more to himself than to me. Then he glances up and gives me a look that makes him appear frighteningly similar to Alexander. "Show you how it's done?"

I shrug a shoulder in what I hope looks like nonchalance. "If it would make you feel better."

He props himself up on the banister and pushes off, so fluidly I suspect he's done it far more than once. I watch over my shoulder a moment and then swing my leg over, repositioning myself so I can see on my way down.

I push off and let out a shriek of delight. He wasn't kidding about slick and steep, and with no finial on the banister, I hope he isn't also right about my delicacy. I shoot off the end like a wine cork and land in Armand's arms.

The laugh which escapes is uncontrolled and I see Armand grinning. "Holy cow," I say, hopping to the floor. "That was awesome."

"I haven't done that in years."

I grab his arm. "This time, you go down the right side."

"Why?"

"We're racing."

"No," he says, appalled.

I pat his cheek. "Don't be so hard on yourself. You might, might just beat me. And then you can catch me." I race to my place at the top of the left side and with a defeated groan, he goes to the right.

"Ready?" I ask.

It takes him a few seconds to answer, but finally he says, "On your mark."

"Get set—"

"Go!" we yell in unison (well, I yell, he grumbles).

I prepare for the launch, but even so, I fly onto the wood floor fast, my foot slipping out from under me the moment I land.

"Ow, ow, ow," I say, on my back and half-groaning, half-laughing. My ankle throbs, but I can't control my laughter long enough to care. Armand hooks my upper arms in gentle hands and hoists me upright. "Ow, waitaminnut—my ankle hurts."

"I tried to warn you," Armand says, but the effect of his scolding is ruined by the tremor of laughter in his voice.

He guides me with one hand on my waist and I laugh into his shoulder. "The good news is," I say as we hobble to the hallway, "I won."

"You didn't even come close to winning."

"If I didn't win, then why didn't you catch me?" I complain.

"I didn't want to be sucked into the collapse of that pitiful thing you called a landing." He maneuvers the dining hall door open with a foot.

"Well if you weren't going to catch me—ow, ow—" Giggle. There's a hint of hysteria to my amusement, like stress has finally cracked me open like an egg. "—hold up a second, I think I can stand on it, it's not so bad. I said I wasn't delicate. Anyway, you might have at least let me win."

My eyes are wet from laughing and I wipe at them as we reach the table. The dining room is more like a sitting room, with a high ceiling and large bay windows. In the arrangement of chairs by the fireplace, I recognize King Jack talking with Simon, the ghost. The rest of the monster trio is present at the table, and so is Alexander.

"Good morning," Armand greets everyone, trying to force his grin into a more subdued expression. I keep my eyes down, not wanting to draw more attention to myself. Armand sits beside me and passes a piece of toast to my plate.

"Thanks," I say, proud of the controlled tone of my voice.

"You're welcome."

I've buttered most of my bread when a soft chuckle bursts from Armand. I shoot a quick glare of reproach. He presses his knuckles against his tight lips. His face is deadly serious, but his shoulders shake.

I can't help it. A high-pitched snort escapes despite my best efforts and I slap a hand over my mouth. Then Armand lets loose with a stilted laugh and soon we're both red-faced and trembling, tears of restraint rolling down our cheeks as we try and subdue our hilarity with little success.

"It's not—even that funny—I can stop," Armand manages to get out. He sounds mortified. I can only shake my head in reply. At last, when our mirth fades to quiet sighs of amusement, I look up, fanning myself with a hand.

Alexander sits across from us, staring in horror.

"That's it," Jack says.

Armand glances at his father in surprise.

"Who are you, and what have you done with my son?"

Armand relaxes and gives me a sideways look, like, not my fault.

"I like the impostor," Johnny says with a sly smile in my direction.

"Me too," I agree. "Let's keep him."

Jack looks back and forth between us. "Fine." He points at Armand. "Don't expect any family allowances, whoever you are."

Alexander clears his throat. "You and I have things to do," he says pointedly to me, pushing away from the table.

"Now?" I glance down at my mostly uneaten food.

"Of course." He looks surprised I would ask. "Your presence here is of utmost importance and I think I should fulfill my responsibility to get you home as soon as possible."

He walks to the other side of the table to pull my chair out with me still sitting in it.

"Hold on, imposter number two," Jack says. "I need to talk to you."

Alexander pauses, hands on the back of my chair.

"Both of you." Jack looks at Armand. "Alone, please. Before you leave." His eyes flick to me as he says alone.

Beside me, Armand shrugs a shoulder at his brother.

"Can it wait until—"

"No," Jack cuts off Alexander. He leaves and after exchanging a final look with each other, his two sons follow after him. I feel a twinge of panic. Whatif Jack knows Alexander's soul is bound to mine and that changes things? Like my position on the priority list and the method of correction?

No one pays attention to me as I creep to the door and open it. I hear two familiar voices around the corner.

"Why do I have to come?" Alexander asks. "Does he think it will hurt my feelings if he doesn't include me?"

"Maybe he genuinely values your input," Armand replies.

"That is undoubtedly it."

"Or, and this may be reaching, it could be that as a prince you have certain responsibilities."

"Right. Maybe you've noticed, bro, but all princely duties fall on your dependable shoulders. Oh good," his voices raises mockingly, "Armand's here. Oh, and you, other one, you come too."

I look out into the hall and see Alexander sling an arm around Armand's shoulders as they round the corner. "Please, please don't let him give me any responsibility."

"I never do."

They disappear and I can no longer hear them. Unless Alexander dreams about it later, I'm out of luck. Or maybe, I think, I don't have to wait for him to dream.

Didn't he say the reason he dreams at all is because of our connection? When I see the dreams, it's like I'm in his mind, seeing what he sees. I press a hand to my ribs, closing my eyes to concentrate on the little flame inside me, ticking softly.

I want to see what Alexander does, I tell it, but nothing happens. It needs to be bigger. Even though I know it will hurt, I will the flame to expand. It does hurt—but not as much as I think. The flame simply grows, making my body feel prickly and warm; like Alexander's skin when I touch him in this world. The pain is there, but fades, like a sore muscle stretched for the first time.

My perspective shifts and I'm in an office—or Alexander is. It's different than in my dreams. Then I only experienced what Alexander could remember; like watching a movie with 3D glasses that allowed access to the main character's thoughts.

This is a full-bodied, sensory experience. I'm aware of myself standing in Alexander's typical posture. I've never felt so relaxed. But then, I've never felt as self-assured as Alexander does.

I'm listening to my father—Alexander's father—with half interest and a touch of annoyance. I know what he's doing. He's been harping about the same thing ever since the Dream attacks have intensified.

The Jewel of Imagination. I glance at the clear pendant hanging on his neck. Small, I think, for supposedly containing the power of the human mind to constantly change and evolve. The jewel is how we immortals can keep up and survive mortality's unflagging progression. So, it's a Big Deal, but the general controversy over who gets it next doesn't interest me. The Jewel of Imagination's guardian is supposed to stay in the castle, because of the extra protection it provides, so it almost always falls to the king or queen at the time. As one monarch dies, their power stays with the jewel for yet more protection. There's dozens of fears and joys swirling invisible inside the clear pendant, combined as one horrific force.

Probably Dad doesn't want to hurt my feelings. After all, with twins, the question of inheritance could potentially be dicey. I was born first, but I don't want it—and let's be honest, everyone knows Armand is going to be king. Even if I'm not such a frighteningly awful prospect to compare to—which I am—Armand's always been impressively, obnoxiously good.

I try to focus. Dad's going on about Armand's virtues and I wish he would get to the point. When he says, Sons, I've chosen Armand to succeed me, I'll give my brother a hug and tell him he'll make a great ruler and most likely resist the urge to say anything like, Thank you King Obvious.

So when I hear my father say, ". . . you're the heir, Alexander," I'm sure I've heard wrong.

"I'm sorry, what?" I ask after a long moment of silence.

"I want you to succeed me," he repeats. "You'll get the Jewel of Imagination, and I've already shown you where the Stitch in Time is."

I look at Armand. He's staring at our father. At first, he seems surprised—not upset, just processing unexpected news—and then something registers on his face, as if two pieces of a puzzle have slid into place, and all at once he's angry.

"Why not me?" he asks.

It sounds like the protesting tantrum of a toddler, but since Armand's never thrown a tantrum, even when he was a toddler, his response stuns us both.

"I just explained," Jack says in a stilted voice.

"I don't want it," I say. "I mean—come on. Even I know it's a bad idea." I look between my father and brother as they stare at each other. "Just give it to Armand."

Armand's dark face doesn't shift in the slightest. I realize it isn't about the crown, that's not what he wants. But then why is he so worked up?

My chest burns and I rub it. Ever since I kissed Violet, it flares up sometimes, especially when—wait. I can feel her, inside my head, hovering—

Abruptly, the connections shuts off and I stumble backward, knocking into the wall. Alexander has slammed a lid on whatever was letting me in. Rubbing my arms, I lean against the wall near the dining room door.

Alexander—this sadly complicated creature I don't know at all—could be the king over the Isle of Morpheus. I'm majorly in over my head. If there was ever a wrong Nightmare to attach my soul to, Alexander would be it. But at least this way, I'm more likely to get home. He knows where the Stitch in Time is—wasn't that what Jack said, that he'd shown him already? And what was that jewel thing, the Jewel of Imagination? Now that I'm not in Alexander's head, the whole concept seems harder to understand, but if I'm grasping what was said, then that little pendant contains all of human imagination in one convenient spot.

Only a minute later, Alexander appears in the hall, pinning the Narrowed-Eyes Look on me. He moves a few paces ahead, expecting me to follow. Is he really not going to say anything? About where he was, about what I'd seen both now and in his bedroom?

"Alexander, wait."

I mean to grab his wrist, just to get him to stop, but my hand slips into his. I hold for a minute, observing the rightness of the fit, then he pulls away.

"I'm sorry," I say. I wish my voice wasn't so small. "For getting into your things. And then listening . . ."

He turns on me, eyes blazing, like now that I've extended the invitation, he won't hold back. It's ironic that the Nightmare supposed to protect me is the only one who truly scares me. I brace myself, but the moment passes. A muscle in his cheek clenches, then he softens and exhales.

"Forget it," he says.

Even after everything, I find myself wanting to comfort him, but the problem is he won't acknowledge how much I know about him—how much he knows about me—and I'm afraid to remind him how close we are to each other, like it or not.

"So," he says, breaking the silence. "You and Armand, hm?"

That's unexpected. I stare at him, clueless. "What?"

"You're very friendly with each other."

Do not blush, I tell myself.

I blush. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Right."

He leads me outside around the side of the castle to a shed, though I use the term shed in the loosest sense of description; it's barely smaller than my house. Inside, several ornate carriages line one wall and a few antique vehicles are arranged haphazardly on the other side.

"Why?" I ask, unable to help myself. "Did he say something?"

"Just an observation." His tone drops and he looks thoughtful. "He doesn't usually . . . smile that much."

Which is a shame, I think. Because he has a good smile.

Alexander shrugs and sighs a fake what-a-pity sigh. "Shame your soul is bound to mine, not his."

Okay. I don't care if he's having a hard time and he's got a pit of sadness inside him. I let out a growl—an actual animal-sounding growl—and reach out and pinch his arm.

"What's wrong with you?" I snap.

"Ow!" He looks down at his arm. "Did you just pinch me?"

"Why do you always have to say the worst, most awful thing?" I try to pinch him again, but he pulls out of the way and deflects my hand. "Just—keep it to yourself for once!"

I huff and he rubs his wounded arm. He isn't smiling, but I see in the way his orange eyes dance . . . he thinks it's funny. My anger amuses him.

"I'm serious!"

"I know!" His eyes widen, but now he is smiling—just a little. "I'm sorry."

"No you're not."

He shakes his head no. "I'm sorry for not being sorry."

He still isn't, but whatever. I roll my eyes. "Can we go? What are we doing in here?"

"We're going to the Edge."

The Edge? I wonder in disbelief. Not the Stitch in Time? But I don't get a chance to ask. He moves to the corner and pulls back a dark-green canopy to reveal a black motorcycle.

At least, I'm pretty sure that's what it is. It has two wheels, a set of handlebars and a long seat. Other than that, it doesn't look much like any motorcycle I've seen. The style is antique, but I can see my distorted reflection in the polished chrome.

Alexander runs gentle fingers along its frame. "In 1901 William S. Harley, age twenty one, had a dream. He wrote up the plans for the machine in his dreams, and he and his longtime friend Arthur Davidson began building it. Of course. . . the motor-bicycle couldn't even make it over the smallest hills without pedaling, but his dream had been of a magnificent bike, faster and stronger than any automobile, as quiet as a kitten and as effortless to ride as a cloud. This," he finishes in a whisper, laying his hands over the seat, "is that dream. I call her Rebecca."

"Would you like me to give you two some privacy?"

He looks up, annoyed, and I don't say anything else.

He knocks the kickstand loose with his foot and swings a leg over the seat. I don't move and he turns to pat the space behind him. "Come on, Shorty."

I hesitate. "What about the Jewel of Imagination?"

"Sorry?"

"Just barely, I heard . . . I mean, I felt. Wouldn't its power be able to help?"

The dots connect and he frowns. "It doesn't work like that," he says. "The Jewel of Imagination can only be used for things in our world. It would have no effect on your mind."

"Well, then, the Stitch in Time."

His eyes narrow. "How do you know about the Stitch in Time?"

"Sweeney."

". . . Sweeney?"

I feel a blush rising on my cheeks. "Gloom's friend. She said, you know, that was the best way to get me home."

"The Eye of the World Mountains kill most people who try and find the Stitch in Time," he said. "Even if you know where it is, it's dangerous. And there's no proof the Stitch in Time would send you home—no one knows anything about what it can do. That will be a last resort. Now come on."

I hesitate. Admittedly, Sweeney did seem a little crazy in more ways than one. And if Alexander thinks the mountains are dangerous, then they are. If there's another way, that's probably the better choice.

Using his shoulders for balance, I swing behind him and awkwardly place my hands on his waist, wondering if I should maybe put them back on his shoulders instead.

He glances at me and grabs my hands, pulling them around his torso so I hug his back. He's so warm—and hard.Before I can match his irritatingly contrary nature and pull away from him, he jumps on the clutch and we peel out of the barely-open-enough shed door. I gasp and cling tighter, feeling the responding vibrations in his back as he chuckles—sadistically, no doubt.

He's going to kill us both.

We zip through the streets of Chimera with little heed to traffic, pedestrians, or anything, really. I try and take confidence in the effortless way Alexander commands the bike. He, at least, seems to have no delusions of sudden death.

We stop at one of the red telephone booths. I stumble off and watch Alexander park Rebecca in a nearby alley. The Nightmares around us on the street recognize him. They give him neither admiration nor contempt, they just notice him. Everything within a six foot span moves when he moves, becoming a part of his personal orbit until he travels graciously out of range.

"Have you used one of these yet?" Alexander asks, nodding at a telephone booth.

"Once," I admit.

He opens the door. "Ladies first."

I step inside and grab the receiver. How did Gloom do it before? I hear the heavy breathing of Darth Vader as I press the speaker to my ear. At least—I think it's him.

"Thank you for choosing the dark side. Enjoy the Edge."

Just like before, I feel the weightlessness of no gravity and then I'm staring out the red-paned window at a familiar wall of flowing electricity. Two seconds later, Alexander bumps into me in the suddenly too small booth.

He jabs me in the back. "You're supposed to get out of the portal."

"Ow—okay—I'm going."

I wiggle my way out the door and immediately wince as the rushing wind slaps my face.

Coming to my side, Alexander takes my hand without a word and pulls me up the slanted terrain. I duck my face against the onslaught, blindly letting him lead me.

We reached the edge of the cliff and I dare a peek over. I was right before; I can't see the bottom.

"Do we have to jump?" I shout over the wind.

He nods.

"I don't think I can!"

"Try and remember this is the feeding ground of many hungry Nightmares," he speaks in my ear. "And suck it up."

Without waiting for a reply, he puts a hand between my shoulder blades and shoves me off. I clench my jaw against my scream and he dives after me. It's exactly like when I jumped through my Circadian Clock, only this time, I'm not tossed around because he grabs me and we spiral down.

The temperature is like ice and I press closer to Alexander's warmth until we slow and then stop.

"Ta-da," he says. "Welcome to the vast frontier of the mortal subconscious."

I twist away from his arms and look around. It's like we dropped into space, floating in a huge expanse of black, little lights zipping around us like shooting stars.

"Whoa," I say, and my voice echoes. I bob away, wind milling my arms to keep myself upright.

"These are human minds," he explains, nudging a light with his finger. It skitters away.

"How are we going to find mine?"

"Look for it."

"There must be thousands in here! And they all look the same." I eye the little orbs of light. They leave a faint trail of a fog-like substance behind them as they move.

"What makes them different isn't something you can see, but something you can feel."

I stroke the side of a stationary mind, disappointed to feel nothing. It quivers beneath my touch. "Have you found me?" I ask, glancing back at Alexander.

"Yes."

"Where am I?"

He presses a hot fingertip to the center of my forehead. At first I don't understand, and then, ". . . oh."

"The mind is made of two parts: the subconscious and the conscious. The portals link to the subconscious, and since you're currently disconnected from your conscious, there's no way to find your body from here."

He bends backward and snags a quirky mind flying in a weird zig-zag pattern. In his practiced hands, the mind stops struggling and begins to expand.

"Who's this?" I ask. I stick my hand through the enlarged white circle and my fingers disappear. Shocked, I pull my hand out and turn it over.

"Robert Darcey."

I stiffen at my father's name, staring at Alexander. The right emotion eludes me, but beneath my inarticulate feelings, I know delving into the deepest parts of my father's mind isn't something I want to do.

"Why do you need his mind?" I ask.

"This is the best way to find out what happened to you after your mind came here."

"Okay," I say, knowing I'll go in if only because I don't want Alexander in my father's mind alone. We pass through the blinding circle of light, and though I blink to recover my sight, it doesn't return—as if we've dropped into a movie made for the blind. If I look, and only look, there's nothing but blackness. But the contents of his subconscious unravel inside me like a storm, the emotions and sounds and textures entangling into my senses, giving me an immediate and intimate understanding far better than mere sight.

I see myself on a hospital bed. My face is a bluish, white color. I'm thin. I feel my father's thoughts as he looks at me.

Her face, it's so . . . empty. Kate's nose, and the same round mouth, though her lips are white when they're usually pink. She barely looks like a person. What if she doesn't come out of this? I can't imagine her not . . .

This thought gives way to an overwhelming feeling.

I gasp. What is that? I thought—I'd always thought—I mean, it was a mundane, surface relationship that allowed my father and I to co-exist. Wasn't it?

Even though I don't recognize the feeling from my own experience, I know what it is. It's love. It's filling me up all over; it burns and lays siege on everything that makes me who I am. It makes me feel so . . . worthwhile. Purposeful. I wish I could feel it all the time, hold on to it. Why didn't he tell me?

"Violet—!" I don't realize I've dropped to my knees until Alexander grasps my arms, and I slump against him.

A flash of light, and we leave Robert Darcey's mind. I choke in relief. "He loves me," I say. It's the sentence repeating over and over again in my head, and though I try to say something else, that's what comes out.

Wind stings my cheeks and I realize we've made it back through the Edge. I stagger away from Alexander and lean over my knees, gulping in air. My father's emotions still thrum through me. The love, the desperation, the determination; it's a little painful, but thrilling. It's the only real thing I've felt since I've been here.

All I want is to be home.

"It's your fault!" I scream and shove Alexander, wanting him to suffer too. Shock registers over his face, and he actually stumbles back a step. I ball my hands into fists, pounding futilely against his chest, his arms, anywhere I can reach. "I should have let you die—but instead I'm stuck here with you. You," I repeat hoarsely, "I hate you!"

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