Once Upon A Nightmare

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to dream or not to dream

Alexander doesn't try to defend himself, just lets me hit him, before he grips my upper arms and shakes me once—not enough to hurt, but enough to let me know who's really in control. "I think that's enough," he says.

I rage and fight like a rabid cat, but when escape isn't possible, I fall exhausted against his chest, clinging to him, sobbing, and repeating over and over, "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you."

Thunder claps over us, and with that ominous precursor, the sky opens and releases a downpour of rain. Alexander stiffens and draws into himself, a sudden look of dread in his eyes, as the rain lands on us. Steam whistles off his skin, hissing like someone dumped a bucket of water on a campfire.

He practically carries me to the closest phone booth. We squeeze in together, Alexander locking me against him with an arm on my lower back. The door closes and the windows instantly fog.

My face is gross, I know, but tears continue to leak out my eyes. I wipe what I can with my wet shirt, my shoulders trembling. With some maneuvering, Alexander gets the receiver off. "Two, please," he says.

We're transported back into Chimera—where it's also raining. Alexander groans as he shoulders open the door. "My bike."

His bike? His stupid motorcycle?!

I know where we are. We're close to the street where I first followed Gloom. Without thinking twice, I take off at a run. The streets are mostly empty because of the rain and I stomp through puddles without slowing.



I don't glance over my shoulder to see how close he is, or if he's even following me. I'm so charged with rage-induced adrenaline, I could run at this speed for hours.

I risked my soul so he could live—and how does he thank me? By ruining my mind and trappingme in this place where I can never be fully alive. And I knew, I knew, what he was like, it just didn't matter because . . . because I loved him.

Fresh tears pour and I scream a little through clenched teeth, pushing myself to run harder.

That's the ugly, stupid truth I don't want to admit because it sucks worse than anything has ever sucked before. But it is true. Not even goodlove, either. This naïve, besotted fascination that was neither romantic nor friendly; hopeless in the way girls in my high school loved their favorite rock star. But it was more than I'd felt before, with someone I could touch and who responded to my attention, positively or not. It was nice. And in my stupid expectations, I assumed the way relationships worked was by default two-sided. I gave, and so I must receive. But he let me down.

And I wasted my chance to do it right on him. My father's love still feels fresh in my heart, and he's waiting, in the real world with real love, where I belong—if I ever make it home. At the thought of my old house, smelling like paint and creaking like an old woman, I realize I'm angry at myself too. I was there, and I didn't see it. I only saw my books.

I nearly pass the alleyway where Gloom's bookshop is, but I recognize it at the last second and slide around the corner. I step inside Crooked Books'n'Nooks, greeted once more by the dangling skull's hearty laugh. Gloom walks around one of the shelves, removing his glasses as if to greet a customer. "Violet! You're drenched."

He ushers me inside. He doesn't say anything about getting any of his books wet, though some of them are old enough they'll be ruined if I drip on them. He has his priorities straight, unlike me. "What happened to you?" he asks. "Oh—my dear. Are you crying?"

My face pinches and I nod. He holds out his arms and I all but dive into the hug. It's as good as I remember the last one. After a minute, I shudder once and pull back. He hands me a handkerchief.

As I'm wiping my face, he pats my shoulder. "Why don't we go upstairs and you can tell me—oh dear."

I look up to see his grayish face lose even more color. He's looking over my head and I know what I'll see even before I turn and watch Alexander slam his way into the bookshop. Water drops around him in a perfect circle and steam erupts off his skin. He steps through the fog, dry as a desert, and gives Gloom a once-over.

I put my back to Gloom as if to protect him, though my head only comes halfway up his chest.

"Er," Gloom manages. "Hello. Your Highness."

"Todd," Alexander replies cordially. Then he lowers his gaze to me. I feel a little rabid, like I might lunge at him, snarling and scratching. As if sensing this, Gloom places both hands gently on my shoulders.

"I know you're upset," Alexander says, taking a step forward.


"But you have to listen to me. Your body is in a coma. The doctors are telling your dad you have no brain activity, that you have little chance of waking up. For now, he isn't letting them take you off life support. But he won't grieve forever and even if he does . . . your body can't last that long without you."

How had I missed the 'I'm dying' detail of our visit? I must have checked out after the love part.

"How long?" Gloom asks the question as it enters my mind.

"I don't know," Alexander admits. "Until he gives permission. But time passes slower here. What would be months there will only be weeks, maybe days, here."

In other words, not that long.

"If my body dies, will I stay here?" I ask.

Alexander doesn't answer, his mouth pressing into a line and I know. I won't stay. I'll be dead.

"Well, surely there's something we can do?" Gloom asks.

"Not really," I mutter. "My subconscious mind is a dreamless, thoughtless sinkhole marked by death. His—" I jerk my head at Alexander, "handy work. And I went into the Isle of Morpheus so he wouldn't die coming back to save me, completely severing the connection between my mind and body."

Alexander raises an eyebrow. "Jumping in saved your life."

"—that was only in danger because of you!"

"—which wouldn't have been necessary if you hadn't trapped me inside there."

"As if I wanted a nasty parasite in my head! I saved your life, you ungrateful jerk—"

"You ruined my life—"

"Enough," Gloom interrupts, sounding more forceful than I would have thought possible from him. "Please. Before you set my books on fire, Your Grace."

"Don't Your Grace him!" I hiss. How can Gloom still be polite?

Alexander breathes deeply in a clear effort to subdue his temper.

I try to shoulder out of Gloom's hold, but now he's not so gentle. "Leave me alone, Alexander. I mean it. I don't want your help. Stay away from me."

"Fine. Fine." His jaw clenches and he turns to yank the door open. "Die as fast as you like. Less problems for me. Oh—" He glances back at Gloom. "Try to keep her from having another ball-fest so Chimera doesn't flood out."

The skull cackles and Alexander slams the door closed, storming away from the bookshop. The rain has indeed stopped since I stopped crying, but I refuse to believe I was the original cause. For a moment I think I will scream and rage and punch holes in Gloom's walls, but all at once the urge rushes out of me and I feel nothing but drained.

What I want is for Gloom to tell me he hates Alexander too, but he doesn't say anything, just leads me up the stairs to his living area for a cup of tea. I sit on his bed waiting for the kettle to boil.

A few hours ago, I was laughing at the breakfast table with Armand. It seems distant now—with more than just time. Sadness creeps in and I curl onto the bed, hoping sleep will save me from having to feel too much of it. It does.

. . . . . . .

When I wake up, Gloom and Sweeney are both seated around his little table, cups of tea in hand. I'm tucked beneath a quilt and several blankets, smelling peppermint and old, dusty books. It's lovely.

"Good morning," Gloom says. "How do you feel?"

"Better," I admit. I sit up. My clothes are different, and dry.

"I did that," Sweeney says. "Just in case you were wondering if things were suddenly going to get iffy between you and Todd."

"These came for you," Gloom explains with a blush, handing me an already opened box. It has a few sets of clothes inside and a lot of food. Genn's clothes, I realize. "Seems somebody thought you'd want a better wardrobe and better food than what Sweeney has to offer."

"Not that it gets any better," Sweeney adds.

I'm touched. There's no way Alexander did this. He must have told Genn or Armand. I cringe wondering what they think of me now. Maybe I should write them a letter, explaining. I grab an apple from the box and take a bite.

"Sweeney is here to help us figure out how to get you to the Stitch in Time," Gloom says. To me, he adds, "She knows things. Very weird, unknowable things."

"Basically," Sweeney says. "You're screwed. But I thought I'd at least offer to throw you a kickin' I'll-Be-Dead-Soon party."

"She is not screwed." Gloom frowns. "There's a solution. We just haven't thought of it yet."

"Right." I rub my nose. I don't want to think about dying yet. It's too early. "Gloom, do you mind if I go downstairs? Reading helps me . . . calm down, you know? And maybe I'll find something that can help us." I don't think I'll find anything; I'm stalling. Alexander knows where the Stitch in Time is and I want to think of any other way to get home besides asking for his help. Especially after my little speech.

"Of course. And do you mind turning the sign? If a customer comes, call me, though I imagine you'd be able to help them as well as I could."


Downstairs, I flip the sign from Closed to Open and unlock the door. I peruse the shelves and manage to find Trapped Imagination in the popular fiction area. I've read for awhile, cross-legged on the ground, when the skull bell cackles and someone enters the shop. Leaving my book on the ground, I turn the corner and say, "Hi," only to freeze in place.

James Donovan stands before me, pistols strapped to his hips, cloth over his nose and hat on his head. In the dim lighting, I can barely see his eyes. I recognize him both from Alexander's dream-memories and from the Halloween Masquerade. My eyes dart to the staircase.

"Don't," he says in a low, gravelly voice which sounds nothing like the Southern lilt he had as Enna's cousin. "Not going to hurt you."

He steps closer, slowly. I grab the biggest book within my reach and hold it up like a weapon. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. If I had to choose a book to knock someone out with, I could do worse.

"Stay away from me," I say. "Or you'll get thirty eight plays and sonnets right in the kisser."

He stops, holding up two gloved hands. For nearly a minute, neither of us say anything, and finally my arms get tired holding up the book.

Keeping a solid distance between us, I surrender. "What do you want?"

"Do you know who I am?" He speaks as if it's hard for him. But I've heard him talk, at least in Alexander's memory—and he was perfectly eloquent then. Something under that bandanna must make it physically difficult to form words.

I nod.

"I know you, too. Human. Saw you change my bullet."

Gloom is the only other Dream I know personally, and he's warm as spring, with the ability to lift any kind of bad mood. This guy—though I know he's a Dream—is scarier than any Nightmare (except, of course, The-Jerk-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named). I'm not sure how he manages to get joy out of anyone to feed himself.

"Yes," I whisper.

He pauses, as if he wants to say something, but can't. "How—did you get here?"


His brows knit in frustration.

"I came . . . through my mind," I say. "Through the Edge."

"Not the Stitch of Time?" He looks disappointed.

"No," I whisper. He wants to find the Stitch of Time too? Why? Whatever's going on with that place, it's more than just the meeting line of two realms.

He sighs. He really isn't going to hurt me, I realize. "But Alexander does," I blurt.

Once again, his eyes come to life, like aimed cannons. A muted noise leaves his throat, then he shakes his head.

"Alexander," he growls—then, frustrated, looks at The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He holds out an imploring hand, snapping once. Reluctantly, stretching so I don't have to get any closer, I let him have the book.He flips through it a moment, then points a leather finger at a passage, showing it to me. It's part of Iago's diatribe.

Though I do hate him as I do hell's painsYet for necessity of present life,I must show out a flag and sign of love,Which is indeed but sign.

"You want to . . . trick Alexander?" I guess.

He nods, watching me through narrowed eyes. He's waiting, I realize, for me to react. With a sound that might have been a grunt of impatience, he takes another book off the shelf. Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. He finds his spot and points.

Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view -to know more of him. With some little difficulty I at length came within sight of him, approached, and followed him closely, yet cautiously, so as not to attract his attention.

Lucky for him, as Poe's number one fan girl, I know exactly where this came from—and I admit a slight softening toward Donovan for knowing his books so well. He's educated, at least. It's Poe's Man of the Crowd, a story about a man closely following and observing a stranger in a town of people.

"You've been watching Alexander?"

He points at me.

"Watching me?"

He nods.

Oh. Right—because he knows I'm human and thought I came through the Stitch in Time. That means he probably saw our fight. And he's wondering how I feel about tricking Alexander?


I grab Wuthering Heights and flip to one of Catherine's many rants. There's nothing wrong with my mouth, but why speak when I can use a gothic novel? I turn the book and point to the middle paragraph.

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff — he's always, always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being — so, don't talk of our separation again — it is impracticable.

Donovan reads it and frowns in confusion.

"Our souls are bound," I say. "I have—I had—a virgin mind. And we kissed."

His head snaps up and his eyes widen.

"Doesn't mean I like him, though."

"The laws . . . apply?" he guesses, as if daring to hope—though why this would be good news in his world, I don't know.

"Unfortunately, yes, all the laws are in great working order. So I can't help you." I replace the book. "Alexander's not my favorite person, but I don't particularly like you either, so unless you were lying earlier about hurting me, please go away and leave me alone."

"I can help you."

"You can help me? With what?"

He holds out a hand. The air around him shimmers, flecks of gold shimmering in the air. His face seems to be lit from the inside in and a pair of feathery wings materializes on his back. He looks like an angel—an angel with a bandit's mask. "Your hand," he says.

I slowly slip mine into his; it's nearly twice the size of my own. My palm burns pleasantly and then he lets go. I stretch out my fingers in front of my face, eyes wide. The spot of death is gone. He healed me. I look up at him.

"I can help you get home," he says. The wings are gone; his glow has faded once more. Gesturing for me to follow him, he walks to another bookshelf. The history section. He pulls out a thick book and sets it on top of one of the few, wobbly desks in Gloom's shop. He flourishes a hand to the empty chair and I cautiously sit.

Over my shoulder, Donovan opens the book and uses a finger to dictate what I should read.

"Hina the Radiant," I read the title of the chapter. "Last monarch of Merrymount, the Dream realm. Born as the love of light, Hina—"

Impatiently, Donovan points farther down. I read out loud. "Another child was born to Hina's mother Genevieve through a Nightmare father, but the two siblings had little correspondence before her Nightmare-dominant brother was exiled to Chimera." Next to the passage of text, I see a picture of a younger Jack Ira. His crooked, mostly hidden smile makes him look like Armand.

"Okay, so . . . Jack's sister was the Queen of Dreams? And?"

Donovan flips more pages and directs me to a bold subtitle that reads: The Great War.

"After centuries of muted dispute, the two realms were at last spurred to action under the leadership of a rivaled brother and sister. The destruction was—"

Donovan moves me to the end. I roll my eyes, but continue. "Using the power of the Jewel of Imagination, Jack Ira locked his sister in a lightless prison in the Eye of the World Mountains, after combining the two realms into a vast island we now refer to as the Isle of Morpheus.

"The binding formed the Stitch in Time, but it was incomplete, leaving cracks into other dimensions and other worlds."

Other worlds? Sweeney told me to find a loose thread. A loose thread that would, apparently, launch me into another dimension, hopefully mine. Donovan clearly thinks this is new information to me, but what he's really done is confirm Sweeney isn't crazy. It will work.

I look at him. "So, what would you want from me, exactly?"

"Alexander knows where it is?"

My eyes widen, afraid of his implication.

"If you ask," his adds in a growl, "we won't have to force."

I finally understand. All I have to do is command Alexander to lead us there, and he'll have no choice, no violence or blackmail necessary. I close my eyes to think. I'm dying, and quickly running out of options.

Donovan's already tried to kill Alexander once. There's no guarantee he won't try it again—but not, at least, until we find the Stitch in Time. And what do I owe Alexander anyway? His half-hearted attempts to get me home are just more evidence he'd rather I just die. How had he put it? Less work for him?

Clenching my fists, I open my eyes and look at Donovan. If Alexander thinks I'll die quietly, he can think again. "Okay," I say. "I'll help."

With the bandanna, I can't tell if Donovan smiles or not, but he holds out a hand. I grab it and shake once.

"Tomorrow," he says and leaves without another word.

I watch him go and continue to stare out the painted window long after he disappears. I'm slightly shaky, but I don't know if it's from adrenaline, the trembling aftermath of a bad decision, or the quivering containment of a good one.

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