Once Upon A Nightmare

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a dream is a wish your heart makes

Nobody looking at me would call me a heroine.

But as we all know, the first step of eventual heroics is to be completely hopeless (a standard to which I have brilliantly risen), then on to epic adventure.

Tonight, I face my first monster.

Is a monster still a monster if it's not real?

I say yes. Nightmares are the inner demons of heroes. Until this week, I would have said my soul was the most tortured by math. Due to recent development, I have to conclude that I'm actually a much more sinister individual on the inside, because seriously, my nightmares make the Freddy Krueger films look like Dora the Explorer.

Or—

Yes. Maybe, deep down, I'm nursing an embryonic murderer within me. If I drank a formula like Dr. Jekyll's, I would totally have a Mr. Hyde that kills people. A single mishap in the kitchen, an unknown ingredient in my Cheerios, and so long Somniville as we know it . . .

But probably not.

I mean. Obviously not.

Anyway.

I plug my iPod into the speakers on dresser. Rising up, straight to the top - Had the guts, got the glory! I approach my bed like a matador. I hop onto the mattress and pull my arm across my chest in a stretch, though I think it's safe to assume I'm not going to be straining any muscles while I sleep. I'm embodying Rocky.

There's a trick I made up as a kid. It started after my dad let me watch Jurassic Park when I was seven (not even the worst of his parenting oversights). That night, twisting and sweating under my sheets as I fled from carnivorous dinosaurs, I beat back my first nightmare. I was crouched behind a rock and saw the shadow of the Tyrannosaurus Rex silhouetted on the cliff side next to me. I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could, clenched my fists near my temples, and forced my eyes open. I rose into the air and literally flew out of my dream.

If this doesn't work, I'm going to have to buy a BlissMax pill. Dad will freak. Anything that smells even vaguely of brainwashing puts him on they're not expensive and over the counter at the drugstore, so he doesn't have to find out. Normally, I'm cool with placating his extreme version of reality, but after three nights in a row of nightmares, I'm tired in a way I didn't even know I could be tired. I'll try anything.

Even though it's late September, it's still hot in Nevada, so I crack my window open, let in the breeze. Snuggling into my covers, I close my eyes and remind my tense body—so uneager to sleep—that we can get out if we want.

My aching mind sleeps in a matter of seconds.

In my dream, I'm chasing someone. The panicked way I hunt for this person makes me think someone is chasing me, but no one is. I'm scared I won't find him, but more scared I will. If I don't find this monster, this demon from hell . . . I don't know, but the uncertain outcome grips my heart with terror.

The dream rushes on in an anxious haze. When at last I corner the monster, I know it sees me. It will kill me. Hot fear comes with this simple truth and makes me feel sick. The beast charges and bites into the side of my neck. When he's done with me, those I love are next.

I pause in a moment of clarity amidst the fear. Those I love? As in, more than one?

I'm dreaming. I know I am.

I'm so scared I can't breathe. The monster and I are locked in some sort of sick embrace. Sharp blades sprout from his body and slowly, slowly, press into my skin. Soon they will puncture.

I'm dreaming.

Wake up, I tell myself. I do what I did with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. I clench my eyes shut, pushing deep enough so my dream eyes connect with my real eyes, closed in a safe bedroom that smells of books. Then I snap them open, trying to pull myself upward out of the dream.

It doesn't work all the way, but I catch a glimpse of a familiar bookshelf, nearly too dark to make out. The dream, as I slip back into it, seems less real. The monster is still eating me, but I feel no pain. I shut my eyes again.

One, two . . .

"What are you doing?" the monster whispers, surprised.

Three.

I force myself awake. Between rapid blinks of consciousness, I hear: "You're waking up . . ." The voice is astonished. I see the eyes, nose, and lips of the monster, and then I am home, in my bedroom.

I stare at my ceiling. "It worked," I whisper. "I did it."

Yeah, it worked—I grin. I am the nightmare master.

Still. I look around my dark room, reluctant. I don't want to go back to sleep. In fact, I think now is an excellent time to turn on all the lights, play the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack, and read some graphic novels.

"That was an impressive trick."A young man appears on the end of my bed, legs crossed under him.

I shriek, bolting upright, clutching my quilt to my chest (like any proper gothic heroine). "I—what—get out of my room!"

He's staring at me with eyes the exact color of fire; the kind that scorches and lays waste. His face is all angles and shadows, like a gothic castle. Impatience simmers just below his placid expression. Instinctively I know he's something to be feared—like seeing a rattlesnake or looking into a black pit. Some things are dangerous.

He offers a smile that looks like the silver fittings of a coffin. A pleasant trimming to help ease the severity of its subject. "We're not really in your room. You're dreaming."

Strangely, I'm relieved. That is a far more welcome explanation than some weird guy popping out of nowhere. But . . .

I shift my sheets between my fingers. If this is a dream, the realness of it is startling. My clock, as I glance at it, reads 1:32 AM. "Ssh," he soothes. He floats—floats!—off the bed and drifts to my side, head tilted. He reaches out to my cheek. His touch burns and I flinch. "I won't hurt you." His voice in my ear is husky with a slight rasp, like the very breath in his mouth is smoke.

I still feel calm. Which is weird. This nightmare—because obviously it's a nightmare, of course it is—is so different from the other nightmare.

No terror, no panic, no darkness, for one thing.

And yet here's a monster, plain as anything. His "soothing" voice isn't fooling anyone.

"Fine," I say, leaning away, accepting the situation with a curt nod. "What do you want?"

"As I said," he comes around to sit in front of me again, "very impressive, pulling out of your nightmare right at the climax—in the very deepest stage of sleep. A uniquely strong mind." He smiles that coffin smile again, so I think he means me to take it as a compliment.

I don't answer and he continues. "But I was thinking, what an even better idea might be . . . instead of taking yourself out of the nightmare, why not take the nightmare out of you?"

"Speak normal."

"Take. The. Nightmare. Out." He says it even slower, this time with hand gestures and a smile that's starting to look like cracked porcelain under his frustrated eyes.

I shake my head. I want to do what he says if only to get rid of him, but I don't know what he's talking about. "But this isn't a nightmare. And anyway, a nightmare isn't—it's not a . . . thing." Not like trash you can pick up and toss out. "I'm sorry. . ." I murmur, trying to get away. Not that I know where to go; I'm already in my room.

"Wait, wait." His hands are on my shoulders, forcing me down. "Imagine with me for a moment that your nightmare is a thing. Imagine it's a walking, breathing entity. Imagine it is talking to you." The words come out through clenched teeth.

I stare at him. His face is close to mine . . . breathing. Talking to me. "Are you my nightmare?"

"Let's imagine that I am."

I shudder, thinking of the monster. This dream is nuts. My mind is descending into madness. I'm definitely getting a BlissMaxx pill tomorrow.

"Don't you dare," my 'nightmare'hisses. The nice mask burns clean off under the heat of his glare. I see plainly how much he'd like to force my compliance by painful, physical means.

I shrink back. "Relax," I mutter. (Did he read my mind?) "You won't even know. You're a figment of my imagination."

Disgust crosses his face. "I am a figment of imagination, but I'm not a figment of your imagination. I'm not a part of anything remotely related to you."

"You know, you might be right. I don't know why I'd choose to talk to myself as such a jerk." The words come out a wounded mumble, not haughty and snappish as I intended.

He's not impressed. "Let's go. Send me away." He snaps his fingers in front of my face.

With pleasure. Closing my eyes, I picture him and picture my mind, then I kick him out. If a nightmare is a thing after all, then it is like trash—and this one is of the rotting food variety that stinks up your kitchen. An invisible hand plucks him up and tosses him aside like a moldy banana peel. Gone.

I check. He's not gone.

Come on. I mentally shove at him. I huff and puff a pretty formidable metaphysical wind, and even feel a little out of breath when I finish.

When I look, he's rubbing his eyes, muttering something like, "Mother of Morpheus."

He stands and with one hand on my upper arm, hauls me to my feet. "What about this?"

With no warning, my bedroom disappears, fading like a dying screen. We're standing in immeasurable blackness; nothing and everything at once. I turn and see a giant grandfather clock, three times my height. It's broken. The spindly black hands on the clock face aren't moving. The splintered body, where the pendulum should have been, looks like it got struck by lightning. The gash in the side causes the clock to tilt to the right. "Can you fix this?" he asks.

I don't even know what it is. Except a broken clock.

"I don't think so," I say.

"Neither did I," he whispers. He props his forearm on one side of the clock and rests his head on his wrist. His body deflates and the temperature in the air goes down with his sagged posture.

Without a word, I back away. Time to make like a banana and split. I turn around and run, only to come up the other side of him in about ten steps. I try again, but it's like a bad Alice in Wonderland parody. I can't leave. Anywhere I go, I end up in the same place.

The nightmare boy hasn't moved, doesn't pay attention to my attempts to leave. Mission having failed, there is apparently no reason for him acknowledge me further. I watch him for a while, then try to wake up using my eye trick. It doesn't work. I'm not desperate enough.

"So . . ." I say into the silence. "You're my nightmare?"

"No." He straightens from his slumped position and looks at me. The fire is gone from his eyes. He looks defeated, uninterested. "There's no such thing. You're talking to yourself right now."

"Right." He must have come from the deepest, darkest crevices of my subconscious, then. "Did I name you?"

He cringes. "No."

"Well, can I name you?"

"No."

"I have to call you something."

"Or you could not talk to me."

"I like the name Carl." I pause. He doesn't react. "Hey, Carl—"

He growls, cutting me off. "Alexander," he snaps, then sighs. "Alexander is my . . . name."

"Alexander," I repeat. He has a name. I can't help considering him, at least briefly, as a separate entity, existing in my mind and yet not a part of me. "I'm Violet."

"I know."

"You want to play a game?" I'm thinking twenty questions, the ABC game, rock-paper-scissors—anything, really, that we could do to pass the time in this black void of boringness.

He tenses, like a slimy worm is working its way up his spine. "What?" he asks in disbelief. "You want me to play a game . . . with you?"

I can't tell which is more revolting to him—the game, or me. Probably the combination of the two. He seems waiting for me to realize this.

"What?" I rub my arm, annoyed and embarrassed at the same time. "You're not bored?"

He considers this. "I guess since we're already talking," he mutters to himself, shrugging after a moment. "Do you know how to play chess?"

"Uh . . ."

Before I have time to answer, the ground erupts like a zombie grave and gigantic chess pieces spring up around us. The knight horses have red eyes, the bishops are wielding bloody crosses and the king and queen are decidedly gross, eyes falling out and everything.

It's all very Tim Burton meets Harry Potter, and a part of me secretly loves it.

But I'm also about a tenth of their size and have never played chess before.

"I don't actually know how to play chess," I say.

Alexander seems disappointed. And also debating on whether or not my knowing the rules is going to stop him from squashing me into the ground. Finally he sighs. "You pick the game then."

I sift through the storage of my late childhood memories, not coming up with much. I know the basics: Monopoly, Go Fish, and the like . . . but each time I imagine how Alexander may want to play the game, it becomes less appealing. I need something ultra kiddie. So sugary and fun there's no way to turn it into a nightmare.

It comes to me. "Candyland," I say.

"Candy . . . land?" he echoes. He doesn't look like he recognizes what I'm talking about, but the name alone is enough to wrinkle his nose with aversion.

"Yeah," I drawl. "I sort of rock at that game."

He snorts. "Fine by me."

"It's a big, colorful board game with lollipops and gingerbread houses—" I start to describe, but he waves me off.

"I'll find it in your memories."

He flourishes a hand and a path of blocked colors appears and curves away from where we stand. Trees spring up on either side of us, dripping with syrupy sweets.

"Are you sure you used my memory?" I ask, dumbfounded. The landscape in front of me is Candyland, but maybe after a bloody civil war—ravaged, dark, and looks altogether unadvisable without adult supervision. And how I look is possibly more frightening. I'm wearing one of the dopey kid costumes, with red and white striped shirt, blue overalls and big, floppy shoes.

Alexander spared himself the cutesy overall outfit. He's dressed in swashbuckling black and crimson, vines of ropey red hanging off his shoulders. Lord Licorice. On the game board illustration, Lord Licorice lives in a creepy mansion with bats coming off the turrets, the only bad guy in the whole game. Guess who'd been my favorite character?

"How do you play?" his lordship asks.

"You draw colors," I explain. "Whatever color you draw, that's the space you move to."

Pretty simple. Candyland was designed for children who only needed to know minimal counting to play.

"If you draw a character, you move to their spot, even if it's backward," I add.

Alexander extends a silver platter to me with a deck of cards stacked in the center. I draw a card off the top and glance at it. Double-blue. Around the curve, the second blue square lights up.

"Well," I say, hesitating. ". . . see you later." I stroll forward in my lame costume, over purple and green and red, past the wooden sign that reads, 'Gingerbread Plum Trees.' I lift a hand to wave to Plumpy, but he hurls a rotten plum that hits the ground by my foot and splatters my shoe.

"Hey." I frown. The next plum catches me in the shoulder. The purple juice stains my shirt, soaking through the cotton fabric.

Plumpy tosses a third plum up and down in his palm, then stretches his arm back for another throw. His long fur is matted and stuck in clumps with plum juice; his eyes yellowed and dripping. I stare with open-mouth alarm until he launches the final plum, and then I run. I go right past the illuminated blue square and collide with an invisible wall.

"No cheating," Alexander calls pleasantly.

I blink to recover my spotty vision, on my back and breathless. What in the name of Dorian Grey? With a grunt, I sit up and twist my head to look behind me. Plumpy's retreated into the branches, camouflaged except for his yellow eyes. I shiver.

"Your turn!" I yell back. I want away from Gingerbread Plum Trees, and the sooner Alexander moves, the sooner I can too.

He draws an orange square, which lands him right on the end of the Rainbow Trail. How convenient. I can see barely see him as he tips his hat at me and strolls across the shortcut.

The platter holding the cards appears in front of me, hovering in mid-air. The top card is a candy cane, the icon for Mr. Mint. He better be nicer than Plumpy, I think, gritting my teeth.

I pass into the Peppermint Forest and a frosty breeze brushes over my skin, raising goose bumps along my arms. I lick my lips and taste mint in the air. Candy canes rise high from the ground on either side of the path, leaned in so their curved tops form a sort of archway above me. Up ahead, the lit candy cane square lies in wait, casting a pink glow over the white ground. I slow. Where's Mr. Mint?

He bursts from the candy cane trees, at least double their height, and straddles the path. Shards of broken candy cane rain down like little knives and I cross my arms over my head to shield myself. The debris tears through my sleeves as if my shirt is nothing but toilet paper. The tiny wounds sting in a very real way.

I have to strain my neck to see Mr. Mint's face. The scarlet stripes around his limbs bleed into the ivory and look like—well, what else, dark red and wet?

He raises his axe high over his head and swings down. I dodge—or shriek and trip trying to get away—but the invisible walls stop me from leaving the path. His axe sends a tremor through the ground. Teeth chattering, I crawl between his legs to the glowing pink candy cane square.

Finding me gone, he swings his axe out in a wide arc and relieves half a dozen candy cane trees of their top halves. He roars and through the downpour of peppermint I see the axe whistling toward me. My hands fly over my face and I shout, "Stop, stop, stop!"

Mr. Mint stops. Or misses. Anyway, I don't die.

I peek through my fingers. Lord Licorice crosses his arms. Behind him sits Mr. Mint, docile as a kitten, sucking on a candy cane.

"Problem?" Alexander asks.

"Yeah," I say hotly, indignant now that a candy cane axe isn't threatening the connection of my head to my body. "There's a problem. What's the matter with you? This isn't Candyland, this is some kind of . . . of . . ."

"Nightmare?" he supplies.

"Yes." I huff. My breath comes out in a short cloud.

"Imagine that."

I wipe my running nose with my sleeve. "Are you . . ." I swallow, try again. "Are you really a ghost . . . nightmare thing, in my head? Is this real?"

He sighs. "No," he replies after a long moment. "This is just a weird dream."

"I want to wake up," I whisper to myself.

"You're going to."

"I am?"

His head tilts, lips counting silently. "Right . . . now."

His words pull a trigger. The dream yanks out from under me, lifting my mind back into reality despite my surprised attempts to hold on. In a matter of seconds I'm fully awake. I close my eyes to see if he'll come back, but in the next instant, my alarm goes off.

Morning light spills through my window. I only have a few minutes to lay there, the alarm clock blaring in the background, before I have to get ready for school. How did he know I would wake up?

Or did I know? It's my mind after all.

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