Once Upon A Nightmare

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if i've gone crazy, i'm okay with it

At the breakfast table, I sit half-crouched on my chair, my knees drawn up like a gremlin. My appearance is frightening enough for my dad to notice.

"You go to bed late last night?" he asks over his Lucky Charms.

"Couldn't sleep," I answer. "Weird dreams." Though weird seems like an understatement. The psycho version of Candyland is on a replay loop in my brain right now. I'm not any more rested, which is why, on the way home, I'm going to buy some BlissMaxx pills. I keep my eyes averted so he won't read my guilt on my face.

He makes a noise in the back of his throat, the one he does when he thinks he gets something right. "I'm not surprised since you—"

"It's not that, Dad." My hand tightens on my spoon. Dad's a master at ignoring something like me screaming through our old house, but focusing on whatever distracted him from the thing he's ignoring.

Dad mutters something about vampires, then pushes his horn-rimmed glasses up his nose and leaves for his studio, leaving his cereal bowl on the table. His studio is just a shed in our backyard, but it might as well be a two hour commute for how accessible he is once that door closes. I, in turn, mutter something about boring landscape paintings, and also leave my bowl on the table, still half full of soggy Chex, where it joins the rest of the unwashed dishes crowding our table and counters.

I go upstairs to grab my backpack and spare my books a loving glance—so they know I don't blame them and Dad is wrong. He likes to attribute all my psychological problems to my reading habit, but my books aren't the source of the nightmares. They're the only things keeping me sane. Without them, it's like I don't feel anything.

The bookshelf in my room almost touches the ceiling and covers an entire wall. To be fair, it's probably true they had a hand in my growing up. A book was where I went whenever real life was too confusing or too strict. They taught me how people behaved and what to expect from the world, which given some of the books I read, maybe didn't provide the best cues. Once Dad realized what was going on, he did make an effort to reshape me into a normal child, even if that effort was mostly in vain. Whenever we went somewhere he'd wait until I didn't have time to hide another one and then try and find where I'd stashed my book. Otherwise, as soon as things got rolling—be it birthday party, funeral, wedding or afternoon picnic—I'd be the forgotten kid in a corner, reading.

"Violet," he would say tiredly, holding up the contraband. "How about a doll? Would you like a new doll?" "If her name is Carmilla and she has pull-string catchphrases," I'd reply. His most effective threat was to replace my books with Barbie dolls or make-up.

Of course, his unease wasn't so much because I was reading, but because of what I was reading. Crowding most of my shelves are stories of fantastical horror and tragic romance. Names like Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King embellish their worn spines. A lot of the books I read as a kid were unsuited for children and blossoming imaginations, but it's too late now. The damage has been done. I'm constantly pretending my life includes castles, darkness, madness, secrets and curses. And—possibly because their real life counterparts are so disappointing to me—my friends are villains, maniacs, persecuted maidens, monsters and ghosts.

However rotten life seems, if after finishing a chapter of a Dracula I feel a miss-my-last-class sort of compulsion to read on, then everything is probably going to be all right.

. . . . . . .

"Violet Darcey . . . ?" Mr. Patterson leaves the last syllable of my name hanging. Adjusting his glasses, he peers over the rows of students, squinting at each one, trying to determine which one I am, exactly.

It's September. I've been in the same spot for three weeks, Monday through Friday. "Here I am," I say, waving my pencil in the air. Movement usually alerts people to my presence, if nothing else does.

"Ah, yes. Violet." A check by my name and I float out of his mind, gone until the next class. Violet was actually my dad's choice. My mom wanted to call me Victoria, after her grandmother, but Dad said eyes like ultramarine violet deserved a name to back them up (if this was true, then not anymore—my eyes are brownish-somethingish). Three weeks later, when my mom died from an infection caused by the pregnancy, Dad got to fill in the still-blank birth certificate alone.

I shoot a pleading glance at the clock—a bad sign, since class just started.

If my life was a book, then my antagonist would be Somniville High School—it takes up two-thirds of my day for two-thirds of my weeks for two-thirds of my year. I at least have to give it credit for relentlessly existing. Home of the Mighty Greenwave. Nobody knows what a greenwave is. Anyway, I don't. The painted mascot on our basketball court looks like a white-capped flubber monster (I once passed an entire pep rally pretending the real Greenwave lived in the school pipes and came out of the sinks at unsuspecting moments to suck girls' faces off). The disheartening and lonely truth is that I am most likely the strangest thing in the halls of my high school.

The school is middle-sized-ish. There's maybe just over a thousand students. Blah blah. I valiantly fight my way through history, math—and the very worst—P.E. At lunch, I nibble at a carrot and read my book. I always read with particular focus at lunch, as if trying to distract myself from noticing no one sits by me. There are so many different kinds of lonely in my life, I can actually categorize them. The lonely I feel when I'm with my father, because he doesn't get anything, is not that bad. The lonely I feel when I'm literally alone is the best, and the worst, by far, is how I feel at school, surrounded by people who only pay attention to me long enough to remind me that they don't like me.

I'm reading Dracula, but I'm not wearing black—I'm not hissing at anyone. The scariest creature someone could accuse of me of being is a house elf, since I'm wearing too big clothes and am a little pathetic looking. I'm barely five foot. Okay—four foot eleven, but I round up. I'm seventeen, but people tend to talk to me in high-pitched voices, like they want to hand me some play dough or building blocks.

Also, due to lack of sleep—I'm slightly twitchy, and have shiny, reddish bruises under my eyes.

But whatever. As if anyone could be better company than Dracula anyway.

I glance up as one of the cafeteria employees, a balding man with watery eyes and bad teeth, works a scraping blade on the table next to me. It's a mess, having sat under the weight of the senior wrestling team's lunch.

The worker—I recognize him as the one with an accent who serves the vegetables—looks at me. My sympathy must be on my face. His bad teeth flash in a little smile and he gives what may be the most cynical wink in the history of the universe.

This is what I see, after that wink: The cafeteria covered in blood, chairs overturned and bodies on the floor—and the Polish cafeteria worker carefully wiping his cooking blade clean and smiling to himself, like a character from a Stephen King book.

Next time you'll take care where you smear your potatoes, wrestling scum!

I'm just kidding.

My point is, I don't really think it would be awesome for the wrestling team to meet their just reward from an overworked, maniacal cafeteria worker whose crazy thread finally snaps against their cruel indifference.

But—I grin and flash him an encouraging thumbs up. What my dad doesn't understand about my books is that, yes, there may be some gore and mayhem, but bad is still bad, good is good. I root for the right side.

I glance at my upturned thumb. Well. My opinion of the right side, anyway.

The cafeteria worker frowns, puzzled, and goes back to wiping the table.

. . . . . . .

On the way home from school, I stop by the pharmacy and find the shelf (an entire shelf) for BlissMaxx. I stare at the bright blue box labeled BlissMaxx, Enjoy Your Sleep! There are 500 pills in each box and it costs a little over five dollars. I can't remember all the science behind it, only that it was a breakthrough when it first came out last year because it was made from extremely inexpensive elements that could be recycled.

As I shift from foot to foot, hesitating, some guy comes by and grabs a box, tucking it under his arm without looking up from his iPhone. Another thing I don't have, a phone. Since Dad is stuck in the Dark Ages (best line from that argument: "I don't care if all the other kids have one. As far as I'm concerned it's a scam." Aweseome). Generally I don't notice because it's not like anyone would call me anyway, but each time I'm reminded I don't have one, I'm bothered that I don't notice not having one.

I sigh. Dad isn't going to like this. In addition to no cell phones, there's no television in our house, and only old stereo players and the most ancient dial-up computer. It's not real, he'd scoffed at the idea of the harmless dream pill. But dreams are never real anyway, right? And if he's worried I'll become addicted to a make-believe version of my life, it's too late for that. I rely on fantasy with or without the pill.

Then again . . .

What if—what if my dream was real,and Alexander was telling the truth? Part of me, the part I trust least, wants to jump on this idea like a puppy on a ball. My appetite for magic has never been sated by the dullness of this world. Real life is full of math problems, boring conversations and unattractive people. If there was a nightmare in my head, it would be . . . kind of cool?

More likely, my brain is having some kind of catastrophic meltdown.

And if I don't get some sleep, the rest of me is going to have a catastrophic meltdown to go with it. With a determined swipe, like I mean it, I grab a box of BlissMaxx and head to the counter to pay.

Shouldering my backpack, I walk across the parking lot of the pharmacy toward home. It isn't very far. We live on the very, very outskirts of Somniville, putting us in an almost mini-town of our own. I take the bus to school, but everything else is within walking distance.

"I'm home, Dad!" I call, wiggling through a front door that more or less opens on a sticky hinge. My dad inherited our old Victorian-looking house from some relative I've never met. The box of BlissMaxx is like a weight in my backpack, but I'm not worried.

He emerges from the kitchen speckled with paint as usual, a half-eaten hot dog in hand. Seeing me, he grunts some kind of greeting and walks past to his studio. I like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume some kind of Franken-garden is hatching beneath his maddened hands to wreak havoc upon our village, er . . . home. The creations, monstrous or not, aren't doing well today if the incoherent grunt is any hint, so I go upstairs without further comment.

. . . . . . .

That night, I stare at the BlissMaxx pill in my palm. It's tiny and pink, strawberry flavored. I place it on my tongue as I shift into my sheets and it dissolves painlessly and pleasantly.

In my dream, I'm at a party. It's my party, since I live in an awesome gothic mansion. I spend time rubbing elbows with the Addams Family and Vincent Price. Everything I say is charming and funny. All the food is my favorite and when I dance, I'm graceful and exhilarated. Among all my favorite characters are also members of my school. People whose faces I recognize, even if I've never talked to them. They love me.

There's one boy, in particular, who's watching me, but he's not familiar. He smiles and I know instantly, it's one of those smiles. He has dark hair and the most handsome face I've ever seen.

"Hello," he says, touching my back, leaning to speak in my ear because the music's so loud. My head rushes with joy.

"That's it?" I ask. "Just hello?" Dream-Me is confident and knows what she wants, which is to kiss this very handsome boy, but more importantly, for him to want to kiss her.

He leans in, smiling crookedly, and then jerks back. His face contorts and tears stream down his eyes. I pull away, frowning.

"Stop—please stop," he begs. "You're killing me." With a strangled cry, he covers his head with both hands, then lets out a horrific scream.

"What—" I back up, not understanding.

"Enough!" The boy thrusts out his hands, fingers flexed up. The edges of the room light on fire. My partygoers shriek and a few step forward to stop him. "Get away from me," the boy snarls, and more flames fly off his swinging arms. His handsome face is melting away into something harder, lined with shadows.

This isn't like my other nightmares. The same terrible things are happening, but my brain is forcing me to like it. People burn and my heart swells at the beauty of the leaping embers. But underneath, my real subconscious is trying to break through. Run! Run! it's screaming at me.

When I wake up, it's because of the pain. My head is on fire, which doesn't help the fading images still scorching my brain. I gasp, lean over the side of the bed, and empty the contents of my stomach. Shivering, I pull sweaty sheets around my shoulders and fumble my way to the bathroom by feeling along the walls. You are a tortured soul, I try and make myself feel better.

When I find the bathroom, I continue my mantra: You are Catherine Earnshaw, you're Mina Harker, you're Sally . . .

Despite my best efforts, a soft whimper escapes and I crumple away from the mirror, away from the reflective surface—as if I think my nightmare will somehow come out my eyes and bounce back at me. Fumbling in the cabinet, I find the box of BlissMax and dump the entire box into the toilet bowl. With a shaky breath, I flush and watch the tiny specks of pink swirl around and disappear forever.

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