the only thing to fear is fear itself
I grip the hilt of my sword, aiming the weapon in front of me, a sharp point for any unsuspecting enemy to encounter should they try and surprise me. The visor of my helmet is tilted up, allowing me to see into the thick forest.
I'm on a quest. I have a mission to complete.
Something else is itching at me. I know I'm supposed to find something, but the what is slightly elusive. A dark shadow shifts in the trees and I spring into action. Dragon!
I'm looking for a dragon. That's why I'm dressed like a knight, with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. I have a memory of searching for this dragon, always getting only a glance of him as he evades me yet again. Pushing through the forest, I come face to face with a high-reaching mountain, its rocky side all but insurmountable. In the middle of the rock is a cave. The dragon pokes his head out, almost in boredom. I catch a glimpse of its fiery orange eyes.
In a flash, I understand: I'm dreaming.
How did I not remember? I went to bed intending to find Alexander again in my mind and figure out what in the H-E-Double-Toothpicks was going on. The dragon disappears, and with it the forest.
Now that I'm aware I'm dreaming, I realize my mind is using my subconscious desire to seek Alexander out and forming situations around it. Not like Candyland, which was freakishly real, but rather the vague, shifty planes of my own incomplete imagination.
I'm on a rainy street, dressed in grunge clothes, a crowbar raised to my shoulder. Why does my brain think Alexander is something to get rid of? True, if he's real then he is a) slightly terrifying, and b) not very fond of me. But considering the alternative, a nightmare hanging out in my mind is a welcome explanation.
"I know you're here, Alexander!" I call. "And I'm not afraid of you." When he doesn't appear, I swallow. "I believe you."
I whip around.
He's sitting on an apartment stoop, dressed like a 1940's gangster, his arm resting on one knee.
"If you did," he continues, still with that awful, smoky voice, "you wouldn't be seeking me out."
The scene around us changes. Heavy chains hold me to a post as I burn at the stake. The fire doesn't scare me, it's the guilt—knowing I am what they say I am and this same awful burning will never leave me, even after it's over, where I'm going.
The flames scorch higher and higher up my body, and I turn my face. I can't believe how much it hurts, since it isn't real. "Please don't do this," I say, trying to shout, but I cough on smoke. "I don't want to use BlissMaxx, but I will if you don't leave me alone when I sleep. I can't do this every night. Please, Alexander—"
I don't notice how or when the nightmare abates, but suddenly the pressures around my middle are not chains, but arms, holding me upright, setting me down. I grasp his wrist, trembling. "Thank you," I whisper.
Just like that, we're sitting on the moon, gazing down at planet earth. He sits next to me. I haven't had a chance to look at him up close since the first time he introduced himself. His eyes are half-covered by heavy lids. He doesn't seem quite as terrifying, mouth twisted in a despondent frown. "We're in trouble, kid," he says.
"Are there others like you? Do I have some unknown being hanging out in my head every time I sleep?" I ask, not sure I want to know.
He takes his time shifting his gaze over to me. "Not every time. How often do you have nightmares? Or a dream that was so great you wanted to go back to sleep just to have it again?"
"Every once in a while, I guess," I say.
"There's your answer. Every once a while, there's probably a Dream or Nightmare in your head."
"You look like a human," I comment. Kind of. Except those eyes and the black contours of his features which make him look somewhat demonic.
"Take it easy." He grimaces, like I've dealt the worst insult in the world. "We're personified in human form because we're born from human imagination." He tosses a loose pebble at the earth. It hits China and causes a volcanic eruption. "I'm the fear of hell."
"Really." I'm not even sure what that means. "Nightmare," I try the word out for the first time as a title of species. I watch Alexander, the Nightmare, the fear of hell.
There's a Nightmare, this time I mentally add the capital letter, in my head.
"You're taking this surprisingly well," Alexander says, suspicious. "If you really believe me."
My reaction doesn't surprise me. I've been waiting what feels like my whole life for my spectacular destiny to show up—to either find out I'm secretly an elf or a mutant, get recruited by a band of vampire hunters to save the world, or at the very least have to discover the secret of a haunted mansion. Thus far, the universe had been disappointingly gentle in allotting my fate.
"But where do you go when you're not in people's minds? Why did you choose mine? What do you eat? How do you make things appear so easily in my mind? What's the difference between a Dream and Nightmare? Do you have to go to the bathroom ever in here, because if so that's gross. And what about—mmph!"
I can't remove the thick swap of tape from my mouth. I sigh through my nose. Clearly, our little breakthrough was not an invitation for us to embark on friendship. Tapping him on the shoulder, I mime keeping my mouth shut and cross my heart. With a flick of his fingers, the tape disappears.
"So," I venture, "now what do we do?"
"Whatever we want."
. . . . . . .
Over the next week, we develop a pattern for deciding how we'll spend my dreams, alternating as story master. On Alexander's nights things run on a decidedly dark note—just last night involved the arsenic poisoning of my father—but I can always subdue any growing uneasiness with a this is only a dream mantra.
"The setting: haunted moors," I say. It's my turn. "Think the Bronte sisters. You're the gallant hero—"
Alexander gives me a Look, one of three I've learned to interpret. The Raised Brow Look means whatever I've just said has been acknowledged, but he thinks it's stupid. The Narrowed Eyes Look, which I've just received, means whatever I'm doing, stop it. The Glaring Look means run. This one is usually slow(er) to surface, and I'm not eager to provoke it now.
"You can turn violent in the end," I appease him.
I finish weaving my tale of an innocent maiden racing across bloody moors as rain and wind torment her pale frame. A cruelly insane Baron chases after her, driven by his irrational passion because she looks like his former wife whom he murdered by drowning in the lake behind their mansion.
Alexander and I gallop off to rescue fair maiden, though I'm not a part of the story yet.
"And who are you?" he asks over his shoulder. The rain has plastered his black hair against his forehead; water drips off his face. The air is freezing, but the wet hide of the horse beneath us keeps me warm.
Everything is so chillingly lifelike. I shiver with adrenaline and cling tighter to his waist. "Just wait," I reply, grinning.
We arrive at the scene, and the evil Baron and the virgin damsel turn to us in surprise, or rather to dashing suitor, since they can't see me. Alexander withdraws his sword and hesitates, shooting me a pained look. "Say it," I hiss, jabbing his back.
"Unhand that woman, villain!" Alexander commands with perfect theatrical brilliance. For all his grumbling, he never fails to deliver.
"Never!" the Baron cries, according to script.
"Okay," I whisper, "And now I'm the zombie wife come to finally exact her revenge." Alexander's lips twitch in amusement. My hands on his back decay and shrivel with rot. I glance down at myself. "Oooh, wedding dress. Nice touch."
"I want to come up out of the mud between them, oozing with my own innards."
The next moment, slimy mud presses on my limbs. I raise a bony hand out of the ground and crawl upward, moaning in haunting despair as I do. The maiden starts to scream, but cuts off abruptly. A jolt shakes the ground, once, twice, then stops. I pop my head up, wiping mud off my face. "What happened?" I ask, ignoring the two people frozen in horror, and look at Alexander.
"Something is waking you up," he says, and another jolt rips through the air, skewering the entire scene like a distorted television image. "Your dad—" he finishes hastily, just as my eyes creak open.
My dad has a tight grip on my shoulder, shaking me. "For god's sake, Violet. It's like you're in a coma. You're an hour late for school—are you sick?"
I knock his hand away. "Go away, Dad! Yes, I'm sick—leave me alone."
I'm not sick, but Dad doesn't question my statement, leaving my room with a string of wounded mutters trailing being him. Actually, I've missed the first half of school for three days in a row, but who cares?
Not me, not my teachers . . . and not my Dad, until thirty seconds ago (he didn't even notice the first two days).
I try very hard to go back to sleep, but it doesn't work. I'm getting up to fourteen hours of sleep a day as it is. But, since I've already claimed illness, I stay in bed and fish out one of the books from under my bed. Interview with a Vampire.
. . . . . . .
The next morning, my dad is in my room, making sure I'm on time to school.
"Since when do you care?" I grumble as he shuffles me out the door.
When I slump off the bus and drag myself through the front doors, I have to physically stop myself from giving a loud groan. School has never been fun, but now it's plain torture. Every second I spend awake feels mundane and pointless, time away from dreaming.
First hour is English—the only class I feel a bit of regret for missing. I sit down and Miss Mooney approaches my desk. "Are you all right, Violet? You've been gone for three days."
I stare at her for a minute. She's looking in my eyes, concern wrinkling her forehead. It makes me feel funny. She's in her thirties, plain, but pretty when she smiles.
"Er . . ." I don't know what to say, mostly because I'm surprised she knows my name. "I was . . . sick." She has to buy that. Whenever I look in the mirror lately, I cringe at my pale, unkempt face.
"You made it to your afternoon classes."
I blink. Seriously, how does she know that? It must mean she was thinking about me not just when she called role, but afterward too—probably spent considerable minutes on it.
She sighs. "I don't want to have to give you a bad grade, Violet. You always understand the readings so well. It will be a shame not to get an A just because you can't wake up in the morning." She walks back to her desk and I still haven't said anything.
Guilt sweeps through me. Part of me is glowing under her praise—she thinks I understand the readings well?—then I snap back to my normal self. There is a Nightmare in my head. Who cares about eleventh grade English? I think up about fifteen more excuses why my shame is not justified, then pretend to be satisfied and pull out a book to read before the bell rings.
. . . . . . .
Even though I tell myself I don't care, I spend extra time doing my English homework that night before getting ready for bed. When I enter my dream, I catch sight of Alexander and hesitate. He's about as volatile and moody as my dad is dull and constant. I never know what temper he's going to be in when I step into a dream.
One night, all I said was, "Hey partner, how about some Edgar Allan Poe?"
I'm not sure if it was the mention of Poe, my favorite writer, or that I'd dared use the term partner in reference to him. But whatever it was or wasn't, anger arrived like a lightning bolt to his face. He gripped my shoulders and threw me backward into what became a stone prison cell, slamming the door and walking away. I pounded and screamed at the brick walls all night and didn't see or hear another peep of him until my alarm clock finally freed me by waking me up.
Tonight, there is something almost childlike in his expression. Of his many faces, this one is new. He's sitting on the black ground and looks up at me as I come close.
"Hi," I say.
"Hi," he returns.
I wait. Ever since the prison night, I'm cautious about my opening lines.
My eyebrow arches. Usually I'm Shorty, Kid, Human, or You with the Face. I wasn't, until now, sure his lips could pronounce my name at all.
"I'm giving my turn to you tonight."
Oh—okay. I'm dying to ask, is that all? But I'm too chicken. "Well then." I clap my hands together. "I know it's a human thing, but do you know the Nightmare Before Christmas?"
A hint of his usual self shines through in the gimme a break look he shoots me. "Please."
He sweeps a hand out and Halloweentown forms below us. I can see the cemetery and the haunted woods, the twisted tower of Jack Skellington's house. But before I can offer further instruction, the town keeps growing. A city materializes. We stay above it, on a high rooftop that forms beneath our feet. The buildings are tall, peak-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward, and sidewise. Occasionally an opposite pair, both leaning in, almost meet across the street like an arch. Every color looks like it's been mixed with black first, or gray. In the distance on top of a hill, a castle looms like a queen over her realm.
What is this place? There's still a bit of Halloweentown's spooky charm, but this is much bigger—like a metropolis, with a dark, magical energy rising up to us on our perch.
"Sorry," Alexander says breathlessly, bracing himself with both hands on the roof ledge.
"What is it?"
"Chimera," he whispers, closing his eyes. "My home."
Aha—that's what it is in his eyes. Loneliness, nothingness, the desperate edge of an abyss. A rare glimpse into the truth behind the miraculous powers, a wasteland peopled by frightened monsters. I recognize it because I see it in myself too. He's lonely—and he's homesick.
He sighs, turning back to lean onto a gargoyle as if it were a giant stone pet. "I just don't want to forget it, before . . ."
He doesn't finish, but he doesn't have to. He must really hate me, I think. Who wouldn't hate their prison?
"Who lives in the castle?" I ask, pointing. I can't sympathize, but I can change the subject.
A familiar smirk curls his lips. For a moment, he looks like himself. "The King of Nightmares—who else? Even the most evil of mortal souls quiver at a nightmare delivered by the fear of darkness." His voice deepens into a soft melody, "He's a master of fright, and a demon of light—"
"And he'll scare you right out of your pants," I finish the song, but with more aplomb. I curtsy and he smiles, bringing his hands up to applaud twice.
Then I do something dumb. I blush.
Not because I'm embarrassed about my performance, but because I realize Alexander is my best friend. He is mocking and wild and inhuman; he thinks I'm obnoxious and childish (I know, because he's told me); he is a creature of horror and darkness. But he can sing Nightmare Before Christmas songs with me, and he never looks at me like I'm disturbed if I want to be a zombie who eats baby brains. When he looks at me, he sees me. My first best friend—and he's not even real, technically. "I'm sorry," I hurry to say, before he can read my thoughts. "About, you know . . . this."
He lifts a shoulder, not looking at me. "As far as I can tell, you're not doing it on purpose. There's no point to being sorry."
"Do you hate me?" I ask. I can barely hear my own voice.
"Only a little."
. . . . . . .
What happens next is bad. I know this, because it happens during our reading of Macbeth. Algebra, maybe. But falling asleep on good ol' Will?
In an ironic coincidence, it's these words I hear last:
Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more!Macbeth does murder sleep, — the innocent sleep;
And then I see Alexander. At first I don't realize. He stares at me, eyes widening, and I wait for him to say something. "Oh no . . ." he murmurs, more to himself than to me.
"What?" I ask; I know something is off, but my brain can't put together what it is.
"Something wicked this way comes," he says quietly.
Macbeth! I do the mental equivalent of a gasp, and my eyes open.
"Something wicked this way comes," I blurt.
"Good. Any other allusions in popular culture that originated in Macbeth?" Miss Mooney moves on.
I sink low in my seat, silently thanking Alexander. No one seems to notice I nodded off in the middle of class. I try to remember the moment I fell asleep, but it's as if my last coherent memory was last night. My morning swims distantly in my head like a dream.
I'm walking home from the bus stop when it happens again, just as unexpectedly as before. I take a step and then—
Alexander curses near my ear. "What are you doing here again? I can't believe—damn—you hit your head on the cement."
"I'm sorry—" I apologize automatically. I feel out of breath, for some reason, but don't feel the supposed head wound he's talking about.
"Morpheus help us." His hair stands on end where he's tugged his hands through it. "You're a narcoleptic."
"I'm a come-again?"
"You have narcolepsy, or at least some kind of weird form of it. All this dropping directly into surrendered subconscious has caused your Circadian Clock to completely lose its kilter and now you're slipping back and forth between dreams and reality because it can't figure out how to reestablish what's missing."
"My . . . what?" The majority of my responses seem fated to have question inflections on the end of them. Alexander points to the giant broken clock he asked me to fix the first night we met.
"That's your Circadian Clock." He glances once at my bewildered expression and explains. "It's like an inner sleep timer, and it's lost its rhythm. Wandering time, or as humans call it, Non-REM sleep, takes up most of your sleep time, but there's relatively little dreaming. It only takes Dreams or Nightmares about fifteen minutes to pop in, do their business, and leave. When we enter your mind, you automatically fall into subconscious surrender, or REM sleep. So since I've been stuck in here, you've been perpetually in the deepest stage of sleep."
"So what does that mean?"
"It means your brain isn't getting any rest, but your body's getting too much." He frowns. "It's apparently given you a sleeping disorder."
He sighs and closes his eyes as if to think, and I really see him for the first time. He's tired. There are shadows under his eyes like smeared grease paint. His posture, usually borderline royal in its self-important carriage, is slack. He looks how I look in real life.
"Is it hurting you?"
His eyes open. "Is what hurting me?"
"The sleeping disorder. You look . . . sick." I hesitate. "What happens to you if I die?"
"You're not going to die." He rolls his eyes. "But you do need to get out of here. Who knows what kind of damage your face plant onto the sidewalk did. Staying unconscious on the side of the road isn't a good idea. Now, go—" And with that, he uses both hands and shoves me—right into consciousness.
My head throbs viciously and my cheek stings. Pushing myself upright turns out to be a bad idea. As soon as I do, my head swims and I nearly drop back onto the ground. After a few minutes the dizziness ebbs, then I brush the rocks and dirt off my front and stand up. I do indeed have a bump on my head, but it isn't bleeding.
. . . . . . .
Pretending I don't have a sleeping disorder proves rather difficult for the next few days. Luckily, the weekend takes care of most of the problem, but every trip down the stairs is a somewhat terrifying experience. Mostly, I keep myself as far away from other people as possible. I hide in my house and I hide in school, periodically falling asleep with no warning.
If real world was fuzzy before, it's now such a state of surrealism I think I've truly lost my mind—given it up to the fear of hell, never to get it back again. Alexander seems much more tangible than the faces I pass in the halls at school; more real even than the brief exchanges, personal and close range though they are, I share with my father. There's the chance, however, this isn't so much a new development as it is a new awareness.
Before I can wonder how long I'll be able to keep the game of hide and dream-seek going, Parent Teacher conference saves me. Or ruins me, I can't decide. Even then, I may have slipped past notice if Miss Mooney hadn't been the teacher.
She begins by praising my fine English comprehension, then like the first frost of winter, drops into my lack of attendance and attention—and my less than commendable daydreaming habit.
"I've been a little sick," I try to excuse myself, unconvincingly. Miss Mooney looks disappointed. Even Dad suspects the lie. But then I prove all three of us wrong by rolling my eyes into the back of my head and dropping face first onto the table—dead asleep.