death is the least of your worries
"That thing is creeping me out."
"If only," Alexander mutters.
A gigantic eye roves around in the sky above us, studying and blinking like thunder. It's Alexander's attempt at representing the doctors currently studying my dreaming patterns. I glare at it with distaste.
"Do you think they'll notice you in here?"
"No." He sorts through the assorted cookies on the table between us until he unearths a dark chocolate delight. At most, he's entertained by their attempts.
I sigh. "This stinks."
"I would say it can't get any worse, but you have a habit of proving me wrong. I thought it couldn't get much worse than being stuck in a human's mind—but it in fact can get worse when the human is annoying and knows you're in there. But wait! That's still not the worst, because guess what? She has narcolepsy." With a calmness that belies the venom in his voice, he brushes his now crushed-to-crumbs cookie off the table. "Worst day ever? It's probably tomorrow."
I grimace, but don't retaliate. Jerk though Alexander is, our time together isn't the only thing slipping away. He looks like a tiny drain is letting life out of him every day. My dreams lack the luster they once had, as if he's too tired to hold everything up. I don't ask what's wrong, mostly because I don't trust him to tell me the truth, if he answers at all.
"Here comes the wake up drug," he says, sucking a final crumb off his finger. He waves with the same hand and I stick out my tongue.
I wake up; my mouth tastes like I swallowed a can of wet cement before going under. I cough, trying to sit up.
"Easy there." A firm hand pushes me back down. The two suction cups plastered against my temples itch, but when I reach up to scratch one, my hand is swatted away.
The sleep clinic is cold and metallic, about as comfortable as a dirty toilet seat. The doctor at my bedside scribbles on a clipboard. The light from the fluorescent bulbs above our heads reflects off his glasses, so I can't see his eyes. A woman, similarly clothed in white coat and stern manner, enters the room. After a few minutes of whispering, she shakes her head. The nametag over her left breast reads Dr. Wang, MD, PhD. "Strange, very strange," she says, without a hint of an Asian accent.
They turn to me. "Can you recall if you dreamed?" the male doctor asks me, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. His eyes turn out to be boring, shallow brown.
"I . . . yeah, I think so."
"Can you remember the dream?"
I nod. More whispering with bent heads and scribbled notes. I look toward the half-open door, surprising myself by wanting to see my dad.
"Let's run one more test."
I stifle a groan. Goody.
Unfortunately, I don't get to sleep for that test. It involves a lot of tapping and color association, something to do with my left and right brain. I don't really pay attention.
An hour later, the four of us —Dr. Wang, Dr. Fletcher, my Dad and me— sit facing in a conference room as they try to explain what's wrong. Just like Alexander, they tag the problem as narcolepsy.
"Normally," Dr. Wang says, "when an individual is awake, brain waves show a regular rhythm. When a person first falls asleep, the brain waves become slower and less regular. This sleep state is called non-rapid eye movement, or NREM, sleep. After about an hour and a half of NREM sleep, the brain waves begin to show a more active pattern again. This sleep state, called REM sleep, or rapid eye movement, is when most remembered dreaming occurs."
Dad nods. I can tell he's not getting a word of this.
Dr. Fletcher takes over. "In narcolepsy, the order and length of NREM and REM sleep periods are disturbed, with REM sleep occurring at sleep onset instead of after a period of NREM sleep. Simply put, the brain does not pass through the normal stages of dozing and deep sleep but goes directly into, and out of, REM sleep.
"People with narcolepsy fall quickly into what appears to be very deep sleep. They wake up suddenly and can be disoriented when they do. They have very vivid dreams, which they often remember in great detail. They may dream even when they only fall asleep for a few seconds. Your daughter exhibits all of these symptoms, in addition to falling asleep at unpredictable moments, a type of counterattack the body uses to catch up on the lost NREM sleep."
Dad rubs a hand over his mouth, and then through his hair. I'm only half-listening, knowing the true issue resides deep in my head, likely laughing at their corporeal explanations.
"However, Excessive Daytime Sleepiness and cataplexy are completely absent from your daughter's symptoms, though highly common in most narcoleptic victims."
"It's strange," Dr. Wang puts in. "Very strange."
"More strange since she doesn't use BlissMax," adds Dr. Fletcher.
I wonder why this is strange—like, would it be the pill's fault if I did?
"So," Dad says, now an interesting shade of gray, "She's half-narco-whatever you said?" He's acting as if these "experts" know me better than he does. The more I watch him jiggle his leg and check his watch, the more I realize this is probably true. Maybe complete strangers do know me better than he does.
Both doctors sigh, exchanging glances. "We'd like to start her on weekly sessions of therapy, and see where we go from there. With the proper lifestyle changes, your daughter could still lead a fairly normal life."
Dad grunts, standing to his feet. With hidden satisfaction, I realize the conversation is over. "Our card," Dr. Wang says, handing a laminated card to my dad, who puts it in his pocket without looking at it.
We walk through the cold, spotless hallway. Dad doesn't speak, his shoulders hunched and his hands in his pockets. It's not in his parental capacity to deal with a handicapped child.
. . . . . . .
As if to prove life will be normal, Dad makes me go to school the next morning—with a shiny new doctors note. It's almost nice, having a red flag attached to my name on the school records. Teachers notice me, wondering with fearful eyes whether I'll have an episode in their class.
"Violet Darcey, here," Mr. Bailey mutters, without bothering to look and check. "Jane Ryan?" Now he squints.
"Right here," Jane raises her hand with a sigh. She has long black hair pulled into a high ponytail and a t-shirt with Wonder Woman and Supergirl that says, "Anything boys can do, Girls can do better!"
I can't believe the same thing happens to other people, too. I've never seen her in class, but she's probably been here, just like I've been here.
She sits across from me and catches me staring at her, since I'm doing it in an awkward stalker kind of way.
"Um, hi?" she says.
"Hi," I answer stupidly. "I'm Violet Darcey."
She blinks, bewildered. "Oh. Er. Hey. Jane Ryan."
"I like your shirt."
"I know, right?" She slants a grin at me, then immediately blushes. "Hey, weren't you in a coma or something recently?"
"No, but I have narcolepsy."
"Dude." She looks both scared and concerned. She probably thinks the condition comes with a side of crazy. The conversation is clumsy, but we're doing it—like real life friends or something.
I shrug. "Well, it's not—"
"Okay class, face forward—open your books to chapter twenty three."
We exchange uneasy smiles and turn away from each other. Fifteen minutes later, I fall asleep.
. . . . . . .
Back at home, I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, not absorbing the words. It's late and I'm not asleep yet—not for lack of effort. My eyes move deliberately over lines in the book in an attempt to distract myself from my impatience and frustration.
Dad knocks on my door.
"Come in," I call, closing my book.
He opens the door, taking a few precautionary glances before he steps in. He tucks one thumb into his back pants pocket and says, "I set up an appointment for you next Thursday."
Kill me. "Great," I reply with barely concealed sarcasm.
He nods, turns, and pauses. "Are you . . . uh, okay, then?"
"D'you think, maybe, I should've . . . should have let you use BlissMax, and this wouldn't have happened?"
"No," I say, softening. "This isn't your fault."
He nods again, then leaves, shutting the door behind him. I sink further into my pillow and it's my sigh of defeat that carries me into sleep.
Something is wrong with this dream. Everything is black and white. The sky bleeds into the horizon and the ground seems to tip, until I can't be sure I'm not walking upside down.
"Alexander?" I call. My voice echoes.
"I didn't see you come in." I recognize his voice, barely, and turn.
He's on his back, staring up. His eyes are only half open and a lifeless shade of brown. I fly the few steps it takes to reach him and drop by his side. "What's the matter with you?" I ask, voice tight with panic. "It's the narcolepsy, isn't it? It's killing you."
"It's not that." He tries to push himself upright, but I press a hand to his chest. He collapses like a house of cards.
"You're not dying?" I venture.
"No, I am," he half-laughs. "So are you, mortal. But I'm not dying because of your narcolepsy."
He breathes and the ground becomes unsteady beneath us. "I'm starving to death," he says, wincing.
"How?" It's a dumb question, but I saw him eat that cookie yesterday, and I want to believe eating dream food is the answer.
Malnourishment doesn't dim the effects of a well executed Raised Brow Look. "I'm a Nightmare—I need human fear to survive."
"Can't you use my fear?"
I look in his eyes and see the mastermind of those first nightmares. The memory makes my stomach cold.
"But then . . . you knew I would be in here, knew you were dreaming. You never gave me true fear after that."
All at once, I remember his frustrated looks on the nights he narrated, after I got a grip on my fears because it was just a dream.
"I . . . could," I say after a moment. I would, I'd do it. For him.
"No," he says, exhaling again. The sky trembles with his deflating breath. "It wouldn't work even if I had the strength to do it, which I don't. And if I did, and if it did, it would only buy a little time before the same thing happened again. You can't live on carrots alone."
I groan and bury my face in my hands. "I'm not a carrot," I whimper through my fingers. If Alexander dies inside me, I won't be able to stand being here again, but I'll have to—every night.
"No." He chuckles. "You're more like blackberry ice cream. An acquired taste, but likeable once you get used to it."
I lash out and hit his chest, hard. "Ow—" he complains, at the same time I snarl, "It isn't funny."
"Anyway," he says, shooting me a wounded look while he rubs his bruised sternum. "Don't expect yourself to last much longer than I do, Miss Narcolepsy. We're both headed for the crapper."
"I thought I wasn't going to die."
"Brain death doesn't necessarily mean physical death—humans tend to be stubborn about keeping the mind's instrument running without it. But starved of proper rest cycles, your mind is deteriorating. This," he gestures at our ruined surroundings, "is not entirely my fault."
Funnily, I'm relieved. As if it's better to lose my mind than to have to live in awareness without Alexander—which is an interesting and frightening realization.
"But if my mind dies, wouldn't you go free?"
"Theoretically, yes. Assuming your subconscious is what's keeping me trapped."
"But if you die, my narcolepsy goes away."
"Yes. Also theoretically. Assuming I'm what broke your clock's timer."
We stare at each other for a minute, probably both wondering which of us will go first. I suppose we're also both hoping it's me, while deep down knowing it will be Alexander.
I say, "There's got to be something we can do besides wait around for one of us to die." Wait for you to die.
"Don't you think I've tried?" Alexander asks. "That's why I showed myself to you in the first place—when I saw that little wake up trick you did by pure will, I thought maybe you could get me out." With effort, he pushes himself upright. "Look at your Circadian Clock."
It's the only thing not swimming in a vague, sepia haze, appearing as usual when we need it to. "There," Alexander points, "Where the pendulum would be? That's the portal in and out of your mind. It should be white and sort of glowing, but it's just . . . wood."
Not only that, but broken, charred wood. No set of tools will make it a glowing portal into another world. "We need magic," I say.
The Look, number one. The one that means whatever I said was stupid. But as soon as I say it, I know I'm right, and it's not stupid.
"You know what I mean, don't you?" I continue. "Not magic like cast-a-spell magic, but like . . . this. You have to fight magic with magic, not with, you know, reality."
Magic is the heartbeat in my gothic novels, and what's missing from my world. It's the fertile ground from which springs romance and legend. Alexander's burning eyes and the haunting city of Chimera. That's what will save us, not my paltry life in small town Nevada.
"Look, kid. Not that your hope isn't inspiring and sparkly and all that, but I already know my magic. If there was anything there that could get me out, I would have used it by now."
"Let me look," I urge. "This is the one thing I know I know—I might see what you never thought to consider."
The Look number two. He doesn't like my idea. "I don't think so," he says.
"Oh, come on. Why not? Because I'm not supposed to know? You've already blabbed most of it—"
The Look, numero tres, rises up like an angry dragon.
"—okay, but it's that or die," I finish before he can attack.
The small spark which rose in his brief defiance fades. He coughs, closes his eyes. "Okay," he agrees after a long moment of silence. "But not tonight. Tomorrow."
A pang of fear drops in the emptiest part of my stomach as I wonder if he'll even be here tomorrow. I've known him less than a month, but the thought of never seeing him again makes me dizzy.
A hint of color warms his face. His eyes blink open. After studying me a while, he asks, "What are you scared of?"
"What do you mean?"
"I felt your fear, just now. Real fear."
Did it taste like blackberry ice cream, I wonder? "I'm scared . . . for you."
A rasp of laughter. "It tastes a little different when they're scared for you, not of you."
I smile in response to his laugh, though I feel no humor. Really, the person I'm scared for is me. I'm scared what it will feel like for me if he dies.
"I may be the first Nightmare to ever say this," he adds. "But . . . don't be afraid."
Looking down at him, I realize when Alexander agreed to look for the magic to save us, he was lying. That small smile is not brave determination, but mere acceptance of his death. I hate him, a little, for not trying.
"I'm not," I return the favor, and lie.
. . . . . . .
The next time I fall asleep is not night, it's late afternoon—brought on by the narcolepsy. Despite his doubt, Alexander entertains my idea. We sit in a ceilingless, wallless library with two desks facing each other and some stacks of books around us. Every so often, the floor will shake and the stacks either threaten to topple over, or they do. Alexander insists he has enough strength to hold everything together—compliments of my bit of fear last night.
Every book is about Nightmares and the Isle of Morpheus—the realm of the imagined. Alexander lazily flips pages while I study with an intensity bordering on devout. In the Isle of Morpheus, the dream world, time flows at a different rate—each hour there represents a day or more for mortals. Because of its decelerated time, it rarely experiences change. The inhabitants are either long-lived or immortal, provided they avoid injury or disease.
"Alex?" I ask. "How old are you?"
He glances up. "Two hundred and thirteen."
"That's sort of . . . young," I say, eyes narrowing.
He raises an eyebrow. "Says the seventeen year old."
"But you're the fear of hell—there's no way that only started to scare people two hundred years ago. It's got to be as old as religion, which is . . . older than that."
"I said I'm two hundred and thirteen. The fear of hell is . . ." He waves a hand, "yes, older than that."
I stare at him, turning my palms up as if to say, Hello?
He sighs. "Okay. There are two ways Nightmares and Dreams are born. Either they come straight from the human psyche, creating an original fear—or a mommy and daddy Nightmare who love each other show that love by having a baby. Imagine that all the fears in the world are like the stars, just hanging in the sky. When a Nightmare is born, a star falls out of the sky and finds that Nightmare and they become a team. If that Nightmare dies, then the fear goes back into the sky and waits until its next partner comes along."
"Wait, so you have parents?"
Forced indifference stiffens his face. "Yes, a father. My mother is dead."
"You have a family," I blurt before I can stop myself. My gaze, locked with his, is unblinking and wide. "They're never going to see you again."
It hadn't occurred to me to picture him as a member of a family—but by the way he's looking at me, he hasn't forgotten. I didn't wonder about his former life because he never alludes to it, but obviously he has one, a whole life I know nothing about and he may lose forever.
"I'm so sorry," I whisper.
"If you're sorry," he replies, "look for the magic."
He's right. I read with renewed fervor.
I flip to a picture of three abstractly drawn figures, labeled as two Nightmares and one Dream who are as old as human life itself. They've never died nor given up their partnership. Morpheus, the fear of death, Nyx, the fear of the unknown and Hypnos, the joy of love. These three are the trinity of Gods who guard the realm.
I turn pages faster. I could read about it all night, but I begin to worry Alexander is right—it may be fascinating, but it's essentially useless. I choose a different book, looking for anything to do with Nightmares' relationship with humans.
It is ill-advised to expose yourself to a mortal while in their subconscious state. Well, Alexander blew that one, not that he probably cares. It's a little weird, reading about humans from a different perspective, especially because the mortal subconscious is the battery that runs everything in the Isle of Morpheus. Human imagination is their most basic form of matter. It's why they're not supposed to show themselves to us. We're dangerous if we know what's going on.
Alexander curses, interrupting my thoughts. I look up from my page. His expression is an odd mixture of surprise, elation, and horror.
He's found the magic.
"What is it? Show me!"
He raises his gaze to meet mine, likely stunned he was wrong and I was right. "Wait." He kneels down on the floor, which isn't really a floor, but the usual nothingness. He spreads both hands over the black carpet and sinks his fingers into its depth. This jerks something in me, something painful and intrusive, like a rock scratching the inside of my skull.
"Ow, hey—" I say, shaking my head as if to toss him out.
"You are a virgin," he whispers and pulls his hands out.
My face goes tomato red. "W-What? I mean, y-yes I am, not that it's any of your—"
"No, not that kind of virgin," he cuts me off. "Though you're that too. I meant, you have a virgin mind."
"A virgin mind?"
"They're almost non-existent in any human over the age of eight or nine. Sometimes they're ruined even before that. But yours is as white as snow. No great sorrows, no overwhelming joys—no disappointments, victories, life-altering surprises. It's like you haven't been living for seventeen years."
He sounds both incredulous and victorious. To me, however, his words feel like a baseball bat in the stomach.
"So what?" I ask, more bitterly than I meant to, "I get a celibacy reward from the Gods? How does that help you or me?"
Taking the large book he'd been reading, he turns it around and pushes it toward me. It floats without support through the air and stops at my waist.
I read the big letters:
If a virgin mortal kisses a Dream or Nightmare, said mortal's untouched mind becomes inexplicably bound to that Dream or Nightmare, creating a soul-union that will last until the mortal's eventual death. The Dream or Nightmare is subject to the mortal's command and desires until that time. Because of the danger of such a circumstance, the Gods will dispose of the Dream or Nightmare immediately following the kiss to rescind the effects of the soul binding.
"Um," I say. "I think this says that they'll kill you if you bind yourself to a mortal."
"Oh, yes." Alexander is undisturbed. He draws his thumb across his throat dramatically to demonstrate. "But in order to get to me, they have to get through your portal, which is broken."
I stare at him, not understanding.
"The gods are thousands of years old. They're incredibly powerful. They'll know how to fix the portal when they come, opening it for me. When they do, I'll sneak out. Or I'll try. I'm going to die either way, so may as well take the risk." He's talking to himself more than me, voice rising with excitement.
"All right, but if you do get out before they see you, that would mean . . . our souls would be bound forever." I pause. I don't dare even mention the part about me being the boss of him. "Are you . . . okay with that?"
He looks at me, hands at his sides. Uncertainty clouds his eyes. "I don't know," he admits.
"Well. . ." I shrug, awkwardly. What can I say? Let me know when you decide whether or not being bound to me forever is a fate worse than death?
He startles, as if hearing a faraway noise. "You're waking up," he says. He takes a deep breath. "Tomorrow. I'll decide by tomorrow."
When my eyes open, it's around five o'clock in the morning. I stare into the darkness. "What about me?" I ask no one in particular. "Shouldn't I get to decide? It's my soul too."
But I know—as he knows that I know—I have nothing to lose from kissing him. My Circadian Clock gets fixed as part of the deal, so I definitely won't die a slow and insane death. My best friend gets to live and I never lose him without having to trap him where he can't get food. Even if he's under my command, I'm not going to use that power—and he can't hate me, not really, because by doing this I save his life.
Which means . . . win-win for me.
I tap my chest where my heart is. "So be happy, would you?"