the virgin's kiss
I go downstairs to the kitchen, taking in the usual mess. Since the narcolepsy, being awake is more bearable if I have something to do with my hands, something to concentrate on. Much as I love to read, it doesn't help with my current state of mind and often makes me go to sleep when I don't want to.
It's nine o'clock when I finally finish scrubbing the last dish. I keep the small plate in my hands, rubbing it over and over with a rag even though it's already clean.
I jump a foot high and the plate slips from my hands, shattering on the floor. I groan, once my heart beat slows. "Sorry. I'm jumpy, I guess," I mutter, bending to pick up the pieces.
"Don't move—you have bare feet." My dad steps in from the doorway. With both hands on my waist, he hoists me onto the nearby counter. It isn't hard—I'm barely a hundred pounds—but still, I could have done it myself. I feel like a little girl, with my feet dangling over the counter. But I don't mind at the moment, to be honest.
After Dad dumps the last of the shards in the trash, he observes the clean kitchen and whistles. "I forgot what our counters looked like. You do all this yourself?"
"Me and the kitchen elves," I reply.
He nods. "You don't usually . . ." He trails off, trying hard to avoid the "why" word.
"I was bored, and if I have something to focus on with my hands, it helps me stay awake and . . . attentive."
Dad doesn't answer for a minute, then asks, "You want to try painting?"
He's giving me permission to enter the studio?
"I . . . sure, yeah," I manage, dumbfounded.
He gestures for me to follow him. We go outside and he drags the shed door open, letting me go in first. Inside there is hardly any place to walk it's so crowded and disorganized. The air is slightly toxic from all the paint, but Dad takes in a big lungful.
"You have to love that smell."
As discreetly as I can, I pull my shirt over my nose.
It takes some finagling, during which I mostly stand and try not to bump into any wet paintings, but he sets up a blank canvas and positions me behind it. He gives me a brief lesson on mixing colors and how to properly hold the brush.
"What should I paint?" I ask, once I'm standing with palette in one hand and brush in the other.
"Whatever you want," he replies, smiling.
I paint Chimera. I paint Alexander. I paint Dracula.
None of them are even a little bit good, or recognizable. All I'm doing is wasting canvas and paint, but Dad doesn't seem bothered. He adds finishing touches to his own paintings on the other side of the studio and doesn't interrupt me or keep track of how many times I set up a different canvas sheet.
After a few hours, I feel more grounded than I have in weeks. Dad suggests a break, which I readily consent to. This is fun, but I have to go to the bathroom and might be a little high off paint fumes. He nods his approval at my paintings, but otherwise doesn't comment.
"Thanks, Dad," I say as we adjust to the sunlight outside. I lift my chin so I can look in his eyes. We don't do it a lot, the eye contact thing. "Really. It helped."
He shrugs, trying to hide how pleased he is. "It always helps me."
. . . . . . .
When I go to bed that night, I'm hoping Alexander decided to let me kiss him. I want to live, and I'd like to do it without narcolepsy, too.
The inside of my mind isn't in much better shape than I left it, though I can say it hasn't gotten worse. Alexander is waiting for me, arms crossed over his chest.
"So?" I ask.
"Let's do it," he says.
"Okay." The word comes out like a two-syllable laugh because I'm suddenly terrified and excited at the same time.
He creates a chair for him to sit on, though it's less of a chair than a non-descript lump that rises out of the ground. It takes almost a minute of him gesturing at his empty lap before I understand what he wants. "This will be easier than standing on your tiptoes to reach me."
As gingerly as I can, I perch on his lap, putting as little of my weight as possible on him. He doesn't touch me, which is good, because if he did I might freak out.
I force myself to look at him. His mouth is at least a foot away from mine, but he feels very, very close. His face is considerably thinner than when we first met and both eyes look like someone might have punched him. I stare at the two identical little lines bordering the corners of his mouth.
"Violet," his mouth says my name—very gentle, very soft. "I can't kiss you. You have to kiss me."
"I know, I knooooow. Sorry—but I've never kissed anyone before. I don't want to and I don't know how."
"Okay, try and relax." He smiles. I almost can't recognize him the way he's behaving. He's all sympathy and tenderness and patience. My eyes narrow in suspicion, which he ignores. "Just touch your lips to my lips for half a second. That's a kiss by anyone's definition." He leans in so the healthy twelve inches we once had becomes about half an inch. When he talks again, I can feel his breath. "Tilt just barely to the right so your nose doesn't get in the way and rock forward a tiny bit." He pauses, then adds, "Whenever you're ready."
"Should I close my eyes?" I whisper. Right now they're open and I'm so glad Alexander's have been dulled by starvation. Normally, this kind of proximity might cause me a heart attack. And not one born of attraction.
"If it helps," he replies.
"Okay." I do close my eyes—clench them shut, as a matter of fact—and decide to count to three and just rock forward like he says.
I get to two and five eighths when I hear his sigh. He pulls away. "Is that your fear I'm sensing?"
I blush and open my eyes. "It's hard to be this close to you, okay? It's your snake thing."
"It's like, I don't know, this aura or something that makes me feel unsafe, like a smart person would be running away."
"Well, I'm a Nightmare, you're a human. I am specifically created to cause fear in you. It's how we're meant to be together in nature." Then without warning, he grabs my arm and pulls me to him.
"What are you doing?" I tense. "Don't—"
With one hand, he rests my head against his chest, exactly where his heartbeat is. The other grabs my hand and laces our fingers together, his thumb pushing into the center of my palm. "Right now, we're repelling each other," he says, "Our bodies naturally want to spring apart. Do you feel it?"
"Pretty sure I do," I answer, trying to wiggle out of his hold. It feels dangerous, or at least like the dread that comes right before making a wrong decision.
"Good. I want you to ignore it." He waits. "Now what do you feel?"
His thumb presses deeper against my palm. "No, what do you feel?"
"What do you hear?"
"Your heart," I whisper.
He releases my hand to cup both sides of my face so once again, we're close enough to kiss. "Am I hurting you?"
"What you really feel is not what you're supposed to feel. Fear is an anticipatory emotion, not an actual one."
I nod, as much as I can between his hands.
"Don't be afraid."
I'm not, I think and rock forward and kiss him. Our lips only touch for a moment, then I hear a loud bang and Alexander's chair disappears from under us. We fall, I on top of him, and our lips and teeth smash painfully together.
He pushes me off his chest. My skin is burning, and yet it doesn't hurt. Just below my chest, a flame like a little oven broiler clicks to life inside me. That part hurts. The flame has to burn a hole to give itself room.
"Ow, ow," I gasp, grinding my teeth against the pain.
"Where are they?" Alexander hisses. He's propped up on one arm, the other wrapped around his middle in the same spot where my new inner flame is burning me. Flame-colored eyes meet mine. As if that gaze is the trigger, in the next instant my body is swept away in a whirl of light and images. The visions blast through me, burning, and each one replaces another of my memories. I try to fight, to cling to my memories and myself, but I have no fingers to grip them, no skin to separate me from this. I am Alexander, and he is me.
And then, they appear. Three figures, partially shrouded to my vision. I squint to focus on them, but they seem to blur out of view, their edges undefined. It's almost easier to look at them from the corner of my eye. The center figure steps forward.
"This mind is very . . . sticky."
"And sick," adds the second figure. "Where's the Nightmare?"
Alexander has disappeared, but I can see my Circadian Clock just beyond the three gods, the bottom half a narrow rectangle of pulsing white. He'll never get to it without them seeing him.
"Ow, what in Nyx is that?"
A briar patch has sprung up around them, long deadly thorns poking into their sides. "The mortal's mind knows we're here and wants us out," the last figure speaks; a woman. "Curious. And I'll ask you not to swear using my name, Hypnos."
Me? I'm doing this?
Good. I urge my mind to push them away from my clock, to hide Alexander from their view. A virtual forest springs up, stabbing viciously, forcing the three back. Somehow, they can't see me. Maybe because they're choosing not to engage with my subconscious directly—the same way Alexander could hide himself before I knew he was in here—and they assume I'm not aware enough to know what they are. Or maybe my mind is throwing up shields intuitively to protect me. Either way, the same hazy barrier remains between us and they don't come after me.
"Enough," the first figure snaps, and I feel the sudden weight against my mind. My awareness slips, threatening to disintegrate into the murkiness of dreams. But no. This is my mind, and they're not killing Alexander if I can stop them.
One of the branches in my forest forms a gnarled hand and backhands the god who spoke, swatting him like a fly.
The female god—Nyx, I think—barks out a laugh. "Strong mind. And the Nightmare is gone."
A weighty pause. My heart hurts at the word. Gone. That tiny flame in my chest is still there and it whines at Alexander's absence. Without goodbye, without anything. But he's not dead; he could come back, now that my portal is fixed.
The first god growls in annoyance. "Whoever it was slipped out. The mortal's mind protected him."
"Then we must kill this mind—especially since it is so strong. You know as well as I do, Morpheus. The union can't exist."
"There's no other—"
"I know," Morpheus snaps. "And so did that Nightmare. He knew if he slipped out, we'd kill the mind instead. He'd go free and we'd take care of his mess."
My breath disappears. My head rings.
He . . . knew? He knew they'd kill me in his place?
"But our friend forgot one important detail," Morpheus continues. "He is the guardian of this mind. He is bound to protect and defend it from all harm, even to the cost of his own life. And so—" The god puts a hand on my Circadian Clock. Tendrils of black spread from his fingertips and seep into the wood. I feel the slow poison in my gut. Morpheus is the fear of death and he's infected my mind with it. "He must return to this mind to save it. And when he passes through the portal, my death will touch him and he'll die."
"How dramatic," Nyx drawls.
The last, Hypnos, releases a sigh. "Very well. I suppose that solves our problem either way."
They disappear, whirling out of my mind like wisps of smoke.
A new kind of agony rips through my heart. Around me, everything is falling apart. Somehow, I am on my knees, staring down at my hands. The solidness of my skin fades gradually until I'm translucent enough to see through to the black ground, which is swimming like a vortex. I'm literally disappearing.
I should just let him die. Let him come through my portal and absorb the poison killing me. He was willing to do the same. I cry out—both in pain and frustration.
Of course I can't let him die, even if he is a selfish, asshole bastard Nightmare.
I hurtle forward and launch myself through the portal. I pass through a blinding white light and then whistle down, colors racing by in blurred streaks, my small frame buffeted by the force of the portal's winds. For a few seconds I fruitlessly try to get my bearings before everything goes black.