city of nightmares
When I wake up, I'm cold and uncomfortable. Cold because of the wind and uncomfortable because I'm sprawled in the dirt. I press a hand to my aching head, and feel relief as I do. The pain's not nearly as bad as it was.
As it was.
I groan as recollection comes sliding back, easing into my limbs with another kind of pain entirely. I sit up and take in my surroundings. Past my extended foot is a cliff edge, and maybe another five or so feet beyond that, a current of blue and white light cascades from the black sky, creating a wall. It looks sort of like white static, only prettier. I don't go to check, but I doubt the bottom of the wall is any more visible than the top.
It's hard not to stare at it, and I do, for several seconds before looking to the right and left. The cliff edge extends farther than I can see on both sides. Seemingly in exact distance from one another, phone booths—old fashioned red ones, like the kind Clark Kent uses to become Superman—dot the never-ending ridge.
"Weird," I mutter, and turn around. Behind me, there is nothing but a sea of gray sand. Though, upon examining myself, I think it may not be sand. I attempt to brush the grayish film off my arms and only succeed in smearing it in. It's ash.
To the front: wall of electricity. To the sides: infinite rows of phone booths. To the back: wasteland of ash.
This is impossible, I think lucidly. But even as I think the words, they get no purchase in the realness of the world around me. I feel like I'm having a not-unpleasant drug experience. If this is a hallucination, it's pretty high-res.
For the first time, fear constricts my throat. I cough. My chest still burns like there's a fire in there—though it's less a fire now and more a tiny flame, just holding to life.
"Where are you now, protector?" I grumble. There's a spot in the center of my palm, a shifting pit of blackness I assume is the mark of death. I can't feel it, really, so the process must have halted once I got out of my mind. The soul-curse may not hold Alexander responsible for my expulsion—but he eventually has to try and find me, right?
I'm pondering the likelihood of Alexander actually rescuing me when a shout echoes from within the confines of the electric wall.
"Hally-hoooo!" it cries, just as a figure leaps out of the white and blue static, soars through the air and lands, a bit clumsily, on the ground. He dusts off his buttoned vest and adjusts his glasses, straightening to his full height, which must be at least seven feet. His black hair sticks out of his head like an overgrown dandelion and reflects the sparkling light of the wall behind him in odd prisms of color, like oil. His skin is the color of day-old mushrooms.
He waves at me and I manage to raise a quaky hand in response. Apparently not too taken aback at seeing a stranger sitting in the dirt, he doesn't acknowledge me further and strolls to the closest phone booth. I watch as he picks up the receiver, says a few words and then—pop—he disappears.
I have two options. One, fume and wait for my new soul mate to feel the pull of nonphysical servitude and come to my rescue. Or two, follow this guy and see if it takes me somewhere more useful than a wasteland in finding help.
Before I can talk myself out of it, I sprint to the same booth and pick up the phone, unsure what to say. "Uh—hello?" I try, crossing my fingers.
"Velcome," says a campy version of Dracula's voice, "I've been expecting you."
How quaint, I think, as a sensation of weightlessness washes over me. Gravity returns and I gasp in a different phone booth, receiver still clutched in my hand.
"Enjoy Chimera's downtown," a woman purrs through the phone. She sounds suspiciously like Morticia Addams.
I push open the door and step onto the street. This is not the Chimera Alexander showed me in my dream. Seeping into the potted streets, broken windows and stooped postures of shuffling Nightmares, a grimy coat of neglect and sadness blankets the city, as if a big black sun is glaring down misery rays on everything. It's a pathetic replica of the enchanted metropolitan Alexander painted.
Even so—there's something in the air, like the thrumming of panic. It makes me feel like I'm walking through a giant haunted house.
Biting my lip, I walk forward, not seeing the dandelion man, or really anything that might help me. I shiver once and glance down at my arms. Vapor is rising from my pores as if I'm a cooked turkey letting out steam. I stare, mystified, until a soft breeze brushes over skin and carries the vapor away in thin tendrils.
"Whew!" a short man in a Frank Sinatra hat raises his head and sniffs. "You smell that, Bob?"
"Smells like human fear! Nice, a little tangy, and cool . . ."
"Would you stop? Look, we're at a portal. We'll be to the Edge in a minute."
I back away, gaping at my arms and hands. Was it my fear that rose out of my skin? I turn down another street and see the dandelion man moving through the crowds. His head bobs about a foot over everyone else's. Even if I find food and shelter, I'm also a human in the supposed Nightmare capital with nothing but the name Alexander Ira to throw around by way of barter. Some help wouldn't hurt and, well, he waved. I'm a little clingy when it comes to friendliness.
I follow him as best I can. He has an advantage, being so tall, where as I am short and skinny and very push-around-able. Once or twice I almost lose him, distracted by the twisted, odd stores and the periodic waste and destruction of the buildings.
Unfortunately, before we get wherever we're going, dandelion man notices me following him. He glances back and catches me staring. Blinking as if disconcerted, he turns forward, only to check several times in the next minute if I'm still there—which I am, even though I try and duck behind people when he looks.
The farther we go, the faster we walk. Soon I'm jogging to keep up with his long stride, until eventually he breaks into a run, shouting, if I hear him correctly, "This will not stand in the eyes of the king!"
"No, wait!" I cry after him, elbowing people out of my way. It's no use—he's faster, with his long legs, and people clear a path to let him by. It only takes a minute before I can barely see him at all. Just as my lungs are demanding I give up and end the chase, he leaps into an alleyway.
When I reach it, I lean on my knees, out of breath. At the end of the alley I make out what looks like a bakery, judging by the broken-hinged cupcake sign. Sunken into the walls on either side of the bakery are two shops—one is abandoned, with all the windows boarded up, but the other's door is not entirely shut—as if the last person to go inside was in too big of a hurry to close it properly. I move closer and read the window sign's gold, peeling paint: Crooked Books 'n' Nooks.
"A bookstore!" I hush.
I open the door and the skull head hanging on the doorknob bursts into villainous laughter to announce my entrance. It's still cackling maniacally when the bottom of a huge coat rack is thrust in my face. I gasp and jump back. My sudden weight against the door slams it closed. The laughter halts. Four wooden legs of the coat rack pin me to the door, the two under my armpits forcing me on my tiptoes.
"Who are you?" the dandelion man demands, bracing the other end of the coat rack against his shoulder like a rifle. "I know why you're following me. I have every right to live here, I'll have you know! Out with it! What do you want, Nightmare?"
I hold up my hands in innocence. "I'm not a Nightmare, I swear!"
His eyes narrow. "I have no proof suggesting otherwise."
"I—er, sure you do! My fear . . . it's . . . you can taste it?" It's hard to be completely terrified of him, with his suspenders and nineteenth century vest and glasses slipping off his nose, but a brief mist rose off my skin after getting trapped to a door by a coat rack. Even that's mostly gone, though. He just isn't scary. Whatever the thing was that made Alexander so terrifying, dandelion man has the opposite. The longer I'm with him, the more comfortable I feel.
He blinks, apparently surprised. "I can't taste your fear. I'm not a Nightmare." He shifts his gaze away, then back to me, as if unsure how to continue. "Didn't you know?"
I mirror his uncertainty. "No."
"Well—think of something happy."
"Your joy. That's how I'll tell." He nods. "What makes you happy?"
It's not even a question. "Books."
His brow arches. A smile starts to curl his lips. "Do you? What kind of books?"
"Every kind. But I love gothic stories the most."
It's like I've handed him Christmas. "Really?" He beams and lowers the coat rack.
I chuckle, I can't help it. "Really. Edgar Allan Poe is my favorite."
"Oh! I have just the thing—wait here."
He abandons the coat rack on the floor and disappears behind the rows of bookshelves, returning moments later with a thick volume in his hands, which he extends toward me. "These," he says reverently, "are Edgar Allan Poe's dreams. Unwritten, unrealized—but captured in his subconscious."
My eyes widen and I reach out for the book. My hand glows slightly. He pulls it back and I look up, confused. He's staring at me with shock and wonderment.
He stares so long, I finally ask, "What? Can't I see them?"
"I know that joy," he whispers. "V-Violet Darcey?"
"Yes?" I whisper back.
"Oh sweet Hynpos, you are her!" He groans and presses the book to his head. "This can't be happening. I can't believe—"
"What's wrong?" I raise a hand, now dull as ever, and take half a step toward him.
He jumps a mile high and thrusts the book out like a shield. "No—get back! Stay away from me, human!"
"Are you scared of me?" I ask, more to myself than to him.
"Take the periodicals, if you must—but spare the H.P. Lovecraft journals, I beg you." His hands, still clutching the book, quiver violently and he twists his head away as if expecting a blow.
"I won't hurt you," I say, feeling foolish just saying it. The only thing less likely to hurt something than me is perhaps dandelion man himself. "How did you know my name?"
Slowly, he blinks open his eyes and looks at me. It takes nearly a minute of deliberation, wherein I do my best to look as unthreatening as possible, and at last he lowers the book. "We're very good friends, you and I," he answers. "I suppose we wouldn't recognize each other like this, but we've spent a lot of time together."
He dips his head. "My name is Todd Florence Scrubb—though I answer more commonly to Gloom—and I," he allows a shy smile to grace his face and he bows, "am the love of gothic literature."
"Ilove gothic literature," I echo, mystified.
"I know." His smile takes on a shrewd curve. In two strides, he moves across the room and flips the tiny sign on the door from Open to Closed. "This conversation needs sitting, I think. Come, follow me."
In the farthest corner of the bookstore, a rickety metal staircase spirals up to the next floor. I trail behind Gloom, knowing full well what kind of things happen upstairs. That's where torture devices, insane wives and festering secrets are kept. To my slight disappointment, however, it's nothing more than a small room. A bed is shoved on one side and a tiny sink-counter-stove combination makes up the other wall. The equally small table in between his bed and kitchen is covered in notebooks and loose papers.
He pulls out the only chair for me and turns on the stove to heat up the black teapot on top of it. In one motion, he flips his garbage can upside down for himself to sit on and faces me across the table. His knees are drawn high due to the small size of the can, but he still has to peer down slightly through his glasses to make eye contact with me.
"Are you going to rip our reality to shreds, then?" he asks.
"That was not my intention, no," I reply, mimicking his solemnity even though the suggestion is laughable.
"Are you going to kill me?"
"Of course not!" I say, appalled. "I like you."
He blushes. "Well, I—oh, the, uh, the tea," he mutters and hurries to pour us both a steaming cup. Each mug is mismatched and not entirely cylindrical, but they do the job.
I sip mine and wince. It's hot and doesn't taste very good.
"May I ask, then, what you are doing here?" He says it calmly, but it's too deliberate, like ironed out tension.
"I don't know, exactly. I was hoping maybe you'd help me get home. When you waved, before, by the wall of electricity—I guess I liked you even then. That's why I followed you." Now, knowing he's the love of gothic literature, I wonder if I didn't recognize him as well, in some bizarre, subconscious way.
He nods, a little dazed.
"Don't worry," I add. "I can't bend reality, even if I wanted to."
He gives a tight smile. "Unfortunately, my dear, that isn't true. Your human subconscious can control the elements, transform matter, create substance. Anything, really."
"That's kind of awesome," I say, as disinterestedly as I can.
"Your joy gives you away, Miss Darcey." He swallows some tea.
I grin a little.
"Do you at least know how you came to be here?" he asks.
Almost instantly, my little flame pricks—the same one that ignited inside my chest when I kissed Alexander. It's like a constant, itching reminder of him, using any opportunity to bring him back to the forefront of my mind. In other words, it's not pleasant.
"A Nightmare sort of pulled me through the portal with him," I lie. Alexander broke a lot of rules with me anyway, so what's one more to the tally? I hope he rots in Nightmare prison.
Gloom's mouth opens in shock. "Why in Morpheus's name . . .? We should find this Nightmare, perhaps he can help us—"
"No!" I cut him off. "No. Look, I know I'm not supposed to be here. I begged him to take me through, and I just, I don't want to cause any trouble. I just want to go home, okay?"
I have to swallow, because if I talk any more I might cry. I do want to go home, badly, but I'll do it without Alexander. It's not that I want to save him from trouble. I just don't want to see him again. Ever.
"Oh dear," Gloom says.
Without my realizing it a tear slips out my eye and I reach up to touch it, then half-heartedly brush it away.
"Are you all right?" He seems so concerned.
I try to say something, and hiccup. My lip trembles. "I think my heart is broken," I end up saying. I'm pathetic.
"Oh dear," he repeats.
If I picture Alexander glaring at me with a disgusted Number Two Look, it helps me keep it together. Tears wouldn't move him to regret, and they certainly won't help me, so why bother?
Gloom stands and, without warning, wraps me in a gentle hug.
It's the best hug in the world. It warms me up from my toes to my head. He smells deliciously like old books. Automatically, I return the hug—which makes it even better. He pulls away after a moment and I whisper, "Oh, wow. That was amazing." I can't see myself, but I bet I might be glowing.
"Dreams are meant to give humans joy," he says, "It comes naturally."
Alexander said the same thing, in reverse.
"How about you spend the night here, get some rest, and in the morning I will personally take you to the Edge and we'll get you back where you belong?"
"Okay," I agree, relieved. It occurs to me that technically . . . I'm still asleep. But my body feels the fatigue of everything that's happened. I'm also a little hungry. "Do you think I can fall asleep here?"
"Oh yes. In the Isle of Morpheus subconscious is reality. As long as you're here, your body functions like its conscious version, for once it passed into this realm, that's what it became."
"Now, then." He guides me over to the bed, sits me down. "You go ahead and rest. I'll be downstairs when you wake up." He grabs his cup of tea and moves to the staircase.
I call out as he heads down. "Gloom?"
"Yes?" He looks back.
With a slight lift of his cup, he says, "My pleasure, after the many delightful meals you've given me." He leaves.
I lay back on his bed. It's lumpy, not particularly comfortable. I can't sleep, even tired and full of relief as I am that I'm not on the streets and will be going home soon. Is Alexander reuniting with his family right now? I hope he is. It will make me hate him a little less. I wonder if I even have a mind to go back to. What's worse, a tiny part of me wishes I could stay just a bit longer, even though I don't, and can never, belong in a place like this.
I roll over on my side and do what I always do to fall asleep. I pretend I'm in a gothic novel, making up the villain, my ill-fated love interest and how my destiny horribly, magnificently unfolds . . .
It never takes long. I sleep.