Once Upon A Nightmare

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doom and gloom

I've never heard of this holiday she's going on about. Whatever it is, my usual black attire is inappropriate, or so she says.

Wait—I pull back. I don't usually wear black. Because I'm not Alexander. And yet it's as if my emotions, not his, are reacting to the idea of the Dream holiday.

"You're gonna 'ave a very 'ard time getting past me family in all black," she answers, as if it's obvious, "And you're not dressing up like 'uck Finn. These is good 'oliday clothes, they is. I filched 'em from my cousin Phillip and they're actually really nice, and not too painfully Dreamish. I took that into consideration for ya."

I know this girl. No—I don't know her, but Alexander does. She looks like summer, with wispy blonde hair curling around her face like a halo, her nose and cheeks splattered with freckles like kisses from the sun. I sense, in my heart that is both mine and Alexander's at once, that we find her mysteriously appealing.

Her name is Enna.

"How kind." I put the clothes and hat on, sliding my hand over the rim like Zorro. However much I don't like the outfit, Alexander Ira doesn't do embarrassed. "How do I look?"

Enna gasps and clutches her clavicle in shock. "Oh. My. Sandy, you look so handsome! 'Oo knew?"

Sandy. That's her nickname for him. Only she calls him that.

I decide not to be offended by her surprise at my "handsomeness." Being in Merrymount is still uncomfortable, even after spending so much time there, and I'm at her mercy in her territory. She has yet to elaborate on what we're doing, exactly. "Do I have to have a different name? And are we related or do I get the pleasure of telling everyone I've got a crush on you?"

"No, you can go by Alexander, unless ya want to make up a fake name. And you can't be related! Everyone there is my cousins and aunts and uncles or their kids and husbands and wives and stuff. And we're goin' to the Jellybean Harvest Festival. It's the celebration of the Jellybean Harvest and it's my favorite holiday ever! It's so fun, singin', dancin', maypole-in', and so much food that it's just impossible." She pauses, sending me a sly look over her shoulder. "Why—do you 'ave a crush on me?"

The truth is, it was a joke, but now I'm not sure I'm kidding. I'm fairly positive I am, but I do like her—and she's . . . cute, sorta. In a puppy dog way. The problem is until now I've never been associated with anything on which I could use an adjective like 'cute,' and never, until now, liked puppies.

"What are you going to do about it if I do, Ennabelle Lee?"

"I was just foolin'! Are—are ya serious?" She looks like she might be slightly horrified if I am.

Suddenly, our walk is awkward. I pull the brim of my hat farther down my face against the sunlight creeping into the sky. "Yeah, yeah. Don't get your bloomers in a knot. I never said I did, I just asked what you'd do." I stuff my hands in my pockets. "I don't have a crush on you."

And then, since the morning is already looking bad due to celebrating a jellybean holiday and the only thing that will make it bearable is Enna's company, I grin at her. "But if I ever get desperate enough to have a crush on a Dream, you're at the top of my list."

Enna never takes long to shrug off tension. "Yeah? Likewise, I suppose. I mean, you're really the only Nightmare I know, so by default, that would make ya at the tippy of my list." The sun finally peeks over the horizon. "NO WE'RE GONNA MISS IT!" Grabbing my hand, she yanks me into a run and together we barrel up the hill.

Just as we get to the top, the sun dawns. As soon as its rays touch the bushes and flowers, closed from the night's darkness, they open up and drop a veritable rainbow of jellybeans into the baskets situated below them. The real glory is every single flower of every Jellybean bush opening in perfect unison.

Enna coos, the look on her face pure ecstasy. "Innit the prettiest thing in the world, Sandy?" she asks, shaking me by the shoulder. "It's the best thing ever, innit? It makes me wanna cry, almost."

Along with swarms of Enna's family and friends, we pick through the jellybeans, putting the good ones in a basket. "Do you have any Nightmare flavored ones?" I ask, after being fed a yellow bean Enna informs me tastes of sunshine, of all things.

Enna shoots me a disgusted look. "Why would anyone want to eat a Nightmare? First of all, eating anyone-flavored-anything is nasty. Two of all, Nightmares prolly taste like rhubarb. Which no one likes, not even granmas. Oh speaking of granmas, that woman, with the purple dress an' the crook? That's my great-granma, Bo Peep. She has a nursery rhyme named for her."

I smother my laugh. "I meant Nightmare themed, not Nightmares themselves. And I imagine I taste like pumpkin pie, thank you."

It's very hard to separate myself from Alexander, it's as if I am him, experiencing this. But I manage to pull away far enough to realize I'm seeing something I've never seen before.

Alexander is happy.

After an hour or so of this, it's on to games. Of course I haven't heard of any of the ones she rattles off, but I give her permission to involve me since I promised to participate. And, as she doesn't fail to remind me, I dragged her to the Halloween Masquerade. This is only fair.

One of Enna's cousins, twice removed on her mama's side, motions us into a crowded game of Blind Man's Bluff. "Hey guys! Girls out, En's gonna be the blind man!"

The girls step back, forming a circle, and Enna spares a moment to beckon me over, before bounding into the center to get blindfolded. The cousin who invited us over spins the blinded Enna three times to get her nice and dizzy, before darting back into the circle. The game is on.

I'm pretty sure it has something to do with kissing. I don't think I want Enna to kiss me and I definitely don't want to lose, but if it's not me, then it has to be somebody else, and I don't like that much either. One of the younger boys tugs on my sleeve.

"Yer s'posed to run, dummy," he said.

"Right, thanks." I back up a few paces, keeping an eye on the other grinning boys and a stumbling Enna.

"Left, Eleanor! Left!"

"So close!"

"Grab him, Enna!"

On the other side of the circle, an older boy is grinning, getting shoved toward Enna, and not looking like he's putting up much of a fight. Does he want to get caught? Or—perhaps the better question—does he want to get kissed?


"Whew—did it just get hotter out here?" One of the girls complain.

I maneuver through the swarm of kids until I'm close enough to the unsuspecting Dream boy to stick out my foot, discreetly of course, and send him tumbling to the ground. Except, in my triumph, I put myself right in the line of fire, too late to do anything about it.

Enna stumbles over a bit of uneven ground, grabbing the arm of the figure in front of her. My arm. She pulls me closer and leans in to kiss me. She catches the corner of my mouth in a blind attempt at a cheek-kiss, and she immediately pulls away, pressing her fingers to her lips in shock.

She knows exactly who she's captured, not only from my blazing skin temperature, but my decided lack of sugary Dream-ness. She blushes, and she isn't the only one. My own face warms with the foreign feeling of embarrassment.

"Sand—" She stops, as if realizing how pathetically quiet that was. She clears her throat, and declares in a much more triumphant voice, "Sandy!"

No one can confirm or deny this, since no one knows me.

"Who's 'at?" somebody asks after a minute.

"Bingo," I whisper, and tap her nose with a finger.

She almost reverently hands me the blindfold, which I stare at with dread. "I hope you were payin' attention when I was naming off my folks." She looks positively devious. "You're gonna 'ave a rather 'ard time I think. Unless you want to give up already."

"Never," I reply and take the blindfold from her hands.

The boys spin me around and I try to pinpoint Enna, but all the lace and bows feel the same. I catch one girl and plant a kiss right on the lips, then incorrectly guess her name to be Daisy (it's Sarah), and I am spun again.

As I stumble, one of the girls calls out, for no apparent reason: "Ouch! Enna, that's me foot!"

From the opposite direction, Enna's confused voice says: "W-What?"

I laugh triumphantly under my breath. She's toast. I spring with more strength than is probably required for a fun game of Blind Man's Bluff, tackling Enna to the ground. We roll once in the grass and I place a noisy kiss on skin as soft and fragrant as rose petals. Distracted, I linger a little longer than I mean to.

I cough and lean away. "Yuuccck . . ." I smile underneath the blindfold. "Must be Ennabelle Lee."

I jerk awake, sucking in a tight breath. It wasn't a bad dream, but I'm still glad to be out of it. It was so real, and so . . . not mine. It was more like a memory. Alexander's memory.

I slap my face, then scrub it with my hands as if to wash it free of Alexander's visage, just in case. My emotions are doing cartwheels—Alexander's sharp affection and blossoming attraction and my jealousy and fascination seeing this side of him all mixing into one.

With a groan, I push myself upright and glance at the one small window in Gloom's attic room. It isn't dark outside, but there's no sunlight. The door to the staircase opens and Gloom comes in. He looks like a 1920's aviation hero or at least some kind of campy adventure idol, goggles on his forehead and brown leather gloves almost to his elbows.

"Good morning!" he says. "How did you sleep?"

"Okay. I had a weird dream."

"That's odd," he remarks. "I didn't think you—"

"Where are you going?" I interrupt. I don't want to talk about the dream.

"I'm venturing forth," he says dramatically, "to find your mind in the Edge to see if we can figure out what the problem is."

"No! I—" The loud grumbling of my empty stomach follows his announcement.

"Oh my." He blinks. "You're a human . . . you need food. Perhaps I shall venture forth after we get you breakfast?"

"If you don't mind," I say, biting my lip. I don't want to tell him my mind might be poisoned, because then I'll have to tell him everything else. I hide my hand and the spot of death, which has grown larger since yesterday.

"I have just the place. We can get you something to eat before we go to the Edge."

Just the place is the bakery on the other side of Gloom's bookstore. He pushes the door open and I trail behind him, releasing an immediate sneeze as the smell hits my hose. It doesn't look or smell like a place meant to sell baked treats. To be honest, I didn't expect anything bright or cheery, but this is like Madame Butterfly's lair gone sour.

Moth-eaten curtains hang from the ceiling and provide a thick, velvet labyrinth that Gloom navigates with the ease of someone who visits often. Glass cases that at one time may have held doughnuts now display a wide variety of relics and odd trinkets—a skull, a blackened banana peel, a string of bright blue marbles, a pile of glittery-red dust. Paintings and strips of paper with symbols and pictures decorate the walls.

"Sweeney?" Gloom calls.

I hold my breath. In succession, I hear beads rattling, a train whistle and the metallic twang and thud of a blade burying heavily into wood—theme music, apparently, for the accompanying arrival of a young girl. I jump back, not just at the unexpected appearance, but at the long-handled ax embedded in the floor by my feet.

"Jumpy, isn't she?" her voice, hoarse and self-important, whispers.

With a tiny hand, she grips the handle of the ax, pulling it free as easily as if it were a kitchen knife in butter. It isn't an axe after all, but a chipped, rusting scythe, similar to the one the Grim Reaper uses to cart off mortal souls.

She grins and I shiver. She's my height, possibly a little shorter even, and dressed in a Victorian gown that looks as if she hasn't taken it off since the year it was made. Her hair is wiry old person gray and piled high on her head like Marie Antoinette. Frayed bandages conceal the upper half of her face, barely leaving the tip of her nose visible. The rest of her face, the lower part, shines like a flower in a field of ash. In direct contrast to her hair and apparel, her skin is a pale, glowing ivory complexion. Her lips are candy-apple pink, her teeth white and straight.

"We're actually looking to purchase some of your wares," Gloom explains.

Her upper lip twitches. "I don't think you know what my wares are, Todd," she says. "I assume . . . you need food for the little human girl."

Glooms looks nervous. "H-Human, who said human? I didn't say—"

Sweeney shoves her scythe by Gloom's face and his denial dies off into a squeak. "I know everything," she hisses, then turns it to threaten my personal space as well. "Everything."

"I'm just hungry . . ." I mutter, eyeing the rusty blade.

Sweeney swings the scythe into the ground between us. "Don't move."

I'm not sure what she means to imply by lodging a dangerous weapon into the floor before she leaves, but I barely let myself breathe.

She comes back holding a plate of gray dog-droppings. I only use the metaphor in my head to categorize the unknown substance, but upon tasting them . . . I have no doubt they actually are gray dog-droppings. I force down as much as I can and hand the plate back.

Gloom, who looked progressively nauseous watching me eat, pats my shoulder. "We should be on our way, don't want to hit rush hour—" As he starts to leave, Sweeney's scythe catches him around one of his suspenders and his greenish face falls into a submissive grimace.

"It won't work," Sweeney says. "Her subconscious is still ruined. If you put a mind—" she gestures at me, "—back into a broken subconscious, it dies."

Gloom and I exchange looks. "How do you—" I begin, before the scythe tears right through Gloom's suspender and rests on the tip of my nose.

"My good suspenders!" Gloom sighs.

"I know everything," Sweeney repeats, before slowly lifting the scythe off my nose. "I wouldn't try it, if I were you. You need to find the Stitch in Time."

"The Stitch in Time?" I ask. I glance at Gloom. He seems as confused as I am.

"Long ago," she intones, "the realms were separated. The land of Dreams and the land of Nightmares. You remember, don't you Todd?"

"Yes," he says darkly.

"When King Jack combined the two realms, a suture formed between them to hold them together. You need to find a loose thread. If you jump through that, your mind will have nowhere to go but back to your body." Much like a sheepherder with a crook, she hustles us toward the exit with her scythe.

"Now, look here, Sweeney," Gloom tries.

"Find the king," are her last whispered words to me before she shuts the door behind us.

"How peculiar," Gloom mutters, more to himself than to me, hands on his hips.

With a sigh, I turn toward the alley opening, watching the open street. Nightmares of all colors, shapes and sizes walk past. "How exactly does one go about gaining an audience with the king?" I ask. Before Gloom can answer, I glance absently to the side and see Alexander rush by.

My heart stops.

I chase after the figure who may-or-may-not-be Alexander without second thought or backward glance, Gloom's bewildered shout at my back. Clearly, the whole never ever thing was just Violet-In-Denial. For a minute, I can't find him. I only saw his side, for such a miniscule amount of time, it could have been nothing but a product of my imagination.

But then—ahead of me, I glimpse again the familiar line of his nose and jaw in profile. I sprint and reach him, out of breath, and grab his arm. "Alexander—" He stiffens beneath my hand and I feel the warning in the subtle gesture. A warning I don't heed. I turn him toward me and he rotates with the force of my pull.

The face that frowns at me is unmistakably the one I've grown to love and hate, but the cold, hard eyes are not orange. They're an icy blue that couldn't be less like Alexander's.

"I'm not Alexander," the imposter says—with annoyed emphasis, since I'm still staring open-mouthed at him, my hand on his arm. I let go wordlessly.

The longer I stare, the more obvious it is. So obvious, in fact, I feel stupid having mistaken them. Aside from the eyes, his hair is long (though the same midnight black color as Alexander's), pulled back at the nape of his neck. He's so still, I'm not sure he's even breathing. The reserve, the precise control, is the thing least like Alexander.

But his face. It's the same. Even his eyes burn the way Alexander's do, despite the different color.

"You look like him," I let him know, in case it might be new information.

The first change in his stone-like expression is a small lift of his eyebrow. "So I've been told," he answers. His voice is also different than Alexander's—low and rich, and at the moment, frosty with sarcasm.

"You know him, then?" I ask, hating the eagerness that infects my tone.

Slight confusion causes the barest of lines between his brows. I can't tell if he thinks I'm stupid, joking, or both.

"What's your name?" he asks, voice softer than before. Without the sarcasm, it sounds like dark honey.

"Violet," I reply. "I really need to find him, I—"

The blue-eyed Alexander shakes his head, holding up a hand to stop me. "I don't know what he did or didn't promise you, Violet, but—"

"He doesn't know where I am, could you—"

"Stop," he snaps, and my mouth shuts. He sighs and looks like he pities me."I'm sorry, but if he hasn't contacted you yet, he isn't going to."

Wait a minute. What does he think happened?

"It's not like that. We're not, you know—" I blush, moving my fingers together to demonstrate. "—with each other." Unless you count soul-binding as with each other.

"An enemy then?"

"We're friends," I say in exasperation.

He gives a short, nasty laugh. His eyes sweep over me. I'm suddenly very self-conscious about my little frame, big dark eyes, and somewhat sleep rumpled hair. I probably look like a stranded woodland creature to him. "Friends? Alexander doesn't have friends, he has playthings."

I flinch—that one struck close to home. "Look, who are you, anyway—his guardian? Just tell me how I can find him."

He crosses his arms over his chest, much like a parent would when they get seriouswith a mouthy child.

"I'm his brother," he replies. "But I'm not protecting him, I'm protecting you."

I frown; does he want me to bestow a lady's favor for his gallantry or something?

"Just leave it alone." He turns to leave. "You'll thank me."

He walks away and I watch, flustered, before shouting after him, "Wait!"

He doesn't look back or even pause. I can't let my only contact with Alexander just walk away. I follow him.

He's not as tall as Gloom, but twice as good at clearing a path. It's like there's a two foot radius around him no one dares to cross. I glower at his back, envious, and try and move fast enough to keep him in sight.

We arrive on the scene of a destroyed building. A gaping hole yawns in one side. All the windows are shattered and piles of debris clutter the sidewalks around the base. Nightmares mill in and out, repairing the damage where they can and cleaning up what they can't. Magic, I'm discovering, isn't romantic at all. It's grim and deceptive and built on a layered foundation of unpleasantness.

"This is the second attack this month," a burly Nightmare complains. "And still, the king does nothing."

"I say we don't wait. I say we pay Merrymount a visit and give the Dreams a taste of their own medicine."

Alexander's brother rolls up the sleeves of his white shirt. Another non-Alexander trait. Alexander wears all black, head to toe; with thick black eyebrows and black lashes, he looks like he's drawn in charcoal. His brother, in his romantic-hero white shirt, walks into the ruin and immediately the two Nightmares who were complaining converge on him, gesturing, explaining, protesting . . .

I slow before I get too close, observing from a distance. He listens and answers each one individually. He doesn't say much, still with that eerie quietness about him, but I see the stress lift off their faces and they nod in gratitude. They leave and he walks through the hole opening.

I go in after him, coughing and squinting as I adjust to the poor lighting and wreckage everywhere. I find him examining a burnt door frame.

He doesn't look up, but I get the feeling he's perfectly aware I'm there.

"Listen," I say. He responds by yanking the frame out of the doorway with a splitting crack. I let out a pathetic squeak—but continue anyway, voice shaking. "I'm not leaving until you tell me how to find Alexander."

Now he glances at me. I think I see a trace of a smile. "Fair enough." He throws the frame on top of a pile of collected debris and disappears through the door.

I follow. "What's your name?"

He ignores the question. A few Nightmares scurry past and he stops one of them, asking to borrow their broom. He turns and hands it to me. "If you're going to be in here, you need to work, not just follow me around."

He's known me only minutes, but has managed to find a job suited to my skill level. I take it from him. The handle feels awkward in my hand.

"What do I sweep?"

"Everything you can move with the broom."

"Super." I test it out on a small pebble by my foot. It rolls a few feet away and stops.

"Well." He puts his hands on his hips. His face is so serious, and yet, I have the strange feeling he's laughing at me. "I know it's not as easy as it looks. You'll get the hang of it."

I follow him to the next room, sweeping pebbles and dust, watching him as much as I can without seeming creepy. With his long hair and non-smiling expression, he has the mysterious, brooding thing going on that accompanies all the tragic heroes in my gothic novels.

"So, what happened here?" I ask.

"Dream attack," he replies with a weary tone, like maybe this isn't the only mess he's cleaned up this week.

"Why did they attack?"

A thousand words lurk beneath the look he gives me, yet it's as indecipherable as a dead language encyclopedia. My whole body grows hot and itchy under his lengthy stare. By the time he speaks, I'm convinced he knows everything about Alexander, about the curse, and probably all the details of my seventeen years until this moment.

"You're not from here," he says. It's not a question.

I suspect a lie will be ineffective, at best. "No," I answer.

"And what brings you away from home?" he asks. He doesn't say where he thinks home might be, but what if he knows?

"Actually . . ." I scuff my foot absently on the ground. "It was sort of an accident."

"With Alexander," he says, "what isn't?"

It's weird to realize someone else knows Alexander, that he's not just a figment of my crazy imagination.

"Armand?" A lanky boy, skin glittering with gold dust, runs into the room. "There's a bit of a problem with the—oh, sorry—hang on—" He sneezes and his body bursts into a cloud of gold. I gasp, horrified, but I'm the only one. Alexander's brother waits patiently while the golden boy rebuilds himself.

"Sorry," he says, once he's back together.

"Not a problem."

"So, anyway—the top floor's got half the roof caved in and it's shaky going in, we're just not sure . . ."

"I'll take a look," Alexander's brother says. "Give me a minute—don't let anyone else in, if it isn't safe."

The gold boy salutes and flashes me a grin before jogging off.

"So." I squint at him. "Armand. That's your name?"

His brow lifts in mock innocence.

"Are you French?" I continue and his lips twitch in amusement.

"Malheureusement non, ma chère," he answers in what sounds to me like perfect French. I frown in frustration and he smiles. "I'm afraid not, dear."

"Yes. Well." I rack my brain for any language prowess I might have. "Nostach be Orch gaer."

He raises an eyebrow. The expression looks remarkably different than Alexander's condescending and arrogant version of it. "What language was that?"

"Elvish." Thank you, Tolkien.

"And what did you say?"

"You smell like ten orcs."

He stares for a moment, then bursts into unexpected laughter. It's a nice laugh, soft and rich like his voice. "Come with me," he says, motioning with his hand.

I follow him outside, back into the—well, not sunlight—but open air. He tears a poster off a nearby wall and hands it to me.

I read the faded advertisement, brow furrowing.

The Halloween Masquerade. Halloween? Is it the end of October already?

"It's tomorrow night," Armand explains. "Alexander will be there."

"Oh." My hearts starts into a rickety-rack pattern. My little flame shoots up in excitement—or dread. I nod quickly. "Good. Thank you."

"It was nice meeting you, Violet."

I look up. "You too," I say. Maybe we should shake hands or something. I don't know. But before I can wonder what the next proper social move is, he's gone, back inside the ruined building. I turn on my heel and run back to Crooked Books'n'Nooks.

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