With a piece of black chalk, Stitch Mouth outlined a broad circle on the white marble floor. “This circle represents the real world.” She tapped the center. “In it, you have your house and your school and all the real things in your life.” She drew another circle, separate from the first. “There is also a dream world, which is represented by this second circle. But it does not consist only of dreams. You see, regular dreams, the common ones you dream most nights, happen in the real world, the first circle. And they’re just, you know, regular dreams.” Stitch Mouth scratched her head with the chalk. “This is kind of hard to explain.”
“No, you’re doing good,” I said. “This is helping. So, that second circle is only a dream world?” I asked, encouraging her along.
“Yes.” She pointed at the two circles separately. “Real world. Dream world.” She continued to point the chalk at the second circle. “Dream world. This is where everything in your dream feels real. Your home feels like your home. Your body feels like your body. This is where the witch does most of her haunting before coming into your real world, the first circle. It is where she prepares children before taking them by making them afraid, so afraid they go crazy or want to give up.”
“I know the feeling. I did both.”
“They all do.” She continued, “The dream world is where you dreamt of the witch in the most vivid of ways. But here, in the dream world, she does not have power to actually hurt you. Just to haunt. Does that make sense?”
“So far, I think. So, when the witch was eating my bedding, that was in the dream world.” During the past few nights, Stitch Mouth had forced me to tell them everything I could remember about every single time the witch had made an appearance in my life.
“So the witch can go to both worlds?”
“And right now, we’re in the dream world?”
“No,” she answered, smirking at my immediate frustration. “If we were in the dream world, it would more than likely mean that only one of us were dreaming. Because for three of us to gather together in the dream world would take a lot of luck. It is a confusing place.”
Balloon Girl interrupted by pointing at Stitch Mouth and then at me.
Stitch Mouth laughed. “That’s true! If one of us is dreaming, that means we have dreamt Balloon Girl into a ghastly skeleton girl.”
There was a pause. Balloon Girl was saying something else.
Stitch Mouth responded, “Yes, we know you would never dream yourself into a skeleton girl. You would never do such a thing. I’m sure you would dream yourself into the fairest girl in all the land!” Stitch Mouth said dramatically as she teased, then said to Balloon Girl, “We’re very afraid.”
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said, you’re darn right I’d be the fairest girl in the land.”
Stitch Mouth giggled. She then drew a third circle, which connected the first two, forming an interlacing sliver of space between. “This is the third world. It is where we are now. It is the world of the witch. It is very real, yet can feel very much like a dream. The witch lives here, and it permits her to travel between the other two worlds. It is how she comes into your deepest dreams. It is how she comes through your bedroom window, bringing her world to yours and your world to hers.”
“Weird.” It was the smartest thing I could think of to say.
She smirked. “Yes. Weird.” She tapped the third circle. “We have been permitted to be in her world, and to manipulate it with our tricks. We have also changed some of this place, this third circle, with our memories of how things once were. Weird, right?”
I smiled. “Very weird. Okay, so why can’t we just stay in the real world and not let the witch take me into her creepy gross world?”
Stitch Mouth looked disappointed.
“That was pretty stupid, wasn’t it?”
“Maybe a little. But tell me why it wouldn’t work.” Stitch Mouth was at it again, forcing me to think.
“Well, we know the witch isn’t going to just give up. Plus, she has the ability to go between all three worlds. So, she’d have a lot of ways of getting to me.”
“Yes. Her ability to inhabit all three worlds is her trick.”
“So, what is this place?” I asked. “Like, what is this third world?”
“Some of that remains a mystery. It began as a small place. But it has grown over time.”
“With each child taken, this world expands to include the world of that child, and is built from their reality, their first circle.”
“That’s terrible! So, the witch can find other kids easier each time because she can go further out into the first circle.”
“Yes.” In the center of the middle circle, Stitch Mouth sketched out a house and thin trees. It creeped me out a little, as if drawing it made the witch’s house even more real. Finished, Stitch Mouth put the chalk away and zipped her purse shut.
“But how did the witch get her own little world in in the first place?”
Stitch Mouth sat upright, hands on her knees. “Well, I know very little about that as well. But there was a man with golden eyes. He came one night to the house of the witch, back when it still existed only in the first circle. When I saw him, I hoped the man had come to rescue us, but he barely glanced our way. He made a deal with the witch.”
My puzzle became infinitely bigger. “What deal? What man?”
“Well, when the witch began stealing children, she made a deal with the golden-eyed man so that he would grant her what she wanted most: a place where she could never be found. They agreed on terms. The man provided her this third circle and this world we are in now. However, there were rules given that even the witch must abide by.”
“That’s good. What rules?”
“To begin, the witch is not permitted to leave her own house until the sun has fully set in the world of the child she is hunting.”
“Like starting a race.”
“Yes. Like starting a race. And each night, the witch is at her door waiting for the race to begin.”
I looked over the three circles again, going over the new details in my mind. After a moment of attempting to sort everything out, I said, “Everything is more confusing than ever.”
Stitch Mouth chuckled. “You’ll understand soon enough.”
“I don’t think I want to understand. I just want it to be over.”
“Yes.” Stitch Mouth looked to Balloon Girl. “We have wanted that for a long time.”
“Why can’t we just trap the witch somewhere?”
“I’m sorry, Sarah, but that answer remains the same – the witch always finds a way.”
“I wish you didn’t always say that.”
We stood from the floor and began walking towards the couches to sit. Seeing Balloon Girl remain by herself at the door, Stitch Mouth called out, “Come with us, you silly stubborn girl!”
Balloon Girl barely glanced back.
Stitch Mouth said, “Yes, I’m sure it’s safer with you standing there, but I don’t want to be in the same room with you, yet feel like you’re so far away. Oh, stop that nonsense and come here. Oh, you stubborn girl!” Stitch Mouth rolled her eyes in aggravation. “Balloon Girl thinks we don’t want her to spend time with us.”
“Of course we do,” I said.
“See!” Stitch Mouth said to Balloon Girl. “Now, stop being you and come over here. What does that mean? Well, you are certainly the most stubborn girl I’ve ever met in all my life. Yes, I am very aware that I grew up in the woods and didn’t know many people. Come here!”
It was my fault. For all the ways I had shown my apprehension toward Balloon Girl – all of which had disappeared – I had made her think I preferred her at a distance. I asked, “Will you come sit with us?”
“See, she wants you to.”
“Please?” I asked again.
Balloon Girl waddled over. We sat together.
“When you left the room last night, after talking about your family, I was worried you were upset with me.”
Stitch Mouth shook her head. “I wasn’t upset with you, Sarah. It was just too much for me. It hurts to remember. That’s all.”
“You wouldn’t be back here if it wasn’t for me,” I said.
The thought had never crossed her mind, I realized. “Nonsense, Sarah. We are here because we want to be.”
Balloon girl slapped her hardened palms together, gaining our attention with the loud noise. Then Balloon Girl dragged her index finger across her throat.
“No,” Stitch Mouth said to her.
“What?” I asked.
“You can tell me.”
Balloon Girl slapped her hands again, almost angrily, mouthing words.
“What did Balloon Girl say?”
“She said I cannot sugar coat everything all the time. That I have to remind you about the true reason we are here.”
There was no confusion. “I have to kill the witch,” I said.
“And if I don’t.”
Lifting her chin to expose her bone spine, Balloon Girl traced her finger over her throat one last time. I didn’t know if she was referring to the witch, or us.