i: a dream is a wish your heart makes

I approach my bed like a matador, like a lion tamer. If my t-shirt sleeves were longer, I would push them up my elbows and strike a boxing stance. Violet Darcey, I think, a nightmare's worst nightmare.

I pull my arm across my chest in a stretch, though I think it's safe to assume I'm not going to be straining any muscles while I sleep. The gesture gives me the illusion of embodying Rocky, rising to vanquish his foes.

If this doesn't work, I'm going to have to buy a BlissMax pill. Dad will freak. Anything that smells even vaguely of brainwashing puts him on edge. But they're not expensive and I don't need adult permission to pick some up at the drugstore, so he doesn't have to find out. Normally, I'm cool with placating his extreme version of reality, but after three nights in a row of nightmares, I'm exhausted enough to resort to desperate measures.

The first night, I was like, Sucks, but whatever. We all get nightmares. Or we used to, anyway, before BlissMax. The second night I was like, I think it's a good plan to turn on every light in the house and not sleep ever again. The third night I was like, sob, sob, sniffle, louder sob.

Tonight I have one last resort. It's a trick I made up as a kid. It started after my dad let me watch Jurassic Park when I was seven (not even the worst of his parenting oversights). That night, twisting and sweating under my sheets as I fled from carnivorous dinosaurs, I beat back my first nightmare. In my dream, I was crouched behind a rock and saw the shadow of the Tyrannosaurus Rex silhouetted on the cliff side next to me. With sudden clarity, I knew it wasn't real, but I wanted to escape experiencing it. I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could, clenched my fists near my temples, and forced my eyes open. It was hard, like pulling free of tar, but I remember it working.

So, that's the plan. If things get dicey, I'm going to wake myself up. I hope it works. I'm tired in a way I didn't even know I could be tired. If it doesn't, I'm going to have to join the throngs of addicted-to-fantasy BlissMax users.

Even though it's late September, it's still hot in Nevada, so I crack my window open, let in the breeze. Snuggling into my covers, I close my eyes and remind my tense body—so uneager to sleep—that we can get out if we want.

My aching mind drops out in a matter of seconds.

In my dream, I'm chasing someone. The panicked way I hunt for this person makes me think someone is chasing me, but no one is. I'm scared I won't find him, but more scared I will. If I don't find this monster, this demon from hell . . . I don't know, but the uncertain outcome grips my heart with terror.

The dream rushes on in an anxious haze. When at last I corner the monster, I know it sees me. It will kill me. Hot fear comes with this simple truth and makes me feel sick. The beast charges and bites into the side of my neck. As the bolt of pain slams through my body, something tells me those I love are next.

I pause in a moment of clarity amidst the fear. Those I love? As in, more than one?

I'm dreaming. I know I am.

I'm so scared I can't breathe. The monster and I are locked in some sort of sick embrace. Sharp blades sprout from his body and slowly, slowly, press into my skin. Soon they will puncture.

I'm dreaming.

Wake up, I tell myself. I do what I did with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. I clench my eyes shut, pushing deep enough so my dream eyes connect with my real eyes, closed in a safe bedroom that smells of books. Then I snap them open, trying to pull myself upward out of the dream.

It doesn't work all the way, but I catch a glimpse of a familiar bookshelf, nearly too dark to make out. The dream, as I slip back into it, seems less real. The monster is still eating me, but I feel no pain. I shut my eyes again.

One, two . . .

"What are you doing?" The monster whispers. It sounds surprised.

Three.

I force myself awake. I'm still half dreaming. Between rapid blinks of consciousness, I hear the words, "You're waking up . . ." The voice is astonished. I see the eyes, nose and lips of the monster, and then I am home, in my bedroom.

"Oh—" I gasp and sit upright, as far away from my pillow as I can get. "It worked," I whisper. "I did it."

I pace around my room, so triumphant, it chases away the leftover fear.

Still. I look at my bed, reluctant. I don't want to go back to sleep. But if there's anything the trick has taught me, it's that once it works, it works. When I go back to sleep, the dream will not be the same.

I'm tired enough not to argue with myself. And anyway, I think, if I have a bad dream again, I'll wake up, just like this time.

With that comforting thought, I'm asleep in seconds.

"That was an impressive trick," a dry voice says. A young man, the presumed owner of the voice, is sitting with his legs crossed and leaning toward me in an intense, uncomfortable way.

"What?" I automatically lean back. He's still close enough to touch. What trick? What is he talking about? My mind searches for the background, the story behind our conversation.

"There's no story," he says. "You're dreaming."

"What?" I say again. "I'm what?"

He snaps his fingers by my face. "Come on. You can do it. You did it before."

I swat at his hand, trying to focus. He's staring at me with eyes the exact color of fire; the kind that scorches and lays waste. His face is all angles and shadows, like a gothic castle. Impatience simmers just below his pretended calm expression.

Instinctively I know he's something to be feared—it feels like seeing a rattlesnake or looking into a black pit. Some things are dangerous. I begin to back away, the panic snowballing bigger and bigger in my chest.

He reaches out to my arm. His touch burns and I flinch. "Ssh," he soothes. He offers a smile that looks like the silver fittings of a coffin. A pleasant trimming to help ease the severity of its subject. "I won't hurt you." He comes to my side, sets his hands on my shoulders. "You're dreaming, remember?"

It's sinking in, what he's saying. Bit by bit, I remember my life in the real world, remember waking up from my nightmare only . . . minutes ago? Seconds?

"I'm dreaming." I look around. Blackness surrounds us. Nothing and everything at once.

"There you go." His voice in my ear is husky with a slight rasp, like the very breath in his mouth is smoke. He squeezes my shoulders, too hard. I wince in pain.

"So," he says, coming around to sit in front of me again, "as I said—very impressive, pulling out of your nightmare right at the climax—in the very deepest stage of sleep. A uniquely strong mind." He smiles that coffin smile again, so I think he means me to take it as a compliment.

I don't answer and he continues. "But I was thinking, what an even better idea might be . . . instead of taking yourself out of the nightmare, why not take the nightmare out of you?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"Take. The. Nightmare. Out." He says it even slower, this time with hand gestures and a smile that's starting to look like cracked porcelain under his frustrated eyes.

I shake my head, feeling the panic rise again. I want to do what he says if only to get rid of him, but I don't know what he's talking about. "But this isn't a nightmare. And anyway, a nightmare isn't—it's not . . . not a . . . thing." Not like trash you can pick up and toss out. "I'm sorry. . ." I murmur, trying to get away.

"Wait, wait." His hands are on my shoulders again, forcing me down. "Imagine with me for a moment that your nightmare is a thing. Imagine it's a walking, breathing entity. Imagine it is talking to you." The words come out through clenched teeth.

I stare at him. His face is close to mine . . . breathing. Talking to me. "Are you my nightmare?" I ask.

"Let's imagine that I am."

I shudder, thinking of the monster. This dream is nuts. And it is a dream, I'm now completely positive. It's bizarre, being this aware of the fact I'm in my own dream. I find myself wondering, for a second, what I will have for breakfast when I wake up, if there are any clean bowls left . . .

"Focus!" my 'nightmare'snaps. The nice mask burns clean off under the heat of his glare. I see plainly how much he'd like to force my attention by painful, physical means. "I don't care what stupid cereal you're going to eat for your stupid, human breakfast."

"Okay," I relent, shrinking. "I'm focusing."

Not that it helps. What am I supposed to do? He's a part of me, a figment of my imagination. I should be able to turn him to dust or something.

Disgust crosses his face. "I am a figment of imagination, but I'm not a figment of your imagination. I'm not a part of anything remotely related to you."

"You're definitely not something I created." The words come out a wounded mumble, not haughty and snappish as I intended. "I don't know why I'd choose to talk to myself as such a jerk."

I'm trying to be as rude as he is, but if he notices, he's not impressed. "Let's go." He snaps his fingers in that irritating way again.

This time, I reallytry to get him out. Closing my eyes, I picture him and picture my mind, then I kick him out. If a nightmare is a thing after all, then it is like trash—and this one is of the rotting food variety that stinks up your kitchen. An invisible hand plucks him up and tosses him aside like a moldy banana peel. Gone.

I check. He's not gone.

Come on. Closing my eyes, I mentally shove at him. I huff and puff a pretty formidable mind wind, and even feel a little out of breath when I finish.

When I look, he's rubbing his eyes, muttering something like, "Mother of Morpheus."

He stands and with one hand on my upper arm, hauls me to my feet. "What about this?"

I turn and see a giant grandfather clock, three times my height. It's broken. The spindly black hands on the clock face aren't moving. The splintered body, where the pendulum should have been, looks like it got struck by lightning. The gash in the side causes the clock to tilt to the right. "Can you fix this?" he asks.

I don't even know what it is. Except a broken clock.

"I don't think so," I say.

"Neither did I," he whispers. He props his forearm on one side of the clock and rests his head on his wrist. His body deflates and the temperature in the air goes down with his sagged posture.

Without a word, I back away. I turn around and run, only to come up the other side of him in about ten steps. I try again, but it's like a bad Alice in Wonderland parody. I can't leave. Anywhere I go, I end up in the same place.

The nightmare boy hasn't moved, doesn't pay attention to my attempts to leave. Mission having failed, there is apparently no reason for him acknowledge me further.

I watch him for a while, then try to wake up using my eye trick. It doesn't work. I'm not desperate enough. "So . . ." I say into the silence. "You're my nightmare?"

"No." He straightens from his slumped position and looks at me. The fire is gone from his eyes. He looks defeated, uninterested. "There's no such thing. You're talking to yourself right now."

"Right." He must have come from the deepest, darkest crevices of my subconscious, then. "Did I name you?"

He cringes. "No."

"Well, can I name you?"

"No."

"I have to call you something."

"Or you could not talk to me."

"I like the name Carl." I pause. He doesn't react. "Hey, Carl—"

He growls, cutting me off. "Alexander," he snaps, then sighs. "Alexander is my . . . name."

"Alexander," I repeat. He has a name. I can't help considering him, at least briefly, as a separate entity, existing in my mind and yet not a part of me. "I'm Violet."

"I know."

"You want to play a game?" I'm thinking twenty questions, the ABC game, rock-paper-scissors—anything, really, that we could do to pass the time in this black void of boringness.

He tenses, like a slimy worm is working its way up his spine. "What?" he asks in disbelief. "You want me to play a game . . . with you?"

I can't tell which is more revolting to him—the game, or me. Probably the combination of the two. He seems waiting for me to realize this.

"What?" I rub my arm, annoyed and embarrassed at the same time. "You're not bored?"

He considers this. "I guess since we're already talking," he mutters to himself. He thinks and seems to decide he doesn't hate the idea. "Do you know how to play chess?"

"Uh . . ."

Before I have time to answer, the ground erupts like a zombie grave and gigantic chess pieces spring up around us. The knight horses have red eyes, the bishops are wielding bloody crosses and the king and queen are decidedly gross, eyes falling out and everything.

It's all very Tim Burton meets Harry Potter, and a part of me secretly loves it.

But I'm also about a tenth of their size and have never played chess before.

"I can't play chess. I don't know how," I say honestly.

Alexander seems disappointed. And also debating on whether or not my knowing the rules is going to stop him from squashing me into the ground. Finally he shrugs. "You pick the game then."

I sift through the storage of my late childhood memories, not coming up with much. I know the basics: Monopoly, Go Fish, and the like . . . but each time I imagine how Alexander may want to play the game, it becomes less appealing. I need something ultra kiddie. So sugary and fun there's no way to turn it into a nightmare.

It comes to me. "Candyland," I say.

"Candy . . . land?" he echoes. He doesn't look like he recognizes what I'm talking about, but the name alone is enough to wrinkle his nose with aversion.

"Yeah," I drawl, stretching my arms in an attempted display of arrogance. "I rock at that game."

He snorts, but my little show does its job. He takes the bait. "Fine by me."

"It's a big, colorful board game with lollipops and gingerbread houses—" I start to describe, but he waves me off.

"I'll find it in your memories."

After a minute, he flourishes a hand and a path of blocked colors appears and curves away from where we stand. Trees spring up on either side of us, dripping with syrupy sweets.

"Are you sure you used my memory?" I ask, dumbfounded. The landscape in front of me is Candyland, but maybe after a bloody civil war. It's ravaged, dark and looks altogether unadvisable without adult supervision. And how I look is possibly more frightening. I'm wearing one of the dopey kid costumes, with red and white striped shirt, blue overalls and big, floppy shoes.

Alexander spared himself the cutesy overall outfit. He's dressed in swashbuckling black and crimson, vines of ropey red hanging off his shoulders. Lord Licorice. On the game board illustration, Lord Licorice lives in a creepy mansion with bats coming off the turrets, the only bad guy in the whole game. Guess who'd been my favorite character?

"How do you play?" his lordship asks.

"You draw colors," I explain. "Whatever color you draw, that's the space you move to."

Pretty simple. Candyland was designed for children who only needed to know minimal counting to play.

"If you draw a character, you move to their spot, even if it's backward," I add.

Alexander extends a silver platter to me with a deck of cards stacked in the center. I draw a card off the top and glance at it. Double-blue. Around the curve, the second blue square lights up.

"Well," I say, hesitating. ". . . see you later." And I stroll forward in my lame costume, over purple and green and red, past the wooden sign that reads, 'Gingerbread Plum Trees', and lift a hand to wave to Plumpy, but he hurls a rotten plum at me. It hits the ground by my foot and splatters my shoe.

"Hey." I frown. The next plum catches me in the shoulder. The purple juice stains my shirt, soaking through the cotton fabric.

Plumpy tosses a third plum up and down in his palm, then stretches his arm back for another throw. His long fur is matted and stuck in clumps with plum juice; his eyes yellowed and dripping. I stare with open-mouth alarm until he launches the plum, and then I run. I go right past the illuminated blue square and collide with an invisible wall.

"No cheating," Alexander calls pleasantly.

I blink to recover my spotty vision, on my back and breathless. What in the name of Dorian Grey? With a grunt, I sit up and twist my head to look behind me. Plumpy's retreated into the branches, camouflaged except for his yellow eyes. I shiver.

"Your turn!" I yell back. I want away from Gingerbread Plum Trees, and the sooner Alexander moves, the sooner I can too.

He draws an orange square, which lands him right on the end of the Rainbow Trail. How convenient. I can see barely see him as he tips his hat at me and strolls across the shortcut.

The platter holding the cards appears in front of me, hovering in mid-air. The top card is a candy cane, the icon for Mr. Mint. He better be nicer than Plumpy, I think, gritting my teeth.

As I pass into the Peppermint Forest, the temperature plummets and a frosty breeze brushes over my skin, raising goose bumps along my arms. I lick my lips and taste mint in the air. Candy canes rise high from the ground on either side of the path, leaned in so their curved tops form a sort of archway above me. Up ahead, the lit candy cane square lies in wait, casting a pink glow over the white ground. I slow. Where's Mr. Mint?

He appears from the candy cane trees, at least double their height, and straddles the path. Shards of broken candy cane rain down like little knives and I cross my arms over my head to shield myself. The debris tears through my sleeves as if my shirt is nothing but toilet paper and the tiny wounds sting in a very real way.

I have to strain my neck to see Mr. Mint's face. The scarlet stripes around his limbs bleed into the ivory and look like—well, what else, dark red and wet?

He raises his axe high over his head and swings down. I dodge—or shriek and trip trying to get away—but the invisible walls stop me from leaving the path. His axe sends a tremor through the ground. Teeth chattering, I crawl between his legs to the glowing pink candy cane square.

But Mr. Mint isn't done. Finding me gone, he swings his axe out in a wide arc and relieves half a dozen candy cane trees of their top halves. He roars and through the downpour of peppermint I see the axe whistling toward me. My hands fly over my face and I shout, "Stop, stop, stop!"

Mr. Mint stops. Or misses. Anyway, I don't die.

I peek through my fingers. Lord Licorice crosses his arms. Behind him sits Mr. Mint, docile as a kitten, sucking on a candy cane.

"Problem?" Alexander asks.

"Yeah," I say hotly, indignant now that a candy cane axe isn't threatening the connection of my head to my body. "There's a problem. What's the matter with you? This isn't Candyland, this is some kind of . . . of . . ."

"Nightmare?" he supplies.

"Yes." I huff. My breath comes out in a short cloud.

"Imagine that."

I wipe my running nose with my sleeve. "Are you . . ." I swallow, try again. "Are you really a ghost . . . nightmare thing, in my head? Is this real?"

He sighs. "No," he replies after a long moment. "This is just a weird dream."

"I want to wake up," I whisper to myself.

"You're going to."

"I am?"

His head tilts, lips counting silently. "Right . . . now."

It's as if his words pull a trigger. The dream yanks out from under me, lifting my mind back into reality despite my surprised attempts to hold on. In a matter of seconds I'm fully awake. I close my eyes to see if he'll come back, but in the next instant, my alarm goes off.

Morning light spills through my window. I only have a few minutes to lay there, the alarm clock blaring in the background, before I have to get ready for school. How did he know I would wake up?

Or did I know? It's my mind after all.


author's note: Thanks, in utmost sincerity and as ever, for reading. OUAN will be posted in its entirety on a T/Th/S schedule. However, it's also up on Amazon. If you have money, and feel like using it to support me in my writing, you can buy it there.