A/N: So, I think some explanation is in order.
Firstly, I am Kisho; you may know me from my story DZ!. I am that girl who says nya. If you don't know, I am also the moderator of the site's top manga forum, best just called RAOSC!
Only the first chapter of this story is actually mine, nyah! This is actually a group project between many different members of RAOSC-some really famous on the site, some a bit more dark-horse types. We're each writing a new chapter for it every week, with no collaboration or corroboration on what direction it should take! It's a crazy nonsense adventure through the minds and styles of a dozen different authors!
So with no further ado, here's the first chapter of Sleep Tight, written by yours truly-Kisho!
On the Importance of Selecting a Roommate, by Kisho
Two months! Two months of sorting the arrangements out, talking to the landlord, getting her down payment ready, and of course, getting a realtor to take care of the silly little townhouse she was leaving behind. Two months settled on the right apartment complex, she'd found it right away, and fifty days settled on the right room, she'd found that almost right away. Eighth floor, beautiful view of the city, utilities included, plenty of space, soundproofed walls, and the landlord had told her it was even the warmest room in the complex during the winter—right above the heating units, which he'd assured her wouldn't make a sound she could hear.
Two months! And she'd only found out there was somebody else already living in it while she and the landlord were in the elevator going up to floor eight to visit it before the purchase.
"I don't see why you're so upset," he said, scratching the back of his thick neck like an oak tree.
"Why I'm so upset!? Two months! Two months, and you never told me I have a roommate! All this time, I thought I was looking at an empty room!" She threw her arms around the elevator cabin, forcing the landlord back into the corner. "Why didn't you tell me!?"
"Well, I…" He looked around the cabin, fidgeted awkwardly with his hands. "Tell you the truth, ma'am, I forgot all about him."
Ridiculous. Unheard of. "How did you manage to forget about him?"
"He's—he's an interesting man. He never stops to talk to anybody, and people don't see him often. He's dead silent in his room almost all the time. Apparently he's unemployed, but he doesn't seem to have any problems… he has rent money automatically deposited by his bank every month."
Marie stepped back, wringing her hands but saying nothing. The landlord, stocky Mr. Hans, rubbed the back of his neck again and stepped out of the corner she'd driven him into.
"Look, we have another room on the same floor, a lot like the one you're looking at. He said he's looking for a roommate, though… I thought you knew about him. It's a two-bedroom. What do you need a two-bedroom for if it was going to be just you?"
"I'm a musician. I wanted to repurpose the other room for a recording studio. That's why I wanted the soundproofing."
He nodded, quickly at first then slowly. "Well, you can talk it over with him. He's been paying the rent forever just by himself, so you could save a lot of money with…"
He trailed off, letting the thought finish itself. Marie scowled, though, as a thought struck her.
"What's he need a two-bedroom for, then?"
Mr. Hans looked left, then right, then shrugged. "He's a strange man."
Marie sighed, heavy, poisonous. "Fine," she said at last. "I'll meet the guy, at least. What's his name?"
The landlord struggled visibly to grasp at the man's name, and then, "Ethan," he said. "Ethan Wright."
Ethan Wright greeted her in his pajamas.
"Right charmed, very well charmed, really smashing to meet you, have yourself a seat wherever it pleases you." He paced around the room, his arms flying around in absurd gestures, his mouth running. "Anywhere there's room, anyways, bugger the mess, but whatever you're chuffed with. Long as it's not the table, not the bookshelves as well, not… blast, I'm making a mess of myself. Just have a seat and jolly well enjoy the thing!"
He was, bar-none, the most ridiculous man she'd ever met. He seemed to be racing from one thing to another as if he were on hot coals constantly, physically and in his speech. He spoke in a thick, horribly fake Cockney accent, cleared his throat every minute or so, and his skinny frame hardly filled the pajama jumpsuit he was wearing.
He had a handsome face, at least. Curly blonde hair, grey eyes that sparkled with a daring light, lips pulled into a slim smirk at all times. That was nothing to complain about. But his personality…
And the strangest things were the infernal books.
"Oh, do you like sofas? Do come along if you do. It's a smashing sofa! I got it from my aunt. You should have seen the looks on the movers' faces when I told them it was going to the eighth story! It was something like this…"
He turned around and made a ridiculous face at Marie, and tripped over one of the stacks of books on the floor in the process.
"Oh, blast it all!"
He fell through the doorway into the next room, which apparently had a sofa. Marie debated whether or not to follow him, and eventually decided against it.
That sort of a man might have been her roommate? If she hadn't had second thoughts when she first saw him, she was having hundreds by then.
Well, nothing that could be done for the moment, she thought. Maybe it would be best to just politely disengage as quickly as she could. Still, caught up in a glance of curiosity, she glanced around, slipped one of the books off the table, and ran her fingers across the cover.
It was a fantasy novel. An elf struck a pose on the cover. Melamin, it read. She checked next to it—another novel, called Touch. A girl with some sort of laser finger (a magic touch or something?) posed on the cover.
Hime no Uma, Styran Steeler, Vormund, Further than the Sky, they were all novels. She looked around just the one room—there must have been hundreds of books, scattered like Mr. Wright had put a tornado in charge of organizing them. Were they all novels?
So was he some kind of trust-fund kid who spent all his time just reading books?
Honestly, seemed like a pretty relaxing way to live.
Mr. Wright's curly head poked back into the room, and she nearly dropped Melamin with a gasp. "S-sorry," she said, sliding it back onto the table. "I just—you have so many books."
A strange look glinted in his eyes. Some sort of faraway stare, and then just as quickly as it had come, the childish glint reappeared. "You like books? I must confess I read a lot—probably more than I should, I do have work to do. Blooming brill way to spend time, though. Were you interested in that one?" He was beside her before she knew it, picking Melamin back up. "This piece found itself some mass readership, but the critics, they slammed it, sod all good about it they said. The author's rewriting it right now, actually! Maybe you've heard of it?"
He was holding a dozen books before she could register that he'd gone anywhere. He was like a blur.
"Brooding Guy, Quiet Girl? DZ!? Ghost Gunslinger? ORCHID? Big hits, all of them! You're off your trolley if you're not heard of one!"
Marie shook her head. "I'm not—I don't really read books."
A scowl crashed onto his face, and he dropped all the books. "Terrible shame, that. What do you do for a living, Ms. West?"
She crossed her arms. "I'm a musician. Singer-songwriter, and I play the keyboard and the guitar. That's why I wanted a soundproofed room."
"Brilliant!" he cried, and then he was in another room. Marie stared after him, waiting if he'd come back or if she was supposed to follow him. She made up her mind to follow him and got two steps forwards before he was back, another stack of books in his hands.
"These are books—novels—every last one of them, jolly well sure they're all about music. I'm sure you'd find them smashing! They're mostly romance. Do you like romance?" He peered over the stack to look at her.
"I said, I don't really read!"
"Don't really read means you do kind of read! When you kind of read, what do you read?"
He was persistent. "Nonfiction," she said. "I read about music. And a little bit about history, when I have some spare time…"
The faraway glint in his eyes again, and it was gone in an instant again. She found it stirring some kind of intrigue inside of her.
"I have some nonfiction, but I'm sure you wouldn't like them. I'll show them to you some other time. These books here, they're your required reading, you understand that?"
"Required reading?" She took a step back, put her hands up defensively. "What on earth are you—"
The books fell with a crash, and she gasped when he swept forwards and grabbed her hands. "Miss West," he said, "you want a place to stay, don't you? Sorry for dropping a clanger here, but if you're a musician, you're probably short on money!"
She bristled, but was too flustered to say anything.
"It gets me right here," he said, taking his hand off hers for one second to hold his heart in pretend anguish, "when you say you don't read! Ms. West, I see a lot of dreams in you. I should say I jolly well like you!
"How does this sound? You can stay here. It's your apartment as much as it is mine! I'll pay for the rent, pay for the food, pay for your music, pay for your taxi if you need to catch a ride, pay for your movie tickets if you've got a boyfriend you wanna take on a date—I'll pay for whatever you fancy, but I want you to read. These books. The required reading. And after that, I have some more for you, but it depends on what you're thinking after that!"
Her mind was running a mile a minute to keep up. "What in the name of… why!? And—and let go of my hands!"
He obeyed, and held her wrists instead. He honestly seemed to think that was what she wanted.
"It can just be a trial run," he said, "you can leave any old time you fancy. No obligations! I guess you don't want to stay here permanently. It's blooming hard for a dreamer like me to get a roommate, you know? Not that I'm lonely, but—if you don't fancy me much, you're going to have to find somewhere else to call home. But you can catch your winks here while you take a gander around at the other homes! You can stay here, and I'll pick up the bill. You've got nothing to lose, right?"
"Just the time I'll spend reading those books-"
"This apartment is twenty-two hundred dollars a month. If I'm paying all of it compared to making you pay half, that's eleven hundred a month saved reading books. That's not a bad deal, right? And that's before food and all the works! I'm not asking you to quit your job—wait, you're a freelancer, right, can you even quit your job?—but just read at nights, evenings when you come home."
Marie ripped her hands free. She rubbed her wrists red, glaring at him out of the corner of her eye. "Look, Mister Wright, this arrangement is impossible. I can't see what you have to gain from it. I don't trust you, especially not nearly enough to sleep where you can find me."
He looked like a kicked puppy. "You don't trust me?"
A little bit of guilt played up suddenly in her—he was so like a kid, and she felt like she would when she yelled at her little sister—but she swatted it away. "No. I'm sorry."
His face fell further, sunk deeper, and then lit up again for a blink with that mischievous glint. Marie, who had been in the middle of turning away, stopped.
"Well, if you want to put it that way… I may some motives," he said at last, in a tone that matched his eyes. Marie found herself turning back, her hand retreating from the coat she'd almost grabbed on her way out. "Just may."
"Yeah? Something more than just a reading buddy to keep you entertained?"
He stopped, crossed his eyes in thought. "Oh, bollocks. I think that is really what it all comes down to in the end. But listen to me, I am serious, you will not believe it—stay away from the door for one blooming sec. Listen here. I have a… hobby."
"Creeping the hell out of innocent women?"
"No! No, no." He put his hand to his forehead. "Oh, bollocks, blast it all. I don't know how to put it so that you'll believe me. I—yes, I've got it. I need to show you. It needs to be us, just you and me, late at night, and I'll show you."
She blanched, and reached for the door handle.
"No, no! Step back, three steps back. It's nothing like that, there's sod all erotic about this. I can safely assure you! I only play for the other team, if you catch my drift."
"Oh." Somehow it didn't surprise her.
"Look, Miss West, I need to prepare some books for you. And I have to wait until tonight before I can do it. I think you're perfect, Miss West, I can see the dreams in you, and I simply must see what a musician can do." He clutched his hands to his head, took them off, spun around, gestured madly, paced in the room like he was struggling to comprehend the enormity of a discovery. "I can show you, and then you can run if you like. I won't blame you if you do. Most people would. But just see what it is before you make the blooming decision."
"I'm leaving, Mister Wright. If you don't tell me right now what it is, then I'm not coming back."
"You'll think me potty. Hard and plastered, off my trolley!"
"Just tell me!" She restrained the urge to reach out and grab him by the collar, shake him until the answer fell out.
He sucked the air in through his teeth, and let it out slowly. "All bloody right. I'm a god of high fantasy."
Back in her cramped room with one dirty window in the townhouse, Marie sat in her nightgown in front of her laptop. The Call Connecting message faded in and out as she waited—one ring, two rings, three rings, and then her mom picked up at last.
"Marie, sweetie, you haven't called all month! You had me worried sick. Where've you been? What's been the matter?"
Marie sighed. The long screechy lectures again. At least it was something familiar, though, when she felt like nothing made sense anymore.
Mommy scowled through the monitor. "Marie, what's the matter? How come you haven't called? Don't tell me, you've found some sort of awful boyfriend and you never want to talk to me anymore."
"You know I wouldn't stop talking to you if I just found a boyfriend, Mommy. I told you I'm moving. It's kind of a lot of work, especially when you have to look at weird roommates."
"Oh, that horrid scheme you're doing. I told you, there's no reason to move down so far! You have your own home, and you want to go back to being some helpless kid stuck in a fat landlord's apartment? Oh, Marie, don't tell me your music hasn't been working out."
"Mommy, we've been through this a hundred times, it's just too expensive to pay the mortgage and the home repairs, and…"
"And with a roommate! She's going to swindle you, cheat you, stab you in the back." Her mom sighed. "But enough about that, sweetheart. So what are you calling about? You're still in your room, I see."
"Yeah. It's actually about the roommate in the room I was looking at. I visited today." Marie paused. "He's a gay fake-British self-proclaimed god."
Her mother's pupils shrank so small a flea would lose them.
"Marie, sweetie, have you been forgetting to take your meds?"
"It's manic-depressive disorder, Mommy, not schizophrenia." She ran a hand through her hair, battling with the knots. "At least, it's what he said. He told me he would show me if I went back tonight."
"That's what strange men always say before they do strange things!" her mother cried, clutching at her hair. "Marie, I hope you're not thinking of going back—or—anything other than just calling the police on him!"
Marie smirked. She'd never get bored of riling her mom up. She was even starting to want to go back, just to spite the woman. "I don't know, though, Mommy, he sounds like he'd be good for me. A gay fake-British fantasy god would probably give me some new perspectives on things."
Her mother blanched, and asserted her dominant tone. "Marie, you are not going back to see that man again! I will not have my daughter doing this!"
"Or what, you'll cut my allowance?" Marie grinned. "Don't worry, Mommy. I'll be packing heat, at least."
Marie ended the call, and gave a huge, satisfied sigh.
Through her introspection, Marie had come to realize that if there was one thing that could make her do something, it was her mother telling her not to do it.
Ethan Wright greeted her in a different pair of pajamas.
"What, are those your formal occasion pajamas?"
"Do not," he said, stabbing his index finger into her forehead, "knock the jumpsuit." A smile broke over his face a second later, assumedly forgiving her for offending his pajamas. "But I'm well chaffed, I say, to see you come back. I knew you had it in you. Can't say people believe the fantasy-god part well often enough."
"Of course I don't believe you."
"Works too. Either way, you're here now. Come now, let's move quickly. There's a jolly good lot to be done!"
Marie's mind was swirling when she followed him into the next room. Half of it was occupied with the strategy to quickest draw her gun and blow out his kneecaps if it came to it; half of her mind was occupied with what to expect from a so-called "god of high fantasy."
Her expectations in the latter were all wrong. It was a study. Just a study. Bookshelves lined the walls, and there was a recliner with a desk in front of it in the middle. A cheap office chair was pulled up next to the armchair. Thick books sat on the desk.
"This is it? This is your fantasy god throne? A La-Z-Boy? In paisley?"
"Do not knock the paisley, as well." He took a seat in the office chair, and gestured to the armchair. "Have a seat, Miss West."
She stood, still, silent, debating. All at once, her mother's tirade came back to her, and she took the seat.
It was a comfortable seat. She didn't feel any godlier sitting in it, though.
"Okay, I suppose it's about time I explain things to you. Frankly, I shouldn't say I'm a god of fantasy. There's all a very well scientific explanation behind everything, science hanky-panky I couldn't follow for sod all. It is more or less clear-cut, sure-as-Shirley fantasy, though. Say, you sleep sometimes, right?"
She decided not to answer that.
"All right, let's assume you do, since I haven't met anyone who hasn't. Jolly good. Furthermore, do you, perhaps, have dreams, to boot?"
"I dream sometimes…" She frowned.
"Brill. Look, reality is made of two things, two sides to all things—like light and dark, heads and tails, fish and chips. There's the physical, and there's the mind. The unbearable, bloody brilliant power of the human mind! We each have our own inner universe of quasi-existence. Together, the seven point one or so billion human beings on this spectacular planet have a tremendous amount of quasi-existence residing in the mind half of the universe.
"The problem with the mind half, though, is that we are too attuned to the physical half to tap into the mind half. When we're young, we believe in Santa Claus, we have our imaginary friends, and then we're trained out of the mind half—why, you'll get boxed around the ears and a jolly fool made of you if you believe in Santa now! But Marie—" he caught himself, and crossed his eyes in thought. "Beg your pardon. May I call you Marie?"
Caught up in the onslaught of his words, she nodded dumbly. He grinned.
"Smashing. Look, Marie, say I believe in Santa Claus. Do you believe in Santa Claus?"
"Of course not."
"Why not? Does he not exist?"
Marie scowled. "Are you here to convince me that he does?"
Ethan turned, and pointed at one of the bookshelves. "How about that bookshelf? Blooming brill piece of work, isn't it? Is it real?"
Marie said that it was.
"How do you know it's real?"
She sighed. "This is a stupid game."
"Just play along, Marie!"
"Fine. I can see it. I can go over there and touch if I wanted to. And it's obviously real! I'm not hallucinating!" She frowned. "Well, I might be hallucinating up a gay 'fantasy god' who's talking to me about Santa Claus."
"If I took it into the next room, would it stop being real?" Ethan grinned at her. "Then you wouldn't be able to see it. You wouldn't be able to touch it. But it's still real, right? Of course it bloody well still is real! But you wouldn't notice if it vanished, would you?"
Marie couldn't see or feel her gun. She was counting on it remaining real, though.
"So tell me how that bookshelf is any different from Santa Claus! It and that fat jolly bastard are both things you can't see, you can't touch, you can't hear, and you don't really get presents from on Christmas morn. They both exist in the mind half of reality.
"Whether or not the bookshelf is physically there, if you believe it's there, you're more likely to buy books to put on the thing! You're a poor sod if you buy some and find out the bookshelf only existed in the mind half, but I do digress. The fact that you believe it is there is enough to change you and the world around you, and so it is very much real and a thing as much as you and I are, whether it is physically there or if it is not! The mind half, Marie, is very much just as real as the physical half."
Marie paused for a sour moment. "So you just believe you're a fantasy god, and that's 'just as real' as if you were."
"Well, in a sense." He grinned. "But why not? What's the problem with that?"
She crossed her arms. "In that case, I'm a fantasy god too."
He took her utterly off-guard with a shout. He was on his feet, holding her hands again.
"Yes, Marie, that's it exactly! I want you to become a fantasy god as well. That is why you are here, that is why I want to give you the books that will force an expansion of your mind half, that is why I am willing to pay any price to get you to stay here and merge your halves of reality as I have done mine! Marie, I want you to be a fantasy goddess!"
She gave him a look of horror. "The hell's wrong with you!?"
He burst out laughing. "Everything! Oh, Marie, you silly thing, I think you still don't really understand. But you will. Can you guess why I wanted you here at night?"
"Because you're a sexually deprived creep?"
"I told you, I'd never take a fanny over a willy! No, no." He sat back down, letting go of her. "Can you imagine when the border between the physical and the mind is the blurriest?"
She rubbed her wrists for the second time, watching him with a cautious gaze. "Is it… when you're dreaming?"
"Smashing! Abso-bloody-lutely brilliant. Yes, Marie. Right now, you are in my bedroom."
"Your…" She craned her neck in either direction, looking around the study. "Your bedroom? It royally sucks."
"My bed is that very paisley La-Z-Boy you're sitting in right now. That, little bird, is my portal to immersion in the mind half of the universe. By sleeping in a secluded bedroom, a world devoted solely to sleep, the mind there remains forever distinct from the physical. I sleep in the middle of my life, with my tomes of fantasy and imagination before me. It all blurs together to the point where, honestly, my dear Marie, I don't even know if you're a dream or not!"
It should have sounded silly, but there was something chilling behind what Ethan said. She found herself shuddering, and her eyes drew to the desk.
Further than the Sky again. Next to it, Elemental Warriors, and then Bladeless.
Was he looking to dream these things to life?
"Of course, I'll take your word that you are a physically real construct, and even if you weren't, what would it matter? What I do trust, though, is that you can dream. Marie, truth be told, I am like a statistician studying the permutations of a single die for three years. It has six possibilities! I know that! I am bloody well through them all!
"I have become master of my own mind. I am in control of the realm my mind can dream up, but it is limited. I have become the god of my fantasies, but they can only go so far. What I am about to propose is utterly absurd. Complete bollocks! Nothing but cobblers! But I believe it is true, possible, what-have-you. I think that our inner universes could be connected."
Marie looked up suddenly, harshly. "What kind of creepy mumbo-jumbo is that? Are you going to invade my mind?"
A grin spread across Ethan's face, small at first, and growing larger and larger until his teeth seemed to glimmer in the ruddy light from the table lamp. "Quite the opposite! Rather, for the most part, you will be coming into mine."
"Even worse! Your mind is the last thing I want to see!"
He burst into laughter. "Smashing, smashing! That's the dog's bollocks, absolutely, I jolly well fancy that lip of yours! I'm sure you'll think rightly otherwise once you give it a try." He leaned forwards and put his hands on hers, and she noticed she didn't shudder that time. "Marie, this could be it. If we could join our inner universes, why, there should be nothing we wouldn't be able to do! The combined power of our mind worlds, and then those of whoever else may join… it'll be smashing!"
Marie frowned at him, and muttered, "And in a paisley armchair in a dingy apartment in Queens, a new universe was formed, huh?"
"Well, the first thing you have to do, Marie, is learn to believe. What makes it impossible? Come! There are a million worlds in these books, and if we can harness the brilliant power of the mind half, we can make them bloody well real! What've you to lose?"
He held her hands, and he looked into her eyes with the same glint in his that had lured her in.
"Come and dream, Marie!"
And somehow, she found herself saying yes.