The invisible dome that encased the Dream Realm burned blue beneath my gloved hand. My magic ached to be released from its rigid confinement—to return to the spiritual place deep in my chest, where it could fuel dreams once again—but this barrier was the only thing standing between me and the Nightmare Realm. Or, more specifically, from the things lurking there. Grotesque or beautiful, animalistic or humanoid, it didn’t matter. Each and every nightmare held their own special brand of terror waiting to ensnare an unsuspecting Dreamer.
From this close to the wall, I could easily see into the Weaver’s realm. Rolling hills stretched into the distance, and a small stream snaked through the low plains, which were colored in muted greens and blues. The knee-high grass tinkled an eerie, hushed melody as the breeze rippled across it. Hooked barbs, hard as steel and sharp as razors, grew along each blade, invisible to the naked eye. Beyond the hills lay an endless array of landscapes with their own vicious traps.
None of the Weaver’s creatures roamed among the swaying grass tonight—at least none I could see. Still, something felt different. A layer of anxiety prowling beneath the calm.
I ignored it the best I could and continued my nightly security inspection—if not to protect the Dream Keeper, then to protect her world. Although, if I were being honest with myself, it was no longer the Day World I was concerned with saving from legions of deadly nightmares.
It was the Dream Keeper herself—Nora.
Nora, who would be hunted for the dream I’d placed inside her five years ago—the exact contents unknown even to me. She held the end of an invisible leash keeping the nightmares in the Night World, and the Weaver wouldn’t hesitate to regain control of it. Even if that meant helping the creatures slip their collars entirely.
I rolled my shoulders and turned my attention back to the barrier. The worry I carried was ridiculous, a waste of time better spent elsewhere. Nothing more than paranoia. The shields were secure, the Weaver still bound to his realm, and the key to unraveling it all was safely hidden in Nora’s mind.
Even still, my magic knotted inside me. Wrong, wrong, wrong, it seemed to whisper, insistently. Tendrils of it slid down my arms, flowing from my fingertips. The glimmering beach vibrated beneath my feet, and thousands of pieces of sand floated into the air. Two feet. Three feet. Four. Until the air was filled with sparkling flecks. With a deep breath, I flung my arms out wide, fingers splayed to propel a fresh layer of my magic into the existing barrier. It shot outward, clinging to the dome, and strengthened it in a flash of blue.
With the beach undoubtedly safe for Nora, I looked inward. The cords connecting me to each Dreamer that knew the legend of the Sandman spanned out like a million silver harp strings. Some connections glowed bright, their owner already asleep. Others idled, dull and dreamless, while the person on the other end remained awake.
I knew exactly where to find the cord that led to Nora. Even if I hadn’t found it every night since we met, the dream I gave her was made of my magic, and it begged to return home. I tugged off my gloves and reached out as if to touch her cord—as if it were a tangible thing, instead of something spiritual. The silver and navy flecks covering my pale hands shimmered brilliantly.
Unlike Nora’s cord.
“What’s taking you so long?” I whispered to myself. She was never awake this late. We met in the same place on the other side of the realm like clockwork.
Suddenly, a shadow raced toward me in a blur of black and yellow fur, and I froze. Baku was my only ally in the Night World, even if it was by default. “Enemy of my enemy” and what not. But he knew the rules. He wasn’t supposed to be here when I was expecting Nora to arrive. If she ever discovered there were darker things outside of these walls, it would invite trouble.
The chimera dug his tiger paws into the sand, skidding to a halt before me. Baku snorted through the elephant trunk situated between his ivory tusks. Large ears flapped twice on either side of his brindle face, and his cow-like tail snapped back and forth behind him.
I stopped breathing the moment I met the worried gleam in his eyes.
“Something’s going on in the Nightmare Realm.”
It wasn’t a question. Baku spent most of his time on the other side of the barrier which meant he had a front row seat to whatever had happened and there was no reason to challenge his judgment. “Wh—”
The Weaver’s maniacal joy shot through me, snaking around my fear, strangling it, and I staggered back a step. I hadn’t been able to feel the Weaver since the binding. His magic was always traceable, but never his emotions. Dread pooled in my gut. I tried to shove the other sensation out, to pull instead on his location, but his magic registered in every direction. It was like trying to pinpoint the dream cord of an insomniac.
A streak of gold shot across the sky. It splintered its way through the stars, spreading, thinning, and fading. Magic thrummed through my veins, frantic to escape. To rise and protect. To defend. Baku pranced nervously at my side.
“Sandman.” A gentle voice traveled down the cord. “Help me sleep.”
“Nora.” Her name fell from my lips as a single, strangled breath. I clenched the leather gloves in my hands. She hadn’t asked for my help in years. Years. I gaped at the barrier in awe, utterly perplexed. Checking on the Weaver was important, but so was aiding Nora. If one was safe, they both were. I swallowed hard and drew a leather pouch from my belt loop.
“Find the Weaver,” I told Baku. I tugged my gloves on again and snapped the hood of my tunic up over my brown curls. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Baku gave a curt nod and rushed back through the barrier without pause. Even if he had his hands—rather, paws—full, trying to devour a thousand nightmares tonight, Baku would help me find answers.
The cord between Nora and I grew taut as I careened along it to her bedside. Despite my best efforts not to, my breath still hitched when I caught sight of her platinum hair against the dark sheets. I reached a gloved hand out to brush a few strands from her temple but curled my fingers at the last moment. You shouldn’t, I admonished myself. This is off limits.
I didn’t creep around in bedrooms, and I certainly didn’t touch anyone without their knowledge. Not even Nora. Especially not Nora—even if my chest did ache for the smallest hint of physical contact. It was my own fault we never touched, never high-fived or hugged or held hands. It was one of my rules, my lies, to keep distance between us. A lot of good they did. My body still jolted every night at the first glimpse of her and the adrenaline coursed through me long after she woke every morning. I’d spent an eternity watching people dream of love, but I never understood the appeal until Nora. None had come before her and I knew with absolute certainty that none would come after.
“I don’t know why you needed to call me tonight,” I said, keeping my voice low. Though she could neither hear nor see me, I fumbled for the edge of my hood, retreating into its shadow.
“But, my magic will take you to the beach. You’ll be safe there.” Please be safe there. “I’m sorry, Nora. But I’ll see you soon.” Reaching into the ever-present pouch, I pinched a bit of sand between my fingers. “Remember to keep a true heart and a true mind, and that the power of the dream is yours.”
Then, I promptly sprinkled the glimmering flecks over her eyes and whispered, “Sleep.”
My throat seized, and I choked back the awful truth of what she was, of what I made her, and what consequences we might be facing for it now. After escorting Nora’s consciousness to the beach, and once I’d ensured that she was safely inside the barrier, I slipped through the surrounding shield into the perilous terrain of the Nightmare Realm. I flew through the tall grass toward the center of the Nightmare World amid a chorus of harsh metal clinks. The tiny barbs stabbed through my pant legs and pricked against my leather boots. Each cut into my skin was like a slap with a hot poker, but it was a small price to pay for a chance at reaching the Weaver’s Keep in time to stop whatever was happening. The scent of burning wool ravaged my senses. His magic. Strong and undeniable. A sure sign that his binding must have worn thin—too thin, given how little time had passed.
The Day World was still warded against the Weaver’s power and would remain so. That is, as long as he didn’t find Nora. However, just because he couldn’t open the doors without prying the information from the Dream Keeper’s mind, that didn’t mean he couldn’t knock.
Shadows danced in the soft warmth of the white mini-lights strung around my bedroom. I hopped around my bed, fumbling with the buckle on my sandals, and tossed my purse in the corner. Something hard—probably my phone—thwacked against the light blue wall.
“Whoops,” I muttered, then growled at the metal hook locking my footwear in place. There were places to go, people to see. Or, rather, one person, and it was already hours past our usual meeting time. I jerked at the stiff strap. “Get off.”
Finally, it popped, and I kicked it triumphantly into the corner with my bag. The other came off without any trouble, and my stomach fluttered in anticipation. I tugged off my jean shorts and stepped into a pair of plaid pajama bottoms, leaving on the ribbed tank top I wore out tonight. Who cared that a glob of nacho cheese stained the front? The Sandman certainly wouldn’t.
Climbing beneath the cool sheets, I dragged in a long breath and released it slowly. A small grin played on my lips as I stared at the lights hanging overhead. Then I shut my eyes and waited. Waited for sleep to claim me. To deliver me. But my body was too tense, and my mind still flipped through the day’s events—as ridiculously boring as they were. When the highlight of your day was painting your nails a new color, what was there to mull over?
After a handful of long minutes, I opened my eyes again and bit my lip. I could ask. It had been… Actually, I couldn’t remember the last time I asked him for anything. Even this. But I had to be up early for work tomorrow and we’d already missed out on hours together. A grin crept across my face.
“Sandman,” I whispered, and closed my eyes again in preparation. “Help me sleep.”
It came swiftly then, sweeping me gently from my world to another as easily as the breeze carries a feather. I curled my toes, feeling the powder-like sand of the Sandman’s beach beneath my bare feet, and opened my eyes. The endless blanket of bright stars, the luminescent waves, the Sandman… This place, this dream, was like coming home.
“Sorry I’m late,” I called with a smile in my voice. The light aroma of lilacs filled my lungs and I sighed, content. “Natalie and Emery dragged me to a party to celebrate our final first day of summer vacation.” By this time next year, we would all be high school graduates and legal adults—neither of which I was ready to think about. I stretched my arms over my head and fought a yawn. “Sandman?” There was no reply. I dropped my arms and spun, searching for a glimpse of the familiar black-clad figure. This was our spot—the place directly below the brightest star. My brows lowered in confusion. So why wasn’t he here? He was always here. “Where are you?”
The only sound was the soft hush of waves lapping the shore. I turned again, squinting down the beach, but there was no hooded figure in sight. My heart skipped a beat. The dream seemed to yawn open, the emptiness pressing in on me from all sides. He had to be here somewhere. A pit formed in my stomach, and I staggered back, unsteady. He had to.
The beach was an addiction I didn’t know how to cure myself of—didn’t want to cure myself of. For every time I had to pretend this place didn’t exist, the Sandman was there to absolve me of the lies. There to make me feel like I was good and sane and normal. It didn’t matter that he was also the reason I didn’t feel any of those things were true when I was awake. The Sandman was my anchor, holding me firm when life tried to wash me out to sea. Without him… I swallowed hard. Without him, I would be a ship without sails.
“Sandman!” I jogged down the water’s edge, my pulse drumming in my ears. “I’m here.”
But he wasn’t.
The clock on my nightstand glowed green, the colon blinking in a slow, torturous rhythm. I tapped my fingers on my stomach. The Sandman had never been a no-show before. And if he wasn’t there, maybe that meant they were right, and he wasn’t real.
I refused to believe that. My mother meant well, but I couldn’t face a lifetime of pill-pushing psychiatrists. One white-haired doctor tossing around words like personality disorder and delusional was enough. By the time the final doctor deemed the Sandman a simple outlet for me to process my parents’ divorce, the damage was done.
Don’t worry about it, he said. It will pass, he said.
That was five years ago.
The divorce was a distant memory. My father moved across the country and my mother remarried, but the Sandman became a permanent fixture. One I’d learned to never, ever talk about.
What’s going on? I pushed the thought toward the Sandman even though I knew he couldn’t hear me. There was only one call that reached from this side of the Dream World to his, only one cry capable of bringing him here, but it never stopped me from trying.
I flung the sheets back with a huff and grabbed an oversized Lund Valley Community College sweater from the end of my bed. Natalie hoped we would go there together next year but… I wrinkled my nose and glanced at the dresser drawer where my sketchbook was carefully tucked between scarves. If I went to college at all, it would be for art, but that was a big if. No one in my family knew I drew, and if my mother was going to let me major in something “impractical,” she would want to at least see my work. Unfortunately, each page featured a majestic beach and a man hidden beneath a hood. Both things I was supposed to have forgotten long ago.
Tugging the sweater over my head, I made my way through the dark hallway toward the stairs. My mother and step-father were both working the night shift at the hospital and my sister could sleep through anything, yet I found myself tip-toeing down the hall.
I paused outside Katie’s door and listened to the steady, heavy breathing on the other side. Part of me wanted to wake my sister up to talk about what happened, but the other part of me—the part that remembered the piercing fluorescent lights of a therapist’s office—knew better. Katie had teased me about the Sandman when we were younger, but she never treated me differently. However, now we were older. Barging into her room to complain that my imaginary friend hadn’t shown up that night might alienate the last blood relative I could rely on.
Although Katie annoyed me like no one else, I loved her more than I was irritated with her. I needed my big sister on my side—even if it meant hiding a huge part of my life. So, I stepped away from her door and crept silently downstairs to the kitchen.
Maybe because I was about to steal someone’s box of frozen Thin Mints.
Sorry, not sorry.
Mist curled out of the open freezer, and I reached behind the chicken before a shrill, heart-wrenching scream tore through the house, squeezing the air from my lungs. It was made of nails and teeth and death. Of danger and fear. My eardrums rattled. Each nerve stood at attention, electricity buzzing over my body.
“Katie?” I yelled, frantically abandoning my pursuit of the cookies.
Confusion laced the edges of my shaky voice, but I was already racing across the kitchen. Instinct twisted my gut, telling me to turn and run, to save myself, but I couldn’t. Not if my sister was in trouble. Not if someone had broken in when no one was home to help. Not if Katie was hurt and scared. I propelled myself up the stairs to the second floor, my skin itching me to go faster, faster, faster. Katie’s door was still shut at the front of the hallway. My breath shuddered, and I reached for the handle, pausing with apprehension. The metal was cold in my palm.
“Katie?” Her name came out as a crackling whisper and I forced myself to inhale. Then exhale. Inhale again. My hand shook as I twisted the knob.
I eased the door inward. Without a barrier between us, the sound cut through me like a knife. I slapped a palm against the wall, hitting the light switch, and flinched at the sudden brightness. At what it might reveal.
Katie lay flat on her back, her eyes shut tight, with the sheets snarled in a ball at the end of the bed. Sweat poured down her face, plastering her pink hair to her skin. The wild scream continued, unrelenting, her jaw stretched wide, her neck muscles protruding. But everything else was in its rightful place. Nothing was broken. The lock on the window hugged its latch.
I stepped into the room and spun, bumping into the dresser. My pulse thrashed; it mimicked Katie’s scream in pendulum beats. Loud then muffled then loud again. “Katie?” My voice felt tight. I knelt on the mattress and shook my sister’s broad shoulders. “Wake up.”
The scream cracked. Katie sucked in air as if she were drowning and began again, just as terrified. I used the back of my wrist to wipe the moisture from my forehead. My nails dug into her shoulders, and I shook her rigid body with every ounce of strength I had. The more I yelled her name, the more desperate, more savage, my voice became. Black spots danced in my vision. Nightmares were one thing, but this was something else. Something beyond that. I shook the dizzying fear away and darted into the bathroom across the hall.
I returned with a Dixie cup of cold water and leapt onto the bed. The water hit Katie’s face with a splash. “Come on,” I shouted to no avail.
I fumbled for Katie’s cell phone on the nightstand. If our mother didn’t know what to do, she could send someone who did. My thumb hovered over the direct number to my mother’s unit when a quick, metallic burst of air whooshed in from the hallway. A shiver ravaged my spine, and Katie’s pitch reached new heights. I slipped from the bed, my hip smashing into the floor. The phone fell from my hand, seemingly in slow motion. I lunged for the door, and slammed it shut, leaning my back against the wood.
I couldn’t think.
Couldn’t... I couldn’t...
The walls seemed to shrink, boxing me in. Trapping me.
Above the screech, a deep chuckle rumbled in the hall. My heart rose to my throat, and I dove for the phone where it had landed on the rug. I managed to dial nine before Katie’s scream cut off. Palpable silence penetrated the room. My rapid breathing mixed with my sister’s, and I edged up onto shaking knees. Katie rolled onto her side with a twitch.
“Katie?” My voice came out as a squeak.
She snuggled into the pillow, and her breathing returned to normal. Okay. She was okay. I turned my attention to the space at the bottom of the door. There was probably no one out there anyway. My sister’s screams threw me off after a confusing night, that’s all. I was merely tired and scared and was likely imagining the whole thing.
But before I called anyone, I had to be sure.
With the phone clutched in my hand, I crawled across the room to where the bright yellow handle of Katie’s tennis racket leaned against the wall. I gripped the hard foam and held it to my shoulder. I didn’t want to leave Katie alone but what choice did I have? I couldn’t call for help if no one was out there. My mother would have a field day.
Clenching my jaw shut to keep my teeth from chattering, I dialed two one’s before opening the door. If anyone was on the other side, it would only take a single touch to call for help.
I eased out, holding the racket in front of me, and flicked on the hallway light. The stillness slammed into me like a brick wall. “Okay, okay, okay,” I chanted under my breath. This was stupid. And yet… at five-foot-three and a hundred and ten pounds, an intruder wouldn’t necessarily need to be armed to overpower me.
My nerves exploded with a burst of adrenaline, and I leapt from room to room until each light bulb on the second floor glowed. I checked every closet, under every bed. The racket shook in my hand. There was nothing. No one. An irrational spike of anger zipped through me at the possibility of my brain’s betrayal.
My body moved on its own accord, taking me downstairs one tentative step at a time. One million potential fates I might encounter, if there was someone lying in wait, coursed through my thoughts. The joints in my fingers locked around the phone with my thumb still over the green call button. My tongue was sandpaper against the roof of my mouth, and I crept through the living room.
The freezer was still open, rattling in an attempt to keep the internal temperature down. I chomped down on my lip and inched my way forward to shut it. The rarely-used alarm system beside the back door taunted me—if only I remembered the code.
It seemed like it took ages to finish searching the house. I looked everywhere from the coat closet to beneath the bathroom sink, but it had only been eleven minutes since I had woken up. No time at all, really. I gripped the back of a dining room chair to stay on my feet.
There was no intruder. Katie had a nightmare, and my mind deceived me.
Only this time, it wasn’t part of my subconscious. I wasn’t asleep. Katie had screamed. There was a blast of air. Someone had laughed.
I swallowed the fear rising in my chest.
No one believed they were crazy. I wasn’t sure what it meant if I thought I was unhinged, but constantly persuaded myself to believe I wasn’t. Was I? Wasn’t I? Not even the doctors could agree on an answer. My sanity was a double-edged sword, and I was fighting to maintain balance on the tip.
I dashed back to Katie and climbed in bed beside her, nestling close. I tucked the wrinkled sheet around us both and tried to ignore the nausea curdling in my stomach. Katie was older than me, bolder and more confident, but in that moment, she felt as fragile as blown glass. I wrapped an arm around her waist and squeezed my eyes shut. My ears strained to hear the slightest sound that could signal danger, but no one else was in the house.
No one had laughed.
The Sandman wasn’t real.
I balled the back of Katie’s T-shirt in my fist. He was real enough to me, and I needed him. Please, Sandman, I called in a silent plea for the second time tonight—the one only he could hear. Help me sleep.
“Crap,” I grumbled, rummaging through the papers littering my desk. “Crap, crap, crap.”
If I hadn’t hit snooze so many times, waiting for the Sandman to come to the beach, I wouldn’t have been running so late.
“The power is mine.” Ha!
Over the years, I repeated his mantra a million times. The words became such a part of me that I forgot the knowledge existed; they were as natural to me as breathing. The power of the beach was his, I knew, but my dreams—the dreams he claimed I would have if he weren’t there—that was mine. But if it were true that I could control things when the Sandman wasn’t there, he would have appeared. I clenched my jaw, shaking out a book. My name tag had to be here somewhere. I slammed the hardcover down and gripped my rolling stomach.
Heat tingled my cheeks. Relying on him, missing him, needing him... It was ridiculous. He was part of me, and anything that he could give me, I could give myself. My lungs burned, reminding me to inhale, and I sucked in a dry breath. I needed to get my act together, to get to work, and to stop being my own worst enemy.
My name tag fell from between two notebooks and clicked against the desk. I scooped it up, pinned it on my white dress shirt, and tucked the hem into my khakis. I was so late. I flew out of my bedroom, and straight into Paul.
My step-father still wore baby blue scrubs that smelled of rubbing alcohol and latex, his dark hair sticking up at odd angles. “Hey kiddo, what’s the rush?”
“I’m running late for work.” I forced a smile—something I would have to do all day if I didn’t want endless reminders from my boss that a good attitude was ‘an essential part of good customer service.’ Besides, my step-father was a good guy. Better than my biological father, actually. Nice. Involved. There.
Paul made a low “hmm’’ in the back of his throat. “You didn’t drink and drive last night, did you?”
I threw him a scowl. The fact that my mother practically shoved me out the door to go to the party should’ve been a good indicator. “Natalie drove, and she drank soda all night.”
“Had to ask,” he grumbled. “Fatherly duty and what not.”
I rolled my eyes, but a genuine smirk quirked my lips. “Yeah, yeah. Mom asleep? Tell her I’ll do the garbage when I get home.”
“I’ll take it out.” Paul yawned and stepped around me into the bathroom. “Have a good day.”
The bathroom door clicked shut behind him, and I glanced toward Katie’s room. There were only ten minutes left before my shift started, but the screams still echoed in my ears. A raw, frightening thing. I bit my lip and inched forward to peek inside. The hinges creaked a baleful tune as I nudged the door open enough to slip inside, making the hair on my arms rise in anticipation.
The sheets were pulled up to her shoulders, her mass of bubble gum hair spread across the pillow, exactly how she was when I left sometime near dawn—after jolting awake for a third time.
“You up?” I whispered, creeping toward the bed. Katie’s chest moved up and down in a steady rhythm, but she had to be more than breathing. She needed to be okay. I poked her shoulder. “Hey.”
She growled without opening her eyes, “The house better be on fire.”
“I wanted to check on you before I left.”
Katie rolled over to face the wall. “Shoo.”
I stuck my tongue out at her. Katie was okay, even if her voice sounded a bit hoarse. She was fine, but I wasn’t. Not really. My head felt hollow without the Sandman’s support, my body heavy. “I’m going, I’m go—”
On the maroon pillowcase, completely invisible without the line of sun coming through the window, were flecks of glittering sand. My knees wobbled. I leaned closer and ran a finger through it. The dust was soft, almost a powder, and shone as brightly as a diamond. I stared, unblinking, at the tiny sparkles stuck in the grooves of my fingertip.
These particles… They played such a big role in my life the last few years. Every night I walked on it. Sat on it. Drew in it. At thirteen, I spent six hours trying to make sand castles from the loose particles, but they refused to stick to one another. At fifteen, I made dozens of snow angels across its surface and, with a flick of a certain someone’s wrist, it morphed into actual snow. Heck, last week, I used it to play a game of tic-tac-toe. I would know it anywhere. This was his sand.
What was it doing on Katie’s pillow? The Sandman had ignored my call while I lay awake for hours waiting for sleep to take me. Unless he had come… But then why wasn’t he at the beach?
“Nora.” Katie flung the sheet over her head. The movement kicked the remaining granules into the air. “Go. Away.”
I clutched my hand to my chest and sprinted to the car.
My fingers still trembled as I parked behind Howell’s Furniture and Decor. Twenty-four hours ago, I had everything under control. Dreaming about the Sandman was one thing, but disembodied laughter, sand on Katie’s pillow... I drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly through puckered lips.
What looked like sand could have been Katie’s makeup. She liked glitz and glam. That was it. Eye shadow. I shoved the car keys into my purse and nodded to myself in the rearview mirror.
Since I was seven minutes late, I didn’t need to draw more attention to myself and decided to jog around to the main doors, instead of knocking on the back. I saw my boss through the glass and cringed. She was usually doing paperwork in the office this early.
“Hey, Lisa,” I called over the cowbell clanging against the door. “Sorry I’m late. It won’t happen again.”
“I hadn’t realized.” Lisa, a tall woman with wisps of grey in her hair, glanced up from where she leaned over the desk. She held the phone up to one ear, covering the bottom half as she spoke. “You look... chipper.”
I stifled a groan. If by chipper, she meant like a member of the walking dead, then yes. “Long night.” Strange night. Strange morning.
“Come meet your new coworker.” She sidestepped the desk to reveal a boy no older than myself in a swivel chair. “This is Ben. He’ll be working the sales floor with you this summer.”
Ben glanced up from the paperwork and smiled so warmly it locked me in place. It was a smile of hopes and dreams. Promises. His violet eyes gleamed with a thousand flecks of starlight, and the fluorescent lights that reflected in his pupils stretched into seemingly endless mirrors. A mop of thick, curly ash-brown hair framed high cheekbones, and a narrow nose stopped above the softest looking lips.
I swore his breath caught at the same moment mine did. Looking at him, I felt like I was missing a place I had never been. The way he watched me sent lava racing through my veins. I knew him. Somehow, I knew him. The longing for something I didn’t understand quickly bubbled into panic, and one foot slid back toward the doors.
“Hello,” he said with the sweetest of smiles.
One word, two syllables, and the air evaporated from my lungs. His voice tugged at a vital memory. I nearly stumbled backward into a coffee table but caught myself on a column. I couldn’t place the voice exactly. It wasn’t anyone I knew, but the sound ached deep in my marrow. I wrung my purse straps, the stiff leather digging into my palm, and forced myself to walk toward the desk.
“Randy,” Lisa snapped into the phone. “This isn’t funny. Where are you? Call me back.” She slammed the receiver down.
I shifted between my feet. “Everything okay?”
“Randy ran the deposit to the bank over an hour ago. I swear, if he went back home to sleep...” Lisa picked the phone up again and dialed. “I’ll watch the floor while you give Ben a tour.”
“Tour?” I swallowed hard. Howell’s wasn’t hiring. Someone called at least once a week to ask, and the answer was always no. Maybe if someone was lucky, they needed help with deliveries, but never the sales floor. The walls around my composed facade trembled, threatening my sanity. “What happened to Josh?” I asked.
“He’s moving to afternoons.” She rounded the desk and held the phone out in front of her to speak directly into the receiver. “Randy, if I have to leave one more voicemail, I swear to God...” She slammed the phone down again.
Ben slid his stack of papers across the desk. “I’m done filling these out.”
“Great. Thanks,” Lisa said. She motioned him out of her chair and plopped down in his place. “If you have any questions, Nora can fill you in.”
I glanced sideways, my eyes level with Ben’s shoulders. A spike of nerves shot down the back of my neck, trailing all the way down my spine, and I arched my back against the tingling discomfort. Hints of toned muscle flexed beneath the rolled sleeves of his dress shirt when he reached out to shake my hand. Tattooed specks of navy blue and silver covered his hands, the granules thinning out as they spread up his forearm and disappeared beneath the fabric. It was hard to believe Lisa hired him looking like he did. Crazy contact lenses and tattoos? I wasn’t even allowed to put unnatural color in my hair. I scowled at the mix of emotions warring inside my head—intrigue, comfort, fear. He looked down at me, oozing charm and mystery and everything that would’ve drawn my friends closer. I stepped away.
The familiar sensation prickled again, begging me to move toward him, and I stopped myself mid-wince. Five years spent teaching myself to run as a default setting, to block out the fantasies, and yet ignoring his hand was one of the hardest things I’d done in a long time. I took a deep breath, letting it out through the corner of my mouth while pressing a hand against my diaphragm—a technique one of the doctors said might help if I felt stressed. My mother insisted I try, and usually they were right. Today, however, it did nothing.
“After you,” he said and tucked his arms behind his back.
I fought against a barrage of crazy ideas—ideas crazier than the one I had when I saw the sand on Katie’s pillow. Were my dreams leaking into reality? No. The Sandman wasn’t real in this world. He wasn’t. The stress was simply getting to me.
Ben smiled again, a shy grin, and my defenses cracked.
Lisa waved a frantic hand toward us while holding the receiver to her ear. I sighed and turned my back on them both. Deep breaths. Deep breaths and a shred of sanity would get me through the day, then tonight I could ask the Sandman directly if there was more to what I was seeing.
Of course, that was assuming he showed up.
Squaring my shoulders, I led Ben through a collection of couches and chairs. “This is where the living room sets are. The customers can order anything they see here. Lamps, rugs, tables.” I flicked a ring of fabric samples tied to the arm of a recliner. “Color swatches and prices are attached to everything, so you don’t need to memorize them.”
He was close. Too close. His energy curled toward me, and I sidestepped an end table to put space between us. “The dining room sets are in there.” I pointed through a wide doorway to the left. “Most tables come with four chairs unless the ticket says otherwise, but they can order more.”
I picked up the pace, motioning to another room at the back. “Desks, bookcases, cabinets, entertainment centers. Basically, office furniture and miscellaneous things that don’t fit out here.”
“Should I be writing this down?” A hint of a smile laced his voice.
“Maybe,” I snapped, then cringed. He was probably trying to diffuse the tension sparking between us. One of us had to—my shift didn’t end for another eight hours. I stopped at the end of the aisle. “That way,” I murmured, jerking my elbow at the staircase.
He started toward the narrow, sloping steps, his tattooed hand gliding over the rail. Unspoken words pressed against me. I frowned and watched him climb higher alone. Something about the way he moved left me immobile. For a split second, I saw a man in loose cotton pants and a hooded tunic. The image was gone faster than it came, but the damage was done. I couldn’t un-see it.
When the curly haired boy stopped halfway up, I jumped. My teeth clacked against each other in an attempt not to say anything. Ben wasn’t the Sandman. Because the Sandman did not exist.
“Is something wrong?” he asked innocently.
I lifted my chin, cleared my throat, and sprinted up the first few steps. Not crazy, not crazy, not crazy. “Where are you from, Ben?”
He resumed his ascent. “All over, really.”
A small, cynical noise escaped my throat before I could stop it. He hadn’t done anything wrong. This was my problem, my instability, not his. I couldn’t take it out on him because he happened to remind me of someone else. Maybe his family moved around a lot. Maybe he really was from all over. My fingers tingled at the memory of the sand on Katie’s pillowcase, and I crossed my arms, pressing them into my sides.
“Dreamer, Dreamer,” whispered a low, rasping voice behind me. I spun around, gripping the railing, but no one was there. A metallic taste coated my tongue. “Not a screamer,” said the voice, this time right in my ear. Cold dread oozed down my spine. “Snapped his neck and—”
“These stairs,” Ben said too loudly, chasing away the whispers. “Bit of a hazard.”
I blinked the shock away. “Yeah, they’re not the best.” I dragged in a breath and shot the rest of the way to the second floor with terror rippling across my back. “Bedroom sets.” I forced lightness into the words, but it rang false, even to me. Ben shifted closer. He smelled of lilacs and crisp morning air. I shut my eyes and held my breath against the memories it stirred, but the aroma lent me a moment of clarity, of comfort, offering stability to my voice. “It saves the customer more if they buy the whole thing, but they can buy individual pieces if they want. There’s a chart on the back of the tag for pricing.” The scent grew overwhelming, tightening my stomach with something other than fear. My gaze fell on him. He ducked his head and reached up to pinch the air beside his temple in a familiar gesture. For a moment, I imagined him tugging at a hood. “You...” I paused. He what? Ugh. I needed to take a mental health day.
“Nora,” Lisa shouted.
“Up here,” I called back, thankful for the interruption.
She popped up in the archway below. “I’m going to run home and see if Randy is there. Can you watch things for me while I’m gone?”
“I...” Don’t leave me alone with him. “Okay. No problem.”
“I’ll be back soon,” she said, already disappearing.
Ben stepped up beside me. “She’s...”
“Yeah,” I agreed. There wasn’t really a word to describe Lisa, but she was a good boss when she wasn’t trying to micromanage everything. Or everyone. “Anyway.” I shrugged, diffusing some of the tension between my shoulders. “That’s it for the sales floor. I’ll show you the stock room after Lisa comes back so we can watch for customers.”
His arm brushed against mine, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. “What do we do now?” he asked.
“We wait.” I started back down the stairs, my eyes darting from one side of the stairwell to the other. My ears prickled but the voice was gone, if it had ever been there to begin with. I let out a slow breath. “Come on. I’ll show you how to check the system to see if something is in stock.”
Ben’s eyes burned into my back, and he followed me silently to Lisa’s desk. Not in a way that bothered me, but in a way that should have. I rolled my shoulders. I didn’t know Ben. There wasn’t a voice in the stairwell. Katie had a nightmare. No one laughed.
Didn’t, didn’t, didn’t.
I threw myself into the rolling chair, still warm from when Lisa sat in it and clicked the power button on the computer. “It takes a minute for this to get going.”
“Okay.” He grabbed a chair from the other side of the table used for customers and swung it around to sit beside me.
My finger rapped on the mouse. Twenty minutes down. Seven hours and forty minutes to go. My stomach grumbled, and I brushed my long bangs down to hide the side of my face.
“Not at all,” I lied. Even if he did notice the rumbling, he didn’t have to comment.
He laughed. “Liar. When did you eat last?”
The screen popped up with a system update. I flung myself back in the chair. Of course. “This is going to take all day,” I said, ignoring his question. The last thing I ate was a grilled cheese sandwich yesterday afternoon and a handful of chips at the party. If Natalie and Emery hadn’t guilt-tripped me into going out, I would’ve chowed down on leftover beef stew before bed. Then my cookie heist was interrupted, but it was none of his business. “While we wait, I can show you—”
“The vending machines?” His eyes glimmered, and my face warmed. “Excellent idea. I already know where they are.”
But he was already out of his seat, striding toward the break room in the back. I leaned my head against the headrest. It wouldn’t hurt to eat, but my appetite had vanished along with my sanity. My mother couldn’t find out. For two months before the first psychiatric visit, I rarely ate, only wanting to get back to the Sandman. Now, if I so much as left a few bites on my plate, she hovered near my door at night to make sure I wasn’t in bed too early. Falling asleep before nine on one of those nights almost guaranteed her looking up the phone number of a doctor again. I dragged my hands down my face. Three years without mentioning the Sandman, and she still refused to let it go.
“Pick your poison.” Ben dumped an armful of snacks on the desk. “Each one equally delicious and peanut free.”
My eyes narrowed. “Are you allergic to peanuts?”
“No.” He lifted a hand to his temple again, tugging at air, and plunked down beside me. He focused on the bags as he arranged all of them to face up. “Pretzels? They had loops and sticks.”
I snagged the closest bag—the sticks—and pried it open without looking away from him. There was no way he could have known I was allergic to peanuts. None. Just like there was no way he was a fictional person that lived in my head. Peanuts are a common allergy; maybe he was used to looking out for someone in his family.
“So how did you talk Lisa into hiring you when there were no openings?” I asked.
He held his hands up to his chin. “My charisma?”
“Ha. Ha.” My lips curled against my will.
“What? You don’t think I’m fascinating? Perhaps I should try harder.” He batted his long eyelashes. “How about now?”
I slapped a hand over my mouth before I could laugh a mouthful of pretzel into his face. “I think you should save it for the customers.”
A siren wailed in the distance. Whatever spell he cast, broke. The smile fell from my face, and I surged up from the desk. I needed to put some space between us. It was too easy with him, like I wasn’t pretending. No good could come of that; my secrets were too important to risk.
I opened one of the doors, wedging a piece of wood beneath it to let in some fresh air, and the siren grew louder, followed by another. “I wonder what’s going on,” I said more to myself than anything.
Ben was at my side then, his expression tight. A rock settled in my gut. I didn’t know him well enough to know where his thoughts were but seeing him like this unsettled me.
“Let me guess. You have a warrant out for your arrest,” I joked.
His smile was taut, his eyes following the flashing lights when they turned the corner and whizzed by the store. “Why? Are you into bad boys?”
I snorted. “In your dreams.”
His eyes flashed, the tiniest of true smiles breaking through. “Maybe in yours.”
My heart squeezed. I opened my mouth to speak but the blast of sirens stole my ability to think. To breathe. I tore my eyes away from his, from the secrets written there—and they were there, ringing through every bone in my body.
A black Toyota flew into Howell’s gravel parking lot in a cloud of dust. The driver slammed the vehicle into park before it came to a full stop, jerking the car to a halt. Lisa’s father climbed out, his face beet red.
“We’re closing up,” he said in his usual raspy tone. “Go on home. We’ll call you when we’re ready to reopen.”
“What happened?” I asked, craning my neck to follow the police. Ben stood as still as a statue beside me.
Lisa’s father brushed by us without another word and flipped the row of light switches. A large ring of keys swung on his belt with a bright orange tassel. Lisa’s keys.
“Grab your things,” he barked.
Katie’s screams rose up in the back of my mind again, a faint, distant ringing, mingled with a deep chuckle. I shook my head. It was fine. Everything was fine.
“Are you okay?” Ben asked.
“Yep.” I bolted toward the desk where I set my purse.
If Lisa’s father wanted us to leave, that was fine by me. Between Ben and the creepy, nonexistent voice playing mind-games with me, I was more than ready to go home.
Where Katie had screamed. And another nonexistent voice chuckled.
I swallowed my secrets, shoved down my doubts.
I’m absolutely fine.
When I swept through the front door, my mother poked her head over the kitchen counter, her brunette ponytail limp. “What are you doing home?”
I shrugged and kicked the door shut with my heel. “I thought you were in bed.”
“I forgot to put dinner in the crockpot.” She glanced at the television. Breaking News scrolled across the bottom of the WNOX 11 station. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“There was...” I started. The reporter stood outside a small ranch house that was surrounded by yellow tape. Countless police lights flashed in the background and an ambulance was backed into the driveway. Officers lingered near the door, speaking with two men in suits. “Turn it up.”
My mother set the cutting board down. “Did something happen at the store?” she asked, ignoring the scene on TV.
The reporter motioned an older woman forward. I strained to hear what he said, focusing on his lips, but only caught a thank you. I darted around the recliner and knelt in front of the entertainment center, tapping the volume button. “And you were the one who discovered the body?”
“Yes,” the woman answered in a shaking voice. “Some of their mail was delivered to my house. I have a key, so I went in to set it on their table, and he was on the couch.” She placed her hands on her chest. “His neck was snapped at the most hor—”
One of the people in suits—a bald man with dark skin and silver glasses—touched her shoulder. “That’s enough.” The reporter opened his mouth to object, but the detective pointed a finger at him. “This is an open murder investigation. You know better.”
Open murder investigation. My heart dropped, and I gripped the edge of the television stand. The detective ushered the woman away. The reporter turned back to the camera, his face grim. He lifted a finger to his ear and nodded.
Behind him, the EMT’s wheeled out a stretcher. The camera zoomed in to reveal a woman with an oxygen mask on. I gasped, slamming a hand over my mouth. It couldn’t be...
“Is that Lisa?” My mother’s voice rose to a near screech.
I nodded, my body numb. She was fine when she left the store. Did she walk in on the murderer? But the other woman found the body, and she appeared fine. So, what happened? The blood drained from my head, and I shuffled back to plop on the couch before I fainted.
His, the woman had said. Randy. Randy was dead. Murdered. His neck... His neck. The voice from the store echoed in my ears. Dreamer, Dreamer, not a screamer. Snapped his neck and—
It knew. The voice knew.
My mother jammed the power button, but I could still see the image of Lisa on the stretcher. My hands shook. If by some miracle I wasn’t losing it, I had somehow gained psychic abilities overnight.
Insane, insane, insane.
“Nora? Are you okay?”
Tiny wrinkles formed at the edges of my mother’s eyes, and she chewed on the inside of her cheek. I knew that look. It was the I’m-worried-you’re-about-to-snap look. The one she got right before she started suggesting I be reevaluated.
“Howell’s is closed until further notice,” I said in a flat voice and cleared the lump from my throat. Act normal. It didn’t matter my boss was just killed or my other boss was on the way to the hospital. Any sign of weakness, of an oncoming emotional break, in front of my mother, spelled disaster. I stood and rubbed at my eyes. “We were out late last night, and I had to wake up early, so I think I’ll go back to bed for a little while.”
“Oh? Are you sure you don’t want to stay up? You can help me chop the carrots.” She hovered at my shoulder, and I shook my head. “How was the party anyway? Did you have fun?”
I hid my wince behind a yawn. She didn’t need help with the carrots, and she certainly didn’t care about the party. She only wanted to make sure the horrible news didn’t send me swan-diving off the deep end. More than anything, she feared the resurgence of the Sandman, which, in turn, meant she lived in terror of major change. After all, he was born from the stress of her divorce so, why wouldn’t her remarriage, Katie moving away for college in the fall, or my final year before graduation bring him back? Because he never left. Her list of possible triggers hadn’t included people-I-knew-being-murdered before, but I was willing to bet it now held the number one spot.
I forced a smile, skirting around her. “It was lots of fun, Mom.”
“Good, good,” she said, relieved. But her eyes followed me all the way up the stairs.
Once inside the safety of my room, I dug my sketchbook from its hiding place and threw myself into the desk chair. My hands shook as I flipped through pages full of blues and purples and silvers. Past dozens of sketches of the Sandman—that brought an image of Ben to the front of my mind. Those vivid violet eyes belonged among the other images. I could already feel my hand gliding over the sheet of paper, making the perfect sweep of his eyelashes. Could visualize the thrill that would spark through me, shading those impossible irises until they reflected the same mysterious glint as the real things.
But, instead, I slid the black pencil from the box. The tip scratched against the page with a sharp rush. My hand moved feverishly, leaving harsh, angry lines in its wake. When I was finished, the colored pencil slipped from my grip and rolled off the edge of the desk, clattering to the floor.The words Dreamer, Dreamer swallowed the page. They stared up at me. Mocked me. I slammed the notebook shut and clasped my hands over my ears as if it would stop the voice from coming back.
© Amber R. Duell