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.
© Amber R. Duell