Once there was a girl.
Isn’t that the way these things always start?
Once there was a girl who looked just like other girls, who read Sweet Valley High books and drew pictures of unicorns and went to school and played with her sisters. Just like other girls. But there was one thing—isn’t there always one thing?—that made this girl different.
She didn’t dream.
I read in a science magazine once, in eighth grade, that dreaming matters because of the way it engages your brain. Dreams help you solve problems (theoretical math, what to do about that pesky hydraulic leak) and practice skills (skiing, sex) and prepare for survival situations (bears, car accidents, public humiliation).
The only people who don’t dream are ones who’ve had strokes or traumatic brain injuries—people whose dreaming centers aren’t working right. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never received a sharp blow to the head, but that doesn’t change the facts. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember.
That’s not the interesting part, though. Here is where it gets good. Anyone sleeping around me doesn’t dream either.
My dreamlessness is like a black hole, devouring prince-charmings and purple clouds and alien landscapes until there’s nothing left.
My parents started worrying that my sisters would be irreparably damaged by constantly having their dreams sucked out of their heads. So they came up with a solution.
My sisters sleep together, all four of them crammed into one little room, stepping all over each other and sharing beds and dressers and secrets, together with their dreams. I sleep alone, in the slope-ceilinged attic at the top of the house.
My parents were so proud of themselves, like they had done something exceptional, solved a serious problem. They just didn’t know the good part.
The good part, the really interesting thing, happened for the first time on the ninth grade band trip. I was on the bus, listening to Holly Jarvis go on and on about how hot Austin Fischer was, but it was warm and stuffy on the bus, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I wasn’t the only one—half of band was already asleep.
I leaned my head against the window and let myself drift off. And then something weird happened.
I wasn’t on the bus anymore.
Instead, I was back at school, only the light was eerie and dim, like maybe it was after sunset, and the whole place was empty. The halls seemed longer than normal, like the perspective was sort of . . . off.
I walked slowly through the Language Arts wing, passing rows of lockers. From someplace nearby, there was a steady pounding noise, getting louder. I turned the corner and discovered that I wasn’t alone after all.
Ahead of me, Cody Maxwell was standing in front of a closed locker, looking nearly catatonic.
“What are you doing?” I said, coming up next to him.
He turned to look at me with wide, horrified eyes. “It wants out.”
There was a metallic scraping sound from inside the locker and then the door rattled explosively, like whatever was in there agreed with him.
“So let it out.”
Cody backed away, shaking his head slowly, over and over, like he could never stop saying no.
I sighed and reached for the door. There was something dark oozing out of the gap at the bottom and getting all over the floor.
“Why’s it in there anyway?” I said, wrinkling my nose.
Cody looked terrified. Beyond reason. “It’s here,” he whispered. “It’s coming for me.”
I saw that where the combination lock should have been there was just a ragged puncture, like a large-caliber bullet hole. I hooked three fingers in the jagged opening and pulled.
Behind me, Cody was moaning under his breath, making weak, hopeless noises as the door swung open.
The thing was sitting at the bottom of the locker in a pool of something viscous and dark. It smelled like spent fireworks or burnt matches.
It had eyes, more than is good or right for anything except a spider, only it wasn’t. A spider, I mean. It was vaguely furry, with long, evil-looking claws and teeth that dripped with black sulfur slime.
“That’s pretty small,” I started to say, but I never got the words out, because Cody screamed.
I woke up in a huge jolt, with Holly shaking me. Two rows ahead of us, Cody Maxwell seemed to be having some kind of fit, twitching in his sleep. Some of the boys were laughing, but in a low, nervous way.
“What’s his problem?” Holly said with her hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged. “Just a bad dream.”
And then I smelled it again—the nose-wrinkling smell of burnt matches. I looked down. There was a smear of something thick and dark on the floor by my feet, and a cluster of small yellow eyes peering out from under the seat in front of me.
Without changing expression, I leaned down and unzipped my backpack. I watched the nightmare creature while it poked around the edges of the bag and then crept inside. I zipped the pocket closed.
That’s how I got Huxley. He’s my first and my favorite—not the biggest or the fiercest, but sometimes it’s special enough just to be the first.
Now, I go nightmare hunting. Usually, I just sneak downstairs and into my sisters’ room. There are tricks you can do. Open the window when it’s winter or—this is the best one—scrape a person’s arm, just lightly, just with your fingernails. Do that a few times, then lie down and let yourself drift off. You’re almost guaranteed to wind up with something good.
When the monster comes out into the room, I catch it. That can be the hardest part, hunting it down in the dark without scaring it away or waking up any of my sisters.
I take the dream back up to my slope-ceilinged little attic, my den full of monsters. They scamper around the floor and pile into my bed. At night, I turn out the light and curl up with them while my sisters sleep downstairs.
In the dark, I wrap my arms around them and whisper secrets. We sleep better like this, crowded against each other in the center of the mattress, together with our nightmares.
Photo by Saint Angel