The day after it all happens, I start to dream.
I’m not talking about, you know, ‘follow your dreams’ or ‘dream big and reach high’, the sort of stuff people write on pictures of clouds and mountains or kittens tackling enormous balls of wool and then post all over the internet. I’m talking about proper, tucked-up-at-night dreams. Talking, fighting, travelling dreams. Dreams that pounce on you, drag you away by the hair, tie you to the bed and then jump on your chest until it hurts.
You’d think after my dad had died, I would have dreamt about that. You’d think when we moved house, time and time again, I might have gone back to all the old places in my sleep. You’d think after the whole bullying thing at school I would have had some kind of material for my brain to play with after lights out.
But, no. I haven’t dreamt—that is, had a dream I could remember in the morning—since Dad’s funeral. For four years my mind has been blank and quiet. I’ve gone to bed, shut my eyes, tossed a little and then gotten up in the morning.
Now, I’m making up for lost time. I’m a night passenger on a speed-seeking, haunted amusement ride. A different one every night. I wake in the dark, panting and exhausted, filled with terror or horror—whatever this night’s particular ride specialises in.
Some nights people with no faces chase me through shopping malls and try to kill me.
Some nights monsters with green tails and black eyes oozing pus chase me through forests and try to kill me.
Some nights I’m walking with my friends; Gabby on one side, Liam on the other. I step behind for a minute, call them to notice an unusual tree with vivid blue leaves. When they turn back, their eyes are wild and they try to kill me.
The nights I get a break from all the killing and the death are the nights that I’m in the middle of a storm on a stony outcrop at the top of a mountain. The wind howls and the rain nearly knocks me over but I stand there at the top, looking at the storm clouds below. On those nights I know I’ve won, but the dream doesn’t end there. It drags on and on while I clamber down the rock face, find my footing on mossy boulders and then slog my way through the muddy forest, filthy and wet until I see light in the trees.
I wake in the sunlight, sweaty, tired and just slightly out of breath.
When I get out of bed, the lino floor under my feet is surprisingly reassuring. There’s a stickiness in each step, a tiny toe grip. As if my soles are clinging to what is solid. To what is warm. To what is real.
The morning after the first night it happens I tell it all to Mum. She’s sitting, sleepy in her dressing gown, both hands hugging a cup of tea, an uneaten bowl of cereal on the table.
“…And then, it was like, I don’t know, kind of like it was real, but it actually wasn’t, if you know what I mean?” I say. “It’s really hard to explain. And then the shark thing turned into a person and I just knew it was my complete enemy, even though I hadn’t actually talked to it.“ I shake my head.
Mum opens her eyes wide. She makes a face like she’s not sure. “It sounds really scary,” she says. “Are you okay, Jazmine?” She signs it as well because my hearing aids aren’t in and I’m lip reading. You okay?
“Yeah,” I say. But I don’t actually know if that’s true because it’s all so new and vivid. My body feels plugged in, slightly alive. Like someone’s brushed my hair five hundred times, pricked my skin with a thousand pins and shone lights in my eyes.
Am I okay? I’m… something. I just don’t know what.
At school I trail the remnants of the night’s crazy adventures off the bus and into the playground before they are trodden on, pulled apart and ground into the dirt by a thousand uncaring feet. Liam has started waiting for me at the gate now so we can walk in together. Gabby’s usually late but you don’t miss her entrance. Today she’s wearing a striped rainbow sock around her head. I know it’s a sock rather than a headband because it has toes. They’re dangling down by her ear.
“Do you love it?” she says, gesturing to her head. “Such a great idea, right?“
“Gabby, it’s a sock,” says Liam. “You’re wearing hosiery on your head.”
“Hosiery?” says Olivia, who’s standing nearby.
Her identical twin, Caitlin, giggles. “Did you just use the word ‘hosiery’?”
“My mum works at Myer,” says Liam. He seems offended and I can’t tell if he’s just pretending. “I’m educated. I know all the different sections of a department store. Hosiery, manchester, millinery…”
Erin, sitting next to the twins, rolls her eyes and Liam’s friend Dan groans. “Manchester? Millinery?”
“I think it’s cute, Gab,” I say. “It suits you.“
“Ha. You see?” says Gabby triumphantly. “I can always count on you to have the right opinion,” she says to me. “Unlike some.” She glares at Liam, but it’s not mean. Then she puts on a pose. “See? I’m starting a trend. By the end of today everyone,” and she gestures around the school grounds, “will be wearing socks on their heads.”
I smile at her. “You’re funny.”
She puckers her lips and pretends to blow me a kiss before she slaps Dan’s hands away from the sock. He’s trying to grab it off her head. “Get lost!” she bellows. “This is off limits. For my hands and my head only.”
I watch her eyes, flashing with humour. Liam’s the same. He’s teasing Gabby, trying to de-sock her, but he’s being funny. And friendly. It’s a small kind of relief. Not that I think they really would kill me, but since the dreams began, there’s been a question at the back of my brain.
Can I really trust them? Or, perhaps even more scary for me: Why would my subconscious even want to think up this stuff?
Liam breaks into my thoughts. “Okay, so, I’ll see you later? Are you going to the canteen at recess?”
“Um, no,” I say. “Mum packed me a bacon and egg roll from home.”
“Well I’ll meet you outside C block then,” he says. “You’ve got English, right? We can walk together.”
I frown slightly. Some days I wouldn’t mind just walking on my own. “Okay,” I say, but it’s more of a question.
He doesn’t notice, and goes to leave. “I’ll text you.”
I pull my mouth sideways but nod anyway. My phone has become an issue. Before, when I was Little-Miss-No-Friends, I used it when I needed to, which was hardly ever. Now Mum’s raising eyebrows whenever I ask for more credit, which is a lot. She pays, of course. I think she’s terrified not to. For her, Keeping Jazmine Happy And Sociable is a thing. A big thing. A thing she’s not going to muck up. Sometimes, I wonder if it will last, just like she probably does. And I’m not talking about the phone. I mean the happiness.
But there’s no reason to think it’s only going to be temporary. Since the drama production, either Liam or Gabby has been next to me the whole time, including after school. At school I’m part of their group. People know me. And text me.
From Gabby: Hey, do you have any rainbow socks? Want to wear them tomorrow with me? Xxxx ooooo xxxxx
From Liam: You should come hang at my place this afternoon. We can walk home together.
From Gabby: Unbelievable! You’re never going to guess what happened. Tell you at recess.
I check my messages under my desk. My battery is running low, about six per cent. I forgot to charge it overnight. You’re not actually supposed to have phones in class but everyone does. Most teachers ignore it but Miss Patel gets extra-stroppy and I don’t need any hassles. At the very least I can try to save my mum from having to come see me in the Principal’s office. After all the troubles ended last term she made me promise there’d be no more crises.
“Just tell me what’s going on,” she said when she came backstage to find me after the show was all over. She hugged me, still teary and emotional after the standing ovation and the post-production buzz. “That’s all I want. I just need to know what’s happening.” Then she signed so only I could understand her: Even if it’s bad.
“You too.” I gripped her arms. “I never want to have any secrets ever again.”
And so we began over again. Life, phase two. Things are simpler when you don’t hide away.
I breathe out hard when I think about them, slightly sick. They’re not really something I can tell my friends about. Hey guys, guess what? Last night I was chased by a creepy humanoid guy with a leather face and sunken eye sockets. He ambushed me in the shops and threatened to stick a knife in me the whole night until I woke up. The night before I was in a row boat in a crashing storm on a massive wave on an ocean that grew more mean, loud and scary by the second. Oh yeah, and on Tuesday you guys were all set to murder me. Soooo… d’ya think this is normal? Much?
I imagine Erin’s eyes squinting slightly, her face turning away and then changing the subject. The twins would immediately come back with a detail-by-tiny-detail account of one of their (apparently combined) dreams from four years ago. Liam might ask a polite question or two but the other boys would raise their eyebrows, say something loud and brash and then act out sticking a knife in someone on the grass, with added gruesome bits.
Gabby… well, I don’t know what Gabby would do.
Perhaps I’ll take a chance and tell her. I’ll just have to wait until she takes a breath between sentences because right now, even while eating her cheese and biscuits, Gabby is in full flight.
“You are seriously not going to believe what happened. I mean, I expected Angela to say something about it. She would, right? Made some comment in her posh voice… I don’t even know what. But then Miss Eltham called me up. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. She looked right at my head and she said, ‘take that off Gabby,’ just like that, with that exact strict voice… just ‘Take That Off Gabby’ and so I asked why, and she said, ‘It’s not school uniform’.”
Gabby throws her bag on the grass with a flourish and takes another bite of cracker. Truly, she should go out for drama. She’d be amazing. I stand, waiting for her to continue. I don’t have to wait very long.
“Then I said to Miss Eltham, just like this, in this voice, like, really nicely and everything, ‘But Miss, we’re allowed to wear accessories in our hair.’ Honestly, I was so polite, but she just said, ‘Gabby, it’s a sock on your head’. I said, ‘No Miss, it’s a fashion statement,’ and she said I had to take it off or I’d have to ‘tell my fashion statement to the deputy’.”
She makes a face, stuffs the rest of the cheese in her mouth and slumps on to the picnic bench.
“Oh, and of course snotty Angela was laughing at me so I just turned around and gave her my worst look. She’s a …” She turns her face away and her voice goes down to a low grumble that I can’t pick up. She mouths something and I can’t read her lips but I know what she’s saying. Angela’s been rubbing Gabby up the wrong way ever since last term, mostly because of her attitude to me because of the play and everything that happened. I just try to ignore it, but Gabby reacts really strongly.
“Did you take the sock off?” asks Olivia, worried.
“You don’t want to go see Mr Barry,” adds Caitlin. She looks genuinely scared.
Gabby wipes the crumbs from her face before pulling the rainbow sock out of her bag and jiggling it in front of the twins’ faces. “I had no choice. I had to take it off. But I couldn’t believe it. I mean, yeah sure, it’s a sock, but it becomes a hairpiece if I wear it on my head, right? It’s an accessory.”
“I’m sorry for you,” I say. I mean it. “It looked cute.“
She makes a pouty face. “I know, right? It was going to take off. Next week everyone—even stupid Angela—would have had a sock on their head.”
“You mean an accessory,” I say and smile. I’m definitely getting better at making jokes.
She swats me with the sock. “Of course. An accessory.”
There’s a short silence. One of those times when the conversation is over but no one has started anything new yet. It’s not normal for Gabby. She can talk and talk and talk. Sometimes I think she must have no secrets at all. Everything just pours out of her mouth. Maybe I should take a lesson from her. I sit up straighter and decide that yes, I’ll talk about the dreams. I really will. I open my mouth, take in a breath and nearly begin but I’m interrupted. It’s Liam. He’s leaning over to me and tapping me on the knee so he can make sure I hear him.
“So, are you coming over?” he says. He’s looking at me, intent. “This afternoon. I think you should.”
I adjust my hearing aid slightly. His voice isn’t as loud as Gabby’s.
“I’ll have to text Mum,” I say. “But it should be okay.“
“Good,” he says. He smiles and his blue eyes knife my heart.
“Great.” I grin back stupidly. “That would be great.” The nightmares, all shapes and sizes, shuffle awkwardly into a back room in my brain where they bump up against each other, squashed and huddled. I shut the door and turn the key.