“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe
My world folds out in front of me like a puddle of ink spreading across the steaming asphalt on Westchester Avenue. It’s unfamiliar, a place that’s all my imagination, from the fuschia bows on the chairs to the catwalk slicing the room in half.
Then there’s me. I appear in a floor-length gown I designed myself, the one I could see pencilled out in my sketchbook if I woke up and reached over onto my nightstand. It’s black and flowing, one of the only things that remains dark after the ink fades away and I’m standing in vivid, unquestioned reality.
Except it’s not reality. It’s a dream—a dream I’m controlling, a whole new life I’m living. It usually takes a few seconds for it to wear off; for me to shake the place my sleeping body is and to become fully immersed in this otherworldly experience. Today is quicker than usual. I’m getting better, I figure. It’d be impossible not to improve after reading How to Control Your Dreams, after doing this every night for over a year.
I catch a glimpse of myself in the gilded mirror to my left, next to a dressing table. A picture of sophistication, a perfectly coordinated outfit, except for the watch on my wrist that glows aqua.
I’ve never been to a fashion show, but I fill in gaps from programs I’ve watched with my mom, late at night on cable TV. A crowd of socialites fills the audience, long legs encased in champagne-colored stilettos crossed at the ankles, diamonds glinting in the light from the crystal chandeliers. I stand backstage, watching the runway as models strut from one end to the other, twisting their hips and tossing their hair as they show off my designs.
In the front row, sandwiched between two Upper East Side princesses, is Asher. Asher my best friend, Asher who is grinning and clapping, who’s proud of me. Years of sketching and sewing and pinning paid off. He’s glad he doesn’t have to cut inspiration photos out of magazines for me anymore.
The audience is on its feet clapping for the models—for me. I’ve made it; I’m New York’s most coveted designer; joy and pride bundle and bubble up inside me, emotions that feel as real as my imaginary breaths on this imaginary stage in this imaginary world.
And then it’s fading away, and I reach out because I didn’t choose to leave my dream—something’s yanking me out of it—and I’m cold because I can feel my gown being stripped away…
And I’m cold because I’m standing out on the autumn-chilled streets of New York City.
I don’t know how I got here, and that scares me. One minute I was among the applause, and now instead of expensive perfumes I smell exhaust and the trash someone’s left out for too long. When I take a step forward, the light on my watch flickers.
I reach to my arms to warm myself. A thick coat appears on my shoulders, shielding me from the unusually chilly weather. I don’t remember asking for the extra layer of clothing. Reaching underneath the sleeves, I realize that a wooly sweater has replaced my dress. I don’t remember asking for that switch, either. Normally I’m in complete, unquestioned control of my dreams. Tonight, it feels like someone is making the choices for me.
I’m in an alley, the type of place kids are taught to avoid. Maybe I’m in the Bronx, but I don’t recognize anything around me and I can’t place my location relative to my apartment. It’s the middle of the night, and the only light in the area comes from the building next door: a crumbling brick structure with wooden boards on its windows and filling the hole where a door should be. I’m the only one in sight, which is strange for the city no matter how late it is.
Another step forward. My watch flickers again and the azure on the face turns turquoise. In perfect time to the ticking, my heart pounds.
I try to flip the switch in my mind to bring back the fashion show, but nothing happens. The light on my watch continues turning, contradicting the dirty yellow hue of the lights in the building next door. Like icy fingers, my breath extends and suspends out in front of me, blurring my vision.
Footsteps that aren’t mine. I turn around, clenching my fists because my hands have nothing else to grab. I want to believe I’m still in control, that nothing can harm me here, but with every tick of my watch I feel less sure. I’m still asleep—I know that—but I don’t know what happens if I get hurt in my dream.
The approaching figure is tall and meanders towards me. Instead of the luxurious dress code of my fashion show he’s in a black sweatshirt and a beanie, pulled low on his forehead. A scarf is tightened around his mouth, obscuring most of his face.
I back further into the alley. My combat boots—I’m not wearing my heels anymore—come down in a pile of sludge that sloshes onto my ankles, coating the bottom of my jeans. The liquid is cold and sticky and black. Again and again I try to flip the switch to change this dream, until my head throbs. But I’m stuck here, with a bunch of crates forming a dead end behind me. And that guy is still coming toward me.
It’s dark, but I don’t think he has a weapon. In fact, other than the menacing walk and the fact that he seems intent on hiding his identity, he doesn’t look too provoking. I start to think his target isn’t me, but then he extends his hands toward me.
“If you don’t run, I won’t have to chase you,” he calls. Maybe he means for it to sound threatening, but all I can imagine is that, beneath his scarf, one side of his mouth quirks up into a lopsided grin. He doesn’t sound serious, at least. He sounds like one of the guys at my school that leans against graffitied lockers and hollers backhanded compliments at passing girls. Annoying, but not deadly.
Still, my muscles don’t relax. Even if he isn’t here to kill, he could have a dozen other motives.
My boots feel grounded onto that gooey cement and my legs are like lead, so that I doubt I could move if I tried. He keeps walking towards me, but he doesn’t reach into his coat for a gun or a knife or any other means of attack. When we’re face to face I realize that all I can see are his eyes: two green orbs that stare deep into mine. They’re wide, and his fingers are splayed apart so that the skin between them stands out. He thinks I’m going to fight.
I know I should. I took a self-defense class last semester at University Heights, and even though I didn’t pay much attention our teacher taught us practical things like elbow jabs and how to use your smaller weight to your advantage. I could probably get a few kicks in. But I’m frozen, and whether that’s because of my paralyzing fear or because of this weird dream I’m in, I have no clue.
I’m not usually a wimp. I’ve pushed through huge crowds on the subway platform, jabbed a catcaller who got a little too close on Eastern Parkway, and finished with an A in that self-defense class. I order myself to move, even if it’s just to run, but nothing happens. I’m powerless, a statue-still target.
“I’m not trying to hurt you, Gabriella.”
How does he know my name?
He grabs one of my wrists, locking me into place. The contact is enough to startle me into action.
With my free hand, I stretch forward and try to pull down his scarf. He catches my other wrist and now he’s got me pinned, backing me toward the crates. I trip over an empty can but he holds me steady. The sludge coats both of our shoes now, adding a smack that echoes with every one of our steps.
“How do you know my name?” I ask.
He shrugs, but now I can see for sure that, under the portion of the scarf I’ve loosened, he has an almost teasing half-smile.
“Why won’t you tell me?”
Now we’re up against the back wall, and splinters dig into the space between my shoulder blades. “I don’t think you’re in a position to be making demands.”
It takes half a second for him to whirl me around so that my back presses up against him. I feel his breath, cooled by the freezing night, above my shoulders as he pulls down the collar of my coat. His warm fingers touch the back of my neck, right where my hairline ends, and I suck in my breath.
I know what he sees. There’s a collection of ink right where he’s pressing, swirls that create no apparent pattern. They appeared on my skin the first night I controlled my dreams. The first night that any of this began.
“I knew it,” he breathes, pulling back up my collar.
Since he still has his other hand clasped around my bicep, escaping is fruitless. The alley is deserted, as is the street just beyond it; not even a single car passes by.
“Where are we?” I demand, squirming a little.
“We’re in your dream, of course.”
I have just enough time to look down and see his bright green watch before ink coats my vision again, puddles that mix and melt until all I can see is black.
If I had to describe Asher Haynes in one word, it would be hot. If I were allowed a second I would venture to undeniably attractive. He looks like one of those rich heirs I watch on TV during my free time, but the truth of it is that he’s poor as dirt.
He’s wearing khakis and a henley and he’s standing in front of his locker, talking to a boy and girl I’ve never seen before.
I straighten the ankle of my black leather jeggings with one foot, continuing to watch Asher. He laughs at something the blonde girl says and glances my way. His thick eyebrows wrinkle, considering. Then he waves me over.
It’s been three weeks since I’ve seen him—he was out in the suburbs visiting family for the last bit of summer vacation, but now he’s back for the first day of school. The ache of missing him had grown every day, something that endless calls and texts couldn’t fix. Asher and I are a pair, like two words that fit together just right. I’d been too lonely with him gone.
“Hey, Gab.” He opens his arms and I lean forward to hug him, breathing deeply. I squeeze, feeling him inhale and exhale against my arms. There. Just like normal now.
Someone clears his throat, and I look up to see the boy Asher was talking to studying me. When I turn around to smile at the girl, I see in my peripheral vision that his eyes flicker to the back of my neck.
“What class do you have first?” Asher asks me, pulling out a sheet of paper from his locker.
I memorized my schedule last night, drawing it into my journal with letters that curled with every stroke of my pen. “Bio. What about you?”
Asher shakes his head, but the guy beside him shifts his eyes back to my face and says, “I’ve got bio. Maybe you can show me the way?”
“Sure,” I say, trying to sound friendly. I’m actually unnerved, because the more I look at him the more I could have sworn I’d seen him before. After watching him for a few more seconds, I blurt, “I’m sorry, but do I know you? I know that probably sounds weird but I get this feeling that I—”
He cuts me off. “Maybe you do? I’m Nathan Collier. I’ve been featured on a few magazine covers, ads, newspaper front pages…no biggie.”
My mouth clamps shut. Something tells me I haven’t just seen him on a billboard in Times Square.
The blonde girl pulls Asher aside by the sleeve and murmurs in his ear. Against my will, a sharp wave of jealousy shoots through me. I don’t know who this girl is, but she must be new to the school—and apparently, she already knows Asher really well. I know there’s no need for me to feel threatened—Asher and I have been joined at the hip since kindergarten—but it’s the kind of vibe that I get and then hate myself for feeling.
Nathan peels himself off of the locker he was leaning against and tips his head up at me. “Ready?”
I nod, taking careful time to study him as we head out. He has curly blonde hair that looks painstakingly arranged, but it falls into careless tousles all the way down the nape of his neck so that he looks like one of those cherubs in a Renaissance painting at the Met museum. His face, though, ends the similarities: his jaw is so sharp I could slice open my finger on it, and his bright green eyes are piercing.
His gaze holds mine for too long. I look down, watching the brown linoleum pass under me as I walk. The color of the floor transitions to white as we turn the corner, and my hand finds the wrought iron of the staircase rail.
“Quiet, aren’t you?” He breaks the silence as we jog down the stairs towards the science wing. His voice cuts through me, interrupting my thoughts, and I realize it sounds familiar. My mind dares to take me there: to the alleyway last night where the stranger cornered me. Subconsciously, my hand goes up to the back of my neck.
“So, you haven’t introduced yourself. What’s your name?”
“Gabi.” I force myself to look up again. He’s smiling now, and that makes him seem a lot more approachable. “And you’re—I guess you’re Nathan. Are you a model?”
He grins wider, showing off two rows of white teeth. “I’m flattered. You think I’m that good-looking?”
“No! I mean, not that I don’t. I mean…” I take a deep breath to compose myself. “You said you were on billboards. So you must be a model?”
“No. I’m just part of the high society crowd. Sometimes brands want me to represent them. You know, better publicity for me and more attention for them. You haven’t heard of me?”
“Should I have?” I don’t have time to worry about the uppity rich side of New York City; the only model I know, other than the Hollywood famous ones, is Olivia Schneider. With my dark hair, pale skin, and blue eyes, I’ve been compared to her more times than I can count.
He shrugs, and I notice how broad his shoulders are. Kicking aside a soda can, he falls into step beside me again and says, “I guess not if you’re into the model scene. But you really look like you would be. Those jeans look like they belong on New York Fashion Week. Plus, you sort of resemble—”
“Olivia Schneider. I know. And I sewed the appliqués on the jeans myself.”
He whistles but doesn’t say anything else, instead choosing to study the assortment of red and white fabric flowers clustered on the side of my legs. We’ve reached the bio classroom, and I slide past a girl I had in English last year to take a seat at the front of the room.
Unrelenting, Nathan sits beside me. At first I think he’ll say something else to me, but he just digs around in his messenger bag, talking to himself.
The conversation is clearly over. I reach into my own backpack and pull out my journal, flipping it open to the most recent page using the tattered ribbon. A rough sketch of a blood-red peacoat takes up most of the right margin, but on the left I’ve begun lettering quotes that I’ve stumbled across and loved. I’m a sucker for words. Anything that’s lyrical, that sends tingles of goosebumps up my arms.
Uncapping my black ballpoint pen, I begin writing out last night’s dreams. My dad was an oneirologist—was because he left four years ago, and he could be in Maine or South America or Thailand working as a cheesemaker or a construction foreman or absolutely nothing at all, and we wouldn’t even know. He raised me on dreams: writing them down, studying them just like he did, trying to understand my subconscious. He’s the reason I bought How to Control Your Dreams in the first place. He’s probably the reason I’m so immersed in controlling them.
Nathan is still rifling through his bag, his lips turned down in concentration. He pushes aside a black scarf and yanks out his bio textbook, slamming it on the desk. The meerkat on the front seems to mock me.
“Why do you have a scarf in August?” I ask.
I lean closer and catch a whiff of expensive leather which burns my nose. When I extend a hand to grab the scarf, Nathan’s comes down on my wrist. The sensation is all-too-familiar.
“You—” I begin.
He lets go of my wrist and kicks his bag under his seat. “I had an errand last night,” he says. His voice is silky smooth and deep, like he’s used to convincing people at the blink of an eye.
I consider pressing more—asking him if he was in the Bronx last night—but hesitate. I’ve never spoken to anyone about my dreams, and saying those words out loud feels like breathing it into existence. Like it’s something that’s real in the bright blinding daylight, not just something I can conceal in the dark. But when I was in the alley my watch was green; I don’t know much about my dreams but I do know that they’re always tinted blue. I couldn’t have been in total reality.
My first thought is that somehow, Nathan is the boy from my dream. But that makes no sense. The urgency, the tightly drawn features—Nathan looks relaxed, like he’s the king of this room and all the public school kids are his suppliants. Why would he leave his penthouse to pull me out of some random alley?
Slowly, the class fills up. I glance at Nathan every now and then, watching how he familiarizes himself with his surroundings. I wonder what a rich kid like him is doing in a public school instead of one of those elite boarding academies he probably came from. Maybe he was expelled—that would explain his penchant for creeping up on girls in the middle of the night. But the explanation doesn’t satisfy me.
My thoughts sneak back to Asher and the girl in front of his locker. There’s a possibility they met over the summer and she’s his girlfriend now, and he just hasn’t told me yet. Discomfort prickles over my skin. For a few seconds I battle with my pride; then I poke Nathan in the shoulder.
“Who was that blonde chick by Asher’s locker this morning?” I ask.
“You mean Willa?”
“How would I know her name? I’m asking you.”
He rolls his eyes. “That was Willa. She’s a friend of mine and Asher’s. And you…you’re a friend of Asher’s too, right?”
“He told you about me?” I ask.
Kicking his messenger bag further under his seat, he says, “Yeah. Not too much. He was just trying to help me out, tell me about a few people before I start at a brand-new school.” He squints his eyes at me and asks, “You two aren’t dating, are you? I get that kind of vibe.”
“No way. It’s never been like that with us. We’re just best friends.”
He seems satisfied with this answer, because he goes back to staring at his desk, his index finger tracing the spine of his textbook. The silence between us isn’t comfortable. Clearing my throat, I break it. “How did you two meet?”
“Funny story actually. We—”
Our teacher slams the door shut, silencing most of the class. Nathan ducks his head, his eyes resting on the cover of my bio textbook. The meerkats glare at me, and I look away but am inexplicably drawn back.
“Let’s get started!” calls our teacher. “We’re going to have a great year in bio.”
My senses are on overload. I glance at Nathan and see that he now looks just as nervous as me: he’s fidgety, cracking each of his knuckles one by one. Then he reaches up and adjusts his button-down, straightening the collar.
My breath hitches. As Nathan flattens his outer vest back down I can see the outline of a collection of ink, arranged in almost the same shape as mine, so dark I would think it was a tattoo.