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The Girl Who Could Not Dream, Page 2

Sarah Beth Durst

  One of their favorite games was for Sophie to stand at the bay window (shades down so no one could see in) and toss cupcakes across the bookstore. Monster would run, leap, and catch them in midair. This often led to cascades of books crashing to the ground. Luckily, with his six tentacles, Monster was also skilled at restocking shelves.

  But even better than the bookshop with its cupcakes and overflowing bookshelves was the basement. Hidden from ordinary customers was her parents’ secret shop, the Dream Shop.

  This was where her parents bought and sold dreams.

  Sophie loved the Dream Shop more than any place in the world. Dozens of shelves lined the walls, each filled with bottles, sorted by the type of dream they held. There were beach dreams and outer-space dreams and falling-through-empty-air dreams, lost-loved-ones dreams and first-love dreams, ordinary-life dreams and late-for-the-bus dreams, and of course, monster dreams. Each dream was stored in a bottle and labeled with a number and date, and every dream was tracked in a massive leather-bound ledger where her parents recorded notes on the dream’s contents, as well as details of every transaction with every supplier and buyer.

  Her parents bought the dreams in their raw form, caught in a web of threads called a dreamcatcher. Sophie’s whole family (minus Monster) made dreamcatchers. Dad would purchase bendable wood to make the circle frame. Mom would weave spiderweb-like patterns inside. Sophie would decorate them with crystals and beads and feathers. They then hung them in the windows of the bookstore, filling the entire bay window with sparkles. They’d become the bookstore’s gimmick. Buy a book, get a dreamcatcher. Buy a cupcake, get a dreamcatcher. Want an extra? Fine, it’s yours. But if it becomes worn, if the strings fray or sag, return it and take a new one. Often enough, these same dreamcatchers came back, either brought in by the customer or “found” by a supplier.

  Her parents then took the raw dreams and put them into the distiller, a complex contraption of intertwining glass tubes, valves, and levers that sat on a table at one end of the workroom. The distiller extracted dreams from dreamcatchers, transforming them into liquid, which would drip into bottles. Sophie had never used the distiller on her own, but she had watched her parents countless times and practiced (without an actual dream) when they weren’t looking. She hoped that someday her parents would let her use it for real. She’d tried pleading, crying, begging, demanding, and simply asking, but they always said, “When you’re older.” They had been saying that for pretty much all of the nearly twelve years of Sophie’s life. For now, her daily chore was to dust the distiller. It was boring, but even without ever having worked the distiller herself, she knew it was important to avoid specks of dust in the dreams. Producing a clear dream was a tricky process.

  On the opposite side of the room, beneath the stairs, was the somnium. Also made of glass tubes, the somnium was a dream viewer. If you poured a liquid dream into the funnel at the top, the dream would appear in the bulge of glass in the center. It then could be collected again into a bottle for reuse. The somnium was an essential tool for sorting the dreams. They wouldn’t know what kind of dream they had until they’d poured it into the somnium.

  Sophie liked to wake early and spend an hour or even two before school at the somnium, watching other people’s dreams. She never tired of it. She’d tuck herself under the stairs, out of sight, and she’d watch dream after dream. Often Monster watched with her. Sometimes he read books instead.

  She loved all sorts of dreams: scary dreams, funny dreams, bizarre dreams. She especially loved the ones that featured improbable creatures like her monster or talking clocks or rabbits in waistcoats.

  Watching them almost made up for never having any dreams of her own.

  Except for the dream she stole, Sophie had never had a dream. She’d tried everything: warm milk and cookies before bed, no food or drink before bed, a scary movie in the dark late at night, a book under the covers with a flashlight, inventing elaborate stories before she fell asleep, picturing the best images from other people’s dreams. But every night, she laid her head down on her favorite pillow, curled up under the quilt, and closed her eyes. And boom, it would be morning again.

  After twelve years of no dreams (except the stolen one), she had given up trying. Almost.

  “Good night, Monster,” she said on the night before her twelfth birthday.

  “Boa noite, Sophie,” Monster said from the floor beside her bed. He slept in a dog bed fluffed with extra pillows.

  She leaned over the bed to look at him. “What?”

  “It is Portuguese for ‘good night,’” Monster said. “I am learning Portuguese.”

  “Oh.” She lay back down and pulled her blankets up to her chin. The window next to her had a draft, or more accurately, a gap around the frame. A few fallen leaves had drifted inside and littered the floor. “Um, Monster, why are you learning Portuguese? We don’t know anyone who speaks Portuguese.”

  “In case I ever encounter a Portuguese man-of-war,” he said. “I would like to dissuade him from stinging me. They leave welts so painful that they last for two or three days.”

  “I don’t think jellyfish speak Portuguese,” Sophie said. “Or any language.”

  “Men-of-war are colonies of multiple organisms,” Monster said. “They have to communicate with each other.”

  “You need to stay out of the biology shelves.” Sophie curled up on her side. Through the window, the street lamp lit the bare branches of a tree. A few golden leaves swayed in the wind. She listened to the wind whistle down the chimney. “It’s my birthday tomorrow.”

  “You may have the extra cupcakes,” Monster said graciously.

  “That means it’s a special night,” Sophie said. “A change night. I wake up someone different, a twelve-year-old.”

  She heard the rustle of blankets. Reaching up, Monster patted her cheek with a tentacle. Monster’s fur was softer than any teddy bear. “You are always special, Sophie. You do not need nighttime wonders to make you so.”

  Sophie sighed. “I know.”

  “Fill your days with wonder instead.”

  “You sound like a fortune cookie.”

  He withdrew. She heard him circle like a cat to find a comfortable position. He settled down and kneaded the pillows with his claws. “I value what you are, not what you are not.”

  “One dream,” Sophie said. “I don’t think that’s a lot to ask for a birthday present.”

  “You had your one dream,” Monster said. “You birthed me.”

  “Ew, you make it sound like you’re my baby.”

  In a falsetto voice, Monster chirped, “Mama! Mama!”

  Sophie laughed.

  From the other room, Sophie’s father called, “Go to sleep, Sophie. If you aren’t asleep, the birthday fairy won’t come and leave you presents!”

  “I don’t believe in the birthday fairy,” Sophie called back.

  “Oh no, you’ve hurt her feelings!” Dad said. “She’s crying. Sobbing! I hate dealing with morose fairies. You apologize right now, young lady.”

  “Sorry, Birthday Fairy,” Sophie called.

  “I forgive you,” Mom said in a pseudo-quivery voice. “But my magic has been so diminished by your lack of belief that I don’t know if I can fly anymore.”

  Monster looked quizzically at the door between bedrooms. “Your mother can fly? I have never seen her do so.”

  “I’m not her mother,” Mom said in the same fake voice. “I’m the birthday fairy. My blood is streamers, my heart is a balloon, my flesh is made of cake . . .”

  “Yum, yum, yum,” Dad said.

  Sophie heard her mother laugh and then a muffled squeak.

  “You know, your parents are very strange,” Monster observed.

  “So says the six-tentacled monster,” Sophie said.

  “Good night, Sophie,” Mom called in her own voice. “Happy almost-birthday!”

  Dad echoed her. “Happy almost-birthday, sweetheart!”

  With a smile on her face, S
ophie closed her eyes. She listened to her parents’ voices, too soft for her to hear words, continue in the other bedroom. Outside, the wind tapped on the window, and Sophie fell asleep.

  She woke dreamless, twelve years old.

  THE SUN WASN’T AWAKE YET, THOUGH SOPHIE WAS. Sitting up, she poked Monster with her foot. Per usual, he’d crawled up onto her bed during the night. He claimed he did it in his sleep. He was now a warm weight at the foot of the bed. “Hey! Wake up!”

  Groaning, Monster flopped his tentacles over his head.

  “It’s morning!”

  “Not morning.”

  “Almost morning, sort of.” Lifting the shade a few inches, Sophie peeked outside. The streetlights were still on, but the sky had that expectant, about-to-brighten look. The stars were pale, and the moon was fading. She let the shade flop down again so no one could see inside, and she flipped on the light.

  “Gah!” Monster cried. “I’m blinded!” He waved all his tentacles in the air.

  She threw a pillow at him. “Stop it. Mom and Dad said we could sort the new dreams before school if we woke extra early, remember? Special birthday treat.” Having a dream shop meant keeping odd hours. You couldn’t risk ordinary book customers finding out about it, so most of the work had to happen before dawn or late at night. Sophie was used to waking up hours before the bus came. Monster always whined, though.

  He opened one eye. “Do you think there will be more wolf dreams? I like those.”

  Wolf dreams usually featured exciting chase scenes through dark woods. Sophie liked them too, except when they ended with munching on a rabbit. She’d always had a soft spot for rabbits. “Maybe there will be mermaid dreams.”

  Sitting up, Monster licked his fur clean like a cat. He had a golden tongue. “I do not understand why anyone would want to be half fish. Eat fish, yes. Be a fish . . . no.”

  “You could swim with dolphins.”

  “If you want to swim with dolphins, then be a dolphin. At least then you’ll still be a mammal instead of half mammal and half mackerel.”

  “But mermaids sing catchy songs about seaweed.”

  “Technically, the crab sings; the mermaid is an unwilling audience.” Snagging Sophie’s hairbrush with a tentacle, Monster pretended it was a microphone and whisper-sang “Under the Sea.” Sophie drummed in the air, silently so her parents wouldn’t hear. In the middle of a lyric about a fish on a plate, Monster’s stomach growled, and he broke off singing. “Speaking of special birthday treats . . . cupcakes for breakfast?” Monster widened his eyes hopefully.

  Ms. Lee had baked a fresh batch in honor of Sophie’s birthday. Imagining them, Sophie could practically taste the frosting. They never got to eat them fresh, but today was a special day, and they were baked in her honor . . . “Mom and Dad won’t like it . . .”

  Monster inched toward the bedroom door. “There might be some with pink frosting. And sprinkles. Special birthday sprinkles. Mmm.”

  Lunging forward, she caught him around the waist. “I’ll get them.”

  He wiggled free. “I will be sneaky. I am the sneakiest monster. I did your homework for you last night, and you didn’t even notice. Special birthday surprise!”

  “Uh-oh.” Releasing him, Sophie crossed to her backpack. She’d intended to do it on the bus. It kept the other kids from talking to her.

  “Why ‘uh-oh’?” He bounded after her.

  “Last time you wrote every letter upside down. I had to claim it was an artistic experiment.” She pulled out her homework. He hadn’t touched history, but her science worksheet was complete. She scanned it. Instead of drawing a plant cell, Monster had drawn in minute detail the circulatory system of a rodent. He’d also answered every multiple choice question with C. “Oh, Monster.”

  “Cupcake?” He wagged his tentacles like a dog with six tails.

  She gave up. “Stay,” she ordered.

  Unlocking her bedroom door, she sneaked past her parents’ room and down the stairs. She knew exactly which boards squeaked, and she eased over them, gingerly placing toe first and then heel as she crept down two flights to the bookshop.

  There, on the counter, under a glass dome lid, was the tray of cupcakes. It was near the window, and light from the street lamp shone in, illuminating the tray as if it were in a spotlight. She crossed to it and lifted the lid.

  Behind her, the bell over the door rang.

  She froze.

  “Good morning.” A voice drifted over the bookshelves. It was male, smooth, and deep. She thought she heard a hint of an accent, maybe British. She liked accents. When people with accents came into the shop, she often hid between the bookshelves and eavesdropped. People with accents tended to know different stories and have different dreams. But nice voice or not, it was too early for customers. The door should have been locked.

  She thought about pretending she wasn’t here, but she couldn’t just leave him wandering freely. She wished her parents were downstairs. “I’m sorry, but we’re not open yet.” Craning her neck, she tried to see him around the bookshelves without him seeing her. The door had already swung shut, and he wasn’t in view.

  “My apologies. I’m early for my appointment. Please convey to the owners of this establishment that I’m here to make a purchase from their downstairs collection.”

  Oh no, Sophie thought. This was a dream buyer. She wasn’t supposed to talk to buyers or suppliers. In fact, they weren’t even supposed to know she lived here. Her parents had a system to avoid situations like this. Every morning as she packed her lunch, Sophie was supposed to check the calendar on the refrigerator. Days she had to hide herself and Monster were marked in black, and days she had to take the recycling out to the curb were marked in green. Today, she hadn’t gone to the kitchen to check the calendar. “I’m Betty from next door. But I’m sure I can find them for you.”

  “Very well, Betty from Next Door.”

  She bolted toward the stairs. As she did, she saw the buyer sit in one of the red velvet chairs by the bay window. He wore a hat that shaded his eyes so that they looked like black smudges. His chin had a tiny beard, the kind that is as meticulously trimmed as if it were a topiary. He wore a trench coat and carried a briefcase. Except for the fact that she couldn’t really see his eyes, he didn’t look so scary. He looked like countless others who came into the shop looking for books.

  She met her mother halfway across the shop. Mom frowned at her. “Sophie, you should be upstairs. We’re expecting a buyer in about fifteen minutes. I’ve already unlocked the door for him. Didn’t you check the calendar?”

  Sophie wished Mom had spoken softer. She was certain that the man had heard her name wasn’t Betty. Also, he could now guess that she belonged here. “He’s here.”

  Mom’s face whitened. Her lips pursed tight. “Go.”

  Sophie fled toward the stairs as she heard Monster cry, “Sophie, come back! The calendar’s marked black. It’s not safe!” A streak of fur sailed over the books. He collided with her stomach, and she was propelled backward. They smacked into a bookshelf. Books flew off the shelf and crashed down on either side of them. Monster shielded her from them, and several smacked into his back.

  “Sophie! Are you okay?” Mom rushed toward her.

  The man in the trench coat approached as well.

  “He’s the buyer,” Sophie whispered to Monster. He twisted his neck to look at Sophie’s mother and the man. His lemur eyes opened impossibly wide, and then he bounded toward the stairs. His tentacles pawed the floor, propelling him faster. In seconds, he was out of sight.

  The man in the trench coat watched it all.

  “I’m fine,” Sophie said. “Just . . . my cat. He loves to cuddle.”

  Kneeling, the man picked up several books. He handed the stack to Sophie. “Unusual cat, Betty.”

  Sophie forced a laugh. “He’s . . .”

  “Mutation,” Mom interrupted. “Owners were going to have him put down. But other than the extra appendages, he was perfectly
healthy. If you’ll follow me downstairs, please . . . ?”

  “Of course.” The man didn’t take his eyes off Sophie as he passed her. She froze and wished she could melt into the bookshelf. Her rib cage felt tight, as if it were squeezing her lungs. Closer, she could now see the man’s eyes, and she preferred when they were shadowed. The whites were streaked with red as if he hadn’t slept in days, and the skin underneath them sagged into wrinkled pouches. He tipped his hat toward her, and then he followed her mother downstairs.

  Monster poked his head around the corner of the stairs. “Sophie?”

  “It’s safe now,” Sophie said. “I think.”

  “I failed you,” Monster said.

  “It was an accident.”

  All six tentacles drooped. He slunk down the stairs to curl around her ankles. “I’m supposed to protect you.”

  She scooped him into her arms, staggering back from the weight. “Don’t blame yourself. I’m the one who forgot to check. It’s my fault. I’ll tell them they shouldn’t yell at you.”

  “I don’t care if they yell or yodel; I just want you safe.”

  But her parents didn’t yell at either of them. In fact, they didn’t speak to them at all. After the buyer left, they retreated back down to the basement, shutting the door behind them. Monster pressed his ear to the door. Sophie tried to hear through the crack beneath it.

  “. . . like Abril’s farm.” Mom’s voice drifted up the stairs and through the door. “It’s a good place for a girl to grow up. Chickens and so forth. Streams to jump in. Fresh air. Lousy school district, but Sophie is smart enough on her own.”

  “It may not be a problem,” Dad said soothingly.

  “He saw Monster! There was no disguising him. Or Monster’s connection to Sophie. It was clear he belongs to her.”

  “But it is unlikely he’ll guess Monster’s origin,” Dad said. “More likely, he’ll think we found Monster. Or bought him. There’s no reason for him to assume—”