Whenever the kids at Sonia Obata's new school go to sleep, they go to a place called the Grand Dream. There, they can do whatever they want—play a game, write a song, or paint a masterpiece—without a single adult to bother them. But when Sonia discovers something has tampered with her memories of this place, she realizes it's not the paradise it seems to be.
A mysterious girl helps Sonia escape and reveals the terrible truth: the Grand Dream is on the verge of collapse! To stop it, she gives Sonia an amulet called the Baku's Fang, which grants her the ability to travel into other dreams. She must search through the dream world, fight terrifying nightmares, and confront the traumas of her own past, in order to save her new friends. The Grand Dream won't let them go without a fight.
Enjoy the following sneak preview:
WEDNESDAY - AWAKE
Sonia could not remember her dream.
She arrived at the bus stop in front of her apartment complex, still piecing together the few scattered images that remained. There was a clock tower with moonlight shining off its face, and a huge pool with glittering water…and that was it. Whatever she did, whoever she saw, it had all blown away like dust as soon as she woke up.
It was all middle school’s fault; it had to be. Today was her first day, and her heart felt like a pincushion. She wouldn’t know a soul, the classes would be too intense, and half the kids would look at her pixie-cut hair and think she was a boy. She gave sixth grade a week before it turned into a catastrophe. With all that ahead of her, of course she’d forgotten the dream.
The bus rolled in from around the curve and opened its doors. Some older middle schoolers from the other apartments climbed aboard. Sonia took a deep breath and climbed in after them. No use worrying about a dream now. Time for reality.
“Sonia! Right here! I saved you a seat!”
A girl with red hair was waving at her. Sonia had never seen her before in her life.
The door wheezed shut, and the last students from the apartments shoved from behind. Sonia stumbled down the aisle. The redhead patted the open space on her seat. Nothing else was free, and the bus was about to move, so Sonia slipped off her backpack and sat down.
The redhead hooked their arms together. “You’re finally here!”
Sonia pulled but couldn’t break her arm free.
“Are you as excited as I am?” the redhead said. “I hope we have the same classes. Oh, I’ve been waiting for this forever!”
The bus lurched forward. “Uh, sure,” Sonia said. “Can I ask you something?”
The redhead pulled her single braid behind her shoulder. “What is it?” Her smile was so bright.
“Who are you, and how do you know my name?”
The redhead’s smile froze. “Very funny, Sonia.”
“No joke. Who are you?”
The redhead loosened her grip. “It’s me, Rebecca. We’re friends.”
“You sure? You didn’t mix me up with somebody else?”
The redhead—Rebecca—lost her smile. “Sonia Obata, right?”
Sonia leaned away.
“Your middle name’s Mayumi, your favorite movie’s Toy Story, you hate tomatoes, you have an uncle who teaches English in Osaka, and there was this boy at your old school”—Rebecca smirked—”Brandon?”
Sonia’s face warmed up. “That’s enough.” Everything Rebecca said was true…but that was impossible. “G-give me a hand here. When’s the last time I saw you?”
“Last night, in the dream.”
Sonia spat out a laugh. “Ha, okay, you really had me there.”
Rebecca growled. “Fine! Forget it.” She let go, crossed her arms, and spun her head toward the window. “Go sit somewhere else.”
Sonia’s skin prickled, and she stopped laughing. “I-I’m sorry.”
But Rebecca wouldn’t budge.
Sonia scooted aside and checked up and down the aisle. Every other seat was full, not that anybody would want her butting in. If they didn’t ignore her, sooner or later she’d do something to make them hate her. Just like at her old school. Just like Rebecca.
But how did Rebecca know those things? Sonia hadn’t met anyone since she’d moved to Chattanooga. She never used her real name online or on her clothes. If she’d gone to registration last week, they might have met there, but Dad had already enrolled her way back in June. And what were the odds some jerk from her old school happened to know a certain redhead at her new one? If this was a prank, it was the weirdest Sonia had ever heard of.
The bus rolled up to Baker Middle School. Sonia rushed out and ducked into the building before Rebecca could catch up.
Signs pointed all sixth graders down the hall. Sonia swerved around seventh and eighth graders who stood there like columns. She reached a staircase in the center of the building, where a sign directed her downstairs.
The cafeteria roared with the chatter of sixth graders as Sonia wandered through. Everyone had already clustered into groups and found somewhere to sit. Most of them had probably been friends since preschool. How could she expect any of them to notice her?
A sharp pain flicked her ear. “YOW!”
A boy with copper hair sprinted past her and disappeared into the crowd.
She rubbed her ear and hunted for a place to sit. If she ever got her hands on that jerk…
Another boy glanced at the flowery butterfly on her shirt. “You know that’s for girls, right?”
“Yes, I do.” She bumped his shoulder and stormed on. Yep, middle school was off to a terrific start.
Somewhere in the noise, she thought she heard someone say, “Clock tower.” She turned around to find who’d said it.
A hand squeezed onto Sonia’s wrist from behind her. “Gotcha!” A small, brown-haired girl locked her elbow around Sonia’s arm. “Rebecca told me what happened. We’re figuring this out right now.” The girl dragged her across the room, pressed her into a chair, and sat beside her. Rebecca sat across. The brown-haired girl pointed at herself. “You know who I am, right? Come on, Sonia.”
Sonia gritted her teeth and shook her head.
“It’s me, Erin! Sonia, what happened?”
“She doesn’t even remember the Grand Dream,” Rebecca said.
“No way,” Erin said. “How do you forget that? You were staring at the clock tower when you woke up!”
Sonia said, “Clock tower?”
“What about my brother? You’ve gotta remember him.” Rebecca pointed across the cafeteria at the copper-headed boy.
“Him? He flicked my ear a minute ago, but that’s it. I give up; what’s his name?”
Rebecca’s mouth hung open. “You really don’t remember. I can’t believe it.”
“Remember what? How am I supposed to know you, really?”
Rebecca bent her head down. “You’ll just laugh at me again.”
The bell rang, and some teachers called for quiet. Everyone sat down. A man walked up to a lectern by the cash registers and introduced himself as the principal, Mr. Hartnell. He said some friendly words and introduced the other faculty members.
Sonia leaned toward Rebecca. “Listen,” she whispered, “I’m sorry I laughed at you earlier. Just please, tell me what’s going on.”
Rebecca twisted her braid around her fingers. “You really wanna know?” She leaned forward. “Sonia, the reason I know you is because we’ve been having the same dream.”
Sonia waited for Rebecca to grin or glance across the table, give some sign she was joking. But she looked as serious as the principal over there explaining the dress code. “You…and me?”
“And me,” Erin said. “And everybody else here. We’ve been friends all summer.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“You don’t have to,” Rebecca said. “It’s still true.”
Sonia flopped into the back of her seat and exhaled until she was empty. These girls were out of their minds.
Mr. Hartnell ended his speech, and everyone in the cafeteria stood up. It was time to go to their first classes. Sonia shook herself and dug into her backpack for her schedule.
Erin peered over her shoulder. “Looks like we have first period together. Let’s go.”
She led Sonia upstairs, where they split from Rebecca and headed down the east hall. Sonia trailed a little, in case anyone thought she was friends with this weirdo.
Their classroom was the third on the right. Erin took a seat by the far wall. Sonia lingered in front, looking around. Maybe she could get away with sitting somewhere else.
A group of boys sat together nearby. “So how about that game last night?” one of them said.
“Man, that was wild. That three-pointer you threw? Never seen anything like it. What’d you guys do after?”
“Me, I went down to the water slide.”
Sonia inched closer to hear more. Even if the town had a water slide, who would go there at night after a basketball game?
“I just can’t believe it,” one of the boys said. “You’re all really here. I was worried you were all just part of the dream, like the clock tower.”
Sonia rushed over to Erin’s desk. “What was that about us having the same dream?”
Erin folded her hands. “Not much to it, I guess. Every night, all the kids at this school go to the Grand Dream.”
“Everybody?” Sonia sat down behind her. “Is there a clock tower in it?”
Erin nodded. “There’s also a pool, a museum, a garden—everything you could want.”
“How can a whole school have the same dream?”
“What I wanna know is, how did you forget? It’s kind of a—oh no, not him!”
Rebecca’s copper-headed brother plopped into a desk next to them. Two other boys sat beside him, one small with big, mousey front teeth, the other tall with stretched-out arms. “Morning, girls,” the copper-headed boy said. “How’s it going?”
“Isaac, don’t sit there,” Erin said. “For once, just leave us alone.”
“It’s a free country. I’ll sit where I want.” Isaac grinned at Sonia. “Hey. How’re you?”
“My ear still hurts, you jerk,” she said. “You’re Rebecca’s brother, right? What are you, twins?”
One eyebrow jumped up. “Um, yeah. You know that.”
“She doesn’t remember you,” Erin said. “Or me, or the Dream, or anybody else. So do her a favor and go away.”
Isaac’s grin faded. “You really don’t remember me?”
Sonia shook her head.
The bell rang. Isaac stared off and stroked his chin. “She doesn’t remember…”
Their English teacher, Mrs. Russell, came in, called roll, and started explaining the curriculum. While she spoke at length about her favorite authors, Isaac turned and started whispering to Sonia. “Hey, sorry about your ear. I was just goofing around. How about we start fresh? I’m Isaac, this is Bart”—he nodded toward his mousey friend and then at the taller one—”and that’s Justin.” He held out his hand. “It’s very nice to meet you, Sonia.”
What the heck, maybe he did deserve another chance. She reached over to shake his hand. “Nice to meet—”
Her palm squished on something moist and slimy.
She jerked her hand back. “Ew! Ew! Ew!” She mashed her hand inside her pocket to dry it off. What was it, spit? That sick freak!
“Is there a problem, Ms. Obata?”
Mrs. Russell was staring at her, along with the rest of the class, while Isaac snickered behind that slimy hand of his.
“N-nothing,” Sonia said. “Just a bug. He’s squished now. Sorry.”
Everyone turned away and moved on, but Isaac was still laughing to himself—laughing at her. She clenched her fists so tight she could crush something. Yeah, she was a real laugh riot, wasn’t she? The kids at her old school sure hadn’t thought so, not after she got her hands on them. She needed to teach that stupid jerk a lesson. Bust his stupid teeth right out of his stupid skull, knock that stupid grin off his stupid face…
And turn every kid and teacher against her. Just like at her old school.
She opened her fists, sniffed some air in, and blew it out, as slow and even as she could. She was in charge. She could let it go. This was supposed to be a fresh start. She didn’t have to hurt anybody.
After class, Erin got up and touched Sonia’s arm. “Don’t let Isaac get to you,” she said. “He’s not even worth it. You’re cooler than he is any day.”
Sonia felt something swell in her throat. “Thanks.”
She squirted on some hand sanitizer on the way out and went to second period alone, while Erin headed for a different class.
Spanish class was around the corner, close to the center stairway. As soon as Sonia took a seat, Isaac burst into the room. She gripped the edge of her desk and stared straight ahead. Maybe he wouldn’t notice her. There were still plenty of empty seats, especially over in the far corner.
He took the desk behind her. The hairs on her neck spiked up. Oh, to be a porcupine.
A few rows away, a girl with a ponytail was smiling at her. “You’re the one who did that awesome dive at the pool a few weeks ago, aren’t you?” the girl said. “I saw it. It was so cool.”
Sonia tried and failed to picture it. “You aren’t talking about the Grand Dream, are you?”
The girl puffed out a laugh. “No, I’m talking about the Alamo. Of course, I—look out!”
Something damp hit Sonia in the back of the neck. She scraped at it and peeled off a spitball. She twisted around. That idiot Isaac was beaming as if they were the closest of friends.
She grabbed him by the collar and yanked. “Listen, I don’t care whose brother you are. If you want to go home with all your teeth today, you’ll keep your saliva off me. Got it?”
His smile vanished. He nodded. She let go and moved up two seats, watching him to make sure he stayed put.
The girl with the ponytail grimaced. “I know how you feel. He put gum in my hair last year.”
Sonia kept her eyes forward, away from Isaac. She was still in charge. And at least it wasn’t just her.
She caught up with Rebecca and Erin at lunch. “Hey,” Rebecca said. “Erin told me about the spit shake.”
“He got me with a spitball, too,” Sonia said. “No offense, but your brother’s a jerk.”
“I know.” Rebecca let her head sag. “He bugs us in the Grand Dream all the time.”
“The Grand Dream, huh?” Sonia took a seat. “I think I’m starting to believe you.”
“Do you remember anything?” Rebecca poked her tray with her fork.
“No. That’s what I don’t get. If the Grand Dream is real, and if I did go, and you really are my friends, how come I don’t remember it? It sounds like a pretty big deal, so what happened?”
“You think if we knew, we wouldn’t tell you? I’ve been looking forward to meeting you in real life all summer. We’ve had so many near misses—at the mall, at the park. Now you’re finally here, and you’re a total stranger. It’s like our whole summer never happened.”
Sonia had lost enough of her old friends to know the feeling. “I’m sorry.”
“It couldn’t be your fault,” Erin said. “It’s just gonna take some getting used to.”
Sonia stared at her tray. “So how do I get used to it?”
“We’ll figure something out. There’s gotta be something out there that can jog your memory, right, Rebecca?”
“Of course,” Rebecca said. “You’re still our friend, Sonia.”
Sonia felt something in her throat again. If these girls wanted to be her friends, then they were crazy. But if they really did—if she had people like them on her side—then maybe sixth grade wouldn’t be too bad. “But how do I know if the Grand Dream’s real?”
“You’ll know when you go to sleep tonight,” Rebecca said.
“How about this?” Erin said. “Tomorrow, when we meet up in the morning, we’ll tell each other what we were wearing in the Dream.”
“You’re on.” Good thing she wore pajama pants to bed. “How’d it start, anyway? Why this school?”
“You’d have to ask the one who started the Grand Dream.” Rebecca scooped up a piece of broccoli with her fork. “And he isn’t talking. All we know is, once you’re enrolled here, you’re in.”
And Dad had enrolled Sonia back in June, as soon as they moved. “And it’s only kids?”
“There aren’t any high schoolers, that’s for sure,” Erin said.
“Not yet, anyway,” Rebecca said. “Something tells me the eighth graders aren’t going anywhere when they graduate.”
“And it’s everybody here?” Sonia said.
“Everybody except the teachers.” Rebecca pointed out the window, toward the building down the hill. “Even Baker Elementary’s in there.”
Sonia looked around at the other tables. All around her, kids were calmly chatting and laughing together, like they didn’t have this big shared secret. “How the heck did I forget something like that?”
“Whatever happened,” Rebecca said, “it must have been big.”
Sonia watched her start poking her tray again. Rebecca deserved better from Sonia, after what happened on the bus. “Listen, Rebecca, I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I shouldn’t have laughed at you. If you’re willing to give this another chance, then so am I.”
Rebecca looked at her, and for the first time since they’d met on the bus, smiled at her. “Of course I am. We’re friends, Sonia. We always will be.”
Sonia smiled back. Even if these girls were out of their minds, she wouldn’t have it any other way. They liked her, wanted to hang around with her, and were willing to forgive her, and that was enough. Now, after so much anger and loneliness, she could finally say she had friends.
The bus rumbled and chugged as kids filed in. Sonia found a window seat a safe distance from Isaac and dropped in, with Rebecca beside her. Sonia leaned her head back and sighed. “Weird day,” she said. “How can everybody act so normal?”
“I guess we’re just used to it, “ Rebecca said. “Me and Erin have been there two years now, and it’s never really hurt anybody.”
“And no,” Rebecca said, “the teachers don’t know. Actually, you can’t tell any adults about it. Don’t even bother.”
“Yeah, right, as if they’d believe me.”
“It’ll be fine,” Rebecca said. “You’ll love the Grand Dream. You sure did before.”
Eventually the bus turned off Lee Highway onto Royce Avenue. After a curve that pulled everyone slightly to the side, the sign for Lee Meadows Apartments emerged up ahead. Sonia lifted her backpack.
The bus stopped and opened its door, and the seventh and eighth graders that lived in Lee Meadows stepped into the aisle. Rebecca stretched back so Sonia could get through.
“Bye,” Sonia said. “See you tomorrow—tonight, I guess.”
“Can’t wait,” Rebecca said.
Sonia hopped out and hiked up the driveway, past the apartment office, to building 14. At the end of a short, open hallway, she took her keys out of her pocket and opened the door. A rapid, noodly trumpet solo from one of Dad’s many, many jazz albums was playing inside. “I’m home!” Sonia slipped off her shoes, dropped her backpack, and hung her keys on the tail of a small chameleon sculpture she’d made a few months ago. She had been sculpting for about a year. It helped her forget some of the things that bothered her.
“Back here,” her dad hollered. “I’m still at work.”
Sonia went down the hall to her dad’s office. Dad spun his chair around. “Hey, Sonia. I just have another hour or so.” He paused his jazz. “How was school?”
“Interesting.” She strolled to his desk. A smiling lizard she had sculpted sat beside the monitor. “There were these two girls—they were kinda weird, but we’re friends now.”
“Sonia, I’m so proud!” He pulled her in for a hug. “I knew you could do it.”
“It wasn’t even as hard as I thought.”
“I’m glad things are looking up, after last year. You don’t deserve to be alone.” He added gravely, “What about boys?”
Sonia thought about Isaac and stuck out her tongue.
“Okay, then. But you like the school? How are the teachers?”
“They’re fine. I think I could get used to this place.”
“Can’t wait to hear more about it,” he said. “Oh, and we’re having Lisa over for dinner.”
Sonia bounced on her toes. “Sweet.” Any day she got to see Dad’s girlfriend was a cool one.
She grabbed a Coke from the kitchen and some Sculpey from the cabinet, and left the TV on while she kneaded the clay.
Sure, at first Sonia hadn’t liked the idea of Dad dating. Sometimes she still had trouble imagining him with someone other than her mother. But Sonia had never expected him to meet someone as great as Lisa Ichizaki.
Dad had met Lisa online back in April, after he started planning the move to Chattanooga. She was a psychology professor who had lived in Chattanooga her whole life. When the Obatas finally did move, Lisa showed them around town, to the best stores and her favorite restaurants. Now they did almost everything together. Sometimes, Dad even asked Lisa to look after Sonia while he was busy.
But Lisa never treated Sonia like just a kid who needed a babysitter. She took Sonia seriously. Whether it was about a movie they watched, or a sculpture Sonia was working on, or one of Sonia’s anxieties or regrets, Lisa always cared what Sonia had to say. She never dismissed Sonia and never looked down on her. Lisa always had useful advice, especially on how Sonia could keep her anger under control. It had already stopped Sonia from pulverizing Isaac that morning.
Sonia could talk to Lisa about anything. Even the Grand Dream didn’t seem off-limits. For all Sonia knew, she had already told Lisa about it a long time ago.
By the time Dad clocked out of work, Sonia had built the rough shape of a winged giraffe. She set it aside to help Dad with dinner. He’d marinated some chicken during the day, and now he prepared it for the oven while she chopped vegetables.
Twenty minutes later, while Dad and Sonia laid their dinner out on the table, the bell rang. Sonia dashed over and flung the door open to a hallway washed pink by the sunset. “Lisa!”
Lisa Ichizaki’s ponytail rocked in the breeze. “Hey, Sonia!” She mussed Sonia’s hair. “How’s your new school?”
“Pretty nice. I’ve already made a couple friends.”
“Then something must have gone right.” Lisa eyed Sonia’s dad. “Good afternoon to you, too, Roger.”
He and Lisa kissed. That was Sonia’s cue to leave them alone and wait at the table. Hanging out with Lisa was one thing. Watching her smooch Dad was another.
They soon sat down with her, and everyone started in. At first, the adults talked about work. Lisa’s classes started on Monday, and she was still getting things ready. Dad mostly had bland corporate meetings about auto insurance to talk about.
But soon, the conversation steered toward Sonia’s day at school, especially her new friends. “Didn’t you say they were a little weird?” Dad said.
“Ooh, weird friends,” Lisa said. “They’re the best kind. What are they into?”
“Oh, well…” Sonia saw Lisa’s eyes glitter with curiosity. Rebecca had told her not to tell anybody, but surely if anybody would understand the Grand Dream, it was Lisa. At worst, she and Dad would probably assume it was just a game. “They kept talking about this thing where they fwabababa—”
The thought stumbled on the way to her mouth. She knew what to say, but it apparently didn’t want to be said.
Dad and Lisa were staring.
“Huh,” Sonia said. “I can’t remember. I guess in all the excitement…” She knocked on her head. “Well, it doesn’t matter. They’re really nice.”
She moved on to telling them about her teachers. A few times she tried slipping in the phrase “Grand Dream,” but she only spat out empty air, as if something had snatched the words out of her throat.
She finally gave up and let Dad and Lisa take over the conversation. They had only known each other a few months, yet they talked as if they’d known each other for years. Nights like this, the three of them almost felt like a real family.
Sonia felt a twist in her stomach and turned her head away. She liked Lisa, but more as a friend. Not so much as her future mom.
A framed photo glinted from a table in the corner. It was an old portrait of Sonia’s mother, Miranda, her long brown hair falling in waves and her eyes green as a spring lawn. The photo shone a little brighter than the others around it, the baby photos and family gatherings, since Dad took special care to dust it at least once a week. Sonia could only look for a second. It reminded her of how her mother had died.
Had it really been two years? So much had changed since then. Their home, Dad’s job, Sonia’s school, and of course, Lisa. Hard not to wonder what Mom would think.
After dinner, when Dad took the dishes to the kitchen, Sonia and Lisa stayed at the table. “So tell me more about school,” Lisa said. “Anything interesting happen?”
“Well…” Sonia leaned close and lowered her voice. “Don’t tell Dad,” she said, “but I almost blew my top at somebody at school.”
“Did it turn out okay?”
Sonia nodded. “I remembered to breathe, and I told myself I’m in charge, just like you suggested.” She wrung her hands. “I wanna do this right. I can’t screw this up like I did with my old friends.”
“Don’t pressure yourself too much, Sonia. Middle school’s tough, but it sounds like you’re off to a great start. I’m proud of you. Keep it up.”
“Thanks,” Sonia said. “I appreciate it.”
Lisa stayed for another hour before she left to go home. After that, with no homework, Sonia returned to work on her sculpture, keeping an eye on the clock on the wall. Ten o’clock couldn’t come soon enough.
As soon as it did, she hopped to her feet. “Well, better get to bed.”
“I didn’t even have to tell you,” Dad said. “You must be tired.”
“It’s been a weird day.” She kissed Dad on the cheek. “G’night, Dad.”
Sonia brushed her teeth and changed into her pajama pants.
She turned off the lights and crawled into her sheets.
She closed her eyes and let the world drift away.
Now she’d know for sure whether her friends were telling the truth.
WEDNESDAY - DREAMING
Sonia walked barefoot through a sparse wood, where the branches swayed in the wind. A mountainous cloud floated over the horizon, in front of a tremendous white moon. Someone squealed behind her. Small children were chasing each other from tree to tree. A grandfather clock stood in a clearing, its door large enough for Sonia to fit through, but with no pendulum swinging inside.
How long had she been walking? How did she get here?
Sonia continued on to the edge of the woods and crossed a cobblestone plaza, lit as bright as day by tall lamps. Everywhere she looked, she saw children, her age and younger and older. Not a single adult.
A crowd gathered by a low concrete wall, gazing out at a glittering black sky. An older kid, maybe an eighth grader, climbed on top of the wall, arms outstretched.
Sonia dashed to the wall and clapped both hands over her mouth. The boy was falling toward a vast sea of clouds, with city lights glowing even farther below. How was it possible to be up so high? He was as good as dead!
But then, a heavy wind blew against him, and he swooped up and twirled in the sky. He was smiling, and the kids watching him cheered. Other children were flying as well, gliding between the clouds and shooting through them. One little girl in a white nightgown flew up and tumbled back over the wall, laughing hysterically as she rolled to a stop.
Sonia leaned over. There was a bluff below the wall, but she couldn’t see where it ended. Something had to be keeping them up here. She bent down, standing on her tiptoes…
When something wrapped around her ankles and pulled.
She flipped forward, dropped from the wall, and screamed. There was nothing between her and the ground except the clouds. She didn’t know how to fly like the others, and no one could catch her in time. All she could do was admire the city lights and wait for her eleven years of life to come to an end.
The wind blasted against her. It slowed her down and seemed to slice around her and draw her forward. Soon it began to lift her up.
She was flying!
All she had to do was adjust her position, and she could move wherever she wanted. Pulling her head up let her shoot higher. Rotating her shoulders let her turn.
Sonia twisted around and gasped.
Nothing was holding the bluffs up at all. She had fallen from an island that floated in the air as naturally as one of the clouds.
A clock tower stood atop a stone castle in the island’s center. Pale moonlight shone off the clock’s face.
She had seen that clock tower before…
Behind the wall, someone was laughing at her, someone with a head of copper. Isaac? No, of course not. What would he be doing in a place like this?
She steered herself toward the wall. As soon as she crested it, she began to drop. The crowd cleared. The impact jolted through her legs as her feet hit the ground. Sweet, beautiful, durable solid ground! It might be a floating island, but at least she could stand on it.
Sonia gazed toward the woods she had left only minutes ago. Behind those woods, the clock tower, with its moonlit face, stood like a watchful eye over everything.
A path led her out of the plaza and then forked: one way going uphill, the other down. She went up.
A wide lounge deck, furnished with easy chairs, sofas, and board games, reached off the edge of the island. One kid was plucking an intricate tune from a guitar. Two others were locked in a chess game. Still more were under a loudspeaker, dancing to a pop song. Sonia didn’t recognize it; it sounded like two different songs mashed together.
Rebecca and Erin were chatting with each other in the corner. Erin’s nightgown and the sleeves of Rebecca’s pajamas fluttered in the wind. Sonia hollered. “Hey! Over here!”
Erin turned, gasped, and waved back. She and Rebecca both started running toward Sonia, and she ran toward them. For them to be in a place like this, it was like…
“I’m dreaming,” Sonia said.
Erin grabbed her and nearly toppled her over. “We were about to start looking for you!”
Rebecca joined in, and Sonia wrapped her arms as far around them as she could. They were here! She could touch them! And all these kids, hanging around without a single adult—and that clock tower—”This is the Grand Dream, isn’t it?”
“What do you think?” Rebecca said. “Ring any bells so far?”
“No, but it’s amazing. Everything feels so real.” Sonia broke off and gazed out at the sky beyond the lounge deck’s guardrail. Mountains of cloud drifted over the horizon, with constellations shimmering above and distant towns twinkling below. “How could I forget this?”
“Who knows?” Rebecca said. “There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about the Grand Dream, and a lot of weird glitches that pop up sometimes. Like that.” She pointed at a cloud that was floating by. Water was spewing from the top like a fountain.
“That is pretty weird,” Sonia said, trying to imagine what Lisa would make of a place like this. “So if it is a glitch, is there a way to fix it?”
“Let’s hope so. But at least we’re together now. Why don’t we show you around? There’s gotta be something that’ll jog your memory.”
“Though we did kinda give you the tour already,” Erin said.
“Don’t let that stop you.” Sonia said. “Where to first?”
“This way.” Erin pointed uphill.
Sonia glanced at the clock tower. It was eleven fifteen.
On the way up the hill, Rebecca asked, “Did you try telling your dad about this?”
“I did!” Sonia said. “But all I got were brain farts.”
“Same thing happens whenever I try telling my sister,” Erin said.
Rebecca chuckled. “Every time I try to say ‘Grand Dream’ to Mom and Dad, it always comes out as ‘moon beam’ or something. It happens to everybody.”
“I gotta admit,” Erin said, “it’s kinda fun having this big secret all to ourselves. Joseph thought of everything.”
“Who’s Joseph?” A bell rang. A grandfather clock, identical to the one Sonia had seen in the woods, stood beside the path. The door swung open, and a small boy stepped out. He looked around and dashed off. Sonia pointed. “What was that?”
“That’s how we get in when we start dreaming,” Erin said. “They’re all over the place. You use a different one every night.”
The door shut itself.
“Is there a way out?” Sonia said.
“Nobody’s ever found one,” Rebecca said. “You can’t even open the clocks back up. Even if you could, who knows where they go?”
Sonia stared back at it. There had to be something out there, right?
At the top of the slope, they arrived at the museum, a white marble building on a bluff. Rebecca and Erin held the doors open, and Sonia went in. Nearly every surface in the lobby was smeared over with handprints and graffiti, and kids were painting even more on top of it.
The girls treaded across, dodging the occasional splatter as best they could—though Sonia still wound up with dots of green and orange on her shirt. Rebecca and Erin took her into a hallway in the back. Paintings and drawings and photographs hung on display. They were some of the best Sonia had ever seen. The colors danced together, the brushstrokes sang, the frames opened up like windows.
“These were all done by kids in the Dream.” Erin pointed at a photo of a tiny house in front of a rippling lake. “I did that one. It’s my granddaddy’s cabin.”
“Very nice.” Sonia peeked through the doors into the various studios. There seemed to be something for everybody in here. Kids were sketching a basket of apples in one room, molding pottery in another, striking poses for a camera in yet another. And what about clay? “I don’t have anything in here, do I?”
“You know,” Rebecca said, “I don’t think you do.”
“Of course she does,” Erin said. “You know that. It’s why we came here.”
“It’s right upstairs, I’ll show you.”
Rebecca scratched her head, and Erin marched forward.
“Another glitch?” Sonia asked.
“Maybe,” Rebecca said. “I don’t know.”
“I hope my memory thing isn’t catching.”
They took a staircase at the end of the hall to the second floor, where Erin showed Sonia to the sculpture gallery. Among all the clay figures, pots, and various strange shapes that stood on their pedestals throughout the room, one in particular caught Sonia’s attention. She rushed in for a closer look. It was the last face she’d expected to see.
It was her mother, Miranda, sculpted from the neck up, painted in peach and gold, with light brown hair in waves down to her shoulders. Her green eyes looked to the side, as if she were distracted by something. She wore only a hint of a smile. “I did this?” Sonia said.
“I remember now,” Rebecca said. “You spent like a whole week in the studio downstairs, like you were possessed or something.”
Sonia ran her finger over a ridge of hair. This was the best thing she had ever sculpted. She could never have done anything like it in real life. It looked so much like her mother’s photo…
She turned away from it.
“You okay?” Rebecca said. “You remember anything?”
“I’m fine.” Sonia stepped toward the door. “I just…you guys ready to go?”
“Sure, let’s go.”
While her friends went ahead, Sonia took one last look back at her mother’s eyes. Had they really been that sad?
They left the museum. The clock tower said eleven forty.
Next was the arena, but they didn’t go in. They just stood outside and watched people climb the steps to the enormous gates. “People use it for whatever they want,” Erin said. “Sports, plays, concerts, even movies.” She chuckled. “Well, the movies can get kinda janky. Like, one time we saw Lord Voldemort in Return of the Jedi. It was hilarious.”
From there, they hiked up a small, narrow stairway to a surprisingly ordinary playground, complete with swing set and jungle gym. Erin’s little brother was climbing up the slide. She waved at him. “Hi, Spencer,” she called. “Just passing through.”
An unwelcome voice popped up behind them. “So this weekend, I wanna watch that movie you were talking about.” It was Isaac, strolling up with his friends, Bart and Justin.
“You’re really gonna like it,” Bart said. “It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Can’t we get away from you for one night?” Erin said.
“Oh, hey,” Isaac said. “Just felt like using the swing set for a little bit.”
“That better be all you’re doing, Isaac,” Rebecca said.
“Give me some credit.” Isaac pointed at Sonia and chuckled. “Heh, you should’ve heard yourself scream earlier.”
Sonia remembered that laughing copper head at the bluff. “That was you! You sick freak, I thought I was gonna die!”
Rebecca put a hand over her eyes. “Oh, for God’s sake, Isaac, what did you do?”
“I was just fooling around,” Isaac said. “C’mon, it was funny!”
Sonia sucked in air through clenched teeth. Don’t pop him in the face, don’t pop him in the face. Not in front of her friends. Especially not his twin sister.
Rebecca took Sonia by the shoulders. “Let’s just go.” She steered Sonia around the boys, down the stairs. “Later, Isaac.”
“And stay away from Spencer,” Erin said.
“Oh, hey, I didn’t see him there. Hey, Spence!”
Erin growled and called to Sonia and Rebecca, “You go ahead. I gotta make sure he behaves himself.”
Sonia and Rebecca headed downhill. “Are you sure you two are twins?” Sonia said. “He acts like he’s eight.”
“Eight? Try five. What’d he even do?”
“He threw me off the island.”
Rebecca sighed and shook her head. “Sometimes I can’t believe he’s even potty trained.”
Sonia snickered. She relaxed now that they’d gotten away from Isaac. Rebecca had totally made the right call. Sonia wouldn’t have been able to stop at one punch. Another second, and Sonia might not have had friends anymore.
Or would she? They must have known. You can’t hang out with someone a whole summer and not notice an anger problem. “Hey, Rebecca,” Sonia said, “did I ever tell you what I was like…”
“At your old school? A couple of times.” Rebecca gave her a quick pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, that’s all in the past. Erin and me, we’ve got your back now.”
“Th-thank you.” For them to stick with her, even knowing what she was like…they really were her friends, weren’t they?
Rebecca directed Sonia to a wrought iron gate that hung open like outstretched arms. A cool breeze blew out and touched Sonia’s cheeks. Inside, the sun shone like a jewel in a blue sky over a lush garden. Red and blue and violet dotted the hedges.
Before Sonia could go in and sniff the buttercups, a deep chime rang from the clock tower. The clock in the garden rang as well, and then every clock in the Grand Dream joined together to form one loud, clanging gong.
It was midnight.
“It’s Joseph,” Rebecca cried. “He’s coming out.”
“Who?” Sonia said.
Everyone around gazed at the clock tower.
In front of the clock face, a tall teenage boy, wearing a robe that flowed like the clouds, hung suspended in the air. A faint shine surrounded him. “Who is that?” Sonia said.
“It’s Joseph,” Rebecca said. “He created the Grand Dream.”
The clock tower rang one more time. The impression of a smile emerged on Joseph’s face as he gazed down upon the children of the Baker schools. “Hello, boys and girls.” His voice was soft as mist yet clear as the bells that announced him. “Here we are: a new school year. I hope you all have a lot of fun.”
If someone like him created the Grand Dream…
“I especially want to welcome all newcomers. Think of this Dream as a sanctuary, where you are free to play as much as you want, without a single adult around to bother you.”
…then maybe he knew why she’d forgotten.
“Hey!” Sonia ran toward the castle wall. “Hey!”
“I’ll be here, watching over you,” Joseph said. “Until next time.”
“I need your help! Hey!” She turned to Rebecca. “Can he even hear me?”
The bell rang once again.
Joseph dissolved back into the clock face.
“Come back!” Sonia tilted her head back and stared up the side of the tower. “Please.”
Rebecca touched her shoulder. Erin ran down from the playground to join them.
“Was that it?” Sonia said. “Who was that?”
“Like I said.” Rebecca’s fingers drummed on Sonia’s back. “It’s Joseph.”
“And he started this whole thing? What is he, some kinda wizard?”
“He could be,” Erin said. “Or maybe an alien or an angel. It’s anybody’s guess.”
“But if anybody can help me, it’s him, right? Can’t we go up there and ask him?”
“We can’t,” Rebecca said. “Nobody’s ever gotten into the clock tower. There’s no door, no elevator, no nothing.”
“Couldn’t we fly?”
“Only if you fall off the island, and that just takes you high enough to get back on. I’m sorry. We’ll just have to wait until the next time he comes out.” Rebecca sighed. “And that’s whenever he feels like it—usually once a month.”
Sonia groaned and rubbed her face.
“I know it’s a lot,” Rebecca said.
“Forget it. We’re not gonna figure it out tonight. Is there anything else worth seeing?”
“There’s always the pool,” Erin said.
There was a shortcut through the castle, behind a modest wooden door across from the garden. Blue light lit the hallway inside. A heavy drumbeat thudded at the far end, where there was a dance floor lit with LEDs that shifted from one color to the next. Teens and little kids alike jumped and wiggled in a frenzy. Sonia nodded along to the beat as she followed the others across the hallway.
They passed through another door. The music stopped when they closed it behind them.
A long corridor stretched ahead, with doors lined up on each side like hotel rooms. A few were open, and when Sonia looked in, she only saw benches on blank walls. “What’re these for?”
“We call them Lucid Rooms,” Erin said. “You go in, and it puts you into a regular dream, just like you’d have if, you know, you weren’t in this one. It’s how I took that picture in the museum.”
“Any dream you want?”
“No, just whatever dream you’d normally have,” Rebecca said. “Now that I think about it, you never came down here very much. I think you said something about a recurring nightmare?”
Sonia bristled. “How much did I tell you about it?”
“We didn’t ask,” Erin said, in a tone that said she didn’t want to know more. “It’s okay. The rooms aren’t for everybody.”
They found an exit that opened onto the path by the lounge deck. The door tweeted when it swung shut behind them. Probably another glitch. She followed the others down to the fork in the path. From there, they could see the wall where Sonia had fallen off. Erin asked if she wanted to give it a try. “No, thank you,” Sonia said. “I tried it already.”
She followed the others down the lower path, toward the underside of the island. The pool waited on the other side of an arch underneath the lounge deck. “Wait,” Sonia said. “I just realized, I don’t have a swimsuit.”
“Don’t worry,” Rebecca said. “Just keep walking.”
“Why? We’re not skinny-dipping, are we?”
Rebecca laughed. “That’s what you said the first time you came here.”
They passed under the arch, through a deep shadow, and stepped out into a bright and hot summer’s day. They were all wearing swimsuits. Sonia was even wearing the green-and-black one she’d picked out after she’d moved to Chattanooga. “Whoa.” She looked out at the pool. “Who-hoa!”
It wrapped around half the island, not just one pool but many pools linked together. Kids splashed at each other, fired Super Soakers, and flew out of the slide that coiled around the bluff.
Joseph really did think of everything!
“I knew you’d like it,” Erin said.
“Last one to do a cannonball’s a rotten egg!” Sonia ran to the nearest diving board.
They played there the rest of the night.
* * *
At around six o’clock, Sonia finally saw someone she recognized.
She had just taken another plummet down the water slide. She splashed Rebecca and some third grader and then swam over to the ladder so she could go down the slide again.
She saw him sitting to her left, on the edge of the pool. He was a black boy about Sonia’s age, maybe a little older. His shoulders shifted up and down with each puff of air he took. She had seen his face and his long curly hair somewhere before. But where? His name wasn’t even close to the tip of her tongue.
She could go over and ask him. Maybe he’d recognize her. Maybe he could help her find out how she’d forgotten the Grand Dream.
Before she took one step, he got up and ran toward the arch to join his friends. Sonia watched them all cross into the shadow. The sky beyond the arch was turning pink.
Rebecca swam up beside her. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Oh, uh, nothing,” Sonia said. Rebecca didn’t need to get the wrong idea. “I was…just wondering how we know when it’s time to—”
A high-pitched buzz jabbed into her ear, jolted her, shook her.
The world faded to a black haze and dropped out beneath her.
She woke up.
Continued in Thresholds of the Grand Dream!