The first night she wakes up on the floor in Toby’s room.
She doesn’t remember how she got there, but she also doesn’t think she should leave. It comforts her to hear him breathing.
The second night it happens again. And on the third night she wakes in Toby’s room to feel a strange chill in the air, a prickling that runs all along the surface of her skin. When she glances up at Toby’s crib she sees that he is standing up and staring toward the window, one hand reaching out as if to grasp something floating in the air.
Sarah’s heart pounds as she slowly stands up to look toward the window. There is nothing there, but the moonlight seems to gleam especially brightly around the window frame.
She reaches into Toby’s crib and picks him up, jogging him in her arms as he continues to reach toward the window, making a little gurgling sound. “Shhhh,” she whispers, nuzzling his forehead. “There’s nothing there, Toby. Nothing at all.”
As if in response the room suddenly feels colder, and the window seems to rattle. Sarah grips Toby tightly and closes her eyes. He gurgles and coos, seemingly unaware that there is anything wrong.
“There is nothing there…there is nothing there…there is nothing there…”
And suddenly she is lying on the floor again, and Toby is asleep in his bed. Sarah is sweating. She goes to the window and checks to make sure that it’s locked (not that that would make much of a difference), and then runs a hand over Toby’s peacefully sleeping body.
He has no power here. He has no power here. It’s all in my head, all in my head.
But her head doesn’t believe it.
On the fourth, fifth, and sixth nights nothing happens. On the seventh night she wakes up and feels her blood chill when she can’t hear the sound of Toby’s breathing. She stands up and looks into the crib, and it’s empty.
She sees that the window is open, the curtains billowing slightly in the breeze, and when she runs toward it it elongates into a doorway, and she steps through it to find herself in a maze made of wooden slats like the ones in Toby’s crib, and she can hear him crying, he’s close, but the maze spins her in circles and she never seems to get any closer to him, no matter how fast she runs…
And then she hears laughter, and the weight of her own fear and helplessness consumes her until she’s curled on the ground, rocking back and forth…
She wakes up on the floor of Toby’s room, where she can (thankfully, joyously) hear him breathing, and she doesn’t sleep for the rest of the night for fear of ending up back in that maze again.
After that night Sarah goes to the library and brings home books with titles like A Practical Guide to Runes and A Witch’s Guide to Spells and Rituals. She carves symbols into the walls, near the floor where they won’t be noticed, all around the frame of the window, and even sews some of them into the curtains, trying to make them match the pattern of stars and planets woven into the fabric. She splashes a circle of saltwater around Toby’s crib and burns sage, spraying the room with deodorizer afterward.
On the eighth and ninth nights nothing happens. On the tenth night she wakes to find herself covered in a thick blanket, a pillow under her head.
As usual she doesn’t remember coming into Toby’s room, but she knows that she wouldn’t have brought a blanket and pillow. Maybe she’s awakened Karen, or Toby has, at some point.
Her hand is gripping one leg of Toby’s crib. The crib itself is lovely, an antique, made from a thick, heavy wood with a smooth and well-worn shine. She remembers Karen buying it from a dealer she found online. In Sarah’s previous life that had made her stew with jealousy and make passive-aggressive comments about how *she* had been fine sleeping in a plastic crib as a baby.
That life, and that person, seem far away now.
She’s clutching the crib leg tightly, which she often is when she wakes up. It is solid, and pleasant to touch, and holding on to it calms her, but she sometimes imagines that the crib will sprout wings and fly away with Toby still in it. She’s thought of tying her wrist to it with a length of rope, just in case that really does happen.
Because anything could happen, really.
Curled under the blanket, she listens carefully and feels her body relax when she hears the familiar sound of Toby’s breathing. No light shines yet through the windows, she has at least a few hours to sleep before she has to get up and go to school.
She takes deep breaths and hums softly to herself, which sometimes helps her fall back to sleep (though often it doesn’t). Her hand stays gripped around the leg of the crib, her fingers making slow circles over the smooth, well-handled surface of the wood, imagining its age and the many children who must have slept safely, night after night, within it.
In physics class that afternoon she falls asleep and almost falls out of her chair. When she wakes up she sees a few people staring at her, and the sound of laughter is still echoing faintly in her mind, or is it in this room, in this now, I don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s a dream—
She takes deep breaths. This is real. This is real. This is real, because you can read the words on the chalkboard, and you can’t read things in a dream.
He has no power in the real. He has no power in the real.
Maybe. She shivers when the voice in her mind sounds like his. But the doorways between real and dream seem a lot more open than they used to be.
When she comes home from school on the twelfth night she finds Karen blowing up an air mattress in Toby’s room.
“What are you doing?”
Karen switches off the motor on the air mattress and begins to pull a fitted sheet over it. Sarah moves to help her. “If you’re going to be in here every night, Sarah, I figure you should at least have a comfortable place to sleep.”
I don’t deserve that. I should be sleeping on the floor after what I did to Toby.
“Thank you,” she says. “I just…”
She stops and adjusts the sheet on the mattress, because there is no way to explain this.
Karen watches her. “Sarah, did something happen to Toby when we were gone that night?”
Sarah’s head snaps up. “Something? Like what?”
“Like, did he fall off the changing table? Or was his breathing shallow at some point? Something that would…I don’t know, make you panic?”
“No.” She curses herself for answering so quickly.
“Because it’s not the end of the world if it happened, you know. One time…one time I had him on the bed, and I literally turned around for two seconds to get something off the dresser, and I heard this thump and it was the worst sound I’ve ever heard in my life, and I cried for hours because I was sure he’d have a concussion or brain damage or something, but he was fine. I still have nightmares about that, though.”
It might be the most that Karen has said to her in years. Or, Sarah realizes with a now-familiar twinge of guilt, the most that Sarah’s allowed her to say before cutting her off with a snide comment or a slammed door.
She stares at her stepmother and realizes something truly shocking. Karen is…kind. Annoying, yes, and nosy, and not nearly as fashionable and fun as Sarah’s own mother, but…kind. And for some reason in that moment kindness is what makes Sarah break.
Karen’s face falls as Sarah starts to cry. “Oh dear,” she says. “Sarah—“
“I’m sorry,” Sarah says through sobs. “I’m so sorry…”
Karen reaches out and awkwardly hugs Sarah, the two of them wobbling slightly on the air mattress. Sarah lets herself be cradled, strangely comforted by the way that Karen smells of hairspray and perfume.
When she stops crying Karen reaches out to smooth her hair. “Sarah, I don’t know what happened, but if you feel like you need to sleep in Toby’s room, then go ahead. Just make sure you’re getting enough sleep yourself.”
Sarah nods. “Okay.”
A few more nights pass uneventfully. Sarah continues to mark runes and sleep in Toby’s room, but no strange chill awakens her, and she finally begins to sleep through the night.
One day at her locker Rachel jabs her in the ribs. “Don’t look now, but someone is giving you the eye.”
Sarah blinks. She can’t remember the last time she thought about boys. “Huh?”
“Robert Kim. End of the hall. Totally checking you out.”
Sarah laughs. “No way.”
“Would I lie to you?”
Sarah glances down the row of lockers and sees that Robert Kim, tall and swimteam fit and with a shock of shiny but not overstyled black hair, is indeed looking in her direction. She risks a more direct look and he doesn’t look away. Even waves. She waves awkwardly back.
Rachel grins. “Nice.”
Sarah is blushing. “What do I do now?”
Rachel turns to her locker mirror to apply lipstick, running a hand over her very short red hair. “Play it cool. Or don’t. I don’t know, I’m not exactly an expert.”
Sarah and Robert wave at each other a few more times over the next few days. At some point Robert finds an excuse to help her carry a stack of heavy books out of the library to her locker.
“World geo project?” he asks.
“‘Irish Folklore,’ ‘Ancient Tales from Around the World,’ ‘Charms and Changelings.’ You’re doing research for a class project, right?”
“Oh.” For God’s sake, at least try to sound a little more together. “Yeah, uh, world geo. I’m writing about the role of magic in different cultures.”
“Cool.” He helps her stack the books in her locker. She walks with him to his car and they manage to talk about things like swimming and their world geo teacher’s weird mole without any awkward silences, and when he offers her a ride home she says yes, sending a quick text to Rachel, who responds with multiple emojis.
Her heart races a little when he pulls up to her house, and as she thanks him for the ride she stutters slightly, and he talks over her, and they both laugh, which relaxes things a little.
“So,” he says, “you, uh, gonna go to the swim meet next Saturday?”
She hadn’t planned on it, of course, given that she hasn’t been anywhere in months. “Yeah, of course,” she says. “School spirit and all that.”
“I might go out for a burger afterward, you know, if you want to come.”
She smiles at his very obvious attempt to be casual and is about to respond with a not-seeming-too-eager “yes”…but then she remembers that the swim meet will finish in the early evening, which means she’ll be home long after dark.
And Toby will be alone.
So what? the still-teenage part of her mind argues. It’s not like you could do much to save him if someone DID decide to steal him away again.
Maybe not. But I owe him a debt that I won’t ever repay.
Robert senses her hesitation and immediately looks embarrassed. “If you’re busy it’s okay, don’t worry about it—“
“I’d love to,” she says, pushing away the screaming protests in her mind and smiling warmly at him.
The way his face lights up makes her momentarily forget why she hesitated. “Great,” he says. “I’ll, uh, be on the lookout for you.”
“I’ll wear something shiny.”
He smiles as she gets out of the car and waits until the front door closes behind her before driving away. As she heads up the stairs with a slight bounce in her step Karen calls out from down the hallway.
Sarah blushes. “Uh, yeah. Rachel had to stay late.”
Karen steps out into the hallway and from the knowing smirk on her face Sarah can tell she’s been watching from the window.
Sarah clears her throat. “I, uh, might go out on Saturday night. With some friends. But I won’t be home late.”
Karen smiles. “I may regret this eventually, but for heaven’s sake, Sarah, please be home late.” She glances at the closed door to Toby’s room. “He’ll be fine, I promise.”
Sarah clenches her fists at her sides but forces away the fear, determined to enjoy this all-too-rare moment of normal happiness.
“Yeah. He’ll be fine.”
The morning of the swim meet Sarah re-draws the runes around Toby’s room, burns an extra handful of sage, and sprinkles another circle of saltwater around the crib. For good measure—though she knows she’ll have a hell of a time explaining it to Karen—she superglues the window shut.
She agonizes over what to wear but finds herself slightly enjoying agonizing something that isn’t the possible disappearance of her brother. She finally decides on a denim skirt that shows just a bit more leg than she normally would, a colorful peasant top, and a pair of brown sandals. Karen compliments her on her appearance (and nudges her father when he’s his usually silent self), and Sarah shrugs and tries to act as if she always dresses this way, though she knows she isn’t fooling anyone.
She feels people looking at her at school, which makes her feel both slightly giddy and deeply anxious—she’s spent the past six months essentially trying to be invisible, as if that might protect Toby more. But it’s been six months, she realizes, and strange dreams or no, Toby is still here. The thought makes her push her shoulders back and hold her head up slightly higher.
At the swim meet, which is held at a nearby high school, she sits with Rachel in bleachers that surround the very large pool and cheers as the swimmers dart back and forth across the water. Rachel keeps up a running commentary about who looks best in a Speedo, and Sarah occasionally joins in, if quietly.
There is the briefest of moments when she sees a glimmer of something strange in the crowd on the other side of the pool, what could have been the overhead lights hitting something shiny, or a flicker of unusually fast movement that doesn’t belong, and it makes her heart leap into her chest for a split second. But when she focuses her eyes there’s nothing there, and she tells herself that she imagined it.
This is the real, and he has no power in the real.
After the meet ends and the crowd thins Rachel makes a flimsy excuse about needing to study as Robert emerges from the locker rooms, looking, Sarah can’t help noticing, really good in a similarly casual-but-making-an-effort jeans-and-collared shirt combination. He drives her to a nearby burger joint that isn’t full of their classmates, so they’re able to sit at a table in the corner. Eating more heartily than she has in a long time, Sarah feels bold enough to tell him that she and Rachel had decided that he looked best in a Speedo, and he rolls his eyes and says he hates wearing those things, even if they do make everyone swim faster, and she offers to design something slightly more modest for him, even though she admits that she can’t really sew.
They linger over a shared ice cream sundae until well past ten o’clock, until finally Sarah’s anxiety over Toby being alone begins to overwhelm her and she says that she should get home, there’s a chemistry quiz tomorrow. Robert drives her home and they linger again in the car outside her house after she’s checked that the lights are out upstairs and nothing horrific seems to be happening near Toby’s window.
At some point he leans close to her and then pauses, meeting her eyes, and she feels her heart pound hard against the inside of her chest as she closes her eyes and leans forward, and he kisses her.
It’s awkward at first—it feels like every part of her body except for her lips is frozen, and something tells her she should be touching him, leaning her body into him, something—but then his hand touches her neck and pulls her in a little closer and it’s better. He’s not bad at it (not that she has much basis for comparison), but he’s also shy and a little flustered, like she is, and that helps her relax.
When they eventually pull apart it’s like coming out of a trance, and she has to remind herself of where she is. “I’d like to do that again sometime,” she eventually says, surprised at the confidence in her voice.
He smiles. “The burger and the sundae? Or…”
He pulls out his phone and pretends to scan it. “I might be able to squeeze you in—“
“Oh, that’s super generous of you.”
“Yeah, well…” He drops the phone, and Sarah stares as his body goes still. “I’ve always been…generous.”
The temperature in the car seems to drop, and Sarah finds herself unable to breathe as Robert slowly turns to face her, his eyes empty and unfocused. His mouth twists into a horrible, inhuman version of a smirk, as though invisible hands were trying to sculpt his face in a direction that it didn’t want to go.
“I’d get upstairs if I were you.” The voice—not Robert’s voice, nothing like Robert’s voice—crawls over her skin like worms. “You might be in time.”
Sarah throws open the car door and races across the yard as if every demon in the universe were at her heels—
—and wakes up on the inflatable mattress in Toby’s room with a gasp.
It didn’t happen. I kissed Robert, and I came upstairs, and Toby was asleep, and Karen asked me how the evening was and then I put on my pajamas and lay down in here, my God, it’s happened, there’s no difference between dreams and the real anymore—
Sarah leaps to her feet and sees that Karen is standing by Toby’s crib, the faint moonlight through the window revealing a worried expression on her face. She’s wearing a robe. Sarah wonders how long she’s been standing there.
“Sarah? Are you all right?”
Sarah takes a deep breath. “Yeah, I, uh…bad dream, it’s nothing. What…what are you doing in here?”
Karen laughs weakly. “It’s so stupid, really…I just…you’ll think I’m insane—“
“I definitely won’t.”
Karen looks up and something passes between them that Sarah is sure she can feel, even if the dim light means she isn’t entirely sure of Karen’s expression. Her stepmother glances at the window. “I woke up, and I…I was sure that someone, something, was trying to get into this room. I’m sure it was just a dream, but I was so terrified when I woke up, and I came in here, and it was so cold…” She wraps her arms around herself. “Maybe I’m dreaming now.”
Sarah grips the edge of Toby’s crib. “Maybe.” She stares down at her brother’s sleeping form. “Maybe someone did try to take him, once.”
Karen looks at her, her voice still surprisingly calm. “Did they?”
“Yeah.” Sarah grips the edge of the crib harder. “But I won’t let them do it again.”
There’s a long silence while Sarah waits for Karen to pat her hand and tell her she imagined everything. Eventually, though, Karen reaches out and squeezes Sarah’s hand with surprising fierceness.
“Neither will I,” she says.
Sarah feels a rush of warmth, and that heavy weight of uneasiness that has rested on her for months seems suddenly lighter. She stares at the window as if daring anything to attempt to pass through it, waiting for it to rattle as it has before.
At some point she lies down on the mattress, and as she drifts off she feels Karen lie down next to her, the quiet, steady sound of Toby’s breathing lulling her into a blessedly dreamless sleep.
Sarah sleeps in Toby’s room for another week. Once or twice she wakes to find Karen in the room as well. Sometimes one of them sleeps while the other stays awake, and sometimes they both stay awake together, watching the window.
Finally, though every nerve in her body strains toward the door, Sarah sleeps in her own bed. As soon as light comes through her window she rushes down the hallway to Toby’s room and sees that he’s fine.
Over the next few months she goes to more of Robert Kim’s swim meets. Then he takes her to a movie, and then on a picnic, and then he starts hanging out at her house, where they help each other with homework and sometimes help Karen make dinner. She meets his parents and goes with them on a weekend trip to the countryside.
He breaks up with her after a few months because he wants to “keep his options open.” She tells him she understands, that there are no hard feelings, but she’s devastated—she’d thought she was in love, thought he was in love, and he clearly wasn’t. Karen makes her a German chocolate cake and eats it with her in the kitchen, telling her that the person you fall in love with in high school should never be the person you stay with forever.
It’s then that he visits her dreams.
She wakes up on the floor of Toby’s room and immediately knows it’s a dream because she hasn’t slept in there in ages. And the room feels less substantial and oddly lit, as if someone were doing a jigsaw puzzle of it but some of the pieces didn’t quite fit together.
He's leaning over Toby’s crib and smiling down at him, making crystal balls dance in the air above the crib. Toby is laughing and reaching for them.
Sarah knows that he expects her to shriek, to grab Toby and run from the room, and a part of her instinctively wants to do just that. But she knows it’s a dream, knows he’s not really anywhere near Toby, that he has no power here.
And she suddenly realizes why.
“I’m not afraid of you anymore,” she says quietly.
He glances down at her. “Not at the moment, no,” he says, his voice, as usual, sounding slightly bored. “You even stopped painting all those runes and burning sage all the time.”
“It made me feel safer. But I never had anything to worry about, did I?”
He glares at her. “There’s always something to fear, precious thing. I’m sure you’ll discover that again, one day.”
She shrugs. “Anything’s possible.”
He twirls a crystal back and forth and regards her curiously. “There’s a sadness in you. All around you, like a mist.”
Sarah reaches down and adjusts Toby’s blanket, which as usual, even in a dream, is bunched into a ball near his feet. “Yeah.”
He holds a crystal near her face, and she can see images still dancing in it. “I have ways to alleviate that sort of suffering.”
Sarah looks at him, really looks at him, the eager expression on his face, the way his mismatched pupils stare hungrily at her. She feels the tiniest thrill of triumph when he’s the one who eventually looks away.
“I don’t want that sort of gift anymore,” she says.
He smiles, and the crystal vanishes. “So it seems. Perhaps one day I’ll find a gift that you do want.”
He shimmers in the faint, odd light of the dream room and then seems to dissolve into the air, leaving only a faint sensation of electricity and coldness on Sarah’s skin. She looks down at herself and can see that he was right—her sadness is like a mist hovering around her, but it also feels light, and she has a feeling it won’t be there for long.
Perhaps one day I’ll find a gift that you do want.
Sarah lays down on the mattress, feeling her body slowly coalescing back toward the waking world.