JULIE FRAY stood in the center of a giant black and white chessboard. Game pieces as large as statues loomed up on either side of her. There were neat rows of white soldiers and nobles and knights on one side of the board, black ones on the other.
A horse whinniedthe mount of one of the white knights. Then rosary beads clacked around the neck of one of the black bishops.
These weren't statues, Julie realized. They were living, breathing beings!
"Pawn to queen's rook five!" said a voice.
It was the white queen, standing on the top of a small white dais. The voice sounded familiar.
"Mom?" Julie said. "Is that you?"
"I said," spoke the queen, "pawn to queen's rook five!"
It was her mother, dressed and painted like the white queen.
A different voice rang out from the opposite side of the chess board. "Pawn to king's knight four!"
Julie turned. "Dad?"
It was her father, made up like the black king, standing on a dais of his own.
"Pawn to king's knight four!" he repeated.
Julie's parents were talking as if she were the pawn to be moved around the chessboard. But they were demanding that she go in two different directions at the same time!
"Are you guys talking to me?" said Julie, feeling forlorn, glancing back and forth between her mother and father.
"Pawn to queen's rook five!" commanded the queen.
"Pawn to king's knight four!" demanded the king.
"Stop it!" said Julie. "I can't go to two different places at the same time!"
"Well, you certainly can't stay where you are," her mom said matter-of-factly.
"Oh, no," her dad said. "Whatever you do, you definitely can't stay there."
"Why not?" Julie asked uneasily. She couldn't remember the last time her parents had agreed about anything.
Before either of her parents could answer, the chess pieces all around her suddenly sprang into action. The pawns raised their pikes, the bishops drew their daggers, the rooks aimed their arrows, and the knights, sitting atop suddenly snorting horses, lowered their javelins. All at once, they bore down on Julie for attack.
As the pikes and daggers and javelins and arrows flew at her, Julie screamed. Then they hit. She expected pain. What she got was a sudden jolt.
And then she woke up.
JULIE SHAMBLED, zombie-like, into the kitchen. Her mother toiled at the stove, and her father sat glumly at the table eating breakfast and rustling his newspaper.
Her father spotted her first, and immediately brightened. "Julie!" he said. "Good morning!"
Her mother perked up too. "Julie!" she said, welcoming her like a restaurant hostess. "Come have some food!"
Julie hesitated, glancing down at the kitchen floor. The pattern of the linoleum was one of black and white squaresexactly like the chessboard of her dream.
Her stomach clenched.
"I'm making pancakes and orange juice," said her mother, holding up the glass pitcher. "The secret to making it taste more like fresh-squeezed is to mix the juice of a real orange into each glass of frozen concentrate."
Julie's mother was a product demonstrator. That meant she spent her days standing at little tables at the ends of the aisles in supermarkets, explaining various products. It also meant that, even at home, she tended to do everything very deliberately, often reciting household hints as she did so.
Julie took a seat at the table across from her dad.
"So!" he said to her. "You ready for that screening on Saturday afternoon? It's a rough cut, but I heard the rushes were terrific." Julie's dad worked as an executive at a television studio, which meant he was always using terms andexpressions that Julie didn't understand. He also often took Julie to parties and premieres for new television shows.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" said Julie's mother, still standing by the stove. "On Saturday, I made plans for Julie to go with me to a blender convention. There's a new model that actually mixes food on the molecular level!"
The newspaper crumpled under Julie's father's hands. "You can't do that! Julie's busy with me on Saturday."
"It's a very popular convention," Julie's mom said oh-so-sweetly. "I had to reserve weeks in advance." She dropped a dollop of pancake batter onto the skillet, where it sizzled loudly.
"You knew Julie and I had plans for Saturday!" Julie's dad said. "You made your plans on purpose!"
"Don't be ridiculous! I just know how interested Julie is in frappéing."
Finally, Julie spoke up. "I can't do either of those things on Saturday," she lied. "I was going to spend the night with Lisa, and"
"You are not!" snapped both her parents together.
"She's coming with me to the blender convention!" her mom said.
"She's coming with me to the rough-cut screening!" her dad said.
Julie's father and mother were so completely different that she often wondered how they had ended up together in the first place. Had they once loved each other? Maybe so,but after fourteen years of marriage, they now hated each other very much.
And as usual, they were putting Julie right in the middle.
THE TIME she spent at home with her parents was bad, and her sleeping hours were worse. But there was one part of Julie's life that was almost manageable: school. For six hours at least, she didn't have to deal with either bickering parents or horrifying nightmares. Plus, she got to see her best friend, Lisa Pituro.
In second-period science class, Julie and Lisa checked on their lima bean, which they'd been growing in a Styrofoam cup as part of an experiment.
"It's dead," Lisa said. "How can anyone kill a lima bean? It looks bloated and withered. How did we do that?"
"Too much water and too much sun," Julie said. "Too much of everything, I guess."
Lisa's eyes weren't on the dead lima bean. "You know, you don't look so hot either," she said.
Julie tried to shrug it off. "No, I'm okay."
"You had another nightmare, didn't you?" Lisa was the one person Julie had told about her horrible dreams.
Julie sighed. She'd never been able to lie to Lisa.
"It was terrible," Julie said.
"And your parents?" Lisa asked.
"They're terrible too. I don't know why they can't just fight between themselves. Why do they always have to bring me into it?"
"Gosh, Julie, that's rough."
"I could almost handle my parents' fighting if only I didn't have to deal with the nightmares at night," Julie said. "But the way it is, it's like I never get a break. It's just too much."
Their teacher, Ms. Ely, stopped by their workstation to check on their lima bean. She peered into their Styrofoam cup.
"Hmmm," she said. "This doesn't look so good."
"I think we got a bad bean," said Julie.
"I think you should have listened closer to my instructions," said Ms. Ely.
The teacher walked on, but in the back of the classroom, two girls burst into giggles. It was Veronica Sutton and Ashley Gold, the two most popular girls in class. It went without saying that they were laughing at Julie.
SHE LAY on her back on a great silver tray on top of a table spread with a crisp white tablecloth. There was an apple in her mouth and a row of pineapple rings around her whole body. Candles flickered in a nearby candelabrumthe only light in the darkened room.
Julie tried to move, but found she couldn't lift a finger. She couldn't even blink.
Figures emerged from the darkness. They were her parents, her mother on one side of the table, her father on the other.
Julie tried to speak, to call out to them for help, but her lips would not move.
Her parents were holding ceramic plates the size of garbage can lids.
"Oh, my!" her mother said. "Doesn't this look wonderful? Now, let's see. Do I want a leg or a thigh?"
Her father eyed Julie's torso hungrily. "Me, I've always been partial to ribs."
They're going to eat me? Julie thought.
No! She tried to scream, but still couldn't move a muscle.
Holding her plate in one hand, her mother brandished a glistening ten-inch knife. Her father, meanwhile, put his plate aside and held up an electric knife, the kind you use to carve a turkey. Holding it in both hands, he flicked it on, and it buzzed like a dentist's drill.
"Julie?" her father said. "Wake up!"
SHE AWOKE with a start. "Huh?"
Julie was lying on the couch in her father's bungalow at the television studio where he worked. She'd come here after school like she always did, so he could drive her home. She'd fallen asleep and had been right in the middle of a dream.
"You okay?" he said, concern in his eyes. "You looked like you were having a nightmare."
"No," said Julie, flushed, pushing herself upright. "I'm fine."
"Hey," he said, "you wanna hear this great idea I have for a new TV show?"
"What?" Julie said. "Oh, sure." The concern was already gone from his eyes, and that cut her as deep as any electric knife.
"It's a sitcom about a family," he said. "But it won't be actors playing the parts, it'll be the members of a real family!"
"That's not a new idea," said Julie, rubbing her face. "That's been done lots of times."
"Yeah, but this time, the family will also have a dog!"
Julie nodded. She had learned long ago to just listen whenever her dad was excited about some new show.
"You should see the actress we cast as the daughter!" he said.
"Actress?" said Julie, confused. "I thought you said you were using a real family."
"Oh, not a real real family. They'll be actors, but they're playing a real family playing a sitcom family. And I tell you, this actress is fantastic. Hollywood Reporter says her Q-rating is gold bar in the eight-to-twelve fem demo!"
More Hollywood talk. As always, Julie had no idea what he was saying.
While her dad jabbered on about the show, Julie stood up and walked to the window of her dad's bungalow. From there she could see the television studio outside. Rising above the whole facility was a big water tower. And spread out below that was a collection of huge warehouselike buildings, called soundstages, where they filmed or taped the various television shows.
Just across the way, the door to one of the soundstages stood open, and Julie could see inside. Technicians in blue jumpsuits bustled around the interior, adjusting cameras and lights that were all focused on a set made up to look like a typical family room.
Julie hated the television studio where her dad worked. Absolutely everything here was fake: fake conversations, fake family rooms, fake families. And yet, what happened out in that land of make-believe was far more interesting to her father than anything real, anything happening in his own real family.
"Now, your mother distinctly said not to spoil our dinners tonight," Julie's dad was saying. "So what say we stop somewhere for a little snack on the way home?"
THAT NIGHT after dinner, Julie's parents had the television on in the family room.
"I think Julie would like to see our new show with the animated pandas," her dad said. "The above-the-line is almost nothing, and the back end is unbelievable!"
"I think Julie would like to see that show where the CEO trades places with the housewife," her mom said. "I still can't believe he didn't know the difference between delicates and permanent press!"
What Julie wantedand what she told her parentswas to go to bed early.
"A simple hot-water bottle can warm the coldest of beds!" her mother called after her. "And unlike an electric blanket, it won't dry your skin."
Julie's bedroom had a big picture window that looked over the city. Before the nightmares, she used to sit at that window and stare out at the very occasional rainbow, or at whatever she could make out of the stars in the smog-filled sky. The room also had an actual wardrobe, something that had been in her family for years.
But Julie ignored all that and stood with her back against the inside of the door. She couldn't even bring herself to cry. It was like she was dead inside, cold and unmoving.
An antique looking-glass, a gift from an aunt, hung on the far wall, and in its reflection, Julie caught sight of her diary amid the clutter on top of the dresser. She knew she should write in that diary, but what was the point? She'd written the same words so many times before.
She could no longer handle being caught in the middle ofthe war between her parents. But what could she do? They were the parents, she was just the kid. Her parents weren't even aware anymore of how much they fought. She had even heard them say they were staying together for her sake, like they were doing her this big favor.
And now there were the nightmares. What she'd told Lisa at school was the truth: she'd be able to handle her parents if she at least had a little peace at night. But now the situation with her parents had even invaded her dreams. And there didn't seem to be any way to change that either. How would a person go about changing her dreams anyway? Dreams weren't like television shows where you could just change the channel. Dreams were like parents, where you didn't have any control whatsoever.
Julie was eleven years old, with a smattering of freckles on her nose and shoulder-length chestnut hair that sometimes channeled the spirit of a willful four-year-old.
She was also quickly going insane.
Right then, it seemed like even one more night of nightmares might be just enough to cause her mind to snap completely.
Julie shuffled slowly across her floor. She was exhausted, so she dressed for bed and lay down in the sheets. But she didn't dare close her eyes, because she knew that sleep would only bring her yet another horrible dream.
Copyright © 2007 by Brent Hartinger