Normally, Ned Theodore Ed would not voyage into the thick of a blizzard in the middle of the night. Normally, N.T. would not leave the warmth and comfort of a fortified house with quilted blankets, candles, and a room full of books, for the sake of throwing himself out into the cold, harsh, sideways snowfall that raged outside, extending into the darkest hours of the night’s reign. However, N.T. did not find himself in a very “normal” scenario that evening, and so contrary to any of his instincts or preferences, N.T. was suited up in a snow coat with a flashlight in one hand, a sled in the other, standing in the garage doorway of Margaret’s house preparing to face the elements.
When I say that N.T. had not had a very “normal” evening, I mean it: this silent, unsuspecting skeleton had found himself deep in the pages of an Encyclopedia of Dreams that led him to the dream version of Margaret’s late father, Mr. Hadfield, who revealed to N.T. and his sprite friend Carli that his dream filter invention was malfunctioning in the real world. Now, after N.T. awoke from the Encyclopedia and sneaked downstairs in Margaret’s home as she slept—-she, unaware that the storm was so bad that the power had gone out—-, N.T. snagged a flashlight and sled from her garage and stepped out into the blizzard of nightmares.
Margaret’s house was uphill from N.T.’s cabin, so he was going to sled down the mountain, using the flashlight to illuminate his way. The highway road winding up the mountain was covered in an untouched foot of snow, and N.T. hoped there were no drivers out on the roads this dangerous night. Still, he didn’t want to risk encountering a vehicle, so he positioned himself on a course parallel to the road, near the reaches of the pine branches that extended out to the road, which drooped tonight with the weight of dense snow settled upon them. In the moment before he pushed off from the driveway and took off down the mountain, he thought with nervous enthusiasm, I don’t know what will happen, but I will do my best. Here goes!
The week before this all happened, Margaret, N.T., and their friend Reid had gone sledding, and it was because of this happy pastime that N.T. had such a great sled for tonight’s occasion. Being somewhat of a handy-skeleton, N.T. had modified his flexible flyer sled so that the steel runners were wide and flat on the bottom, which dispersed the weight of the sled so it would glide over the snow better. It was upon the wooden planks of this flexible flyer sled N.T. now sat, gripping the rope steering tensely, as he slowly began to slide down the snowy mountain, quickly gaining momentum.
N.T. had a lot he could worry about: crashing the sled, getting lost in the blizzard, or being snatched by a nightmare that lurked in the forest. Then, once he got to his cabin, he would have to worry about finding the dream filter in the attic, somehow remember the blueprints he had studied in his dream but now only hazily recalled, and then figure out and fix the mechanical problem. The pressure kept surmounting, and the more he thought ahead, the more anxious he grew.
As he made progress down the hill—-this time, he was thankful to be sledding down the mountain rather than running up it, even if it were in the midst of a snow storm—-the path in front of him seemed to grow darker. The sky was black and the pine treetops blocked out all light from the moon, as the sky rapidly spit out white flakes that made it hard to look up. The snow flew directly in N.T.’s face, and he wished he didn’t have to hold the flashlight in one hand do that he could use that arm to protect his vision.
But unpleasant as the constant snow and bitter cold was, N.T. suddenly realized that what he was doing… was kind of fun. If he didn’t pay attention to all the things around him that he merely accepted as horrible, it occurred to him that sledding down this mountain, all things considered, was sort of a blast!
So, for a few moments, N.T. forgot about the high stakes of his mission, and enjoyed this crazy sledding adventure. He loved how fast the sled was gliding down the snow of the mountain, and as he got more comfortable, he began weaving the sled a little bit, for a little added thrill. He smiled in delight, snowflakes flying into the caverns of his face, his scarf flapping behind him. He was so focused on the fun he was having and the path right in front of him, that when a giant, spiky pine comb came flying out right before him from the woods, he was clear-minded enough to merely dodge it with his sled, and it disappeared in the snow behind him as he soared down the hill.
What was that? N.T. wondered. He questioned if he had seen it correctly—-maybe it wasn’t a lethal pine comb; maybe the wind tossed a regular pine comb randomly. But as he let those thoughts go, another bowling ball-sized pine comb came flying out of the tree line at him, and he dodged it once more. All right, now it definitely didn’t seem like a coincidence!
It was hard to see his surroundings, but he figured he was about halfway on his journey to his cabin. Gripping the steering rope tighter, N.T. centered himself and watched carefully the path before him. Clearly, some nightmare had manifested in the pines and spotted N.T. sledding by; he hoped that the pine combs would be the worst of it, and the nightmare would grow bored with him and leave.
But then, N.T. heard snarls.
As the snarling reached his ear holes, so did a shushing noise from behind him, as though someone were sledding down the mountain, tailing him. He glanced over his shoulder and pointed his flashlight to the darkness behind, and very regretfully laid eyes on a pair of tortoises with small, glowing red eyes, and fang-like teeth, sledding down the mountain on the backs of their shells, like a saucer.
When N.T. shined the light on them, they hissed, and the one closer to him reached into his shell and pulled out another spiky pine comb. N.T.’s face startled, and if he could have screamed, he would have screamed, quite a bit. He turned back around and veered to the right, dodging the pine comb that came hurtling down at him, just barely missing his left shoulder.
Whoever dreamt this nightmare must have been terrified of turtles! N.T. thought to himself, the image of the angry, creepy turtles stuck in his mind. They had long, thin arms and angled beaks, and made noises that reminded N.T. of prehistoric raptors. He could hear them gaining on him, and as he guided his sled around a curve, he struggled to think of a way to get rid of them. Even though they were nightmares, he really didn’t want to fight them; he just wanted them to leave him alone!
Up ahead, he could see a large, dark mass among the shadowy snow, and he identified it as his cabin. If he kept on course, he would lead the killer turtles right to his front door, and then there would definitely be a confrontation, which he wanted to avoid. In a quick decision, N.T. decided to be bold. He turned off his flashlight and veered into the woods.
It was dark. Like, really dark. N.T.’s vision adjusted a little, but it was still hard for him to see well; he relied solely on his knowledge of the layout of the pines and hoped that he could lose the turtles in the dark by weaving between the trunks. He could still hear them snarling and sledding behind him, and as he journeyed deeper into the forest, he began to hear other creepy noises. There were probably even bigger nightmares still lurking in the forest, he realized! N.T. tried to turn back towards the direction of the road a little bit, but the turtles were still tracking him by the noise from his sledding.
It happened before N.T. knew it was happening, and he was jolted out of his bones for a second. As quickly as he could orient himself, he jumped up and went running back to the road, the echoes of two more THUMP! THUMP!’s rippling behind him.
N.T. had sled directly into a tree trunk. He was quite rattled, and the impact was so hard that he felt his essence had leapt out of himself for a whole moment. But the adrenaline urged him on, and as he dashed quietly through the pines, his legs sinking into the snow with each leap, he could tell that the tortoises had also ran directly into the tree trunk and were themselves too disoriented to follow him. He had gotten away!
When he reached the front porch of his dark, shadowed cabin, N.T. quickly unlocked his door and jumped inside, locking the door tightly behind him. It was cold, drafty, and dark inside, but N.T. was so, so happy to be home. He plopped down onto the hard floor and tried to calm himself down, the echo of the impact still radiating through his bones. It had been a hard knock.
Then he lit the fireplace. The power had gone out while he had been asleep earlier that night, and he was thankful that he had a source of heat and light that only required some wood and a match. His hand shook a little bit as he swiped the match across the book with flick! and laid it to the newspapers he wedged between the logs.
Ahhh, home, he thought, shedding his wet winter gear and sitting cross-legged in front of the fireplace, short flames beginning to whip and wriggle along the kindling. Now to save the forest.
Ned opened his shadowy kitchen cabinet and startled when he saw a bright little sprite on the shelf, eating his potato chips from a bag three times as big as she was.
The sprite startled as well, and let out an “Eeeep!” tossing the potato chip in her hands.
Darn it, Carli, he thought to himself, and he shook his head. The kitchen was dim, and only lit by the fireplace light that hardly filtered in. Carli was bright and self-lit, and created an orb of light in the air around her. At least she had made it here safely as well. They had planned to meet at the cabin, and N.T. was beginning to wonder if he had made it here first; that is, until now, and it became clear that she had plenty of time before he had arrived to snack on his food.
“Oh, Ned!” Carli cried, flitting out of the pantry and dancing around him through the air. “I was getting so worried about you, I started stress-eating! You took forever!”
She settled down a little and hugged his neck, and N.T. smiled because he was glad to see her, too. He was also a little eager to tell her about the tortoises that had chased him here, and how he had saved himself from them! Last time N.T. had been in a real pinch, Carli had saved him, and this time he was proud to have figured it out for himself.
But before then, they had work to do. Carli began chattering about her own journey as N.T. opened kitchen drawers and searched for a flashlight. He had dropped Margaret’s flashlight in his sled crash, and couldn’t remember where he had left the one he owned. He’d open a drawer and point at it so that Carli would fly near and light the contents, but then she’d get caught up in her story and wander away. N.T. kept opening drawers and pointing, and she’d apologize and fly near again.
“And then I had a little extra time, so I stopped by the Sunset Spa dream to unwind a little—-you know, it has been a very stressful night!” Carli went on. Being a sprite, and also being Carli, she was a very fast little critter. N.T. adored her energy but also sometimes had a hard time keeping up with her.
His flashlight was in the cupboard under the sink, and he clicked it on to make sure it worked, which it did. He was glad he wouldn’t have to hunt for batteries in the dark, because they had been on his shopping list for weeks, but he had never got any!
“Cool! A flashlight! But why do you need a flashlight? I can light up for you!” Carli said, perched on the kitchen faucet, like a swimmer seated on a diving board, legs swinging.
Because a flashlight will stay still! N.T. retorted in his head, smiling at Carli. He realized he would need to devise a quick plan with her, so he headed to his bedroom to get paper.
When N.T. opened his bedroom door, a cool breeze flowed out, rolling along the hardwood floor. He shivered, and saw the patchy board-up job he had done where the pine tree branch had broken his window. Funny, how now it felt like that had been a dream, it had been so much earlier in the evening, and so much had happened in between! He shined the flashlight to his desk and snagged a notebook and a pencil off the top of it, and he was struck with the memory of the dream where he stood in this room, over the desk, looking at Mr. Hadfield’s sketches of him. He let himself relive the dream for a moment, then shook it off.
HERE’S WHAT I’M THINKING, N.T. wrote, after the two of them sat down at his dining table, a candle lit between them, N.T. sitting in a chair and Carli sitting cross-legged on the table’s surface. He wrote small so that she could read his words easier without getting up, and described briefly what they were going to do.
I’VE NEVER BEEN IN THE ATTIC BEFORE, SO I’M NOT SURE WHAT TO EXPECT. THE DOOR TO IT IS ON THE KITCHEN CEILING, AND WE’RE GOING TO TAKE MY TOOL BOX UP THERE. I NEED YOU TO ALERT ME IF YOU NOTICE ANYTHING DANGEROUS, AND I’M GOING TO TRY TO FIX THE DREAM FILTER.
“You got it,” Carli said, nodding pertly. Then after thinking, she lowered her voice and asked, “Do you remember everything Mr. Hadfield told you about how to fix it?”
I HOPE SO, N.T. replied.
As N.T. stood on the tip of his toe bones and reached for the short chain that dangled from the attic door on the ceiling of the kitchen, the ceiling began to shake. N.T. paused, arm extended mid-air, and looked at Carli, who frowned.
“What’s that?” she asked, but N.T. didn’t know.
The ceiling rattled, and N.T. pulled the chain. The rectangle door on the ceiling opened downward, and there was a ladder folded up on the door, which unfolded down to the floor. He couldn’t see into the attic from where he stood in the kitchen, and he shined his flashlight up into the hole, but saw only shadows and boards. The rattling grew louder, and he gave one last look at Carli before climbing up the ladder, one hand holding his red toolbox and flashlight, the other hand free to steady himself during his ascent.
N.T. was unsure of what the outcome of all this would be—-would he fix the dream filter correctly? Would he mess up? What if he wound up accomplishing something in between correct and wrong? But as he ventured into the attic, all his nerves fell away. He had done so much that night already, been through so much, that he just decided to trust himself. What happens is what happens, and if I do my best, I’m okay with that, he thought.
Behind him floating up the ladder, Carli’s light wavered and N.T. glanced at her. He had never recalled seeing her nervous before, and it was funny to him that their roles had seemed to reverse. She paused and flashed a shaky thumbs-up at N.T., who nodded to give her reassurance, before they reached the attic.
In the attic, it sounded like hammers were being tossed around in a washing machine. N.T. pointed the flashlight around the attic and set down his toolbox.
The ceilings were angled to a point in the middle, and it was bare and dusty except for a couple cardboard boxes stashed in the crux of the ceiling and the floor on one side of the attic, and as N.T. swept the light across the room, they beheld at last, the dream filter.
It looked exactly like the blueprints Mr. Hadfield had shown N.T. It was a machine twice the size of a car engine and just as mechanic—-it had no shiny exterior or body work on it, just the raw parts exposed and set on a steel stand. There were gears and pipes and bolts and valves and metal parts all twisting and turning more intricately than N.T. had ever seen from a mechanism, almost as though it were a living creature operating in its own essence. Emerging from the top of it, to N.T.’s surprise, was a yellow flower with a spiral eye, and the petals spun rapidly, like a pinwheel. It was a loud but wondrous work of dreams and engineering.
And as N.T. looked at it, he was struck by the vague memory of it, as though he had seen or dreamt it before, just as he was struck when he set foot into his bedroom after being in Mr. Hadfield’s dream. It was like he was experiencing a case of deja vu, except he was sure he had never in his life seen if before, other than the blueprints. Still, it shocked him, the familiar feeling of having witnessed it before, and as he stood in the attic, watching it rattle before him, he realized that he sort of had this machine to thank for his existence at all.
But the noise grew too loud, and Carli, fluttering near N.T., held her hands to her ears. He gave her another nod, and they stepped closer to the dream filter, still somewhat weary of it. It shook back and forth as it ran, and dust particles floated in the air, in the light of N.T.’s flashlight and glowing orb of Carli’s small presence.
When N.T. came within a few feet of it, a weird sensation overcame him. It was as though his thoughts were floating aimlessly, and he started feeling foggy, and—-dreamlike. He began to think about sledding with his friend Reid, and who would win if they raced down the mountain tomorrow, and how Margaret and Talia could wait at the finish line to determine the winner; he’d invite Carli to come along, too, and she and Talia could play together…
“NED!” Carli cried loudly over the noise, and N.T. looked around him, realizing he wasn’t sledding through the snow on a sunny, winter afternoon with his friends, but back in the attic with the dream filter. “Stay sharp! It’s making you sleepy!”
The energy from the dream filter was distorting N.T.’s thoughts, and he felt groggy, like when he was on the cusp of slumber, when reality blended with dreams. Carli looked panicked, and N.T. shook his head quickly to rid himself of the fuzzy sleepiness.
Still actively trying to stay alert, N.T. shined the flashlight around the machine, checking out all the moving parts more closely. As he inspected the heart of the machine, he began to recall the blueprints he had studied, and it became clear what the issue was: a bolt had slipped loose, and it had jammed a gear, and where the bolt was originally attached, the parts weren’t hitting where they should have. At least, that’s what he thought he saw—-was he still hazy? Was this just a cocktail of reality and fantasy blended together? No matter; he shook his head again and grabbed his toolbox.
Carli, still apprehensive of the dream filter, which was such a powerful and growling beast, bravely fluttered near where N.T. was working so that he could see it better. She was so small and dainty compared to the brute, unforgiving force emanating from the machine, that N.T. could empathize why she would be leery of it. He himself was afraid of accidentally getting his arm caught in one of the whirring parts—-it would surely break his arm, even if he was all bones.
N.T. began by trying to free the bolt from the gear. He was able to wedge it out, but as soon as he pulled it free, he fumbled with it and the bolt fell further down into the machine, catching in another gear. He clenched his fists in frustration and sighed, shaking his head. Within moments, he heard scraping above them, like a metal hook dragging along the length of the roof, so close to them. Carli yelped, and N.T. feared that he had accidentally done worse for the nightmare situation, and suddenly it felt like they may be in danger if he didn’t hurry.
He took a breath and tried to clear his head, which was still swimming with fantasies. One moment he was skipping through the forest, and the next, he was in the shadowy attic, struggling in the heat emanating from the machine. N.T. found the bolt that he had dropped and delicately slipped his arm between all the moving parts, and used all the strength he could muster in his finger bones to pry it loose. As soon as the bolt was free, he pulled his arm back out, and felt exhilarated with this small step forward. The machine grew a little quieter.
“Almost done?” Carli asked, keeping her legs tucked up as she hovered above his work space.
N.T. was not sure, but he nodded. He needed Carli to stay hopeful with him.
Then he started on putting the bolt back where it had worked its way loose and fallen out of. He needed another bolt to secure the parts again, and so he rifled around in his toolbox; the other bolt must have fallen out onto the floor or something. N.T. was able to find a bolt about the same size, and he motioned for Carli to hover right above the two parts that he needed to reconnect with the bolts. He imagined them as tree branches flailing in the wind, and shook his head yet again. He needed to focus and quit letting his mind slip away into a dreamy haze. The scraping on the roof persisted, which seemed to terrify Carli, as she shook a little.
It took a bit of strength to wrangle the two parts together, especially as they chugged along in their functions, but N.T. was finally able to line up the first bolt and fasten it in place. In no time, he had gotten them both secured, and the machine quieted to a mere chug. N.T. slowly took a step backwards to look at the dream filter. Had he just fixed it? Just like that?
“Is it over yet?” Carli cried, looking desperately to N.T.
He paused before replying; he wanted to make sure that that had actually done the trick. After a moment, he nodded.
“Oh my dearness, yay!” Carli yipped, twirling excitedly. N.T. looked above them, around the ceiling of the attic, waiting to hear more ominous scraping, but it had vanished. He hoped that meant all the other nightmares had been vanished, as well.
“You’re a real hero! You’ve saved the pines from a treacherous fate!” Carli continued to dance in the air, and her orb of light grew in strength with her delight. “You probably couldn’t tell, but I was so nervous!” she confessed, and N.T. smiled, still somewhat in a dreamy state of mind. The dream filter did not seem to affect Carli’s thinking at all, which N.T. attributed to the same reason she was able to weave in and out of dreams so skillfully.
With the dream filter whirring normally and N.T. worn out more than he had ever been before, he closed his toolbox and figured the job was done. He was happy, and satisfied, but exhausted. He grabbed his flashlight off the floor and took a few steps towards the attic door, which Carli was already eagerly exiting.
But something within N.T. made him stop, and he slowly turned around to take another glance at the dream filter. He watched the yellow flower spinning on top of the machine, and felt enchanted by its golden spiral.
Mr. Hadfield had told him that the yellow flower was what directed the dream dust. Originally, Mr. Hadfield had the dream dust filtered towards Spinesville, which was both N.T. and Mr. Hadfield’s hometown, but over time, the coordinates had gotten skewed and now directed the dream dust at the pines, behind Mr. Hadfield’s house; Mr. Hadfield had passed away before he could fix this. What N.T. had just fixed was the problem of where the nightmare dust was distributed… But what if N.T. tampered with the direction of the dream dust?
That evening he had learned that the pines had been enchanted with dream dust for decades, and that was how both he and Carli had been created. The pines had done a magical job of housing the dream dust, creating wondrous creatures and unique spirits who all interacted and made the pine grove as special as it was.
But N.T. thought about the Spinesville he had grown up in, and suddenly an idea began forming in his mind. He thought about Spinesville and all the people who had treated him unkindly because he was different, and he thought about all the people who made life unpleasant for others. He thought about all the hatred and misunderstanding that he had witnessed growing up, and how the town was probably still, as a whole, very close-minded and close-hearted.
N.T. approached the flower dial, which spun rapidly. The dream dust created such enchanted creatures in the pines because the pines were already special, already sacred. But if the dream dust was directed towards a civilization, spread across a city of bricks and concrete and humans, the magic of the dream dust would not be as powerful, but it might… make things… better. Brighter. More unified, and wholesome.
“What are you still doing up there, Ned?” Carli shouted from the kitchen. Clearly she was not interested in returning to the attic, and as N.T. couldn’t shout back to her, he merely did nothing to reply.
Instead, he very carefully reached up and tilted the yellow flower, so that the coordinates would be directed towards the city of Spinesville. After all the wrong that town had done to him, there were some beautiful people who did beautiful things every day, even in small ways. And even the people who had expressed hatred and prejudice towards him, N.T. felt that their hearts could change, could open up, if they tried to understand. He believed that Spinesville could still be an inherently good place, and that it might just take a little magic, a little dreaming, to make it a better home for all.
After adjusting the yellow flower, he took a step back, quietly satisfied, and barely able to keep his eyes open any longer, after his restless night of sleep and dreams and nightmares and adventure, he curled up on the hard floor of the dusty attic next to his toolbox, and fell asleep to the quiet rumbling of the now functioning dream filter.
*To be continued next Friday, with the Epilogue!
Don’t miss out on any other of N.T.’s adventures! Read the rest of the Encyclopedia of Dreams series!
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