Jason Segel's new book, Nightmares! The Sleepwalker Tonic: read an excerpt
Jason Segel is more than just a comic actor—he’s a New York Times bestselling author, whose latest book, Nightmares! The Sleepwalker Tonic, hits shelves on Sept. 8. The Sleepwalker Tonic, which Segel co-wrote with author Kirsten Miller, is the sequel to last year’s Nightmares! In the book, our hero Charlie Laird and his friends have escaped from the Netherworld and are “sleeping like babies,” but his stepmom’s herbarium is losing business. When Charlie tries to investigate the sneaking feeling that something strange is going on, he finds out that his stepmom’s customers have been getting their potions in nearby Orville Falls. Even stranger? Orville Falls seems to be overrun by… zombies.
Read an exclusive excerpt from Nightmares! The Sleepwalker Tonic below:
Nightmares! The Sleepwalker Tonic by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
It was half past ten in the evening, and the only light in downtown Orville Falls came from the windows of the town’s newspaper office. Inside, a young woman named Josephine was still hard at work at her desk.
Every few seconds, her mouth stretched in a yawn. The lids of her eyes desperately wanted to shut, but Josephine refused to allow them. She was far too scared to sleep. For days, she’d assumed she was the only one. That was no longer the case.
An epidemic of nightmares was ravaging tiny Orville Falls. Townsfolk reported waking with each morning with feelings of dread that they just couldn’t shake. One of the newspaper’s reporters had even written a story about it. The picture Josephine was sketching would accompany the article. It showed a pair of eyes lurking in the darkness. They were the same cold, heartless eyes that seemed to follow Josephine whenever she drifted off to sleep.
She was adding more ink to the shadows when the chime of a familiar bell told her that the office door had opened. Josephine leaped to her feet, knocking over her coffee. She was sure she’d locked up, but even with her heart pounding loudly she could hear footsteps crossing the floorboards.
Josephine grabbed the sharpest thing on her desk—a letter opener—and went to investigate. Standing at the front counter was an odd little man.
“Good evening, miss,” he said in an accent she couldn’t identify. “I apologize if I startled you.”
He didn’t look sorry, she thought. He looked smug. His thin lips were set in a smile, revealing a set of unfortunate teeth.
“The office is closed,” Josephine told him sternly. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Of course,” the man said with a bow. As he turned toward the door, Josephine saw that someone was standing in the darkness behind him. It was a little girl. She thought of her own beloved niece, who wasn’t much older, and immediately regretted her rudeness.
“Sir?” Josephine called. “I’m sorry. Did you need some help?”
When he turned back around, Josephine saw that the unsettling smile on his face hadn’t moved. “Only to place an ad in your paper. I’m opening a new shop on Main Street this week.”
Josephine forced some friendliness into her voice for the little girl’s sake. “Well, you’ve found the right person. I’m the newspaper’s cartoonist and advice columnist—not to mention its entire advertising department.”
“How wonderful,” the man said. “You certainly are the person I’ve been hoping to meet.”
He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and slid it across the counter. “This is what I’d like the advertisement to say.”
Take Tranquility Tonic and Say Goodbye to Your Nightmares
Available at Tranquility Tonight
Main Street, Orville Falls
“Well, it’s . . . clear enough,” Josephine said, trying her best not to sound discouraging, “but perhaps I can help you think of something a bit catchier.”
The man’s smile somehow stretched even farther across his face. “Oh, I assure you, it’s quite . . . catchy as it is.” The odd laugh that followed went on far longer than was comfortable. Then the man turned to the girl and his laughter stopped abruptly. After an awkward moment, Josephine broke the silence.
“So, does this tonic really work?”
“Of course,” the man replied. “Satisfaction is guaranteed.”
“Then I might just give it a shot,” Josephine said with a yawn. The truth was, she would try anything.
“Well, since you’ve been so kind . . .” The man reached into his coat and pulled out a tiny sapphire-blue bottle. “Why don’t you have some on the house?”
CHAPTER ONE: THE ZOMBIE FROM ORVILLE FALLS
“Hey, Charlie, I had the craziest dream last night,” Alfie Bluenthal said. “Want me to tell you about it?”
Ordinarily, Charlie Laird would have answered with a firm No! Over the past few months, he’d listened to a hundred of Alfie’s dreams. They usually starred Albert Einstein, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or the local weatherwoman, and they seemed to go on forever. If they’d been nightmares, Charlie would have happily tuned in. Nightmares were his specialty, and he considered himself an expert on the subject. As far as Charlie was concerned, there was nothing more boring than someone else’s good dreams. And kale. Good dreams and kale.
But Charlie happened to be in a generous mood. It was the first hot day of summer vacation, and he and Alfie were lounging on a bench outside the Cypress Creek ice cream shop. A triple-decker cone with scoops of rum raisin, mint chocolate chip, and bubble gum ice cream was slowly making its way into Charlie’s belly. He had an hour to kill before he was due back at his summer job, and he couldn’t have felt more content.
“Why not,” he told Alfie. “Let’s hear it.”
As Alfie began to talk, Charlie sat back against the bench and let his gaze drift over the roof of the hardware store across the street—and up to the strange purple mansion that stood on a hill overlooking the town. Workmen on ladders had just finished painting the house, covering the dingy grape color with a fresh coat of lilac. At the top of the mansion, an octagonal tower rose into the sky. One of the tower’s windows was open, and a kite in the shape of a pterodactyl was riding the breeze outside. The hand that held its string belonged to Charlie’s little brother, Jack. The weird purple mansion was their home.
Charlie could hear Alfie chattering away. He made a game of licking each drip of ice cream just before it reached the edge of his cone, and let Alfie’s dream pass in one ear and out the other. A few random phrases managed to lodge themselves in his brain: cumulonimbus, El Niño, heat wave, high-pressure zone.
Just as Charlie popped the last bit of cone into his mouth, Alfie’s dream finally reached its end.
“So what do you suppose it means?” Alfie asked.
“Same thing as every other dream you’ve had in the past three months,” Charlie replied, still crunching on the cone. “It means you’ve got a crush on the weatherwoman from the Channel Four news.
“She’s a meteorologist,” Alfie corrected him, clearly upset that his epic dream had been reduced to a single sentence. “And she has a name, you know.”
“Stormy Skies is not a real name,” Charlie informed his friend.
“How can you say that?” Alfie pouted. Love had turned his once-impressive brain to mush. “Are you trying to tell me Stormy just made it up? I’d like to hear you say that to Mr. and Mrs. Skies.”
Charlie was searching for a way to break the truth gently when his attention was drawn across the street by the slam of a car door. An odd-looking man had emerged from a beaten-up black SUV. Tall, with messy dark hair, he might have passed for an average suburban dad in his polo shirt and jeans. But something was clearly wrong with the guy. He was shuffling down the sidewalk, his head bent so far to the side that it appeared to be resting on one of his shoulders. As his feet slid forward, the soles of his Crocs barely left the ground. And though Charlie was sitting too far away to tell for sure, he would have sworn that the man’s eyes were shut.
Charlie nudged Alfie and pointed. “Check it out. What’s your diagnosis?”
Alfie adjusted his chunky black glasses and examined the man across the street. “Hmmm. Let’s see. Rigid limbs. Shambling gait. Shocking lack of personal hygiene. And a pretty painful-looking crick in the neck. All things considered, I’d say there’s a good chance he’s the walking dead.”
Charlie sat bolt upright on the edge of the bench. It had been months since he’d felt such a jolt of excitement. “You think that guy might be a zombie?”
Alfie cackled and licked his cone. “I’m joking. How could he be a zombie? The portal to the Netherworld is closed.” As soon as Alfie said it, the smile slid off his face, and he slowly turned to Charlie. “It is still closed isn’t it?” he almost whispered.
“Of course it is,” Charlie assured him. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
That answer wasn’t good enough for either of them.
Both boys went silent as their gazes turned to the house on the hill.
The purple mansion where Charlie lived wasn’t like the other houses in Cypress Creek. While the rest of the village was as cute as a pack of puppies, the mansion looked more like an enormous dragon perched on top of a rock. It had claimed its hill before Cypress Creek was founded, and its occupants had been watching over the town ever since.
A man named Silas DeChant was responsible for constructing the mansion, and Charlie’s stepmother, Charlotte, was Silas’s great-great-granddaughter. For the past one hundred and fifty years, some member of the DeChant family had been in residence there. It was the family’s duty to protect the world from the mansion’s terrible secret.
That secret could be found in the small, eight-sided room at the top of the mansion’s tower. The special few who knew about the secret called it the portal. It was a door between the Waking World and the land of nightmares. Fortunately, not many people had ever heard of it. Most humans only visited the Netherworld when they fell asleep, and the terrifying creatures that dwelled there stayed there.
But the portal had been opened by accident twice in the past. Nightmares had snuck into Cypress Creek, and unspeakable things had come close to happening. If the portal ever opened again and Nightmares entered the Waking World, it would be up to the portal’s protectors to round up the creatures and get them back to the other side. For almost two centuries, a single person had always held the job. Now, for the first time, the portal had three guardians living in the purple mansion. Charlie Laird was one of them.
Back on the bench outside the ice cream shop, Charlie and Alfie watched as the zombielike man slammed through the door of the hardware store across the street.
“I should find out what’s going on,” Charlie said, his heart racing.
“I’m coming with you.” Alfie stuffed the rest of his cone into his mouth and tossed his napkin into the trash.
They made it to the store’s plate-glass window in time to see the man slap a bill on the counter and lurch toward the door, his arms laden with cans of paint.
“Hey, mister, don’t forget your change!” the clerk called as the door swung open. The man shuffled out to the sidewalk, showing no sign that he’d heard.
Now the strange man was headed in the boys’ direction. As he got closer, Charlie could see that his eyes were open—just barely. But there wasn’t much life behind them.
A thin stream of drool was trickling from a corner of his mouth. It fed a giant wet splotch that was growing on the front of his shirt, above a small insignia sewn onto his left shirt pocket. It looked like a flaming soccer ball.
Charlie and Alfie scuttled behind a parked car and ducked just seconds before the man passed by. Charlie covered his face with his hand. A terrible odor trailed in the man’s wake. Dead or alive, the guy hadn’t bathed in a while.
Once the man had passed, Charlie let his breath out. “Did you get a look at the logo on his shirt?” Charlie whispered to Alfie. “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it somewhere before.”
Alfie squinted. “I can barely see anything. My eyes are still watering from the smell, and now my glasses are all fogged up. That man was . . . pungent. Any idea where you might have seen the logo?”
“Nope,” Charlie admitted. He stepped out from behind the car. “It looks like we’re just going to have to ask the guy where he’s from.”
“No way!” Alfie yelped as he wiped his glasses. “I’m not going to talk to that man!”
Charlie raised an eyebrow. “What’s the problem, Bluenthal?” he asked. “You scared?”
The word scared had a magical effect on Alfie. It lifted him up and straightened out his spine. “Yes, I am,” he replied without a hint of embarrassment. “Are you?”
“Terrified,” Charlie confirmed. “And that’s why we have to do it.”
“I guess you’re right.” Alfie sighed, deflating. Their travels in the Netherworld had taught them a lot. The most important lesson, though, was to never run from a Nightmare creature. To make one go away, you had to face what scared you. If you tried to escape, the Nightmare would just feed off your fear. Soon it would start showing up in your dreams every night.
“Good,” Charlie said. “’Cause I don’t think we want that guy paying us a visit after dark. Now hurry up or we’ll miss him.” The man had almost reached his car.
“Excuse me!” Alfie called. “Sir!”
“Hey, you with the paint!” Charlie shouted. There was no time to be polite. The man grunted loudly in response but didn’t turn around.
Charlie shot Alfie a worried look. It wasn’t a good sign. Along with shuffling and drooling, grunting was classic zombie behavior.
“Can we interest you in a nice, juicy brain?” Alfie yelled.
“Mmmrumph?” The man’s head swiveled toward the boys while his legs kept walking. Suddenly, he jerked to a stop and dropped the cans. Blue paint flew everywhere as the man’s knees buckled and he fell to the ground in a lifeless heap. A red gash was already forming across his forehead. He’d walked straight into a lamppost.
“Quick, call 911!” Charlie told Alfie as he ran toward the fallen man. When he reached him, Charlie dropped to his knees, took off the button-up he was wearing over his Hazel’s Herbarium work T-shirt, and prepared to press it against the man’s wound. But the expression on the man’s face made Charlie pause. Despite the blood, the man looked strangely peaceful. He lay there with his eyes closed and a pleasant smile on his lips, as if he were enjoying a good night’s sleep.
Alfie squatted beside Charlie. “An ambulance is on the way,” he said. Then he noticed the man’s odd expression. “Wow, somebody really needed a nap.” Alfie took off his backpack and began searching for tools. “Now that he’s out, let’s have a look at our specimen.”
“The guy may be a zombie, but that doesn’t make him a science experiment,” Charlie cautioned his friend. “You’re not allowed to dissect him, Alfie.”
“You can’t dissect a person until he’s dead.” Alfie had fished a small flashlight out of his backpack. “I’m pretty sure this guy is still alive, so technically it would be vivi-section. But don’t worry—no cutting.” He pried open one of the man’s eyelids and shined the flashlight’s beam into his eye. “Yep, pupillary reflex is good. Brain stem is working just fine.”
Charlie used his free hand to pluck the wallet out of the man’s breast pocket and pass it to his friend. “Thanks, Dr. Bluenthal. Now see if you can find some ID while I search the rest of him.”
Alfie riffled through the man’s bulging wallet and pulled out a blue and yellow card. “This guy really needs to organize his stuff. What the heck is Blockbuster Video?” After a few more attempts, he finally located a driver’s license. “Says here the guy’s name is Winston Lindsay. He’s forty-four. An organ donor. Lives at Twenty-Seven Newcomb Street in Orville Falls.”
“Orville Falls?” Charlie repeated incredulously. Orville Falls was a cute little town nestled in the mountains. It was about half an hour’s drive from Cypress Creek, though Charlie rarely visited. “He came all the way here to buy paint? Don’t they have a hardware store in Orville Falls?”
“Actually, they have two,” Alfie said.
Charlie looked at Alfie. Sometimes he wondered if the kid really did know everything.
Alfie sighed. “Remember the summer my parents sent me to that horrible camp in Orville Falls? The counselors locked me up and forced me to do crafts. I had to sneak out just to borrow books from the library.”
“How could I forget,” Charlie said, grinning at the memory of the gifts Alfie had presented to his friends at the end of the ordeal. “I still have that macramé owl you made for me.”
They heard the wail of a siren in the distance. Within seconds, it had grown to a deafening pitch as an ambulance screeched to a stop on Main Street and two EMTs in crisp blue uniforms leaped from the back.
“Afternoon,” said one in a booming voice fit for a superhero. “You the two kids who called this in?”
“Uh-huh,” grunted Alfie. For a moment, it seemed all he could do was stare up at the EMT in awe. Then Charlie nudged him and the science spilled out. “The subject is unconscious, but his pupillary reflex indicates—”
A second EMT pushed past Alfie and squatted beside Winston Lindsay. “Nice work stopping the bleeding,” he praised Charlie as he examined the man’s wound. “You boys in the Scouts or something?”
“No, sir,” said Charlie. He rarely used the word sir, but this was one of the few adults who actually seemed to warrant it.
Charlie saw Alfie’s spine stiffen. “I’m not a Boy Scout, but I do consider myself something of an amateur doctor,” he said proudly. “I’ve studied all the major texts, and—”
“That’s great, little buddy,” the first EMT interrupted, tousling Alfie’s hair. Then he began to unload the stretcher while his partner examined the patient.
“Pupillary reflex appears to be fine,” the partner announced. “But looks like this dude’s going to be out for a while. We need to get him in ASAP.”
Alfie turned to Charlie and rolled his eyes. Charlie could imagine how annoyed the kid felt. It was hard enough being twelve years old; most adults barely listened to a word you said. Being a twelve-year-old genius had to be particularly frustrating.
The EMTs hoisted Winston Lindsay onto the stretcher, strapped him down, and loaded him into the back of the ambulance. Charlie and Alfie began to climb in after him.
“’Fraid not, little men,” said one of the EMTs, pushing them away. “Only family members get to ride in the back.”
“But we found the guy!” Alfie protested. “We probably saved his life!” He didn’t bother to add that they were also the ones who’d endangered it by making him run into a lamppost.
Charlie wanted to shout with frustration. “Sir, we need to know what’s wrong with this man,” he said instead. “The situation could be way more serious than you think.”
The EMT tapped his badge, which bore the logo of Westbridge Hospital. “Visiting hours are nine to noon.” Then he slammed the doors, and the ambulance sped off.
Charlie and Alfie raced back across the street to the ice cream parlor and hopped on their bikes. Charlie couldn’t let the man get away. But the ambulance was already out of sight when he and Alfie finally hit the road, and the sound of its siren was growing fainter and fainter. Charlie began to pump his pedals as fast as he could. Miraculously, the siren began to grow louder again. Charlie looked down at his feet in wonder, and saw Alfie do the same thing. Somehow they seemed to be catching up.
The boys rounded a curve and hit their brakes. In front of them, the ambulance was stopped at a streetlight. The back doors of the vehicle had been thrown open and the two EMTs were standing next to it, peering into a thicket of trees that lined one side of the road. Both men wore stunned expressions, and one was sporting what looked like the start of an impressive black eye.
Charlie glanced down. A thin trail of IV fluid led from the back of the ambulance, across the road, and into the trees.
“What happened?” Alfie asked one of the men.
“Weirdest thing I ever saw,” the EMT responded as if in a daze. Then he looked at his partner. “We better report it.”
The second EMT took out a walkie-talkie. “Dispatch, this is Ambulance Three, come in.”
A voice cut through the static. “Come in, Ambulance Three.”
“You’re not going to believe this one. You know that guy we just picked up on Main Street—the one with the head injury?”
“What about him?”
“He just busted out of the ambulance.”
Charlie and Alfie swapped a worried look.
“He what? The guy you reported was unconscious with a probable concussion. . . .”
“And I stand by that. He was out cold when we got him. But we had to stop for a red light. The dude broke out of the straps, ripped out his IV, and forced his way out the back. Gave my partner a pretty sweet shiner in the process. Then he ran off into the woods.”
“But how’s that even poss—” began the skeptical voice on the other end.
“Hold up for a sec, ’cause I haven’t even gotten to the strange part yet,” the EMT interrupted. “The whole time he was fighting us, the guy barely opened his eyes. I’m not even sure he was awake.”
“What do you mean, he wasn’t awake?”
Charlie saw the EMT pause, as if struggling to find the right words. Then he hit the button and put the walkie-talkie back up to his mouth. “Maybe I’m crazy, but I think he might have been sleepwalking.”
CHAPTER TWO: THE MONSTER BOOK
The portal was shut—that much was for sure. While Alfie stayed behind to talk to the EMTs, Charlie had hightailed it to the purple mansion. When he got there, he’d dumped his bike in the driveway and scrambled up the stairs two at a time until he’d reached the room at the top of the tower. He checked the portal; then he checked it again. And again—until he was perfectly satisfied that the door to the Netherworld was closed.
But Charlie couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that something was horribly wrong. Winston Lindsay might not have been a zombie, but he didn’t really seem human either. There were millions of creatures in the Netherworld, and no two were the same. They were each as unique as a person’s fears. Some slithered, some flew—and some of them shuffled. Even though the portal appeared to be sealed, Charlie had to prove to himself that Winston Lindsay wasn’t one of them.
Charlie charged back down the stairs and out the mansion’s front door. He needed to consult his stepmother straightaway. Not only was Charlotte DeChant a medical professional, she was the only adult in town who would recognize a renegade Nightmare if she saw one.
As Charlie approached Hazel’s Herbarium, he tried to catch sight of his stepmother inside. But there were so many plants fighting for sunlight in the shop’s window that it was impossible to see into the store. The feverfew was in flower, and the burdock was covered in large purple burrs. Charlie couldn’t help noticing that the skunkweed was looking parched. And the belladonna needed a teensy bit of the special fertilizer he collected from the cow fields on the outskirts of town. Charlie’s summer job was tending the plants in his stepmother’s shop, and though it was stinky and exhausting—and sometimes downright dangerous—he’d loved it from the start.
The bell chimed as Charlie crossed the threshold of Hazel’s Herbarium. “Charlie, is that you?” Charlotte called from the examination room at the back of the shop.
“Yep!” he shouted.
“Fantastic! Can you bring me that hoary mugwort ointment I made this morning?”
“Sure thing.” Charlie grabbed the ointment off a shelf and prepared to deliver it to Charlotte. He’d barely set foot in the examination room when he hopped right back out again.
“Holy mackerel! What the heck is it?” Charlie yelped. He’d seen some terrifying things in his day, but few compared to the hideous creature in a pair of tighty-whities that was lying spread-eagled on Charlotte’s exam table. Its skin was bright red and blotchy, and both of its hands were frantically scratching. And yet, for some reason, the thing seemed to be laughing at him.
“It?” said a very annoyed woman who was dressed head to toe in white. Charlie hadn’t noticed her sitting primly on the chair in a corner of the tiny room. “It is my little boy.” She turned her glare on Charlotte. “Aren’t you going to reprimand your assistant, Ms. Laird? I’ve never encountered such rudeness!”
Charlie saw Charlotte bite her lip for a second like she always did when she was trying hard to hold her tongue. “My apologies, Mrs. Tobias, but you must admit that your son doesn’t look quite human at the moment. This is the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever encountered. And Oliver’s been to see me three times this summer. Where on earth does he keep getting into the stuff?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Mrs. Tobias said, backing down a bit.
“Wait a second, is that Ollie Tobias?” Charlie asked, stepping forward for a closer look at the creature.
“Hey, Charlie.” The boy giggled. Even when he was covered in a rash and stripped down to his underwear, Ollie Tobias could find the humor in any situation. “I was wondering if you were ever going to recognize me.”
“You know my son?” Mrs. Tobias sniffed.
“We go to school together,” Charlie answered. He was on friendly terms with most of the kids who attended Cypress Creek Elementary. It wasn’t so long ago that he’d helped them escape from their nightmares.
But that wasn’t why he knew Ollie. Everyone at school knew Ollie Tobias, because Ollie was gifted. He didn’t play any musical instruments or ace any classes. But you could lock the kid in an empty room with nothing but a paper clip and a box of lime Jell-O and he’d still find a way to get himself into serious trouble.
Ollie’s mother was equally notorious. Kids said she was a genius at inventing cruel and unusual punishments for her exceptionally naughty son. Legend had it that she’d once made Ollie stand on a corner in town wearing a large sign that said “I eat other people’s crayons.” (Ollie had quickly turned the situation to his own advantage by adding “So I poop rainbows” on the other side of the sign.)
On another occasion, Mrs. Tobias supposedly forced her son to wash every car in the school parking lot after he’d been caught writing the words booty breeze with a bar of soap on his homeroom teacher’s car.
Charlie had always figured that most stories about Ollie and his mom were a little exaggerated. Then, the first day of summer break, he’d happened to ride past Ollie’s house. Four women in white dresses were playing croquet in the front yard, and Charlie saw one of the women knock her ball under the hedges that bordered the property.
“Ollie!” she screeched, and the boy came running. He was dressed like some sort of old-fashioned doll—short pants, a striped shirt with suspenders, and a straw hat to top it all off. Bounding behind him was what looked like a large, hairless rat.
Charlie watched Ollie reach the shrubbery, then hesitate. He looked back at the ladies.
“Come on, Mom. Do I have to get it?” he pleaded. “There’s really nasty stuff growing under those hedges.”
His mother swung her croquet mallet like a deadly weapon. She was the kind of woman who could give a kid nightmares. “If you don’t like being our ball boy, consider that the next time you decide to shave the dog.”
Ollie simply let out a sigh, dropped to his hands and knees, and fished out the lost ball.
Now, seeing the shape Ollie was in, Charlie was pretty sure he knew exactly what was under those hedges. “Have you been playing a lot of croquet this summer, Mrs. Tobias?” he asked innocently.
Ollie sat bolt upright on the exam table as if he’d had an epiphany. He pointed a bumpy red finger at his mother. “The hedges! I told you there’s weird stuff under the hedges, and you make me crawl under them anyway!”
Mrs. Tobias had gone sheet white. “I—I—I . . . ,” she stammered. Her eyes narrowed as she turned to Charlie. “How would you . . .”
“I ride by your house on my bike sometimes. I’ve seen you and your friends. . . .”
Mrs. Tobias looked like she was about to explode, when Charlotte finally jumped in. “Hey, Charlie,” she said, taking him by the arm and gently guiding him to the door. “Would you mind manning the front counter while I finish treating Oliver?”
“Sure.” Charlie sighed as he left the room. He was dying to give Charlotte the scoop on the man from Orville Falls, but it would have to wait. There was no telling how long it might take his stepmom to rub that much mugwort on Ollie Tobias. He would have to start with a little monster research of his own.
Charlie pulled a large black binder out of the bottom drawer of Charlotte’s desk and took his place behind the counter. He ran his finger across the title Charlotte had painted in gold on the cover. Then he began to carefully thumb through the pages of the book. As he perused the chapter on zombies, he marveled at the illustrations Charlotte had drawn. Her zombies looked exactly like the creatures he’d encountered during his visit to the Netherworld: Hollow eyes. Purple flesh. Missing limbs. What Charlotte’s illustrations didn’t resemble was the man from Orville Falls. Charlie searched the entire book from cover to cover. There wasn’t a Nightmare in it that looked anything like Winston Lindsay.
Charlie turned to the computer beside the cash register. He opened a new window and typed in clumsy, shuffling, drooling, grunting. He had no idea what to expect when he finally clicked Search.
The first result was a team photo of the 1996 New York Jets. The second was from the website of a hospital so famous that even Charlie had heard of it. He almost gasped when he saw the headline at the top of the page: Sleepwalking: Signs and Symptoms. That was what the EMT had said—the man had appeared to be sleepwalking.
Then bell above the shop door tinkled, and Charlie made sure a smile was on his face when he looked up from the computer. A confused woman was standing in the
doorway, her head oscillating like an old-fashioned fan. “Do you have any lilies today?” she inquired.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we’re not a florist,” Charlie told her.
“Oh, fine, then,” the woman said with a sigh. She pointed to a vase filled with flowers from the Lairds’ front yard. “I suppose those daisies will just have to do.”
Charlie didn’t bother to tell her that the daisies were nothing but decoration. He wrapped up the flowers, charged the woman five dollars, and tucked the lonely bill into the till.
It was happening more and more often these days. Once, Hazel’s Herbarium had attracted customers from all over the state. They came for Charlotte’s nail fungus remover, teeth whitener, hair straightener, and dog breath freshener. The best seller had been Charlotte’s special tincture of valerian root, a sleeping draught so effective that just few drops could send an agitated elephant to snoozeville. But these days, the shelves were lined with dozens of bottles of valerian root, all gathering dust. And the people who came through the door of Hazel’s Herbarium were usually there by mistake.
Charlotte had done everything she could think of to bring customers back to the herbarium. She offered sales and specials—even advertised a Brew Your Own Love Potion night. But no one came. Charlie had never paid much attention to family finances before. Then one night, during a midnight trip to the bathroom, he’d heard his parents speaking in hushed voices. His dad’s teaching salary could no longer cover all the bills. The Lairds needed money if Hazel’s Herbarium was going to stay in business. It seemed to Charlie that the only chance they had of making that money was the book he held in his hands.
Charlotte had worked on the book for years, and for the last few months, Charlie had helped. The pages contained everything they knew about the Netherworld. Charlotte had passed through the portal in the purple mansion’s tower when she was Charlie’s age, and the first half of the book told of her adventure. The second half offered tips and advice for anyone who found themselves stuck in the Netherworld—whether in the flesh or in their dreams.
Charlie had read Charlotte’s masterpiece at least ten times, and every time he opened the book, it still blew his mind. There was an entire page devoted to “How to Deal with Goblins” and a whole section that covered “How to Have Fun with Your Figments!” He’d never come across a book that was as educational—or as exciting. And Charlotte’s remarkable drawings were the best part. The pictures of monsters and ghouls and everything else that goes bump in the night were so lifelike he thought they might walk right off the page. Charlie could sit and thumb through the pages for hours. As far as he was concerned, the book was sheer genius. Unfortunately, the publishing community wasn’t convinced.
Charlotte had sent copies of the book to a dozen publishers around the country. Only two had bothered to write back. They were both in New York, and they wanted to meet her, so Charlotte was flying to the city at the start of next week. Charlie hoped one of them would bite.
The exam room door opened and a powerful odor filled the shop. It smelled like a mixture of rotten eggs, baby powder, and cilantro, and it made Charlie gag.
“So rub the ointment all over him three times a day,” Charlotte was saying. “I’m afraid there’s nothing much you can do about the smell. But the rash should be gone by Tuesday.”
“Thank you, Ms. Laird,” Mrs. Tobias said, managing to sound completely ungrateful.
“My pleasure. Just make sure Ollie doesn’t go rooting around under any more hedges.”
The look the woman gave Charlie’s stepmother could have killed. Charlotte countered with her most innocent smile.
“Thanks, Charlie,” Ollie whispered, still scratching his rash as he passed.
“No problem,” Charlie told him. Thanks to him, Ollie wouldn’t be crawling under any more bushes. But Charlie couldn’t find the heart to celebrate. Ollie’s mother was the one with the money—and she couldn’t have been more furious.
“Well, seems like we just lost another customer,” Charlotte said, watching with satisfaction as the Tobias woman stomped away. “And for once, I couldn’t be happier.” She put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “You did good today. Who knows how many times Oliver would have had to come back if it weren’t for you?”
Charlie frowned. Mrs. Tobias would never again set foot in Hazel’s Herbarium—and it was all because of him. He was hurting the place, not helping it.
But Charlotte didn’t notice Charlie’s frown. She was busy tidying shelves she’d already tidied once that morning. “So how was your lunch break with Alfie?” she asked. “Was it doughnuts or ice cream today?”
Charlie instantly perked up. He’d almost forgotten. “Ice cream. And something really weird happened.” That was all he needed to say. Charlotte pulled up a stool across the counter from him and sat quietly while Charlie told her the story.
“I think you can relax. Whatever the guy was, he wasn’t a Nightmare,” Charlotte announced once Charlie had finished.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“Well, first of all, you said the man started bleeding after he hit his head. I’m pretty sure Nightmares don’t bleed. Second, you said the ambulance guys had him hooked him up to all their machines. It would have been pretty clear to them if the guy wasn’t human.”
She made an excellent case, Charlie had to admit. “So what do you think was wrong with him?”
“Can’t say for certain,” Charlotte said, tapping the counter as she thought. “He might have been under the influence of some medication. Or maybe he’s always been a little bit weird. Who knows?” She paused. “You did check that the portal is closed, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” Charlie told her.
“Then stop worrying so much!” His stepmom leaned over the counter and pinched his cheek. “There are no monsters in Cypress Creek.”
“Don’t be so sure about that.” The herbarium’s door had swung open. Charlie’s dad was standing in the entrance with Charlie’s little brother, Jack, by his side.