He thought the nights wanted to tear him apart.
In one bout of fitful sleep he’d been blinded by an itchy stretch of material, and soft voices had lead him round and round until he was dizzy. They whispered to him, told him he was going somewhere safe, but when the blind-fold was whipped off he was in a room made entirely of crimson cobblestones. Voices screamed around him, eyes watched him through the cracks.
It’s not real, he tried to convince himself. Such rooms can’t be real.
“Oleander.” A poisonous voice whispered in another, “Where is it Oleander? Won’t you tell me?”
Something flashed and spun - a knife on a table, spinning around like the arrow of a compass, speaking to him.
“You can trust me, Oleander.” The voice ran up his spine, metallic and cold, but burning, “You can trust me to not hurt your parents if you tell me.”
It’s not real. It’s not real.
Then his eyes flashed open, but he didn’t know he’d closed them, and he was still in a dream.
But something was different.
Smiles gathered around him - not poisonous, but friendly. One pair of soft pink lips moved closer and sang kindly to him.
A cinnamon accent. An off-key singing voice. But soothing... So soothing...
Please be real. Please be real.
The knife sliced through the lips, shredding the centre of the whole scene like paper.
He pushed through the tear in desperation, trying to escape, and walked into a wall of ropes that wrapped tightly around him, spun him in circles.
They dragged him to face-less people stood in a diamond in a plain white room, dressed in plain white outfits, who pushed him to one-another, and then finally shoved him roughly over an invisible edge and left him hanging upside down, gagged and trapped.
Pennyroyal frowned at him, stood up without a chair, though her legs were still missing, and she looked so small next to the tall figure of Poppy standing beside her.
Poppy laughed, patting the top of his head.
“I’ll teach you.” Pennyroyal cried, “But first we have to get you down.”
She looked around frantically. Poppy’s mad cackle grew raucous, audibly scratching her throat raw until drips of red came out with each choking sound.
“Hellebore!” Pennyroyal called, voice shaking.
I don’t know who that is, Oleander opened his mouth to say, but no sound would come out.
“Hellebore!” She yelled, “Hellebore.”
The forms of Pennyroyal and Poppy started to shimmer, until massive hands - hands he recognised, beefy and calloused, somehow reminding him of the voice from the knife - forced them together and squashed them into a mess.
It’s not real.
And then the hands folded open, and a proud-looking woman stood with her hands on her hips in the middle of them. She wore the same white uniform as the faceless people, but her face was anything but blank - it was beautiful: her eyes seemed a pale green, but faded to cerise around the edges; her fiery red hair curled outwards and fell like clouds around her shoulders; her skin was as pale and clear as though it were new.
The plain uniform fit her perfectly, folding into her curves.
In her wide stance she exuded confidence.
When she looked at him his heart stopped. When she stepped off the hands her foot made no sound on the blankness she stepped onto.
She strolled towards him, eyes fixed on his.
Real. She’s coming to help me, he thought, help me. Be real. Help me.
But as she came closer the whiteness around grew darker, fading to a murky grey and then to the colour of tar, writhing and boiling. On her clothes splatters started to grow like scarlet roses, spreading like blood flowing from a wound.
Suddenly she was right in front of him, staring into his eyes with hers that were bright in the new darkness. All he could see was her face.
There was a flash. A sharp pain in his mouth.
The woman put her finger to her lips, and as the air sharply passed through her teeth...
Oleander sat bolt upright with a yell, finding himself still in the same room he had been - he saw the book on the table, the compost sack under the window, Pennyroyal snoring quietly, slumped in her chair by the door, where she’d been sleeping every night, draped in a thin, faded, pink and blue blanket.
It had been one week since he’d woken up here, and he hadn’t left the bed; his legs and behind were growing sore. Pennyroyal had insisted he stay there to rest and had balanced bread and water from beyond the door on her knee as she tried to bring it to him, dropping it several times with a yelp and having to try again. Poppy had visited three times and offered him something more extravagant, but he’d refused; she didn’t seem the right person to trust with what was edible or not. Each time she’d visited the whites of her eyes had been pink and riddled with thin red veins like she’d been awake for a month.
He would sit and listen as they spoke about plants, watching carefully and thinking over words that seemed important, wondering how he might shape them with his hands.
Whenever Poppy left, Pennyroyal sat with him and helped him to figure out more movements; the previous day they’d started on words other than plants.
His body grew tired quickly for the first few days, and he’d been forced to take naps so that he didn’t zone out when they were talking. Whilst he tried to go to sleep, he could hear Pennyroyal helping the plants grow more - the oleander sapling had grown half a metre taller, and thicker within the week, buds had grown and opened on it, turning into bright white blooms with slanted leaves. Oleander was disappointed notice Pennyroyal removed it from the room every night. He told her when they were alone that he wanted to watch it grow.
“I’ll ask Poppy if we can plant it near the window.” She said softly, “It’s dangerous to sleep in the same room as an oleander.”
She’d laughed then, and rubbed her thumbs together nervously.
“Not in the same room as you.” She giggled, and peered up at him from under her hair, “It sounds funny when I say the name of the tree now that I know you.”
He’d smiled back.
Within a day, he’d started to trust the small girl in the wheelchair. After a week, he somehow felt like he could never trust a single person more.
She’d slept in her chair in the corner every night, dozing off when it went dark, and promising to see him in the morning.
“Maybe Hellebore will come tomorrow.” She’d whispered before yawning, every single night.
Every day she mentioned this person called Hellebore, but that person had never arrived, and inside he grew irritable at the name having no face to be matched to in his mind. Pennyroyal didn’t describe her, either.
A few times in the night he’d woken up after nightmares and woken up Pennyroyal, too, but tonight no such thing happened.
With a slight groan, he rubbed at his sores.
I’ve been in bed too long, he thought and, determination lighting his eyes, he swung his legs out of bed.
The stiffness made him wince, but he confidently placed his feet on the ground - it was cold, and slightly slippery, like frost had crept it’s way inside.
Gently, he pushed himself upwards until he was standing, and started to creep towards the door. Moving softly so as not to make any noise came to him naturally, and he drew closer to the door of the room, settling his hand calmly on the handle.
His breathing was even, but his heart was beating fast - after a week lay in a room with Pennyroyal insisting he not get up and leave, the prospect of opening the door and seeing what was beyond was exciting.
Before starting to open it he glanced at Pennyroyal, keeping his eye on her as he eased the door slowly, it creaking on it’s hinges.
Still she didn’t wake, but continued to rumble softly.
With a short breath outwards he took a step into the adjoining room.
It was a kitchen, of sorts, with square cupboards lining the walls and a basin on one of the surfaces. The surfaces may once have been smooth - pale white marble - but they looked jagged now from the various holes and dints that had been cut into them. They were stained with various colours, which were illuminated by a light emanating from the corner...
In the corner of the room was a circular table, large enough to seat 6 at a squeeze, implied by the number of chairs around it.
A candle flickered in the centre of it, and his heart caught in his throat as he realised he was not alone.
Someone sat at the table, a red-bound book closed on their lap. Their legs were crossed and their pale green eyes watched him intently. They had fiery red hair that fell like clouds, tightly bound behind their head.
The woman from his dream watched him from her seat.