Everything is green today and I’m brave again.
It is just a dream. I know this because I feel her beside me again, holding my hand. I know this because I once again feel the warm rush of the Em I’ve taken.
But I don’t care.
It’s been so long since I’ve felt either.
Green-tinted spectacles protect my vision from the effects of the Em and transform the world into viridescent hues. They slide down my nose and I keep pushing them back into place. She smiles at me. I know her eyes really are flecked with jade, even without my glasses, and seeing them again, seeing her smile again, changes me.
She lets me know she’s ready to face the troll now.
So am I.
I can slay armies on the memory of that smile.
But something else is drawing my attention. Something is pulling me away from her, away from my dream. I fight it. I don’t want to go. I want to stay here.
After all, there is no place like home.
The breathing wakes me up.
A troll snuffling in the corner of a small room is hard to mask. I hear a splatter of drool hit the sanitized floor. I sit up in bed and see it crouching there, hunched over almost double to fit inside the tight space. Its one eye blazes with green light even in the darkness.
I scream. I can’t help myself.
“Ah, it’s the coward,” the troll says. “I wasn’t sure. You all smell the same to me.”
A claw rests against my chin. I smell the fetid reek of its last victim, dried bits still clinging to the cruel hook as it rubs against my skin. I scream again. I can already hear the footsteps outside the door, attracted to the noise.
“The King doesn’t choose his minions very well, does he? Children and idiots and cravens,” the troll says. “We’re coming for you, my pet. You and your little friends, too.”
Keys rattle in the lock, and a trio of orderlies enter to punish me. The troll laughs and vanishes before the orderlies see him. They never do.
The lights click on and wash away the dark.
Everything is white again, and I’m just a coward.
“How long have you been popping Emeralds?” the man across the table asks me. His coat is a white so brilliant that I almost ask for my spectacles. Everything else in the room, including the man himself, is bland. We are in an addiction recovery ward at some Seattle hospital. I forget which one.
I play stupid, but we both know that’s not who I am.
“Em, Emeralds, Aunty Em,” White Coat says. “The drug that you and your friends take that fries your vision and keeps you strung out all over Seattle. The drug that keeps all of you caught up in shared delusions that he created for you. How long?”
“You dreamt of the troll again last night, didn’t you?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “That makes every night for the two weeks you’ve been here.”
Has it only been two weeks? Seems so much longer.
“Your so-called King is nothing but a pusher and a pimp,” White Coat goes on. “He’s feeding you hallucinations and nightmares in order to serve his needs. Can you see that?”
“No. I don’t see anything. You took my spectacles away, remember.”
“He gave you the Em. Admit that much, at least.”
“He gave me everything I needed to succeed on my quest, nothing more or less.”
“The Rose Queen. The witch. Yes, we know all about his quest.”
“My quest,” I tell him. “And she’s not really a witch.”
“No?” White Coat seems surprised.
“She is under the troll’s spell. We have to save her.”
White Coat nods his tight, professional nod. “And you’ve never met her?”
“Yet off you went, risking your lives to save someone you’ve never met. Why would you do that?”
“Because he asked us. He’s the King.”
Because he saved all of us too.
“He’s the King?”
“God save the King.”
“He started giving you Em as soon as you met him, didn’t he?”
I shrug. “I don’t remember when.”
I do remember, but I won’t admit that to White Coat. I know what he’s getting at. He tries to twist my story, to make it seem like the Em enslaves my mind or some such shit and the King is to blame. But my mistakes aren’t all his fault. He gave me the courage I needed, that’s all. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say she gave me the courage, but it was the same either way. Without the King, I would never have met her.
And I need her. I need the Em. I need to feel brave from time to time. Just the way some men need to feel smart. Or connected with their emotions. What’s wrong with that? He was just trying to fix me. I was broken long before I met him.
White Coat leans close to me, like he’s telling me a secret. “His name is Jenkins.”
“The Emerald King. His name is Jenkins. His wife left him a few years back. Moved to Portland. So he manufactured his own drug that let him forget the truth. We’re not sure when he started giving it to others. We’re not even sure how the drug works, how it imposes his delusions onto so many people.” White Coat smirks. “But at least we know his real name.”
“It’s not a delusion,” I say.
“Of course,” White Coat says.
I lie awake in my bed for hours. I know the troll is waiting for me to drop my guard. He likes to pounce when I am least ready for it. My fear amuses him. I scratch at my palm, wishing I had some Em. I need the comfort right now. It’s the only way I feel strong enough to face him. My skin is already raw from my fingernails.
She’ll come for me, I tell myself. Over and over. She’ll come for me.
I am just nodding off when I hear the snuffling.
His claws gouge plaster off the wall and into my eyes.
“Do you understand the troll?”
“Understand it?” I roll my eyes. “He is trying to kill me. Trying to stop me from finding the Rose Queen.”
“He’s not real,” White Coat says.
“Didn’t you see the gouges in the wall?”
White Coat looks at the mirror next to us. I know that there are more white coats behind the wall. Lots more. This place breeds them. An army of white-coated monkeys. They say they don’t believe in the troll, but they are pawns all the same. They do the troll’s work as they crouch behind walls, listening, examining, not believing. Well, most of them don’t believe. But I know. The Emerald King has friends everywhere.
“Strong delusions are very resourceful in finding ways to reinforce themselves.”
“Are you saying I somehow clawed the walls myself?” I show him my hands. No trace of plaster under my nails.
“One of your friends doesn’t see a troll at all,” White Coat goes on, ignoring my hands. “He thinks he’s a knight trying to slay a dragon. Another thinks there is some giant raven he needs to chase away.”
“The form doesn’t matter,” I say. “The quest is the same.”
“Do you remember your daughter?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“She was killed. Do you remember?”
“She was on her way from your ex-wife’s house to yours, riding her bicycle past the Aurora Bridge. The driver that hit her was staring at the Fremont Troll sculpture instead of watching the road. That’s why you see a troll in your dreams and your friends see something different. It’s your mind trying to cope with the tragedy. The drugs just make it seem more real.”
I am on my feet, shaking. Yelling. “I said stop it!”
“The craving is getting worse,” he says. It isn’t a question.
I realize I am scratching my palm again. It is bloody. I stop, wipe my hand on my hospital-issued pants, leaving a dark smear. The blood is the only color in the room and it’s too bright. I want my spectacles, but I don’t bother asking.
“Okay, let’s talk about something else then. Let’s talk about this quest of yours. Tell me about it.”
I sit down again. “To find the Rose Queen. You already know that.”
“To find her? Or to kill her?”
“To find her. To rescue her.”
“Weren’t you told to kill her if she refused to come back with you?”
“One of your friends already rolled on you. He’s not all that smart. He told us the truth. You were supposed to find her and,” he ruffles through some papers, “toss battery acid in her face.”
It’s water. Just water. To break the spell the troll has put on her. But I don’t tell White Coat that. I simply say, “That’s a lie. He doesn’t want to harm her.”
“Sure he does. She left him. She’s evil. She’s a witch.”
“She isn’t a witch. Not really. She’s just under the troll’s spell.”
“What about the girl? There’s a young girl missing. Don’t you care about that? Who knows what depraved things he is doing to this girl.”
I raise an eyebrow. “You mean like locking her in a room, taking away her freedom, telling her that her life is a lie?”
“I was thinking something more . . .”
“Sexual? Why is it that you monkeys are the first ones to bring that subject up? I wonder . . . when was the last time you got any?”
“We’re not here to talk about me.”
“No? We shouldn’t be talking about people you’ve never met, either. That’s hardly fair, is it?” I lean over the table. “Look, I know perfectly well what you want. I’m the coward, not the idiot, remember? You want me to tell you that I don’t believe the things I believe so I’ll fit in more with your sense of reality. Well, I’m not going to do that. So just lock me back up and leave me alone, huh?”
“But you won’t be alone, will you?” he says, and his eyes glisten. “You’ll be with the troll.”
I flinch. I can’t help it and I hate myself for it.
“Stop resisting us,” he says. “We can protect you from the troll.”
“No,” I tell him. You work for the troll you just don’t know it. Out loud, I only say, “You can’t. But she can. She’ll come to save me.”
I shouldn’t have said that. It is the fear talking.
“Who? The Queen?”
But I stay silent. I will tell him nothing more.
They throw me back into the room, feed me to the troll night after night. Let him ravage me. I scream and I scream and I scream.
I am awake, waiting for the troll, when it finally happens.
The lock clicks and the door to my room swings open. A small girl with green-tinted spectacles strolls in, grinning. She is here to rescue me.
“Dorothy,” I breathe.
She walks to my bed, leans over, and kisses me.
I throw off the covers and get to my feet. Behind her, the door lies wide open. “I thought you weren’t ever coming.”
She kisses me again, running a hand up my thigh.
I feel more courageous already.
A small box presses into my hand. I open it, revealing a glistening emerald the size of a gumdrop and a pair of tinted spectacles.
“Time to go witch hunting,” she says. “The others are already in the van.”
She holds up a flask that we are supposed to use on the witch and gives it a shake. Something sloshes inside.
It is water, I tell myself. Just water.
Dorothy peers at me over the rims of her spectacles. “Coming?”
I turn the box upside down, spilling the emerald into my palm. I grip it tight, feel it dissolve into my skin. The white walls grow brighter. Incandescent. All the things I don’t want to remember are fading away with the warm rush of the Em. I slip the tinted shades over my eyes.
Everything is green again.
God save the King.