We lived with my father in a two-bedroom house that had once seemed too small, then became too big. Or maybe I was so accustomed to being cramped that the extra space felt excessive, made me aware of the absence of my mother and husband and how my daughter had once slept on the couch but now had a small bed in my room. She was eight and in third grade, a bright kid who liked drawing and carefully ignored the fact that we bought clothes from garage sales.
“It’s more fun this way,” she said when we scoured someone else’s card tables for sweatshirts and jeans in her size. Like any eight-year-old, it seemed she’d sprouted another inch every time I turned around. She looked for shirts with bright colors and sparkles. I squinted at the fabric to be certain there were no stains I couldn’t get out with a good scrub.
But my daughter was clean, warm, and fed, which had been tricky before I had the dreaming job, especially when we needed extra money to repair the house. My husband had done that when he was alive, and now that he’d been gone for two years, there were window drafts he would have patched, but I couldn’t. My dad didn’t have the stamina to carry my husband’s heavy toolbox, and I worried about him with the electric drill. Even mopping the kitchen left him breathless at the table. I sewed curtains and made doorstops to keep out the cold, but it was my dreaming that bought us new windows. That helped a lot, especially during winter.
I was lucky that my kid loved drawing. It was entertaining and cheap.
“I’m going to be an architect when I grow up,” she told me when showing off her latest artwork. “Like Daddy wanted to do.”
I adjusted my glasses and held the drawing closer, to see the pointed conical roofs that reminded me of unicorn horns. Her father had drawn fanciful castles, telling her tales about the people who lived inside. He loved the delicate puzzle of buildings, of stonework techniques and steel skeletons beneath cement and glass. “When we have enough money, I’ll go back to school,” he often said. I tried to add to our savings, but we always had some more pressing financial need. Leaky roof. Leaky pipes. Broken water heater.
But I still saw his cities in my dreams: their twisting stairways, turreted towers, and grinning gargoyles nested in my mind. That might have explained the high demand. Often my dreams were copied and sold over and over to various clients.
I entered the dream business simply enough, when I was chatting with the wife of one of the dreamlords. She was a regular customer at the salon where I worked doing hair and nails, trying to make enough to pay the rent on my booth, and eat. She liked my manicures, the delicate flowers, polka dots, and other patterns I painted on her nails. With creativity like that, she told me, I might have a talent for dreaming.
“It’s easy money, dear,” she said, admiring her hands as I started her pedicure. “All you do is go to work and go to sleep.”
But like many things that people claim are easy, it was the hardest job of my life.
The problem was, I was good at it: an effective and prolific dreamer. But that was part of the dreamlords’ business plan—find employees when they’re young and proceed to wring their brains dry of color.
I made a good wage, a really good wage, more than my parents’ combined salary at the auto factory. The working conditions were nice. The room had twenty beds, and smelled of lavender or lilac. The beds had just enough give to the mattresses, more comfortable than my bed at home, except that my head rested in a helmet-like hollow, held in place on either side by a firm pillow. My mind was scanned for approximately seven and a half hours a day. Then I was awakened, along with the other dreamers; the attendants changed the covers on our beds, and the next shift came in. They gave us a snack before we went to sleep, and a meal when we woke.
After a shift, I was blinking and groggy for a few minutes—it took longer to wake up than from normal sleep—and sometimes I felt dizzy as the machines whirred to a stop. Their buzz reminded me of restless bees. I imagined them flying into my ears and whirling around my head, then speeding out again. The echo of wings never quite left my mind.
And I was hungry. Always hungry. It might have been a side effect of the dream enhancement drugs they gave us at work, but we ate well. A thick layer of cheese on the lasagna, the best chicken parmesan I’d ever tasted, real butter on the noodles, and fresh steamed vegetables. The dreamlords hired gourmet chefs to prepare all our meals—one of the tiny perks they offered to maintain the illusion that our bosses cared.
The dreamlord’s wife often hovered around the cafeteria, chatting with dreamers.
“I never had food like this before,” Angela told her as we ate baked ziti, or chicken amandine, or beef bourguignon. The dreamlord’s wife would nod, smile, and float away.
Usually Angela had two helpings of whatever we were eating, but she was so thin I knew she needed it. Every day after work she gave me a sleep-slow smile and said she’d see me tomorrow. She was going home to take a nap.
Dream-sleep was far from restful. The scanners invaded my head, recording full-length dreams as well as scraps of ideas and images. Often, I dreamed of riding a horse through green fields, toward a Gothic building with spires that grazed the sky. Sometimes I was being chased by furies—monsters with the heads of women and bodies of huge black birds—and the castle was my refuge. Other times I wandered its halls looking for my husband, poking my head in each room and noting the tapestries and gold-framed oil paintings. My mind had a flair for medieval romance, I suppose, though in most dreams I was caught between anticipation and annoyance, because I knew my husband was hiding from me.
I didn’t know why my dreams were so popular with a certain clientele, though I assume it had to do with the stunning architecture and the love those clients might have had for horses. I’d never ridden a horse, but I dreamed it convincingly enough. Other times I dreamed a volcano had sprouted in the middle of Main Street, spewing lava and ash. I was running home to grab my daughter. I didn’t know where we would go, just that I had to find her and my dad. Nobody told me whether those end-of-time dreams were popular, but I suppose they appealed to a certain market. Everything did.
Often, I came home with a buzzing headache, my mind full of after-images, the things and people from my dreams infiltrating my waking hours.
My mother had worked in the same auto factory as my dad, but her lungs gave out before his, and she ended up wheezing and on oxygen. My husband had worked in construction and suffered a heart attack on the job; he’d been too obstinate to admit that there might be a problem lurking behind his chest pains. He was thirty-five, and he’d been having those pains for a while. He joked it was my cooking. I told him to see a doctor. He said, “With what money?” And he was too young for anyone to consider his heart.
Six months after I started dream work, both of them were back in my life.
“We need more tomato sauce,” my mother said as I made dinner. She’d been gone for five years, but I dreamed her often.
“The bridge is coming down!” the mayor yelled as he streaked through the hallway toward the living room. At work that day I’d dreamed the town had been hit by a meteor, an interesting variant on my destruction-of-everything-by-fiery-lava-flow dream.
“You have to think about your vision,” said my dead husband, leaning against the counter with his arms crossed. “And your visions.”
“I have,” I said. “I’m not quitting the job.” Since birth, I’d been legally blind without glasses. My prescription was the sort that gave everyone else headaches, but since I’d started dreaming, the world had grown hazier. My daughter’s features were slightly blurred. Words on street signs were fuzzy. Who knew how long it would be before I wouldn’t able to read them at all.
“Some sacrifices aren’t worth it,” said my husband. But he didn’t have to worry about buying food, or covering the mortgage and utilities. I knew I looked like shit. I wished I could have afforded the fancy dream-recording equipment to launch my own business, but I couldn’t even buy dream-enhancement supplements. Those were a couple pills we dreamers swallowed before going to sleep. The chemicals danced with the ones in our brains to make our dreams more vivid, both when we were asleep and when we were awake. My husband looked so real standing in the kitchen that I asked him to hand me the salt shaker.
“Can’t help you there,” he said, smirking as he stepped to one side.
“Asshole,” I muttered. Perhaps it was wrong to curse the dead, but I figured it was okay when engaged in two-way conversation. It was an odd kindness that he didn’t make me grab for the shaker by reaching through his body. He’d always been a tease.
I wanted to send my daughter to a school where she could focus on her art, but I worried the dreamlords would have their eyes on her. I still felt the gaze of the dreamlord’s wife when she skirted around the edges of the cafeteria. Maybe it was the lack of sleep that bred my paranoia. Maybe I was right to feel paranoid. The dreamlords were predatory. They took the bright ones, the imaginative ones, tracking their test scores through junior high and high school. At least according to Angela, and I had no reason to disbelieve her. She said kids who seemed particularly creative were invited to apply for a position even before graduation. That’s what had happened to her and a couple of her friends. After a night or two in a scanner, they were offered jobs, lucrative ones. Hard for any smart kid to say no when the alternative was college debt.
“My mom was so happy about it,” Angela told me more than once. “She worried that I’d have a hard time getting a job, since I’d always had my head in the clouds.”
A lot of the dreamers—Angela and me included—were the highest wage-earners in our families, but power and pressure came with that salary. Angela lived with her mother, who worked the night shift at a bakery and brought home two-day-old bread. She earned more than three times as much as her mom, and only told me that every other week.
Dreamers rarely left the profession. We needed the paycheck. We loved the food. But there were other reasons that we didn’t talk about. Weaning yourself off dream-enhancement supplements was awful. The withdrawal period involved migraines and paranoia—something the dreamlords didn’t admit—but people who’d been off work for more than four days due to illness said it was better to go in and dream when you were half-dead than try to cope without drugs.
Before I started dreaming professionally, I’d never imagined walking through my husband’s buildings. With the enhancement supplements, those structures took on a three-dimensional quality that stunned me. The furniture. The chandeliers. The string quintet in the ballroom, playing baroque music. This was as close as I came to entering his mind, and for that I was willing to put up with the gargoyles that had detached themselves from the outside walls and proceeded to track mud on the paisley carpets. I chased them down long halls while my husband ran after me, laughing, telling me I shouldn’t worry. It was just a stupid rug, after all.
He caught me from behind, squeezing me in a hug.
“You’re too uptight,” he said. “Gargoyles will be gargoyles.”
“You’d give them the run of this place if I wasn’t here,” I said.
“Probably,” he said, letting go and turning me around for a kiss. It was good to kiss my husband, to hug my husband, even in that dream space. But I paid a price. There was the constant tiredness, the blankness when making dinner that led me to burn the hamburgers more than once.
“At least we have something to eat,” said my father when I presented another round of charcoal briquets on buns.
“I like my burgers well-done,” said my daughter. I preferred medium rare.
“We’re much better-off than we used to be,” my father said, coughing twice and then patting my fingers. I barely felt his touch. My plate appeared in triplicate, and I had to slide my hand along the table to figure out which one was real. If they noticed anything wrong, my father and daughter didn’t say so.
After dinner, I sat beside my daughter on the couch to watch TV while she drew. I squinted, pressing my glasses closer to my face to see what she was sketching. Green fields with a tiny gray blob in the distance.
“In art class we’re working on perspective,” she said. “Do you like the castle? I had to make it really small.”
“Beautiful,” I said. My husband sat across the room in his usual chair, wearing the watch I gave him for our first wedding anniversary. “You’re going to be a great architect someday.” I’d starting saving for her college; I wanted to cement that dream in my daughter’s head, so she’d never take those tests at school. I would keep her home sick on test days.
The annoying part was when the nightmares followed me into the kitchen or grocery store, where I saw gargoyles among the cornflakes in aisle six. I knew they weren’t real, because they stood out more clearly than the surrounding boxes. I squinted to make sure I was buying the honey-nut and not the apple-cinnamon cereal, and brushed a gargoyle to one side as it tried to bite my hand.
“Why did you draw so many damn gargoyles?” I asked my husband on the drive home, craning my neck to peer over two of them as they danced across the dashboard. After I batted them away, they turned a few somersaults to show me they didn’t care about abuse.
“You always said they were cute,” he said in the passenger seat.
“That was when they had smaller fangs and didn’t climb on everything,” I said.
“They like heights,” he said.
“You always take their side,” I said. My husband grinned and kissed my cheek. I tried to remember the feeling of pressure as his lips brushed my skin.
The dreamlords wanted bad dreams as well as good ones. Our supervisors at work explained it with a shrug, saying some customers had nightmare fetishes. It wasn’t our job to question taste. But the rumor among us dreamers was that our terrors were used for extortion. Nobody knew how the dreamlords would do that—their clients used helmet-like dream-transferral devices similar to our dream-scanners—but our cafeteria chatter was rampant with whispered conjectures about how the dreamlords could bypass that technology. Strung-out dreamers, high on cash and caffeine and who knows what other drugs, would believe anything.
“They’re going to weaponize our dreams,” Angela told me at dinner with a conspiratorial smile. “I heard they’re working with the government to develop dream bombs. They could terrorize armies or whole countries, make them all sleepless so they surrender with nobody dying.” She winked at me like we were in on it. I nodded and took another bite of lasagna. I didn’t think the dreamlords could manufacture missiles from our hauntings and fears, but that didn’t stop workplace speculation.
“It’s a bunch of horse shit,” said my husband as he played with the straw in my drink. “Your friend is too far gone.” It was difficult not to respond to him, to remember which voices were in which world. I could only talk back at home, but in the cafeteria it was hard to get him to shut up. I smiled and nodded at Angela, and wondered how much longer we’d be working together.
Exhaustion wasn’t the only side effect of dreaming. Some of the dreamers, the really good ones, had been hospitalized for prolonged periods of time. Some of them never came out. Calvin, who dreamed of dragons, had dissolved behind the walls of an institution. So had Sylvia, who dreamed of flying, and Edmond, who always fell off cliffs. Maybe they were admitted because of headaches. Or hallucinations. Or some other malady I hadn’t yet experienced. But that didn’t matter. After my daughter went to bed, my father noticed me rubbing my temples. Another eyestrain headache.
“You should quit if you need to,” he said, but his voice was strained. He’d left his job six years ago, after decades as a car spray-painter gave him a permanent wheeze. The insurance at my dreaming job paid for treatments we could never afford before, but even so, doing two loads of laundry wore him out for the day. Everyone in my family had sacrificed themselves for their paychecks. I never thought to question it, but even if I had, I might not have arrived at a different answer.
My most frequent nightmare was of my husband being crushed under wooden beams at a construction site. In the dream I sprinted down the street, thinking I could save him if I got there soon enough. I woke up panting. Sometimes my husband was sitting beside me in bed.
“The bad one again,” he said, lifting his hand to tuck a lock of hair behind my ear. I couldn’t feel his touch, but that didn’t stop him from hugging me, slipping his body through the sheets and under my nightgown. One time we made love, though that might have been a dream. I don’t remember worrying that our daughter was in the room, just that I arched my back when I gasped into climax, and closed my eyes. When I opened them the room was gray with morning.
Other times, most times, when I woke after the nightmare, my husband wasn’t there. It took forever to find sleep again. In my waking hours I came home to gargoyles ransacking the kitchen. They dumped a gallon of milk on the floor, squished their feet in the butter, and did a jig on sugar cookies scattered across the counter.
“I don’t need this stress,” I told my husband. In the hallway another gargoyle was ripping up my favorite blouse. Even if I knew it wasn’t real—the cookie crumbs and smears of butter were too clearly defined against the haze of the wood grain—it still raised my blood pressure.
“Just a dream,” he said, patting my shoulder. “But I can’t stop them.”
I wanted the impossible, for my husband to have never drawn gargoyles or died in the first place, though I couldn’t do anything about either situation and resorted to slamming drawers and cupboards while I made macaroni and cheese. We had the same arguments over and over, stuck at the point in time when he’d left.
“You should open a new salon, your own place,” he said.
“We’d lose our secondhand shirts,” I said.
“Would you rather lose that or your mind?” he said as I wrinkled my nose and took the boiling pasta off the stove. I tapped the side of the pot against the colander in the sink to make sure it was really there.
My husband cleared his throat. “I don’t want you to keep dreaming. She’ll lose you, too.”
I banged the empty pot back on the stove. “I’ll be fine,” I said. At dinner I asked my father to drive me to work, saying he might as well use the car during the day. His spectral form nodded. My hazy pink-shirted daughter glanced from him to me. My family was turning into ghosts as my husband stood in a corner of the kitchen and shook his head. Was this a choice I really wanted to make? The thought made me dizzy. Ditzy. Muddled. That’s why I wasn’t in my right mind when I wondered aloud to Angela as we ate dinner the next day.
“Sometimes I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.”
She nodded. She understood. But I should have had my half wits about me. I should have known other people could be listening. The following day I saw the dreamlord’s wife, when I had my morning snack.
“I hear you’re thinking about leaving us,” she said, her voice light as she gripped the back of a chair.
“Not really,” I said, picking grapes off the stem. “It’s hard to find good jobs.”
“My thoughts exactly,” she said. “How will you feed your child?”
“How will you protect your sanity?” said my husband who sat beside me.
I patted my lips with a napkin. “I suppose it’s time to get to work.”
My daughter appeared beside my bed that night, though it took a moment to determine that she was real.
“I had a bad dream,” she said. I let her climb in with me, but I wasn’t really awake until she started explaining the dream. No, it was a nightmare. My nightmare. The similarities were uncanny. She saw her father dragging a beam from the back of a truck, and the avalanche of wood from the truck bed crushing his chest. A scene I’d dreamed many times, but never told her about.
“You were running down the street to get to him,” she said.
I hugged her tight. “Just a dream,” I said. Even inches from my face, her features blurred. When I turned my head, I saw my husband lying next to me, every eyebrow and eyelash clearly defined. He wrapped his arms around both of us.
I was exhausted and unable to sleep. I didn’t want to believe the rumors that the dreamlords could beam dreams into people’s heads from a distance.
But maybe my daughter’s nightmare didn’t come from them. There were other rumors nobody could prove but everyone half-believed, about how dreamers developed skills like the ability to project dreams. The theory was that the dream-extracting machines and dream-enhancement drugs opened up other pathways in our minds. When Angela gossiped about the notion, I had thought it was a load of crap, but after my daughter had dreams that were so close to mine…Was it me? The dreamlords? Coincidence?
As I made breakfast, my husband sat on the counter and my mother stood beside him. A gargoyle toddled across the floor at her feet, trailing a roll of toilet paper. Two more gargoyles played soccer with a lemon.
“The dreamlords can’t send nightmares,” said my husband. “It’s a load of horse shit.”
“I wouldn’t underestimate them,” said my mother. “And you’re out of coffee.”
The gargoyles kicked the lemon into the sink.
Yes, it seemed impossible, but I worried when my daughter had nightmares a second night in a row. A third. A fourth. Always showing up at my bedside, asking to sleep with me. I couldn’t refuse, worried that her artist’s mind was too vulnerable to dream intrusion.
Following the fourth nightmare, I found her napping on the couch after school. She hadn’t slept well. My husband stood beside her, brushing his fingers over the brown fog of her hair. I had to do something, no matter how small and speculative. I had to try sending good dreams to her and supplant the bad.
That evening after she was in bed and I heard the soft rhythm of her breath, I sat on the edge of my mattress with my hands on my knees, matching my inhale and exhale to hers. I imagined a violet stream arching from my head across the room to her forehead. I pictured the winding staircases of her father’s castles, a stray gargoyle scampering across the stone hallways. Outside the castle, two gargoyles ran through a field of tulips, grinning bright-toothed smiles and eating flowers. She’d always liked gargoyles. They made her laugh. When I cut the dream off, I envisioned a swirl like water going down the drain, the tail of the dream spinning through the air between us.
Then I imagined the dreamlord’s wife in her cavernous house. The dreamlords all had cavernous houses, ones built from the bricks of our nightmares and reveries. I didn’t pause to think deeply about consequences, whether she could have some terror sent to me if she determined who’d plagued her with bad dreams. I pictured the charcoal-gray arc from my mind to hers, her lips pursed as she dreamed herself driving alone on a long stretch of road, blank fields on either side, and deep ditches without guardrails for protection. At an intersection, an approaching car tried to brake but skidded forward. Her hands gripped the steering wheel, tried to swerve away from the jolt of impact, her mouth opening to scream—
The next scene, a steel and glass office building with fingers of smoke curling from the windows, the dreamlord’s wife running down the street. Her husband was inside on the tenth floor, a faceless man prying at one of the closed windows. There was nothing in his office heavy enough to break the glass. He tried his desk chair. The window did not yield. His eyes burned. Her eyes burned. She coughed with smoke, ran toward the lobby entrance, but invisible arms grabbed her shoulders, held her back, a man’s voice yelled it was too dangerous. She couldn’t wrest herself from his grip. Fire broke a window. Orange tongues licked the air—
I opened my eyes to the gray bedroom. Maybe I shouldn’t have acted on the whim, but it was too easy. I pictured her sitting up in bed, blinking in darkness, the odor of smoke still in her nose. When I lay down, I went to sleep in moments, though I saw my husband perched on my dresser, mumbling about how there was something very wrong with all this.
But my bright and blurry daughter didn’t visit my bedside all night. I didn’t see the dreamlord’s wife in the cafeteria the next day. Or the day after that. I felt triumphant and even shittier than before, though there were no results from the experiment that I could verify, other than my husband sitting next to me in the cafeteria saying, “Honey, this is wearing you out.”
I didn’t disagree, but there were benefits to losing my mind and my sight simultaneously. I was learning how to cook by touch, using my fingers to tell when a measuring cup was full, and curling them back to guide the blade of the knife when I chopped vegetables. Sight wasn’t reliable, but I started to care less about that as the two worlds blurred.
Everything in my dream’s eye view might as well be what was in reality. Maybe that was indeed the truth, and what most people called going crazy was actually gaining clarity. I’m sure someone had said that before, since dreams clearly existed in the world of your mind, which was equally important in the waking world. Why maintain a hierarchy? What was wrong with a world in which everyone could still be alive? Most people didn’t have a choice in that matter.
At work Angela was grumbling again about how her mother just didn’t understand the seriousness of our work and how it could be so draining.
“She doesn’t understand why I can’t keep my eyes open and have dinner,” said Angela. “But when I get home, I’m beat. Besides, sleep is so interesting now. I learn so many things about, you know, the universe.”
“Like what?” I said, because even though we talked about our families, we never said much about our dreams.
She yawned and smiled. “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” But she didn’t come in the next day, or the next. After four days, I told myself she was taking a little break, and continued to argue with my mother and husband when they lectured me in the kitchen.
“I’m dead,” my husband said. “You know I’m dead.”
“I am, too, honey,” said my mother.
The gargoyles played in the coffee canister. The mayor sat at the kitchen table and sipped a cup of tea, waiting for the next tragedy to befall the town.
“You’re not dead in my dreams,” I said.
“You’re impossible,” said my husband. The gargoyles sprinkled coffee beans across the linoleum, but I was getting used to having them around, and anyway, I had to make dinner.