From “Castles in the Sky” by Rick Duffy.
“So, Mr. Jones, you’re interested in the swimsuit dream?”
Mr. Jones sits at the end of my sofa. “Uh, yes, Miss Waters.”
His voice cracks, obviously forced down an octave. This kid can’t be more than fifteen. He wears a baggy overcoat that’s probably his father’s—overkill for early fall. And he’s trying to grow a mustache above his sweaty upper lip, but without much luck.
I put on my business face. Juveniles don’t slip through my filters often, but it’s a risk.
The kettle whistles, and I go to the kitchenette. “Please, call me Sarah. Would you like something to drink?”
Mr. Jones clears his throat. “A beer?”
“How about some tea?”
Smart kid. Choose your battles.
I bring over two steaming cups. The curtains in my one-room are closed. Not for ambiance or intimacy, but because the fire escape makes me look cheap. My dream journal sits open on the coffee table.
I hand Mr. Jones a cup and sink into the cushion beside him. “It’s chamomile.”
“Camel meal?” He dares a sip.
I page through the journal, trying not to smile.
This particular dream is an old one, pressed on a pale blue page with a yellow border. The images are blurred and jumbled, like wildflowers in the rain. I’ve labeled it pastoral. It’s of me and my old girlfriends back at the lake. I don’t stock that kind anymore. They’re slow movers. Allowing old dreams to pile up devalues the inventory.
I lower my voice. “Just so we’re clear, it’s not erotic. Those are out of your price range.”
“I know.” He sets the cup aside.
Rachel Delaney Craft writes speculative fiction for children and teens. Her short stories have appeared in several publications and the anthology “Found,” winner of the 2017 Colorado Book Award. When not busy with her day job as an engineer, she enjoys soccer, rock climbing, and tending her garden with the help of her Bassett hound. For more information, follow her on Twitter @RDCwrites or visit her website at racheldelaneycraft.com.
Natasha Watts is a writer and audio producer living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She is co-editor of the short story anthology, “Wild,” and has work featured in Leading Edge Magazine and “Found.” In her free time, she enjoys listening to podcasts, getting lost in virtual reality, and going on outdoor adventures with her husband and young daughters.
I lean down and exhale on the page, as if reviving an ember. The images shrug and unfold with a new vibrancy—faces gain depth, water ripples, laughter echoes in the sun.
Mr. Jones leans in, too. After a few seconds, the splashing and giggling slows, flattens out, and stills.
“This the one, Mr. Jones?”
He gives a furtive nod.
I smile gently. “Is this your first time, Mr. Jones?”
His puffy eyes flash upward. “No.” He’s a little too insistent. “But…can we go over everything first?”
“Of course. Whenever you want to use it, breathe like I did, until the smells come out. This one is pine scented. Lay it close, next to your pillow, and it will bloom into your dreams.”
“Will I be someone in it? Or will I be watching, like a video?”
“In this one, you’ll be me as I dreamt it—female, blonde, a lot younger than today. You’ll see the sights I did and feel my emotions. With enough practice, you can use it as a jumping-off point for your own dream.”
“Sweet,” he whispers.
I close the album. “The contract is industry standard. Once I’ve signed it over, it’s one hundred percent yours. No returns, non-transferable. Is this acceptable?”
Actually, he could resell it. But secondhand dreams lose value fast. “Now, I’ll just need to see some I.D.”
He pauses. “I.D.?”
“Standard procedure. I can’t risk losing my license selling to an underage client. People can get in a lot of trouble for that. You understand.”
This also isn’t completely true. The risks are real, and the penalties steep. It’s just that I can’t get a license. Not with the kinds of dreams I sell.
He slumps inward, his oversized coat swallowing him like a sinkhole. Poor kid. His ability to dream is almost gone now. But I have my principles, and I’m not taking this transaction any further, not with a juvenile. Besides, I’ve given him what I think he needs most—his first introduction to black-market dreams.
“Oh dear.” I fold my hands. “Did you forget your I.D., Mr. Jones?”
“Uh, yeah.” He pats his pockets. “It’s in my other one. My other coat.”
“Then why don’t we put this off for another time?”
We lock eyes a moment. He nods and shuffles out the door.
Damn. I needed that sale.
I drop onto the couch, sip my tea, and thumb through my journal. In the bathroom, my grumpy toilet clears its throat, letting me know my attempt to fix it myself, on the cheap, failed. As if in cahoots, the lights flicker, reminding me the utilities are overdue. Again.
My finances have gotten too bad to ignore. It’s a vicious spiral now. The worry gives me headaches. The headaches wreck my sleep. No sleep, no dreams.
My dreams are my future. What am I without them?
When I was little, I brought my dreams to the breakfast table, first thing, before they thinned out. My parents’ retellings of their nightly dreamcasts were usually boring or ridiculous, at least to me, and sometimes I couldn’t help but laugh. Then my parents laughed, too.
But they always listened closely when I told them of my own. Once in a while, they’d say, “That’s a good one, Sarah. Let’s keep it.” We’d get the brushes and paper, and they’d help me lay it down. I was careful to get all the shapes and colors right, the people and the moods, the layering, even the feel of the air, until it had depth, until it bloomed. Then we’d press the dream in a book, careful not to crush it. There’s nothing worse than a crushed dream.
By our teens, we’re expected to outgrow such things. The handed-out dreams we get in school pretty much guarantee it—first cartoons, then adventures and triumphs, with education mixed in, of course. All much more exciting than what we produce on our own. After that, we start picking up the nightly dreamcasts, choosing different channels. Our natural ability to dream weakens, like an atrophying muscle. We forget how.
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But I loved my natural dreams. People said they were pointless, a waste of time, unhealthy. Not me. They were each original, never seen before, never seen again. They were my dreams, my art. So I kept my journal, kept adding to it, and learned of the underground trade.
I spent my high school graduation money to buy my first illegal dream, from a guy in a little shop that did tattoos and painted nails. You might think the most requested ones are about revenge or violence or sex. They’re not. They’re about lost loved ones, unresolved regrets, or those desires forever out of reach—our castles in the sky.
Mine involved fishing.
I commissioned a dream of Dad and me at the lake. My father is an old-guard type, sober and reserved, except when it comes to sports. He hooked me early. I always dreamt of landing something big, a five-pounder. “This will be the day,” Dad would say. But by the time I was eighteen, we had stopped fishing together—or doing much of anything—and I never got the chance. So I gave the man at the shop some family pictures and described how I wanted it to go.
The dream he delivered was perfect. The day was clear and bright, with a sweet breeze caressing the pines and a few seagulls soaring through the sky, which I thought was a nice touch. Dad and I sat quietly on the pier, the lake rippling electric in the warm sun and gulping around the supports. There was a tug on my line. I played it out. Dad dropped his reel and moved closer. “You’ve got it, Sarah. Keep going!” The fish pulled harder and I fumbled the pole, but Dad wrapped his big, calloused hands around mine, guiding me, not taking over. We yanked the rod and there it was, a beautiful plump trout, glistening like a rainbow in the sun and spray. I swung the beast onto the pier, where it landed with a wonderful whomp. We both yelled, and Dad was all smiles.
That’s what black-market dream workers do—bring people what they can’t get anywhere else and can no longer find themselves. Lost wishes, forbidden hopes, or exquisite aimlessness. When I felt the joy of seeing that fish, and my father so proud, I think that’s when I decided to become a dream worker myself.
Well, Mom and Dad did not approve.
“We’re not rich,” Dad said over his newspaper. “How can you afford the training?”
“Not in medical. You know, like an artist.”
“I’ve seen that so-called art. Pretty seedy stuff.”
“You can’t make a living on just your dreams,” Mom added.
“You always said I had talent.”
“Those ads walk a thin line,” Dad said. “Bring us your fantasies! Your wildest dreams! Come on, Sarah, we didn’t raise you to be that naïve.”
“If you’d just give me a chance—”
“To what?” He lowered his paper. “To help people live out their cheap little thrills?”
“Come on. Not every—”
He lifted his paper, covering his face. “This is not a negotiation.”
“Why is it even your decision?”
“While you’re under my roof, it is.”
I dropped the subject. And I didn’t tell them as I began meeting with the underground, making connections, practicing. But Mom found my inventory, which included some fairly erotic product. And that was that. I can’t remember if it was my decision to leave, or theirs. Maybe an ugly mix.
That was eight years ago. I sometimes miss them terribly, but that bridge is burned. Now it’s a card at Christmas. A call from Mom. You know. And the conversion always goes the same:
“Is everything all right with you, Sarah?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m doing great.”
“She says she’s doing great.”
Dad says something in the background.
“Your father wants to know if you’re happy with—with everything.”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
Dad says something else. Mom is silent.
“Did Dad say something?
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, I have to go. I have a client coming.”
Pretty much like that. They don’t ask me back. I don’t ask to come. And we never mention my dreams.
I moved to the city, got a job, an apartment, and worked on my dreaming. I haven’t been able to make a decent custom one, like the guy did with Dad and the fish, so I keep on at the diner and sell my ordinaries, the best of them, on the side.
But I can’t sell what I don’t have. I need a new strategy. Another benefit of our own dreams is they sometimes present solutions. I need one, soon. Here’s hoping for tonight.
I walk to the diner, past the alley that runs beneath my fire escape. A colony of black cats stare from around the dumpsters. But these aren’t normal cats. They’re deformed, bulbous and hairless, like worms with legs. They hang on the walls like lichen and huddle in muculent clumps in the damp shadows. Their mouths open and close as if in a howl, but they make no sound.
I awake and wait for my heart to stop pounding. So much for a solution. Still, as far as quality, it’s not bad. I can sell it. I reach for my journal.
But I stop. While dark dreams have a large following, I don’t like dealing with those people. They have a vibe, as if they’re holding in an awful, secret world. If I give them the slightest encouragement, they’ll share it with me, and it might seep into my own dreams, stain them. Those stains are hard to get out.
Besides, when I set down a dream, it’s difficult to destroy if I change my mind. Well, I can, of course. It’s just pressed on paper. But I feel like I’m throwing away a part of myself.
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