Just A Dreamer

By Nicole Tanquary

Amelia woke up in fits and starts with a cat curled in the small of her back. In a practiced motion, she peeled off the net of Recorder sensors from her head. Her scalp itched from a night’s hair growth; she would need to shave sometime during the day, or the dreams the Recorder tracked during her next shift wouldn’t be worth a damn. No one wanted a blurry camera lens when they watched a movie, and the same principle applied to dreams.

Schmutz had come awake at her first stirrings, and now he stretched out his front legs, his orange tabby stripes shifting along bands of muscles as he moved. Then he sat and stared, waiting for her to get up and get him something to eat.

First, though, Jeff would need a description of the night’s work. Amelia reached with the tips of her fingers to the junk pile beneath her bed, then, after a moment of rummaging, pulled out an electric pen and booklet. The booklet was a worn thing from her college days, rainbow cracks glimmering from where she had once stepped on it while coming in from a drunk night out, but even so it worked fine. And Amelia didn’t see the need to replace things that worked fine.

5/3/38

Was in this place like an indoor town center – lots of touristy antique shops, food booths, etc. Visiting with Mom, being dragged along. Went window-shopping through places with an African theme to them, lots of faux-Kente cloth dresses around.

Then became embroiled in a plot that swept through the center; there were these evil warlock types who had been about to use this magic stone, a spherical one, black with a garnet-red shine, to take over the world. But it’d been stolen from them and hidden in one of the thousands of shops in the center. I started running around looking for it …

Her fingers scritching against the screen, Amelia stood and walked barefoot into the kitchen, Schmutz following behind her with his tail cricked in a question-mark. The writing paused long enough to fill his food bowl, then to pour herself a cup of coffee. Then she resumed; she had had a couple of dreams last night, and each one needed to be catalogued.

For half an hour, the house was silent except for her sipping and Schmutz’s snacking.

When the entries were at last done, she scribbled the tags Adventure – Fantasy – Powers, then closed the journal and sat staring straight ahead as she waited for the caffeine to filter into her brain. From her position at the counter, she had a good view of the kitchen window and the garden that lay beyond. Just by the window was a redbud tree, a pretty, shrubby thing that never got too high to block her view. It did send out too many seedlings, though; with the onset of summer, it was starting to choke out the flowers a bit. She needed to get her spade from the garage and dig them all out … and Schmutz needed a vet appointment to check his teeth … and the Recorder needed to be recharged and dusted … her head needed shaving, of course … groceries needed to be bought, carpet needed to be vacuumed, laundry needed to be done. And she needed to make more coffee.

If she worked at it, Amelia usually could think of enough to keep her busy until nightfall.

The worst days were when there was nothing to do, where she sat on the couch and stared at a blank T.V. screen, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.

But today was going to be a good day. She would make sure of that.

#

Her boss – a heavy, balding man who insisted that his underlings call him “Jeff” – always sent replies a few minutes after Amelia uploaded her dreams to the company vault. Sure enough, the day’s text came as she was drinking the last of her coffee: Sounds eccentric. You sure it’s good?

Amelia pursed her lips as she answered: Just watch it. The details really bring it to life. I can’t put all that down in a summary, it’d take hours. Besides, adventure fantasies are popular.

She could almost see him hemming and hawing, rubbing a hand along his double-chin. You’re a best-seller, Amelia, you know that. It’s a lot of pressure. You sure you haven’t taken anything to make things, you know, more vivid?

Mind-altering drugs had been declared strictly off-limits for anyone who sold their dreams for a living … kept the whole process more organic, or so they said. Amelia had even been forced off her anti-depressants when she first signed the contract.

Jeff, my dreams have always been like this.

            I know. That’s why I hired you. It’s damn interesting stuff. Strange, but interesting.

            There, the conversation ended, and Amelia went back to her breakfast of coffee and leftover couscous. Schmutz head-butted her leg, and she let him sniff a spoonful to prove that he wouldn’t like what she was eating, after all.

There was a fresh issue of Scientific American on the counter, and she turned the pages as she ate, eventually glancing at an article that listed the “Ten Most Important Advances in STEM Fields in the Past Decade.” Recorders, of course, made it into the list’s top five. She watched the photograph as light moved along the Recorder strands in smooth, liquid shines. The filaments were splayed outwards in a web, roughly oval-shaped and adjustable to a person’s head size. On the next page, alongside a diagram, was a description of how the filaments rested against a person’s scalp and dug in just a little – painless as acupuncture – to get at the detailed chemical-electrical activity happening within a brain as it slept. Each Recorder was highly individualized, since everyone’s experiences of the world were unique. It took weeks’ worth of scans to get a Recorder fully adjusted to it subject, able to translate individuals’ brain-patterns into images and sensations that could, in turn, be replicated for others in an all-encompassing sensory experience. Sounds, smells, tastes, touches, emotions … A well-synced Recorder could collect just about anything.

The article, aiming for its usual scientific objectivity, went into discussion of the public pushback as well. As dream recordings had become a currency of entertainment, after all, everyone from politicians to ranting bloggers voiced the privacy issues and moral questions that they felt needed asking. The whole business got pretty muddled, even slowed down the commercialization of the field for a bit … but over the course of several years, private firms were able to hire public relations teams that rewrote the popular consciousness of the subject.

Nowadays, Recorder dreams were not the most extreme privacy violation imaginable, but instead represented a mutually-consenting capture of imagination in its purest form. Dreams, after all, were not inherently designed for widespread consumption like books or movies. Dreams represented actual ideas at their most elemental and meaningful. So the public began to believe, at least.

For her part, Amelia had entered the Recording field on a whim. She had applied to a work-study gig at her university’s neuroscience program as one of the early Recorder-testers. She had gone in for a screening and had come out with one of the first models, a clunky, helmet-like thing that had the unpleasant texture of Velcro. The sensors on those early Recorders always dug in a little too deep, leaving rows of dimples in her scalp by the time she woke up the next morning. Still, she could not complain; it was good money, and the stuff it recorded made a name for herself in the world of neuroscience.

Four years later, and with some vigorous product placement from the private firms that had bought the rights to Recorders and their users, Amelia was a consistent and well-known best-seller who had used the extra income to pay her way through school.

It still struck her as funny, sometimes. If someone had gone back to the Amelia of five years ago and explained out her future career path, she would have laughed and said, Uh-uh, no way. No way anyone would actually want to see what’s going on in my head. It’s a place you don’t want to get lost in, trust me.

            Then again, money could change a person’s attitude on just about anything.

#

Now it was noon, and Amelia had come off her caffeine high with the dishwasher unloaded, the laundry sorted and put away, and Schmutz’s fur brushed clean. He liked to go outside when it was warm, and all kinds of burrs and dead leaves would catch in his long fur, particularly on the underside of his belly. From where she stood, she could see him lounging on the front porch, fluffy with the fresh brushing, his tail still twitching in annoyance. He did not particularly like being brushed. Amelia had a feeling that the bristles pulled at his skin, and he was a sensitive cat. In his life before Amelia, he had been stuffed into a cardboard box and left out on the side of a highway to roast in the sun. Amelia did not blame him for being touchy sometimes.

She was thinking dim thoughts concerning lunch (she had seen an ad for a new seafood restaurant on Thompson and was wondering if she was in the mood for fried shrimp) when she raised her eyes from Schmutz and saw the man standing at the foot of the driveway.

The sun was out, noon-bright and burning, but it was almost as if the man’s body had a mask drawn over it; there were no discernable details at all. The only thing she could make out clearly was the shape of a suit and tie.

Still. There was something familiar about him. Familiar in an inkling way.

Amelia had been holding a water glass, and she lowered it to the counter. The clink as the glass touched down woke her up a bit, and it seemed to wake up the man, too. As she watched, he tucked his hands into his pockets and strolled out of her line of sight. Schmutz, who had been grooming his paw, set it down and followed the man’s movement with his eyes. “He’s just a walker, Schmutzy,” she said, mostly to herself. “Just some guy.”

Ten minutes later, when she left the house en route to Doug’s Fish Fry, she paused long enough to double-check the locks. There was a deadbolt on the front door, a rusty thing she had never touched before. She studied it for a moment before turning it into place with her key, wincing when it let out a sound like grinding teeth.

#

Amelia left Doug’s Fish Fry feeling faintly sick, the shrimp no more than a greasy lump in her stomach. She had brought her tablet with her to the restaurant to browse the internet as she waited for her food, pretending to be a ‘working student’ to keep people from staring at her. It had been a family restaurant, and she had been the only diner sitting alone.

Usually things like that didn’t bother her. It took her more effort than most people to hold and sustain a conversation, not to mention come off with the appropriate amount of confidence, wit, and humor. When she was alone at least she did ’t have to figure out how to entertain anybody.

Sometimes, though, the quiet of being alone would leak inside her head. Everything around her … everything in her … would fade, all her colors going gray and dim.

Days like those, she missed being able to take her anti-depressants. Those pills were not an easy cure, exactly, but at least they staved off the dimness a little.

Hoisting her purse across one shoulder, Amelia left her car in the driveway, went to the front door and popped the key into the lock. The double-bolt stuck. By now she had forgotten about the dark man, and she let out a grunt of annoyance, hoping the key would not break as she twisted it harder. At last the door popped open, and Schmutz ran out to twine around her legs, rubbing his head against the tops of her sandals. “You act like I haven’t fed you in weeks,” she said. “Christ, I just fed you two hours ago.”

Schmutz, at least, was one answer to the loneliness. Another one was to go out with friends, the old high school remnants who hadn’t minded her quiet moments. She knew Sky and Kat both had the evening off. Maybe it’d be nice to suggest a meet-up. What was playing in the movie theaters lately? Anything besides early-summer blockbusters?

Amelia felt at her pocket, then remembered that the phone was on the kitchen counter, on top of the travel memoir she had been idly reading through for the past month. Side-stepping around the cat, she made her way into the kitchen, snatched up the phone and began the group message: Hey guys, I was wondering…

Absently, fingers clicking away at the screen, she wandered into the living room. It was more of a sunroom, really, with a wall-full of windows that opened onto her strip of backyard, full of renegade redbuds and flowers leading up to the dark woods beyond, looming in its wall of twisting leaves.

Finally, she reached the end of the message and pressed the little ‘send’ button.

When she looked up, the dark man was standing with his face pressed to the window glass.

Every muscle in her body clenched down, and a thin, high sound blew through her lips – a scream, she supposed, though it did not sound much like one. The dark man’s face was indeed dark. Expressionless, colorless black cloth had been pulled over the mouth, the nose, even the eyes. Just a weird skiing mask, her mind sang, Just a weirdo!  

After a minute of silence – Amelia staring at where his eyes should have been, if his face had been clear – she became aware of the phone still in her hands, clenched and shaking. She did not dare move, did not trust her own two legs to hold her up if movement was required, but at least she had the phone.

Slowly, her eyes not leaving the man’s covered face, she pressed the ‘call’ icon with her thumb and keyed in ‘9-1-1.’

#

After seeing the police officer to the door, Amelia wandered back into the living room, not thinking much and not doing much. Mostly she circled around the house and checked the locks on the windows. She could not remember the last time she even looked at most of them, but now all openings into the house filled her with an itching anxiety.

The trance finally lifted when her phone began to vibrate. Damned thing, she thought, her lip curling back in a grimace. She wasn’t in the mood for talking. The only thing she was in the mood for was the bottle of Nouveau waiting for her in the wine cabinet.

Ignoring the phone, she went into the kitchen, found the Nouveau and popped off the stopper, pouring herself a glass-full of thick red wine. The first gulp hit her tongue and left her throat glowing.

The phone rang again, and this time she answered it, glaring straight ahead as she pressed it to her ear. “What d’ you want, Jeff? This isn’t a good time.”

“Yeah, hey, are you all right? I heard about the stalker at your house.” Her eyebrows raised a little.

“Where’d you hear it from? The police only just left.”

The answer came quickly, as if he had been expecting her to ask that: “Got a friend in law enforcement. Asked him to keep his ears open for anything about my kids.” A grimace came and went across her face. Amelia and the other dream recorders were mostly young, right in that sweet-spot between child and mature adult. Being middle-aged himself, Jeff always referred to his contracted recorders as his ‘kids.’ It was something she hated but never brought up to his face.

“Yeah, I’m fine. No thanks to the police.” She rubbed one hand against her forearm, biting her tongue to keep in the laugh that would’ve come barking out otherwise. “The guy ran off way before anyone showed up. And the police-”

“What did they do?”

“Nothing. That’s the point. They took me seriously enough at first, but when they started asking questions, they wanted to know what I did for a living, and when I told them, they started … patronizing me. Said that maybe I’d brought my work with me when I woke up and ‘imagined’ the whole thing.”

There was an explosive sigh on the other end. “How many times do I have to tell those goddam reporters, Recorders don’t do that! They just record what’s going on in someone’s head, there’s no hallucinations before OR afterwards! Motherfucking idiots!” Amelia thought she could almost hear the tendons in Jeff’s jaw clench. “Goddam … Listen, ‘melia, I have a friend who might be able to help you out. He’s a private contractor type, NOT a useless cop. I can get him to send someone to your house and keep watch until your stalker is caught, maybe even help catch the bastard.”

Amelia’s teeth chewed at the edge of her lip. The inside of her mouth felt dry, very dry, and she poured herself another bloody glass of Nouveau to wet it down with. “Sorry, Jeff, thanks but no thanks.”

“C’mon, ‘melia. This guy’s probably dangerous, and I don’t want to take any chances-”

“I’m not asking you to.” She clipped off his retort by ending the call, then powered down the phone before he could start flooding her voicemail, as he sometimes did.

Half of her fresh glass of wine was already gone. She didn’t remember drinking that much, but so it was.

Wine glasses never lied, even if people did.

#

A cold, wet nose pressed into her forehead, just below the front-most strands of the Recorder. Amelia’s eyes opened to find Schmutz staring down in an unflinching yellow gaze.

When their eyes met, he promptly butted her head and meowed for breakfast. And no wonder, Amelia thought, her eyes drifting to the beside clock: it was already eleven. She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept in so late.

With a groan, she pulled herself out from under the covers and plodded into the kitchen, staying just long enough to set out Schmutz’s meal. Then she went back in the bedroom, sat on the bed, and held her head in her hands. Her nails touched against the Recorder and she peeled it off, flinging it aside like it was something nasty growing in a trash can.

She still had to write the report, though; no way around that. With a sour expression, she got out the electronic booklet and sat there for a while, rubbing one hand along her jaw. It was sore; she must’ve been grinding her teeth through the night. The habit had started in high school, and she wouldn’t have known anything about it except that her dentist had had a small fit after seeing the state of her molars.

Funny, though. She had thought she had gotten over the teeth-grinding after sophomore year of college. Guess it’s true when they say that you never really get over anything … it goes away for a while, but it always comes back. She pursed her lips down at the booklet. Well, that’s a happy thought, isn’t it?

What else could she expect, though, after a dream like that?

After of lots of stopping-and-starting, she finally began to put a description together for the dream database:

5/4/38

Started in a jungle. Dark place, lots of noises, I couldn’t see anything at first. Something had tied me to a tree … no, chained me, metal chain. The chain was around my left wrist. The something was coming back, and I was going to die, and I knew it, so I was panicking.

            I leaned over without really thinking about it and started chewing at my arm. It hurt, and blood was pouring out, but I couldn’t stop. Too scared.

            When the thing had almost come back, I finally chewed through and left my arm behind in the chain, and I started running. But I wasn’t fast enough. He caught me, and he had a man’s shape but he wasn’t really a man, don’t know what he was, he just WAS. He held me so I wouldn’t run off and looked at the stub where my arm had been. “Now look what you’ve done,” he said. And then-

            “He ripped off my other arm,” Amelia mouthed, then realized that she hadn’t written it down. She did so in a scribble, muttering dark curses under her breath. The staff who processed dream manuscripts usually wanted tags for filing purposes, but screw them, if they really wanted to label this thing they could do it themselves.

Amelia sent off the dream with a click, then went back into the kitchen. Her whole body ached way down to the deep muscle. Maybe she was getting her period ahead of schedule – that was sort of what it felt like, anyways. Hell, more blood, just what I need, she thought, and started pouring herself some coffee.

#

It was somewhere like four in the afternoon when her doorbell rang. Schmutz, who had been stretched out on her lap, folded his ears back and fixed his gaze on the doorknob.

Amelia was sitting with him on the couch, a drink in her hand and her head swimming in a daze. She leaned back a bit so she could glance out the window … her stupid front door didn’t have a peephole, and she wasn’t going to open it without knowing who was there first … and pulled back the curtain just enough to see the visitor.

Catching the movement in the curtain, a man in a suit grinned at her and waved. She let out a groan – Why didn’t I just pretend I wasn’t home? – then got to her feet, unlocked the door, and opened it to a hair’s width. Looked like a salesman, or maybe a Jehovah’s Witness; talking to him would be the only way to get rid of him now, and the sooner the better.

The man outside was about her age but had a perpetual, smiling boyishness that left impressions of someone much younger. His hair, somewhere between dark blonde and brown, hung long against his forehead. His eyes were very dark and his build narrow, like a runner’s.

Before he could speak, Amelia started with, “Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in signing up for anything right now. I’d really prefer to be left alone.” For a moment the man’s boyish face looked perplexed.

“Huh?” He blinked, thought about what she had said for a moment, and then came to a realization. His face was one that was easy to read … she could follow each change in his thoughts just by looking at him. “Oh, no, I’m not a salesman. I’m one of Emilio’s guys. My name’s Evan, Evan Fleischer. I’m assuming Mr. Jeff told you I was coming over … or, not,” he said, his grin fading as he read Amelia’s expression.

“I told him I didn’t need a babysitter. Or a bodyguard. Whatever you are.” Her grip on the doorknob tightened. “If he won’t listen to me, then you can go tell him yourself.”

She leaned her shoulder forward an inch, about to use her weight to swing the door shut when he spoke again. “Jeff watched the dream manuscript you sent in today. It was …” A frown collected around Evan’s eyebrows. “Well, safe to say he’s worried about you. He wants to have someone to watch your back, set you at ease and all.”

Amelia was suddenly aware of the jacket covering the front of the man’s body. She knew, with a certainty that was almost frightening, that he had a gun tucked away in there somewhere.

She surprised herself with a laugh that made her eyes glitter. “Jeff makes money by selling my dreams. Of course he’s concerned. I can’t dream best-sellers if my subconscious is scared, can I? Still, if he thinks I’m going to let a complete stranger into my home …”

A stranger who knows how to use a gun, maybe even knows how to drive away the dark man in the mask, the shadow-mask that smooths away his mouth and nose and eyes and yet you can feel, you KNOW he’s staring at you, staring and THINKING ABOUT HOW HE’S GONNA MAKE YOU SUFFER …

” … Then he must know me better than I do,” she ended, in a mutter. The bemused look came back into Evan’s face. Amelia had a feeling he wore that look often.

She turned away from him, firmly, and propped open the door with her foot to let him in.

#

The spaces in the house were open, the furniture modest, but all the colors had been washed out in shadow tones. The curtains are closed, she could see Evan thinking to himself, with a pointed glance at the windows. Even though it’s a nice sunny day outside.

Schmutz stared at him from his spot on the couch, ears flattened back and tail lashing. As Evan turned to look at him, there was a faint rustle, and Schmutz disappeared in a streak of orange. Evan jumped, his hand flinching towards his concealed gun before he got a hold of himself. “Shoot, sorry,” he said, tucking the hand back into a pocket. “Didn’t mean to scare it.”

“It’s not you personally, he just doesn’t like strangers.” Neither do I, for that matter.

Amelia’s shoulders sagged a little, and when she motioned towards the kitchen, the gesture was limp and without feeling. “There’s liquor, if you want. Wine, too. Take whatever you feel like.” For a moment the look on Evan’s face was so bemused that Amelia expected him to say, Sorry, ma’am, but I’m not old enough to drink!

Instead he said, “I can’t. Not while I’m on duty.”

After that the two of them stood in silence. An antique clock on the kitchen wall ticked and tocked in the quiet. He didn’t take the drink – what am I supposed to do with him now? thought Amelia. It occurred to her that she had never invited a man into her house before. Mom would be so proud.

That thought burned with the aftertaste of acid, and she clenched down on it, forcing it back into the pit of her stomach. She was on her own now, she was a happy and self-sustaining adult. She didn’t need to think about her mom, or her family, or all the things that came with it …

Evan shrugged out of his jacket and draped it on a chair, pushed neatly back into a table. “You know, I don’t watch all that many dreams. Usually I’m doing work, and I gotta be awake and alert and all that. Still,” and now he smiled a little, “When Emilio brought up your pen-name, I knew it right away. Sometimes I watch them over dinner, you know? Makes Ramen a lot more exciting. I like yours especially, since they’re always so …” He flexed his fingers, searching for the right word. “… visceral. Yeah. Like those ones where you’re flying? You actually feel the air sliding around you. It’s amazing.”

Amelia kept her eyes to the floor, a frown coming into her eyebrows. In her head she muttered a curse at Jeff. What was the point of the pen-name if he gave it away to people she didn’t know?

Reading her face, Evan added, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to the press to reveal your name to anyone. We’re dealing with one stalker here, not trying to make more of them. And if they knew your name-”

“They could probably figure out my house address.” The smile she gave him was a bleary one, pinched at the corners. “Doesn’t help to lecture me on safety precautions. I already know the spiel.”

Evan’s face darkened a little. “Still, is there anyone close to you that maybe knows-”

“I’ve never seen this guy before in my life. Haven’t even gotten a good look at him yet. Whenever I see him, his face is all … dark.” There was a lock of hair hanging against Evan’s forehead, thick and faintly curled – what were those called again? Cowlicks? She realized she was staring at it and turned her head away, faint blush coming in along her cheekbones. “If you don’t want a drink, that’s fine, but you’re gonna have to figure out a way to entertain yourself. Frankly, I’m not in the mood.” She left him and went into the kitchen, rummaging around for a half-finished book and a glass of wine.

“Sure, no problem,” he said, the grin returning. “My fault for popping in on you like this. And while you’re shaken up, too.” He stretched his arms into the air and bent backwards, getting the cracks out of his spine. “Where do you want me posted? I have a car outside for surveillance, which is what I usually do, but I can also stay here in the living room if you’re really-”

“Stay with me in the house.” The suddenness of the reply surprised both of them, and she swallowed once to remove a lump from her throat. “I mean … if this guy sneaks in, I want you right here, you know? So you can put a bullet through his head.”

Evan’s grin changed to a frown. If she looked, Amelia thought she could see a sharper thing glinting through the boyishness; a professional. “I’m not allowed to use lethal force unless your life is in imminent danger.”

“And who says it isn’t?” There was the damned book she was looking for; it was underneath a stacked pile of already-read Smithsonian magazines, two years’ worth and then some, if you bothered to flip through and count them all up. What even was this? Amelia squinted at the cover, registering it as one of her mother’s old anthropology books. Age and Gender in Rural Zambia. Yes, this was good. It would get her out of this place to somewhere new, a place of dry yellow ground flooded with sunshine.

When she reached her bedroom, she found Schmutz huddled beneath the bed, shooting her a glare full of accusation. “He’ll only be here a little while,” she murmured, then bent forward to arrange the pillows against the headboard so she could sit up comfortably. Sure, it was only afternoon, too early for bed – but the bedroom was her place, where she got work done. And with Evan posted outside in the living room, the dark man wouldn’t be able to sneak in.

Her shoulders relaxed in increments, and she bent open the book and let the words wash over her in grayed, academic waves.

#

There were woods, thick deep green, full of birds. They made all this noise, it was too loud, they wouldn’t shut up even when I threw rocks at them. Then their voices changed, and they were little babies, all of them crying their eyes out. They started falling out of the branches like dead fruit. They’d been dead for a while, their skins were rotten and split open when they fell, their arms and legs still kicking.

I heard a voice say, “Now look what you’ve done,” and he was there, blurry at the edges but there, right in my head, and I couldn’t run from him because it was my fault, I threw rocks at them at first and then hadn’t done enough to try to save them, and he had me, he was holding me and biting through my neck like it was a tether –

Amelia woke with a scream bubbling out of her throat like fresh blood, tearing off the Recorder with a jerk of her hand and letting it clatter to the floor. There were hard, fast footsteps. The door burst open, and Evan appeared, silhouetted against a hallway light. “What happened? Are you okay?” There was a brightness in his eyes that Amelia had not seen there before.

“Fuck off!” she spat, trying to catch her breath. Evan didn’t answer, and she felt a hollow thud of regret somewhere inside her chest. It hadn’t been his fault. She shouldn’t have yelled at him. Well, too late now.

She threw off her sheet to let her skin breathe, then swung her legs over the side of the bed. She felt as though she was drowning in her own sweat. At the same time, the air inside her room felt too cold, almost icy when it touched against her skin.

She ran a hand over her bare scalp and then stood, pushing past Evan so she could get into the kitchen. Her usual treatment for a nightmare was a mug of hot tea … there was a box of herbal Chamomile in the cupboard by the sink for just that purpose. She found the box and picked at it with her fingernails, sliding out a tea bag and dropping it into a mug-full of water.

“Another nightmare?” came Evan’s voice from behind. Amelia blinked for a moment, surprised. She thought telling him to ‘fuck off’ would’ve driven him back to the living room and ended any possibility of conversation, but apparently not.

” … yeah.” A sigh left her lips before she could think to hold it in. “Jeff won’t be happy about it. Nightmares don’t sell as well as regular dreams. For, you know, obvious reasons.”

Evan’s nose wrinkled a little. “I don’t think that’s his main concern right now. It shouldn’t be yours, either.” The microwave beeped, and Amelia retrieved her mug, the heated pottery warm against her palm.

“Of course that’s his main concern. He’s a businessman.” She swirled the tea for a bit, watching the steam rise from the surface in soft pillows. “Maybe it won’t be all bad, though. I read an article somewhere about Homeland Security buying exclusive access to some of the nightmares. The really bad shit, you know, the paralysis-inducing stuff. It’s useful for torture. Doesn’t scar the body at all, so you won’t be able to prove that it happened afterwards. People’ll just think you’re crazy.”

Evan gave her a steady look. “That’s not true. Dreams leave marks … just depends on how close you look.” He tapped a finger against the corner of his eye, his mouth breaking into a grin.

Now that he was looking at her, Amelia could see his eyes, his whole face, even, still held that gleam she had noticed before. He looked … alive. In the same way the dark man looked dead.

Yes, that was it; that was what was so awful about it all. The dark man looked like something that had been dead and buried for a long, long time. But now it had opened its eyes and woken up, scratched its way out of its grave with finger-claws that gnawed away at soil and hard-packed stone-

And that dead face was staring at her through the kitchen window.

She felt him before she saw him, a heaviness in her chest that raised fresh fever-sweat along her neck. She could see nothing clearly, just the dark cloth pulled over all his features, but she swore, she swore the bastard was grinning at her.

All at once anger seethed up from her stomach, and a slow breath hissed out from between her teeth. She shoved aside the tea and ripped open one of the drawers where her steak knives were neatly filed away. “What’re you-” Evan said, but her hand had already gripped a handle, any would do, and she was dodging around the kitchen counter and running, no, sprinting at the back door-

Her fingers were undoing the locks when a hand closed around her wrist. A shriek came out of her, muffled by her lips, which clenched in a grimace at the touch.

It was Evan. At some point he had slid the gun out, and it was not impressive at all but old, almost clunky. Still, it fit in Evan’s hand in a reassuringly solid way; like the two of them belonged together. “Did you see him?” he asked, his voice low.

When Amelia did not answer, he nudged her out of the way with a surprising gentleness. Then he slipped out through the door and onto the back lawn. She watched through the door window as he panned across every inch of backyard, the gun always pointed along his line of sight. He searched through the lawn; ducked into the trees that began where her backyard ended; peered into the hedges in front; looked briefly in the neighbors’ yards.

Then he was back, latching the deadbolt behind him. “No one there,” he said, in that same low voice. “Not anymore.”

Amelia’s heart beat fast in her chest, and she rubbed a hand along her neck, where she could feel her pulse straining in the arteries running to her head. “Of course not. He always disappears when other people go looking for him. Same thing happened with the policemen.” There was a crack in her voice that she could both hear and feel.

A moment later and she was sitting on the couch in the living room, rubbing a hand absently across her scalp. She had shaved it earlier in the day, and the skin was shiny-smooth and soft. Some dream recorders looked odd without hair, college-aged monks-in-training wearing sweatshirts instead of robes. But her, it suited her fine. Her father had a little Chickasaw Indian in his blood, and she had inherited his high cheek bones …

And other things. Slight chemical imbalances in the brain. Overactive neurons that gave her the depressive symptoms hand-in-hand with the dreams, so thick and real you could bite down and taste them. But then his bit back, she thought, his dreams bit back, and when they did they bit down hard.

“Amelia?” came Evan’s voice, and even though he stood right in front of her it sounded like he was far away. A warm pair of hands settled on her shoulders, and then at least he seemed closer. There was a reassuring solidity in the grip that made her raise her head.

He stared steadily into her face, tallying up the bloodless cheeks and the dark bags beneath her eyes. “Listen, you’re okay. I won’t let him hurt you. You understand?”

“But he …” She couldn’t keep up the eye contact and let her gaze drop.

“He what?”

“He’s ALREADY hurt me,” came the answer, in a burst of anger that burned as it left her tongue. “He’s hurt me twice now. And if I fall back asleep, he’ll hurt me again. Maybe even kill me.” She rested her face against her hands, stinging, exhausted tears welling up at the edges of her eyelids. “You people, you all say ‘It’s so wonderful to have such realistic dreams,’ but it’s not wonderful, it hurts, it hurts to have things be so real and sharp all the time …”

The tips of her fingers were shaking. She had inherited that from her dad, too, and he from her grandma. The shaking would get bad when she was cold, or tired. Like her brain would give up on trying to keep her muscles steady. Why can’t things ever keep steady?

Except, her hands were steady – Evan was holding them still. His hands were large, and rough, calluses built up on each of the knuckles. These were the hands of someone who had been in a lot of fights. Strange, she thought. They didn’t match his boyish face at all.

“I never said dreams like that were easy,” he said.

No. They weren’t. But then, most things weren’t. Life, dreams … families. That was a big one right there. If only families could stay easy to get along with, sweetly stereotypical with a happy mom and happy dad and happy little children, but one person or another would always start to crumble and before long the whole edifice would come crashing down around their heads.

She and her mom, they had been so worried in the beginning. Amelia was in college when the troubles with dad began, so she and mom always talked and talked about it over long distance phone calls, endless streams of arrangements passing between them, I can drive down and visit his apartment this weekend, I’m free Wednesday night, I’ve been calling him but he’s not answering …

In the end, it hadn’t mattered how much they tried to reach out. They were still bystanders, standing off to the side as they watched the mental avalanche come down the mountain. Before they knew it, he was completely and utterly-

“Buried,” she murmured, then gave a little start when she realized she had spoken aloud. “Shit, sorry, I-”

“No, that’s good. I was gonna ask you to start talking it out anyways.” Evan sat down in the chair across from her, folding one leg over the other, hands in his lap. Beneath the cowlick, his eyes had gotten a sort of bright intensity to them … an understanding that she knew more about this stalker than she was saying.

Amelia opened her mouth to say, ‘What’re you talking about? You’re a bodyguard, so why start playing therapist? Who the Hell do you think you are?’

But the words never quite made it out. Her throat was dry, coated in dust. She wanted another glass of wine to wash it away. She wanted to find Schmutz, who was hiding in the bedroom still, and scoop him up so she could bury her face in his fur.

She wanted to be able to open all the living room windows and breathe in fresh night air, cold and wet with the next morning’s dew, open those windows and not have to worry about a dark hand tearing through the screen mesh to snatch her wrist in a death grip.

“It’s nothing,” she muttered, finally answering the question playing across Evan’s face. “Nothing much. This guy just … I don’t know. He reminds me of my dad a little. But he can’t be my dad,” and the mutter was getting quieter, “Because my dad’s dead.”

Evan said nothing. Amelia knit her fingers together and started cracking her knuckles, each one going with a little pop. Her eyes had the distant, plastic look of someone being forced to remember a bad dream. That last night in his apartment, when he wouldn’t stop shrieking. That was the REAL nightmare.  

And with the memories came the familiar burn of rage. She bit her lip to keep it in, the boil in her stomach and chest that wouldn’t go away. She had her Recorder job, she had her dreams. She didn’t want to be coming apart at the seams now, when everything was going so well.

Wasn’t it going well? Wasn’t she okay?

Amelia flexed her knuckles again, but everything had already been cracked. She tried for a while anyways, knitting her fingers together and twisting first one way and then the other. Goddamn, she was tired. Everything in her felt drained out, as if she was nothing more than a hollow skin-puppet being shuffled along on its strings. It wasn’t doing her any good, staying up this late.

Back to bed. Yeah. That was the only thing left to do.

Standing up, she fumbled towards the counter until she found the mug of Chamomile tea. She had thought that only a few minutes had passed, but the pottery handle was already cold to the touch.

“Going to sleep?” said Evan, from where he perched in his chair. Amelia nodded. Somewhere, on a deeper, wordless level of thinking, it occurred to her that Evan didn’t look tired at all. He must’ve been on watch in her living room for hours and hours now – with his job, he probably didn’t get much sleep in the first place. Amelia couldn’t imagine it. Just living exhausted her by the time night came around.

She turned and followed the hall to her room, where the door still stood open. The sheets were almost torn off the bed, draped partway onto the floor. Schmutz stood guard by the closet door with his tail lashing. At the noise of Amelia coming in, his shoulders tensed up, and a moment later he was an orange shadow slinking back underneath the bed. “Come on, he’s not that bad,” she muttered, setting her tea on the bedside table.

True enough. But then, was it even Evan he was hiding from anymore?

#

She lay on her bed, the mattress a creaking, groaning thing underneath her, soft and warm as living tissue. She fought off the blanket and rolled out, landing hard, almost in a crouch. The carpet was a viscous liquid that stuck to the pads of her feet when she stood up.

Something had torn away the door. Jags of wood remained around the hinges, but the rest had been ripped off and tossed into the hallway. She could just barely see it smoldering there, could smell where it had burned at the dark man’s touch.

Her eyes couldn’t stay in one place. It was still her bedroom, but the walls had curdled, shadows wouldn’t sit flat against them but bulged out instead, curved sickle-fingers that reached into the open air like thorns on a rosebush.

“Now look what you’ve done,” said a corner of the room, and there stood the dark man, building himself out of shadows the way a sculptor molds clay, raw black clay dragged from the deep rivers of the mind. He was her father and not her father, a shadow that had twisted and rotted into something new, something bad. “Now look what you’ve done,” it whined again, and the whine twisted as it slunk along the walls.

And what had she done? That last night, at her father’s place?

She’d done nothing. That was the whole point. The whole fucking point.

A smile twitched at the face under the black cloth, So, you’ve let yourself remember now, and the cloth her father’s monster was wearing was a funeral shroud, how had she not seen that before? It was her funeral shroud, and he had come all this way from the grave to wrap it around her like a baby swaddled in cloth-

A moment passed, the dark man came forward, and everything disappeared from her sight. She could feel the black shroud on her head, circling tighter and tighter in layers of suffocating skin. It’s like my panic attacks, she thought, air choking in her throat. My panic attacks, the ones I’d get after his funeral. She tried to rip the shroud off, but the material slid silkily under her fingernails–

And it wasn’t a dream, she could feel every molecule of air against her face, every hair standing up on her arms, every beat of her heart-drum pushing blood through her arteries and it wasn’t a dream it wasn’t a dream IT WASN’T A DREAM

The walls pulsed in ripples of black shadow, culminating in the figure before her in inky waves. His smile cut through the cloth over her eyes, wide white teeth that gleamed as his arms held the cloth over her face, tighter, tighter. She made desperate sucking sounds for air, and his smile only widened. How does it feel? How does it feel, Amelia? Not so fun from the inside, is it?

There were footsteps, and all at once the shadows ripped open with a fantastic, golden bang. The dark man jerked backwards, dragging the shroud in his wake. Amelia floundered part-way out and gasped in deep breaths, the air feeling sharp and sweet in her lungs. Evan stood in the jagged doorway, a silhouette against the hallway light. Even so, his eyes were full of burning. Not just his eyes; where before the gun had been dull black, it was yellow now, the blinding yellow of sunlight that wakes you from a deep sleep.

Huh, she thought, her mind moving in dizzy circles as she tried to push off the rest of the dark man’s shroud. From this angle, Evan looked a bit like her father.

Not the pitiful, neurotic shadow he had become in her teenage years. Not the one that had looked up at her from his cut-open wrists and said in a gasping whine, “Now look what you’ve done!”

No. Right then, Evan looked like the father she had known when she was a little girl – a baby, even. The strong man with the cowlick and the grin, with the big, rough hands who would hold her in warm hugs, who would make funny faces at her from across the room, who would act like a big goofy child to get mom’s eyes to roll and make Amelia giggle.

That was the father who, even when he was tired and sleepless, would comfort her after a nightmare and convince her there weren’t monsters under the bed, after all. And even if that turned out to be a lie, even if there WERE monsters under there, he’d always be there to chase them away – and poor baby Amelia had believed him.

Amelia refocused on the scene in front of her and realized, in a slow crawl of thought, that Evan’s bullet had gone through the dark man’s forehead. Right between the eyes, in fact, leaving a hole that dripped thick, inky blood. Amelia watched, unmoving, as drips of it ran down the man’s face and onto the front of his suit. “NOW look what you’ve done,” the man shrieked, and the eyes flushed black. You’re not getting away, Amelia. You’re never getting away.

There came a lunge of movement, and the shadow’s grip latched back onto Amelia’s body, spinning her around as a shield between her and Evan. Amelia jerked out of her daze, her whole body thrashing instinctively, one leg coming up to kick the man viciously in the knees. Her foot encountered no resistance … or, if there was, it was like a clammy touch of mist. Nothing more than that.

The darkness made an angry sound, a sort of vibration more felt than heard, one that sent her almost screaming from the way it rattled in her bones. There was a lash, and smooth silk-shrouded hands gave way to claws, claws that buried in the meat of her right arm.

Then a streak of orange came through the corner of her eye, and suddenly the dark man was not the only thing with claws: Schmutz had left the safety of the bed and was standing at her feet, his back arched and every strand of his fur standing on end. Wait, Schmutz, I can’t touch him, you won’t be able to touch him either- she thought, but before she could say a word Schmutz had lunged at the dark man’s leg. Claws came out and slashed deep gouges into the darkness, and ink-blood spurted out across the floor.

There was a howl, and the dark man kicked out, his foot connecting with Schmutz’s side and throwing him into the far corner of the room. Still, the distraction was enough; he had turned, exposing his body to Evan, still standing at the door.

And Evan didn’t waste the chance. A series of three quick bangs sounded out from Evan’s gun. Wide holes burst open on the dark man’s chest, holes that leaked out shadow.

Running forward, Evan grabbed Amelia’s wrist and yanked her out of the dark man’s hold, Schmutz following just behind them. Now that she looked down at the cat, through bleary and water-dazed eyes, Schmutz’s fur was no longer orange so much as gold – it had the same sun-glow as Evan and his gun.

Separated from Amelia and riddled with bullet holes, pieces of the dark man began to come apart, falling to the floor and splattering like wet scraps of clay from a potter’s wheel. The glowing bullets almost seemed to writhe underneath his skin, living things that pushed tissue out of their way as they burrowed and brought light to every dark corner. His head was pointed down, watching the pieces come off. Something in his stance seemed confused.

“But … look …” he started, but Evan cut him off with a final shot from the gun.

Amelia was holding onto Evan’s shoulder. Her arm was warm and wet with her own blood, but there was no pain yet; the adrenaline kept it away, for the time being. Her gaze fixed on what was left of the dark man as he fell to the floor.

Then she felt her face start to twist. Her eyes narrowed to thin slits, and her cheeks pulled back, the lips parting to let out deep, soundless sobs. Tears ran down her cheeks, not in trickles but in slow, all-encompassing pools. This wasn’t something she could handle. This wasn’t something anyone could handle. GOD DAMN IT, she thought, but that didn’t stop the tears from flowing up and out from some deep well in her chest.

And what were they for? Despair? Relief? The room was, after all, a room again, made of flat planes and docile shadows. Schmutz’s fur no longer glowed, and neither did Evan or his gun. Everything was as it had been.

She could feel callous-rough hands lead her to bed. Evan said something aloud, but Amelia couldn’t understand him. Her head hurt too much. She fell into the bed still crying, curling into a fetal position as she bunched the sheets around her head to cover her eyes.

 

As the minutes passed, the hitching breaths smoothed and slowed, and her hands went limp on the sheets. The danger had passed, and her brain, confused and overwhelmed, had initiated a shutdown.

In the silence Evan touched her cheeks with the edge of his finger. The skin was wet and hot to the touch. But it was okay. These were healing tears.

 

Straightening up, he smiled down at her, then tucked the gun back into his jacket after double-checking the safety. As he did so, Schmutz leapt onto the bed and went to stand by Amelia’s head, his tail resting protectively across her chest. His gold eyes never left Evan’s.

Evan raised his hands in a gesture of peace. “I get it, I get it. You got it covered from here.”

Still, he felt himself lingering in the room for a moment. He had never felt quite so solid in his life; in Amelia’s life, rather. He stemmed from her, daughter to father, brought alive from the energy she put into her dreams until he, the ghost that he was, was solidified in place and space.

And the feelings he was born from … well, those feelings were complicated. Amelia loved her father; Amelia hated her father. She had buried him deep in her heart, hoping to drown out the feeling of her own guilt, even as her inner child sobbed and begged for her daddy to come back home and keep her safe from the monsters.

 

Still, no matter how much time she put into them, dreams didn’t offer resolution.

Not on their own.

#

When Amelia woke up – barely, just enough to be able to twitch her fingers – her eyes filled with a vision of orange fur. Schmutz had curled around her head during the night, like a mother cat keeping a kitten warm. The moment she shifted her head a little, a purr rumbled out of the warmth, loud enough to feel through her face. “Hey, Schmutz,” she murmured, raising a hand to scratch his ears a little. The purr vibrated louder and louder until her head was buzzing with the sound.

Her head … Amelia reached to her scalp and brushed her fingers along the skin. No Recorder. Had she really slept through the night without it? Usually she couldn’t fall asleep unless it was on, her head felt so bare and exposed …

And then she remembered.

Feeling her shoulders tense up, Schmutz’s purring broke its rhythm, and a pair of gold eyes opened from somewhere inside the fur to see what was wrong. Amelia reached out to scratch his head again and winced; that’s right, her arm had gotten injured last night, hadn’t it?

She shifted a little and held her forearm up to the light to get a better look. The gash had mostly scabbed over, but there were drips of dried blood running along the skin, spots of it on the sheet where her arm had rested in place during the night.

In her mind’s eye she could see the dark man’s hooked claws tearing in, trying to dig their way down to the bone, down to where the hurt would never heal … But it had not quite gotten there. Evan the bodyguard had shot and killed him. But how could bullets work on the thing? And how was Evan so damn calm about seeing something like that just appear in my bedroom? There had been a sort of familiarity in the way he had treated the dark man, a familiarity she couldn’t dismiss, no matter how much she tried to think it through. Not to worry, miss, I deal with monsters like this for a living. Didn’t you see my special glowing gun?

Amelia sat up, dislodging Schmutz from his place around her head. Glancing at her bedside table, she saw a white box propped against her lamp – the little first-aid kit she kept in the kitchen bathroom. On top of that was a note, written on a paper scrap. Amelia picked it up and stared at it for a while. It took a minute or two before her mind woke up enough to read the words.

I don’t think that cut will need stitches, but you should clean it out and disinfect it when you wake up.

Love, Evan

Once she got to the end, Amelia read it over again, opening and closing her eyes in a slow blink. Her eyes locked onto the name at the bottom, and a glimmer of a thought sounded in the back of her head: Evan. That was my father’s middle name. I only saw it in his official signatures, but it was Evan, wasn’t it …

Schmutz leaned his whole body into a face-rub across her shoulder, glancing pointedly at the bedroom door. “Okay,” said Amelia, swinging her legs over the side of the bed to get up. After a pause, she grabbed the note and brought it with her into the kitchen, Schmutz trotting behind her in a soft orange cloud.

She made herself wait long enough to set down his bowl of dry food and to pour herself a cup of coffee. Then she reached for her phone and keyed in Jeff’s number, raising it to her ear. He picked up on the second ring. “Hey, ‘melia. What’s up?”

The corners of her mouth twisted into a grimace. “‘What’s up’? That’s all you have to say?” There was a pause on the other end.

” … am I supposed to say something else?”

“Well, you could start by explaining that guy you sent to my house last night. Evan Fleischer, right? What the Hell kind of organization does he even work for?” There was an inhalation of breath on the other end of the line, followed by a tenseness that she could almost feel radiating out of the receiver.

“Okay … the Hell are you talking about?! I don’t know anyone named ‘Evan Fleischer,’ and I sure as HELL wouldn’t give away your home address away to anybody without your permission! We don’t want a stalking situation on our hands again, not after what happened last December with one of my kids …”

“Don’t call us your ‘kids,’ Jeff. It’s pretentious.” Most of the strength had left her voice now, leaving behind a faint monotone. Jeff kept talking, as if he hadn’t heard her, or maybe just pretending he hadn’t heard her.

“You’re saying a guy came to your house last night, saying I’d sent him? ‘Evan Fleischer,’ right.” There was a flurry of sound on the other end of the line as Jeff dug through his desk to find a notebook and pen to write down incriminating notes. “You just give me a physical description, Amelia, and I’ll get it right to the police. What’d he do once he showed up at your door? Tell me you didn’t let him in-”

“Jeff, it’s fine. Drop it.”

What?! Are you kidding me? You can’t call me up with something like this and just expect me to-”

Drop it.”

There was a moment of silence, in which Amelia could almost feel him sweating on the other end. She didn’t bring out her loaded voice very often. This was the first time she had used it on him, too. “… okay. Fine. If that’s what you want. But promise me something. If this guy shows up at your door again, I am the FIRST person you call. You got that?”

Sure, Dad.

The thought was an automatic one, but it was enough to trigger an immediate ache somewhere in the gray area between her chest and stomach. It had been a long time since her dad had come to her thoughts, even in passing.

Before the pause went on for too long, Amelia answered, “Yeah. Got it.” She had a feeling that Jeff wanted to ask more questions, so she lowered the phone and ended the call with the click of a button. There. Those were all the answers she was willing to give this morning. If he wanted to give her grief about the lack of a dream manuscript from last night, he could at least wait until after breakfast.

Amelia knocked back a mouthful of coffee like it was hard liquor. Something bumped into her shin, and she looked down to see Schmutz rubbing his way back and forth against her leg. There was a touch of morning light in the room, filtering in through the windows and lighting up his back in a faint golden sheen. Smiling despite herself, Amelia reached down and scratched at his ears.

A plan for the day began to come together in her head: she’d collapse on the couch, plant Schmutz in her lap, and cuddle him while watching whatever movies were available on her living room TV. Cuddling on the couch was his favorite thing, and he deserved a reward for helping to fight off her monster last night.

And Hell, she needed a reward, too.

###

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