The shadows are thicker than they should be. They fill up the corners of the room, pool under the crate that serves as a TV stand, nestle into the discarded clothing and wadded up fast food wrappers on the floor. They seem to churn with hidden creatures; hairy legs climbing over shiny carapaces.
I press my palms into my eye sockets. When you haven’t slept in weeks, life takes on a grayed-out vibrancy, a too-vivid blurring of the ordinary.
All I want is to lay back and slip into unconsciousness, but I don’t bother. No point in spending the rest of the night staring at the cracks in the ceiling until the morning’s sickly light sneaks through the curtains.
Eric, professional panhandler and my sort-of boyfriend, shifts in his sleep. I watch the flicker behind his eyelids, the slow rise and fall of his chest, and hate him. The hate is so intense I want to weep or scream or kick him off the mattress onto the floor. I have a brief vision of grabbing a butcher knife from the kitchen and prodding him awake with it. What color would the blood be in the near pitch black of the room?
But I shouldn’t be such an ungrateful shit. Eric has been letting me crash in his tiny studio for months without paying a dime. Even before I started sleeping with him. As of late, my own method of income has been, to put it lightly, sparse, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better anytime soon.
If I could only sleep, or better yet, plug in a few diodes and a heavy sedative drip, I could get back into the dreaming scheme of things. Nothing beats a good drug-laced dream, especially if you get paid cash under the table. Life would be shiny and bright, instead of this series of stretched out empty moments and me just begging my body to please, please give into exhaustion.
I pull my feet up onto the mattress, tuck them under the end of the blanket, protecting them from the reaching shadows. My eyeballs feel as though they are made of sandpaper, my limbs are rubber. The shadows are nothing but empty air, places where light doesn’t reach—but I can feel their growing intensity.
Snatching my phone, I force the darkness to retreat with the dim glow of its screen. The shadows will reconverge eventually. No point in sitting there waiting for them. No point in sweating over sleeplessness, so I jerk on a pair of jeans and a sweater, shove my feet into flip-flops.
Eric grins in his sleep, slumbering like a princess on a feather bed waiting for true love. I could kiss him awake, let him wrap his arms around me, nestle and comfort me, but I don’t. I just stand there considering the scab on his chin, the one he got when I nearly passed out on the street a week ago and he slammed himself into the knot of a tree trying to catch me. He doesn’t wake as I grab a handful of his cash and disappear out the door.
No one wants my dreams anymore. This has been made abundantly clear by the weightlessness of my wallet.
When I first started dream selling, I could conjure richly-textured fantasies, make myself a knight charging into battle against a towering, heat soaked dragon. I could grow wings and fly through fantastical landscapes; immense forests of impossible heights, craggy luminescent hillsides, flaming orange deserts, all in pursuit of adventure or treasure. My erotic dreams could steam glass with their sweat-soaked pleasures. Even on bad days, I could offer nightmares, the near threat of violence, the flash of a gleaming knife, the desperate flight, the thick-as-mud air preventing you from fighting back…not as desirable to the general public, but still valuable to a certain subset of clients.
Now, the most I can summon are blank anxiety dreams, denying anyone the joy of wonders or the thrill of true horrors. No one wants to buy a dream that leaves them with the same unsettling boredom they experience every day of their lives.
I’ve stopped complaining to Eric about this, because he only says, “you should stop selling.”
As though it’s that easy.
He says things like, “I’ve read that the side effects can be really bad.” And then he lists them: waking hallucinations, insomnia, violent behavior, suicide.
As though I don’t already know this. As though I don’t know that it’s the dream selling itself that has screwed me. As though I haven’t been to a hundred facilities, all of which lace the sedatives with a little hallucinatory additive in order to get a vivid digital file for replay. As if I don’t know I’ve become so dependent on the additives and diodes and machinery I can’t fucking sleep without it.
He keeps trying to fix me with bottles of melatonin and over-the-counter sleep aids—always sending me articles about former dream sellers who turned over a new leaf through diet and positive thinking. He seems to have an endless supply of recommendations for psychologists, therapists, hypnotists, reiki practitioners, or whatever quacks out there in the world are claiming to have the secret cure to insomnia.
He’s even recommend that I plug into someone else’s dream, even though neither of us have the money and that’s not really sleep anyway. The experience is more of a half-awake sequence of sensations that leaves your body tingling. Nowhere near the immediacy or control you have when you’re selling.
I would be more pissed at his glut of nonsense, except he is obscenely sincere. In the end, he’s the only thing that comes close to soothing me on the bad days, the days when I can’t even sit still and I’m twitching from the need to sleep. It’s something about the way he pulls me down onto the bed and just holds me, fingers stroking the back of my arm while I rest my head on his chest, feeling the rise and fall of his breath and listening to the deep rumble of his voice as he talks— nothing important, just a stream of stories from his day spent panhandling, talking until his voice fades out and his breath deepens, until sleep sneaks up on him.
When Eric holds me like that—even when he leaves me awake and alone in the dark—I can keep it together for a little while. A week sometimes, maybe two. But the exhaustion always shape-shifts into desperation and eventually I’m on the streets again hunting for a place to sell.
He always notices. There’s a weight to his sigh every time he realizes he hasn’t saved me again and he can’t stop me from doing what I need to do. “Just be safe,” he says, by which he means: use a legit facility, one of the clinics or a hospital, where you lay down on their crisp, white beds and record nice, clean, hopeful dream files; the kind of files used for medical and psychological treatments. He wants me to go to the kinds of places where they make you fill out forms and track your dream donations, where they restrict you to the medically recommended limits of no more than two sessions a month, at no more than six hours a session.
All overly cautious bullshit if you ask me.
What Eric doesn’t understand is that even the less-than-legit facilities are unlikely to take my dreams at this point. Despite their reduced limitations—being practitioners of pleasure, instead of care—they still want dreams that are vivid, those fast, slick, juicy fantasies of action and horror and lust. The less-than-legit places value raw emotion over detail, and they’ll demand a brain wave measurement to make sure they get it.
What I need is even more underground than the underground. In other words, what I need is any fucking facility that will take me.
Such places exist. I heard about one of questionable safety and cleanliness from a tenuous acquaintance in the dream-selling world. Sketchy is an understatement in describing his directions. I doubt he’s even been there himself, but with everything blurred to the gray of a dingy window screen after weeks of sleeplessness, I’ll try anything.
The metro hums around me. As I travel deeper into the city, with no clear sense of where I’m going, the buildings grow up like a dark forest around me. I press my forehead against the glass and lift my hand to block out the bile-yellow light.
I get lost in a maze of alleyways, stumbling over large, reeking garbage bags piled under broken street lamps. My feet, slippery with some unknown liquid, slide around in my flip-flops. I witness not one, but three drunk men bend over and vomit violently into three different refuse-cluttered gutters.
My phone buzzes in my pocket and I answer out of habit.
“Where are you?” I can see Eric rub the sleep and annoyance from his face in the brief moment before I switch the phone from screen to voice-only mode.
“Out,” I answer and turn into a blind alley with bare, grubby walls. It’s the wrong alley, so I backtrack to the street. A multitude of shapes shift in the deep shadows as I reach the corner. My heart thrums in my chest like a rabbit’s. I’m not sure if there is actual danger or if I’m just hallucinating.
Either way, I should have brought the butcher knife.
“I know what you’re doing,” Eric says.
“Then you don’t need me to tell you.”
My phone pings with a request for video access. I click decline.
“I thought you said you were done with this. With all the…I don’t know, dream crap. I thought you said you were done and that you never wanted to go back to all that, that you—”
“Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve slept?”
“Come home,” he says. “Just come home and we’ll figure this out. We’ll fix it.”
Home. Eric says the word with such hope. He says it like he’s that Dorothy girl in that reel he loves, all longing and sweet. Every time he watches her, as she squeezes her eyes shut clicking a pair of glittery red heels, clicking and believing magic will get her home, he turns to me smiling like he’s all lit up inside, smiling because when she wakes up, she’ll be back with her family at last.
He speaks again after a brief pause. “I love you.”
I know this conversation. I know exactly where it’s going. He’ll say, why are you doing this?, and I love you, and please, and I’ll say just one more, and I’m sorry, and I promise. How many times have we had this conversation? How many times has it lead me back to anywhere like the home he imagines?
But the real question is: Why would Dorothy, or Alice, or Wendy, or any of those girls in blue dresses want to return to a drab, monotone reality when they could have the vibrant dream of another world?
“I’m not sure what’s worse,” I say, just wanting this little chat to be over already. “You saying you love me, or that you believe it.”
Eric grunts like I punched him in the gut. “Goddamn, you can be mean.”
Yeah. Fucking mean and awful and vicious. All rising up out of the nest of anxiety in my chest like wasps as I search for words that will let me get on with what I need to do. I say, “You’re only want me back because you pity me, and because you’re lonely, and because I fuck you sometimes.”
“Fuck off. That’s not true.”
“It’s the only true I know,” I say. “Everything else is bullshit. Home and you and me. It’s all bullshit.”
He huffs again and says nothing. The silence stretched out while I imagine the shadows churning like snakes around my head. Then a pair of beeps signals the end of the call.
I lean against a grimy wall and rest against the cool plaster. Somewhere deep down inside of me is a mountain of guilt, surrounded by a sea of self-loathing. There’s sadness in there too, and regret, loneliness, and loss. All mixed up in a general sense of shittyness. I’ll pay for it later. It will all come reeling up to consume me, but for the moment, every feeling I have is muffled by so much exhaustion that I can’t bother with any emotion other than tired. I could sleep here, just standing up and leaning here against a filthy building on who-knows-what street—if I could sleep at all, that is.
After a moment, the smell of piss wafts up from the concrete, so I shove myself off the wall and continue on.
By the time I find the faded, peeling green fairy sticker stuck to a plywood door, the sky is beginning to lighten into the coppery hue of a smoggy city morning.
I knock and inform the bulky beast of a doorman what I’m selling. He leads me into a large, bare room with stained, floral wallpaper and nubby, shit-brown carpet, which smells faintly of mold and old grease. A scarecrow in a brown suit sits in the center of the room behind a foldable card table, sorting a tower of paperwork. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen so much actual paper. He doesn’t look up when the beast and I enter, or when the beast leaves without saying a word.
I’m not sure I’m in the right place. Most facilities, even shady ones, have some show of buying and selling. There are projection devices for buyers wanting to plug and play dream files. There should be beds, medical equipment, and recording devices for sellers. None of that seems to be here, but what the hell do I know. Maybe this is the reception area.
I clear my throat.
Scarecrow slides a piece of paper off the top of a stack, scans what’s written there, places it on one of the other piles.
“Excuse me, I’m here to sell…” I pause, uncertain.
The man hasn’t even acknowledged my presence yet.
“Sell what?” he says, not looking up. He shifts another paper from pile to pile in a slow, carefully orchestrated maneuver of his thin long limbs.
“Dreams.” I chew my thumb.
The man sighs, a long exasperated sound like the hiss balloon deflating. He reaches under his table and pulls out a giant book, similar to the old-fashioned things hotel receptionists used in old movies, and flops it down. The table groans under the additional weight and the paper stack sways, nearly topples.
He produces a pen and opens the book at around the halfway point. “Name?”
Who cares in a place like this? I answer with the first goofball thing I can think of, “Aurora Borealis.”
The pen scratches along the yellowing paper. “Date of birth?”
“The day the Earth stood still.”
He lifts his gaze, scans upward from my dirty feet and flip-flops, over my jeans and tattered sweatshirt, to look me in the eyes. His expression is humorless and he looks more like a raven about to peck my eyes out than the scarecrow.
I meet his cold stare. “What the hell do you care?”
A hard-edged silence falls between us. When it’s clear he isn’t going to budge, I toss out a date that’s close enough.
He writes this in his book. “Do you understand the inherent risks involved in this procedure and the fact that this facility will not be held responsible should any misfortune befall you, up to, but not limited to, death?”
“Not limited to?” I ask. “What do you mean ‘not limited to’?”
He locks me with his sharp gaze again. “Do you understand the risks and assume responsibility for any liabilities involved?”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, shit, whatever.”
Scarecrow makes a checkmark in an unlabeled column, then turns the book around and holds the pen out to me. “Please sign here.”
I take the pen, then stop, trying to remember the name I gave him. I settle for an illegible scribble, then drop the pen into the center crease of the book.
The man leads me through a door at the back of the room and down a long silent hallway of doors. He picks one and ushers me through. The tight, tiled room barely has space for the the two of us and a single, depressing gurney. The sheets are threadbare but bleach white. The sleep monitoring and recording equipment is outdated, but looks in good repair. The room smells strongly of ammonia.
I almost laugh in relief.
He gestures to the bed with his thin, awkward limbs and I climb on, kicking my sticky flip-flops to the floor. The mattress is a bit lumpy, but a few hours on it will be livable. I roll my shoulders and force myself to relax.
He attaches a number of pads with some sort of sticky jelly to my forehead, temples, and behind my ears. I watch him make adjustments and fiddle with the machines. The familiarity of his movements—which I’ve seen a hundred times before in a hundred other white rooms—is comforting.
The swab of rubbing alcohol on the back of my hand is cold and swiftly followed by the sharp prick of a needle. As the sedative hits me, my limbs loosen, my chest eases, and I can finally breathe. Already the tingle of receptors lining up with the diodes begins to soothe me.
Everything’s going to be okay. I screwed up with Eric, but I can fix it. After I leave here, I’ll be able to handle shit again. I’ll give Eric my apologies and kiss away his hurts. I’ll let him help me the way he wants to help me. I’ll let him take me to a rehab clinic or whatever. I’ll get off the selling scheme and I’ll get a legit job as a waitress or a telemarketer or something. I’ll let him love me and everything will be okay.
But first, just this one last dream.