This story is by Dinalee Peterson and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
As long as you give me nightmares to eat, I will give you happy dreams.
That’s what the man told her the first night. And he has kept his words since then, giving her nothing but happy dreams full of whatever she wanted. Be it innocent or not so, he gave her all that she could wish for. And tonight should be no different, she believed.
Sarah sat up in her canopy bed, her hands wringing nervously. He was bound to appear any moment now. She had the list of what she wanted to see in tonight’s dream already in her head. It was itching to get out. And she’d grown tired of waiting.
Sarah craved the man’s ethereal power. She craved it more than anything her family’s wealth could buy. She had spent her every waking moment waiting for nightfall to come so she could live out her real world desires in those dreams. Nothing bad happened in her dreams anymore, thanks to him. And now she couldn’t wait to go to sleep, except for when he didn’t show up at the time she liked.
Finally, the man’s lithe body oozed out from the far wall. A heavy black cloud floated around his long legs, blending with his dark suit. The only color the man wore was his face; so pale and round that it reminded Sarah that there was a full moon out tonight. He took a few steps forward and stopped at the foot of her bed.
“Hello Miss Finch.” He said in a low, wispy voice.
Sarah straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat. “I have a few more requests for tonight.” She said boldly. She didn’t even bother to give a polite hello. Now that he was here, she wanted him to do his job and go.
“I know, Miss Finch. I have already seen your requests for the evening. However, there’s another important matter to discuss with you.”
Sarah’s mouth twitched. “And what matter would that be?”
“The discussions of further payment, as it were. You see, I’ve already consumed all of your nightmares. I require further reimbursement for my labor.”
Sarah’s face deflated. “I see.” she mumbled. “And what would I need to pay you in?”
The man opened his mouth to speak, but Sarah’s eyes lit up and interrupted him. “I know! I can give you the allowance that my father had given me this month.” She hopped out of bed and crossed over to her dresser. “I didn’t really use it this month. All the dresses in the shops looked so dull when I compared them to the ones in the dreams.”
She fished out a sock full of dollar slips and coins. She shook it towards the man, but his face didn’t change.
“I’m afraid I don’t take mortal money as payment, Miss Finch.” He stated.
Sarah’s mouth twitched again. “I see. How about one of the family jewels then? I won’t lose anything by giving away one or two.”
Sarah reached for her jewelry box, but the man stopped her. “I don’t take jewels as payment either, Miss Finch.” He said calmly. The cloud started to roll out from under him, encasing the wooden floor in a thin black fog.
Sarah paused and turned to him. Her porcelain face scrunched up. “Then, what is it that you would accept as payment?”
The fog grew higher, stifling the air around it. Sarah felt stuffy in her long-sleeved nightgown. She was tempted to open the window across the room, but she doubted the summer air would do any good.
The man took a tender step forward. The black fog was barely disturbed by the movement. He slowly smiled at Sarah and said, “You appear to be an intelligent woman. I have no doubt that you know what that is already.”
Sarah’s mind backtracked to all the encounters she had with him. He showed up, gave her a set of magical dreams that she created with her demands, and left. Sarah then dreamed of the grandest things that the real world couldn’t give her. The dreams were different each time; their only connecting points being that the man made them, and the immense joy Sarah had felt. She told the man of this, and his smile grew wider. It made goosebumps crawl along Sarah’s neck.
“What is it?” her voice sounded more frightened than she intended.
The man shrugged. “You tell me, Miss Finch. What would someone like me want from someone like you? If conventional ways can’t pay me off, then what can?”
Sarah’s mind clicked the pieces together like a puzzle. But she was still skeptical. The idea that he could be after the one thing she held onto this whole time was preposterous. About as preposterous as this whole situation, she thought. “You intend on eating the dreams you gave me?” She forced the words out in the air, like a child pulling at taffy with their hands.
The man’s smile grew even wider, revealing a row of sharp, animal-like teeth.
A hollow, dry laugh fell from her mouth. “You can’t be serious.” She said. His face still grinned at her. “What kind of business are you in where you give a person something just to take it back?”
“You act as if my services are as plain as your father’s line of work.”
She scoffed at him. “Well, at least he understands the basics of formal contracts. That ‘signature’ you asked for was improper.” Her hand covered her mouth as she remembered the so-called signature. He might try to force the dreams away in the same manner. It was a gross endeavor; she doesn’t want to go through it again. “Just take the money instead. Take any jewel you want and just hand the dreams over already.”
The man stalked closer to her. The dense fog had risen up waist high and was not stopping. It covered the window behind him, blocking the moonlight out. It filled every crack in the wood, the space under the door, and even filled inside the little mouse hole under the bed. With every slow thud of the man’s foot, the fog rose higher. Sarah’s eyes darted between it and the man’s wolfish grin.
“Wait a moment.” She cried. He doesn’t listen. “I said wait. There has to be a different way about this. I don’t want the dreams to go away.” He continued walking towards her. “Is that your whole game? Take away all of the dreams so that the person suffers? That’s not fair.”
The miasmic cloud covered the entire room now. It snuffed out any source of light that could protrude on their business matters. The man’s grin never faltered. He stopped in his pace when he was only a few inches away from Sarah. His dark eyes rested upon her ghostly face. The man licked his lips.
Sarah stepped back, dropping the money sock like a rock. Her back pushed against the wall. The man closed the distance and gripped her chin tightly. Her blue, vibrant eyes reflected fragments of his own figure, but he didn’t care to look further. The bright hue in those eyes made him ravenous again.
Sarah blinked away a trickle of a tear. Her own terrified face was lost in the void of the man’s dark eyes. She opened her mouth to beg, to try and change the outcome that she must’ve known would come eventually. She wanted to be back in the dream world, where neither demons nor monsters took anything from her. But her nightmares had come back. And this time, there was no escape from them.
The man planted a kiss on her forehead. His jagged teeth bit into skin. Sarah’s vision blurred while her knees grew weak. If it weren’t for the man’s grip, she would have collapsed. And all the while, her eyes changed from a saturated color to a duller shade. When he released her, she flopped to the ground. Her dark eyes fluttered for a moment before finally drifting off into sleep. In this new dream, there was nothing but black and white shapes surrounding her. No joy. Not even fear was present; just a colorless world that stretched on.
The man jostled Sarah with his foot. She didn’t stir. He licked his lip satisfactorily. He did her a favor. Two, when he considered it. First, he took the nightmares away and replaced them with happy ones. And much like the others, Sarah got addicted to those dreams. She wanted to dream more than actually live. What kind of life is that really? Since he took the dreams back, she could start anew and live her life in reality like everyone else. He did her a favor by taking the color out of her dreams.
The dream-eater chuckled. It was time he went off to prepare the next meal.