This story is by Elizabeth Nettleton and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I trail my fingers over Peter’s head. His hair fans over a cartoon pillowcase, still damp from his evening bath. Down the hallway, the television comforts his mother Izzy. I can see her now, tears falling on her shirt as she rolls her cell phone between her hands. She needs to go to bed, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Peter smiles at my touch. I pull our souls together until he can see me in his mind’s eye.
“Hello, dream maker,” he says with a grin.
“Hello, dreamer,” I reply.
He radiates joy, and I let it inspire me.
Every time his heart beats, I paint the sky a deeper shade of purple. It won’t become black though, oh no! When darkness creeps above us, I reach out my hand and decorate it with specks of gold. We dance together, basking in the twinkling light.
Then he wakes, and I wait for him until nightfall comes again.
My heart aches when he is gone. I’ve been Peter’s dream maker for nine years and have never found a spirit so compatible with mine. Some of my previous dreamers could not handle the vibrancy of my yellows or the strength of my oceans. They tried to dim the light I offered them.
Not Peter. He relishes in my imagination. The worlds we build are the best I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes I feel him search for me when he is awake. It pains me to refuse him, but I do not belong in the daylight. It is only when sleep draws near that I can approach. And when I do, fear and confusion is forgotten, even if only until morning.
The sun is falling again now. I wander through the house and whisper in Izzy’s ear that perhaps Peter should go to bed early tonight. She doesn’t need any further prompting; fatigue has drawn rings beneath her sunken eyes. Sniffling, she ushers Peter into his bedroom.
His eyelids flicker as sleep drapes itself over him, relaxing his body until his mind is clear enough to receive me. I kiss his forehead and we are together once more.
Peter plants his feet in the field I have created. The soil is cool against his skin, a welcome reprieve from the cracked cement he normally walks upon. He lifts his hand to greet me.
“What shall we do tonight?” I ask.
He plucks a sunflower and holds it to his chest. “I’m not really in the mood to do all that much, to be honest.”
I almost lose my grip on Peter’s consciousness. We bump against one another as I try to regain control over the dream. Red streaks flicker across the sky and reflect in Peter’s tear-filled eyes.
“Have I upset you?” I ask.
Peter shakes his head. “It’s got nothing to do with you. Grandpa passed away today. They said…they said it was his heart…” He stares at the grass, a luscious green he has never seen in real life. “Can we play tomorrow?”
“No! A dream is exactly what you need right now. In one instant, I can create wonders that will make you forget any sadness you’ve ever known. I’ll bring you happiness, like I always do. Tell me what you want, and it will be yours!”
He stares up at me. “I just want to sleep.”
I stride across Peter’s bedroom and imagine how it would feel to throw his belongings around. He rejected me last night. Me! Doesn’t he realize how hard I work to bring him joy? When the bullies circle him at school, I create vine-covered castles atop emerald mountains. And when his father left, didn’t we ride horses as iridescent as pearls?
A faucet squeaks downstairs, and I slink into the corner of the room. Peter enters first, followed by his mother. The bedside lamp casts shadows upon her sallow face, and I wonder if her dream maker would oppose swapping companions for a few nights. I could bring rest to her body and fire to her soul. I could show her things beyond her waking comprehension. She would appreciate me.
“Goodnight, my darling,” Izzy says. “It’ll get easier, I promise. I love you.”
Peter pulls his bedsheet to his chin. “I love you, too.”
With that, she is gone. Peter shakes his head, as if he can brush sleep away, but grief has wearied him. Before long, I am able to pull our spirits together behind his eyes.
I built a cottage for us tonight. A fire crackles in the corner, spreading orange warmth through the room. Peter reaches into the flames and watches as they dance around his fingers, unable to burn him.
“Are you pleased?” I ask.
He does not look at me. “Yes. And I’m sorry, OK? I won’t ask you to leave again. I promise.”
I acknowledge his sincerity with a small nod. “What shall we do tonight then? We need to make up for the time we lost.”
Peter pulls one of the threads on the rug, twisting it between his fingers until it frays. “Can Grandpa join us?”
I furrow my brow. “I can give you anything your heart desires, and you want someone from the waking world?”
“He’s not in my waking world anymore.”
Peter’s shoulders slump. “Just this once?” he asks.
“Dreams are for the spectacular!” I cry. “They are respite from the pain of the world. Grief does not belong here!”
“I just want to see him one more time. Please.” Tears trace their way down his cheeks. The fire bows to him, trying to dry his face with its heat.
“Why won’t you let me distract you?” I ask.
“You can’t distract me from this.”
“How long will it be until you are no longer sad?”
“I don’t know. I loved him.”
The fire shrinks away from him. I place a hand over the flames and they leap toward me, feasting on my energy. Appeasing a dreamer this way is unprecedented for me, but avoiding Peter until his grief subsides is unthinkable.
“I will show you your grandfather if it will make you happy. But only for a moment; I don’t want to make your sorrow even worse tomorrow. Agreed?”
“Yes. Thank you!” Peter says, his face brightening.
I exhale loudly. “Think of your grandfather, and I will draw him for you.”
He squeezes his eyes shut, and I conjure up an image of a tall man with curly gray hair. I add glasses and worn leather shoes, pulling details from Peter’s memory until I am satisfied.
“You can look now,” I say.
Peter stares at my creation, his mouth in a tight line. “He’s not…he’s not quite right.”
My temper flares. “What do you mean? I saw him in your mind; this is what he looks like!”
“He doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. Can I draw him?”
“Don’t be absurd. You are not a dream maker.”
“But this is my dream.”
We watch each other in silence.
“To give you my powers would be to give you a piece of myself. It is impossible,” I finally say.
“I’m not asking you to give them to me. I’m asking you to share them with me.”
I scoff. A slight distinction, if any. I place my hand over my heart and feel my powers race within me. They are my very essence; the forces that created me and with which I create.
“And if I refuse?” I ask.
Peter’s lips tug into a sad smile. “Nothing. We’ll still be friends.”
I withdraw from him. A dream maker is a creator, a bringer of joy. It is true that I have revealed myself to Peter in a way that I have never before, but at most I believed us to be collaborators.
I bite my lip. I suppose I have made a special effort to bring him peace after days of misery and torment. And I do count down the hours until we can meet again.
“Hold my hand,” I say.
Peter interlocks his fingers with mine. Slowly, ever so slowly, his skin begins to glow.
“Draw him, Peter.”
He lifts his hand and the outline of a man appears before us. I watch as he fills in the image, adding color to his grandfather’s hair and texture to his clothes. A scar inches down his arm, a souvenir from his time at war, and lines etch themselves upon his face.
Peter hesitates, his hand trembling. “What do I do now?”
A shadow passes over his features. There is still grief here. Yet instead of dimming, the light makes its peace with the darkness and only grows stronger by its side.
I smile. For the first time, I share in Peter’s joy rather than merely revel in it. It courses through me and becomes mine, alighting me from within.
I let go of Peter’s hand.
“Breathe life into him, dream maker.”