This story is by Rachel Simpson and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Emma stared at the small white teapot on her nightstand in indecision, and pushed a straggly lock of hair, the kind that always looked more mess than curl, behind her ear. It looked so ordinary, it was almost hard to believe it held magic. When she had seen the sign at the Fair declaring “Create your future with DREAMS! Caught, bought and sold!” hope had flared in her chest and she had slipped away from her family to bargain with the Dream Seller.
At age eleven, she was no stranger to dreams. Nearly every night, she woke in terror. Always, she was running through the woods, surrounded by fog and chased by a monster she could never quite see. She shuddered. It had taken some convincing to get the man to sell her the teapot; but she had pleaded, and eventually he gave way.
“It’s tricky you see. Dreams don’t like to stay in one place. If you try to keep a dream too long it grows restless. That’s fine for happy dreams, but a nightmare…”
She chewed on her thumbnail, a habit her Mother deplored. He had made her promise not to keep the dream for more than three days, and now the time had come to release it. She sighed. She had enjoyed waking up to sunshine, feeling rested, rather than shaking and afraid in the dark of night. Maybe if someone other than Bear-Bear, her trusty teddy, was there it might have been different. But her Mother had decided she should have outgrown nightmares, and these days she was as likely to be punished as comforted. She picked up Bear-Bear and hugged him tightly. Coming to a decision, she shut off the light and flopped on the bed, Bear-Bear in her arms and her back to the untouched teapot.
The next morning, it was not the sun that woke her, but sound. Birds? No. It was coming from the wrong direction. She froze, then turned. There was the teapot. Except now it wasn’t ordinary at all, it was jumping and skittering across the table like water in a hot skillet.
She scrambled to the far side of the bed. The lid was still on, but the teapot was becoming more agitated with each passing moment. She thought about throwing her blanket over the whole thing when the door to her room flew open and in strode her Mother.
“Laundry!” she pronounced, “I see you’re up already! Ready for the last day of the Fair?”
“Um,” said Emma, the teapot was now vibrating dangerously close to the edge. She faked a smile and tried to not look at it.
“I was thinking I might head down early….if that’s ok?”
“Yes, yes,” her Mother waved her hand, “Weatherman says it’s supposed to rain later so be back before you get drenched.”
Emma nodded. Her Mom grabbed up her laundry basket and the heavy wooden door swung shut behind her.
Emma’s eyes flew to the nightstand. The teapot was gone. Shards scattered across the floor and the tiny handle rolled out from under the bed to nudge Emma’s foot. Shadows deepened behind the nightstand and a damp chill washed over her. Her throat clenched tight, terror rising inside her. Before she could scream, she grabbed the teapot handle, and climbed out the window onto the porch roof. She raced to the edge and glanced back to see what looked like tendrils of fog drifting over the windowsill. Afraid the nightmare would catch her, she climbed down the trellis and sprinted for the village.
She burst into the Dream Seller’s tent, panting.
“You’ve got to help me!”
She held up the teapot handle and his face changed.
“Oh no, kept that nightmare too long, eh?”
“We better get you to the Vlodnik.”
“Eh,” he hedged, “I don’t really do the magic, I just sell it. The Vlodnik casts it. He’ll know what to do.” He waved her forward and they set off through the early hours of the Fair to the town lake.
There, the Dream Seller called out to an old man with straggly hair sitting on the edge of the dock. He turned and Emma thought she saw pondweed braided through his floppy hat.
“That’s the Vlodnik,” The Dream Seller said, “Show him the shard.”
Emma stepped forward and held up the handle.
“Mr. Vlodnik…” she started, but his eyes fixed on the shard. His face lit up in a wide grin, showing off his three remaining teeth. He reached forward, took her face in his calloused hands, and kissed her forehead. Emma drew back as the Vlodnik exclaimed something that sounded like “vie-loo-born!” followed by a tumble of words so fast she couldn’t catch them.
“He says congratulations! Your dreams are come true.” The Dream Seller translated.
“What? It’s not a dream, it’s a nightmare! How do I make it go away?” She was gesturing with the teapot handle when the Vlodnik snatched it from her hand, and took off in a dancing canter down the dock.
“Wait!” she called after him, but it was no use. She watched dumbfounded, as he leapt from the end of the pier straight into the lake and disappeared, taking the fragment with him. She turned to ask the Dream Seller what next, only to find he too had disappeared into the growing crowd.
Emma fought back tears. There was a nightmare loose in her bedroom, the magic was gone, and she had no idea how she was going to explain all this to her Mother. A low rumble of thunder rolled across the lake. She glanced up to see the promised rain clouds approaching.
Somehow still more worried about Mother’s anger than the nightmare, Emma turned and started to trudge back home. The Fair tents were a blur of color as she walked numbly towards the forest path that would take her back to her family’s farm.
She was trying to come up with a plan, any plan, when she heard a rustling sound behind her. She stopped. The rustling stopped. The hairs went up on the back of her neck. She bit her lip and walked forward a few more steps. The rustling started again. She started to run. The rustling turned into crashing behind her.
She started to panic. She had never seen what chased her in her dreams. She had always run, then woken up. Now she was already awake. The nightmare was here. So, she did the one thing she never did in her dreams.
She stopped. Then she turned around to face the monster. The rustling stopped.
“I can hear you breathing!” she bluffed.
“If I come out will you promise not to hurt me?”
Emma took a step back. It was a child’s voice.
“If you promise not to hurt me, I’ll come out.”
“Ok,” Emma stammered.
Dark fog billowed through the trees before her. Emma felt her blood turn to ice. Had the monster used the voice of a child to put her off guard? Then, something moved in the fog. There stood a young girl. Her hair was tangled, scraggly just short of curly, and a bear that looked like Bear-Bear, only newer, peaked over her shoulder from a knapsack. Emma gaped. She could have been her twin at three years old. Emma’s eyes darted, looking for the monster that must be following, but none appeared. The fog dissipated leaving only the girl behind. Emma crouched down, eye level with her.
“Why were you following me?”
“I heard the thunder and the woods were getting dark.” She pouted, “I was hoping we could walk together. Then you started running and I got scared and ran too.”
Emma felt her heart break and reached out.
“Of course we can walk together.”
She could feel the little girl’s hands trembling and she pulled her into a tight hug.
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” The girl asked. Emma could hear the hint of a sob in her voice.
“I didn’t know it was you, and…and I was scared too.”
“Oh,” said the girl. Emma felt her relax a bit.
“Now we can go together. I won’t leave you.”
She felt the girl’s head nod against her shoulder and, for a split second, Emma was both the little girl, being hugged, and her eleven year old self, hugging her. Then a great warmth spread through her chest and she found herself holding only air. She stood up. The first drops of rain landed on her cheek. She felt light. In her chest, where the fear from her nightmare had lived for so long, there was warmth and a sense of safety she hadn’t felt before. Hugging herself, she thought, maybe today was the perfect day for a walk in the rain. She stuck out her tongue to catch raindrops, then grinned and started to skip. Whispering on the wind, she thought she heard,