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In Search of Dreams
Madeline McCormack ~ Poetry

How can I dream if I cannot see?

If I cannot see myself,

like how a shadow

cannot see its creator?

How can I dream when my mind

cannot make its way through the labyrinth

of oblivion it has built around itself?

I search and search for a flickering light,

a string, anything to guide my way.

I keep my hand on the wall as I travel

through the maze but I remain lost.

The dark becomes darker, and I am still blind.

 

Will you bring me a light,

a candle so that I can see?

If I can see, I can dream.

I can dream of a way from

the labyrinth confining me in uncertainty.

A way to the garden that lies beyond,

a place where there are no shadows.

An Agreement Among Dreams
Emily Masters ~ Short Story

The Dream was bored, and the Nightmare was miserable.

The Waking was off-hours. Humans slept round the clock on their plane, but the Sleeping was more efficient. All its denizens had clear hours of when to be at work, painting stories and emotions across the unconsciousness of humans, and they were relieved of duty at the Waking.

Time to regroup, to troubleshoot new ideas.

Or, in one Nightmare’s case, time to drink itself into a stupor.

 

The Nightmare had made straight for the bar for the last three Wakings, and one of the Dreams was dying to know what the deal was.

 

The Dream sat down at the barstool beside the Nightmare.

 

“Rough shift?” the Dream asked, cheerfully clapping the Nightmare on the back.

 

The Nightmare slumped forward, forehead smacking into the bar. It looked so despondent that the Dream almost felt bad about its own jovial tone.

 

“Rough career,” the Nightmare mumbled into the countertop.

 

The Dream hummed. ‘Career’ was rather a loose description. ‘Essence’ fit more closely, though still didn’t quite explain it. A Dream and a Nightmare is just what they were.

 

“Why?” the Dream asked. “As bored as I am?”

 

“Bored?” the Nightmare echoed. “Bored?”

 

There was a shrill note to the Nightmare’s voice that made a trio of sleep paralysis demons across the bar glare at it.

 

The Nightmare ignored the dirty looks it was getting and said, “I’d give anything to be bored! Better than scaring the daylights out of that poor little boy every Sleeping!”

 

The Dream snorted. “I’d like to scare the little brat I’m assigned to, personally.”

 

The Nightmare looked up with a doleful expression. “What, are you suggesting we swap?” it asked bitingly.

 

The Dream hadn’t been suggesting that, but now that it heard the idea, it was very interested. It leaned forward and swiped the half-empty whiskey glass from the Nightmare’s limp hand. To the Nightmare’s half-hearted protests, the Dream drained the rest of the glass.

 

“Why not? I’m unhappy with my current situation, and you don’t seem particularly thrilled with yours.”

 

The Nightmare frowned for long enough that the Dream thought it might not get a reply at all. But, to the Dream’s surprise, the Nightmare said, “Shall we start tonight?”

 

 

The Nightmare had never painted a dream before. The process couldn’t be that difficult; the Dream it had met during yesterday’s Waking didn’t seem like it had two grains of common sense to rub together, and it created dreams all the time.

 

The Nightmare surveyed its kit. The child, the Dream’s usual charge, was a little girl named Keeley, seven and a half years old. The Nightmare’s hand passed over the section it usually drew from: the time when Keeley had fallen from a tree and broken an arm, a mild phobia of bugs, a debilitating terror of the dentist. The Nightmare trembled with delight to ignore those materials and reach for happier ones. Eating chips, playing on a swing, running through the forest with her big brother. The Nightmare smiled. That one seemed promising.

 

It turned and began to sketch as Keeley drifted off.

 

 

The Dream cracked its knuckles. It wasn’t one hundred percent clear on how to arrange a nightmare, but how hard could it be? The Dream’s new subject was a six year old boy called Tripp. That didn’t strike the Dream as the most critical of audiences.

 

What were children afraid of? Bugs? Clowns?

 

Bug clowns. The Dream smiled at its own brilliance and began searching through Tripp’s memories for something it could sculpt into the most terrifying nightmare of the boy’s life.

 

 

Three Wakings later, the Dream sat in the bar, trying to drink itself into a stupor. It didn’t understand how things could have gone so wrong. Tripp was a stupid child, but the Dream’s best efforts to scare him made the boy laugh. Bug clowns had been the wrong starting move. The boy had never seen a clown in real life, and the Dream honestly hadn’t freehanded a dream in a while, so the visual quality wasn’t where it needed to be. But everything else the Dream tried – vampires, skeletons, falling – all seemed to strike the boy as lackluster. Where was the terror? The stupid kid woke up giggling most nights, and the Dream had been emailed by corporate that the boy’s parents were getting concerned.

 

The Dream set its glass down heavily at the same time as the person at the bar beside it. It looked up and found itself face to face with the Nightmare.

 

They looked at each other, processing that they both seemed equally wasted and equally miserable.

 

“So, what’s gone wrong on your end?” the Dream asked. Alcohol slurred its words.

 

The Nightmare’s sigh was, in the Dream’s opinion, far too dramatic. “Everything. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. The dreams I craft turn out too vivid, too fast-paced. They spiral out of control. Running through the woods turns into being chased. Going to the beach turns into her family being attacked by pirates. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. The more I try to bring the dreams in line, the more they scare the little girl.”

 

“That’s what dreams are like, friend,” the Dream said, furrowing its brow. “You micromanage a dream, you get the wrong emotions twisted up in it. If you want a dream to go right, you kick it into gear and let it run. I just can’t figure out how to make my nightmares do that properly.”

 

The Nightmare’s lips thinned. “You don’t just let a nightmare run! You need to guide the plot, or it’ll stop moving. There’s art to it!”

 

The Dream wrinkled its nose. That sounded unspeakably dull. If you were working the whole time, how could you watch the dream you’d made? Frowning, the Dream said, “I hate to break it to you, but that’s not how dreams-”

 

The Dream cut off. A strange ringing sound echoed through its head, loud and pealing as a bell.

 

No one else in the bar reacted, except for the Nightmare. The Dream winced, realizing what this must be about.

 

“What’s happening?” the Nightmare asked. The Dream knew the answer, which didn’t make it feel any better.

 

“Short answer? We’re in trouble.”

 

“I’d prefer a longer answer than that, thanks.” The Nightmare’s voice was brittle with irritation, but its nervousness shone clear in its eyes, so the Dream relented.

 

“We’re being called in by Hypnos. The big boss himself.”

 

The Nightmare stared at the Dream, slack-jawed, for a long moment before downing the rest of its drink and saying, “Then we’d better go.”

 

 

Hypnos had had a long day. ‘Day’, or course, was relative as the god of sleep, but as he walked into his office to finish cleaning up the latest mess, he figured the term sufficed.

 

Hypnos walked into his office, dropped the stack of file folders on his desk, and sat down to face the Dream and the Nightmare.

 

The Nightmare folded its hands politely in its lap, looking guilty and embarrassed in equal measure. The Dream lounged sideways, trying and failing to hide its own nervousness.

 

Hypnos resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose in a futile attempt to ward off the headache that these two presented.

 

Hypnos slid the first file forward. “Keeley Henderson. Failed a spelling test and two math assignments due to exhaustion from her inability to sleep through the night without waking up screaming. Parents considering therapy.”

 

The Nightmare wilted.

 

Hypnos ignored it and turned over the second file. “Tripp Montgomery. His parents were concerned about an increase in recklessness. Almost as if their son was losing his ability to feel fear. I’m sure the two of you are aware that that’s a common side effect of ineffective nightmares.”

 

The Dream’s forced nonchalance dropped. “I hope you both understand how serious this is, and how lucky you both are that my administrative staff noticed early that one child was receiving a double helping of nightmares with no dreams, and the other had stopped receiving nightmares at all.”

 

“Double?” the Dream asked. The Nightmare looked perplexed too.

 

Hypnos clenched his jaw. His employees really needed more awareness of the Sleeping’s internal methods. This was absurd. “Did you two really think we only assigned one person to each child? That we picked which child got dreams and which got nightmares? That’s not how human brains work. They need a healthy balance of dreams and nightmares, which means the last thing I need is Dreams and Nightmares getting ideas! We have shifts and assignments for a reason. Each human is assigned one Dream and one Nightmare. The system is in place for a reason.”

 

“We… we didn’t know. We’re sorry,” the Nightmare said. It did look sorry, which softened Hypnos’s anger to fond disapproval.

 

“What happens to us now?” the Dream asked.

 

Hypnos’s disapproval condensed to exasperation. “Two months of paperwork for both of you. Tripp and Keeley are going to pass the next several Sleepings with responsible, stable, experienced Dreams and Nightmares. I hope the two of you are pleased with yourselves. After your desk duty is over, you’re both being reassigned to different humans.”

 

Hypnos didn’t miss how the Nightmare’s face fell.

 

“Listen,” he said gently. “I know it’s not the most pleasant task, but the humans need you. You’re one of my finest writers. Children need the creativity of a well-crafted nightmare to teach them how to deal with fear in their lives. If they can handle it while they sleep, they know they can get through it awake. There’s catharsis in a good nightmare, and you are a good Nightmare. But I do have an idea that I believe will help. I have a lucid dreamer that’s been giving its current Nightmare some problems. I’d like to see what you make of it.”

 

The Nightmare sat up, looking intrigued. “A lucid dreamer? You’d have to work with them and ad-lib with their thoughts to keep the fear of a nightmare, but it would almost be like working together with the charge. That… that sounds better.”

 

Hypnos smiled before turning to the Dream.

 

“And you. If you’re getting bored, then it’s a good sign your charges are bored too. So I’m going to reassign you to a teenager who’s recently started taking a medication that can cause disjointed dreams. That and the fact that a teenager will have a few more life experiences to draw upon could get you out of your creative funk. Shake things up a bit. Add some whimsy. And even after the teenager finishes her medication, I want you to bear in mind that a dream doesn’t have to follow a cohesive plotline, and it doesn’t have to make sense when your charge wakes up. The weird dreams are the ones humans remember.”

 

The Dream’s eyes glinted with delight in a way that probably should have made Hypnos nervous.

 

“And this goes for both of you: in the future, if you’re having any problems, consider coming to me before taking matters into your own hands and disrupting the Sleeping.”

 

The Nightmare ducked its head, looking ashamed, and the Dream scoffed self-consciously.

 

“Yes, sir,” the Nightmare said, and the Dream made a low sound of agreement.

 

“Good. Now get out of my office,” Hypnos said.

 

The Dream and the Nightmare stood up, and the Nightmare held its hand out for the Dream to shake. “I won’t say it’s been a pleasure, but…”

 

The Dream grinned. “Likewise.”

 

With a small, crooked smile, the Nightmare said, “I’ll be in that same bar next Waking. If, you know, you wanted to stop by and say hello. Don’t make me wait.”

 

The Dream’s smile turned teasing. “I wouldn’t dream of it.

I Dreamed I Saw You Walking
Trinity Sloan ~ Poetry

I dreamed I saw you walking

Walking along the ivy trail

You turned to look at me

Smiled back at me without fail

 

I dreamed I saw you walking

But when I drew close, all went red

 

You were gone before I reached you

I woke screaming in my bed

 

I dreamed I saw you dancing

All long limbs and without care

 

I dreamed I tried to join you

But found blood matted in your hair

 

I dreamed this time that I could touch you

That you were lying softly there

 

I dreamed your brains splashed ‘cross the floor

And the smell of death was in the air

 

I swore that in dreams I would avoid you

I cried, “No more! Please, this isn’t fair!”

 

But tonight I dreamed of your tombstone

And the inscription written there

 

It said, “My love, be true,

My love, be fair.

 

Won’t you join me now,

Won’t you prove you care?”

 

All the horror in the world I felt, standing there

All the horror I felt, and yet,

 

Something made me stop and stare

Dreamwalker
Madison Milligan ~ Short Story

I wasn’t always a frequenter of the black market.

 

Well, to be fair, I wasn’t always a lot of things. I wasn’t always wanted for war crimes. I wasn’t always short on Dreamers to visit. I wasn’t always filled with the debilitating fear that nothing I ever do will matter and that I will spend the rest of my immortal existence alone.

 

Too personal? Sorry, my bad.

 

But to be fair, a lot of my insecurities started coming out when I realized how close I was to death.

 

I know what you’re thinking. Oh, Cyril, stop being so dramatic. You’re an immortal being. You can’t die. Stop whining.

 

To you, I have two things to say:

 

Number one: Shut up. I will find you. I will find where you live. Stop being a hater. Drama is part of my personality.

 

Number two: I may not be able to die, but being trapped in a dream is a fate worse than death. I was slowly deteriorating away. I could feel my existence decaying. You know what happens when you existentially decay? It’s irreversible. I was on a one-way trip to being a husk of a soul, eternally conscious of my excruciating pain, never able to completely die.

 

Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it?

 

You know, I could accept my mistakes like an adult. I could admit that agreeing to go shopping at the black market wasn’t the best decision I ever made. But you know what’s easier? Blaming it on someone else. So, it’s the government’s fault. And Adbael’s fault. But mainly the government’s.

 

I woke up that fateful morning, unaware of my imminent doom, to several sharp knocks on my door. Since I’m obviously a social butterfly, I immediately knew it was Adbael, since I only have one friend.

 

In my defense, making friends is hard when the government is out to get you. You use nuclear weapons to blow up a corrupt government agency one time, and next thing you know, they’re all like “blah blah blah…endangerment of lives…blah blah blah…life imprisonment…blah blah blah…no you can’t run away.”

 

Well sike, bitches, because I did run away.

 

I mean, what do they want from me? An apology?

 

Dear government,

I’m sorry for endangering the lives of literally immortal beings that can’t die. Please accept my humble offering of consolation brownies I found in a Dream.

Insincerely,

Cyril

P.S. I’m never sarcastic.

So anyways, I let Adbael in and told them about my predicament. You see, normal Dreamwalkers get a certain number of Keys distributed to them each moon. Each Key links to a different human’s Dream. Dreamwalkers go into Dreams, find things, bring them back, sell them, and then use the currency they receive to buy whatever.

 

The only problem is, each Dreamwalker specializes in certain Dream items. Some Dreamwalkers are really good at bringing back, say exotic plants. Me? My specialty is weapons, which just so happen to be illegal. Other Dreamwalkers get to have collections of fluffy pink unicorns and I get to be illegal for existing. Thanks, life.

 

Keys wear out after a certain period of time. And since yours truly is a problem child, the government obviously won’t be giving me Keys anytime soon. I could buy the necessities, but I’m super broke.

 

So Adbael, with a glint in their eye that should’ve told me to immediately say no, was all like “I know a place where a criminal can acquire Keys illegally!”

 

Take a wild guess where that was.

 

And the next thing I knew, I was like Dorothy on the yellow brick road to the land of Oz, except instead of yellow the ground was wishy-washy grey and instead of Oz I was on my way to the black market.

 

You know, the more I think about it, the worse this analogy gets.

 

The black market wasn’t like anything I had expected. It was scary, sure. But it was also just plain strange. Loud bartering could be heard in the air, but undertones of bitter silence made all of the disturbances seem eerie. The smell was vaguely sickening, like faint smoke, heavy incense, and the stench of sewage all mixed together. People drifted by, all at least somewhat despondent, wandering up to the pop up carts selling all manner of exotic and illegal goods: potions, dangerous magical animals, objects I couldn’t identify. One stand in particular caught my eye. Shelves of daggers and swords, made of silver, iron, gold, bronze, and other metals, bejeweled and plain, aged and new, sharp and dull, magical and normal.

 

“See,” Adbael said. They smiled knowingly at me. “You could really flourish here.”

 

“Thanks,” I responded, dryly. “I’m glad the only place I can flourish is the black market.”

 

They shrugged. “Should’ve thought about that before you went all terroristic and attacked the government.”

 

A passerby flicked a sideways glance at us. I scowled.

 

“Tell the whole black market, why don’t you.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

They led me to a shop in an alleyway. It was more put-together than the rest of the carts we had seen. It looked like it had been there a lot longer. Every inch of the cart’s surface was covered in hooks, and on the hooks hung Keys. They shimmered and glinted as their intricate designs caught what little light penetrated the shadows. They clinked against each other with an ominous sound that could’ve been mistaken for the clanking of chains.

 

That should’ve been my immediate red flag. A shady cart in an alleyway? I might as well have been asking to be in a horror movie.

 

A burly man leaned against the cart, looking bored. His hair was shaved in a menacing-looking buzz cut and one of his eyes was made of glass. When he saw us, he raised his eyebrows.

 

“You need something?”

 

“We’re looking for some Keys,” Adbael said.

 

The shop owner grunted. “What do you need from the Dream?”

 

I shrugged. “Food, water. Things to keep me alive.”

 

He eyed me. “That your specialty?”

 

“No…”

 

He continued to stare at me. “What’s your specialty?”

 

I glanced at Adbael uncomfortably. They nodded.

 

“Weapons,” I said, finally.

 

“I know someone who would buy them from you,” the owner said. “It would be less tiring and more profitable than trying to get something that isn’t your specialty.”

 

“I’m not looking to get weapons,” I said, irritably. “I’m looking to get whatever I need to stay alive.”

 

His glass eye bored into me. “I don’t sell Keys to cowards.”

 

Excuse me? I will blow up your shop. …Is what I would’ve said, if I had any Keys to get explosives from.

 

“Fine,” I said. “Got any Keys that have weapons?”

 

He nodded. “I can only guarantee one. The others might…but this one has what you’re looking for, for sure.”

 

I looked at the key he was holding. “How do you know?”

 

His expression was blank. “The design. If you don’t like it, you can return it.”

 

“Really?”

 

He glared at me, and I fished the money out of my pocket self-consciously.

 

...

I should never have used that key, but I was sorely tempted.

 

When I got home, I bid Adbael farewell, went to my room, and took out my Dream Lock from the drawer of my bedside table. Now, you can’t say I’m completely irresponsible. I did consider my options and my life choices. For like three seconds. But the idea of having my old life back, or more, even—of being able to use my specialty to make a living…well, like I said. I was sorely tempted.

 

I took the Key out of my pocket. It was old and felt heavy in my hand. A small vine of ivy, wrought from iron, twisted around its handle. Well, it can’t be that bad, I thought, shoving it into the Lock and turning it.

 

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

I felt the familiar sensation of entering a Dream, like I was falling into oblivion. I waited for the Dream to form. But then I felt something entirely different, something I had never felt before.

Positive emotion! Just kidding.

Sharp pain exploded in my head. I felt dizzy, like I was about to collapse.

 

The dream formed, and I realized, too late, that I needed to leave immediately. I desperately tried to claw my way out, to mentally pull myself from the Dream. Usually, in normal Dreams, leaving was effortless. But I felt my connection with my world snap. I was trapped.

 

Trapped, specifically, in the Dream of a Lucid Dreamer.

 

Why, Cyril, you’re probably thinking. What’s so bad about a Lucid Dreamer?

 

You know what I mentioned earlier about getting trapped in a Dream and decaying existentially? Yeah, that’s what Lucid Dreamers do. No one knows why, but somehow, Lucid Dreamers subconsciously break off Dreamwalkers’ connections to our world.

 

You wanna know something even better? No Dreamwalker has ever come back from a Lucid Dream.

 

Stupid black market key. Stupid government. Stupid Adbael.

 

So what heroic act did you do, brave protagonist?

 

Yeah, I sat down and gave up on my existence. Seriously, what else were you expecting from me?

 

That’s when I started noticing the Dream. Or should I say, Nightmare.

 

I was in a Victorian-style room. Fancy furniture, nice carpet, vineyard wallpaper.

 

And everything around me was in absolute chaos. Okay, so imagine every Greek monster you know. Throw in some weird monsters from video games for good measure. Now imagine them all fighting to the death in a room in a luxury mansion, battle-royale style.

 

Yeah, that’s how much life likes me. I couldn’t even get a peaceful place to painfully and slowly end my existence.

 

In the middle of the room, the Dreamer herself sat on a red velvet couch. Her posture was slouched, her legs were crossed, and she honestly looked bored. Even though she didn’t look to be near the human drinking age, she was clutching a wine glass in her hand. It had absolutely nothing in it, but she took a sip of it anyway. She glanced over at me, and stared for a few long seconds.

 

“Want to sit?” she asked, finally, gesturing to the spot on the couch next to her. The entire couch was completely ripped up, claw marks gouged deep into the cushions, lots of fluff and a couple of bones sticking out of it. The spot she was gesturing to had a large, conspicuously red stain.

 

She noticed where I was looking. “It’s ketchup. Probably.”

 

“Probably?”

 

“Or blood.” She shrugged. “It’s a dream. It doesn’t really matter.”

 

I took a few seconds to recover. “And you’re just…okay with this?”

 

She took another sip out of her empty wine glass. “You know, you’re the first dream person that’s talked to me.”

 

“There’s been others?”

 

“Yeah. They’re gone now. They always slowly fade away.”

 

I scowled. “That’s comforting.”

 

A hydra emitted a high-pitched screeching noise and spat acid at another monster. The monster’s head popped clean off its neck, bounced on the ground, and dissolved midair. Mostly. An eyeball dropped into the Dreamer’s glass, and she absentmindedly fished it out with her finger.

 

“What did you come here for?” she asked, examining the eyeball with vague interest.

 

“I—weapons. I came here to look for weapons.”

 

She nodded. “Cool. Down the hallway, second door to the left.”

 

“What?” “Every weapon you could dream of is in there.” She smiled. “Heh. Dream of…”

 

I glanced at the door. “It won’t do me much good now.”

She frowned. "Why?"

"I can't leave."

“Hmm?”

“You’re keeping me here.”

 

She shook her head. “I’m doing no such thing.”

 

I explained the whole Lucid Dreamer thing to her.

 

“So are you telling me I’m responsible for, like, five deaths?”

 

“No,” I told her, honestly. “I’m just telling you that you’re responsible for forcing five beings into a fate worse than death. There’s a difference.”

 

She stared at me, her expression deadpan. “Get out of my nightmare.”

 

“I can’t—” I started to say. But suddenly, the pain and the dizziness disappeared, like someone had just turned off the switch.

 

“Dream on, loser,” she said, raising her dumb wineglass in a mocking toast. I felt the spinning sensation of leaving a Dream, only this time, I wasn’t the one initiating it. I woke up on the ground, the key clattering out of my Dream Lock, and the Dreamer’s last words ringing in my ears.

 

“That was fun, wasn’t it? Come visit me sometime again, Dreamwalker.

Inverted
Vanessa Winders ~ Flash Fiction

I’m coughing blood and my throat is burning. I’m dreaming because I know this has never happened, but then again, I dreamed and have not known I was dreaming so maybe I’m awake and in denial. I don’t think I have done something that would result in me coughing up a gallon of blood, but I am one of the most forgetful people I know. Maybe I was sick and forgot. Oh, the blood puddle is rather large now, I don’t want to clean that up. I smell stomach acid and iron it’s a rather horrible smell and I’m surprised I recognize it because I am very sure that I have never vomited blood.

Ugh, the burning feels worse. I look up and there is a creature staring at me, its body is long and hairy, and its face consists of a snout and needle teeth that heave with its deep breathing. Yep, pretty sure this is a dream. I collapse over myself as my body convulses and spits out more blood. It’s all over my pants that I don’t remember putting on.

Hmm, it seems I’m barefoot, well at least I haven’t ruined a pair of shoes, my shirt is a goner though, I can’t even see the little graphic design anymore. I’m breathing heavily and I feel myself shaking. This is visceral for a dream. Oh, the creatures are still there. It smells faintly like a wet dog, but I am pretty sure that is no dog. And it is walking towards me now, great.

“Do you remember?”

Its voice is like a foghorn hum. There’s another smell, rot, its breath smells like rot. The creature’s ears are folding out on top of its head, they kind of look like fans, maybe a rat. Oh, hell no, it’s trying to touch me.

“Remember, you can’t-”

OH GOD!

 

I’m back in my room. Sweaty, lights dim, journal where I left it. I need to catch my breath. Deep breaths, one, two, three. Shorts, tank top, I remember putting those on. No blood, no creepy rat man. Ew, I need to change my shirt. Where is that light, screw it I’ll just fumble in the dark. Ah, the sink, there should be a switch-

 

And that’s a lot of blood. Lights off, there couldn’t be blood there-there just can’t. Lights on. It’s clean, white just like I left it. The faucet works, I should still have some melatonin in the cabinet behind the mirror. Ah, there it is, got to close the door now and HOLY SHIT.

It’s not there, it was but now it’s not. Rat man was there in the mirror behind me and now he’s not. High, that’s it. I must be high. I don’t remember taking drugs but that must be it. Deep breaths, deep breaths.

 

There’s something on my shoulder.

 

“Stop thinking, its very loud.”

 

NO DON’T-

 

I-I-so that’s what it's like to get your neck snapped.

 

“Shush--no need to think now."

The Graverobber
Trinity Sloan ~ Short Story

Ernest Farroway inspected the burial plot at his feet with sharp eyes, a lantern held in one hand and a shovel in the other. The surrounding darkness was deep and foreboding. The sky held no moon, but Ernest was untroubled. The night was familiar to him, and it was a worthy accomplice for tonight’s crime.  

Ernest picked up a handful of dirt and held it to the light carefully, noting the color and looseness with which it clumped together in his cupped palm. He let it fall. The earth over this grave was fresh, so even without having seen the funeral procession that afternoon he knew that the body was still in good condition. 

 

The headstone was simple, a square slab of smooth, gray granite planted firmly in the ground, but the only thing that mattered to the trespasser were the words written in bold black lines on its face. 

 

Holly Caroline, the headstone read. Ernest could barely read, but he knew that the letters matched the ones on the scrap of paper he’d been given. He smiled coldly, teeth crooked and yellow in the lamplight.  

 

Time to get to work, he thought. 

 

The man pulled his cap lower over his face and began striking his shovel into the earth. In between pulling up great portions of dirt, Ernest glanced over his shoulder, though he knew there was no watchman, and the groundskeeper would long have retired to bed at that hour. The thief disliked working alone, but tonight’s reward was too good to share, so he had not told his usual partners about the doctor’s proposition. 

 

After twenty minutes or so of digging, Ernest’s shovel hit the coffin with a dull thunk. He pulled the tool back with a muttered curse, knowing that such force could have damaged the box or even the corpse inside. Dr. Victor wouldn’t pay him for damaged goods. Luckily, the coffin was only scratched, and Ernest conducted the rest of the excavation with more care.  

 

Ernest climbed out of the hole he had dug to retrieve his other tools, a pry bar and a burlap sack. He returned to the coffin’s side and wedged the pry bar under the coffin’s lid, loosening the nails with which it had been sealed just hours ago until the lid finally gave way, revealing the remains of a young woman inside. The girl was wearing a simple burial shroud, and her pallid skin was framed by a lining of flowers braided through her hair.  

 

If Ernest had been a different sort of man, the girl’s appearance might have given him pause, might have made him feel some semblance of guilt for what he was doing. She couldn’t have been older than twenty, and though plain in features someone had clearly cared about her. Only a relative would have taken the time to lovingly place the wildflowers in her hair, so somewhere in town someone was probably mourning her. A man kinder or more curious than Ernest may have taken a moment to study her further, to try and figure out how she died or why the doctor had wanted her specifically, but Ernest had spent years doing unscrupulous work. He had learned quickly not to question things, and he had very little imagination or interest in the girl besides the reward his employer had promised for her. 

Ernest reached into the coffin with dirt-caked hands, bracing an arm under her knees and another under her back and pulling her out, taking care not to grip her too firmly as he did so. The flowers in her hair smelled sweet and since the girl was newly dead, she did not yet stink of rot but the graverobber grimaced all the same. He was not superstitious, and this was far from his first time stealing a corpse, but the bodies before this one had been old and dead longer, so he had felt no guilt or hesitation in their robbery, whereas this one still looked as if she was only asleep and might wake up any minute to question him.  

 

Ernest hoisted her unceremoniously into the burlap sack, tying it closed with twine. He felt reassured now that he no longer had to look at her face. Usually, Ernest filled the graves back in after he collected the body, but tonight Ernest left the hole as it was. With the money he had been promised, Ernest could leave town before anyone had time to notice what he had done. He smiled to himself at the thought of evading the police who had been on his trail for the last fortnight. 

 The hard part is over, Ernest thought with satisfaction. All that was left was to deliver the body to the doctor and Ernest would be free to do as he pleased.  

 

Usually, Ernest’s partners would have a carriage waiting for him, but tonight he would travel on foot. He hefted the body bag over one shoulder, glad to find that the corpse was so light as he approached the cobblestone street. Careful to remain out of sight, Ernest zigzagged his way through back alleys and side streets until he reached the door of a modest townhome. Ernest squinted at the numbers above the door, then, satisfied that he was at the right address, knocked. After a moment,

 

Dr. Victor Clerval, a man in his forties with gray-streaked hair, opened the door. His sharp eyes darted toward the bag before rising to survey Ernest. He motioned quickly for the criminal to join him in the foyer before shutting the door behind them.  

One of the doctor’s hands was coated in crimson, and he reached into the pocket of his white coat for a cloth to wipe it away. The sight of blood made Ernest pause, and he felt the beginnings of paranoid worry. Is someone else here in the house? he thought. 

 

“You doin’ a surgery doc?” Ernest asked in a raspy voice. Dr. Victor’s eyes flickered as he parsed Ernest’s true meaning.  

 

“No need to worry about that,” Victor said firmly, evading the question. “Now, follow me and be careful not to jostle the bag. If she’s hurt in any way, then our deal is off.” Ernest clenched his jaw but nodded. He hated being told what to do, especially by prissy, rich men with shined shoes, but he kept the money he was promised fixed firmly in his mind as he descended a set of stairs behind the doctor.  

At the bottom was a stone basement, cool and musty. Mounted torches burned in intervals along the walls, but the light they provided was flickering and swallowed by the deep shadows in the corners. In the center of the open room was an operating table and a side table with surgical equipment laid out in precise rows. Dr. Victor gestured at it and Ernest took that as his cue to lay the bag down with exaggerated gentleness. The doctor reached eagerly for the bag, hastily and carefully untying the twine and using scissors to cut the burlap open from end to end, peeling it back to reveal the girl.  

“Oh, my Holly,” Victor whispered, “How cold you must have been down there.”  

Only then, as Dr. Victor cupped the corpse’s cheek in one still-bloody hand, did Ernest realize how strange the doctor’s earlier wording had been. 

‘If she’s hurt in any way’ he’d said, as if the corpse could still feel pain. Ernest didn’t have to be a doctor to see that the girl was dead. He was sure of it. When he lifted her from the coffin there had been no breath, no heartbeat. Her skin was already turning chalky white. But why then, was Dr. Victor treating her corpse with such care? 

“Didja know her doc?” Ernest asked. “How do you reckon she died?” Victor looked up from the corpse then, fixing him with a cold stare. 

“She’s not dead,” The doctor insisted, a wild look in his eyes. “She’s only dreaming. Her body failed her, but she wasn’t supposed to die. Not my Holly.” 

“...Right,” Ernest said eventually, hairs standing straight up on the back of his neck. Suddenly, the doctor reminded him a lot less of the rich city folks he serviced and more of the street thugs Ernest spent most of his time around. The ones who were half-mad and cruel, willing to cross any line to get what they wanted. Ernest took an instinctive step back. This guy’s got a screw loose, he thought nervously. 

“Well, if you’ll pay me, I’ll be going now,” Ernest said. Something about that seemed to amuse Dr. Victor, and he smiled.  

“Yes, yes of course,” Victor said, “But first, I have another favor to ask you. You see, I was performing surgery on a recently dead woman when you walked in.” Victor gestured towards a table at the far end of the room. The lighting was worse there, but if Ernest squinted, he could make out the outline of a figure lying prone on its surface. “Would you go stand beside her and take her measurements for me? The measuring rope should be at her feet.”

 

A tingle of suspicion raced along Ernest’s spine. “Why ya need me fer that?” 

“My eyesight is poor at night, and I know yours is good. I hired you because you have a reputation for sharp eyes. Is that a problem?” Victor asked frigidly. The doctor seemed to realize the coldness of his tone, and he shifted his weight as he composed himself. When he spoke again his tone was more neutral, a faux calm. “I’ll add something to your pay to make it worthwhile.” 

Ernest was a greedy man. And really, the doctor isn’t much of a threat, he reasoned. So he ignored his unease and approached the table where the unnamed body lay. The first thing that he noticed was the smell, much worse than that of the other corpse. The second was that the chest cavity had been cut open, revealing the organs inside. Even though Ernest had spent plenty of time around dead bodies, he’d never seen one cut open before. It was gruesome, bloody red flesh and bones on display. As he stared at the corpse, Victor began to speak again.  

“Holly’s asleep because her lungs failed her. She had a disease, and it took away her ability to breathe. I was going to replace her lungs so she could wake up, then everything would be normal again. The way it should be. But you see, I have a problem. That other woman’s lungs were the wrong size.”  

Suddenly, the doctor’s voice was right behind him, practically whispering in his ear.  

“But I think your lungs will be just right.”  

 

Before Ernest could even process the words, Dr. Victor raised a large, blunt object over his head with both hands and Ernest felt pain explode across the back of his skull as it made a vicious impact. Ernest’s vision turned to grey static as he slumped to his knees, dazed and gasping for breath. His ears were filled with a shrill ringing as blood ran down the back of his neck, mixing with the grave dirt on his shirt collar.  

 

Ernest couldn’t tell up from down, but pure panic coiled itself in a strangled knot around his windpipe, prompting him forward. He started crawling blindly on his hands and knees. The doctor dropped whatever he had used to strike him carelessly to one side and proceeded to grab Ernest by the wrists. He dragged him across the floor towards the table where the mangled corpse lay. Ernest tried to fight back but the earlier attack left him winded and stunned. Dr. Victor tied Ernest’s wrists and ankles with rope, then pushed the rotting corpse off the table. It landed beside Ernest with a sickening thunk, organs splattering beside it. Then, in a surprising feat of strength, Victor wrestled Ernest himself onto the table, taking the corpse’s place.  

Ernest started to scream then, one long, unending shriek that echoed off the walls. 

 

“Stop that!” Victor said sharply. “Stop that at once!” He slapped Ernest across the face. The fresh shock of it, the flare of pain, rendered him silent. Numbness began to creep into the edges of his consciousness then, but he didn’t understand why until he saw the needle in Victor’s hand. He must have stuck me with something, Ernest thought with an edge of muted hysteria. 

 

“Now now, don’t be like that,” Dr. Victor said, mocking the terror on his victim’s face. “Soon, you’ll be asleep, so this won’t hurt a bit.” 

“Why- waz,” Ernest tried to speak but his tongue already felt thick. Soon his eyes were closing without his permission. He fought his eyelids, but he couldn’t seem to feel them. He couldn’t feel anything. 

 

“Sweet dreams,” the doctor said. Then he picked up his scalpel and got to work.  

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