Authors: Helen Harper
With the edges of dream and reality blurred, I’m forced to clench and unclench my hands several times to stop them from shaking. I just about have my tremors under control when the bedroom door opens.
The first thing I see is a naked foot. From the thick, curling hair sprinkling over the toes, it’s obviously male. I bite down hard on my lip as the figure steps inside. Whoever he is, he’s wearing a long ceremonial robe with a hood covering his face. When the door shuts and I hear him pull the fabric away, I strain to make out his features. Right now, with the lack of light, he’s nothing more than a dark shape.
He moves towards Rawlins’ bed. I hear heavy breathing, monotonous and regular. It’s just a dream, I remind myself, a dream that’s straddling everything I know to be real – but still a dream. In the real world, I might be a weakling who can barely clamber over a wooden fence without falling flat on my face. Here, however, I’m the dreamweaver, whatever that means. So when the man reaches out to touch Rawlins’ body, I launch myself at him.
He staggers backwards as I collide with him and the pair of us crash against the far wall. He grunts in pain.
‘Get out of here!’ I yell. I swing my arm round and slap him across the face. His skin is icy cold, reminding me of the bark in the Dreamlands’ forest. I’m not afraid of a bit of ice. I slap him again. He’s not getting near her, not if I have anything to say about it.
There’s a strange choking sound. I squint, attempting to work out what he’s doing. I realise he’s laughing and my insides churn. I slap him once more.
‘You can’t hurt me.’ His voice grates across my bones. It’s rough, as if he’s a sixty fags a day man though I can’t smell tobacco on him. Instead there’s the faintest edge of sulphur, just like I caught from the Badlands.
‘You want to bet?’
There’s another freakish laugh. ‘Traveller,’ he hisses. ‘You can watch. You cannot act.’
I change my slaps to punches and pummel his body. I’m building up to a crescendo of rage for what Rawlins has had to experience. He twitches once or twice but, other than that, he doesn’t move.
Then he rises, throwing me off. I hit the floor, catching my back on the edge of what must be a wardrobe, and agonising pain rips through me. My damn back again. This is getting stupid.
I stagger unsteadily to my feet just as there’s a soft moan from Rawlins. I realise he’s advancing on her once more. I grit my teeth and ignore the pain. I leap onto his back and snag my arms round his throat, pulling as tightly as I can.
‘You’ve fucked up,’ I whisper in his ear. He grunts and spins, trying to throw me off. I cling on. ‘You see,’ I say, as if I’m discussing the weather, ‘I’m not just a Traveller. I’m the dreamweaver.’
In mid-turn, the man freezes. ‘Impossible.’
‘Is it?’ I tighten my grip. ‘Do you feel that?’
A rattle sounds from his throat. I leap off and face him. With one swift kick, my foot connects with his groin. He doubles over in agony. I bend down. ‘Did you feel that?’ I enquire.
He swipes out, attempting to grab a hank of my hair. I jerk away and out of his grasp. ‘Bitch,’ he hisses.
I smile coldly. ‘Begone.’
The man’s eyes begin to glow, two slitted yellow lights glaring malevolently. He blinks once. I tut. ‘I’m not going to repeat myself.’ I raise my thumb and forefinger into the shape of a gun and pretend to cock it.
He spits, then vanishes. My knees buckle and I half fall to the ground.
Shit. I pull up my head and stare at the bed. Rawlins is sitting up. I can’t make out her features because it’s too dark. I drop my head again; if I can’t see her properly, then I’m betting she can’t see me. With the man gone, I need her to believe this is exactly what it purported to be: a dream. A horrible, nightmarish dream, but a dream nonetheless. I don’t speak and I don’t move.
‘Is it you?’ she asks.
Nope. Not me. I tighten my shoulders and glance upwards, forcing myself to disapparate away, forcing myself to wake up. She’ll still have her suspicions but she’s only seen me once in her dreams. That can be put down to her subconscious. To think otherwise would be crazy.
I give myself a few hours of awake time and do as much I can to tire myself out. I run up and down the stairs, much to the bemusement of the Chairman who’s wandered back in from his adventures. Then I furiously clean the already sparkling kitchen and head out to the garden to pull up the weeds.
By this point it’s dark but it doesn’t stop my next-door neighbour from making an appearance. His head pops over the fence. Either he’s grown two feet since I last saw him or he’s standing on a chair. I wipe the sweat off my brow and give an awkward wave.
‘Hi, Zoe. Strange time of day to be gardening, isn’t it?’
I shrug. I’m weird; he already knows that. ‘I’m trying to keep the moles away,’ I say knowledgeably. ‘They come out at night.’
He scratches his head. ‘Do moles roll around in flower beds?’
Ah. I purse my lips and frown as if I’m taking the question seriously. ‘I’m not sure. Has that happened to you?’
‘Mm,’ he murmurs. ‘Right here on the other side of the fence. If anyone knows about an interloper in our gardens, it’ll be you. Have you seen anything?’
I eye him cautiously. As far as I can tell, he’s not accusing me; although Rawlins and I woke him up, I’m fairly certain he didn’t see either of us. All I can do is plead ignorance. ‘No,’ I tell him. ‘But I’m not the same person I was a few months ago. I’m not as aware of everything as I used to be.’
As soon as I say it, I realise how true it is. Spending so much time indoors on my own meant that I was far more focused on details. I still I’m think I’m pretty observant but, as my horizons have opened up, my attention to the small stuff has dwindled. I guess you can’t have everything.
‘How have you been sleeping?’ I ask, changing the subject.
‘You mean the sleep paralysis thing that’s been on the news? I saw the queue outside the pharmacy on my way home tonight.’ He shakes his head. ‘It’s nuts.’
‘But you’ve not experienced anything yourself?’ I persist.
I exhale softly. That’s good. At least it’s not disturbing every damn person in the world, even if it’s still affecting far too many. I make noises of acknowledgment, lay down my tools and go back inside.
After a hot shower to encourage sleep, I lie down once more. It’s still not late but I’m hoping that a few of the people who I touched at the doctor’s surgery are already asleep. With the Department meeting scheduled for midnight, I don’t have much time to jump from dream to dream. At least my experience with Rawlins means I know I’ll have some success.
The first dream I apparate into is again in someone’s bedroom. It’s not as dark as Rawlins’ room and I have to admit that the décor makes me blink. The whole room is decked out in baby pink: baby-pink walls, baby-pink cushions, baby-pink bedspread with, you’ve guessed it, a white and baby-pink fringe. There’s a vanity desk covered in tubes and bottles. When I see the shape of the person sleeping, I draw back in astonishment. I expected a young girl; instead I’m confronted with a middle-aged man. That’s peculiar.
I don’t have long to marvel at his taste before there’s a tapping at the window. I scoot over and lift the edge of the pink curtains. A small, fuzzy, black creature blinks at me. It’s kind of cute, with big dark eyes that are soulful and expressive. For a moment, my face relaxes into a smile – then the creature bares its teeth and I draw back. Those are some lethal fangs. I’ve seen less intimidating incisors on a shark.
The imp raises a hand and a single claw springs out. It taps the glass again and then begins to etch out a circle. Once it’s drawn the full 360 degrees, it gives the centre a sharp kick and the glass circle falls in. A heartbeat later, the imp is inside the room with me, cocking its head like a dog.
It jumps forward and sniffs, curious as to what manner of creature I am. There is a strange humming noise coming from its throat. Then, without warning, it leaps up towards me with its jaws open wide.
I lunge for the vanity desk and grab the nearest thing, an aerosol. Pressing down hard on the button, I spray it in the imp’s direction. It squeals in pain and covers its eyes. As it cowers, I grab it by the scruff of its neck and fling it back out of the window, then I turn back to the dreamer.
There’s sweat on his brow. He’s definitely aware of what’s happening on some level. I place a calming hand on his cheek and sense him relax.
Unfortunately, the imp isn’t as easy to get rid of as I thought. I’m just about to disapparate and go into the next dream when I hear another squeak; I see the curtains billow as it attempts another intrusion. Now I’m pissed off. Only just avoiding its sharp teeth, I grab it once more and hold it up in the air.
‘You’re not welcome here.’
It writhes and squirms, snapping its teeth in my direction. I gaze over its inky blackness and have a thought. In the far corner, there’s a collection of porcelain dolls. Keeping a firm grip on the imp, I quickly strip one of the dolls of its frilly pink dress. I raise my eyebrows at the dark creature. It looks from the dress to me and back again; there’s definitely sentient intelligence there. It starts to shake its head, trying hard to get away. I smile. Sorry. Not.
It’s a bit of an undertaking because I’m still avoiding those damn teeth but I manage to squeeze the dress over the imp’s head. I drop the creature onto the floor and watch. It stares down at itself in abject horror and tugs at the constricting fabric. With a malevolent glare, it springs back to the window and flees. Take that.
Every dream is different. Although I apparate into people’s bedrooms, the creatures and the mode of attack changes every time. As the night wears on, and people are drawn further into deep sleep, I find myself interrupting the attacks rather than waiting for them to happen. By the eighth one, not only is my back killing me but, when I apparate in, the dreamer is already screaming in agony while three wild dogs ravage and bite his flesh, one at his arm, one at his chest and one at his leg.
I aim for the one at his chest, knocking it away. It howls in rage and turns to face me, although its companions don’t even look up from their meal. A black tongue lolls out of its mouth and blood drips onto the pale carpet. As with every other time, the smell of sulphur is strong. In fact, I could swear that it’s becoming stronger.
‘This is why I’m a cat person,’ I tell the dog, a half second before it lunges at me. With the bed taking up most of the room, there’s not much space for manoeuvre. I end up underneath the bed, along with the lint balls and a pile of dirty magazines from pre-internet days. I lash out with my feet, catching the dog’s front paws. It howls again.
I am awash with relief; at least I’m no longer alone. ‘Dante! Get the other two dogs!’
I wiggle out from under the bed in time to see him swipe at the animals. As if they’re no more substantial than air, however, his hand goes right through them. His eyes flash and he tries again. Damn it. The disgusting creep in Rawlins’ dream was right; most Travellers, in fact probably every Traveller apart from me, can’t affect any of the creatures. Before I can contemplate the enormity of what I’m up against, the first dog attacks me again. This time I’m not paying attention and I screech as it latches onto my calf.
I bend down, thumping its back with my fists and forcing it let go. It backs off, glaring at me. I reach back under the bed and grab one of the magazines, roll it up and use it as a weapon. Three sharp blows on the muzzle and the dog cowers on the floor with its tail between its legs before winking out of existence. I turn my attention to the other two, using the same tactic until both of them follow their canine compatriot.
I’m covered in blood and limping. Dante reaches out and pulls me into a hug, wrapping his arms round my body until I feel safe again.
‘I couldn’t help,’ he murmurs into my ear, frustration in his voice. ‘I couldn’t do a damn thing.’
I pull back and look into his eyes. Rather than their typical molten silver, they’re as dark as storm clouds. ‘You’re not the dreamweaver.’ Even to my own ears, my words sound heavy and tired.
‘How many dreams have you been to tonight, Zoe?’
‘Eight.’ Unless you count Rawlins. ‘No, make that nine.’
He sucks in a breath. ‘You’re a fucking mess.’
I glance down at myself. He’s right; I’m really hurting. ‘I’m the only one who can do this. What else am I supposed to do?’
He shakes his head. ‘You can’t go to every person in the country.’
I sigh. No, but I can damn well try.
‘They’re not really in pain, you are. Nobody’s going to die from sleep paralysis, as awful as it is.’
I straighten my shoulders. ‘You mean nobody’s died
. It doesn’t mean it won’t come to that. Part of sleep paralysis is awareness and, as you told me yourself, being conscious and aware is everything. Being aware means you can get hurt.’
He points to the man in the bed. ‘He’ll be fine tomorrow. You won’t be.’
I bite my lip. ‘You should have seen the things I saw today. There were dozens of people trying to get to the doctor to get medication to stop the paralysis. Dozens, Dante. A few of them even came to blows.’
‘So let them take some fucking pills and be done with it.’ He balls up his fists. ‘This isn’t fair on you.’
‘I’m not complaining.’
He growls, ‘Well, you should.’
I gaze at him, exasperated. Doesn’t he realise that I’m obliged to help these people? It’s not as if anyone else can.
He seems to realise my frustration and he lowers his voice. ‘You’re not going to win this battle. You’ll kill yourself before you make the slightest dent.’
I tilt up my chin. ‘Is this happening in America too?’ Because if it is, he’s right. I’m already defeated.
He runs a hand through his hair. ‘No. It seems to be confined to this zone.’
I nod. That’s something at least. ‘We’re the only zone that’s not currently being run by the Department. Is that a coincidence?’
Dante sighs. ‘I don’t know. But there has to be another way. We need to find out where these dreams are coming from.’