By Nicole Walsh
It was a long, dark day mid-summer when forty-three-year-old Miss Emily Picket lost her dreams for the umpteenth and final time.
She spent the morning clattering through dust. Her dreams liked to roost beneath the fridge, courting the hum of the engine from between desiccated peas and lost curls of pasta. Sometimes they hid between pillars of mildew-spotted home-maker magazines. On rare occasions, she had been forced to dig them out of the bowels of her closet, from behind the tennis racket and unopened origami sets.
Filthy and exhausted from fruitless hours of searching, Emily Picket deflated between worn, shabby cushions.
Silence yawned. Dust, disturbed by hours of commotion, slowly settled. It kissed across unopened crates of fine-bone china plates and exotic tea-pots. It hazed half-completed crosswords and find-a-words and magazines cracked open to expose ‘What’s My Style’ and ‘Am I Ready to Renovate’ quizzes.
Ms Emily Picket stared at the off-white wall, her eyes blank with shock. After a time, she reached for her phone and tapped, with shaking fingers, the number of her best friend, Hilary Gumph. As thick as thieves, the teachers at school had proclaimed, lips pressed with disapproval. Hilary had moved to the far side of the city. Their friendship stretched between haphazard phone calls.
“Gone?” Hilary’s frown zipped down the phone line, tickling Emily’s ear-drum. “Are you quite sure?”
“I searched everywhere.”
“Under the fridge?”
“The first place I looked.”
“Back of the drawers?”
“I checked. Three times.” Emily Picket’s hands, glued with sweaty dust, wrung the ancient plastic of the phone.
“Have you consulted the dream-catcher?”
Emily’s panicked gaze crashed around the room.
“We don’t get along.”
“It hasn’t been well.”
“Emily.” Hilary’s disapproval zinged down the phone-line, making Emily jolt upright on the worn couch. Her unpainted fingernails picked at the fabric. Her and Hilary had burst in here that first day, taken one look at the antique furniture and exploded into gales of laughter. Twenty years the prim and proper unit had subsided into dust. Emily had changed instead, growing older and greyer, ‘til eventually she matched the neglected unit.
“It’s gone,” she whispered.
“It’s so fat and slow,” Emily winced. “I never paid it much mind.”
“Emily!” Hilary’s gasp stained the space between them.
Things had stretched taut and tense since Hilary, against Emily’s advice, had quit the sensible office job they shared to open a cupcake shop. Mad, silly Hilary had then flung herself headlong into a relationship with a cocktail mage, of all things. The passionate, dramatic interlude had survived, against all odds. Seven short years later they had opened a swanky dessert restaurant on the flashy East side. Emily had missed the opening a year ago, but was determined to drop in when she could afford the cab fare.
“It’s so old and fat,” Emily whined. “I don’t know how it escaped.”
“Escaped! Oh, Emily.”
“My dreams don’t go near it,” Emily huffed, defensive. “It’s so old and dirty.”
“Don’t. Don’t tell me it’s my fault.”
“I won’t,” her friend assured her, her voice folding crisply. “You need to speak to a professional.”
“I don’t have that sort of money.”
“Not having money is not the same as not wanting to spend money.”
“It costs a lot to live alone. You don’t know what it’s like, Hilary. The rent increases…”
“Speak to a professional, Emily. Promise me?”
“I will,” Emily whispered, voice small and pitiful.
“Still coming,” Emily chirped.
“And the reunion?”
“I’m thinking of suggesting we have it here.” Hilary’s worry wobbled down the line. “You will come. Right?”
“Of course,” Emily soothed. She’d have to rent a room on the East side to make that work. Her gaze became distant as she tried to remember which weekend the reunion was on, so she could formulate a mishap. Hilary was becoming quite snippy with the poverty excuse.
“Emily?” Hilary was still talking, presumably about school or babies. Forty-three was far too old to be adopting a baby.
“Talk to a professional. This is no way to live.”
The call disconnected. Emily sat for a long time, listening to silence. She reached for her address book, flicking through empty pages to Mr Archibald Moordon, under ‘M’. Since he lived down the hall, phoning him was a bit silly. A few years ago Emily would have used the excuse to skip down the hall, dressed in her finest, pretending to be on her way out. That would mean washing her hair and changing out of her housedress. Besides, her shoe needed mending.
“Wizard Moordon,” he entoned. He did not like answering the phone.
“Emily?” He always sounded confused to hear from her, like he thought she was one of his students, which he despised. They had planned a trip to the museum once, late last year or the year before, to coincide with his fortieth birthday. It had fallen through.
“From up the hall,” she prompted. “I’m afraid I have a problem.”
“That was months ago. And the spell worked. Thank you.”
“You were going to take me out to dinner.” His frown rippled down the phoneline. “And it was nearly a full year ago.”
“Yes, well, sorry. It’s been busy.” She cast around desperately, gaze snagging on half-finished jigsaws under dusty knots of old knitting. “How about I take you out for your birthday? That’s coming up soon?”
“In a month,” he thawed.
“Perhaps we could check out the East side. I hear its all happening there?”
“Yes,” he agreed. “What?”
“What did you need my assistance for?” His rich voice lightened with warmth.
Emily told him, fumbling words into the chasm of his ominous silence. When she stopped speaking, there was a long, tense pause.
“Are you quite sure?”
“Yes.” Emily held her breath, waiting.
“This is outside my area of expertise.”
“No, no. I won’t. I can’t. I have no talent with dream-wrangling, and if they’re gone…”
He stalled, stricken.
Emily’s eyes welled with tears.
“Emily.” Worry thrummed the line. “You really must find them.”
“Your dream-catcher is the best bet.”
“It ran away.”
“You said it was slow, and fat?”
“Stray dream-catchers end up under a bridge. They’re quite partial to cheese.”
Emily wrung the phone. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She rubbed with filthy fingers, childlike.
“Will you help me?”
Silence stretched. She held her breath.
“I can’t Emily. I’m sorry.”
He hung up, gently.
Emily forked out twenty-one credits for an armoured taxi the next morning, driven by a scowling dreadlocked mess of a woman with bright yellow teeth. Emily armoured herself against the world with freshly dyed hair, disguising the greys which salted the pepper. She pulled out a new dress, the one she had brought for Hilary’s wedding, missed on account of a spell-storm. It pulled a bit tight across her middle. She had glued her shoe the night before and trawled on make-up.
“Here,” she shouted, to the half-deaf taxi driver.
She had to bang furiously on the plastic between them to get the wretched woman to stop. She fought her way out of the rickshaw, past screens of charms and fetishes and into the shadow of the Dark Dream and Nightmare Center, looming on the corner of West and Muddle.
“Been here before?” a cripple asked her, from the gutter.
“There’s a line,” someone reminded her, as she tried to slink inside.
“I’m frightfully busy,” Emily grumbled, slinking to the back of the line. By the time she reached the counter, Emily was in a foul mood, framed by a long line of jittery dream-addicts, insomniacs and curse victims.
“There’s a line,” the lady behind the counter frowned.
“I lined up for most of it. I’ve been here more then an hour. It’s an emergency. Please!”
“You need to pay for a contractor.”
Emily slapped her palms onto the table. It made a soft, silly sound.
“It’s gone. They’re all gone. You don’t understand.”
“She’s desperate,” the mage behind her pointed out. He had a hollow, haunted look. “Can’t you feel it?”
“Help her!” the woman behind him wailed.
“She needs help, lady.”
The lady behind the counter rolled her eyes. The entire lobby area was carpeted with empathy mats to prevent unrest. She knew very well Emily had money, and was fishing for a way not to use it.
“This is a charity,”
“Yes,” Emily wavered. “I’m desperate. My dream-catcher…”
“We can’t help with missing dream-catchers.” The woman jabbed at a poster, which obediently changed its message.
“Check under the bridge,” the mage behind her suggested.
“They bite,” someone warned.
“Ripped my ear right off.”
“Don’t make me do that,” Emily begged.
The woman behind the counter’s frown deepened.
“We deal with nightmares…”
“But the consultants are dream-mages, right?”
“The pro-bono experts who donate their time to assist these poor suffering wretches are dream-mages, yes…”
“Please,” Emily begged. “I had dreams. I was in love with the man down the hall. I had a best friend. We were going travelling. I was going to renovate in pastel and distressed wood.”
“Alright, alright!” The woman raised a hand, pained. “Take a number and a seat.”
Emily’s breath burst out in relief. She snatched the card. The crowd behind her, wrung with empathy, murmured approval. Emily took a step, then hesitated.
“Don’t start!” the lady behind the counter growled.
The skinny mage behind Emily gave her a wane smile and discretely swapped their cards. His was sixty. Emily took a seat on a hard plastic chair beside him.
“Thank you,” she offered.
He had a nice smile.
“You’ve been here before?”
“Every Tuesday,” he whispered back. “Hereditary curse.”
Emily’s gaze skittered off the death staining his aura.
“The dream-mages bleed off the worst of it.” He spun the card slowly. His fingers were chewed bloody and infected. “It’s not so bad. Where were you travelling?”
“You said one of your dreams was to travel?”
It had been a long time since Emily had paid that dream any attention. It was less annoying then the others, hiding in plain site where she could trip over it. She hesitated, trying to recall.
“The Astra Firefields. I was a girl back then. I wanted a swim.”
“You could still swim.”
“At my age?”
“My mum went last year. It’s just the men in our family that get cursed.”
Emily’s frown deepened. His mother?
“We were going to the Blue Jungle as well,” she recalled. “We were quite adventurous, Hilary and I. But… she’s having a baby. And she’s married.”
“The Pink Hum is nice for kids.” The mage nudged her gently. “That’s sixty now. The lady always puts me through quickly. On account of the bleeding.”
Emily realised he was mopping his nose. Empathy itched.
“Do you want to swap back?”
“No. I’ve nothing else on today. You’ll lose your job if you aren’t back by lunch-time.”
Emily had said a lot of things to leap-frog her way up the line. Working from home saved her a fortune in lipstick and bras. Since the unit was paid for, she did what contracts appealed to her. Her pitifully low annual income and grey pubic hairs had got her passed the Gate-Keeper of the charity hall, who had sniffed out her savings.
“Thank you,” she said, politely. “I hope you get well.”
“Sixty!” The lady behind the counter shouted, furious. “Or I’ll call in sixty-one.”
Sixty-one was a jittery ruin of a woman who had scratched most of her skin off.
“Me!” Emily shouted. “I’m sixty!”
Emily Picket sat across the counter from Undermaster Valdon Spare and watched him frown at the selection of crisp new tarot cards he had placed across the table. He had a long nose and perfectly straight teeth.
“This says you have money.”
“But a very low annual income.” Emily wished she hadn’t dyed her hair. Valdon Spare was fresh out of an Academy. It seemed just yesterday that Emily herself had been that crisp and young and pretty…
Her eyes welled with tears.
“Stop,” he growled. His power sucked the backwash from the empathy carpets under his door. “It says you have the capacity to earn far more then you do.”
“I’m old,” Emily whined. “And tired. My best friend moved away.”
“Perhaps.” Emily eyed his cards warily.
“Depression sloughs dreams. Makes them harder to locate. How often do you lose them?”
He scooped the cards into a pile, snapping them together. The sound made her jump.
“They’re just misplaced,” she winced. “They’re always somewhere. I chase them out regularly. The dream-catcher…”
“I can’t help with that.”
“It’s probably under a bridge.”
“You can lure it out with cheese.”
“It’s the dreams I’m here about.” Emily lent forward. “Valdon…”
“Undermaster Spare,” he corrected.
Gods he was huffy. In twenty short years he would be just like her, gluing his shoes together and dyeing his hair and swatting his dusty dreams out from under the fridge.
“You looked in the usual places?”
“Under the couch. Beneath the fridge. The back of the drawers. The travel one, especially, was always so easy to find. I’d trip over it every week.”
“Dreams don’t fare well in neglect, Miss Picket. Without attention, they fade.”
“No, no.” Her hands scrunched in panic. “They ran away.”
“When did you last see them?”
He arched a sceptical look.
“This month,” she amended. “They can’t have faded. I have jigsaw puzzles of all the places we intend to travel. Hilary sends them every birthday. There’s cards all over the fridge… her various parties and events. I’ve subscriptions to all the home-maker and travel magazines…”
Her tirade failed under the avalanche of his look.
“Please,” she begged. “Don’t.”
“There is nothing to sustain your dreams in that apartment.”
“They ran away.”
“They died. Your dream-catcher as well.”
“It’s huge. I’d see it. A big bloated spider…”
He released his breath in a slow, frustrated sigh.
“Your dream-catcher is dead, Miss Picket. The windows are screened, the door never opened. Your dreams may have shrunk and escaped out a crack, or simply desiccated in their usual hiding places.”
“No, no, no.” Emily’s voice hardened. “No. I liked the man down the hall.”
“Fifteen years ago.”
“I intend to travel.”
“You missed your best friend’s wedding. Dreams fade with age, Miss Picket.”
“Age?” She spluttered. “I’m barely forty. I have my own house. I just need to… tidy things up. Become more organised. Follow through with what I say I’ll do.”
“Those are adequate dreams, Miss Picket.”
“Adequate?” she floundered.
“Adequate and age appropriate.”
Emily Picket gawked, speechless. He made a careful note with a pen engraved: most cunning in class.
“The Pink Hum,” Emily exploded, furious. “It’s nice this time of year. Family-friendly, too. I want to get to know Archibald. I’ll bring him as well. I want to… to see Hilary’s flash new restaurant. To have drinks with a group of ladies every Friday night, like we used to.”
Undermaster Valdon Spare folded back into his chair. He looked exhausted. Other people’s dreams were tiring.
“You’ll need a life-coach…”
“No!” she flashed. “I can do it myself.”
“Without dreams? Without a dream-catcher?”
“I remember my dreams. I’m old, not senile. I’ll catch my dream-catcher.”
“I’ll bring cheese.”
“It may be dead.”
“Then I’ll buy another.” She hesitated, than modified: “I’ll save up, and buy another.”
His gaze skimmed across the wall, peeling off from various certificates. Cheap, manipulative empathy rolled across their skin in waves. Emily, being selfish at heart, was mostly immune. Undermaster Valdon Spare fidgeted discomfort, than rocked forward to squint in a drawer. He rattled about cautiously.
“We have donated dream-catchers,” he admitted. “Nightmares burn through them like butter.” He made a swift grab and caught something, lifting it from the drawer. It curled around his hand like a semi-transparent milk-white lizard.
“Oh,” Emily Picket gasped. “It’s lovely. I’ve never seen a baby one before.”
He half-handed it to her, than lifted it back warily.
“This one is too young to survive neglect.”
“You must tend it every day. Clean the dreams out every single day. Do you understand?”
“Yes, yes of course.” She flailed eagerly, half-snatching it. It was heavy and rubbery as it curled around her hand, the exact temperature of her skin.
“Do something nice for someone else, Miss Picket.”
“Service to others assists with depression. Lends you a certain momentum.”
Emily started to cram the dream-catcher into her handbag, than paused. She liked the way it curled against her.
“I’m going to call it Prim,” she decided.
“Care for it and it will keep your dreams in order. It’s old enough to spin webs, but you must not forget to clean them, Miss Picket. Every day.”
“I’m not deaf,” she huffed. “Do I have to pay for this?”
“It’s charity. Good day, Miss Picket.”
Emily Picket headed out the door, elbowing through the scrum. The sidewalk and buildings were damp, weeping tears. As her worn shoes hit salty puddles sunlight broke through the midnight haze that cupped the city. Emily Picket blinked in shock, raising her hand against the glare. The dream-catcher throbbed and gleamed, absorbing sunshine.
“Look at that?” she marvelled.
Emily Picket set her back to the Centre.
“Losing my dreams,” she clucked. “What rubbish. I can remember them all. Travel and friends. Romantic lunches. A vertical garden. Hobbies and shoes… I did love shoes. Shall we shop on the way home, little pet? Let’s get Archibald some chocolates, shall we? It’s his birthday soon. Perhaps a new doormat. His is such a sullen, grumpy thing.”
Sunlight dimmed, the near-never-ending darkness folding back into place. Emily Picket, trotting down the street, scarcely noticed. She had misplaced her dreams for the final time.
About the Author
Nicole Walsh is a cat enthusiast from the east coast of Australia who loves fern gardens and long dresses. She writes short stories and novel length speculative fiction and urban fantasy.