(Author’s Note: Might have watched one too many episodes of Supernatural lately.)
This is the seventh house in a row with a dream-catcher hanging by the window. I know because I have knocked on each one of them trying to find a certain Thomas Woo. Either this neighbourhood is big on voodoo or there are some serious Nightmares walking along these streets at night.
It is hard to imagine that, though, now in broad daylight, especially in a town named Blissville, where the biggest concern is getting everyone coupled up. But of course, you never really know what goes on in the underbelly of each neighbourhood.
The first death happened around the time Thomas Woo and his mother moved in. And I believe in a lot of things, but coincidence is not one of them.
People think dream-catchers help to catch bad dreams. What they don’t know is that it doesn’t really work. I should know; I’m the one who weaves dreams, good and bad. Still, it doesn’t help to stick out like a sore thumb when you’re new to a neighbourhood. So we hung the dream-catcher by the window like everyone else.
When the girl arrives at my door, I can tell right away she’s different. She’s not from around here, that much is for certain. Also, after introducing herself, she takes one glance at the dream-catcher and then at me and remarks, “Funny you should have that too.”
“Everyone else does,” I retort.
She cocks her head. “But you have no need for it, Spinner.”
And there, we both know, she has me. So much for trying to blend in.
There is no point denying it now. “I have just as much right to live here as anyone else,” I argue.
“Not if you’re terrorising the neighbourhood.”
“I also weave pleasant dreams, if that helps. Maintaining the natural balance and all that.”
She lets out an exasperated sigh. “Look, I’m just here to do my job. Stay in line, and if I catch you so much as weaving a little daydream, I won’t bother knocking the next time I come for you.”
He did not stay in line. Of course he didn’t. They never do. But I had to follow standard protocol and issue an initial warning, or the Guild will breath down my neck again.
Repeat offenders, however, are fair game. And Thomas Woo is, apparently, incorrigible.
After six nights of monitoring the neighbourhood, and more than once almost intervening with a nightmare clean-up, I am just about ready to tackle that trouble-maker and send him out of town. On the seventh night, I catch him on Elmer Street peering through the gates at a three-storey semi-detached house with two cars parked in the driveway.
He whirls around before I can grab him by the collar.
“It’s here,” he hisses, pressing a hand against my mouth. He nods at the second-storey window left ajar, where a dream-catcher drifts in the balmy night breeze.
I’m about to pry his hand off my mouth when I see it. A flicker of shadow, then a silhouette behind the curtains. A tall, lean figure in a robe. It leans over a bed
It’s a Nightmare. An actual Nightmare, in the flesh.
In all of my three years on patrol, I had never come across one of those things. Pesky Spinners, plenty. But Nightmares were the real monsters, the stuff of myths and bedtime stories, creatures as old as time but extinct for centuries ever since the old Hunters tracked down the last of their kind.
My brain scrambles to recall what I have read from my Sentry manual about Nightmares. Did it even teach us what to do if we come across one?
“We have to kill it,” I hear myself saying.
Thomas turns to me, eyes wide open. “We what?”
She is crazy. Certifiably so. Nobody goes after a Nightmare unarmed. That’s suicide.
But she is already riffling through her backpack, pulling out a silver dagger lighter from her jeans pocket.
“Okay, here’s what we do,” she says. “See those bushes in the front yard? Wait there. I’ll wrestle the thing out of the house and into those bushes. Once you see it coming, torch it.”
I barely manage to catch the lighter she tosses at me.
She gives the dagger a twirl and catches it by the hilt, then pats me once on the shoulder and starts climbing the wall before I can protest.
When I decided to hit the streets tonight, all I wanted was a fun bit of Spinning, maybe a nightmare or two. I never expected to come across an actual Nightmare. Those things feed on your fear, even your soul. No way am I going near it with a ten-foot pole.
Isabella, already perched atop the wall, turns back and sees me still rooted to where I am. “Come on, we don’t have much time,” she urges, holding out a hand to me.
I find myself pocketing the lighter and taking her hand, then scaling the wall with far less dexterity than her. By the time I land with a splat and position myself in the front yard, Isabella is gone.
I would have picked a more competent partner to do this, but beggars can’t be choosers. If Thomas can’t work that lighter in time, I can only hope that the silver knife is enough to off it. Doubt creeps up on me as I steal up the balcony, but I push it aside and zero in on my target.
Yes, it’s just another target, Isa, I tell myself. Don’t overthink it.
The creature is already going to town on the sleeping girl, no older than ten. She gives a soft moan, tossing and turning in her sheets. The smell of her fear hangs ripe in the air, giving life and form to the Nightmare. Its figure grows firmer, corporeal. Good – all the better to tackle and throw out the window.
When I first started out as a Sentry, the Guild warned me that if I don’t play by the rules, they will blacklist me and return me to the streets where they found me. But they didn’t have much to say when I tackled that rogue Spinner the last time as he wove a dream that almost sent someone walking off the ledge. (You just never know with each case – lots of personal agenda going around.)
This time, too, I think my attack is fully justified. Stab first, ask questions later – if it can even talk (can it?).
The sound it lets out is unearthly, a shriek so shrill I won’t be surprised if it wakes the entire Blissville. I throw myself against its cold, hard body and shove it as hard as I can towards the window. It grabs my hair and twists my head back, but I punch it hard in the face as we go falling.
It shut up pretty quickly after that.
They come flying out the window as one. Isabella delivers a mean punch to its face, sparing us – and the whole neighbourhood – from its horrific screaming.
“Thomas! Now!” she yells, just before they crash into the bushes, the Nightmare bearing the brunt of the fall.
I flick the lighter and set its robe alight while she pins it down. Whatever Nightmares are made of, they are, it appears, highly flammable. It erupts into a ball of flames, sending me and Isabella ducking for cover. We crawl behind the car parked in the driveway, listening to the dying cries of the Nightmare as it smoulders to nothing. My pulse races as fast as hers – I know because we are gripping each other’s hands tight.
For a single, wild moment, a laugh escapes me. Isabella looks at me like I’m crazy, but in all my years of Spinning, nothing quite beat this. This is way more thrilling than weaving daydreams and prank nightmares. What have I been doing all this time when I could be doing this?
Isabella continues staring at me, and I swear for a second I catch her smiling too.
A young girl ventures out to the balcony, flanked by her parents. They stare down at the flaming corpse in their bushes, panicking at the sight. The father starts racing back into the house, probably to call the police.
“Time to go,” Isabella mutters, giving my hand a tug as she gets to her feet.
This time, I don’t hesitate.
So the Guild expelled me. One too many misdemeanours, they said. Never mind that I killed a Nightmare single-handedly (okay, not quite). Whatever, their loss. What annoys me more, though, is how they keep insisting that Nightmares don’t exist.
“Nightmares are extinct. We have eradicated the last of them long ago.”
“Apparently, you didn’t get the last,” I pointed out. And then they slapped me with the verdict.
Thomas is already waiting for me outside the Department of Dreams, released after giving his statement. He raises his brows when he sees me with my retrenchment box. “Harsh,” he says. I shrug and continue walking, not really in the mood to talk.
Thomas falls into step with me, kicking a can out of the way. “So this is what you do? Chase Spinners around town, hunt Nightmares?”
“Was,” I corrected. “And that was my first Nightmare.”
“I never would have guessed.” He nudged me. “We made a pretty good team back there. What do you say we strike out on our own, make a business out of this?”
I stop to give him my best withering look. “You threw a lighter at a Nightmare and now you think you can go into business?”
“There’s got to be more where those come from. And since we’re both … unemployed, for lack a better word, what’s the harm in hunting some Nightmares and making the world a safer place to dream?”
She frowns, and my mind drifts to that single, wild moment when our hands were tight in each other’s as we sat in the aftermath of killing a supernatural creature.
For some reason, I find myself wanting to hold her hand again.
So he might be crazy. Certifiably so.
But I turn back to the Department of Dreams, the grey-walled building where dreams go to die, and I wonder just how many more Nightmares they had denied the existence of, how many Sentries they had expelled for not sticking to protocol, and what else is out there.
They told me my biggest problem was my instinct, that I act on it too quickly. But my instinct was what saved us last night. And it’s the one telling me to walk away right now.
It’s telling me to take the hand of this bright-eyed boy eager to make the world a safer place to dream.
So I do.
About the Author
Joyce hails from the tropical island-city of Singapore, where she spends the perennially sunny days writing YA novels and short stories. Since graduating with a degree in English from the National University of Singapore, she has won a nationwide novel-writing competition organised by the National Arts Council and published her YA contemporary romance, LAMBS FOR DINNER (Straits Times Press, 2013). She subsists on green tea and baked pumpkins, and blogs about books, writing, and TV shows at The Writes of Passage in between writing her next novel. You can read all of her short stories here.