My son has trouble sleeping, and wakes up every night with a start.
He falls asleep like every other kid, sometimes after a yawn and saying good night, sometimes after an hour of jumping on the bed singing “I’m not tired, I’m not tired.” And then, after about three hours of sleep, he’ll wake with a start, as if from a bad dream. His mother is often the only one who can console him. He then spends the rest of the night in our bed. This happens every single night.
It used to be worse. For the first three weeks of his life he cried and didn’t sleep. At all.
Anyway… this order of affairs sparked a story. It is short and grim, and was bought by and published in eFiction Horror. And now it is here for you to read, for free. Though I strongly suggest you grab a subscription to eFiction Horror, it’s cheap AND it’s good.
Sometimes, in the daylight, I’ll find the carcasses of small animals downstream. Bodies twisted and bent, as if in pain.
I am woken, like so many nights before, by the screaming of my son. He is sweating and shaking and his eyes are clenched shut. I watch as he turns to his side, arches his back and cries out. He does not wake but dreams his terrible dreams through the night. He sleeps in our bed now, it was just easier for everyone. He can count to ten and pee on his own but he sleeps in our bed. If he slept on his own, we might miss something.
My wife is moaning and her eyelids flutter. This I see, even in the darkness of midnight.
I get up and sit on the edge of the bed. Yawn and stand up. I stagger sleep-drunk to the bedroom door. The air is thick, full of the breath of three sleeping humans in the late-summer heat. A dreamcatcher hangs by the bedroom door, sagging on a nail. I take it down and walk outside. Our house is the only one around, a speck in the countryside, though in the morning, cocks crowing remind me of those that live nearby.
There is a small incline in the yard behind our house that leads to a stream. It is here I take the dreamcatcher every night. An almost-full moon lights up the stream, little fingers of gray light reaching down through the trees and touching the water, never reaching the bottom. I walk down, legs still stiff and full of sleep.
At the stream I bend down and shake the dreamcatcher over the water, emptying out the subconscious darkness caught in the web. The freed nightmares mix with the water, flowing silently in the deep dark of the night.
I stand up and stretch; for a moment I look at the stars. These are my private moments.
Sometimes, in the daylight, I’ll find the carcasses of small animals downstream. Bodies twisted and bent, as if in pain. I try not to make the connection.
I go inside, re-hang the dreamcatcher and go back to sleep. It hangs looser on the nail. Lighter.
Before the dreamcatcher, the boy would wake up screaming in the night and his nose would bleed. My wife would be raw in the morning, short-tempered during the day and dead-tired in the evening. For some reason I love my wife more when she is mad at me.
Even after she came back, without any shame or remorse on her face or in her heart, I loved her.
We got the dreamcatcher from a store in town that we never found again and that night my son slept soundlessly. Uninterrupted sleep, free of dark dreams. The dreamcatcher was heavy in the morning, the string holding it up taut on the nail. It was certainly heavier than when I had put it up. It had a sheen to it, almost oily, and smelled faintly of rotting leaves. The nightmares returned and then one night, drunk and inspired, I made a symbolic gesture of emptying the dreamcatcher, calling it useless.
But something made me re-hang it and they slept well that night. I then made a habit of emptying it, superstition replacing sense.
One night, as I bend over the stream in the dark to shake the heavy nightmares out of the dreamcatcher, I am startled by a figure standing on the other side, looking at me. It is tall, slim and pale, with large eyes that are all black pupil. Its mouth hangs open and the head is slightly tilted. Skin made of glistening white leather. It exhales in a rasp and it speaks as it draws its breath back in.
“You throw my dreams away?”
I am unable to speak. My heart grabs hold of my lungs and the hairs on my arms stand up, as if to escape. The figure looks up at me and then turns its gaze to the dreamcatcher. It exhales, and then speaks again with indrawn air.
“You throw the dreams away? Are my creations not beautiful?”
The figure keeps its mouth open, and I see it has no teeth. No lips.
“Stay away from me!” My voice is small. Mousy.
I shake the dreamcatcher violently as I back away towards the house. The figure does not follow.
In the bedroom I peek back at the stream through the curtains while my son moans in his sleep behind me. The figure is still standing there, as if rooted to the spot. It looks at the stream, the trees and the moon. Occasionally it looks at the house. I hang the dreamcatcher, and my son returns to an undisturbed deep sleep.
“What is it?” my wife asks.
“Nothing. I thought I heard an animal.”
I do not sleep that night. I call in sick and sleep during the day. The grass has gone gray where I shook the dreamcatcher in a panic during the night.
The next night, my son starts tossing in his slumber and I get up to empty the dreamcatcher. Outside, I see the figure again, on my side of the stream. It stares at me as I approach, mouth open. I notice now that it has unnaturally long fingers, tapered into fine points.
I call out to it.
“What do you want?”
The figure speaks in that same drawn-in way. “The dreams are for you. Why do you trick them into a net?” My back is a chalkboard, raked with nails.
“I do not want them,” I say, the calmness in my voice surprising me. “They disturb my son. Ruin his sleep.”
Never has my love for him been so clear. Despite everything.
The figure turns its head towards me, to the house, and back towards me. It exhales, mouth hanging open. “My gifts for you. Unwanted?”
The creature takes a step forward. “Unwanted?” It snaps its head towards me and I flinch and take a step back.
“Unwanted?” it asks. “Then name one who would have them. Name a new dreamer.”
The crickets grow silent, and so does the world. The soft wind that had caressed the leaves stops. All seemed to wait for my answer.
“The dreams are for the boy, for the house,” the creature says, and points.
I think about the boy. And then I think about the mother, and all that she has done. I found an anger I didn’t know I possessed.
“The boy’s father,” I say. “Give the dreams to the boy’s father!”
The creature, slim and slick, looks away from the house and over to the next farm. It exhales in preparation of speech.
“The father?” it finally asks, and blinks.
My stomach fills with ice, but then the creature turns away from me, looks east and starts walking. It is headed towards the Balknes farm. I always suspected it was him, his eyes brown like my son’s.
In one swift motion I break the dreamcatcher. I make a show of throwing it in the stream.
I sleep sinfully well for the rest of the night, as does my son.