Sometimes he still had nightmares about it. Vague, blurry images that flit through his mind like wasps, stinging until he bolted awake, his bed sheets half soaked through with cold sweat. This was one of those nights.
Tracysat up, throwing the damp sheets off and dangling his legs over the side of the bed, hands covering his face, fingers digging into his brow and temple. He let out a deep sigh, one that he'd grown rather friendly with since his stay inDenver. These nights happened more frequently than he would have liked, and they always ended the same way: no recollection of the dream and an exhausted man who could hardly keep his focus at whatever he happened to be doing the next day. Very recently, it had been working at a Laundromat. He glanced at the small digital clock on his night stand. It was only three in the morning, but he stood and trudged to his closet. Getting an early start to the day was better than laying around in bed trying to remember that blasted dream. He could never remember it; it was all a blur of pastel yellows and pinks and blues, and a looming, menacing black that just didn't belong. He always remembered the screaming and the sharp, warm pain in the back of his head. The dream always ended with the most sickening sensation, as if he were falling from the heavens, but in all the wrong directions.
His stomach churned just at the thought of it. That, he always remembered.
Water spilled from the faucet as he turned the knob on the head of the sink. He swallowed hard, trying to shake the awful feeling that dream always left. It was like watching the world burn around you, he'd realized some time ago, and it was every bit as upsetting. He was surprised he found the strength to crawl out of bed after that one – everything had seemed so real, less distant. It hadn't seemed, this time, as if he were just standing outside the scene, or in the protection of a glass case. This time, he'd been in that disaster, whatever it was. He'd been running for his life, he'd been caught at the heels by those black things and he'd nearly been ripped to shreds. And then there had been the other ones, the ones above him – in every way – and then there was the sharp pain and a loud crack that he couldn't tell if it were coming from inside him or from the chaos that was unfolding – collapsing in on itself, being sucked in like a black hole, trapped – in front of him before the world went black, blacker than it had been, and everything stopped.
Tracylet out a choked sob and gasped for breath, pulling his face upwards from the steady stream of water flowing from his sink.
It'd been like dying.
The towel was soft and warm and it woke him up a little more than the cold water had. It was like dying, every night, and there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted to know why he was having this nightmare, over and over and over so that it seeped from the subconscious world and bothered his mind in its waking state as well, but he couldn't remember. He couldn't remember anything beforeDenver. It was a sort of amnesia, he guessed, it had to be. He'd stumbled into the town in a state of delirium, muttering on about amnesia dust, about not believing – he never said what – and clutching a child's tooth in his right hand.
He replaced the towel slowly and drew his hand towards his face, taking in the physical reminder of his short-lived insanity. A small white scar remained on the flesh of his palm – he'd clutched the lost tooth so tightly, as if it were something so sacred to him, that he'd broken the skin on his hand, punctured it rather deeply, drawing blood with the small token of… of…
He sighed, shrugging on his uniform. Token of something or other, he was sure of that. He still had the tooth, slightly blood stained as it was, in the drawer of his nightstand. As silly as it sounded, it was something that grounded him, made him feel comforted for some odd reason, and made him feel all the less lonely.
Tracywas very lonely. He was blessed, he knew, because he had people looking after him; kind, charitable people who had found him that first night in a tattered work suit, raving like a lunatic, broken and bleeding in several places. They'd taken care of him, more patient than anyone he'd ever met in his life, he was sure, even if he couldn't quite remember it all. They helped him get along; they provided him with an apartment in their complex, they helped him get settled and registered inColorado, they helped him find a job… They were Saints, they had to be. Angels from heaven, beautiful winged creatures who resided—
A sharp pain shot through his temple and he cringed, groping for the medicine cabinet. Bloody migraines…
He downed two pills with a swig of tap water and sat back on the bed, bathed in darkness again. His skin crawled. He truly hated the dark. There was something about it that he felt was suffocating, something he knew would kill him if he sat still long enough, like quicksand.
He took a deep breath, just to reassure himself.
He exhaled, a great, shuddering noise, and looked at the clock again.
It was going to be a long day, he surmised.
The days themselves were uneventful, boring, lacking a certain magic he felt he'd once had in his life. Perhaps it was his own fault. He'd stopped interacting with people; he'd stopped trying to find a girlfriend, he'd just stopped trying, really, all together. There was something a lot more important he should have been doing, not watching people clean their dirty unmentionables all day long. Everything in his back office, his perch, was impeccably organized. Everything had its place, and God help you if you came in here and messed it up. It was one of the few things that gaveTracy the sense of normalcy his life utterly lacked.
All sorts of people meandered in and out of the shop. Men and women, families and lone-goers. Big and short and small and tall – people of all different races and ethnicities and identities. His favorite were the children. He'd been told that it was creepy, sick – one person had even gone so far as to call it shamefully disgusting, which had confused him for quite a few days. But he'd straightened everything out with the proprietors of the Laundromat, in a ditch effort to keep the job that he so desperately needed. He was not fascinated with the children in any unlawful way, he'd hurriedly explained. He just thought they had a certain… charm about them. An untainted innocence that was refreshing to see in the world. It was a small form of hope, for him, another strange thing about himself he couldn't quite explain. It was just nice, to see the children with their unmatchable amount of imagination, wide eyes and learning about the world just slowly enough to relish those years where anything was possibl. The years before sour adulthood took over and they stopped believing.
He watched over them as they played while their parents used the facility. They chased each other around the free standing industrial machines, shrieking happily as one pretended to be after the others. That was good, they were learning. He'd smile – a real, genuine smile – when they ran past his little half-office.
Most of them did, anyway.
There was that one little girl, he'd noticed – she and her mum would come in every Tuesday, and she'd sit on one of the plastic chairs that had been bolted into the linoleum, and she'd just stare at him. To be honest, it was a little creepy, that she never took her eyes off ofTracy, no matter where he moved around the shop. She'd draw her knees up to her chin whenever he glanced at her, ducking her head so that only her eyes were visible from behind her angel-thin blonde hair. It wasn't in a way that suggested she was frightened of him – if anything, she seemed bashful. He could see the smile in her eyes, and even heard her laugh once, but only when he looked directly at her. Otherwise, she'd just stare at him with wide eyes, never saying a word, not even to her mother – at least not until they left.
The door chimes jingled as they exited. For some reason, the sound made him inexplicably sad. That sweet little girl was the best part of his week, but the dingy shop closed in a half an hour, then he'd lock up and go home, and start the dreadful process all over again, with seven whole days in between the sight of that lovely little girl and her bashful smile again.
When she was not there, he often spent his work days being disgusted with himself – not in a bad way, if that were a possibility. He liked him well enough, but his situation could go burn in Hell for all he cared. Things were not supposed to be like this. It was a sentiment he couldn't help from tugging at the blurry edges of his mind, where everything was entrenched in the fog of his forgotten self. Everything was great, once upon a time, and he was close to going somewhere. Things had just looked up for him, and now he was here, locking up a struggling Laundromat for the night so that he could come back and open it again at six in the morning.
The road was dark, but the stars came to his aid, casting down their light on him, like glitter against the sky, a beautiful velvet backdrop that he could have just reached out and touched, maybe – once upon a time. The stuff of fairy tales, he thought bitterly. The walk home was longer than usual, that night, and he wanted nothing more than to be home, those few precious seconds between wakefulness and the terror of sleep.
He dropped into his bed at ten thirty Thursday night. He'd gotten home a half hour ago and scarfed down some plain rice and cardboard chicken. The important thing was that it was food, sustenance that was often hard for him to come by. He made due with what he could afford, and it just so happened to be rice and chicken.
The moment his body hit the old spring mattress, he let out a deep groan. He'd been on his feet for the last week straight and his whole body was sore with anxiety. He prayed that the dream wouldn't pester him again tonight – his body couldn't afford it.
He loosened undid the top two buttons of his shirt and closed his eyes, not bothering to change out of his clothes. It was already Thursday, he told himself, he could do this. The Laundromat was closed on Sundays, only three more days.
There was a loud knocking on his door.
Tracy's heart hammered in his chest. No one ever knocked on his door, so who was it? More importantly, what did they want? The hammering stopped, the offending organ settling somewhere around his knees as the possibilities came to him. Perhaps it was another parent. He'd very carefully, very tediously explained to all of his regulars that their children weren't in any danger and that it had all just been a nasty rumor. Perhaps it was the landlords, coming to kick him out. He'd been in the apartment for three years on half-rent. They had every right to be tired of him by now.
Every muscle stiffened as he lay in bed, straining to hear any noise coming from the other side of the door. It was a wasted effort, he knew. The walls were old and thick and no one could hear anything from the hallway.
The knocking came again. Maybe if he just lay there, maybe if he didn't do anything they'd go away. That would be choice, really, just splendid.
Knock knock knock.
This one was much different from the first two. It was much more delicate, and the sudden change in the demeanor of his unwelcomed guest intrigued him. He shuffled, sitting up on the mattress and looking out at the door to his apartment. He stood slowly, rebuttoning his wrinkled shirt and moving as quietly as possible into the sitting room. The apartment doors lacked peepholes. He pressed his ear up against the wood, trying with everything he had to make out the gruff undertones of his landlord, or the irritated chatter of a parent. Worse, his heart sank a little lower, a cop. He'd had a cop on him once before, when he'd first made it into the city – the officer had thoughtTracywas here illegally. He'd stuttered out that he wasn't even sure where 'here' was, that he'd been doing fine until all of four hours ago, when he'd woken up in the hospital. The man chalked that once instance up as the beginning of this waking nightmare. It had all been downhill from there, the questioning, the lack of records, the close watch that was kept on him for the first year. No one would hire him, because they didn't want to be mixed up in the business of an illegal, if the cops were able to turn anything up on him. Rumors had ruined his life more than once since his stay inDenver. He was tired and worn to the bone, and the last thing he wanted to deal with was an angry, intrusive, misinformed cop at this hour—
"Hello?" he heard, through the door. It was faint, but it was decidedly too high pitched to belong to a burly cop orTracy's landlord. In fact, it sounded as if it were the voice of a child.
He undid the deadbolt and unlocked the door, swinging it open wide. There she was, standing there with her mother, who wore a look of mild surprise on her face and pulled her daughter backwards. "Oh," he said, paying the mother very little mind. This was the little girl who sat in the Laundromat every Tuesday. "Hello."
"Sorry to bother you, mister…?"
"Uhm, just Tracy. Still not entirely sure what my last name might be."
"Tracy," the mother said slowly. "But my daughter was just adamant about coming here. There's, uhm, obviously been a mistake, wrong apartment, I guess-"
"Nope," the little girl chimed, looking up atTracywith wide eyes, the same look she'd give him at the Laundromat. "This is him. You remember him, right mommy?"
The woman knelt down and picked up her daughter. "Of course I do, dear," she said, though he was more than certain the woman had never spared him a passing glance. She looked him square in the eye. He could see immediately that she was just as tired as he was. "I know this is more than a little intrusive, but may we come in?"
Tracyshuffled out of the doorway, noticing that his headache was back. He decided it could definitely wait, now that he had company. He almost laughed at the notion. He hadn't had company since he'd gotten out of the hospital, and the first people to visit him since were complete and total strangers, despite their regular use of the Laundromat. He sat them down in the pitiable living room and fixed the mother a cup of tea, letting the little girl play on the floor for the moment.
"So what brings you here? I mean, no trouble at all really, but I'm just… curious. Why here?" he asked, sitting on the chair opposite the woman, with the little girl between them. She had a small bag with her and was holding a flashlight, playing with the beam that it produced. The mother looked wearily down at her child and he could see that the family had endured a storm of their own. "What's happened?"
"My daughter's been a little… on edge since my husband died. She… saw you at the Laundromat and thinks you can help her," she said, and it sounded more like a question than the statement it was supposed to be. "As soon as it gets dark out, she has a problem. She won't go to sleep at night, and she said that you…" she sighed. "Why don't you tell him, Lily?"
The name sent shivers downTracy's spine, though he couldn't explain why. It was another heavy, lost memory of someone that maybe he knew, but the face and personality never matched up with the name. Everything was foggy, but the name gave him a start all the same, raising the hair on the back of his neck and causing him to wince inwardly as the little girl looked up and crawled into her mothers lap without abandoning the flashlight, sitting so that she was facing the man. He smiled at her, hoping to coax her out of that bashful silence she'd woven for herself. He leaned forward. "Why don't you tell Old Tracy about it, hmm? If you really think I can help."
She looked up at him and nodded once. "I'm afraid of the dark," she said, softly, clutching the flashlight to her chest; he felt a great weight taken off his. He'd thought that two strangers appearing suddenly at his door would pose more of a problem than a fear of the dark. His own fear stirred inside of him at her words, but he ignored it, pretended to be brave and help her get over her fear. "And why are you afraid of the dark, Lily?" he choked on her name.
Her eyes went wider, if possible, and she blanched a little, clutching the light and staring straight at him as she said it.
"The dark killed daddy."
He felt the familiar suffocating pressure on his chest, the knot of dread that accompanied his uncertain past, his fear of the dark and of those things unknown. It was such a simple sentence, and rather silly, he'd admit, but the notion terrified him, the thought that he wasn't the only one who felt like it was murderous. He repeated her slowly, feeling the weight of the words as they left his lips hang about the air like lead. Lily nodded. Her mother wrapped an arm around her middle and explained. "Ziggy had a stroke," she said softly, "and died in his sleep. Now Lily won't sleep at night, and even getting her to lay down in the afternoon is difficult."
"Ziggy was your husband?" he asked, that familiar detached feeling washing over him. Another name, another pain in his temple. The woman nodded; Lily spoke up.
"It wasn't the stroke," she said, her words measured and confident. "It was the dark. They ate his dreams and that's what killed him!"
"Who ate daddy's dreams, Lily?"
Her face fell, and she looked like she was on the verge of crying, though her voice was quiet and steady. "The bogeymen. They ate daddy's dreams."
Tracyrubbed a thumb against the side of his head. The pain was returning full force. "Dreams are good, though!" he said, closing his eyes against the uncomfortably pressure in his skull. "Dreams are what keep people going, what makes people who they are! Dreams are – are wonderful things, miss Lily, absolutely wonderful things, very important. It's when you don't dream that the bogeymen come. When they have bad dreams to eat – they don't want the good ones." He stuttered and tripped around his words, trying to make it all up on the spot. It all came out rusty, like he was regurgitating a lecture he himself had gotten a long, long time ago. All the better, he thought, wearily, best to make her believe it.
"The bogeymen don't – they can't hurt you if you don't sleep. I don't want to sleep, because they're still there, sometimes. I don't think they know what they did to daddy, and they're looking for him, for more dreams."
He nodded. "That's probably right. Bogeymen aren't too terribly bright, or they wouldn't feed off of someone's dreams in the first place. But they won't hurt you, Lily, because you still have good dreams. Your daddy was probably having bad dreams, and that's why they were able to hurt him."
He looked up and saw the mother's face, an expression of pure appall of what he was telling her five year old daughter. His face flushed a pale pink and he hurried to explain. "Y'see, the bogeymen, they don't actually feed off of you, like leeches, they feed off of your dreams. They make the dreams bad so that they have something to eat. When the dreams are gone all together and there's nothing left for them, the host dies. It's all very inconspicuous, but having good dreams actually keeps them away. They don't like having to do work, right, so if they have to do all that bad-dream business right off the bat, they won't bother with you."
The woman frowned and he buried his face in his hands. He was just digging himself deeper and deeper, and by now she probably though he was half-mad. "M'sorry," he said, that uncomfortable feeling weighing down on his chest. "Shouldn't have said any of that. I don't even know where that came from, sort of just… bubbled out, didn't it?"
Sleep tugged at the corners of his mind as he sat there with his guests; Lily took the flashlight and settled the dusty beam over his shoulders. The room was not especially dark, but he felt at that moment that her light was the strongest he'd seen in a while. "Are you sure that good dreams will keep them away?" she asked, in a tone that almost resembled hushed awe.
"One hundred percent." He gave a quick nod, not daring to say anything more than that. By some stroke of luck, Lily had not been horrified by his description of monsters that feed off of dreams, and whatever other lunacy was floating around in his head. "It's safe for you to sleep, little Lily. It's good for you to sleep, maybe you can get those mean Bogeymen out of your house. Wouldn't that be something?"
She nodded and smiled;Tracynoticed that the girl was missing several teeth, and this only made his smile all the more genuine, less weary and much brighter. Her mother stood with her daughter in her arms and knelt down to retrieve Lily's small bag that had been left on the floor. She grabbed it in her tiny fists immediately as her mother stood and unzipped the top with some the door for them and the mother said her gratitude and bid him a good night. Lily leaned over her mother's shoulder and held something out to Tracy, who took it hesitantly. Her hand hardly fit around the arm of the doll; his nearly swallowed it whole. He looked up at the girl in mild confusion.
It was a toy of hers, a fairy princess doll in a pastel pink tutu, with soft, ornate wings that made his heart ache, but in a way that he couldn't remember feeling in Denver. "Maybe this will help the bad dreams stop, mister Tracy." She said quietly, draped over her mother's shoulder and staring solemnly at him. "Maybe you can get your good dreams back, too. So they don't get you."