I’ve changed a lot of lives in seventeen years, mostly for the better. So you’d think I’d be used to this. But today’s client was younger than usual, and I don’t even think she knew what she wanted.
“So, tell me a little about yourself.”
A piece of magenta hair fell forward from behind her ear as she fidgeted with a mood ring on her hand. “Well—not really much to tell. Name’s Shanty. Thirteen. I guess I’m pretty typical. Go to school, chill with friends, do some gaming, stuff like that.”
“And how long have you been in foster care?”
And—up—came her eyes…and the glare.
“Look,” I said, sighing. “You came without a parent. Your clothes are second-hand, and you do a decent job of making it seem like you like them that way, except your hair, nails, and makeup make it apparent that you’d have more fashion sense if you could afford it. You shifted in your seat when you mentioned friends, so you probably don’t have many, likely because you’ve been shunted from family to family so often you don’t get a chance to keep them.
“I know how this works. And even if I didn’t, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that only someone who really hates their life would come and see me.
“So. If you want a good placement, let’s skip the niceties and get down to the nitty-gritty. I need to know who you are and what makes you tick. What are your goals and interests; what are your fears? Who do you admire; who do you hate? Give me something to go off of here.”
Bluntness saves so much time. So while Shanty gave me the all-too-familiar stare of shock and irritation, I took a long swig of water, buying her time to to shake it off and figure out what to say.
“Fine.” She said. “We’ll skip the niceties. I hate foster care, but you already know that. I hate black but wear it because it’s easy to hide in. Friends are a convenience only people who can’t stick up for themselves need, and I’m fine without them. And as for you, what makes you think that I’d tell someone like you anything about me, when you sit here stuck up in a hole, illegally sending people off to who knows where with your stupid brain-powers? Nope. I’m out.”
She shoved her chair back, knocking it over, and moved to exit. But before she got there, I caught her wrist. “Alright look, you’re right. I was too abrupt. I’m sorry. Truth is, you remind me of me. And all that stuff I said is just who I used to be. But I actually can help, and to do that I do actually need to know you. Start over?”
I did my best to sound convincing. I didn’t need the lashing later if she actually left without my services. But I also couldn’t really put my heart into it. This girl just needed to work some stuff out. She didn’t really need another life yet, did she?
Her glare lasted seriously a full minute. I swear she was trying to read my soul. But eventually she picked up her chair, put it back at the table and sat down, talking to the back wall.
“I love fantasy stories. I love it when good conquers evil. I hate mundane life and school and boring work. I want to live a life of adventure and excitement.”
Oh how sick I am of those words. Don’t people realize what lives like that are really like? Heroism comes at the absolute end of seriously horrible lives. Just listening to her brought back several very vivid dreams I’d had for clients, and I quickly had to suppress them. No cross-contaminating clients’ dreams tonight. Been there, done that. Never again. Especially with a thirteen year old.
“Ok. That’s a great starting point. So you like to see good prevail. What about in this world? What kinds of careers do you see that in here?”
“This world sucks. Everyone is only out for themselves. Even doctors are just in it for the money. I want something completely different, where I’m a real hero.”
Ok, dead end. There was no way this girl could afford a fantasy dream. I’d have to figure out what to do for her some other way. Time for a different approach.
“Ok, let’s talk about relationships. What do you wish you had for a family? Friends? Do you wish people looked up to you? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? What about romance? What do you look for in love?”
Shanty just sat, thinking, fingers subconsciously twiddling that mood ring again. I was about ready to ask a different question, when she looked directly at me, brown eyes shimmering with resolutely unfallen tears, and said, “What’s it like to be loved?”
What’s it like to be loved? As if I know.
That question still stings. I have no idea. I’ve spent over half of my life forced to work for a gang that abuses my ability. I have no life of my own. No freedoms. I haven’t felt love since I was taken from my family at sixteen. And I can’t exactly dream myself away. The unfairness of that question began boiling my memories up—all those times I’d tried to escape, the attempts to dream my captors away…oh, but they were too careful.
But, no. I caught myself. This was about Shanty. I know where those thoughts lead, and it’s to nightmares, and then pain for my client, and then my own regret, forever. I must control those thoughts.
Thankfully Shanty was lost in her own thoughts, “I think my mother loved me until she died of an overdose when I was eight. When I got into the system, everyone quit calling me Chantelle and called me Shanty instead because I couldn’t afford the nice things I’d had before. I’ve never had someone say they loved me since. I just want someone to care.
“I ran away for the first time three years ago, but they kept catching me. So last year I got smart. I heard about you from some friends at school and started stealing money from my foster family. I always make sure it’s just cash they leave lying around, and it’s just a bit here and there, never enough for them to think it was me. They always just think they lost it. But I finally have enough.”
She paused, realizing what she’d just said. “Look, I don’t even know if I believe you can do this. But if it’s true, I don’t care where you send me. Anywhere’s gotta be better than this. I just want to be happy, k?”
She put her hood over her hair and pulled up her knees, hugging them, and the tears finally flowed. I think she recognized she’d confided some pretty deep stuff in a complete stranger, and she might get in trouble for it. But if she knew what she was asking for, she would’ve been a lot more scared of what I could do than what she had told me.
I’d sent people to their worst nightmares. I’d sent them to burn. I’d sent them to face demons and dragons and evil they couldn’t imagine. Of course, the vast majority of the people I sent away were people like her who had paid for my services and who got more or less what they wanted. But the truth was, these were dreams we were talking about. And I was only human. I couldn’t control all of them, and sometimes even the best paying customer got a nightmare by mistake.
I lowered my voice so the guards outside my door hopefully couldn’t hear me, “Chantelle. I’m going to be straight with you. You can walk out that door right now, go back to a life you know, and be safe. Unhappy, probably, but safe. And someday you can turn your own life around. You can make your own choices in just a few years and create a life you will love. But the truth is, I can’t guarantee happiness.
“If you choose to stay, yes, I can send you into a new life inside my dream. It’s true.” She searched my eyes desperately, and finally believed it. So I hurried on, “But here’s how it works, you tell me what you want. Depending on how much money you pay, which I’m guessing will be the lowest tier, you may or may not get an off-world dream. Assuming it’s in-world, which is likely, it’s still a dream. How much control do you have over your dreams?
“I’ve been doing this a long time, so I do have things I can eat, ways to meditate, books to read, and stuff that help me focus my dreams in on what I think might help you, but I can seriously screw up your life. And there’s no turning back. Once you’re in there, I’m NOT. You can’t come back. And I can’t change the dream once you’re in it.”
Memories of people I’d sent to horrific places flooded my mind. Bodies with disabilities, islands without necessities, wars, famines, it all came rushing back with the guilt of each and every one of those people, who had each thought their lives were hard, but whom I’d sent to something harder.
“Just walk away,” I whispered, staring at the table below me. “Leave. Please.” I knew the pain that would come from the gang tonight for not having convinced her. But it would be worth it. She still had a life to live, here. And in a few years it could completely turn around.
“NO.” She pulled a fistful of bills and change out of her jacket pocket and dumped it on the table. “I trust you,” she said. “Do your best. Anywhere is better than here.”
The guard outside had heard her. He walked in, took the money, and led her to my sleeping quarters, where she would wait, pampered, while I desperately attempted to hold back the fear and anger, and prepare a dream to provide a girl I barely knew with life-long happiness.