On a night when the stars shied behind a cover of clouds, Imogen Salor visited the shop of the Dreamer.
It was a squat building sitting alone at the edge of a field, eaves hanging low over the entry. Imogen paused at the threshold, reigned in her nerves, and turned the glass knob.
Inside was a dim lobby area lit by a single candelabra. Though it was vacant, she could hear conversation through heavy velvet curtains on the far wall. Imogen paced as she waited.
After some minutes, a man whose shiny shoes reflected the yellow candlelight appeared at the curtained doorway. His expression was stubbornly neutral. Had he received the help he was looking for?
“The Dreamer will see you now,” the man said.
Imogen inhaled deeply. Doubts surfaced in her mind, but if anyone could help her, it would be the Dreamer. Tentatively, she parted the curtains and stepped through.
Much like the rest of the shop, this room was dark, lit only by a single flame on the sill. The slender figure of the Dreamer stood against the wall, obscured by shadows. It seemed neither man nor woman but exuded an ancient aura.
“Hello, Imogen,” the Dreamer said. It must have been through some magic or omnipotence that the Dreamer guessed her name. The thought sent chills down her spine.
Timidly, Imogen said, “I have come seeking your help.”
“And you are willing to pay the price?” The Dreamer tilted their head to study her.
Imogen nodded, offering forth a handful of coins.
The Dreamer made a rasping noise that sounded like a laugh, “I have no need for money; I deal only in dreams.”
“Dreams?” She repeated dubiously.
“It’s a painless process. If we make a deal,” the Dreamer explained with a wide smile, “You simply will not remember any of your mind’s nighttime excursions.”
“Alright.” However odd, Imogen would agree. She’d forgo anything if it could save her.
Pressing the tips of their fingers together, the Dreamer asked, “What can I help you with, Imogen?”
Patiently, the Dreamer listened as Imogen explained her situation.
“I see,” the Dreamer said as she finished. Imogen wiped away the tears that had surfaced from recalling her pain.
When Imogen left the shop, the moon glistened in its silver glory, and she was free both of burdens and dreams.
Ever since she visited the Dreamer, Imogen awoke filled with the vigor of a new day. Flying to the window, she watched the verdant grass bristle in the breeze as the shafts of sunlight warmed her toes.
Contentedly, she brewed tea and pet her cat, Barnabas, pleased by the sound of his rhythmic purring. She spent her days with purpose, never weighed down by grief or distress, and at night, she’d fall into a dreamless sleep, feeling as though her life was fulfilled.
On a morning when the sun boldly hung in the sky, Imogen visited the town.
The cobbled street was decorated with wooden carts vending flowers, pastries, newsletters, and anything else possibly desired. However, it was the baker so dusted with flour that his apron appeared white that caught Imogen’s attention. For, unlike the other fruitful merchants whose carts attracted a swarm of customers, none approached his.
Imogen crept closer. The baker’s face was gaunt and his clothes threadbare. As they passed, the townsfolk glared and gave him a wide berth as if he had contracted the plague.
“Can I have three loaves of bread?” Imogen said, taking pity on the man.
“Of course, miss,” the baker said eagerly. As Imogen’s coin passed to his hand, his features lit up, somehow rejuvenated.
“Why do the others avoid your cart?” Imogen asked. The baker’s expression twitched into anger. Hastily, Imogen clarified, “The bread seems perfectly delicious to me.”
With a wary glance, the baker said, “The townsfolk have the idea that my mother is a witch.”
Imogen laughed. The only person in this town with an ounce of magic was the Dreamer, of that she was sure. Anyone who didn’t fit the idea of normalcy was labeled a witch.
“Do you find that funny?” The baker snapped defensively.
“It’s ludicrous, is all,” Imogen said.
The baker reminded her of herself not long ago: struggling to keep her head afloat from the battering waves driven by the judgment of others. The Dreamer had saved her; perhaps the baker might be saved as well.
In a whisper, Imogen told him of the Dreamer.
“And this Dreamer rid you of your struggles?” The baker asked incredulously.
“Miraculously so,” Imogen said. She had doubted as well before she met the Dreamer.
The baker shook his head and chuckled hollowly. “Thank you, miss, but I’m rather fond of my struggles.”
Imogen couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to keep their struggles. She traded her misery for happiness, and she lived better for it. Taking her bread, she bid the baker goodbye, bitterness creeping into her tone.
Though she tried to put it off her mind, Imogen fell asleep uneasily. The baker’s response gnawed at her.
When the morning dawned, Imogen return to demand of the baker exactly what he meant.
“I suppose my struggles make my life what it is. Without them, I would be a false shadow of who I am,” the baker said thoughtfully.
“But wouldn’t you rather be happy all of the time?” Imogen pressed, grappling to understand.
“It would be a false happiness, wouldn’t it?”
Imogen laughed nervously. A thought seized her: if her happiness was false, did that mean her life was false?
The baker intrigued Imogen as much as he disturbed her. As she ran her fingers through Barnabas’s fluffy white coat, she wondered if the very moment she was experiencing was somehow false, like the baker said. The thought turned her stomach. What did it mean for her if her reality, her emotion, her being was unreal?
When Imogen again visited the town, the baker’s cart was not to be found. She searched the cobbles with increasing panic, but there was no sign of the young man. She needed to understand. She needed to talk to him.
She inquired about his whereabouts, and the brewer said gleefully, “The witch’s offspring? He left town last night. Good riddance, I say.”
Imogen’s chest felt heavy and she struggled to breathe. How could she continue to live her life when she didn’t know if it was false? The baker had the answers; the baker knew if the truth mattered.
But now the baker was gone, leaving Imogen with uncertainty gripping her heart.
As it had been the first time she came, the Dreamer’s shop was lit only by candles. Many waited for an audience with the Dreamer. Would they come to regret it? When the lobby was at last empty, Imogen entered the Dreamer’s room.
“Hello again, Imogen,” the Dreamer said. The candle on the windowsill was extinguished, and it was so dark in the room that not even the outline of the Dreamer’s form was visible. Imogen paused in the doorway.
The Dreamer’s voice seemed to come from everywhere when they said, “I did not expect to see you back so soon. Are you unhappy with our deal?”
“I am happy,” Imogen said truthfully. Then, after a moment of hesitation, “But since you took away the pain, does that make my happiness false?”
The Dreamer clicked their tongue. “How could that be so? Happiness is happiness.”
“Yes, but…Is it bad to live an unreal life?”
“Whos says it is unreal?” At her silence, the Dreamer sighed impatiently. “You told me you are happy. Was your life before happy?”
Imogen shook her head vehemently.
“So why does it matter?” The Dreamer concluded.
It was sound logic, easier to understand than the baker. She was happy, so it didn’t matter if her life was false. Surely, she didn’t want to suffer. With a relieved sigh, she made to leave.
“Imogen?” The Dreamer said.
Imogen turned towards the spindly voice.
“Dreams cannot be undreamt.”
Sometimes, the Dreamer examined the dreams collected from the shop’s patrons. Accessible by a ladder that led to the attic of the shop, they were arranged on countless shelves, each dream safely contained in a glass orb.
With delicate fingers, the Dreamer extracted the most recent dream of Imogen Salor from its place.
After brushing aside the mists of unconsciousness that began any dream, a wooden cart on a cobbled street emerged. There, Imogen was with a handsome man.
Imogen’s face was covered with an ivory mask, but strangely, there were no holes for her eyes. Blindly, she tried to claw it off, but the ribbon that secured it was knotted. The man reached over gently to untie it.
As the mask dropped away, it hit the ground with an echoing thud, and Imogen’s skeletal face was revealed. Where skin should have been, shards of bleached bone protruded. Her eyes were glassy in their sunken sockets, and the scraps of remaining hair were gray as if the life had been drained from them.
The young man scrambled away, disappearing into the mist.
In the way of dreams, Imogen was now holding a mirror that had silently materialized. When she glimpsed her gruesome reflection, Imogen screamed.
With a jolt, the dream ended. and the interior of the attic resurfaced. The Dreamer cradled the orb gingerly in their cupped hands. Watching intently, the Dreamer let it clatter to the ground and roll beneath a dusty shelf.
Wretched, deluded soul, the Dreamer thought and laughed softly.