"It was an honor and a burden, one which she accepted, fool that she was." Viol, death
Jessica creeps down the hall. Shadows velvet her footsteps, though there’s hardly a need: Joanna’s passed out in the living room and her little brother is asleep. He’s been going to bed regularly for the past month, since Jessica started playing with him to wear him out for bed. No more screaming fits; no more broken furniture; no more insomnia. All it took was some attention.
Still, habits die hard, so she creeps to the last door on the left.
There is light slipping beneath David’s door, though it’s nearly ten o’clock. He must have forgotten to turn off the lamp before bed. Chuckling to herself, she eases the door open, keeping one hand on the metal sign which screams “KEEP OUT” so it doesn’t bang against the plywood.
The bed is empty. The lamp is off. The light comes from the tiny adjoining bathroom between this room and Joanna’s. Water hisses from the tap. Jessica pads to the open doorway and watches as her little brother tries to clean the blood from his arms.
“I thought you were done with this.”
David shrieks. “God, Jess! Don’t you knock?”
Jessica ignores him, grabbing a bottle of hydrogen peroxide from the medicine cabinet’s top shelf. “You told me you didn’t do this anymore.”
“Yeah, well, it’s none of your business anyway. Ouch! Goddamit, Jess, that stings!”
“Watch your mouth. And it wouldn’t sting if you didn’t cut.”
David doesn’t answer his sister. Jessica doesn’t understand why he cuts, but then, she had habits that were just as destructive and senseless as this, a year back. But she doesn’t need pot to escape now. So Jessica doesn’t pry, knowing he doesn’t have the words. She just cleans his cuts, thanking God they aren’t too deep, and rolls sterile bandages across the wounds so they don’t fester.
“Is Ma awake?” he finally asks.
“No. She’s in the front room, though, if you need anything.”
“I need a beer.”
“So? That’s what you do when you’re stressed, right? You drink.”
“You used to.”
“But I don’t anymore,” Jessica says. She rises from her crouched position and tosses the broken razor from the sink’s edge into the trash can by the toilet. There’s girly stuff in there—he won’t try to get it when it’s mixed in with pads. “Why are you stressed?”
“That’s not an answer.” She gets out the gauze and begins to wrap his forearms. The stinging is just an ache now, and David can bear this without tearing up.
“I just… Didn’t do so hot on the spelling test today.”
“Mm. Tell me, what grade are you in?”
“You know which one.”
“And how old am I?”
David rolls his eyes but answers her: “Twenty-one.”
“And I can tell you, in twelve years, no one’s going to care what you got on your spelling test in fourth grade.” She pauses in her wrapping to find a roll of medical tape in the drawer. “But if it bothers you that much, I’ll help you study for the next one.”
Funny, how little things can make such a difference. He looks at her now instead of the trash can with the enthusiasm of a much younger child. Jessica smiles. “Really. And I need fifteen bucks for a new razor head, by the way.”
“That’s not fair!”
“If you’re going to destroy other people’s stuff, then you have to replace it. And why didn’t you use Ma’s?”
“I like yours better. And I don’t have a job.”
“Ah, well.” Jessica stretches, her back stiff. “Guess you’ll have to owe me, then.”
David stares at his forearms. A faint line of pink seeps into the white bandages, but it shouldn’t bleed out. Jessica did a good job mending them.
“You’re going out again, right?”
His voice stops Jessica at the threshold. She turns to look at her little brother. The harsh fluorescent lights bleach his skin. His hair is a curly, inky mess of fine wire strands. She can’t see his face. “Yes, just like I do every week, Davie. Just wanted to check on you before I left.”
His neck tenses. Jessica knows he’s scrunching his nose at the nickname, but he doesn’t raise his head. Instead, he asks a different question. “Why are you all dressed up?”
“This? Dressed up?” Jessica forces a laugh. She smoothes her unwrinkled white shirt with the sweaty palm of her free hand. “It’s my choir uniform, not a clubbing dress.”
“Still. You usually wear jeans and things out. Not a skirt. Not your good shirt.”
“How do you know what I wear on Saturday nights?”
He doesn’t answer.
essica sighs. “It’s a…a special night, tonight. I’ve got a job to do.”
His head jerks up, the whites showing around his irises.
Jessica laughs again, this time sounding like more like herself. “Not that sort of job! Promise,” she adds, when he doesn’t appear convinced. “I’m singing a song.”
“You’ll come back, then, right?”
It’s Jessica’s turn to look away. She won’t lie to him. Not anymore. Then there’s a warmth around her middle, gently squeezing her, and she knows David is hugging her, willingly initiating contact with her for the first time since Richard left. She doesn’t turn her head—she doesn’t want to scare him with any sudden movements—but she feels his hot face buried in her belly and thinks that whatever else happens tonight, David’s embrace makes the danger worth it.
Jessica stands before the carved chestnut door in the back room of the public library. The building was locked, but she keeps a skill or two from her old life. The side door opened easily tonight, as it had at least once a week over the past year.
She half-expects him to be there—her teacher, her therapist, her trainer, her Master. He’s always there. No matter how early she is—even that first time, a year ago, when she was desperate to escape David’s rages and Joanna’s blubbering—no matter how soon before midnight she arrives in the back room, he is always there first, sitting in the leather chair by the fire, hand fisted beneath his chin, smiling at the air, waiting for her.
But he’s not here. Even though she’d been warned that she had to complete her final initiation alone, Jessica is still surprised to find the leather chair empty. It’s her chair, now, or it will be if she can complete the Tithe tonight. Then she won’t be the student any longer—she’ll be the teacher for a new Apprentice.
She’d already whispered her request to the night, nothing more than a single word—“Come”—but her Master had told her that was all that was needed. Her Apprentice would hear the word in his sleep, and he would join her in the Nightlands. After all, he had said with a grin, hadn’t she come when he’d called?
But it must be natural to feel silly, whispering a word in the wind and expecting someone to hear it over the sirens and the car horns and the general hubbub of a city. It must be natural to think yourself inadequate, that you have failed before you’ve even tried. It must be natural—
Her thought is interrupted by Master’s grandfather clock. Her very bones begin to reverberate with the bass beats tolling away the hours until the sheaf of music she clutches in her right hand start trembling, too.
What was she thinking? It’s lunacy. She isn’t the apathetic, suicidal dark thing she had been last year. She cares about her life now, cares enough to not want to put it into jeopardy. She’s needed now—not just by the strangers she protects in their dreams, but by her family. What will happen if she disappeared tonight? Things are fragile enough with her holding them together; they might unravel without her, David might—
The clock continued to chime the hour. In the midst of panic, Jessica finds herself counting the strikes, hoping that they stop, but they don’t, they just march on to midnight, dragging her with them.
Then silence. But only for the moment.
A draft slips beneath the door’s edge. It creeps up Jessica’s legs, picking up speed as if her warmth feeds it. It picks at Jessica’s clothes with freezing fingers. It tugs at her unclasped collar until, at last, the fabric caves under the invisible scrutiny. There, at the base of her throat, lies a tiny metal dream catcher. It glimmers in the dim lights of the library, miniscule feathers twirling on leashes of spun silver wire.
The wind hisses as it blows through the web-like weavings stretched across the silver circle. Pinpricks rise on Jessica’s throat, but whether they’re from the cold or the fear, Jessica can’t say.
The breeze slips back through the door’s ornate keyhole, letting heat seep back into her bones. She’s passed the first test, though it won’t be the hardest tonight.
Jessica licks her dry lips and places her still-trembling hand on the tarnished silver scroll handle. A tingling sensation tickles her fingers, a feeling which spreads up her arm to diffuse throughout her body. Her pendant flares, the light throwing her shadow into high relief on the books behind her. The handle turns of its own accord and allows the door to swing open. There is no noise, no squeak or ominous scream to warn her of the danger; just a gentle swing outward, quiet as a dream. Her feet draw her across the threshold, and so Jessica enters the Nightlands.
Jessica is, as always, in the middle of a forest. It’s something from a book she had when she was younger, like a purple reproduction of an ink print of the witch’s woods. Trees are gnarled and sport torn leaves or ragged needles from drooping limbs. Slender twigs peek from underneath bushes or behind trunks, waiting for her to step on them and bring a terror running (or flying, or swimming, or wiggling or oozing or creeping). Dark blue bushes hide thorns, waiting to taste her blood. Fog muffles the scene, casting the area in a muted fairy tale glow.
Now, she knows what lurks beneath the fog and the twilight. She’s fought dragons which spit venom instead of fire, and caterpillars which ooze a cloying smoke and gave her visions of a different world while they feasted on her dreams. She’s faced people with four faces, and people with sixteen mouths, and people with two eyes which stare into her head for the solutions to questions she had forgotten were asked. She’s seen her father here, hiding in the gloom, whispering her weaknesses to the demons on the sidelines, and she’s forgiven him.
Tonight, she hurries down the tiny trail, as if she’s following bread crumbs. Every once in a while, she passes places where a path branches from hers, but she passes them all, following a familiar route.
Finally, she rests at one innocuous detour. This leads to a meadow, no doubt where her city’s dreams were collected and waiting for her. She remembers this spot, though it had been long since she’d returned.
She closes her eyes to think. Her heart flutters the cotton draped on her chest. The trees creak in a breeze that Jessica can’t feel. Rustles brush against her nerves; if she strains, she will hear hoots and calls of the nightmares, but she’s no time to wrestle with personal demons. Not tonight.
She opens her eyes, and she sees further through the fog now. Either her eyes have adjusted, or the fog thins. Maybe it’s both. She waits, scanning the trees for someone to crash through the underbrush, confused and blind to the dangers around them. She needs their innocence, having only the memory of David’s smile to keep her company.
But no one comes, and she starts to see shapes form in the fog. If she stares much longer, they will solidify. Jessica twists her head away from the figures in the fog, wishing them away, though they will return. They always return.
She has waited long enough, a small voice whispers in her mind. It is time to go, she is wasting precious time, the dreams will not wait, she must leave, she must leave now! Jessica turns her back on the road and races up the foot path. Her black flats slip on the slick leaves, but she pushes on, pushes faster. She doesn’t think about her destination beyond the fact that it’s there, or what she was going to do with no Apprentice—God, she has no Apprentice, dumbass must not be sleeping yet, he better get to sleep soon or she’s screwed, royally screwed, oh, where is Master? She needs him, needs someone to tell her that it’ll all be okay…
She runs against the beat of her heart.
She bursts out of the woods into a small and silent meadow at a dead sprint. Wheezing, it’s a moment before Jessica can look around. A grassy carpet hides the ground beneath bruised clouds. Still no moon appears, though she’s able to see clearly. The trees smear into a tangled, purple-black wall.
She shudders as an icy fear spears beneath her breastbone. A year ago in this same meadow, she had been asked by her Master to become an Apprentice Dreamkeeper, to guard the city from the nightmares which plagued it. It was an honor and a burden, one which she accepted, fool that she was.
She had offered up her innocence as her Master offered his gift—his hand—so the peace could be kept. She pissed herself as the nightmare-spider approached her, touched her with one barbed leg. The scent of fear and urine had burned into her memory, and as she breathes now to calm herself, she still feels her nose hairs burn.
A chuckle slips from the forest on the dead night. Against her will, Jessica’s body carries her farther into the glade as the nightmare approaches.
The first thing that Jessica can see is that it has only two legs and is shorter than she. This offers her little relief: the personification of her deepest fears will not need size to intimidate her. Her suspicions are realized as the nightmare steps to the top of a small rise in the center of the glade.
It is David, and it is not David. Bile rises in her throat as she sees the jagged stitches locking his mouth shut, the staring holes where his brown eyes should have been. His skin is white as salt. His arms hang limp at his sides. As Jessica approaches, she sees the jagged tears in his flesh from his elbows to his wrists. His hands have been cut off. Blood drips onto his jeans and his favorite Superman shirt, and Jessica has the absurd, absent thought that she’ll never wash them clean now. A simple black snake hangs from David’s neck, its coils draped about it in a perverse imitation of a modest skirt. Its amber eyes glow against the dark.
“All alone, my dear,” the serpent says, its head weaving figure eights like a drunken firefly. “Not wise, little human, not wise at all.” Another sinuous laugh slides out as its blue-black forked tongue tasted Jessica’s cold sweat-terror, but Jessica can barely hear it over the ringing in her ears. It’s not David, she thinks. This is not my brother. My brother is at home, in his bed, asleep.
Not that being asleep is much comfort right now.
She is alone, with the nightmare of her little brother and the devil on his shoulder taunting her. It doesn’t know who she is, no, not yet, but it will soon, and it won’t like her appearance tonight, of all nights, and here, of all places. And she has no Apprentice to help her.
But she has to try. “I come—” Her voice cracks. She coughs and continues before she loses her nerve: “I come to bear the Tithe.”
The serpent recoils against David’s skin. “You presume too much, little human! If your guardians have come too late to bear the gift, you may not save yourself from our wrath!” It hisses in anger.
It’s now or never. “I hold the honor of Dreamkeeper’s Apprentice, nightmare!” She pulls out her necklace and holds away from her so all may see it. Its silver bands glisten as it twirls in a sudden wind. “Summon your spokesman so that the Tithe might be completed this night!”
“You are late, little Keeper!” The snake fairly spits the words, its tone loaded with malice, but it does not attack Jessica. Her master might be about, waiting for such a breach of the last Tithe. “Too late, I think.” It glares at Jessica, daring her to respond.
David stands there as the snake settles down once more. He has not moved through this whole exchange. He is silent, a standing podium for this miniscule nightmare. He is a toy with which to tease her. His blood pools on the ground, having saturated his clothes.
Her hands tremble as if with palsy, but it is anger which moves her so now. If her words were not scripted, if her actions were not sealed by centuries of tradition, she would have ripped the serpent from her David’s skin. This is not my brother.
“I have something better than fear to feed you with.”
The snake freezes, a cursed onyx necklace. “What could feed me better than the ripe terror of human kind, Dreamkeeper?” Its tail twitches and smacks David’s cheek. New crimson lines appear to drip and pool in his sewn mouth.
This is not my brother. “I offer emotion far stronger than fear and far deeper than hate. For Dreamkeepers are the gate guards to the human heart, and we alone know the real power of souls.”
The snake’s slit pupils are almost gone as the hungry amber light widened the eyes. Even the forest grows quiet in a silence which is as ravenous as the monster writhing about her brother’s shape. What one receives, all will gain, thus buying most nightmares’ compliance for another year.
“Then assuage our hunger, Dreamkeeper. Quench our thirst.”
It waits for the Tithe.
Jessica breathes. The taste of rotting flesh and mold and liquid rust flows into her mouth. She coughs and breathes again, acclimating herself to the atmosphere. She slowly raises her hand, where the near-forgotten paper wrinkled in her fist, and carefully smoothes the creases so the hand-inked notes and staff and lyrics are visible. She closes her eyes, and opens them, and when she does, she can look past the nightmare and see her brother, the one who hugged her tonight for the first time in years. She cannot sing for fear; she can sing for him.
With that thought in her mind, she sings.
She sings, pure and true, her notes rebounding against the trees that stand like sentinels at the meadow’s edge. She sings of hearts breaking and hearts lost or stolen, but never returned. She sings soft as satin petals and strong as the roaring, unstoppable tide. She sings of fruitless quests for unknown goals and of windfalls found when expecting nothing. She sings of gentle love and burning passion. She sings of what she wants to have, but has never achieved.
The last note of her lament dies. Jessica pants, exhausted. The world is silent as the nightmares absorb her offering.
Jessica listens as she recovers, praying to anything that might be listening, but she can’t hear anything except her labored breathing and the drip of David’s blood in the soaked ground. She won’t turn to look and betray her fear, but she knows her Apprentice has not come. She remains alone.
Finally, the snake stirs. “My hunger has been subdued, Master Dreamkeeper,” it says. Jessica doesn’t relax. “What of my thirst?”
Jessica sighs. “Your thirst must go unquenched. My Apprentice is not here.”
The snake rears its scaly head. “Then the Tithe is incomplete, and we are free!” It screeches the last word to the heavens, and the silence of the forest shatters as the devils hiding in the shadows answer it with screams and squeals.
Jessica shakes her head. “No,” she says. Her throat is clogged with phlegm, and her cheeks flush against the tears which trace lines down her cheeks.
“That was not enough to feed us, little Keeper!” the snake hisses. “Either give us more, or give us up, ‘tis all the same!”
It’s odd. She expected it would come to this. In some tiny corner of her mind, she knew that she would fail, that she would do something wrong, that while she accepted this strange, bizarre world, she would be alone at the last.
With no Apprentice to offer their terror and potential to the nightmares, a hand will not be enough to appease them.
Jessica smoothes her hands against her black velvet skirt. She looks at her brother, coated in white skin and glistening blood, and she wishes she could see her brother’s eyes one last time. But she’s already said goodbye.
“I have a drink to quench your thirst, nightmare.”
The serpent’s tongue flickers. Surely her desperation is tangible. “What? Surely you have not composed another tragedy in the space of thirty seconds?”
Jessica mouth quirks. “I want to live, you know.”
If a snake can look confused, this one does. “I beg your pardon?”
Jessica stifles a hysterical laugh. “I want to live,” she repeats. “I value it above all else. I want to run to my father and tell him that I forgive him for leaving us. I want to hold my mother and tell her that I wish she didn’t have to drink. I want to hold my brother’s hands so he can’t cut.
“I want to scream and shout and sing and weep,” she tells her nightmare, as tears run unchecked and unnoticed over her face and neck. She tastes salty water, and it washes away the coating of blood she has tasted since her brother’s specter appeared. “I want to love and be loved and protect people I love more than myself. And for that love, I would sacrifice myself, though I want to live. So tell me, nightmare, will you accept this final sacrifice on our behalf?”
Jessica can no longer see beyond blurs and suggestions. Her vision swims beneath the oceans of tears which well from the left side of her chest. She stumbles up the little rise in the middle of the meadow, towards the silhouette of the nightmare which has taken the form of her brother and the sibilant hiss of her fears.
He is taller than she had thought he was, a boy stretched into a man’s body, but not as tall as she. She sees smears of red against white, the coil of inky black where his head meets his shoulders, but she doesn’t care. She gathers up the battered, mauled body of her brother into a hug and lets her tears wash the blood from his cheeks.
The snake does not pause, as a human might have when confronted with a person who was willing to make such a gift. It does not stop and think that maybe the emotions the girl feels now may have been enough to satisfy the the Tithe. It simply sees a meal, a storm of emotion, pain and suffering and joy (yes, joy) all seething in the skin of this fragile human girl. It slides up David’s neck, behind his ear and through the wiry jungle of black hair. Its tongue brushes the lips of the sister who is crying on her brother. Its fangs pierce her lips.
The music that Jessica clutched so tightly flutters to the ground as her body falls in the pool of blood at her brother’s feet.
The Tithe is complete.
The Nightlands are quiet. There has not been a Sacrifice at the Tithe for a century, and the nightmares are still digesting. The sun will rise soon, and the Nightlands will shelter the demons for another day.
The silence is broken by a crash. A murder of crows screams from the treetops, but the young man's progress isn't impeded. He runs down the path, chased by nothing but a terrible foreboding that is never explained but often felt in dreams.
The meadow lies still, save for the young man's breathing. He smells iron and salt, but that might be sweat. There's an odd shape in the center of the meadow, and he walks up to investigate. (Curiosity never kills in dreams.)
A girl lies on a dark patch of earth, the grass coated with a glistening black substance. Black curls cradle her head. Her white shirt has absorbed all the liquid, staining it. Pieces of sheet music lie around her, left behind.
He reaches out to brush hair from her swollen lips, and a glimmer of silver catches his attention. Gently, he lifts it free of the shirt. It's a necklace of a dream catcher, perfect down to the little crimson feathers trailing beneath the circular net. The metal's tacky with blood, but it could wash clean.
He doesn't know why, but he unclips it from her neck and slowly, carefully, wraps the slender chain around his wrist. It circles three times before clasping shut, the perfect length. The feathers tuck beneath the chain, so the pendant doesn't swing free. It could be a watch, or a gift from a girlfriend.
And then he's gone, woken up, leaving the girl at her hill. The necklace leaves with him, but it will return. It always returns the next Dreamkeeper to the Nightlands.