The Nightmare Collector

Once there was a girl.

Isn’t that the way these things always start?

Once there was a girl who looked just like other girls, who read Sweet Valley High books and drew pictures of unicorns and went to school and played with her sisters. Just like other girls. But there was one thing—isn’t there always one thing?—that made this girl different.

She didn’t dream.

*****

I read in a science magazine once, in eighth grade, that dreaming matters because of the way it engages your brain. Dreams help you solve problems (theoretical math, what to do about that pesky hydraulic leak) and practice skills (skiing, sex) and prepare for survival situations (bears, car accidents, public humiliation).

The only people who don’t dream are ones who’ve had strokes or traumatic brain injuries—people whose dreaming centers aren’t working right. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never received a sharp blow to the head, but that doesn’t change the facts. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember.

That’s not the interesting part, though. Here is where it gets good. Anyone sleeping around me doesn’t dream either.

My dreamlessness is like a black hole, devouring prince-charmings and purple clouds and alien landscapes until there’s nothing left.

*****

My parents started worrying that my sisters would be irreparably damaged by constantly having their dreams sucked out of their heads. So they came up with a solution.

My sisters sleep together, all four of them crammed into one little room, stepping all over each other and sharing beds and dressers and secrets, together with their dreams. I sleep alone, in the slope-ceilinged attic at the top of the house.

My parents were so proud of themselves, like they had done something exceptional, solved a serious problem. They just didn’t know the good part.

*****

The good part, the really interesting thing, happened for the first time on the ninth grade band trip. I was on the bus, listening to Holly Jarvis go on and on about how hot Austin Fischer was, but it was warm and stuffy on the bus, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I wasn’t the only one—half of band was already asleep.

I leaned my head against the window and let myself drift off. And then something weird happened.

I wasn’t on the bus anymore.

Instead, I was back at school, only the light was eerie and dim, like maybe it was after sunset, and the whole place was empty. The halls seemed longer than normal, like the perspective was sort of . . . off.

I walked slowly through the Language Arts wing, passing rows of lockers. From someplace nearby, there was a steady pounding noise, getting louder. I turned the corner and discovered that I wasn’t alone after all.

Ahead of me, Cody Maxwell was standing in front of a closed locker, looking nearly catatonic.

“What are you doing?” I said, coming up next to him.

He turned to look at me with wide, horrified eyes. “It wants out.”

There was a metallic scraping sound from inside the locker and then the door rattled explosively, like whatever was in there agreed with him.

“So let it out.”

Cody backed away, shaking his head slowly, over and over, like he could never stop saying no.

I sighed and reached for the door. There was something dark oozing out of the gap at the bottom and getting all over the floor.

“Why’s it in there anyway?” I said, wrinkling my nose.

Cody looked terrified. Beyond reason. “It’s here,” he whispered. “It’s coming for me.”

I saw that where the combination lock should have been there was just a ragged puncture, like a large-caliber bullet hole. I hooked three fingers in the jagged opening and pulled.

Behind me, Cody was moaning under his breath, making weak, hopeless noises as the door swung open.

The thing was sitting at the bottom of the locker in a pool of something viscous and dark. It smelled like spent fireworks or burnt matches.

It had eyes, more than is good or right for anything except a spider, only it wasn’t. A spider, I mean. It was vaguely furry, with long, evil-looking claws and teeth that dripped with black sulfur slime.

“That’s pretty small,” I started to say, but I never got the words out, because Cody screamed.

*****

I woke up in a huge jolt, with Holly shaking me. Two rows ahead of us, Cody Maxwell seemed to be having some kind of fit, twitching in his sleep. Some of the boys were laughing, but in a low, nervous way.

“What’s his problem?” Holly said with her hand on my shoulder.

I shrugged. “Just a bad dream.”

And then I smelled it again—the nose-wrinkling smell of burnt matches. I looked down. There was a smear of something thick and dark on the floor by my feet, and a cluster of small yellow eyes peering out from under the seat in front of me.

Without changing expression, I leaned down and unzipped my backpack. I watched the nightmare creature while it poked around the edges of the bag and then crept inside. I zipped the pocket closed.

*****

That’s how I got Huxley. He’s my first and my favorite—not the biggest or the fiercest, but sometimes it’s special enough just to be the first.

Now, I go nightmare hunting. Usually, I just sneak downstairs and into my sisters’ room. There are tricks you can do. Open the window when it’s winter or—this is the best one—scrape a person’s arm, just lightly, just with your fingernails. Do that a few times, then lie down and let yourself drift off. You’re almost guaranteed to wind up with something good.

When the monster comes out into the room, I catch it. That can be the hardest part, hunting it down in the dark without scaring it away or waking up any of my sisters.

I take the dream back up to my slope-ceilinged little attic, my den full of monsters. They scamper around the floor and pile into my bed. At night, I turn out the light and curl up with them while my sisters sleep downstairs.

In the dark, I wrap my arms around them and whisper secrets. We sleep better like this, crowded against each other in the center of the mattress, together with our nightmares.

Photo by Saint Angel

39 thoughts on “The Nightmare Collector

  1. Dang, woman. I really liked the beginning of this one. The hook was irrestible. And the finish, her cavorting with her nightmare creaturs, seems perfect for one who doesn’t fit in anyways.

    • The funny thing is, I started this story meaning for her to become some sort of supervillain with an army of nightmares at her disposal! And maybe someday she still becomes that person, but right now all she wants is to snuggle up with her monsters and have sleepovers 🙂

  2. So lovely and creepy!!! I agree…I was hooked from the first sentence. Then again, that’s the point of good writing. Is that hook! 🙂

  3. I’ll admit that I was expecting the narrator to end up being a lot of sinister or nefarious in the end, but all she really wanted was to have someone sleep over. I imagine her cuddling lots of tribbles from Star Trek. 🙂

  4. So, this sounds silly, probably because it is, but the part of this story that sticks for me is the image of this young girl sleeping alone in the attic, while her sitters snuggle up in one room, part of some secret girl club she’s not allowed in.

  5. This is such a cool story!! “My dreamlessness is like a black hole, devouring prince-charmings and purple clouds and alien landscapes until there’s nothing left. ” — love it!!!

  6. I really liked this. I thought it was going to be creepy, or that the boy was going to mysteriously die on the bus, or some such thing. Not that I don’t love creepy (I loved your Dead Ringer series), but I really enjoyed how sweet this turned out.

  7. Beautiful! I love how cute she sees the nightmares as, since it plays off the fact that dream imagery often takes on different meanings for different people. 🙂

    And snuggling in bed with them whispering secrets is just too adorable! I imagine if anyone ever threatened her nightmares she would find some way to protect them.

  8. I thought this was going to be a bit 14D. Then it took an opposite track into the creepy. Then it became kind of bittersweet. Aww. I wonder when people stop having nightmares about creatures and start having them about boring things like work.

    *wants the monsters back*

    • Ha! The creepiness factor was really all over the place on this one—the meandering, it was excessive.

      I wonder when people stop having nightmares about creatures and start having them about boring things like work.

      No kidding! What is up with that? (Actually, I did watch a documentary on dreams awhile ago and it talked about that. It said dreams are sometimes a way of practicing for survival, so as we mature, we practice the situations we’re likely to encounter. Which I guess means that we go from dangerous predators or being separated from our parents to losing control of a car or being yelled at by someone in authority.)

      *wants the monsters back*

      Amen.

  9. Oh, this was such a good story. I really enjoyed it, and wish that one day maybe one of my nightmares may be in her room. She can have the one with the spiders and the bunk beds.

  10. I really liked this one! I love how when you read a story, you don’t know what’s around the corner, and being who we are, we expect something to jump out and scare us. In this story, we discover that something kind and lovely is what’s there! I feel like this is a great story to read to kids afraid of the dark. Or would it freak them out? My husband usually has to warn me of freaking out the kids with my good intentions… 🙂

    • I swear, I thought it was going to be a jumping-out story, and then realized how just *unfair* that was to all the little scary things that don’t mean any harm!

      Also, I have a long history of accidentally freaking out kids, so …

  11. I wandered upon this entirely by accident and must say I’m delighted! It was a surprising, joyful little romp that I found all the more fun for the fact I never remember my dreams myself. I loved it, thanks for the day-brightening!

  12. Brenna, you have snuck up on me like a ghost with your eerie and eloquent ways. I was drawn to The Curiosities because I knew Maggie and Tessa’s books, but I LOVE YOUR WRITING. You are amazingly talented and this story was adorably scary. I’m in 8th grade, and my dream is to become an author. I completely idolize the three of you!

    • Aw 😀 Thanks, Julianna! I’m glad to have been a hit, and that you stopped by to check out more of the stories (because there are like a billion that didn’t go in the book). Also, I just have to say, I think that becoming an author is a very good dream. In my personal opinion. 😉

  13. I really really loved this and i’d soooo love to read it as the beginning of a book and to see what will happen to the narrator and ‘her’ nightmares!

    • Oh, I’m glad! This particular world (also found in some of my other website-stories about outcast kids with bizarre powers) is one that I could totally see myself coming back to. You know, once I think of an actual book-length adventure for them …

Comments are closed.