A sound to her left made her start, dodging automatically to her right as she saw movement on one of the stalls. Something swung idly in the occasional breeze. It was spherical but that was all she could see. Peering through the gloom she clamped a hand to her mouth, eyes transfixed on the head that twirled slowly at the end of the rope. A macabre prize at the hoopla stand. It was the head of the hanged man from the Ghost Train. She backed away, her terrified mind telling her the eyes were turning to follow her as the rope twisted. She turned tail and fled.
She ran until her legs gave out, collapsing by the Ferris Wheel. She stared into the darkness, trying to understand how she could have run in a straight line and still ended up in the centre of the fair.
“Dreams are unpredictable creatures.”
She shot backward, the barrier collapsing, sending her sprawling, staring up at the empty velvet sky. The voice had sounded beside her ear. Her hair had fluttered slightly against her neck as if moved by a breath. She scrambled to her hands and knees, darting glances left and right, scanning frantically and seeing no-one. Her voice sounded fragile and petrified in comparison to the smooth quiet tones of the other.
“I’m dreaming. You can’t hurt me.”
Even to her ears it sounded like a plea for reassurance and she forced herself to her feet, watching the shadows as no answer came. She couldn’t remain there but the thought of walking out into the fair caused her muscles to contract, her body trying to make itself small and invisible.
“I can’t just stand here!” she sobbed, no longer caring who might hear, “I have to get out, get home and wake up in my bed.”
She stumbled forward, tripped over the fallen barrier and screamed in agony as a nail ripped her toe, clutching the injured digit, feeling the slippery wash of blood beneath her fingers. She spun in a complete circle as something touched her face. A flash of white caught her eye. Bending down she picked up a pristine white handkerchief, her fingerprints marring its perfection as her blood was transferred. In no state to question she wearily tied it around her toe and shuffled back into the maze of alleys, a picture of abject defeat.
When she arrived back at the Ferris Wheel she gave up, sitting with her back to the toll booth and spreading her hands to the night air.
“I give up. Are you satisfied? I want out of this damn nightmare. Come and get me!”
She let her chin fall to her chest, feeling a slight tug at her hair and ignoring it, unwilling to look up for fear of what she might see. The ground suddenly felt hard under her, her legs stiff from their cramped position and she woke up… to the fair. She slammed her fists into the dirt as her mind tried to ask if it was possible to sleep in a dream, wake up and yet dream on.
“I told you to come for me. I just want this over. Please…!”
Her scream of pain and frustration ebbed into a whimper and she fell silent. A sharp crack to her right had her on her feet, searching the darkness for the first sign of the gypsy with the golden smile and lustful eyes. Her survival instinct hadn’t quit just yet.
He stepped from the shadows of the wheel, grinning and swinging the hanged man’s head on its rope like a child’s yoyo. That disturbed her more than the predatory gleam in his eyes.
“I like to be invited.” He growled and she took a step back as he swung the head at her, his grin widening in the face of her obvious fear.
“You ain’t scared of this thing? Tis only paste and paper.”
He held it up higher and she watched blood drip from the ragged neck in disbelief. Such viscous liquid had to be rea land she backed up again.
“That’s real blood” she stammered and he tossed the head to once side, she wincing as it hot the side of the tollbooth with a meaty thud and slid to the dirt below. He advanced, only a fraction faster than she could back away, enjoying the fear in her eyes.
“Tricks and traps. Tis what the fair is about. All the fun you could ever desire.”
If this was his idea of fun she wasn’t about to stick around. She might be stuck in a dream, but he was too real and she didn’t want any part of it. She turned and bolted, hearing that sharp bark of laughter, knowing it had been him inside the Ghost Train earlier. Digging into her fading reserves, she heard his heavy tread start after her. She tore between two stands, shoved over a waste bin and felt a momentary satisfaction as she heard a weighty thump behind her and his voice raised in anger. Her minor victory bore her forward, seeing that she once more turned herself around, standing before the Ghost Train.
This time she ran straight in, praying that the sound of the doors banging shut would guide him to her. She rushed forward, rounded the first bend, trying not to look at the slumped headless shape that screamed forlornly from the darkness, and reached the witch. She pressed herself into the shadows and grabbed for the cauldron. She was inexpressibly relieved to find it heavy in her hands, no fake prop. No more than the hanged man, her mind insisted, but she slammed the door on the thought, trying to quieten her breathing and steady the pot in her shaking arms.
She heard the doors open and his running steps, hefting the pot above her head, her muscles protesting vehemently. They were at breaking point when she heard him round the bend and hurry forward, no effort wasted on words now. She caught his faint shadow moving amongst the static ones and as he ran by she brought the pot down with a resounding crash. He staggered, stayed on his feet for a terrifying second and then collapsed at her feet. Resisting the urge to kick out at him, scared he was only playing dead, she took off along the rails, hurtled into the night air and straight into a pair of strong arms. She caught a glimpse of dark eyes before her brain shut down and she passed out.
She woke to the sound of water running. Her mind conjured up Daniel in the shower, gingerly shifting up the bed and calling his name. Her foot caught in the duvet and pain flared. She stared at her foot in shock… bandaged in a blood-stained white handkerchief. Her dream flooded back and she reached dazedly to touch the silk, certain it would evaporate, a last vestige of her troubled sleep. It remained unnervingly solid and as she pulled it away the blood started afresh from her exposed nail bed. Unable to think coherently she latched onto the one thing she could deal with. She dropped the handkerchief onto her bedside table and limped across to the bathroom.
The sound of water stopped as she opened the door. She couldn’t understand why Daniel was showering with the light off, flicking the switch and bathing the room in white light. The shower stall stood empty but the basin steamed gently, filled with water. A flannel and fresh towel were draped over the rail.
“He went to start the coffee before he shaved…”
She couldn’t get beyond that idea, perching on the side of the bath and raising her leg until her heel rested on the basin rim. Gently she poured water over her foot, the fact of its ingrained filth skittering over her mind and away as she refused to let it take hold. She cleaned thoroughly and then reached for a towel to dry off. She sat for a moment, letting the pain of the freshly opened wound recede before putting her foot back on the floor. She stood to open the cabinet above the sink, knowing plasters lurked in the back of it somewhere. As she looked into the mirrored front she saw a shadow move. She spun, calling Daniel’s name but there was no response, the room appearing empty. She knew it wasn’t, knew that feeling which came to her when someone was walking too close on the street, a pickling in her skin.
She turned to the mirror and caught it again, a tall figure too shadowed to make out a face. She spoke into the mirror, watching through the glass.
“I’m still dreaming. You came for me after all.”
“You asked me to come.”
Now she turned, the shadows in the corner solidifying before her eyes, as if he had come through the wall and into sharp focus.
“You’re not him.”
“You would rather he came? I can arrange for that.”
She studied him as he advanced; tall, dark waving hair and almond eyes, fluctuating between brown and hazel as she watched. There was an air to him, a strength, but she didn’t feel threatened.
“I think I’ll take you for this section of the dream, thanks. So, I conjured a hero to save me?”
He stepped close, seeming to move without effort, graceful and silent.
“You called and I answered.”
His voice was rich and slightly accented. It made her drowsy, hypnotised, and she shook herself as she felt him lift her hair from her neck.
“You were a bit late.”
“I was… occupied.”
“Well, heroes are supposed to arrive at the last minute, I guess. What happens now?”
He let her hair fall, a spidery touch as it slithered over her shoulders.
“This is your dream.”
He leaned close against her cheek, seeming to breathe in the scent of her skin, and she shivered as the back of his hand stroked her jawline.
“Who are you?”
His fingers traced the curve of her neck.
“Whoever you want me to be.”
His lips brushed over her temples and she felt light-headed. His presence was overpowering. She turned her face up meeting the deep wells of his eyes, seeing the slight smile at his lips.
“What are you?”
“What you wish me to be.”
His hand slid to her waist and drew her close. She felt her mind slipping away, coming back from her daze with an effort of will.
“You’re not my usual dream.” She whispered, wondering where the power of her voice had gone.
“I am what you wish in this moment.”
She watched his head dip, his lips on hers, and experienced a sudden rush through her body, her mind calling for her to stop, to wake up before it went any further, but as his hand pressed firmly at the centre of her back, the other brushing the hair free from her neck, she let the voice fade away, lost to the second of pain as his teeth pierced her skin. Pain no-one could feel in a dream.
She walked through the crowds, enjoying their scents and frailties, their laughter. As she reached the Ghost Train, she greeted the final revellers as they staggered off, giggling to each other in that high tone which denoted fear underlying the mask of pleasure. She flicked the main power off and ushered in peaceful darkness. She mounted the steps with a smile of memory and walked confidently through the tunnel until she reached the first exhibit. He was beginning to settle in nicely, the angle of his swollen face perfect as it stared mournfully into the tunnel. She stood for a moment, aware as her lover come to her side, arm about her waist and the scent of fresh blood on the lips he kissed her with.
“I’m pleased with him.” She said quietly, and he smiled down at her.
“Then I am pleased to have done you this service. He has eternity to contemplate the foolishness of tampering with a mortal’s dreams. Are you ready to leave?”
She nodded and, as they walked back along the corridor and swung open the doors to the night the corpse turned slowly on his rope, gold tooth catching the final trace of light as the doors closed
I managed to track down an actual copy of the book this story was published in via the Neon Beam ezine website (now defunct). If anyone wants an actual copy you can find it here
I tried not fiddle with the story and leave it as it was on publication, but I admit it… I messed with a word here and there because they bugged me! But it is pretty much as it reads in the book.