Note: The following piece was written as part of the flash fiction challenge "Wake Up, Writing Monster" hosted by B. Nagel. Audio of the story was recorded as part of Peter Dudley's concomitant "Voice Thing" challenge. To listen to the recording, click the widget at the end of the story or visit ISLF's Soundcloud.com page.
John's nightly janitorial route always took him last to the corner office of Randall Templeton III on the twenty-four floor of the Beverly Heights City Center. As he dumped Farnsworth Templeton LLP's final full trash can into his fifty-gallon Rubbermaid, an opalescent globe little bigger than a quail's egg tumbled out.
"Huh," he said into the 4 a.m. silence.
The globe glowed softly in the fluorescents' ambient light. He plucked it up, brushed it clean. Then as he wheeled the collected refuse to the service elevator, he slipped it into his pocket without even thinking.
As it did most every day, the downtown bus line carried John nearly to the doorstep of his tiny duplex unit. His wife, Anne, clad in khakis and a Continental Café polo, opened the door before he knocked, proffering a cup of joe. Ignoring the corn flakes before her, Helene kicked Goodwill-sneaker-clad feet while proclaiming how the entire first-grade class would be going to the zoo in a few weeks, and would daddy chaperone, please, please, pleeeeeeeze?
John said he would. He praised the integrity of Anne's brew. He told them he loved them, but be needed to sleep before his eyes turned into raisins. Anne shooed him toward the bedroom, where he emptied the contents of his pockets onto the dresser. Sliding under the covers, he heard their laughter fade into the bustle of the waking day.
Then he heard something crack.
He sat up.
"Hello," a voice said.
A small, furry head poked from gleaming shards on the dresser.
"What are you?" John asked.
Ink-drop eyes blinked. "Why, I'm your Dream."
John blinked back. He'd never planned for ammonia and mops to become the tools of his trade. Once Selectric typewriters and Parisian cafes had filled his thoughts of the future. But when Anne became pregnant on their honeymoon, literary ambition surrendered to paying the power bill.
"Really?" John asked.
The Dream smiled a broad smile filled with tiny teeth. "Why not put it to a test?"
So John found himself at the kitchen table with pad and pen, the Dream on his shoulder, cleaning its claws. It was a small thing, no bigger than John's thumb.
John shook his head, his mind a perfect blank. "Yeah, I've got nothing. I really should sleep."
"Try for my sake."
So John tried, and soon enough he lost himself in scratching out and stringing together sentences, ignoring the increasing complaints from his aching eyes and straining bladder. Before he knew it he had a rough chapter about an expartriate novelist named Charleston struggling to compose in a Marseilles garret.
"Ugh," he exclaimed when he finally looked up, "it's one. Work starts in five hours.' He glanced at the Dream. "Hey. You look bigger."
The Dream smacked its lips. "I love a little time."
The next week passed in an increasingly muzzy disorientation. John fell into a rhythm of stumbling home at dawn, scribbling down scenes until he couldn't stay upright, snatching some sleep and dragging back to work. The entire time the Dream rode his shoulder, whispering literary admonitions, which John would jot down on a pad. Though it was now about the size of a parrot, no one seemed to notice it.
But he soon learned someone had noticed the change in his habits.
The trill of the phone jerked John from a dream about Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd. begging to represent him.
"Hello?" John said.
"Johnny," said Marcus Miliband, manager of Glow Shine LLC franchise no. 59. "I've had complaints."
He unspooled the list with vigor. The lobby level bathroom stank like spoiled eggs. The break room microwave was developing a baked-on strata of exploded lunches. And no one could find a single packet of Glow ‘n' Go brand coffee anywhere in the building.
"Who'd even drink it?" John asked.
"Don't like that your job involves coffee service? Tough. Do it or find another -- capisce?"
The Dream stretched on the carpet, long as a golden retriever. "I adore inattention to detail."
There are only so many ways to slice a schedule. After the call, John sectioned his compositional time into smaller periods, taking advantage of ten-minute breaks and bus rides. But something had to give. He didn't think Anne and Helene noticed his mental absences during mealtimes and weekends. He wasn't writing that much.
"Daddy." A small hand tugged on his shirtsleeve. "Miss Johnson needs you to sign this."
John squinted at the indemnification form his daughter had slid in front of him. "Right. The zoo. Well, I'll look at it and --"
"But it's today."
John sighed and set down his pen. Today? How had he lost track so easily? "Sweetie, I'm sorry, but daddy's worn out."
Anne stopped spreading peanut butter on Roman Meal and fixed her husband with a steely glare. "John. You promised."
"I know, but work's killing me --"
"And you're wrapped up in your hobby."
"Hey, I deserve a little time to myself."
"You take more than a little."
"Please," Helene begged, "please stop fighting.
"We're just having a discussion," Anne said, taking the girl's hand. "We'll discuss this later," she added, shooting a loaded look at John. "Someone has to ensure our daughter makes it to school."
The front door clicked shut.
The early morning sunlight streaming through the windows disappeared as if obliterated by eclipse.
"Ah, alienation," the Dream rumbled.
"I can't do this," John said. "I'm exhausted."
The Dream shrugged massive shoulders. "That's what nicotine and caffeine are for."
"It could cost me my job."
The Dream flexed its talons. "Succeed and you won't need one."
"And my family."
The Dream smiled, a broad smile filled with finger-long teeth. "Child may fail thee, spouse assail thee, still remain within my fold. What else can you do? No matter the balance in his bank account, Templeton didn't enrich his life by forcing me to sleep."
John's hands began to tremble.
The Dream seemed to swell in size. "Fear is the sweetest thing."
John stared at the black-eyed creature, the thing that would fill his hours and days, his home and earth itself if it could until nothing else remained.
The pen clattered onto the tabletop.
"You don't want to do that," the Dream warned.
"No," John said, "you don't want me to."
He snatched up the permission slip and ran for the bus stop.
Today, John still empties Randall Templeton III's trash. His wife still buses tables. His daughter still wears secondhand shoes. Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd. still hasn't called. Something about six-inches tall still rides around on his shoulder, fed on thirty minutes a day and unnoticed by everyone else. Sometimes John still listens to it while he cleans. Sometimes he doesn't.
This disappoints the Dream. It wants so much more. Yet it knows John lacks only a chapter or two in a certain manuscript. Agents might follow and, perhaps, a signed contract.
And that, well, that comforts it.
A Dream to Fill the Earth by I Saw Lightning Fall