TW: mild body horror, panic attack, claustrophobia
Gilded light settled gently on the lashes of a boy in a room full of children. The chipped stone ceiling stretched above and reached out in vain for the scarred wooden floor riddled with cheap, squeaking cots. The boy was one of the many on these cots, and he shifted and turned before waking abruptly from dreamless sleep. He turned to see the girl next to him, whose eyes had fluttered open at the exact same moment, and the boy next to him sat up at the same time he did. All of the children awakened to no alarm but their own minds, and they did not know why the mind’s alarms were the same—they merely were, and they did not think to question it.
A day like any other in the old, shuddering, hodge-podge factory of dreams. The steady hush of whispered voices lapped against Edgar’s ears and gently splashed against his mind. A constant thrum of breathing, humming, shuffling, dressing, and the ever-playing piano from nowhere (or maybe just somewhere he hadn’t thought to look). Edgar had always found it beautiful, just as he had always found it plain—piles of clothing and lovely music and golden dust drifting through the air, lights that floated above every subpar, springy cot.
The children dressed and filed out of the room in an order that came not with thinking but the lack of it, or with the thinking of something completely unrelated. Down stairs, down stairs, down stairs, up stairs, turn left, winding and winding through the old musty building until the ceiling opened up again overhead with the same fractured gray ceiling that followed Edgar wherever he went. A gray ceiling like a cloudy day, whatever lay beyond obscured. Edgar tried not to look out the windows; he didn’t like to see the world he wasn’t a part of.
He grabbed a bowl of oatmeal and scarfed it down—breakfast lasted exactly five minutes, and the leftover food was thrown out. It was thick and flavourless, but scattered with enough fruit to make it bearable. Tossing his bowl in the sink already stuffed with them, he got right back in line as the children filed out and reported to the Work Wing.
The name was self-evident: work happened in the Work Wing, and nothing else seemed to matter when he crossed that threshold. The Living Quarters looked almost exactly the same as the Work Wing, the same chipped stone ceiling and slouching wooden floors, but its magic was so much greater. The moment Edgar stepped through the door, he felt it like an ice cube melting down his back, a fire warming his hands. He never quite knew how to describe it. It felt like something cold and alien and unreal; it felt like falling asleep in a loved one’s arms. It felt like strange and foreign lands; it felt like coming home.
The hall was lined with all sorts of different doors: antique wood, chiseled stone, clouded glass. Edgar found his, a simple wooden door painted periwinkle, a circular blue handle and squeaky silver hinges. He opened it as quietly as he could, but it still made a noise of protest. No one turned to look at him; it had been many days since they’d been surprised by the squeak.
The room inside was large and empty with bare white walls and a tall ceiling. He found a note by the door, ripped haphazardly off a small yellow notepad the director of the factory carried around. Often on these notes was a list, a recipe of sorts, though this one had a single scrawled item on it:
Return of recently lost dog
Edgar could do this in his sleep—or, rather, in someone else’s. That was the job, after all.
He first closed his eyes, allowing himself to adjust to the room. Despite its plain look, magic was infused in every pore of this chambre, every dust particle and breath of air he let in. The room showed him what the patient’s dog looked like: a gray-ish border collie with a lolling tongue and bright blue eyes. The room fuzzed at the edges as Edgar willed it to take the shape of a garden, sky partially obscured by the sheer number of wisteria blooms reaching over him and stretching their hands to each other. He let moss grow on the floor and lichen on the trunks, and in the background he bid music to drift through the foliage. A haze spread around the room, though it was not the haze of fog but of memory and perhaps of wishful thinking.
Edgar did often wish he could make his dreams real, full in places that weren’t the minds of the sleeping, but he did not know how. He couldn’t bring the dog back, it was true, but he could make it real in the mind of its owner, if only for a night.
The owner’s own hands appeared before him now, soft and elegant and dark, and they swung beside him as he walked with her feet and looked through her eyes at the dog he knew she’d cried about for hours before she could sleep. The eyes, he felt, were puffy and irritated, even in this dreamstate. He knelt, and the dog ran up to him, nuzzling into his chest as he wrapped his arms around it.
Edgar liked making dreams like this—though he didn’t like to think about how the dreamers would feel when they woke up. He didn’t like to think about the sense of loss and the fleeting nature of dreams. He lived in them every day—he couldn’t fathom just… waking up. He couldn’t fathom dreams disappearing as easily as ideas late at night.
The primary nature of dreams is that they don’t follow any sort of rules of physics or logic. Instead, they follow emotions, and each and every swirling colour is only what’s already inside the dreamer’s mind. Edgar pulled on these now, each strand of sweet nostalgia and bitter loss, and wove them together into not a story, but a sensation. His arms wrapped around the dog until it felt that he was wearing it, that it sat in his chest and spread warmth throughout his heart. Swirling colours without a pattern, warm and lovely. He summoned everything that was comfort: the smell of chai and chamomile drifting through the air, dust mites settling and glowing golden in the low-sitting sun still snuggled against the horizon. It felt like coming home, a puzzle piece setting into place and completing the picture, completing the dreamer—
And it ended. He had no more to give. Edgar took the dream and put it in the glass milk bottle by the door and left his workroom.
Down the hall, another, another, another. Edgar often thought that the children who worked here must be a part of the factory itself. If they weren’t, he figured they’d never be able to find their way around. Each hallway was different and made of something new or old or somewhere in between, and each was a different size and shape and colour, and he thought there was simply too much for a mind that was not the factory’s to understand.
Finally, he arrived in the small, rusted metal Mailroom. Along the walls were cogs and gears all working and shifting and filling the air with a light sort of smoke that made Edgar’s eyes water. One wall was filled with clear tubes, and they filled the room with a whooshing sound like an overly strong wind or a child who was blowing bubbles with unmatched enthusiasm. He wrapped the bottle in brown packaging paper and stood before a tube labelled, “Nostalgia”. He was often reluctant to let his dreams go—he worked so hard at creating them that watching them be sucked away was almost physically painful. Still, he let the paper-wrapped glass go and watched it flit away to wherever the dreams went once they were created.
Edgar didn’t know how the dreams got delivered. He’d hardly ever left the factory, and he’d certainly never explored the Shipping Wing. His friend Maya thought they got delivered to each house and the people drank them; his friend Duney thought they were sent out like a broadcast signal. Charles, who’d read The BFG and never once shut up about it since then, thought there were people who blew the dreams into each person’s mind with a large trumpet.
No matter: the ever-playing piano was drowned out by a bell, the nearly deafening gong of a grandfather clock. It somehow spread through the whole factory, echoing through its expansive halls. Edgar turned from the tubes and walked with the rest of the children to the Break Room.
It was a large, expansive room in which bookshelves stretched wall to wall. They were bookshelves of all sorts: white and intricate metal shelving, rustic wood, soft blue wicker, vines hanging from the ceiling and woven into slats. Children sat in alcoves along the wall and spread across the floor and curled up in hammocks hanging all about. There was an unspoken rule about the children that this room was to be quiet, perfect to read in or sleep in, perfect for each and every child. The children who practiced instruments in their spare time did so in harmony, and the children who spoke did so in hushed whispers.
It was Edgar’s very favourite room, and he breathed in the indescribable scent of so many children like him, magic still settled on their shoulders and lingering in their quiet breath.
He soon found his way to a small cluster of children gathered around a pile of cards, each holding a handful. Maya held hers close, unwilling to let the slightest hint of them be seen. When it was her turn to play, she snaked her cards up to her eyes, drew one, and quickly clutched them against her stomach again. Duney fiddled with his hand and bridged it as well as he could with only nine or ten cards. Charles held his lazily, and Edgar could almost view the entire hand from where he was walking up.
“Eddie!” Duney looked up at him with a grin and, snatching up a pile of cards they’d saved for him, placed them in his hand with an energy Edgar could never bring himself to match. Duney’s appearance matched this energy very well—his bright blonde hair stood on end as if he were being perpetually shocked by amounts of energy that should never be applied to human beings. His eyes were wide and darting as if it were his first time in the Break Room, and his hands never truly seemed to stop fidgeting.
Maya, on the other hand, sat perfectly still. She had dark skin and springy hair and she seemed to have a depth that the others could never understand. She never seemed to allow herself to be as much of a child as the others around her, which made Edgar not only feel stupid, but also sad that she couldn’t bring herself to let loose. He wished he could hear her speak in a voice that was anything other than perfectly measured. “Hey, Eddie,” she said, and his wish remained just that.
Charles was a mix of the others, or maybe he was something completely different. Like Edgar, he went through the day without thinking too much about the world around him. When asked an opinion, he never seemed to know how to respond.
Edgar sat down with the other children and began to play.
“Ace,” Charles called, and tossed a card to the pile.
The rules were simple: they went clockwise around the circle and placed a card face-down in the middle, building up by number.
“Two,” said Maya as she added another card.
But they could lie. If one didn't have the required card, one could put down a completely different one. However, one could also be called on this lie, and have to take the whole deck.
“Three,” Duney said, and Edgar quickly retorted, “Liar.”
Duney groaned and flipped his card over to reveal the five of spades. He took the deck. They started over.
“Ace,” Edgar said.
Maya broke the droll of the game. “Do you guys ever think about… not being here?”
“Two,” said Charles, and he nodded. “I never know if I’d want to leave.”
“Are we even allowed to?” Edgar asked.
“Three,” said Maya, shrugging.
“I don’t know why you guys would ever want to. This place is literally the dream.” Duney shifted and threw a card down on the deck. “Four.”
“Five,” said Edgar, and he said absolutely nothing else. He figured he was content to listen, but the more honest truth was that he had nothing to say.
“Because there’s a whole world out there that we haven’t seen! I want to see the world instead of dreaming it.”
Maya was interrupted by Charles’s, “Six”.
“Seven,” she sighed.
“I doubt the world is as great as the one we can see when we’re dreaming, though. And we can’t control the one out there.” Duney paused. “Eight.”
“Nine,” said Edgar. “I would like to look for my family.”
“Yeah.” Charles tossed down a card. “Ten. And see how normal people live.”
“Jack,” said Maya. “The world out there must be so grand. Our families, new people we’ve never gotten to see. And instead of making dreams, we could watch them while we sleep like everyone else.”
Duney shrugged. “Queen. I like it better here. But if you want to leave, that’s on you.”
“I don’t know what to think,” said Edgar. “King.”
“Liar.” Charles took the card he’d tossed onto the deck and saw that it was an ace. “Take the deck.”
Edgar did, and as he played, he dwelled on the concept of leaving.
He was unable to come to a decision.
Again, the bell rang. He appreciated its melody and deep echo, and he rose with the other children and handed his cards back to Charles, who shuffled and pocketed them.
Edgar once again exited the room and made his way through the halls with the rest of the children, his friends drifting away to talk to others. He often walked alone, wanting to dwell on whatever dream he may be asked to make next or to listen to the chatter of others.
“You won’t believe the dream I made earlier,” said a girl.
A boy next to her spoke up. “Yeah, I get to make the weirdest stuff!”
The girl retorted, “I made my dreamer wear contact lenses made of cacti!”
“I once made a dreamer have a romance with an anteater!”
“Mine got killed by a talking mosquito!”
Edgar let his mind wander as he was jostled by the crowd of children, unable to let go of the concept of leaving. What would he do? He only knew what the outside world was like through books; he had never set foot outside the factory’s property since he’d been sent there as a toddler.
He once again returned to the room with the periwinkle door.
A new note sat by the door with a new recipe scratched on it:
Edgar stood and stared at the note for a while, eyes squeezed shut and mind racing. He hated making nightmares: though he could control the way the dreams went, sometimes his mind got away from him, and sometimes it felt as though he had no control at all.
Taking a trembling breath, he opened his eyes.
Around him, the room was dark and eerie. Somehow, despite the utter lack of light, shadows clutched to walls and reached for Edgar’s feet. He turned his head this way and that—Maya had told him once that nightmares weren’t as scary if there was nothing you could do. If you had an escape, a way to be free, and failed—that was much worse. Edgar spotted a window on the wall and grasped its sill with his shifting dreamer’s hands.
He did escape that room, but outside, though the street was riddled with twilight and cast in the reluctant light of streetlamps, a phrase popped into his head. Out of the frying pan, Duney had read aloud, and into the fire. He had laughed about the phrase, the thought of a poor piece of bacon tossed away without being eaten, but Edgar was not laughing now. He was running, running as fast as he could, and he knew his weak legs, no matter how emboldened by dream magic they were, could not carry him faster than what he fled from.
It slithered about the streetlamps and darkened the white lines running down the road, making a sound that was quieter than silence—the sort of eerie hush that demanded that the world hold its breath.
Why was it chasing him? What had he done but dream, but get a note he always dreaded? He knew this nightmare was not creative, knew it felt like every nightmare he’d made before, but still it filled his mind with fresh terror at the thought of an inky hand grasping his shoulder, his ankle, his hair—
It did. The hand felt Egdar’s back and guided him to the forest overshadowing the road, and though the gesture may have looked unthreatening, even gentle to the outside observer, it sent a screeching pain through Edgar’s spine as though his back itself was panicking.
The figure parked Edgar in front of itself, looking him in the eye, and even though he could view its shape, look at it straight on with his two perfectly good eyes, he could not see it, could not tell what it was beneath its shifting tendrils of ink and tar. “Give me your hand.” No mouth moved to make these words; they seemed to slip from the figure itself and float among its fog.
He did. He didn’t know why, just knew that he had to. It took his hand in a mitt of its own and gently squeezed. Edgar whimpered as the figure took a part of his finger like a piece of a puzzle just waiting to be undone. It took another, and another, and the hand soon was gone.
“The other hand,” it said, and Edgar complied. He could not fight, so why would he need his hands? Hitting the figure with empty stumps was just as ineffective, and limb by limb, piece by piece, Edgar watched himself become nothing but fleshy puzzle pieces piled at the figure’s feet.
Edgar did not know if he believed in human souls, but he hoped they existed. He hoped he was something other than this pile on the ground, this gruesome deconstruction. He felt himself in each piece and in the soil where his body dripped its blood-ridden tears, and he tried to rise. He tried to be something else.
Edgar felt himself lift from the chunks of what was left, and his wish was granted, but only for a moment. A wind blew, and whatever incorporeal form he had assumed was blown away into nothingness. He was nothing.
He sat up with a start. The room’s pale, monotonous walls filled his eyes and leaked into his mind, and Edgar choked on his panicked tears, bringing his knees to his chest. He let himself cry, tears of water, tears of a human boy whose body was complete, whose self was intact, before standing and bottling the nightmare.
He once again exited the room, this empty room whose creases held the pure memories of dreams, of nightmares, of horror and bliss and everything in between, and made his way to the Mailroom. He let the dream be sucked up its tubes, feeling no sadness or melancholy at the thought of his work going far, far away from him. He was only remiss that someone else would have to experience that nightmare.
“Eddie,” said a voice, calm and almost monotone. Charles. “Have you seen what’s going on outside?”
Edgar shook his head, mouth still firmly shut. He didn’t think he could speak right now, but Charles led him to the window. Oddly, there were wooden boards nailed to it, shielding the children from viewing what stood outside. Charles wiggled a board that didn’t seem to be properly secured and shifted it just the slightest bit, creating a crack through which he could see outside. He put his eye to it quickly and then moved aside, still lifting the board for Edgar.
At first, his mind couldn’t process what it was seeing. He was still riddled with doubts and anxieties like the pile in his dream, and as he looked outside it too looked like the pile—a scattered crowd of dark pieces, shapes moving and shifting—but as he looked closer, he finally grasped it. It was yet another concept he did not know what to think about.
It was a crowd. A group of people from the outside world all gathered around the factory, and as he peered closer he saw that each of the people was wearing something completely different from the others, and that several people held signs. Squinting, he read a few of them. They said things like, “No to child labor”, “Break the chains of child labor”, and “Children belong in schools, not factories”.
He could not hear the crowd, but he saw their mouths moving, saw them shouting and yelling in anger and in protest to… to the Dream Factory. This, he could not grasp. Edgar did not know why they were angry at the factory; he could not understand.
His throat rasped as he managed to speak. “What… does it mean?”
Charles replied in a voice as low as Edgar’s, though his was intentional. “I think they don’t like that we have to work here.”
“It’s…” Charles paused and looked at him. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think the protestors are right. We’re young. I mean, we’re only children, and we already work all day. Where are we going to go after this? Is this what it is forever?” He paused again, seeming to gather his thoughts. “I don’t know. I just think we should’ve had the option to have a normal life.”
“A… normal life.” Edgar cast his gaze from Charles’ earnest face to the crack between the boards again and viewed the angry people below, shouting for something he thought might just be justice. Then again, maybe the factory was right, and only children had the right sort of thinking to make dreams. Once again, Edgar didn’t know what to think.
It didn’t matter. Though life had seemed to pause at that window, the children around the two boys continued to bustle to and fro, shipping out dreams and returning to their rooms to make more. Edgar turned fully from the window and followed them back. He entered his room.
The slip of paper on the floor was blank like the room around him. He turned it over to the unlined side, but nothing was written there, either. Edgar blinked, and the paper fell apart in his hands, each piece growing larger and collecting behind him to form wings, sharp and papery, though soon the feathers softened and spread. The world fell away beneath his feet, and he rose to soar above a world now painted in oils, swirling and spiraling and bustling beneath him as life went on and on. He could see it all, was a silent witness to the way a bird picked its wings clean and a coyote licked its wounds and a rabbit narrowly escaped into its hole. The one thing Edgar could not picture, could not bring himself to imagine, was how the people who lived in the city next to his dreamed forest lived. Instead, it was silent, a tangle of quiet streets and empty offices and dusty, unshaken homes. He swooped in for a closer look, tried his hardest to bring people to his world, to let them live—but he did not know how to.
And the sky pressed in. He could feel it first as a gentle presence, a rustle and nudge of his wings as he soared ever higher, but it drew him closer and closer on either side, grabbing at his wings and stroking and ripping and tearing them away until he was naught but a figure once again falling, once again broken on the ground, but still it pressed in. The sky hugged and tore at him until he couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. He exhaled, let out his final breath as it stuck to his caving chest—but he could not die like this. He would not let himself.
Instead, he forced the air imprisoning him into his lungs and breathed it out wildly as if it were a weapon, a whip to beat away the glass sky, a guardian to keep him safe. The wind filled the invisible box he seemed to be kept in, and his wings let themselves reattach to his back and fold calmly. Edgar stood, and he was surrounded by the city he’d dreamed, but this time, it was bustling with people. He met eyes with someone—
And he awoke. The dream dissolved around him, and the world was once again reduced to a simple white room without windows. It was small around him, and he felt it as he’d felt the sky pressing in. Edgar bottled the dream and brought it to the Mailroom.
He stood before a tube. He thought maybe he was the puzzle and his wings were to be pieced together, and he thought of how puzzles could not be pieced together in boxes, cards could not be played while stacked rigidly upon each other in uniformity, and perhaps, just perhaps, children could not be raised in factories.
Edgar let his bottled dream be sucked away, and he wondered if he should follow it to somewhere far away.