Dream Wars

The first time I saw X I was seated in one of three rows of folding chairs in a locker room huddle with my sweaty teammates listening to Martha Stewart describe how best to photograph cats along their migration route. Cats swirled around our chair legs, meowing and nudging my teammates shin guards to claim them as territory.

This is what I’ve got to work with?” said a strange voice. A squeaky voice that sounded like a rusty hinge.

I looked down. On the dented metal folding chair beside me sat an olive green imp-thing about the size of a baboon with bat-like ears, pointy teeth, and luminous yellow eyes that looked way too big for its head. The imp had on a vest with no shirt underneath and pants that went to its knees and were a gray color that looked like they’d been dipped in a combination lichen and cement mix.

“Be quiet,” I hissed, “or Martha will have us killed.”

“That’d be a bit more my speed,” said the imp thing. Then he snapped his fingers and the tabby next to my feet burst into flames.

My stomach dropped as the cat yowled in terror. This can’t happen, I thought. Then I felt a cold drop hit my brain and my dream became lucid. The red locker doors became redder. The smell of fresh sweat and socks hit my nose and the agonized cries of the cat went straight to my nervous system. But could change it all now.

I stretched with my mind and the flames became impotent. Comical. The cat stopped yowling, twitched its tail in annoyance and began to lick the fire from its fur in an offended manner. I sat back in my chair and breathed relief.

“You aren’t supposed to be able to do that!” the imp hissed.

But then I looked up. Martha was cradling a bright pink Persian and staring daggers at me.

“Do we have a problem?” she asked.

“I’ll say we’ve got a problem,” said the imp. “I got this lady as my assigned subconscious. Not only can she lucid dream, but she’s a total snooze fest. What a combination!”

“I don’t like violence,” I said. I had no idea why I felt as though I had to explain myself. But I’m sensitive and I felt the judgement rolling off both Martha and the imp thing.

The imp chuckled ominously. My teammates shifted nervously in their chairs. Martha was scowling and her scowl was

“Well, it’s not about what you like. It’s about what He likes.” The imp gestured at the ceiling.

“Who? God?”

“No, you bimbo. The Dream Master. And lately, He’s been liking horror.”

“What are you?” I asked.

“Excuse me,” Martha said darkly. “Is my lesson interrupting your argument?”

“No ma’am,” I said.

“I’m X the dream imp,” said the dream imp. “That’s what I am. And you can count on me to make your dream life more interesting. You can thank me later.” He snapped his fingers again.

And I woke up.

I sat up in my bed and checked my bedside alarm clock. 6:13. It would ring in two minutes. I turned it off and switched on my bedside lamp. I felt strange, not elated like I usually felt after a lucid dream.

Everything in my bedroom looked alien to me. My oak dresser and cluttered bookshelf looked so strange. It hadn’t been the weirdest dream I’d ever had, but it was one of those dreams that left a lingering emotional residue that would probably last all day.

I shook my head to clear it and listened for Marian. I didn’t hear my 3 year old singing made up songs in her new big girl bed, so I figured I had time for a rare solo shower—one where I didn’t need to narrate why it was ok for me to shave my legs, but not for little girls. Mostly I loved my life as it was, but I really missed having a co-parent at shower time.

Quietly, I got out of bed and tiptoed toward the bathroom. I moved the rubber squirties out of the tub into the silicone bath toy basket, careful not to squeak any of them, then turned the shower to hot.

The water felt good pouring over my head and I ran my fingers through my practical bob cut. Then it struck me—the emotional dream residue. That imp X got under my skin not only because of the violence, but because it had opinions about my subconscious. Only I’d dreamed the darn thing. I hated Meta dreams.

Oh well, It was only one dream. I turned off the shower and grabbed a towel, hoping I had time to start coffee before Marian woke up and wanted snuggles.

The next night I was getting a manicure from a three-toed sloth.

“You know,” the sloth was saying, “Your 401K portfolio is too conservative. You should consider more aggressive investments. They’re relatively safe over the long haul, and much more lucrative.”

“Booooooring!”

X was back. I looked at the spa booth to my right, and yep. X had its feet in a pedicure bath and was getting a leg wrap from an antelope in a purple blouse.

“Hey,” said the sloth, “no one asked you.”

“Darn skippy,” I nodded to the sloth, and she nodded back.

“The Dream Master would skip right over this dream and onto the next. Like a flannel-clad, channel surfing grandpa. Lucky for you, I’m going to spice things up!”

Nope, I thought and stretched for the familiar drop of lucidity. It hit my brain right as X snapped its fingers. Then X started screaming.

“Not me!” X leaped into the air with a small piranha biting each of its big toes. “Get ‘em off, get ‘em off!”

X ran in circles around the red leather spa booth. The antelope pedicurist fell over backward in a panic, tipping over a cart of nail polish bottles that went rolling across the floor. X slipped on the nail polishes and fell on its back. It was like a Yosemite Sam cartoon.

“Hey! I don’t want violence! Even if it’s you.” I said. I started to stretch with my mind to get the fish off X’s feet. But he glared at me and snapped his fingers.

I woke up. It was dark and I fumbled for my bedside clock. The red numbers said it was 3:18 am. Ugh. What a weird recurring dream. I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.

I woke up to Marian singing her little songs. Why was she up so early? My head felt like it was full of sand. The recurring imp dream was really costing me sleep. I glanced at my bedside clock. It was 7:45! I’d overslept. I must have turned off the alarm when I was fumbling for the clock last night.

I jumped up and headed straight for the shower, cringing. I knew Marian liked her morning snuggles, but if she’d just stay distracted with her songs for a bit longer I could make up some lost time.

I turned the shower on and got in before it had even heated up. I started scrubbing as fast as I could. The water had just gotten hot when I heard the door open. Dangit!

“Mama?”

“What?” I kind of snapped at her from behind the shower curtain. I had to run a meeting that morning and all my prep time was evaporating.

“Come snuggle me.”

“Mommy’s very late, baby. Please go potty and put your clothes on.”

A reasonable request, but from the other side of the shower curtain, I heard Marian start to cry. Instead of turning off the water and going to her, I lathered as quickly as I could, determined to push through the morning’s tasks.

“I don’t have time for your feelings this morning, Marian. I’ll be out in just a minute and then we can get your clothes and go potty.”

Marian sobbed harder and I rinsed soap off as fast as I could. This was going downhill fast.

When I opened the curtain moments later, I saw my curly-haired girl red faced and shaking in a little ball on the floor, a pool of urine soaking through her My Little Pony jammies.

“Marian! The potty is right there! Two feet away from you. I’d just told you to go. Honey, you know better. Would it have been that hard to just go?”

She started silent crying. The crying that’s so hard that no sound comes out but the gulping for air between sobs.

I wrapped my newly cleaned self in my robe and collected my urine soaked child. I’d need a new shower. She’d need a bath before preschool. The bathroom needed to be mopped. The morning’s tasks stretched before me. Bathing, dressing, packing lunches, eating breakfast, preschool drop-off. I’d never even make it to the meeting on time. Much less prepare for it.

Marian’s sobbing had calmed to whimpers. She’d need so many extra snuggles to make up for my corner-cutting this morning. That imp dream had to stop.

The people with waffles for heads were a peaceful tribe who appreciated ritual and ceremony. I was helping them hang origami lanterns shaped like winged turtles between their corrugated steel huts. The wee lanterns connected the community and welcomed spring.

I was using a child’s plastic step stool to reach a hut roof with my lantern strand when I heard a rusty hinge voice.

“This is soooooo boring.”

X snapped its fingers and a razor wire fence appeared around the waffle heads’ village. “See? Now it’s an internment camp. Part of a government anti-carbohydrate initiative.”

The waffle headed woman who had been helping me with my strand dropped to her knees and cried out. Confused waffle heads left their huts and rushed in muttering groups to inspect the new fence.

X snapped its fingers again. Suddenly, guards with normal heads in army uniforms appeared beyond the fence holding bayonets. I was taken aback. After a whole dream of waffle headed people, regular old heads looked bizarre to me.

A guard poked his bayoneted through the fence right into the shoulder of a waffle headed man wearing a white billowy armed shirt and orange bellbottoms. When the guard retracted the bayoneted, syrup oozed onto the white shirt and the waffle headed man crumpled to the ground.

“Michael!” The woman who had been helping me cried from the ground below me. She rushed to help him and I was left alone, standing on the stool by the huts with the imp snickering at my feet.

“You’re really upping the ante tonight, aren’t you X? Your Dream Master must not have been too impressed with your last fish foot dream, huh?”

X stopped snickering and bristled. Literally. Actual spikes grew out of its back like a porcupine with mange. It snarled.

“I guess I’m right,” I said.  “Look, can’t you go haunt someone else’s dreams? You and I are obviously not a good match for whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. Plus, I’m a mom. I don’t get to go pee alone. I don’t also need an intruder in my REM cycles.”

I was feeling pretty cocky. I reached for the drop of lucidity and felt the refreshing splash hit my brain. Feeling powerful, I turned toward the macabre scene unfolding in my subconscious and tried to think of what to do. I was so consumed with planning how to head off the imp’s latest shenanigans I almost missed what he said next.

“You’re stuck with me until you die and I get a better host,” X snarled. “A more interesting human who doesn’t push back so much on all my good ideas. But until that day, I am going to bring it! You don’t like violence? Well He does. And I’m going to get his attention for sure tonight. He gave me this!”

The imp pulled a tiny spray bottle from his pants and squirted me in my left eye. I grabbed my head in pain and felt the icy clarity of lucid dreaming fade. X grinned at me.

“I can do whatever I want now, and you can’t change it. You have to sit back and watch me work.”

Another finger snap and one of the guards scaled the razor wire fence and leaped down, catlike into the circle of concerned waffle heads that surrounded the wounded Michael.

The guard marched up to Michael, knelt beside him and took a big bite out of the lower left corner of Michael’s waffle face. Then the guard turned toward me, chewing with full cheeks, trailing syrup shoestrings from the corners of his mouth. His eyes were crazed and turning a buttery yellow.

“Delicious!” the guard bellowed at me.

Michael held his bitten face and the crowd of waffle heads froze in horror. X fell over backwards, laughing.

I tried to summon another drop of lucidity to push back. But I couldn’t get it to come this time. The dream was too strong, the horror of what happened was too overwhelming. I was powerless.

“You have to stop this!” I said.

“Oh,” said X. “Now’s when it gets really good. The Dream Master is going to watch this dream on repeat. For sure!”

X snapped its fingers again and the guard who’d been eating Michael’s face clutched his stomach. He dropped to his hands and knees and wretched on the ground. Once, twice—five times. He rolled onto his back and began to shake. The other guards jumped the razor wire fence and pointed their bayonets at the crowd of waffle heads.

“What have you done to him?” they cried.

“Our heads are delicious,” said Michael’s wife, “but they are poisonous!”

The imp cackled again.

“This is the best part!” said X.

One of the guards raised his hand to give the order to fire. No! I willed another drop of lucidity to fall, but nothing came. The Dream Master’s spray left me powerless.

“Stop!” The guards turned to me. This was my chance. I had no special advantage this time. Only the internal logic of the dream and the tangled mess of story that X had woven through it. I ran toward the circle, waving my arms and yelling.

“This is why the government banned carbohydrates!” I cried to the guards. “Don’t you see?” The guards looked at me quizzically. “The waffle heads didn’t want to hurt anybody. But they can’t help but be so delicious! Let them live in peace!”

The lead guard brought his hand gently down. He glanced down at his newly dead coworker.

“Let it be known, this is why we must live peacefully with the breaded ones.”

“What?!” X squawked.  “No! Shoot them! That doesn’t make any sense!”

“Of course it doesn’t,” I whispered to X. “It’s a dream, silly.” He snarled at me.

Michael rose to his feet with his wife’s help.

“Please,” he said, “let us honor your comrade.”

The dream sort of blinked then, the way dreams do sometimes. The guards and waffle heads stood together in a circle in the middle of the village around an open grave. The dead guard’s body was covered lovingly in tiny origami turtles of many colors. Like flowers. The crowd swayed together singing Auld Lang Syne and paper confetti drifted through the air from an unseen source. The razor wire was gone.

“What is this?” X demanded.

“I’m not doing it. I can’t lucid dream. But, if I had to guess…I would say that since the waffle heads are a peaceful people who revere ceremony and ritual, a funeral would be a perfect way to bring peace between themselves and the guards. You’ve got to pay attention to the rules of the dream you’re in, X.”

X scowled.

“You won’t beat me.” It said. “I’m going to edit this dream. Present the ‘director’s cut’ to the Dream Master. I’ll cut it off when the guard dies, but before the other guards go all ‘flower power.’”

“Good luck with that, pal.” I said, folding my arms in satisfaction.

“You’ll see. He’ll LOVE it. Then I’ll get even more power to do stuff in your dreams.” X snapped its fingers and I woke up. 4:30 AM. An hour and a half before my alarm would go off. I sighed and got up for a shower.

I’d had two nights of horrible sleep. But this morning I’d had six cups of coffee and time to take a shower, pack things—lunches, backpack, laptop bag—prepare Marian’s breakfast, and lay out clothing choices for her. I was raring to go.

I was stirring my seventh cup of coffee when I hear Marian call for snuggles. I still felt sad about the dream. The waffle heads’ pain and fear, the monstrosity of the guard, and then the horror of his death. I went to hug my baby right away.

Marian sat up in her purple covers as soon as I walked through her door and held her arms out to me.

“Mama? Snuggles?”

I sat down on her big girl bed, trying not to feel embarrassed as the metal frame creaked under my weight (It’s meant for a toddler, not an adult) and wrapped my arms around Marian. I kissed her forehead and brushed a dark brown ringlet from her eyes.

“Hey baby. I saw your paintings you brought home from school.”

“Yeah?” She asked she wrapped her arms around my neck and the sweet, warm bread smell of her calmed some of my lingering unease from the dream.

“Yeah, I noticed that you started putting flowers outside the houses you draw.”

“Uh huh. I like flowers because I can use the purple paints a bunch more.”

“True.”

“Mama? You always notice stuff I do.”

“Oh? You like that?”

In response, she kissed my hand. Then she hopped happily down from her bed and padded off for the potty. I sat back for a moment, letting my head sink into the My Little Pony pillow with the purple unicorn. Twilight Sparkle is her name. Princess Twilight Sparkle.

Marian liked it when I noticed and remembered. I thought about how she blossomed under my attention. When I didn’t snuggle, she couldn’t feel right. And X did worse and worse things as the Dream Master failed to notice and be entertained by its morbid additions to my dreams. X spoke with such reverence of the Dream Master. Like a god. Or a father.

I closed my eyes, grateful to the coffee that wouldn’t let me drift off to sleep. And grateful to my daughter who had given me an idea. Maybe I wouldn’t need seven cups of coffee every morning.

The next night I dreamt that kudzu vines had made their way to my hometown of Bemidji Minnesota and were slowly taking over. I was in a locally-owned donut shop with Clark Kent (not Superman) discussing how best to repel this invasive species and restore balance to the ecosystem.

Suddenly I knew we weren’t alone. X dropped into the booth beside me and sighed. Its eyes were downcast and it had its arms folded across its chest.

“Kudzu vines? You call that an invasive species?”

It snapped its fingers and dozens of velociraptors and T-rexes appeared along the street outside. Pedestrians screamed. Cars honked and squealed their tires to get away. Dinosaurs roared and stomped off in pursuit of Minnesotans for dinner. X only sighed and picked a sprinkle off my donut. It didn’t even look up to see the chaos it had created.

“Excuse me,” said Clark Kent, standing and opening his shirt to reveal the Nabisco logo printed across an undershirt. “Bemidji needs me.” And he was off through the front door.

“I notice you made a lot of dinosaurs. Can you tell me about them?”

“Who cares? You’ll probably just make them vegetarians and they’ll eat all the kudzu and then have a party with all the people in town.”

I sat back and stared at X. That was a great idea. X was learning from watching me.

“So you don’t have that spray?”

“No. He took it back.”

I grinned and started to stretch for the drop of lucidity and do just as X had suggested, but I stopped. The goal wasn’t to salvage this one dream. The goal was to get X on my side. I had to live with the imp the rest of my sleeping life and I couldn’t have it wrecking my subconscious.  X made this mess and X needed to clean it up.

I really wanted to make the dinosaurs vegetarian, though. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a spinosaurus bite a man in half. I shuddered. It’s only a dream. Think long-term.

“The Dream Master,” I said. “What did he think of the dream you edited together for him?”

X said nothing but it shoved my whole donut into its mouth and chewed purposefully without making eye contact. The Dream Master must not have cared for it.

“Well,” I said. “You already know I didn’t like the violence. But I was thinking and I decided that the idea of an internment camp for carbohydrates was interesting.”

“Oh?” X said through mouthfuls of donut, still not looking up.

“Yes. You’re right. My dreams are a little boring. You gave my waffle people a bit of a storyline, I think.”

“I did, didn’t I?” X said. A little smile crept onto its face revealing a snaggly tooth.

“Yes. There’s a whole genre about systemic oppression called dystopian fiction. You might be interested.”

“Maybe.”

“Now, I see a problem with this dream. These are just violent, scary dinosaurs killing for no reason.”

“That’s a problem?”

“Yes. It’s boring. There’s no plot. It’s not interesting.”

“It’s just really awesome.”

“Or disgusting,” I said. X stuck its tongue out at me. “But if the dinosaurs had a story to go with them…”

“You might be interested?” X asked. “And you might want to watch what I make?” I noticed his ears twitch ever so slightly up.

“I surely might. As I told you, I see you can do some interesting things with that imagination of yours.”

“Ok,” X said. “These dinosaurs on the street aren’t our real problem. These guys are just hired muscle. Street enforcers. Clark Kent went off to fight or real problem—a big boss T-Rex who wants to rule Bemidji. But Clark is trapped now…soaking in a Kryptonite marinade to be served to the T-Rex later this evening.”

I smiled, noticing that X had said our problem. As though he and I were somehow on the same side now. I felt warm inside, in spite of the dinosaurs devouring some policemen outside the donut shop window.

“We have to save Clark.”

“And stop the T-Rex,” said X.

“That does make for an interesting dream,” I said. “Violent, yes. But interesting. I can’t wait to find out what happens.”

“It’s gonna be great,” X said, smiling. “You’ll see.” X reached for my hand. When I grabbed its hand back and let it drag me out into the dinosaur infested melee I noticed how much it felt like holding the hand of an enthusiastic preschooler. Excited to delight me with the things it made, hungering to be noticed, and willing to follow my lead if I would only pay attention.

 

 

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