ISOLATION by Lyndsey Croal

The Dreamcatcher

Unicorns. Fairies. Superheroes. Every night Ailsa wished that those were the worlds she would venture into. Instead, her usual night consisted of running from faceless monsters, falling into dark abysses, getting lost in endless mazes, struggling in the swirling waters of a vicious ocean, or trying to escape from the grasps of a bully appearing in a surprise curtain call to the past. These were the images she had to endure. Every night. 

There was no running away.

That was the job of a Dreamcatcher after all. Visiting subjects’ most vulnerable thoughts. Extracting the worst feelings and planting positive ones. There was a certain skill to it, twisting those images methodically so as not to muddle the links between fear and contentment. Her job was to make them realistic for as long as possible. As realistic as a dream could be. Or the subjects might realise the experience wasn’t real too soon or before they had reached the vision they wanted. Then she would have failed. She would face retribution for that; though she could never quite remember what that would entail. But something in her conscience told her it would be awful. An intuitive fear that always played in the back of her mind, willing her to create a perfect image each night. 

She was a good Dreamcatcher.

Teeth falling out. That was always one that confused her. She would reach in to the consciousness, pluck the image out like a wisp of air. She would grab her mouth instinctively in choking gasps as the all too familiar sensation planted itself in her mind instead. But she always pushed past the discomfort and soon her subject would be dreaming of the clatter of footsteps falling on a darkened corridor, to a steady drip, drip of water falling from a tap, then to horses’ hooves pattering in perfect synchronisation, until a final image was formed. 

A galloping adventure along a beach on a summer day. Wind in the hair. The pleasant sting of salt on the skin. Joy in its purest form. 

Sometimes she’d even create a companion for them, depending on their preferences. A lost lover or a laughing child. She would smile on (sometimes toothlessly) at her creations; when it was possible to endure the discomfort. Even though she could not join in herself, it was somewhat satisfying to watch the results of her meticulous creation that had begun as a single damaged canvas waiting for her magic touch. She was all that stood between her subjects waking up on the wrong side of the bed or starting a day with a hint of childlike glee. She prided herself in always providing the latter. 
For her tireless work, there was always the reward, something to look forward to, especially after a night consisting of the worst type of nightmares. After waking up shaking and in pain or confusion, at least she got to spend the rest of her day in the land of dreams, experiencing the leftover thoughts that she had created. It was usually pleasant and sometimes blissful, acting as an incentive to create the best visions possible. The knowledge that after the pain she would get to live just a fragment of the experience, after her subjects were finished, was all that kept her going. Living out the nightmares was a small sacrifice to pay for such a reward. 

She enjoyed dreams with multiple characters the most – then she might get to have company, something sorely lacking in the rest of her existence. Sometimes they even had enough conversation left so she could tell them about her night, or occasionally to go on a short adventure. Her favourite subject often dreamt of their long-lost brother, reunited again. 

Jamie. He was perfect. She often waited weeks to see him again. Though he never remembered her, each time she would tell him how they met, and he would nod and listen and sometimes even smile or touch her hand. Those were the best moments. The only time when she didn’t feel so lonely. Or trapped. Even if it wasn’t real, it didn’t matter. It felt real enough. Enough to keep her going.
Jamie’s imprint was different one day. 

He smiled up at her in recognition. ‘You again?’ 

‘You remember me?’

‘Of course, Ailsa. I saw you just yesterday.’

‘But it’s been a month.’

‘It has? That’s strange. It feels like no time at all.’

Ailsa pondered his words, but she had little time to question them further. Instinctively she reached for his hand. ‘Come with me.’

‘Where are we going? We’re not supposed to go far.’

‘Don’t worry, there’s a river just up this hill. It’s really beautiful.’

‘Not as beautiful as you Ailsa.’ 

She grinned, pretending that he had said those words of his own accord. She pulled him behind her and they ran like long lost friends, giggling in a moment of true freedom. A bright coloured bird trailed behind them, singing sweet tunes, perfectly in rhythm with their steps. 

They jumped in the water and basked in the sunshine. They talked and talked until they had run out of things to say and then they just lay there, watching as the sun began to set and the faint speckles of stars glittered in the sky. Ailsa pointed out her favourite constellation, Orion’s Belt, and Jamie concurred it was his too. 

She wondered if he knew what stars were. She’d always imagined them as enigmatic guardians millions of miles away, hiding other worlds amongst them. Or as the watchful eyes of the Gods. But deep down she knew there were no Gods in her world. Maybe they existed in another. 

Jamie turned to face her, gently placing his hand under her chin. His touch sent what felt like an electric pulse surging through her whole body. ‘It’s time to go to sleep now,’ he said. 

A single cot appeared in the centre of the embankment and Ailsa sighed. 

‘I’ll see you again,’ she said, even if just to reassure herself.

His eyes sparkled. ‘Of course. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ 

Her heart sunk. His tomorrow could be her next week, or month. Or year. Did it matter though if neither of them truly aged? They would stay the same forever, no matter how many days they spent repeating that single loop. He always did like the river, but maybe their next tomorrow they would visit the beach. If there was time. She smiled at the thought as she positioned herself for sleep. Jamie lay down next to her, their fingers intertwined. She closed her eyes and soon the sound of his breathing faded. She couldn’t feel his grip any more. She was back to her normal state and was plunged once again into darkness. 

A chasing dream. A monster lurking in the shadows, never out of sight but never quite visible. Her subject screamed. She screamed. They ran. She tried to reach out to them, trying to pull the monster away but her hands only grasped empty space. 

Something was wrong. The lights were gone. She was blind. 

‘Help me!’ her subject’s voice echoed from far away.

She tried to tell them she was coming, that the monster would be gone soon. But no sound escaped from her mouth. The subject had woken up.

She was back in Dreamland and so too was the monster. There was no Jamie. The river was gone. Only an empty endless stretch of desert remained. She cried and ran but the monster was closing in on her. She couldn't escape. Its long drawn out rasping breath filled her ears as it reached out to grab her. Its claws dug into her arms like a vice and she fell. Its whole body engulfed hers. She screamed but there was no sound. 

Everything turned dark. 

Error warning: system failure. Bug detected.

Infection cleared. Reboot initiated. 

Dreamcatcher Programme 2.0 launching in 3,2,1. 

Good morning AI15A. Welcome to Dreamland. 

Ailsa’s eyelids fluttered open as she rose from her bed. She was alone. Her first day in Dreamland. It seemed like a pleasant place. Something about it was familiar and comforting. 

At least it wasn’t dark any more.