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art by Tais Teng

C is for Crate

Tim Pratt's stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places. He's won a Hugo for his short fiction (and lost Sturgeon, Stoker, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards). He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife and son. Find him online at timpratt.org

Jenn Reese lives in Los Angeles and is currently writing a middle-grade adventure series for Candlewick Press. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Follow her adventures at jennreese.com.

Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, gardener and aikidoka living in Berkeley, California with her husband and son. She's had fiction in Strange Horizons, Polyphony, The Year's Best Fantasy, Escape Pod and other nice places. She just finished her first middle-grade novel, "Keaton T., Junior Gene Hacker" and is looking for representation. For more, visit heathershaw.org

Greg van Eekhout's fiction for adults and children includes the novels Norse Code and Kid vs. Squid and stories published in Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other places. He lives in San Diego, CA. For more information, visit writingandsnacks.com.
Once upon a time, I was a college dropout living in a studio apartment so small, I could use the oven to heat the entire place. I spent my time picking up odd jobs, bouncing checks, and avoiding my landlord.
Or... maybe none of that is important. What I was before doesn't matter. I should start with "Once upon a time, I found a crate." Because, really, my story before that was so ordinary, so usual, that it bored me even while I was living it. It wasn't until that summer, when I was volunteering at the Reseda Animal Shelter for the free lunches and the ability to touch other living creatures without being arrested, that things got... interesting.
The crate was small, only a foot long on each side, and solid black. No air holes. No labels. Just a simple warning taped to the top and printed in a neat, even hand: EATS DREAMS.
I asked my boss Lindsey about the crate on my first day, and she said it had always been there, going back at least thirteen years to when she started. All anyone knew was that we weren't supposed to open it. Not ever.
And yet...
I could hear something inside. The tiniest of scratches, so soft as if they were the memory of sound, not sound itself. Sometimes, late at night, when I slept at the shelter for the free A/C, I heard mewling. Tiny whimpers. Like a kitten so young its eyes were still closed, calling for its mother in the darkness.
At this point you're probably assuming that I opened the crate. Some of you want me to hurry the story along. You want to know what "EATS DREAMS" really means. Is it a pun? A joke? A literal truth that will result in my descent into madness? I don't want to disappoint you.
Yes, I opened the crate. At 24 and with no money or job prospects or rich friends to leech off of, I had only two things to my name: a tiny bit of courage, stashed away inside my heart so deep that my abusive bastard of a father could never find it, and an endless supply of dreams.
That's a mighty combination when you think about it, especially when you add in a whole heap of stupidity to get things moving.
I opened the crate and I saw the creature inside, in as much as you can actually see a thing made of darkness, and cold fur, and ultimate sadness.
And there, in that craphole of an animal shelter, I sat on a dirty linoleum floor next to a crate containing something unspeakable and unknowable, and I started feeding it dreams. Tiny ones at first: a decent job, a boyfriend who doesn't care that I'm an inexperienced lover, a car that can go more than ten miles without needing service.
Bigger dreams came next: an apartment with two whole rooms in a safe neighborhood, a really hot boyfriend, my father's swift, painful, and irrevocable death. By the time I'd moved on to world peace, free food, and intergalactic travel, the thing in the crate was practically purring.
Did I secretly suspect the creature would make all of my dreams come true? Of course not. And it didn't. When I woke up the next morning, my arms around an empty crate, my same old life surrounded me. Same old apartment, same lack of job prospects, same loneliness. I'd fed that impossible creature all my dreams, and it had given me nothing in return.
Except for one thing. Not laser vision or the power of flight, or even a miraculous Ph.D. in nuclear physics. Just this: it had given me all my dreams back. Every last one, from worldwide nude beaches to finding comfortable, stylish shoes that never wear out. You can't give away dreams, it turns out. You can only share them.
The creature comes back to me sometimes. I see it in the corner of my townhouse, a shimmer of stars and the unknown mixed into the shadows under my eco-responsible bamboo bed. I feed it bigger dreams now, dreams I intend to make real. I can sense it getting stronger. Its purr makes everyone on my street laugh at the same time. Some day soon, it'll be strong enough to leave. To go back to wherever it wants to be. Hopefully, to find others like itself with whom it can share everything I've shared with it. How great would that be? A million inexplainable ink-black creatures all dreaming about my father's death.
But I digress. I owe you a moral to my story, and here it is: Open the damn crate.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

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