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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

The Sandman's Dreams

Jess Hyslop is a writer and sometime blogger living in the UK, where she spends the majority of her time avoiding the realities of life after university. She studied English at the University of Cambridge, and was there awarded the Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing in 2010. Her winning story, "Augury," has since been published by Shortfire Press. Her short fiction has also appeared in Bewildering Stories, Abandoned Towers, and Doctor Fantastique Books’s "Steampunk Shakespeare" anthology. She tweets @JinxedJester.

When the Sandman returns, Susan knows it. On Tuesday night, after she puts Liam to bed and slips under the duvet beside Neil (already snoring, bless him), she dreams of a swan. The bird's feathers are silver-bright, and it glides down a current of crystal-clear water, and in the distance a boat is waiting.
She wakes in the morning with an ache in her heart, and dust in the corners of her eyes.
At breakfast she takes her eye off the porridge and it erupts all over the microwave.
"Woops," says Neil, handing her a wad of kitchen roll.
Susan mops up the mess, thinking of a boat on the horizon.
On Wednesday night, Susan dreams of a tower built of smooth, pearlescent marble. The tower is so high that it pierces the clouds, the stratosphere, the ozone layer, reaches far, far above the Earth so that Susan can look out of the topmost window and see the arms of the Milky Way curling and swirling around her in a monumental, cosmic embrace. The beauty is immeasurable.
Upon waking she finds her pillow damp, her lashes dewed with tears. She wipes them away before Neil can see.
At work later, Kathy comes up and touches Susan on the shoulder.
"You all right?" she asks. "You look miles away."
Susan blinks. "Miles away," she repeats. Then she smiles. "Yes. Sorry, I was miles away."
On Thursday night, Susan's dreams take her to a moonlit desert. The sand is black as the heavens, but here and there a diamond glitters, so that the landscape mirrors the sky above. Despite the night, the sand is warm--and soft too, like velvet under her feet. Susan wriggles her toes, planting herself deep, deep in the desert, and is filled with contentment.
She knows that if she turns around, he will be there. She yearns to turn, but she does not.
Before he leaves for school, Liam tells them how he dreamed he was flying above a castle, clinging to the back of a ferocious winged bear. The bear snarled as they flew, and his teeth were as big as Liam's head.
"It was the best dream ever!" Liam cries, flinging his arms wide and zooming around the kitchen.
Neil looks at Susan, and she knows he is waiting for her to tell their son how dreams are made--how the Sandman comes up the stairs with his sack of dreamdust, with a rainbow coat on his back and socks on his feet, and how he blows the dust into the eyes of sleeping children, rewarding their good behavior with visions of magic and adventure.
Susan only says, "Don't run, Liam. You'll slip."
Neil gives her a puzzled look. Then he crouches in front of Liam and tells him about the Sandman himself. But Neil can't describe it as vividly as Susan does; his tale lacks the wonder and passion of his wife's version.
Susan cannot listen. She leaves the room and busies herself with finding Liam's hat and gloves.
On Friday night, the dream is the sweetest yet. Susan floats in something pure and light, the bosom of a silken cloud. Fantastic birds soar around her, their plumage gold and emerald and azure. The tips of their feathers brush against her skin like the caresses of a lover. Harmonies sigh past on the winds.
It takes all the willpower Susan possesses to wake herself, but she does.
Neil is a warm presence at her side; she can feel his snores rumbling through the mattress.
There is another man sitting at the foot of the bed.
The visitor is tall and pale, and he wears a silken coat that shimmers--now red, now blue, now green--in the light of the streetlamp that filters through the curtains. His hair is dark, his face long and angular. One moment, as the shadows catch his cheek, he looks ancient and alien, a being from a time and place uncharted. The next, as he turns his head to look at her, youth gazes out through his eyes.
There is a small bag hanging from the belt at his waist.
The Sandman watches Susan. He looks uncertain and a little afraid.
Susan looks steadily back at him, and she quells the emotions that rise in her chest. "This must stop," she whispers. "I told you last time. I told you. No more."
The Sandman dips his head in acknowledgement, but he does not move from the bed. His hand rises, twitches towards her face, and then falls again. He glances down, abashed.
"I have a husband now," Susan tells him. "A son. I have a family."
Neil mutters in his sleep. The Sandman does not look at him.
"Please," says Susan. The word cracks a little in her throat. "Please leave. Leave me in peace."
The Sandman gets up from the bed, and part of Susan wants to cry "No!", but she remains silent.
He walks to the window, and pauses. At last, he speaks.
"Your son," he says. "Liam." His voice is like a tendril of mist. "I can still visit him?"
Susan smiles faintly. "Of course. I would never deny a child his dreams."
"You deny me mine."
Susan cannot see his face, but his sorrow emanates from him like a black aura. She feels unutterably cruel when she replies, "You are no child. And neither am I. We have responsibilities. Both of us."
The Sandman stands very still for a moment, and then he gives a small nod, as if to himself; as if to say "Enough."
Then he looks back over his shoulder and blows Susan a kiss. As he does so his form wavers, trembles, shakes--and dissolves into a shower of dust. It shimmers gently in the shadows of the bedroom, and is gone.
Susan cries a little, there in the darkness, when the Sandman leaves for the final time. But soon she dries her eyes and lies back down, snuggling close against Neil's back.
Her husband snores beside her, as he always does, every night, whether Susan dreams or not.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, April 4th, 2013
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