For one thousand nights I will have the same kinds of dreams. An impossible cacophony of sadness and darkness. They would weigh upon my heart like an anchor on a ship. There is no pillow to soften the blow, so the colours of blue, black and yellow choose to show. They colour me. They are a colour patchwork across my heart. I cannot see beyond the dreams, I cannot breathe.
I wake, my heart races faster than the last time I dreamt. I remember the dream for the eight hundredth time. I feel as though the surface will crack.
Eight hundred days ago the dreams began. They took from me my sleep and they took away my freedom. These dreams of lives, real lives? They became my everything. At first they were just dreams, dreams of sadness that drained my energy. But as each night passed, and with each day I lost my sleep, the dreams became nightmares.
I wanted them to go away.
“What the hell are you doing?” I squealed, jumping out of my seat.
“You!” I said. “Oh get away from me.”
Ero was the dream master. His life was about dreams. I met him by accident eight hundred days ago. He was the one who did this to me.
“What does it bother you?” He said, the dark ethereal tendrils of his cloak billowed about him by some unseen wind. “Two hundred more nights to go.”
I hated him. He was as pale as a ghost, yet his hair was as dark as the night. They had always been like that. But what was unsettling was the pale quality of his eyes. As he stared at me with his hand resting on the back of my chair, he was seeing into my soul. No one else could see what I was seeing. No one else could see the dark shadow that encompassed the guy. No one else saw his pale all-seeing eyes. No one but me.
I said nothing. I would not give him the satisfaction of knowing that I was unsettled by the dreams.
“Well, see you later then.” And he walked away. When he left, it felt like a whole world of burden had been lifted from my shoulders. Even so I could not breathe until he was gone. I watched as he walked out my classroom, his cloak wavering behind him like endless smoke. He didn’t turn back once.
When he was gone I could breathe again. But like the last few years, the whispers began.
“He’s so hot!”
“Who is he?”
“Was that his girlfriend?”
And always I would slouch in my seat, hiding as much as I could behind my textbook. If they knew what he was like, I doubt that would say such things.
This story began eight hundred days ago. I was in my ninth grade of high school.
I was a happy person. I had a boyfriend. I had friends. I had a great family. I had everything. But I was not nice. I ignored a lot of things and used blunt methods to get what I wanted. It wasn’t hard. At fourteen, just being popular is the ultimate goal. Easy if you played your cards right. So then why did I end up like this? It’s because I met him.
He didn’t look like he did now. Eight hundred days ago, on the first day I walked passed him, he was dressed like nerd, with glasses and acne. He asked me for help. In my heart I felt bad because he was asking everyone for help. Some signed the petition, the others walked by. I didn’t know what the petition was for, since I was feeling excessively self-conscious and guilty, I didn’t hear what he said. Instead, I looked once at my friends and once at the guy. I didn’t even acknowledge the guilt in my heart.
I refused him, insulted him, and told him to stop giving everyone an eyesore.
And that was the turning point. Although I didn’t find out until later that night when I looked out my window. I saw him watching me. Still in his nerd disguise he looked creepy. Afraid and guilty, I dropped several plates that night.
And I had the first dream. I dreamt of someone’s unending sadness. I dreamt about a person like that guy, whose days are inconsolable and burdened. I became that person, walking through the school hallway, her eyes averted, afraid to look at those beautiful people who looked down on her.
I woke in a sweat. It was a dream and yet I could feel the girl’s pain—my pain—so clearly, I wondered whether it had been real. It had terrified me even though I’d only dreamt of being the school outcast for what felt like a moment. It terrified me.
I didn’t know that was his plan. But I saw him in school the next day, again dressed as a nerd. But he just smirked at me. When my friends saw it, they shoved me and said, “You’re not going to take that crap, right?”
And I wouldn’t. Because that was who I was. I couldn’t face up to my own peer pressure.
I had the same dream again the next night, and the next, and the next. Each time I would see a little more and become a little more terrified. But still, I did not know that this was punishment.
On the fifth night I saw my demise as the nerdy girl. I could not take the pain, the disdainful glares. I could not take the pressure of being the best. I didn’t care that I was smart or that my best friend praised me. I could not handle the pressures of society. In my dream, I took eight pills. In reality, I woke up with tears on my face and heart that was beating much too loud.
“Did it hurt?”
I turned and found myself facing that guy. Only he wasn’t dressed as a nerd, he was dressed as I know him now in that inhuman cloak with pale eyes and dark hair. There was a strange look on his face that really scared me. It was sadistic and sly. He just sat on my dresser with one knee up, an arm draped over it with pawn in his hand. He twirled the piece with his slim fingers as his pale eyes glared at me.
I was terrified and so I screamed.
By the time my family came up I was already in hysterics. The next day, I discovered that everyone was on high intruder alert. I was still shaken but by the end of the day, with my family and friends to support me, I was able to become that hard super popular girl that I always was. I spent the weekend with my boyfriend and felt beautiful because of him. But on the dreams didn’t stop. They got worse.
And I got worse. I couldn’t sleep any more. Instead, I saw the images. Now that I had seen the fate of that girl, I watched sadness of another person. And as each week passed, I watched and experienced more souls losing themselves in sadness. It wrenched my heart so badly, I didn’t know if I could cry.
The painful sadness that each person went through became my sadness. As I lived each life, I took on a burden more than my heart could hold. The weight crushed me from the beginning, terrifying the cold person I pretended to be. Was this his plan?
I didn’t know. So I looked for him. I found him at school in that disguise. I found him so normal with green eyes I couldn’t believe that he was the same as the guy who intruded into my room.
I demanded to know what was happening to me. He said, “Is something happening to you?”
I said yes, and asked him again. He looked at me, with the same kind of glare that the guy who’d intruded my room used and said, “What gives you the impression that I would know anything? I’m an eyesore and a waste of space remember?”
He left in such a breath coolness I was stunned. Being as tired as I was, I didn’t realise what I was feeling or seeing or even beginning to understand.
I didn’t come across his path for weeks. The only sign that he acknowledged my problem was the chess piece he left on my desk. A pawn and a letter wrapped in red silk.
The letter inside only had three sentences. A date. A time. A place. I shivered at the thought that he could intrude on my room. I felt violated and scared. That night I slept with my chests of drawers pushed against the door and double locked my windows.
On the day stated in that letter I met my enemy in the park near my house, just as it said. It was a windy day, so my coat was blown about the wind, my scarf got in my face and my skirt would not stay down.
“So you came.”
“So I came. Who the hell are you?” I demanded. At that point in my life I still had my fire. I hadn’t lost it yet. I had a boyfriend, so looking at the handsome scary guy before me, wasn’t difficult. I was more afraid that he’d hurt me than I was that he would hit on me. Even so…
“Don’t think I’ll like you. You’ve caused more harm than the harshest person,” he said. How did he know what I was thinking?
“Whatever. What the hell is up with the dreams, and who the hell are you?”
And he said looking right at me. He said, “Punishment.”
“P-punishment? What for?”
“Take a guess.” He handed me another letter wrapped in silk. “When you know why, read this. Until then, the dreams will keep coming.”
He left after that. That letter stood on my bedside for many weeks and months as I suffered through the dreams. It was no different to the other one in size and shape, but this one had a set of scales on the back and my name embossed on the front.
I tried to pretend I was not suffering, but the sadness from my dreams, and my lack of sleep became a part of my life. One reality seeped into the other, and the other became my unreality. I lost sleep because I was too afraid to feel that unbearable sadness. Because I was so tired all the time, I ended up refusing invitations left and right. I didn’t even see my boyfriend, because I’d started falling asleep around him. In six months, everything I’d worked hard for fell away, and I found myself on the other side of an impenetrable wall.
It was then I was beginning to understand what I’d feared.
When it was clear I was no longer popular, no longer proud of myself, no longer surrounded by my friends and boyfriend, I opened the letter.
You should feel alone by now. There is no other reason for why you chose to open this letter. Perhaps even now you feel the sadness experienced by others. This is your punishment. One thousand nights of sadness. You must live each life through your dreams. You must experience the pain, until you understand. Ero is your punisher.
I had not seen him since the day he handed me that letter. When I realised that the dreams were my punishment, I convinced mum and dad to transfer me to another school.
When I look over it now, I realised how futile it was to even think about transferring schools. Since then I had transferred three more times. Each time for one reason worse than another. The first because of a misunderstanding, the second because my boyfriend was a loser and the third because I was failing all my classes.
Sleeping became a burden, as was anything else I did. Just moving was a burden. I started hating everything. I had no interest in studying. I had no interest in making friends. It all became a burden.
I tried hard to ignore the dreams. But when I didn’t sleep, I spent more days dwelling inside the person in my dreams. When I did sleep, the sadness of that person disappeared quickly. For the first couple of years the dreams were a burden, they still are, but now I sleep longer to see these lives.
As for Ero, he turned up at my second transfer. I had seen him nerdy and humble. I had seen him stalker-scary. But that time he was angry. I received a silk wrapped envelope in my locker. A locker I had only just opened.
He waited for me out front, not even dressed in the school uniform. He asked me why I was there. He asked me about the dreams. And then looking at my weary face, he asked how I was.
I ignored him and returned to class. I didn’t see him until now. But this time he stalked into my classroom and demanded what I was doing. My only response was, “get away from me.”
My dream this night was different. It was a new girl. She was sad all the time. She was popular. She had friends and she had a boyfriend. She was like the fourteen year old me. But she was sad. At home her family was not all happy smiles. Her mother worked all the time and her brother was closed off.
Unlike me. She suffered on her own. No one could get to her. She held her troubles in her a heart wrapped in barbed wire. And because of that she was losing hope fast.
I wake shivering, not sure how this could scare me. I had seen so many dreams now. Since I’d moved here to this frigid little town, it was so easy to be isolated. Since I didn’t care for friends, I didn’t bother trying to be friendly anymore. But that recent dream made me wary.
I pulled a jumper over my camo and shorts and headed outside. It had become the norm for me to work of the sadness from the dreams. It was dark and scary but I didn’t plan to go far from home. I guess being alone meant I didn’t care anymore.
Looking left and right, I shivered again at the empty stillness, and then started jogging. Because I didn’t care, I ran faster to shake the burden away. My breath was a huff of mist in the darkness. My shadow just a passing human shape under the circles of light. I was an enigma in the darkness. Running to escape, running to feel free. It was cold.
I shivered again oblivious to my surroundings. There was nothing left in me to feel anymore. I felt numb.
“What the hell do you thinking your doing?” The voice that was colder than how I felt sliced through me, knocking me off balance. It had been unexpected. I tripped and tumbled to the ground. Darkness swathed me.
“Don’t touch me.” I evaded his helping hands. What, he wanted to help his punishee? I stood up, shaking, not just from the numb cold I’d relished in before, but because a sharp pain shot up my leg.
A gust knocked me off my feet. I swore, but this time I could not evade his arms. Dark clothed swathed me again, capturing me in its grasp. “Don’t be stupid.”
He dumped me on the low wall began wrapping my ankle with strips from his cloak. I shivered. My anger began to rise. I didn’t need help. I was fine on my own. I had been fine one my own these last few years anyway. I pushed him away and tied the bandage myself, my cheeks flushing hot red in embarrassment.
“What are you doing here anyway? I never see you. So don’t expect me to be nice when you turn up after such a long time!”
I jerked my shoes on and stood up again, ready to leave. I couldn’t stop feeling agitated. This guy—! This person who had taken away my life, replaced my dreams to punish me should not be caring about me at all.
“Just go away. I’ve only two hundred days left. Two hundred and these dreams will stop.”
If ever there was a faster escape route, I wish someone had told me. No sooner had I taken a step in the other direction, I was jerked back. My first urge was to scream, but a hand covered my mouth.
“Do you really think once the two hundred days are over, you will be free?” He said. I shivered again, but I should be scared, so why wasn’t I? “I have to keep looking for you. By the time I find you, you always disappear again. This is what I wanted to tell you. Your punishment is not for being self-centred and childish. It is not because you hurt others to be popular. It is because you forgot who you were. You lost yourself and hurt others because of it.”
“You’re supposed to find yourself before your days are up. That’s your punishment.”
He left in a wisp of darkness, as though he hadn’t even been there.
I dreamt again of that girl. Her sorrow far more a burden than the night before. But still she kept moving forward. As her, I pushed through the happy façade, being perfect for everyone. Her boyfriend kissed her, her friends hugged and cheered her, and her teachers loved her. All the while her heart bled on the inside. But even though she was suffering, she kept going.
She had a hundred plans in her head that kept the sorrow company. I didn’t understand her dual heart. I didn’t understand how her sorrow could support her determination. Shouldn’t a sorrowful person be under such a weight that they couldn’t bear the burden anymore?
Class was boring. I didn’t expect anyone to talk to me. But when I walked into the canteen, I was surprised.
Sitting in the centre of the room was Ero. He looked to me, the same as usual. His natural form was frightening, yet handsome, with those pale eyes. If his eyes weren’t pale, he would be less frightening. But yet, girls flocked him. A group of them stood about him, giggling and chatting. He seemed so at ease, with that careless return smile.
So why was I unnerved?
“The new guy is quiet hot isn’t he?” Startled I turned around to see a girl from my class standing next to me.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, honestly surprised.
“You serious?” She said looking at me as though I had a four heads. “Those smoky green eyes, excellent bone structure, manly body and amazing mop of dark hair. Not to mention that mysterious aura around him. If that doesn’t make a guy hot then I don’t know what.”
They didn’t see the real him. Why was that? Startled I turned back to find him staring back at me. I was the only one who can. And now he was more popular than me.
What the hell? Why was I suddenly feeling like I needed to be elsewhere? Why was I suddenly feeling that the room was too small?
“Hey are you okay?”
I turned to her, now she was concerned? “Fine.”
She frowned. “Are you his girlfriend? I mean I did see you with him this morning.”
“No. I’m not.” I turned and left.
“Idiot. So now you’re in my school! I won’t forgive you!” I said walking briskly down the hall. I shoved people out of the way, not caring where the hell I was going. I should have been more careful.
“Watch where you’re going weirdo.” I froze. I’d forgotten the popular people.
I mad to retort back, but, instead just looked at the beautiful girl. Then I walked away. And I listened to the laughter that echoed through the corridor. Laughter that once upon a time had been mine. Though, maybe I wouldn’t have used the word ‘weirdo’, maybe my words would have been stronger.
Was this a part of the punishment as well?
My shoes clipped down the corridor, marking my presence. This was not what I wanted. I wanted to be left alone as I had been for the last two years and a bit. I wanted to suffer alone. Was that so hard to ask for? Was that not my punishment?
I slammed the door of my classroom open. My breathing hard as my shoes slipped on the linoleum. I dumped my books and lunch onto my desk and dropped my head into my hands. I felt sick. First the dream with its unusual aura, and aura that meant I had no idea where it was going to go. Second, my punisher, dream master turns after such a long absence. And third, instead of disappearing, he has also enrolled in my school as a student. What the hell?
She started reading pamphlets. University brochures. Her eyes took in the various courses they listed. She was curious. Despite being in her mind, I didn’t quite know what she was thinking. Most of the lives I’ve lived, drowned in their sorrow. Some drowned in the liquid of sorrow, others fell to liquid to remove their sorrow.
But she did not do either. She kept pushing forward. Why? Why didn’t she just give up, her heart was already divided. But she just kept flipping through those booklets, her eyes, my eyes, full of enthusiasm, sometimes bordering annoyance, but enthusiasm all the same.
Really? That’s ridiculo—
“Wake up!” My eyes flew open. What the hell is he doing in my classroom?
“Don’t hiss at me!” I slammed my palms on the table and shoved myself as far away from him as possible. I was used to those pale eyes now. In two years I had gotten used to it. Because I had changed as well. Gone were those mini skirts and low cut tops. Gone were those long tresses. Gone was that attitude. Replaced now were a cropped do and clothes that said ‘go away’. Change. I am one of many people. No one will care.
“Why are you here? Why are you a student? In one hundred and ninety-eight more days and I don’t need to see you ever again!”
“Do you really think so?”
His hand rested on the table, fingers spread. Dangerous. He watched me warily. “I told you before, it’s not just one hundred and ninety-eight more days. Did you forget?”
In the end it didn’t matter how much I hated him, or how much I resented his presence, what he said, that held the value.
I sat back in my chair and fist my hands on my knees. “No. I didn’t forget.”
Once I would not have admitted that. I would have feigned disdained and told him to go away. I had started getting tired a long time ago, but now I was really tired. If I had to find myself before the days were up, I wasn’t sure if I could. How I am now, isn’t that who I was?
“So go away, leave me alone.”
When did he leave, I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. But that infuriating heart in my chest wouldn’t stop pounding. I wonder why.
What was her secret that made her sad? Why had she stopped looking at the brochures? What happened in the time between yesterday and today? Why was she lying on her bed with her sorrow leaking out? Where had that determination gone? Then I saw the letter on the bed beside her.
A letter of condolence? Who died?
I watched as she picked herself up, her body leaden with that heavy grief. The tears on her cheeks.
When I looked around the room, it took me a moment to realise this was not her room. This was her brother’s room. I studied the awards all over the walls. I looked at the books on the table and the neatly organised wardrobe. Her brother was no slacker.
He had been so close to obtaining a goal that would have been improbable for someone at his age, he had the expectations of everyone.
I woke up early and jogged before going to school. It was supposed to clear my head but I could think of nothing but that girl. She wasn’t just sad, she was guilty! Before she had been sad and lonely, now she was guilty? What the hell? I didn’t understand. Where had this guilt come from? From my experience it was from being the sibling alive. But what did that mean? What happened?
I slammed my locker shut with an unexpected force. Murmurs rippled behind me but I ignored them anyway. As I turned, I found myself in the presence of something unpleasant.
“You need my help,” he said.
I walked away. All day, he and she were in my head. Why did he want to help? Why did she lose her way? Why? Why? Why?
“She wanted to support her parents first. That’s why she was lonely. That’s why she worked hard. She was sad because she was always alone. But she worked hard to go to a better school so that she wouldn’t disappoint her family. But even though she’s guilty, she’s guilty because she thinks she’s not trying hard enough. She thinks to some extent that she is the reason for his death. But it is unreasonable. She knows that too, but at this moment, her determination, where her rationality lies, is failing. Why?” I asked myself.
“Why don’t you try sleeping?”
I spun around. “What do you want? I thought I told you to go away.”
Even in broad daylight it still seemed like he was caring the world’s darkness on his back. It didn’t matter how casually he leaned against the railing or how tough he seemed with his arms across his chest, he was still an enigma beyond normal.
“I can’t go away. Not now.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” My head throbbed, and my eyes blurred in a moment making me feel light headed. “You’re like a migraine!”
“But they always go away.”
“Migraine’s. Dealt with properly, they always go away in the end.”
“Yeah! After a long period of pain! Which is what you are—a pain!” Ugh! My head ached badly.
There was silence after that. An awkward heavy silence that was only filled in by the sound of a gust of wind that blew between us as we stood on the roof of my house.
He brushed his hair out of his face. “I’m sorry for being a pain. But I need to tell you. Will you listen?”
“I will listen.”
“You do not have to continue the nights. If you understand yourself before the deadline, then you will be free of the punishment. But if you can’t understand yourself before the deadline, then you will forever live with the sorrow of not knowing. I’m telling you this, because you are very close to the end now. So close, I think you might fail.”
If what I understood of Ero’s conversation was correct then I could be free of this sorrow soon. But if I were to be free of the sorrow it meant that I was not happy with the way I am now and that I was actually someone better.
Ero had said that it was easy for me to break the punishment. He had said that I had accepted my punishment a long time ago. My problem was that I had grown comfortable with these dreams. This problem I was facing now, this dream I was seeing, I knew the answer. I knew what it was telling me, but as Ero said, I was pushing the answer away.
“It’s too close to the truth, isn’t it?” He’d said. And he hadn’t said it with a smirk or sneer. It was as though he knew.
She was at last standing at her desk with books in her arm. She didn’t look sad anymore. Instead she looked determined. The lines of a young girl were gone, and the birth of a more mature woman stared back at me.
As I watched, I looked at the pile of books in her arms. They were the brochures from before.
“ANI where are you?” Her mother shouted from downstairs. She was leaving.
“Coming mum!” She shouted. Then back to the window she said, “I love brother. I always will. I was guilty.”
She looked down at her book. “I won’t ever say I’m not guilty but I can’t forget it.”
She moved around the room. “All your memories are here. How hard you worked, how much you did to protect mum and me. Everything. I know it all now. I was sad when you were never at home, when mum was never at home, but I knew you were working hard. So I worked hard. But then you died.”
Tears started pouring down her cheeks again, whether she wanted it or not. “And I was lost. I couldn’t do anything anymore. Those people I used to help my appearance? My boyfriend, my friends, did you know they really cared about me? Did you know? I think you did, because they showed me you, they showed me what I refused to see. I miss you, but I’ll work harder. I’ll make you proud. I love you brother.”
I watched as she turned and walked out the room, her hand grazing a photo on the wall beside the door. As she did, she whispered, “Goodbye brother.”
I was stunned. What had happened?
“She found a purpose.”
I jumped startled at the sound of Ero’s voice. “What are you doing in my dream?” I asked turning to face him.
He looked different. His eyes weren’t white, but green, and he was wearing plain plaids. While still good looking, he also looked human.
Looking into my eyes he said the strangest thing. “Even a dream master has dreams.”
But even as I was looking at him, I was drawn to a photo perched on the wall behind him. I pushed past him. What?
He didn’t seem to be aware of it. He was still staring at the place where she once stood.
When I woke, I was on the ground of my rooftop, and the dream master was beside me. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel sad. I watched my dream master wake. It was slow, because he was still sleeping so peacefully. I wondered if he would wake soon.
I felt calm for someone who had discovered something immense. Was this what my punishment led to? But why?
“Is this what happens if you don’t succeed in one thousand nights?”
He opened his eyes slowly. I nearly jumped in surprise as they were revealed. Why were they green now?
“Yes. You become a slave to her. You work until someone can free you. But it’s not all terrible. If you succeed, you free yourself from the fear.”
“Are you alive?” I asked him.
He rolled on his stomach. “No. I think you know that.”
“So the ultimate punishment is death.”
He looked at me. It was unnerving that he was no longer paled eyed. But all the same. It didn’t matter to me if he still had his pale eyes.
“Death was better than living.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
He stood. I stood after him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded.
“If you didn’t then tonight you’d dream those dreams again. But you do, so you won’t. Now you can live your life the way you want to. Live it your way.”
He didn’t make much sense, but I think I understood.
“Where are you going now?” I asked.
He just smiled and looked up to the sky. “I’m going home.”