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John Howard Reid

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Is it possible to purchase a dream? Your own? Someone else's? A fairground tale by the Chief Judge of the Tom Howard Short Story, Essay and Prose Contest and author of MICAELA MORRIS IN JO'S HEAVEN.

 

A Packet of Dreams

 

“Dreams for sale! Dreams for sale!”

    The barker was a young girl. A very attractive girl, or I wouldn’t have bothered to stop. Leastways, her face was attractive. I didn’t think much of her uniform. The lessee could have done a whole lot better than a dowdy navy smock with silver buttons. A smock that did nothing for her figure. Such a shapeless balloon, there was no telling where her shoulders ended and her breasts began. But her face, with that smooth fair skin and those big grey eyes, had that vulnerable, please-love-me-to-death quality that I find irresistible.

    I didn’t waste time on pleasant “good days”. Get right down to it, is my motto. Some women appreciate that. Others like the slow, sexless, just-one-human-being-to-another approach. I don’t have time for that. I walked right up and leaned on the counter. “I like you. But I don’t like your outfit,” I said. “I bet you haven’t sold ten dollars in an hour.”

    She smiled. A wan smile that trickled across her lips like a see-saw of sunlight on a shadowed pond.

    “I’m Arthur Knight. I run the merry-go-round concessions, the fake jewellery stands and the hot chips. All mine! What’s your racket?”

    She pointed to the dull little packets rowed behind her. “Dreams.”

    “Hell! What’s in the packets? If it’s fake jewellery, you’ve got a problem. At least your boss has. I’ve got the concession. Exclusive. And I don’t like competition. Even if you only sell a dozen packets a day, I still don’t like it.”

    “I don’t sell them,” she answered, her voice so soft I had to lean forward to catch her words. “Not in the way you mean, Arthur. I trade them.”

    “And how many have you traded to-day?” I held up my right hand. “Not more than five or six, I betcha.”

    She shook her head. “None.”

    “You’re in the wrong racket, girlie. Come and work for me. I can always use a girl like you.” I winked. “You get me?”

    That wan see-saw flickered across her lips again. “You couldn’t pay my wages, Mr Knight.”

    “Just ask me. Go on, just ask.”

    “Death.”

    That was it! I turned around and walked right away from her. Crazy as a bed-bug. Not the full quid. Bloody sad. Lovely girl too. She called out after me, but I didn’t hear what she said and I didn’t stop running until I reached my draughty little shack of an “office” back of Knight’s Genuine Discount Gems.

    My partner poked his head through the curtain. “Who’s after you this time, Art?”

    “Ever hear of a dream merchant on the midway?”

    “A what?”

    “You heard me: A dream merchant. A girl selling packets of dreams.”

    “You kidding?”

    “Her pitch is near the Tumble Bugs, right opposite the Laughing Clowns. See what you can find out about her, Sly.”

    “Now?”

    “I’ll look after things while you’re gone.”

    “Go to it, boss. Nothing much doing here now anyway.  All the paying customers are riding the Ghost Train or watching Jesse James bail up Cobb and Co. in the main arena.”

    He was right. I sold only five genuine pearl necklaces in the whole hour he was gone.

    “Name’s Bernice. Some kind of religious nut.”

    I breathed a sigh of relief. A religious kook I could handle. A genuine crazy was something else again.

    She was just packing up. “I knew you’d be back,” she said. “I was expecting you.”

    “I’ll take a dream.”

    “First you’ve got to pay.”

    “Okay. You got a sale,” I said.

    “Today we’ve got a special sale. Buy two dreams, get one for free.”

    “Today and every day you’ve got a sale.”

    “Today is all that matters. You want to pay for Love and Ambition, get Magic World for free

    “Do I write something in blood?”

    She handed me a card.

 

    “I make a solemn promise to die for Love, to die for Ambition,” I read.   

    “Now I’ll find your packet,” she said.

    “Aren’t they all the same?” I asked. They all looked the same. Just black-creped little boxed cartons the size of a “Cuppa Soup”. Rows and rows of them.

    She shook her head. “We each have our number.” After a couple of false starts, she selected a box and placed it on the counter.

    “Where’s yours?” I asked.

    “How did you know I had one?”

    “Don’t we all have dreams?” It was my turn to smile. “Let’s see it.”

    “A dream is something private and personal,” she answered. “Ideas that flow from our inner hearts, inner thoughts, inner longings. Our dreams reflect the very fiber of our souls.”

    “Oh, yeah?”

    “You don’t believe me, do you? You don’t believe in the real person that lies underneath? Underneath the overlays of our so-called ‘education’ – the brain-washing we receive from our teachers, the media, our peers, even our priests.”

    “If what you say is right on, the happy police could easily hunt out and screw down all our criminals. Quiz suspects. Uncover potential crooks. Just third-degree our dreams.”

    She nodded.

    “Then why don’t they?”

    “Because not enough people believe in the power of dreams.”

    “Power?” I asked. “Or insight?”

    “Both.”

    “So how’s about you share your dreams with me?”

    Again that wistful smile.

    “You were about to show me your personal packet anyway.”

    She hunted out her packet/box from under the counter.

    “Looks the same as mine,” I commented. “How can you tell the diff?”

    She handed me a large magnifying glass, Sherlock Holmes style. “My eyes are used to the lettering,” she said, pointing to a spot right near the bottom edge.

    Sure enough, with the aid of the glass, I could vaguely make out my name. Or was it just my imagination? Or hope?

    I handed her back the glass. “Is that someone spying on us?” I quickly pointed to the back of her stand.

    As she turned around, I swiftly switched boxes. I knew my own dreams. I wanted to know hers.

    She turned back, gave me a puzzled look.

    “My mistake,” I said, pocketing her dream.

    She frowned.

    “Don’t bother to wrap it up.” I tapped my pocket. “I’ll take it unwrapped.”

    As I made to move off, she leaned forward and laid her hand on my cheek. I swelled with pride. Another quick conquest! There was no stopping Arthur Knight.

    “I think,” she began. “I think you’re making a mistake.”

    I looked her full in the eyes. Drinking nectar from a gray-rimmed pool. “Arthur Knight never makes mistakes,” I told her. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Don’t you worry.”

    She shook her head. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” she warned softly.

    I patted my pocket. “Dreams,” I answered. “Beautiful dreams.”

    She knew I’d switched boxes. I stood there, staring into her face until she smiled. A secret smile of assent.

 

Bernice was the star of her dream. I saw her sitting on a patch of grass, halfway down an otherwise barren hill. At least she’d exchanged her drab navy smock for an equally shapeless white robe that shone, glistened and blurred into the sunlight.

    Crouching over Bernice, a wizened little man idly fingered a slate of hieroglyphics.

    “It was really the Master told you this? Really the Master!” Bernice exclaimed.

    The old man misinterpreted her words. “How many Masters are there, girlie?” he snapped. “Is the Master of land and sea, of heavens and earth, of body and soul, not one and the same Master? You’ve seen Him, heard Him — now goodbye!”

    Bernice ignored him. “I myself saw the Master,” she agreed. “But He was a long way off. His voice came to me in fits and starts as the wind carried it down the mountain. I thought He mentioned the fowls of the heaven – who are they? – and the kingdom that is within us. And that knowing something – what? – shall find the kingdom.”

    “I heard nothing about finding the kingdom,” the old man grunted. “It was not finding it, I heard: If you don’t fast from the world, you’ll never find the kingdom. If every day is not the seventh day, you’ll never see the father.” He pointed behind him. “Just this desert dust and the sands of the endless sea.”

    Bernice wasn’t interested in the not. “You quoted Him saying, Where there is one alone,” she prompted.

    “Ah! When I drew near, I heard the Master say: Where there is one alone, I say I am with him. Lift up the stone and there you shall find Me. Chop the wood and I am there. But I heard nothing about finding the kingdom. Only not finding.”

 

“Your magic world. A hill in a desert?” I asked.

    She smiled that flickering, self-sad smile. “And I know yours.”

    Now it was my time to smile. Confidently. Aggressively.  “I don’t have a magic world. Don’t need one.”

    “You were riding a motor scooter through the countryside. Not a bike, a motor scooter. You were idling along, through green valleys, down winding river-banks, and over mossy hills.”

    I looked at her in surprise. “That was a long time ago.”

    “It could be now,” she said. “Give everything away.  Leave everything you have. Sell that town house you’re buying – ”

    “It’s mortgaged!” I cut in.

    “And with the money left over, you could buy two Vespa scooters. One for me. And we’ll set out together. We’ll scour the countryside. We’ll look for the kingdom together – if it takes us the rest of our lives!”

    I was strongly tempted. At that moment, Bernice seemed alive with an inner radiance that transformed her into the most beautiful, the most attractive girl I’d ever seen.

    But no! I’d worked too hard for Arthur Knight’s merry-go-rounds, hot chips and Genuine Discount Gems. I wasn’t about to sell out now, let alone give them away.

    I decided to let her down easy. “Love to, sweetie. But you can’t buy motor scooters any more for love or money. And I wouldn’t trust myself on a motorbike. That’s no way to see the country. Do it proper, is what I say. Scooters or nothing. I like to just paddle along, as you said, feel the fresh air on my face. Smelling the clover and the corn, the sheep and the cows, whatever the breeze brings along. I like to eat Maccas under the stars and sleep beside a waterfall. I like to comb the grass out of my hair in the morning and kick loose pebbles into the creek. But no scooters, no dice. Too bad!”

    She ignored me. “Won’t you buy a packet of dreams?” she cajoled two passers-by. “Special to-day. Buy two packets, one packet free.”

 

That night, I dreamt I saw Bernice again. She had found her Master. An ordinary looking man of average height, brown eyes, swarthy skin, unruly black hair, unkempt beard speckled with grey. Neither ugly nor handsome, neither humble nor proud, neither ruler nor slave, neither fastidious nor slovenly. Just an ordinary man of obviously moderate means and less than conspicuous charisma.

    The Master was addressing his followers. Bernice sat at his sandalled feet. His voice had an odd accent. It took me a few seconds to place it. Cockney! “I stood in the midst of the world,” He said. “In this here flesh. I found all men heavy with drink, –  yet not a one of them was thirsting. Not a one! I’m frightened, frightened for their souls, because they’re blind in their hearts. Blind!”

Early next morning, I raced back to the midway. Near the Tumble Bugs, opposite the Laughing Clowns, I found just empty space. The Dream Merchant had pulled up her stakes and gone.

    But that’s not the crazy thing. The crazy thing is that I signed everything over to my partner, – lock, stock and barrel. I sold the town house and paid a pretty price for a reconditioned Vespa motor scooter. Then spent the next three years, scootering through every state, hunting through every country fair, looking for Bernice.

    I never found her. Not a whisper. Not a trace.

    I still dream of her though. Every night I see her at the feet of the Master. And every night I hear His words: “If a man is alone, I will come to assist him. As he struggles against the weight of his burden, I will offer him a helping hand. If he refuses My aid, I walk on, leaving him to battle his loneliness himself. But if he accepts My friendship, I will follow him forever.” 

 

 

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Reviewed by Shelby Splatterpunk 4/24/2008
That was really good! I love short stories, and that one was perfect! Thank you!
Reviewed by John Howard Reid 4/24/2008
The annual Tom Howard Short Story Contest does not open until August 15, 2008. In the meantime I'm working on a new anthology of my short fiction. The title story is A PACKET OF DREAMS.

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