COUPON for 1 Dream: Grade B
It was with a slightly incredulous smile that the Merchant held up the slip of printed pink cardboard. Eyes green as patina slid to the young girl in front of him.
"And this is?" He asked.
"It's what it looks like," the girl in her early teens by the looks of her, had a flat, no-nonsense quality to her voice. She was dressed in a none-too-new white statement shirt and denim jeans, and her feet were clad in cheap converse knock-offs, bought in a local tiangge. She was of average height, with the black hair and dark brown eyes of a Filipina. Her skin was papaya-soap fair. All in all, she was a human that wouldn't pique Mime's interest at all, had he still an ounce of curiosity left in him. A sardonic smile pulled up the corners of his red slash of mouth, cracking the white stage make-up on his face.
"A coupon for a dream… Of all my years in the Agora, this is the first time a human presented me with one. Pray tell where you got it."
The girl (Sarah, he remembered her telling him her name) sighed and pursed her lips. Impatient one, she is, Mime thought. But then again, the monstrosity that was the Agora had never been a place meant for humans. . Normally, Mime would exploit a client's signs of discomfort to turn a bargain in his favor. But right now, his amusement with the idea of a mere mortal girl trying to get the better of him in a business deal was just about enough to loosen his vice grip on his merchandise. Only Brighella, the most notorious cheat whose Everfire was currently burning, ever tried that, the little good it did him.
"If you must know, Lucy gave it to me," the girl crossed her arms in front of her chest. "It's as legal as legal in this place." Her eyes softened, turned almost pleading in her small, round face. "Come on, Mr. Dream Merchant," she pleaded. "It's only for one dream. And not even a really nice one." She gestured at the numerous glass bottles suspended haphazardly in the ever-shifting environs of the Dream-Market, Mime's domain. Each contained a Dream, a Vision, a Nightmare, a Fear, arranged and color-coded according to intensity and delicacy. A pale, mist-like substance for the most idle of Dreams, red of clotted blood for the darkest Fantasies. "Will it hurt you that much to give one for free?"
Mime glanced at his wares, his left hand tapping a finger against his chin, his right idly fiddling with his striped black-and-white outfit. "I'll have you know that each dream, no matter how small, has a great deal of power," he finally said. "Why do you so need one? Didn't your Companion already give you one the first time you saw her?" His eyes slid back to her.
The little glass bottle looked like anything a trash collector like her could find when rooting in the garbage. It was filled with a dully glowing something, like congealed sunset-light glowing on dirty concrete. The woman's hollow form handed it to Sarah, who gingerly took it as if it could explode any second. "Precious and dangerous, they are," She smiled sweetly. "Enjoy. But better not let them eat you from inside out."
A little shrug from narrow shoulders was the reply. "They eat you up one way or another, don't they?"
The girl tugged on a lock of her hair and bit her lip. How to explain how something so insubstantial could hold so much meaning for an existence the world would grudgingly welcome, then thereafter ignore? "It's not for me. It's for my baby sibling," She finally said. "It's gonna be born two months from now. And I'm not using it to lure it here."
Mime raised a smooth black eyebrow and drifted towards his Everfire. He stoked the eternally burning torch, pushing bills of all currencies – the spoils of his sales - into it, feeding its hungry green heat, the sustenance of his existence. He glanced behind his shoulder at the girl. "Why not save it for yourself? Once you use this coupon -" He tapped it. " - You'll have to buy your dreams retail," He glanced at her with hooded eyes, and gestured around his Domain. "Believe me, that'll be quite painful for your immortal soul."
He could sense Sarah hesitate behind him. Once she sold her soul to the Dream Merchant she would be the sole property of the Agora. Maybe this was why she wanted to buy her unborn sibling's first Dream?
"I understand your reasons for doing it. I just don't understand why you're bothering."
Sarah stilled for a few seconds. After a while, she shook her head, paying no heed to Mime's last statement. "I'll end up here whatever I do, anyways. There's no way in hell-" She shook her head vigorously for emphasis"-I'm going back after tonight. But before I leave, I want to get my sibling something nice, though it might not protect it," she glared at him "At least I'll leave knowing it'll have something going for it, though it's not much."
Mime stared at her, eyebrow raised. The young girl stared back levelly.
A wry little smile quirked up the corner of Sarah's lips. "Thanks,"
Mime shrugged, and with some careful selection, handed her one of the bottles. "Careful you don't drop it." Sarah gingerly took it from Mime's fingers. The bottle was approximately the size and shape of a five-peso Coke bottle, and was filled with a white-blue substance, bright as a star, filling her vision. After a moment of scrutinizing her purchase, Sarah nodded her satisfaction, and left, cradling the bottle in her hands
Mime watched her depart with an odd little smile, shaking his head in disbelief. Human buyers always were on the losing end of his dealings. But for some odd reason, they always came off as the triumphant ones. Mime didn't know whether to laugh at their foolishness, or wonder.
It was in a dingily-lit street corner Sarah reappeared in when she slipped through to the Real World. The night sky had fallen like a cracked dish, the dull orange pink of clouds stained by light pollution spread thinly apart, exposing glimpses of worn reddish-purple. She darted through narrow streets of cracked asphalt fast as she could, keeping well out of the shadows and dodging stagnant rain puddles and choked sewers. When she reached her family's tiny two-room shack on the outskirts of a squalid shantytown, she sighed with relief and entered. Making as little noise as possible, she crept to the bed shared by her parents and four younger siblings.
There was a jewelry box under the makeshift bed that she never used. It was pretty, made of wood with flowers painted on it. But there never was any use for it. Until now.
Careful not to wake her parents and younger siblings, Sarah took the box and padded it with scratch paper and old rags. Then, she put the bottle, glowing softly, inside. She hid the box among her school things, and undressing, lay down beside her mother. Inay's stomach was swollen with her sixth baby, and the way her careworn face was furrowed, it was probably kicking restlessly.
Sarah put a gentle hand on the mound, rubbing it soothingly. The frown lines on her mother's face smoothed, and the baby quieted down, though Sarah fancied it had placed its open palm against hers.
"It'll be ok, Baby. Promise," she whispered. She could feel the dream in the bottle throb with quiet strength, despite the hollow ring to her words.
She would be leaving the world soon, because Sarah was not a self-sacrificing person who would stay in a cesspit if given a chance to leave.
But the little she could give, she would. Even if it were only a vague whisper of hope, paid for by a coupon.
Clutching the empty bottle in her calloused palm, Sarah ducked behind the tarpaulin cover of an empty booth. It was early morning, still dark. The fair she'd been working in for the past week had just ended, the bands had left and the booths' vendors had already packed up their merchandise. Security guards patrolling the area were chasing away the street children that collected garbage from the grounds. Her own tattered sack of empty plastic bottles were likely lying around somewhere after she found it too cumbersome to lug around, if someone hadn't taken it yet. She sucked her breath in as a pair of heavy grown-up's footsteps approached her hiding place, releasing it when she heard the footsteps fade away.
She heard the last of the vendors exit the grounds, tallying the night's gains and losses, the guards shooing the last of the trash collectors away. And then the gate of the makeshift corrugated tin enclosure clanged shut. She was alone. In the dark with nothing but the mosquitoes to keep her company.
"I knew you wouldn't be able to stay away," The soft, feminine voice jolted Sarah to attention and sent her scrambling out of the booth on all fours. Breathing hard, she stared at the intruder.
Lucy's mask face was frozen in an eternal smile. A black fedora covered a messy black wig, the haphazard curls trailing to the waist of a little girl's dress that Sarah had only ever before seen on child stars made her look like a doll. She stood in front of her, waiting.
What lay beneath was a hollow nothingness, Sarah knew.
Sarah frowned at her and got to her feet. She held up the empty bottle and Lucy nodded her approval.
"Dreams are free in this world… in ours you'll have to buy them," Dainty gloved hands plucked the bottle from Sarah's fingers. The flat eyes of the mask stabbed through Sarah. "Are you ready?" She asked. "Are you willing be like us? To trade for the Everfire?"
Memories of a careworn but loving face and brighter days almost pulled her back, reminding her of what she would have to leave behind. She recalled the vivid dreams and fancies of her childhood, her sole means of escape from the world that had so unwillingly received her. But along with the faces came memories of numerous makeshift shanty home, babies' bitter wailing cries, and eyes, sunk immobile into resignation, turned to the Technicolor escape of the television screen. A world where dreams were the sole sustenance of life. Sustenance that became thinner and increasingly poisonous as time went on.
In her world, dreams were worthless.
Sarah nodded, her dry throat making it impossible to speak.
Lucy smiled, and tore down the last barrier of Sarah's reality. With sure steps and a steady frame, Sarah plunged down with the woman made of empty space, leaving her world of hollow dreams behind.