Emerging Writing in Residence – Lyndsey Croal
Lyndsey has written three novels (two YA, one adult) and was awarded a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award for 2020. She was also recently published in Val McDermid’s anthology ‘Imagine a Country’.
By Lyndsey Croal
Ailsa reached slowly and carefully into the subject’s mind, so as not to wake them. Though she knew it would cause her pain, she allowed herself to be absorbed in the image, let it fill every sense. Then she plucked it out, root and stem. The result would be quick and painless for her subject if she did it right – and she was well practiced in dealing with this type of sequence.
She knew it had worked when her jaw began to ache. It throbbed like someone was scraping at her gums.
Deep breaths, she told herself. It’ll be over soon. When she opened her mouth to let out a breath, all her teeth fell out. Some crumbled, some were still whole, but it left her mouth feeling like it was full of glass. The pain was never easy, but she’d been through this more times than she could remember, so at least she knew what to expect. The worst was over.
Pushing past the discomfort, she delved into her subject’s mind again and conjured a different image – the clatter of footsteps falling on a darkened corridor. Another tug and she transformed the image into a steady drip, drip of water. She was like a puppet master, pulling strings delicately so that the resulting changes were seamless. It had to be that way so as not to allow the subject to drift into lucidity before they achieved the vision they wanted; the vision they’d paid for. So, with a final manoeuvre, the water dripping morphed into the patter of hooves like a slow and steady drumbeat.
Subject 612 – Requested dream sequence: horse riding.
The final image was formed: a galloping adventure along a beach on a summer day, just like the one from Subject 612’s childhood. Wind in the hair. The pleasant sting of salt on the skin as the waves swelled and sloshed. Sun shining on glittering sand, setting it alight like faint embers. Joy in its purest form.
Ailsa’s mouth still felt numb, but she pretended that she too could taste the fresh sea air, feel the warmth on her skin, hear the cries of seabirds above. But she was detached from it as she always was, still fighting back the urge to be sick from the pain. At least her subject would wake content and happy. She’d done her job well.
It had been a particularly tough day. The teeth falling out was just the start of it. Next came the faceless monster, followed by hours lost in a dark and cold maze, then she’d swam for her life from an endless tidal wave. For each one, she crafted an alternate world: a missing dog returned home, a walk through a beautiful garden full of blossoming sunflowers and sweet lavender, and a sailing adventure complete with dolphins diving and leaping from still waters.
By the fourth subject, she was sore, cold and worn out. Her limit reached, it was time to clock out. Now she got to sleep soundly, dreamless, until she’d wake up back in her own world.
Her free time was what she looked forward to the most – ample reward for the nightmare-fighting day job. Today she enjoyed spending hours sitting in the warmth of her created garden, the smell of lavender still lingering. A dog visited and ran around her, tongue lolling, until she followed it towards the beach. On the shore, she dipped her toes in the cool water, allowing her feet to sink into soft sand. A horse galloped by behind her, but she didn’t feel like riding today. Instead, she gazed out at the sailing boat bobbing up and down. Dolphins squeaked and swam to join her, playing at her side. The dog barked at them as if it wanted to play too. She laughed and scratched the dog between the ears. It was nice to have company, even if as the hours passed, they became more distant. Soon they didn’t even seem aware of her presence, and gradually, like the images from the dreams, her vision faded to black. Time to get back to work. She closed her eyes and awaited the instructions.
Subject 3247 – Requested dream sequence: flying.
She scowled. Flying always left the most boring aftereffects in her world, and she was afraid of heights.
Ailsa enjoyed the dreams with multiple characters the most. Often the subjects wanted companions created for them – a lost lover or relative, or simply their idea of the perfect match.
Every Thursday, she was assigned to her favourite subject. He was the programme’s most repeat client, and his request was the same every week.
Subject 11 – Requested dream sequence: Jamie.
Just thinking about it meant she could easily endure the two subjects that came before. Jamie was Subject 11’s twin brother who’d died when they were teenagers. Ailsa understood loss all too well; the sinking feeling of emptiness it left behind. But because of her work, Subject 11 got to visit his brother once a week. When she created his perfect image, the twins would spend hours exploring their favourite haunts from their childhood, almost like they were back to being boys again. Providing the experience was something special. Not only because of how much it meant for Subject 11, but because when it was over, when it was time for Ailsa to return to her world, Jamie – or at least an imprint of Jamie – would be there waiting for her. It was the only time she didn’t feel so lonely. Even if it wasn’t strictly real, it didn’t matter to her. It felt real enough.
As she awoke in the aftermath of Subject 11’s dream one Thursday, she wandered until she found Jamie and Subject 11’s childhood home. The cottage was nestled amongst woodland, its red slate roof stark against the greenery, the walls partly camouflaged by trailing ivy. She wondered what it must be like to have a family home. This one seemed like it came from a fairy-tale.
‘Jamie?’ she called inside as she pushed open the door.
He was waiting, reading a book in his favourite armchair. Always the same book, always the same chair. She prepared to introduce herself – what should she tell him about this time?
He looked up at her and grinned. ‘You again?’
Ailsa froze. Did he recognise her? But that couldn’t be possible. Every day they’d spent together was always, to him at least, the first day they’d met – there was both a magic and sadness to it. ‘Do you remember me?’
‘Of course, Ailsa. I saw you just yesterday.’
Her heart fluttered. ‘But it’s been a week.’ It felt like longer.
‘It has?’ Jamie’s eyebrows knitted into a frown. ‘How strange. It feels like no time has passed at all.’
She pondered his words. Should she report the glitch, if that was even possible? She’d never had to report one before. Maybe she shouldn’t question it. Maybe she should just take it as an extra reward for her years of excellent job performance. It would be nice to spend time with someone she didn’t have to get to know for the first time all over again. She held out her hand. ‘Come with me.’
He took it without hesitation. His touch felt more solid than usual – or was she imagining it? Her skin tingled with electricity and she felt a warmth spread all the way from the back of her neck and down her spine. Maybe this is real.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked as she led him from the house and into the woods.
‘To the river,’ Ailsa replied. ‘You like it there. It’s really beautiful.’
‘Not as beautiful as you, Ailsa.’
Her cheeks warmed. It almost seemed like he’d said it of his own accord. She pulled him along the path, and they ran side-by-side like long lost friends. A curious robin flapped next to them singing sweet tunes, perfectly in rhythm with their steps.
Is this what freedom feels like?
At the river, they splashed in the water and basked in the sunshine. They talked and talked until they’d run out of things to say and then they just lay there, watching as the sun began to set and the faint speckles of stars glittered in the sky. She clutched his hand, scared he might drift away at any moment, and guided Jamie’s gaze to the sky, tracing her favourite constellation.
‘What do you think’s up there?’ he asked. ‘Beyond the stars’
Ailsa shrugged. ‘Maybe there are other worlds.’
‘That would be cool.’
Ailsa paused and turned to meet his gaze. ‘Do you believe in other worlds?’
‘This one is enough,’ he said, and she felt her heart flutter again.
Jamie took her chin lightly and tilted it upwards towards the starry night. She just caught something dance across the sky – a faint light, there one moment, gone the next.
Jamie closed his eyes and let out a long sigh.
Ailsa tilted her head. ‘What are you doing?’
He moved closer to her. He smelt of sunflowers. ‘If you had a wish, what would it be?’
‘To stay here forever,’ Ailsa answered. ‘Do you think we can?’
Jamie smiled. ‘Close your eyes and make a wish. Maybe it will come true.’
She did as he said and wished for them to stay at the bank of the river, to never visit another subject’s mind again. To never go to other worlds, because he was right.
This one is enough.
Something interrupted her thoughts.
Subject 291 – Requested dream sequence: snow day.
She opened her eyes, a sinking feeling in her gut. Jamie was gone. She was in Subject 291’s mind. It was hot and the air was full of smoke, so much that her lungs already stung. Everything was on fire. This one wasn’t going to be pleasant, but she had work to do.
Every week, Ailsa waited to see Jamie, and Jamie seemed to wait for her. And each time he remembered her. He remembered where they’d been, how they’d spent their time, and she soon believed he began to feel the same way for her as she did for him.
One night, Subject 11 was experiencing the worst nightmare. A huge roaring monster stood between him and his family home. Ailsa took a deep breath and summoned the monster to her until it swallowed her whole and the sun shone once again, glistening on the red-roofed cottage. Jamie walked out the door, and as she saw him meet Subject 11 with a warm embrace, she let out a breath. Jamie looked up and in one impossible moment he saw her and smiled.
The world dissolved. The monster escaped her grasps and she was plunged into darkness.
When she opened her eyes, her stomach dropped. Subject 11 was gone. And so was Jamie. She was back in her own world.
A distant growl came from behind her and she felt her body turn to ice. She wasn’t alone here. Skin prickling, she turned slowly. A dark shape was staring at her, eyes lit up like fire. It let out a screeching howl. Adrenaline coursed through her veins like an electric current and she vaulted forwards. She ran and ran until she found herself in an endless stretch of desert. All around her was dry and hot and empty. She cried out for help, but her words were swallowed in the void. No matter how fast she ran, the monster kept gaining on her. Its long drawn out rasping breaths soon filled her ears. Claws dug into her arms like a vice and she fell. Its whole body engulfed hers. The pain didn’t come, but instead she felt numb and cold, as if her body was drifting away from her world.
It was all her fault. She’d let the monster escape during Subject 11’s dream sequence. Why had she let her feelings affect her work? It was the only rule she’d learned when she’d started her job – don’t get attached. She’d failed, and now she was going to pay the price. She wondered if she’d ever see Jamie again, and she held on to the image of his face, his hand in hers as everything turned to black.
Subject Crossover detected.
Dreamcatcher Programme 3.0 launching.
Good morning AI15A. Welcome to Dreamland.
Ailsa’s eyes flickered open. Everything in the room was wiped clean and smooth and perfect, but at least it wasn’t dark anymore.
She sat up and looked around. Something about the space was comforting – as if she’d been there before. But that was impossible.
Today was her first day as a Dreamcatcher.