The Dreams You Can’t Walk Away From

by Abigail Miles


It was not her dream.

It was that of the woman downstairs.

As far as dreams went, this one was certainly not the worst, though it was strange.

By now, she’d seen all sorts of dreams. The rose-tinted ones that you never wanted to leave. The blood-soaked ones that followed you into the waking world. The ones with floors that tipped over and skies that appeared beneath your feet and grass that grew magenta with periwinkle flecks along the stems and tap-dancing shoes that would dance themselves in an intricate pattern right off a cliff.

In the dream belonging to the woman downstairs, there was a man with a very tall and pointed hat who was walking toward her. Always toward her, never away, and yet he never got any closer to her as he walked. His limbs were long and rubbery, and if she looked closely enough, she thought she could see them bending ever so slightly in the phantom breeze that blew through the dreamland.

In his hands were mounds of oranges. The longer he tried to walk closer to her, and failed to walk closer to her, the more she could see that he was becoming frustrated, and his lip curled up beneath his nose in an altogether unbecoming sneer as he hefted one of the oranges into the palm of his left hand. When he threw the orange at her, it did not bounce off and roll away as an ordinary orange would. Rather, the orange adhered itself to her skin where it hit, sticking there, and when she reached up a hand to pry it away she learned that it would not come.

The more the man tried to walk the angrier he became and the angrier he became the more oranges he threw. Soon enough there were a half dozen round orange fruits stuck to her skin and clothes, none of which would come off. More than that, she could see now that the oranges which had been there the longest were beginning to fuse with her skin, sagging as if they were melting, and then blending into the dream flesh they found there. It didn’t hurt, for which she was appreciative — some of the dreams did, in fact, hurt — but it was more than a little disconcerting, seeing the oranges gradually become one with her dream self.

The dream went on like this for some time, until the man had run out of oranges and all of the oranges had melded thoroughly into her skin or clothes, creating splotchy orange-colored patches all over her body. At this point in the dream she just stared at the man with the tall pointy hat, and hands now empty of oranges, he stared back at her — still frustrated, but also now perhaps a little lost, as if his whole purpose in the dream had been used up right along with the oranges he had thrown at her.

Then she woke up. It was dark — it was usually dark — and she rubbed at the base of her skull, sensing distantly as the dream faded away. For the rest of the night, she remained prostrate in her narrow bed, staring vacantly up at the ceiling above her, intermittently closing her eyes and then testing herself to see how long she could keep them open.

But not dreaming. She could never dream on her own. This, she had come to understand, was the tradeoff extracted from her, but she did not mind.

Sometimes, on nights like tonight, she would try to imagine what she would dream about, if she were able to do it on her own. She tried to decide whether she would have the happy, pleasant sort of dreams, or the monstrous, teeth-baring kind. Or maybe some sort in the middle, like the one of the woman downstairs: strange, uncanny, but ultimately harmless.

The hours passed away in this respect until the first lights of dawn crept in around the edges of the velvet curtains she had hung up over the windows in her bedroom. She sighed. It was time to collect.

The real trouble with dreams is that even when we know we’ve had them we don’t always remember, and often when we don’t remember we begin to question whether we even had them at all. The same works in reverse: if we can’t remember, who’s to say the dreams weren’t there in the night, only to be promptly swept away by the first rays of morning light?

Such was the case for many of the clients she worked with, including on this particular morning the woman downstairs, who had been spared the experience of dreaming of a frustrated man with a pointed hat and an arm full of oranges.

The woman refused to pay. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, but it still filled her with a weary resignation to what would have to come next. The exchange had already been initiated: the dream had been dreamed, and now the woman needed to pay. It took most of the morning, an entirely one-sided argument, and ultimately a very lengthy phone call before the woman finally succumbed and paid what was due.

At the end, the woman had softened the slightest amount, and it had even for a fleeting moment looked like she might have been something close to appreciative. Though, of course, she had closed the door before that appreciation could blossom into anything more concrete or sincere. That would have meant acknowledging that she had been wrong, after all. Acknowledging that a transaction had indeed taken place.

They weren’t all like that. Some people wept with gratitude or relief. Some offered shifty glances and quickly exchanged funds. Some stared — most stared, actually. Bewildered, disbelieving. Awed. Those unnerved her more than the rest, but at least they paid right away and didn’t need the convincing that the woman downstairs had required.

She went back upstairs, to the small apartment that she kept by herself. During the day, there was never much to do; her work was mostly carried out in the inky recesses of night, where even the most mysterious of professions could feel almost normal — or the most normal could feel mysterious, depending on one’s perspective.

During the day, she looked for clients. Or rather, they looked for her, and she merely engaged back. Created appointments, scheduled times, arranged her nights.

It usually worked best if she was in close proximity to the sleeper. When they lived in her building — as many of them did, as of yet — she could remain in her apartment, on her bed, which was how she liked it best. When they lived across town, however, she needed to find lodging for the night, which required more time, more planning, more money. She had to charge more for those, which was probably why she had not yet gained much of a following outside of her building.

Not that she minded. It could be exhausting, if carried out too frequently.

That day, she had no more upcoming appointments, and so she decided to spend the afternoon reading — a different version of dreaming, really —  and was deeply engaged in a highly invigorating chapter when she heard it.

From the other room: the shrill cry of her phone on the hook. She withheld a sigh, placed her book gently on the table next to her, and slowly made her way toward the phone, lifting it up just before the final ring.

“Hello?” a voice on the other end said. It was a thin, reedy sort of voice, and she had to strain her ears to make out anything beyond the crackle of static that accompanied it.

“Hello,” she said, and then she waited. She never initiated the conversations. She always wanted them to have to say it.

“Hello,” the voice on the other line repeated. A man’s voice, she could hear now, though it was very high pitched. “Is this,” the voice started and then stopped. It picked up again. “Is this (a pause) the dreamer?”

“Yes,” she said simply, and then she waited again.

“Right. Right, well I received this number from a friend, see. He told me what you do. He told me you could help. See, I’ve been having these, these, these nightmares. Real bad. Can’t sleep. And the medicine isn’t working, or the sleep therapy or whatever, and so my friend, he gave me this number. He said you could help.”

“Yes,” she repeated. “I can help.”

“Oh,” the voice said, and there was a great sigh in that single syllable. A great heaving of relief tinged around the edges with the slightest taste of skepticism. “Oh, fantastic. When can you come?”

She looked at the schedule she had written out for herself. There were only two events listed on it for the week: the woman downstairs the night before, and then a young girl in her building later that weekend. “I could do tonight,” she answered the voice on the phone. “If that would suit you.”

“Oh yes,” the voice said, gaining traction with its enthusiasm. “Yes, that would be excellent. I’d really, I’d really appreciate it.”

She took down his address and told him she’d be over sometime in the evening.

“And how does it work?” the voice asked of her, right as she was about to hang up.

“You’ll see,” was all she said.

“Yes, I’m sure, but what I mean to say is how does it work for you? Will you need any accommodations is what I’m asking.”

She paused. Very rarely was she asked questions for herself, for her own wellbeing, and so it caught her off guard, hearing the high and reedy voice of this client asking after her in this fashion.

“I will find a place to go,” she said. “Somewhere close to you. And then I will sleep.”

“Well, why do you need to find a place? Couldn’t you just stay here?”

Could she stay there? She considered. She had never before stayed in the home of a client while dreaming. The thought of such a feat to her felt invasive, though she was not sure if it would be her invading or being invaded.

And yet.

And yet being able to stay at the home of the man with the thin reedy voice would mean she would not have to find somewhere else. She glanced out the window, at the swiftly lengthening afternoon light, and had to suppress a sigh. It would be nice, not to have to look. Her eyes trailed over to the book, still resting innocently on the table where she had set it down. Yes, it would be nice to stay in a bit longer, to go right over to this man’s house, and to finish the job, and then be able to come right home. Now that she was considering the possibility, it almost seemed luxurious, in comparison to the alternative.

A cheap hotel room with a leaky ceiling and bed coverings of questionable cleanliness.

So, turning away from the window, she spoke briskly into the phone. “All right then,” she said to her new client. “Then I will only need a place to lie down. That will suffice.”

“Right,” the man said. “Right, well I have a sofa couch, so would that work all right?”

“Yes,” she said. “That will work great.”

“Perfect,” the man said, and then the other end of the line went dead.

She frowned at the receiver still in her hand. They almost never hung up first.

The remaining hours of the day passed away one after another, like dominoes in a line, and all too soon she was buttoning up her coat and stepping out into the crisp evening air.

The client lived about two miles away from her building, and so she decided to walk, keeping her hands tightly pressed inside the outer pockets of her coat to protect them from the distinct chill in the wind as it swept around her.

His building was squat and gray, with five floors and a rusty iron gate over the entrance that she had to push a buzzer on to be let inside. He lived on the second floor, in an apartment with a door that had once been painted green, but now looked like a ghastly shade of yellow that was peeling all around the edges anyhow, revealing the blackish-brown hue beneath.

She took in a single breath, blinked once, and then knocked twice upon the yellowish-green surface of his door. From the other side: silence. And then a tussle, like furniture being knocked over, and the sound of a stuttered curse, followed by footsteps and, finally, the click of a turning lock.

The man who opened the door was not what she had imagined. He was tall and stocky, with beady eyes and a balding head, but he didn’t at all look like a man who should have been able to produce such a high-pitched voice as she had heard on the phone.

She swallowed, then nodded inside. “Shall we?” she said.

The man stared at her for a second longer than perhaps he should have, but then he stepped away from the door, allowing her in.

The interior of the apartment was much like the exterior of the building: dilapidated furniture and splotchy paint and mounds of detritus that she decided not to inspect too closely. In the center of it all: the sofa couch the man had promised, and was walking toward now.

Here, he was saying, “You can stay here.” Then he paused. “Where do you need me?”

“Wherever,” she said with a wave of her hand. She glanced around the desolate apartment. “Where do you usually sleep?”

“Bedroom,” the man said and jerked his head to a back corner of the apartment, where she could now see there was another door, presumably leading into the man’s bedroom.

“Right,” she said. “Well, you just go in and go to sleep. I’ll stay out here and do the same. But when you start to dream, they’ll come over to me. You won’t have to see any of it.”

“And that’s it?” the man asked.

“That’s it.”

He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I was expecting… ”

“I know,” she said. They were always expecting something else. More, perhaps. Something other than falling asleep and waking up the next morning without the dreams they had previously dreaded.

“Well,” he said. “I guess I’ll go on back then. Do you need anything else?”

“No,” she said. “I’m all right.”

“Well then. I’ll leave you be, then. You have a good night.”

And with an awkward backward wave, the man retreated in the direction of his bedroom, closing the door back behind him with a snap.

Alone now, she allowed her eyes to roam again over the space, and she wrinkled her nose. She usually tried not to judge her clients too much beforehand — or after, really — but it was hard, being here inside this man’s apartment.

She shrugged to herself, took off her coat, and went over to his sofa. It was long and thin with fading violets knitted into the beige surface of its fabric. As she lay down on it, turning her head toward the cushions, she inhaled the sharp scent of gasoline, and with a suppressed hack, rolled back so that instead she was facing the rest of the man’s bleak home.

Deep breaths: one two three. She was good at this, falling asleep in less than ideal locations.

And this was, certainly, less than ideal. Enough so that she was beginning to question her decision to go there in the first place. She no longer held the same certainty that the convenience of the situation outweighed the clear drawbacks of the location.

Another series of deep breaths — through her nose, out her mouth, repeat, repeat — and she could feel herself falling, falling, falling.

The dreams always started the same: darkness.

And then light — white and all-encompassing and magnificent.

And then the light would slowly start to fade, and in its place the colors would come in, the shapes, coalescing into the form of the sleeper’s mind.

There was more to it than simply the sight of the newly developed dreamscape; there was also the feel, the tangibility of the sleeper’s subconscious, and within it, she always for the most fleeting of moments could imagine that she was the sleeper, rather than just the dreamer. She could forget she was herself, for that sparest of instants.

Until the dream settled more permanently, and then there was no escaping the irrefutable fact that the space did not belong to her. The air in the dream would begin to feel ever so slightly noxious, ever so slightly foreboding, warning of trespassing too long in a space that was not hers to own, to inhabit.

In the man’s dream, it started off the same as always: the dark, and then the light.

When the colors were supposed to pool in, however, there was something that felt to her like a stalling: like a process that had started, and then stopped, and then wanted to continue but couldn’t push past a very distinct jamming.

That was what it felt like, entering into the man’s dream: like a pipe that water was trying to flow through but that had been stopped up by a conglomeration of grease and hair and dirt that the water just couldn’t escape around, no matter how much pressure it applied.

She was trapped in that pipe for what felt like a small eternity while being in the man’s dreamscape, but what was probably only a few seconds in the waking world. By the time she managed to push past, to emerge into the next phase of the dream, there was a fuzziness around everything that she struggled to shake, a blurring to the edges around the dream that wasn’t normal.

Her eyes squinted as she tried to make out the environment around her. It was an apartment that looked very much like the one she was currently asleep on a dirty sofa within. Only this one was less cluttered, less disastrous, less infected.

There were drawings taped to the doors of the fridge and colorful blocks in unorganized stacks in a corner behind the sofa and small glitter shoes lined up haphazardly next to a much larger pair of work boots by the front door.

From the next room over: a shriek. She tensed, fearing the worst — in other people’s dreams, it was always wise to fear the worst — but then the shriek transformed instead into high-pitched laughter, followed by a cascade of rolling giggles.

It was a little girl’s voice, she thought, and after the shrieking laughter, she heard the girl begin to speak, to say words from the other room, but the dream worked to gobble up all of her speech, turning it instead into an incoherent string of gibberish that she couldn’t make any sense of.

Not that it mattered. She was able to grasp the general tone behind the unheard words: the joy that radiated from the side of the dream that contained that little girl and her voice.

Then the dream shifted and became less coherent, less linear. The air in the dream space darkened and spun, like a storm inside that small apartment, and a new, more frantic sort of scream emanated from across the room. There was a hot spike throughout the space that could have been interpreted as literal heat or as a phantom residue from a thought, a memory, but whatever it was created a painful thrust of panic that resonated all through the limbs of her dream self as she stood immobile within the man’s twisting dream.

There was a flash of red, and the room spun around itself. More screams, now from different voices, a whole collage of fear and sorrow and loss crafted out of the disconnected cries.

She felt, in her chest, a burning sensation that she could only imagine to be that of the man’s, thrust upon her here in this dreamland that she had no control over.

She thought that maybe this dream could go on forever — some had that feel about them — and other nights it very well might have. This night, however, she was jerked out of the man’s broken dream so forcefully and abruptly that at first, sitting up on his beige and violet sofa, she thought that perhaps she was still in the dream, that maybe this was only a new facet of it.

As her breathing calmed, though, and her eyes adjusted to the dim, cluttered apartment around her, she realized that no. She had awoken. The man was still asleep, hopefully now with many hours remaining in light of the dream experience he had been spared.

Usually, she would try to forget the dreams as soon as she’d dreamt them. They weren’t hers to cling to, and there was nothing to be gained from dwelling on the inner thoughts of her clients.

This time, she found she couldn’t dispel any of it: the laughter, the scream, the heat, and the dark and the blurring of the dream that she knew had to mean something for the man who had sent the vision her way. Blinking around at the space she now felt trapped within — the space that still resembled a little too closely the dream she had only just escaped — she couldn’t help but see all of the remnants of the dream in the real world, all of the pieces that added up to a story that she didn’t understand, but knew she didn’t want to hear the ending to.

So, instead of lying back down on the couch and staring up at the water-stained ceiling and passing away the rest of the night with distracting thoughts until morning could come and she could ask for her payment, she stood up. She picked up her coat where she had laid it over an arm of the sofa, and she walked to the apartment’s front door.

There, she paused with her hand on the door’s handle and glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the bedroom where she knew the man still slept. A frown creased the edges of her mouth, and she pinched her lips tightly to try and banish it.

There are the dreams which are impossible to walk away from, when they’re yours. But the benefit of being only the dreamer, and nothing more, was that she could leave them behind, if she tried. She could move on from them. Forget they had ever resided, even for so brief of a time, inside of her.

So she shook her head, once, and opened the door, departing from the man’s apartment, and his dreams, and the life she was guiltily relieved was not hers in the waking world, and never would be.


Abigail Miles has a degree in creative writing from Appalachian State University, and she attended Tin House’s Young Adult Fiction Workshop in Spring 2021. She aspires to make the world a little more interesting and a little more bizarre through her stories, and to share with readers the dreams that both haunt and inspire her. Her work has appeared on several platforms, some of which include Cold Mountain Review, Bending Genres, Atlantis Magazine, and Bookends Review.