The meandering lines of dream-deprived people forming inside the Dream Depot were longer than ever before. Created by a team of Jungian psychiatrists and software engineers, the Depot had developed sophisticated subconscious-encoding techniques that reprogrammed the mind for optimal happiness and nightmare-free sleep. No one knew how the technicians did it, nor did they care, as long as the Depot remained open, instilling people with peace of mind and hope. Fixed, some would say. Others referred to it as a deep, spiritual wholeness. Hugo likened it to normalcy, how life used to be.
Though shorter than the ‘Unearth Your Intuition’ line and the ‘Find Lost Belongings’ line, Hugo had doubts about his own line, ‘Relive Your Best Memory’. It was the only dream he ever purchased, though today he was running late and might not have enough time to get his dream before the Depot closed. Without his favorite dream, the nightmare would ensue, and he couldn’t face that day again.
Hugo took his turn at the counter and handed the teller his pillow.
“What dream would you like, sir?” Ted (on his nametag) asked with a smile brighter than that of a child holding candy.
“The vacation with my family in Arizona, summer of 1995.”
Ted placed his pillow under the scanner. Inside, an encrypted chip kept track of prior downloads. “Our records show that you’ve purchased that dream twelve times.”
“I like it,” Hugo replied.
“Why not try a different one?” Ted asked with a skeptical frown.
In a moment of reconsideration — specifically a camping trip at Yellowstone with his best friends, the Water Splash Park with his cousins when he was ten, and a few steamy weekend nights kissing Heather Buxton — Hugo still preferred to be with his family again. Why mess with what works?
“No, I’ll take the Arizona dream again.”
Ted punched in the corresponding number, a twelve-digit code that would retrieve in vivid detail the most magical day in Hugo’s life — the Grand Canyon with Dana and their children, who were now grown and busy living their own lives. No one fought, the weather was perfect, and Dana was still alive.
“That’ll be fifty dollars.”
Hugo swiped his card and completed his transaction. He trembled in anticipation — the dreams were that real.
Ted handed him his pillow. “Your happiness is our guarantee. Next.”
Hugo had three messages on his phone by the time he returned home. Two were from the Dream Depot, listing new dream discounts, and the last one was from his daughter, asking him if he’d given her proposal any more thought. She wanted him to move to California to live with her. But Hugo didn’t want to lose his independence or the house he had built with Dana. They were supposed to live there forever, except that she left. In the middle of the night and without a word of goodbye. Or had she? Hugo always wondered. Had she called out to him, told him that she loved him before she took her final breaths? He couldn’t stand knowing that he had slept through his wife’s death. A thought which had become his reoccurring nightmare.
Hugo kissed the picture of Dana on his bedside and then fluffed his dream pillow. It wasn’t long before the dream came to him, although this time… it was all very wrong. First, it wasn’t even his wife and children. They weren’t at the Grand Canyon (looked like the San Diego Zoo), and rain poured all day long. His wife (the hotel clerk called her Mrs. Garrett) argued with him relentlessly, mostly about their youngest son, a spoiled little brat named Ricky, and his aloof, eye-rolling daughter, Emma, who was too cool to talk to anyone who wasn’t an eighteen-year-old Zac Efron look-alike.
Hugo returned to the Dream Depot the next morning, tired and forlorn. A long line at the Refunds window didn’t surprise him.
Hugo stepped up to the counter and handed the young woman (‘Alexa’ on her nametag) his pillow.
“How can I help you, sir?” She smacked a fluorescent-green glob of gum.
“This isn’t the dream I ordered.”
Alexa placed his pillow on the flat and scanned the chip. “Looks like your dream was switched.”
“Switched? What do you mean?”
She pointed to the opposite side of the Depot. “There’s a new technique.”
Hugo’s eyes skipped to the longest row of heads ever to snake through the Depot. A pink neon sign flashed, ‘Trade Your Dreams Here.’
“What? They can’t do that.”
“Already did, dude.” A fruity-smelling bubble expanded over the bottom half of her face and popped. “You want something else?”
Hugo pondered his options, though clearly knowing he didn’t want anything else. Then, he wasn’t even sure he wanted his own dream back after others had dreamt it. It wouldn’t be the same. But what about his nightmare? He had to choose something.
“Hurry it up,” a man behind him said.
Hugo’s phone rang. He glanced at it and saw that it was his daughter. Come to California, dad. It would be good for you.
The man behind him stepped closer. “C’mon, you going to order something or not?”
At that moment, a force pivoted inside Hugo, first emerging as breathless desperation, and then something else. Something resolute, like the spark of imminent change. It stirred him with courage. If he couldn’t have that dream, there was no dream for him. Besides, hadn’t his dream already died?
“Well, sir?” Alexa prodded.
“Actually, I don’t want the dream.”
“What about another line then? Your refund includes five other choices.” She pointed across the hall to other, less popular techniques.
“No, thanks.” Hugo stepped away from the counter, leaving his dream pillow behind.
“Sir, … your pillow? You haven’t completed your purchase. Your happiness is our guarantee.”
Hugo paused. “I’m not sure that it is anymore.”
“But what about your nightmares?”
“They’ve already happened. And I think it’s time to say goodbye to them too.”
Erin Cole is a dark fiction writer from Portland, Oregon with work published and forthcoming in Fiction365, Aoife’s Kiss, Trembles Magazine, and many more. She is the author of Grave Echoes and the horror anthology collection Of the Night. View more of her stories at www.erincolewrites.com.