Stanley Richard Klonczynski had worked at the dream shop for fifty-four years, seven months and thirteen days, or 19,946 days if you didn’t count the days he took off, which were not very many and really only brought the total down another hundred days, give or take. The 19,946 days – give or take – did count, however, the first several years of work when he served as apprentice to the previous dream shop owner, Henry Pelligrino, who had worked at the shop for almost forty years before turning the reins over to his young apprentice.
When Stanley started working at the dream shop, he had been almost nineteen years old, with slicked back black hair, broad shoulders and strong legs. Now his hair was white and sat on the sides of his head in uneven tufts. His face was etched deep with wrinkles, but behind the flesh of his cheeks you could still glean the contours of a once well-defined face. Now he wore thick black-rimmed glasses that magnified his eyes, but back then it was their piercing blue that people noticed first.
His voice was still strong, and his fingers, though plump, were still nimble, and the skin on his hands was soft, a tenderness like a well-worn piece of sandpaper that every customer felt when he handed them a freshly-wrapped dream.
As a child he had visited the dream shop often, usually with his mother, and when he was older, with one or both of his sisters. He would run his fingers along the large brass lettering above the display cases while his sisters navigated the aisles and aisles of shop. While they sought out ingredients, Stanley’s eyes traveled the metal piping that connected everything, then down and back along the walls to each large glass vat, hung low and filled with different coloured bubbling liquids, heavy like the udders of a cow. The image stuck with him so that when he was alone in the shop, even all these years later, he would, from time to time, moo to himself as he walked past.
On the shelves of each wall were stacked bottles and bottles of dreamstuff – amaryllis, lavender sprigs, liquid nerbonnit and seeds of the everberry tree. The glass bottles bulged and warped in different shapes, lined with tiny air bubbles and bought en masse on discount from the apothecary next door several years earlier. The centre of the shop was a maze, aisles splintering off in no apparent order. Ingredients weren’t listed alphabetically and when it seemed like there was a pattern – flowers lined up by colour, deep purples shifting suddenly into bright blues – the next tub would be filled with orange, and mess up any semblance of an order. Stanley learned later that the shop was laid out by geography, grouping together where ingredients came from originally.
Some customers gravitated to only one section, returning again and again to the same worn groove on the wooden floor, and Stanley wondered if they thought of themselves as from two places, from here in their waking life, and from wherever they returned to again and again in their dreams. Others came in and took a bit from here and a bit from there and never knew quite what they would end up with. And still others would come in and head straight to the old, wooden counter directly across from the door and ask Henry to pick for them; whether because they were in a rush or were too scared to pick for themselves, Stanley was never quite sure.
When Stanley started working at the dream shop, he would wind his way up the staircase to the tip top of the shop and look down at all the people, bringing their ingredients to Henry to mix together a dream for them. From up there it didn’t look like a maze, but like an ordered chaos.
Stepping into the dream shop from outside was almost like stepping into a dream itself, a muted version of life. Though there was always something happening – the clank of gears turning somewhere beneath your feet, the tinkle of the bell anytime a customer entered, the soft hum of the conveyer belt once it was turned on and sputtered to life – the shop produced a rhythmic lull so that the heartbeat of anyone who entered would soon match its own.
Until he learned its secrets, and even for a while after that, Stanley felt small each time he stepped inside the shop. He wasn’t sure if it was the immensity of the shop itself, or if it was being surrounded by the ingredients that made up the dreams of every person in town. When he went with his mother or his sisters, they didn’t seem at all enchanted by the magic of it. They walked in straight-backed, determined, got what they needed, nodded to Henry, and headed out. And even on the days when they took a risk, tried something new or asked Henry to mix up something special for them, it looked to Stanley like business as usual.
Stanley never thought of apprenticing for Henry or of one day running the dream shop himself. His own visions of the future focused on mining starlight – a dangerous job, to be sure, but one that would take him all over the world, plotting the course of the stars. His father wouldn’t hear of it, wouldn’t even let him take classes, and Stanley rebelled the only way he knew how – through his dreams.
By the time his father died, Stanley was nearly nineteen, and if you’d asked him then why he didn’t start training for starlight mining, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you exactly. Somehow it seemed to have lost something – either its allure or the likelihood of its being his path forward. Several years later, while he was still apprenticing for Henry, a friend of his offered him a position mirror-crafting, really the closest thing to mining starlight while staying put, reflecting the world back in dozens of ways. Like travel without the travel, almost.
And even then, Stanley couldn’t quite say why he said no. His sisters had both married and left home years before, and his mother insisted she just wanted him to be happy, no matter what that meant. And still. Stanley found himself every morning looking down at the dream shop from the ledge of the balcony, sighing to himself in time with the movements of the customers below, before hurrying back down the stairs and straightening up, wiping down the brass vats with an oiled rag, or practicing equaling measurements for danderdon flowers and pilluride seeds.
When Stanley had worked at the dream shop long enough that he and Henry had developed a language without words, Henry admitted to Stanley that he could really run the shop however he liked when he took over. All the rules that Stanley had come to follow on Henry’s order, it turned out, weren’t actually from Henry; they were in response to dreamstuff itself. No shared dreams, for instance, happened naturally. No one saw the world in quite the same way. No repeat dreams. No one person saw the world in quite the same way every day, either, it turned out. No purchases for someone else. Try as they might, the only way a person could plant something in someone else’s mind was through dogged persistence, not the subtlety of dreaming.
When Stanley took over at twenty-five, nothing seemed much different. He kept things as Henry had when he was running the shop, in part because it seemed to work so well and in part because he didn’t know what would happen if he made any changes. On slow days, he would sit on the balcony and look down at the shop, thinking about ways to change the layout: moving the large copper urns closer to his counter, and maybe even changing the naming system. Definitely handing customers a map on their way in for smoother navigation while they shopped.
But Stanley never did make those changes. He spent his time tightening loose pipes, trueing measuring equipment and ordering new vats and tinctures in bulk. He spent an hour a day every day for a week organising the basement – a mix of inventory, out of date supplies and things Henry plain hadn’t known what to do with. He was a bit surprised Henry had never had him organise when he was an apprentice. But it was educational – if not always interesting – going now, at his leisure, through all the old artifacts of the dream shop. Like stepping back in time or looking through old photographs. He could imagine how things had been run in the past.
One change Stanley did make, after a final trip to the basement, was to bring back the uniform that had been worn by dream shop attendants before Henry’s time. He had found two outfits, pressed and white, with ironed pleats in the slacks, and a blue and white striped apron with three pockets in the front – a large one in the middle, with two smaller ones on the sides. When Stanley put it on in the mornings, he felt a bit like an actor preparing for a role.
For all Stanley learned about the machinations of dream-making, it never lost its sense of wonder. He no longer loved dreams in the childlike way he had before. He couldn’t. But he was in awe of their force, their simplicity, that he, Stanley, could create such things – a cocktail of herbs and oils no different in sight or smell than floriteel for achy joins or yarrara for a broken heart – and yet potent enough to invoke another realm for someone miles away through a slight dab behind each ear.
And though he sensed his work wasn’t as essential as that of the memory maker, two streets over, or those that worked in the bazaar of wants and needs, Stanley was satisfied with his work. It was he who held the town spellbound at night. It was because of him that rather than long stretches of dreamless sleep or periods of restless wakefulness, the world around him entertained flights of fancy while they slept.
As a boy, the thought of doing the same thing every day for the rest of his life had filled Stanley with dread, with a self-righteous defiance of the life his parents had borne out. Now, though, he found a solid sort of comfort in it. Though the motions of each day might be the same, the particulars were always singular.
Today the chime on the door startled as Stanley stepped inside, dead leaves scattering as he pushed into the shop. Today was just like yesterday. But today was cloudy and the air inside the shop humid, which meant more passes on the vats with the oiled rag and more opening of pipes to let out steam. Today there would be customers lined up on their lunch breaks. Today was just like yesterday. But today the rain would make them stare out the windows and sigh, and reach for ingredients unfamiliar to them, daring Stanley to concoct a dream from farther away.
As much as he couldn’t have fathomed working at the dream shop when he was a boy, now he couldn’t imagine not working here. It was he who knew the precise measurements to inspire a dream to potency, just a breath away from nightmare. It was he who had come up with a cleaning solution to better oil the conveyer belt so on mornings when he first cleaned it, you could barely hear it whir. And it was he who greeted each customer as they entered, and made small talk with them as he measured out the ingredients for their dreams and wrapped them up in a coloured dream-package tied with silk ribbon and placed them in their outstretched hands.
Still, even if he couldn’t imagine a life after the dream shop, he was getting older. It wasn’t just the year that told him so, but his reflection in the warped glass cabinets, and the gentle tick of the clock on the wall, these days with more and more seconds ticking by for each task he undertook. Where once it had taken him twelve seconds to scoop a dram of mitterbince, now he found it took him more than fifteen.
It was time to find an apprentice, a hardy young man as he himself had once been, and teach him the ways of the dream shop. He could use the help – particularly with the heavy lifting and inventory, always so much inventory – but the thought filled him with enough aversion that each day he found new tasks to take up his time, the job of sorting through applications of eligible apprentices once again settling at the bottom of the to do list, to be taken up in earnest tomorrow.
It was at just such a time when a boy that Stanley had not seen in the shop before, entered. Stanley looked up as the door tinkled and the boy, no older than eleven years old, made his way to the counter. He looked very serious, unlike most of the boys and girls his age when they first entered the shop, who were full of wonder, struck wide-eyed and dumb by the sheer size and labyrinth of the shop. Otherwise they were rambunctious little ones who needed to be reprimanded by a parent, cautioned not to run or they’d trip and bump into something.
The boy stepped up to the counter and gazed up at Stanley, waiting patiently for Stanley to greet him which, after getting over the surprise of such a serious young boy standing across from him, Stanley promptly did. When Stanley asked the boy how he could help him, the boy replied that he wanted the ingredients for a dream of his mother. Stanley smiled at the sweet gesture, and asked if her birthday were coming up. The boy shook his head and repeated that he needed to know the ingredients for conjuring a dream of his mother.
Stanley explained that he would need some more information, such as her approximate height and build, her colouring, what she smelled like, how her laugh sounded, if her handwriting were neat or messy, how she walked into a room, and the like. The boy looked overwhelmed, as though he were about to cry, stammering that he couldn’t possibly know all that.
Through several minutes of back-and-forths, detours and tangents, Stanley learned that the boy’s mother had in fact died seven years earlier, when his little brother was born, and that he had no one to ask about how she held her fork when she ate or what her favourite type of tea was or which colour blue of the sky was her favourite to stop and gaze at, as his father never mentioned her, and had no pictures of her, and changed the subject every time the boy asked. Instead, the boy had only the faintest memory of her, a foggy outline he couldn’t even be certain, at this point, was real.
Stanley apologised to the boy and explained that without any information, he really couldn’t provide the boy the ingredients for a dream about this mother, and instead offered to craft something where the boy could fly, or be invisible, or play for a major league sports team, free of charge. The boy simply stood and stared at Stanley, lip quivering, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to be convinced. Stanley groped around for something to say to soothe the boy or make him understand and leave the store, when a middle-aged couple entered. Stanley left his post behind the counter to tend to them, now and then looking out for the boy who had finally left the counter and wandered the maze of the store, dragging his fingers along the tops of closed bins.
As he rang up the middle-aged couple, another customer entered, and then another, and by the time Stanley had a chance to look up again, the boy was nowhere to be seen. Stanley breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help the boy – he felt for him, of course he did, why he was nearly nineteen when his own father had died and even that felt much too soon – it’s that there was simply a way things were done, and whatever powers Stanley did have, conjuring a dream with nothing to go on was just not one of them.
Besides which, what would a dream, even if it could somehow resemble his actual mother, do for the boy, with nothing firm he could grasp? Stanley returned to tidying up his notes and papers behind the counter, making sure to keep the pile of apprentice applications at the very top for tomorrow morning.
When Stanley locked up the shop that evening, he was startled to see the boy sitting by himself on the far side of the bench nearest the door. The boy stood up quickly upon seeing Stanley deposit the keys in the pocket of his jacket and turn from the dream shop, and he stuffed in his own pocket an empty blue and green dream-package he must have nabbed while wandering the shop. Stanley stood and waited for the boy to say something, but he said nothing and, after a moment, Stanley muttered ‘well’ to himself, nodded awkwardly at the boy, turned up his collar and put his hands in his pockets to shuffle home. He checked once or twice on the way home to make sure the boy wasn’t following him, but there was no one, just a few sheets of newspaper blowing down the street behind him and a dog barking a few blocks over.
The next morning began like every other, Stanley sitting on his bed, bent over in his button-down shirt and work slacks, tying his sturdy black shoes. Stanley didn’t let himself think about the boy from yesterday as he cracked an egg into a hot pan, or as he dabbed at a stubborn clump of shaving cream from his chin, or as he grabbed his jacket from the hook by the door and swung the shop key around his fingers, whistling a tune his own mother had hummed to him as a lullaby when he was a child.
But after Stanley had opened the shop, after he had turned on all the lights and swept up some spilled lazulian that he had missed the night before and reshuffled the pile of apprentice applications and flipped the door sign to Open, there was the boy, standing solemnly in front of the counter again.
Stanley wasn’t sure how much he could take of this – there was nothing he could do for the boy, and he wasn’t sure how else to explain it. He made up his mind to find the boy’s father and explain the situation to him when the boy cleared his throat. When he was certain that he had Stanley’s attention, he explained that, if he could imagine his mother, he should be able to dream her.
Fortunately for Stanley, the boy’s father, looking harried and upset, entered just then, and dragged the boy away, apologising to Stanley before he had a chance to explain, yet again, to the boy, that with nothing concrete, he really had nothing to go on to create a dream of his mother. Relieved, Stanley went back to his tasks for the day – placing an order for mugnins which had proven surprisingly popular over the past week, hemming the strap of his apron which had come undone, and replacing a lightbulb in the basement.
But still he couldn’t shake the boy’s request from his mind. It gnawed at him while he helped an older woman venture into a new alley of dream. It took root as he sat on the same bench where the boy had sat, eating his turkey sandwich on his lunch break. And it bobbed up again when he helped a young father select the first dreams for his twin daughters, toddling behind him in matching dresses and bows.
Stanley had long since stopped dreaming himself, and he sometimes forgot the urgency with which some people came to it, for a particular type of dream to play a particular sort of way. But unlike the boy, Stanley at least had his memories. He was young when his own father had died, true, but not quite so young that he couldn’t remember the smell of his after shave, or the way he cleared his throat before he had important news, or the shuffle of the newspaper as he opened it to the weather section every morning at the breakfast table. Those were things you could make a dream out of. A sweet voice trilling ‘good night, muffin!’ and a soft hand on a forehead, they just weren’t enough. They weren’t.
And yet. There was something so earnest in the boy’s face. It didn’t seem as though he failed to understand the mechanics of what Stanley had told him. It seemed as though he simply thought those silly rules were all invented, and could just as easily be circumvented.
Stanley thought about the boy, about the impossible predicament, all morning. Though he left by lunchtime, Stanley again spied the boy outside on the same far side of the bench nearest the door each time he had a moment to glance up. He thought about him all afternoon. He was still thinking about him long after closing time, hours after he ordinarily would have gone home. He felt terrible, he did. But there was nothing to be done, he determined, and that would have to be that. He stood up, pushing back his chair, and clapped his hands, as though to be done with the matter.
And so, Stanley closed up the dream shop. He left behind the living breathing beast of it, the clanking of pipes, the exhale of steam and the creaking of heavy wooden floors beneath his feet. He folded his apron and placed it neatly on the counter next to the apprentice applications, shut the lights, flipped the sign on the door to Closed and looked up at the dream shop one last time.
Outside, Stanley placed five blue and green dream-packages on the far side of the bench nearest the door. One filled with a pinch of oluudine; one a dram of vivloria; one a hair under an ounce of evecque; one a finger-length of madder root; the last a clutch of shiverhair tied tight with a string.
He himself was done. Eleven was young, to be sure. But, Stanley thought to himself, let’s see what the boy can do.
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