“The Owner of the Night
interrogates whoever walks
this shadow-lane, this hour
not reserved for you: who
are you to enter it?”
Brandon Clyde is the guardian of dreams because his mother told him so, many years ago when he was small enough to fit in her arms. Back then, curled up in a fetal position against her thick body, he could feel the sag of her skin under his tiny palm, the warmth of her breath over his silky hair, her presence healing him from his nightmares where the dragons ate away his heart. He didn’t understand who the guardian of dreams was or what he was supposed to do.
“Well, you protect everyone from having nightmares,” his mother said.
“But mom, who will protect me?”
She held his face and looked at him, her cold fingers wiping away his sweat.
“You will.” She looked at him and his face was imprinted in her pale iris. He didn’t know what she meant, but he thought of it as being a hero and all was simple.
“I’ll protect you, too.” He mumbled and drifted off to sleep.
Around the corner of Claude Ave and Vincent St, barely visible from Brandon Clyde’s window, his nightingale stood glaring up at the night sky while in front of her, key chains, metal figurines, silk hats, glossy postcards made up the light of the world. Raven needed a little black dress, like the one she had at home. She always wanted to wear a little black dress at her first solo performance, so that her pale skin glowed and her eyes sparkled like the stars. She would also like lacy stockings and jewel-clad heels. If Rite Aid didn’t have what she wanted she would ask Ashton from the souvenir shop, or Kelsey who cut her hair once, or anyone she met on that night because surely someone must have a little black dress.
The sky was cloudless, the street sodden, and a single column of smoke rose from a gray-washed house slowly falling to pieces. The guardian of dreams was awake as always. Under the stars, he put on his night cloak, fastened his silver helmet, and off he went into his kingdom. He started walking towards Mr. Abbott’s little purple house, past Mrs. Hamilton’s withered garden, past Ashton’s souvenir shop with rock tees and art pins, nearing the corner of Claude Ave and Vincent St, running and pausing to hear his heartbeats in the stillness of the night.
Just as he was turning the corner, he saw a girl looking up at the sky. He did the same and saw a sky glimmering with infinity, tiny specks of luster that were then the background of the cityscape but soon would outlive and outshine humanity. A light breeze blew the coffee cups, the beer cans, the foam plates from all over the narrow street to a joyful dance, and when they looked down their eyes met. She was the one he’d been looking for—the night had kept her for him indeed. Her eyes reminded him of someone, a ghost of some place he used to be in, now a forbidden territory. Raven looked away and turned to Ashton, whose eyelids were dropping.
“Do you have a black dress?”
“A dress? Sorry, we don’t sell dresses.”
She walked up to Brandon. “Hey,” she said casually, “do you happen to know someone who has a black dress I could borrow?”
He thought about this. “Actually, I do.” He said and she smiled at him.
Brandon Clyde cannot recall when his insomnia started. His father took him to therapy after his mother passed away, but it was no good because Brandon himself did not want to be cured. His father is a strong and wise man. His father is a man. A boy like Brandon does not know what a man knows. A boy like Brandon does not know about cigarettes or guns, or women and how to touch them, but at least he knows the night. He loves the night. The sound of the nocturnal insects, the flickering glow of the street lamps over the velvety dark, the quietude that cloaks a certain restlessness and some vicious dreams. In the night he knows what he sees, and he knows what to look for. From his window, Brandon looks out to a narrow street, here and there littered with beer cans, a metallic shine under the moon. He knows it so well, in fact, that he can see the whole neighborhood with his eyes closed, clearer and clearer with every sleepless night, the way the faint street lights fall on the slanting steel roofs and the houses scrambling into each other, the pavement sinking into the earth as the world comes to an end. The heavy trench coats, shuffling flip flops, screeching car tires—everything shrinking, everything consumed by their own exhausting existence.
In the night, everything is asleep, unguarded, their subconscious unleashed, and he is their watchman. Growing up he had thought about his role as the guardian of dreams often, and sometimes found himself assigning dreams to his neighbors: “Old Mr. Abbott would dream about his dead fish eating a cat. Mrs. Hamilton: about the sky raining money and her son giving up his wife. Raven Whatever-Her-Last-Name-Was, about her guitar becoming a person and then marrying her.”
Surely everyone, even those who did not know her last names, knew Raven loved her guitar. She used to have it on her back in a black case, strapped to her skinny frame with pins from her favorite bands, who were dead, although she thought them cooler than most people alive. She just added a new pin when she passed by Claude Ave that had a mini van Gogh’s on it—that one, of course, The Starry Night. Since she left, which was two days ago when her father told her to stop whatever the hell she was doing with her life, she had not thought much about anything except how to smack Courtney Merrimack in the face without her knowing who did it. “I guess I’ll have to blind her first”, she thought, chewing her licorice candy and thinking about how bad it tasted. Raven didn’t usually have an idea of what she really wanted, from licorice to naming her band Sympathizers, to wandering off after stealing her parents’ money and calling it a plan.
Two days ago, when she still thought Courtney Merrimack was cute, Raven stormed out of the house wearing a tank top with a striped tie and skinny jeans with holes the size of her knee. She stomped out, wild as a lioness, with every step thinking to herself what a dumb-ass thing she’d done, yet without a trace of fear. If there was one thing she knew, sure as her footstep, it was that she was hungry.
“Hey, babe. Mind helping me get this inside?”
Courtney looked at Raven’s mini suitcase, wildly confused.
“Wait, why are you here like this?”
“Let me in first, will you?”
“No. My parents are inside.”
“Okay. Well. In that case, this will stay here. Who cares about a pile of clothes? C’on, my boobs are already half in. Now so is my ass. One arm. Two…”
“Shut up. You don’t know what you’re doing.” Courtney slammed the door in her face.
Five minutes later Raven received a text message: “My folks know. We should stop seeing each other.”
When Brandon saw her two days later for the first time, she was still wearing the same pair of jeans with a new hoodie she bought from Rite Aid, a bottomless black that made her blend into the night. They didn’t know each other of course. They didn’t even say hi, not even when Brandon caught her eyes and was lost in their silvery depth, their stark alertness, a metallic shine under the moon; not even when her hair brushed his shoulders as they passed and he turned back to look at her, her long stride, long back, black hoodies and black jeans, her intangible presence, her slender shoulders, her hair smelling of tangerine and mint, her growing distance and the immeasurability of it in the dark. But Brandon was sure he would find her again because he trusted the night to keep her for him.
Brandon started looking for her from his window. Three nights had passed, still no trace of her. Brandon grew tired. In five days he drifted off to sleep, Raven in his dream, high up in the blinding light. She smiled at him coolly, her skin glowing, her eyes deeper and lighter and had his image in her iris, and he waved at her while the dragons scorched him in hellish fire.
He woke up sweating and swore he would never sleep again. On the side of his bed was a photo of his mother in black and white, from before he was born, propped up on an otherwise empty table. She was smiling brightly, her skin radiant; one could even hear her warm laughter swirling midair in the motion of her little black dress, which hugged her tight in the waist. One thing Brandon never told his mother is that he always woke up shortly after he fell asleep, while she was still sleeping. After his eyes readjusted, he would watch her under the glow of the moon and stare at the pinch of her waist under her flannel. Brandon would look then at how her waist widened into her hip and how the side of her thigh sloped down into her bulky knee, her toes peeking out from under her pant leg. He was thirteen. It was the first time he thought of his mother as a woman, a grown-up version of Kayla and Amanda and Skylar, girls from school who he occasionally daydreamed about, except that his mother was different because his mother was the only woman he wanted to protect.
“It’s a little too tight at the waist,” she said looking at the mirror.
“I think it’s perfect.” He just brought her his mother’s dress, which his father insisted he kept.
“Thanks for this. I’ll come back to return it tomorrow night.”
“Sure, no worries.”
Brandon sat on the edge of the bed looking up at her in awe. The first time they met, most of her face and her body was obscured in the shadows, dissipating, receding. This time, he could see her in the glow of the light, her pale skin against the lacy cloth.
“I should go.”
“No.” He blurted out while she was reaching for the door. He blushed a little, scratching his head.
“Err… how about juice?”
Raven’s first kiss was Courtney Merrimack. Her dad was a well-known politician, and her mom was known as her dad’s wife. She didn’t really like Van Gogh. She hadn’t made up her mind about the rest of the Post-Impressionists. She was once kidnapped during a singing contest in 7th grade. She knew how to shoot a gun.
“How do you do it?”
“Well. You need to grip the handle tight, high on the back strap, with both hands, feet wide apart. Then you press the trigger. I never know exactly when it would go off, but you know, let it surprise you.”
“What if it doesn’t go off?”
“Then you press harder. Use everything you have.”
Brandon thought about his father’s handgun in the storage room, deep in the heart of the cabinet. He always pretended to never have known of it but had actually seen it bulging out of his father’s pocket, had seen him take it out and examine it, its handle perfectly fitted in his father’s masculine strong hand.
“I’m sleepy,” said Raven with a yawn.
“Use the bed. I’ll go out.”
Brandon curled himself into a ball and looked up. Raven was standing on the horizon, her white dress afloat, one of the straps slipped down and revealed her bare shoulders. There was something disturbing about those shoulders, something vile, something poignant, inflamed in the reddening sunset. Brandon stared at those shoulders, deep in thoughts, until the serpentine creatures crept near him and tore open his chest.
Brandon bolted up from his nightmare with a severe headache. He gripped his shirt tight at his chest, feeling an unsettling pulse that ripped it apart, as if something vital was missing, something that had hidden in the chambers of his heart and now was demanding to be released. He dragged himself out of the sofa, every inch of him aching to be freed from his self and the burden of his memory. He followed his feet towards the bottom of the stairs, up on the steps, and stopped in front of his room. The door was half open. He pushed it slightly, stepping into the room on his heel, slowly and gently as if entering a holy ground. There was an overwhelming stillness, and the room was flooded with a gentle white light that draped over the windowsill, the embroidered bedsheets, and the girl’s pearly skin. Raven laid on her side, slightly hunched, the blanket covering her ankle up to her slender waist, her toes peeking out over the edge. Brandon inched closer, and with every step, a stinging pain stabbed at his chest. Her hair was spread out, a black river on endless white snow. He pressed his hand tighter on his wound. Her long lashes, deep-set eyes, pointy chin, slender neck. Her shoulders. Her bare shoulders, glistening in the moonlight, dissipating in the dark, bleeding in the sunset.
Brandon heard a clicking, an opening of a vaulted chamber. A woman’s shoulders, naked, blood-stained, immersed in a pool of water as red as the bleeding sun. A wave of pain overcame Brandon and the world ceased to exist, except for the sole image of his mother lying in the bathtub, her wrist cut open.
Her skin was pale and cold, every inch of lifeless tissue reeking of the stench of death, scarred with the pain of life. Her body was frozen, rigid as the downward tilt of the neck, the wet black hair pressing to her bare neck, her arm dangling over the brimming edge of the bathtub. There was no warmth, no breath, no thick body that used to huddle against his, only a question left hanging on her lips, “Brandon, will you protect me?”
Brandon crashed down on his knees, unable to breathe as he reached out towards her body, towards that bare shoulders submerged in water, that woman’s waist under his palm, to hold her, to warm her up, to give her life again. Raven shivered at his touch, and she bolted upright at the sight of him.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He stared at her, still numb with pain.
“Damn it, Brandon.”
She walked right out.
Brandon did not say a word, nor did he follow her. In his head, his mother had left him again, in the middle of the night when she thought he was asleep, straight out, vanished. From his window he watched Raven walk out of his house, into the murky street past midnight. She was a skinny girl, utterly alone, enveloped by the night and what it kept hidden. He was a powerless hero, blinded from his own past, bleeding himself dry by the window.
As Raven stopped panting for breath in the middle of a street light, a dark figure emerged from the shadows and approached her. Their shadows overlapped as the man got dangerously near, her yelping cry muffled as she was dragged into the shadows. Brandon left his window and darted downstairs towards his father’s storage room. He fumbled in the darkness, plunging about in drawers as if blind until finally, he reached a hollow den at the heart of the structure, a cavelike hiding place for his dad’s handgun. Holding the gun in his hand, Brandon rushed out towards the light from the shadows of the houses on the side. In a moment he was standing behind the man, gripping his gun.
He counted in his head, One. He saw his mother wriggling herself away from the man, stepping on his foot, biting his filthy fingers.
Two. His mother was looking at him, his boyish figure standing meekly in her pale iris, tears rolled down her cheek as she called out his name.
Three. He fired.
The man crashed down and dragged Raven with him. Blood from his wound spilled onto Raven’s dark dress, staining it a bruised crimson. Brandon stood upright in the dawning light, the gun handle perfectly fitted in his strong hand.
Raven never told Brandon that he was in her dream, that night when the moonlight flooded the room and she fell asleep right where his mother used to. He was wearing his silver cape and silver helmet, whispering a spell that redeemed the sinful and restored purity to his blessed kingdom, a spell known only to the guardian of dreams.
Image: Van Gogh, Vincent. Starry Night Over the Rhone. 1888.