The Dream Shoppe: Debt
Bradley made his way through the misty surroundings. The red Pteri was entirely unfamiliar with the area, and he had no recollection of how he ended up in this particular place. A small, wooden structure stood out to him in the distance; the rest was obscured by fog, completely white and grey around him.
Panicked, he made his way to the structure. It was a very modest place; it was tall enough to hold, perhaps, three Krawks stacked on top of each other, and wide enough to complete a cartwheel without the running start. It was completely unpainted and unadorned save for a sign hanging on the door which read "The Dream Shoppe" in elegant purple script.
Bradley entered the Shoppe warily and checked around. A faerie Lenny smiled at him from behind a desk. She stroked a Halloween Tapira, who nestled on top of a book splayed out before her. The inside was unlike the outside in many ways; though it was confined, the area was majestically decorated with expensive drapes, wallpaper, and a few rugs. Bradley approached the cluttered desk of the Lenny and waited for her to say something, but she merely watched him with friendly eyes.
The bell, a voice said in his head. Ring the bell.
The Pteri's eyes fell upon the Tapira, who raised its head slightly. Certainly, the Tapira had not spoken to him. He rang the bell anyway and ignored the strange situation.
"Bradley," the faerie Lenny intoned. "I've been expecting you."
The Pteri shuffled his feet uncomfortably. "Who are you?"
"Surely you didn't come into my Shoppe without knowing!" she laughed. Her voice was equivalent to what Bradley imagined a queen's would sound like. "You've been in trouble, lately, haven't you?"
The Halloween Tapira balanced on its hind legs and rolled forward, skidding to a stop right before reaching the edge of the desk. It stood in stark contrast to the bright colors of the faerie Lenny and his surroundings.
"How could you know what problems I have?" Bradley asked. "Those are private matters."
"You came into The Dream Shoppe, dear Bradley. You are dreaming at this very moment. You've come to me to ask for my assistance in some sort of problem which is troubling you. I'm the subconscious help you're being offered. My name is Paliga. Will you accept my help?"
Bradley hesitated. It would make sense, that this world is a world he dreamed up. It would explain why everything was so foggy, why he couldn't focus on anything for more than a few seconds without forgetting. "Yes," he choked. "I accept."
Paliga gave him a broad smile. "Perfect." She stood gracefully from her cushioned chair and wandered over to the drapes on the left side of her little Shoppe. "I offer you a choice," she said.
The Pteri craned his head to see what she was doing. Paliga lifted the drapes, revealing a circular mirror. He could have sworn that from the outside, it had been a window.
"Stand in front of the mirror," she ordered.
He did not have to move far to get there. In the mirror, his familiar self stared back at him. "Is this some sort of meditation exercise?" he asked. "I really don't have time for this."
"You're dreaming, dear. You have all the time in the world." She rested a soft wing on his shoulder. "You deal with me, or you deal with one of your nightmares. It's up to you. You can leave now, before I offer you your choices, or you may stay and solve your problem."
She was true about the nightmares, though Bradley couldn't understand how his subconscious had imagined her up. "Alright. What am I looking at?"
The image in the mirror warped before him. He saw himself preparing foods and desserts of all kinds, wiping the sweat off his brow frequently.
"This is your first choice," Paliga announced. "You can bake foods for the nearby bakery, unpaid and alone, for fifty years."
The Pteri could already feel the sweat forming on his brow. He never had been a patient man, and he liked to get more involved with his work than assembling the food the way he had in the vision. "Fifty years? Are you insane?"
"Those questions are quite unrelated, dear Bradley." Paliga fluttered her colorful feathers a little. "If you choose this route, I can take you there and get you set up, but I will not be there for your fifty years. When you wake up from the dream, it will be like no time has passed at all; during the dream, it will feel like fifty years. You will age. You will be lonely. But the work is easy and simple."
Bradley eyed the drapes on the other side of the room. "What's my second choice?"
Paliga turned to the second mirror and lifted the drapes. Bradley jumped as he felt something move around his feet. The Tapira was curling up along them, circling him affectionately. He wasn't sure if he should pet it or kick it away.
The Tapira followed him to the second mirror. He stood before it and waited in silence for it to change.
This mirror twisted and churned with colors Bradley had never seen before. The colors washed away to reveal Bradley lying strapped into a chair, screaming. He winced at the pain he saw in his own face. "What's this supposed to be?"
"It's the painful process of removing five years of memory. It will be over much quicker than fifty years, however. The process itself takes about half an hour. You will wake up with no recollection of the past five years of your life, and I will not take you there if you choose this route. Preston will guide you. You won't remember the pain when it's over and you won't even be in pain for the entire duration of the process."
"Is this real?" he asked. "If it's just a dream, and I go through the process, I won't actually lose five years of memory, will I?"
Palinga tilted her head to the side. "Bradley, darling, during whichever route you choose, I will handle your extreme debt. You will wake up from this dream without any financial problems whatsoever."
"It sounds too good to be true."
She winked at him. "It's not. These choices are designed to be unpleasant and unique to the dreamer. You must make your final decision."
"Am I allowed to change it once I make it, if I want the other one?"
Palinga laughed again, a sweet laugh with horrible connotations. "No, dear, that's not how it works."
Bradley glanced back at the baking mirror. It was odd, how he seemed so nervous over making a decision that was just happening in a dream. He watched the mirror where he screamed in pain. Painful, but short, she had said. If this was just a dream, he might as well make it quick and get it over with.
But so many things had happened in the last five years. His daughter, his new home, the great move to the Lost Desert. The shop he and Laura opened together, teaching Irene how to read, sandy picnics. The past five years were when his happy family started; just about the only miserable part had been the lingering thought of the borrowed money from long, long ago, when he was young and stupid.
But, then again, it was just a dream. And dreams couldn't affect the outside world.
"The second choice," he said firmly. "Get it over with."
Palinga sighed and nodded to her Tapira, who led the Pteri out of the Shoppe. The minute the two passed through the door, the environment changed drastically. Bradley now was in that stone-cold room he had seen in the mirror, with a single chair complete with straps posited right in the center.
The Tapira circled around the legs of the chair. Bradley climbed up onto it obediently. There was nowhere else to go. He realized, too late, that maybe he should not have made any choice at all.
The straps slid along his wings and feet as he sat himself in the chair. The Halloween Tapira gazed up at him from his lap.
The process has already started, he heard again. The air of this place is coated in a special memory-loss gas. It won't be long before the pain begins, but it will be over quickly, as Palinga has told you.
So, the voice was coming from the Tapira. "I don't feel any different," Bradley announced. "Perhaps it is not working."
Dreams are hazy as it is, Mr. Bradley. You won't feel a change until you wake up. The Tapira slyly smiled at him, unnatural to see on a creature that had been so emotionless since Bradley first saw him.
Fire coursed through him just then. He screamed.
The red Pteri woke up from his dream, drenched in sweat. He peeled his covers aside and breathed heavily. "What an odd dream!" he said to himself, and even as he said it, the dream began to fade. Bradley thought to find some paper and a pen, perhaps, and write it down before it disappeared completely. It had been a very interesting dream, nothing like his usual nightmares.
He got up, looked around, and found that he did not recognize the room. Maybe he'd fallen asleep outside again while he was stargazing and a friendly neighbor had taken him in, thinking him homeless. "Kind of him. Bet it was Frank."
Bradley hoped Frank had some paper, as the dream was fading even quicker now. He searched through drawers until he found a stack of paper and some writing utensils, and he sat upon the floor to begin writing.
The door to the room swung open just then, and Bradley looked up into the eyes of a young, green Acara. She ran to him with her arms extended.
The Pteri leaned back as she leaned forward to give him a giant hug. "Daddy!" she said, giggling. "What're you doing with all that paper? Doodling this early in the morning?"
Bradley squinted at her. He had never seen her in his life.