He’d been doing it for years.
To say no-one had noticed wasn’t at all true: kids noticed. The particularly sensitive and the particularly wild noticed. But it fell under “don’t be ridiculous,” a category that covered all sorts of true things it was easier to forget. And the children were so rarely silly that their brief bouts were even easier to ignore: “Don’t be silly. No-one is stealing your dreams.”
If what he had been doing was physical, eventually, someone would have caught him in a difficult situation; indeed, he’d been caught, twice, peeping. But peeping is not that big a crime, and he was old and harmless.
It wasn’t until a teenager broke into his house on Hallowe’en that the police noticed something was up. It wasn’t until she and her friends stole the rows of pretty blue bottles with the wax seals, the long dusty collection that had been growing for quite a while, and dumped them in the reservoir that anything began to change.
And when it did, even the grown-ups and the stickinthemuds couldn’t argue with it.
The stockbroker woke up wanting to be an airplane pilot. He’d always wanted to fly. He’d always wanted to be a hero. He wanted to…
“Don’t be ridiculous,” scolded his wife.
The CPA wanted to take her team all the way to State. She wanted to marry her high school sweetheart, the pretty blonde with the skyblue eyes, and join the NFL. She really believed she had a chance.
“Wouldn’t it be awesome?” she asked her husband over dinner. “Can’t you imagine me out there, scoring the winning touchdown?
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffed, even though he was pondering the leading role in Swan Lake and how he’d look en pointe in front of a crowd of thousands.
The science teacher (who everyone knew hated children) woke sweating and miserable three nights in a row from a series of dreams in which she could do nothing right, nothing at all, and her teacher was laughing at her, everyone was laughing at her. She called in sick for two days and went Christmas shopping for every student in her class.
Slowly, even the dullest adults began to realize something was wrong.
“What do you want for Christmas, honey?”
“A Train!” bounced the stoic businesswoman. Her ten-year-old son looked a little surprised.
“I wanted a train once,” he told his parents, but they weren’t listening.
“I wanted a train once,” he told his friends, “and now my mom does.”
“I feel like I used to want stuff,” one of the other kids answered, “but then I grew up or something? Everything stopped seeming fun. It’s all I can do to get through the day.”
“And everyone’s acting ridiculous now,” added a third. “I bet it has something to do with that stupid stunt Ryan and Jessie pulled last month.”
“Someone’s got to do something,” the first one complained. “I feel, I dunno, wrong. I mean, everyone’s all worked up about Christmas…”
“Yeah,” his friends agreed, “it’s kind of a hassle.” One of them through a desultory snowball at the other, and they went back to class.
No-one really noticed that the kids were depressed and despondent, because they had been quiet, good kids as long as anyone could remember. They might have a few silly fantasies here and there, but they disappeared quickly, and the town had the most responsible, quiet children anyone had ever heard of. If they had a few wild tales about bogeymen, well… that was par for the course, right?
Even Jessie took a while to put two and two together. Christmas had never been all that exciting: you wanted a pony, but you always knew you were just going to get a stupid doll, or clothes from the sensible stores. And Mom suddenly wanting to be a Lost Princess of Paradisa didn’t make anything easier.
“Lost Princess of Paradisa? Wait…”
None of the kids drank tap water. Soda, juice, milk, Kool-aid; she couldn’t think of a single kid that just poured stuff out of the sink and drank it. Mom did. Her friends’ parents did. “That’s Julie Myer’s dream,” she accused her mother. “Julie. You remember her.”
“The poor girl who claimed some man had been sneaking into her dreams every night? Didn’t she end up in the mental ward?”
“Her,” Jessie agreed. She could almost taste the dream she’d poured into the icy water, pink-and-purple, with sparkles. They’d all been so bright, so wild-colored. “The old man, Mom, the one down on Clark Street.”
“The peeping tom?” But something in Julie Myer’s other dreams must have leeched in. “It’s him.” She leaned hard against the counter, paling. “He was… oh, god, Jessie, why didn’t you say something?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she answered tiredly, but her mother the County Prosecutor was already out the door. The Lost Princess of Paradisia was going to save Christmas.
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