❝When I was only small, I forgot how to sleep. The town council said it wasn’t my fault, that they had the perfect job for me.❞
The Exterminator needed an apprentice, they said. He was remembering how to sleep, so it was imperative that he train up a replacement before it was too late.
“You’ll be perfect,” they told me.
My parents didn’t really have a choice but to let me take the job. It was that or have me suffer from sleep deprivation and let our town be overrun.
Now I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, there’s always an Exterminator and it’s always someone who doesn't sleep, either because they can't or because they've forgotten how to.
The Exterminator’s job is just what it sounds like: we deal with pests. Usually it’s bed bugs, which irritate dreamers, nibbling away at good dreams and leaving irritating, itchy gaps behind for the dreamer to suffer with when they wake. The bites can grow into an infection of malcontent if they're scratched at, and if bed bugs are affecting one dreamer in a household, soon they’re affecting all the dreamers in a household, and from there they’re spreading into an infestation of crankiness and irritation and unrest that can easily take over a town as small as mine.
Getting rid of them requires being really thorough and persistent, but it’s not so bad, if people would just follow the preventative measures to keep the bugs from getting into their dreams in the first place.
The real importance of Exterminators is in dealing with Nightmares, though.
Nightmares come in a lot of shapes and sizes, and do a lot of different things. All of them feed on fear and anger and pain, either inspiring it in dreamers or inflicting it on them by making naturally occurring bad dreams worse, or ruining good dreams, or preventing good dreams, or tricking dreamers into thinking they’re awake, and making them do things in their sleep.
Sometimes that’s as innocuous as sleepwalking or restless twitching or the occasional screaming.
Sometimes it’s much worse, like the Nightmares that feed on vitality, aging the dreamer’s mind before their time. Other Nightmares like to be a burden: making it hard to breathe, or hard to move, or hard to wake. This can end up being a severe problem, leading to comas, suffocation, and even death.
I didn’t deal with that many Nightmares as I grew up. I was too little and only an apprentice, first of all, and my old man—what I called the Exterminator, who looked way older than he was on account of the not sleeping—said it was his job to deal with Big Bads, while I sharpened my skills on the Bitty Bads.
My old man hadn't even started dozing yet, let alone napping. I had plenty of time to learn to deal with Nightmares.
Or so we thought.
We were right in the middle of a job with a Night Terror, a really persistent, slippery one that had been plaguing the mayor's son for almost a week now and kept escaping our traps. My old man said there was nothing for it; instead of trapping, we'd have to attack it directly, which he never advised, because it was all too easy to get dragged into someone else's Nightmare. But the mayor's son couldn't take another night of stolen rest; he had a weak heart, and it could give out on him if the Night Terror plagued him any longer, so we had to do what we had to do.
One moment, we were creeping up on the Terror, which looked, to us, like an amorphous feathery shape hovering like a bedraggled bird crossed with a wreath of smoke over the kid's chest—and the next, my old man let out a sigh, like he was getting into a warm bath after a long time in the cold...and collapsed with a thump before I even realized he needed to be caught, his eyes closed and soft snores puffing out of his thin chest.
He'd fallen to sleep.
The timing couldn't have been worse.
The Night Terror noticed us—noticed me. And right before my eyes it changed form, shifting into the shape of everything I feared.
And I was left to face it with nothing but my blanket-net in my hands.
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