Going Once

by Nina Shepardson

Our next dream is of a fabulous golden-spired city beneath a glittering dome. You can see citizens going about their business, hurrying along the streets and peering out the windows, while guards in armor as golden as the rooftops patrol the ramparts. Who shall open the bidding?”

I imagine the city, enclosed in its protective hemisphere. What might that mean? A magic ward? A technological marvel? Maybe this city is the single bastion of civilization on a planet dominated by fetid swamps or cruel icy wastelands. Perhaps it’s a repository of ancient knowledge, guarded lest the wisdom of the ages be lost forever. It’s an attractive dream, and for a moment, I consider raising my hand, offering the precious treasure I’ve brought with me, and carrying the dream home. I consider laying myself down on my bed and waiting for the vision of that splendid metropolis to rise on the insides of my eyelids.

Then I remember that I’m not here for myself, that the dream I seek to buy is not one that would please me. I’m here for the sake of one who is like a dream herself, each glance and smile taking on mythic proportions in my mind. It’s for her that I sought out people who know how to find secret places, how to travel hidden roads. It’s for her that I sat in a dusty old apartment with a cup of foul-smelling tea balanced on my lap and listened to a man whose voice was like wind over the prairie on a moonless night speak of the auction. It’s for her that I followed an arcane path through the backstreets of my city, past graffitied walls and the skeletons of cars that had had wheels and fenders and window-glass stolen away.

“The next dream on the list will be of interest only to those with unusual tastes, for it is a nightmare most terrifying! Picture, if you will, a seemingly ordinary stairway, with a rickety bannister and a faded floral runner. You stand at the foot, and though nothing threatening can be seen, your heart beats faster  and your palms begin to sweat. You wish to leave, or at least to look away, but you cannot, and you hear the door at the top of the stairs creak as it begins to open…”

This strange proceeding is being held in an abandoned warehouse. The bidders sit cross-legged on the floor, while the auctioneer stands beneath the harsh glow of a single bare bulb. The auction runs on a barter system, and my offering is in the backpack I clutch to my chest. By some unspoken agreement, none of the bidders look at each other. I’m glad for this provision, because I’m a little frightened of what I might see if I gaze at some of the others too closely.

“Ah, now, this dream is a rare treat! Have any of you ever heard a piece of music so beautiful it moved you to tears? Yes, I see some nods from among our audience. Well, this dream is of such music. The music of the spheres, as they say. It is the song the planets sing as they wander lonely through space, endlessly circling what lies at the center of our galaxy…”

I imagine what her face would look like as the music seeps into her consciousness. I can almost picture her eyes closing in bliss, hear her humming along. My hand shoots into the air.

“Ah, we have a bidder! Will anyone contest him?”

From the corner of my eye I see another hand. “Well, well, come forward, then.”

I stand and walk through the rows of seated people to stand before the auctioneer. My toes touch the border of the light around him, as if I’m standing on the cusp of day. From the corner of my eye, I see the other bidder approach as well. He extends a hand into the cone of light, a small bottle standing upright on the palm. It reminds me of the perfume bottles that stand in a row on my mother’s dresser, but the liquid inside has an iridescent sheen like oil. Although the bidder’s hand is steady, the contents of the bottle slosh and swirl.

I open my backpack and pull out the teddy bear I slept with every night as a small boy. Most of its fur is worn away, and its eyes are mismatched: Mom had to replace one with a button after it fell out. The red bow tie around its neck is raggedy and stained. Despite that, it’s still my Teddy謡atchful sentinel against the monsters that lurked in my closet and guardian through the fever dreams that gripped me during a bout of pneumonia.

There’s an indrawn breath from the auctioneer, and he announces in a loud voice, “Sold! To the young man with the bear.” He takes Teddy from me, and some instinct warns me not to let his fingers brush my own.

Faint strains of music trail behind me as I retrace my steps to get back home. It’s the dream, nestled in the back of my mind until I relinquish it to my beloved.

Nina Shepardson is a biologist who lives in the northeastern US with her husband. She’s a first reader for Spark: A Creative Anthology, and her short fiction has been published by Luna Station Quarterly and Fiction365.