Johnny K. Gambino rested his elbows against the wooden bridge he stood on. Barton West Field seemed glorious in the fading sunlight glistening across the water, and the soft summer breeze caught each strand of grass within a swaying dance that rang through the field. It was somehow alive and loud, the voices of so many twirling on the tip of the winds wings and caressing his ears. But he did not want to listen to the laughter that was safely tucked in a warm bedroom, wrapped with someone else or alone, snuggling up to thick covers. He tried not to grimace at the breeze that didn’t penetrate his clothing; that didn’t sink into his skin to make him shiver in delight.
The shrine stood eerily silent behind him. It was almost time to move. The scent in the air was almost too painful—freshly mown lawns, mushrooms and late night soups; it was a sign that everything around him went on as if nothing ever happened. He saw Rina gathering berries earlier, but it was not time for him to go wandering about yet, so he just watched her hum to herself. The innocence within that simple melody, within the lovely sound of her voice when she sang a sentence or two, it made him realise just how much he wished he could actually be there. Johnny shook his head, wiping away those feelings. She must have baked a Cranberry Coffee Cake because the aroma of it still clung to the tips of the occasional breeze.
He growled in annoyance, wanting nothing more than to execute them. His gaze wandered to the flowers, vibrant in colour and differences, to the trees and their long thick trunks, unmoving and steady. He wanted to be just that: steady. But he couldn’t because he was damned; because the Helson Sisters made sure he would never find peace. Was it a curse? Did he deserve what he’d gotten? Johnny wasn’t sure. Gaians loved him, right? He yawned, stretching his arms above his head. The sun was clocking out of time, finally making room for a starless sky and a sleepy looking moon. He should go now.
Johnny sighed loudly. He wanted to avoid Barton Town, but he couldn’t. His job—more like his chore—required him to go about, wandering the roads, until he found someone he thought suitable enough, and getting lost in unwelcomed memories. How many more would he have to collect? Would he return to the life he previously had if he had enough? They never specified the amount... Would he be someone new or would he finally disa—Someone laughed. Johnny whipped around immediately.
Someone had come up from the Trench so quietly he hadn’t noticed, which he usually did, but he couldn’t get a good look at him or her. So he stayed there, still as ever—although they wouldn’t see him anyway—and watched from the bridge. The person walked slowly, precisely and teasingly. Did they know? Darkness arrived as quickly as the unknown visitor, and the tiny light of the Shrine sprung to life.
As he listened, he could hear the quiet murmur of unsuppressed fear, feeling as though he was bowing, cowering before someone once more. Were these his memories, again? Feelings of the past? The gate to the town was open; he took a peek over his shoulder to make sure it was. Maybe they were just going to town, mayb—The person giggled, a hollow, menacing sound. Then, they stopped.
Johnny still couldn’t see the person, but, somehow, he didn’t want to. Something was wrong, he knew this. The lights flickered, the one from above the gate leading into Barton Town seemed to diminish and he suddenly realised it was the person that was his source of unease; that disrupted his process of thought and made every mistake of his life catchy theme song. When their eyes met, his going along the scars on her face and hers gleaming with a sly smirk on her lips, he knew without a doubt who it was.
She didn’t even have to bat a lash. She could see much more than his passing thoughts, as though she were catapulted into his very soul and could feel everything he felt; could manipulate his mind and heart itself with the utter insanity of her pleasure for bloodstained hands. The light seemed much brighter when she suddenly stood before Johnny, moving so quickly he didn’t even have the chance to blink or take a breath, and he stepped back. Her presences, in such close proximity, was still terrifying years later.
His back was already against the railing, but he pushed harder—and no matter how transparent he was for anyone else, she saw him. Of course she did, the flash of mirth was right there. Why had she decided to come after such a long time? His false bravado of revenge seemed like nothing more than a meagre lie with her standing right there. Why would she visit him anyway, where he was stuck between realities? Did... was it time? Did he lose a war he hadn’t even known of? He could still collect enough, he was sure—all he needed was a bit more time. Just a little longer and he would deliver the last blow, stand tall once more and have them quivering, but even that seemed distant now.
She knew he was there, standing as he did every night and waiting for his time to come. Had she watched him often? He didn’t even notice her presence today, until she let him. “Marie Von Helson,” he mumbled into the night. There was a quiver in his tone, one that betrayed his outer control of mock bravery. He fought the shiver that ran along his spine at the sight of her cocking her head, long blond hair falling over her shoulders—so innocently, so beautiful. Johnny shook uncontrollably, but he stood his ground. He wouldn’t let her make him bow, he was much stronger now. So he assumed.
Although when he tried saying something else—anything to ease the fear gripping at his heart, gnawing at his organs—he could do nothing but stand frozen to the spot with his words clinging desperately to the tip of his tongue. Why was she alone? Where was Anna? Then again, Marie was always much more cruel and loved watching until she could no longer. There was a pile of insults crowding his throat, but he never managed to throw them up. Cowards, they were such cowards—all of his thoughts and words and his breathing was a traitor, so was his heart that beat frantically beneath his ribcage.
“Are you still collecting dreams, Gambino?” she questioned, her voice smoother than the silk of the sheets he used to sleep upon. The sheets he still wished he could feel underneath his fingertips. For a moment, he was back at home, so very much alive, and he could image it all, every nick in the wall and every thread of those sheets. Then his first victim flashed before his lids when he thought of her words: Bludeau.
He was having a conversation with Ribateau about the new furniture, half-asleep, their bodies shutting down to recharge yet still babbling on, when Johnny stepped into his body; forcing Bludeau’s eyes shut and making him drift into the depths of nihility. It was a painful process for Johnny because he could feel; finally his heart would beat once again and the blood would surge viciously through his veins, but that pain was pleasure as much as it was torture and it ended all too quickly. Then, he took them all: each thought, each image, each word whispered and every particle of the dream within Bludeau’s mind, everything he desired. Johnny swallowed them, occasionally pausing as though it were steaming hot coffee, and they went down in lumps, like the little clump of a cat’s heart and just as sticky in his throat.
“You are so cruel,” she whispered, leaning forward and right into his face.
He hadn’t felt warmth in so long that when her breath ghosted across his non-existent skin, he flinched. He shouldn’t have felt it; at least it shouldn’t have stung. There was a smirk on her lips and a quirk in her brow while she moved closer into Johnny’s space. He could feel the desire to step away burn within, the same way he felt every night when he went about dealing forced slumbers and stealing the very existence of who his victims were—who they wanted to be—by taking their dreams. He ate them. He savoured them. He hated them, but it was a deal with the Helson Sisters. He would do this, and he would be okay...
“Anna said you were weak, that you’d give up much sooner, but it seems to me like you want to return to the living. Don’t you, Gambino?” She laughed, licking her lips and letting her index finger run down his cheek and he felt it. Was it working? It had to be, he felt the touch, he felt her breath. Did his heart stutter, just a little as a reaction to it? Was he really going to be alive again? He suppressed a shudder, and stepped to the right to escape her. “Tell me, Gambino, what do you think of each time you suck away at every citizen?” she inquired. What did he think of? He thought of how much he needed them, how he did not care that they became a robotic, lifeless form that strived for nothing more than to get through the next day afterwards. Johnny didn’t mind that they became close to nothing. He didn’t care.
Was he really cruel, like they said? But he was so very much liked once upon a time.
Johnny’s fingers curled into fists, and Marie just stared at him with obvious amusement like she knew every secret rooted within his heart, every single one he’d ever had. She was like an endless wall of smooth ice, no chip or break that he could use to his advantage. The night suddenly grew louder with the whispers of each dream being carried by the wind. Everyone's desires slipped through him, shoved him to go on and wander into the night—to wrap himself in those thick, honey-coated lullabies.
“Don’t waste your energy on me, Gambino. The dark calls for your service.” She was next to him again, her lips right next to his ear. “You do wish to live again, am I correct to still assume such? If you want something, you have to sacrifice something else for it.” Her voice was soft, melodious and so soothing that it made Johnny’s body yearn to listen to more instructions. He found himself, again, unable to move away from her. He could not deny her. Ever since his death, the Helson Sisters had an unspoken power over him. They were puppeteers, and he the marionette without strings. He was to bow with just a flick of either of their wrists. It shamed him, to have fallen so low when he once was the definition of authority.
“Go on, my little Sleep Dealer. The night calls, the dreams are waiting.”
“Yes,” he whimpered.
His voice came out weak, drained of every ounce of energy and his throat felt parched, just like the rest of him. And as soon as Marie had said those words, Johnny felt a pull within his chest, something that swirled through his system and consumed him. The weight of the words were like a stone pillow against his head, and the strength it took to deny her request was too much; he could no longer handle defiance. Although, within the moment, he still fought against it, clenching his teeth and trying to force his legs to stand still, but each time he thought such it became harder and each time his will power lessened until he surrendered completely; until he had become nothing but the puppet he was today.
She pulled back, giggling in delight at his scowl while he turned his back on her. His feet were heavy, so heavy in fact that each step took more effort than usually required. He didn’t make a sound; his shoes never collided with the wooden bridge beneath the soles. He was, after all, just an eidolon to death, a misconception and failure the Helson Sisters enjoyed. Johnny K. Gambino was the Sleep Dealer, no longer of flesh and blood, but a whisper of the dark and a shadow of the night—entering dreams and sucking away at every citizen, drinking whatever it was they desired in life.
He was a selfish man, ready to be born again to extract his revenge. Just a little longer...he could do it.