A celebration of nightmares

A celebration of nightmares

This dreamlike tale won the Creative Prize in the winter short story competition sponsored by the SCMP and RTHK

It was late at night, and the wind whispered outside the window. Leaves rustled against trees. Here I was, lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling.

I had been unable to sleep all week. When I closed my eyes, nightmares popped into my mind. Frankly, they weren't ordinary nightmares - they were disturbing ones that could really stick in your memory permanently. What were they about? They were all about a celebration.

I was wandering the streets. The sky was dark, really dark, without stars or the moon. The only luminous things were streetlights which gave a faint glow as if the electricity would run out at any minute. I had no idea what I was doing, or where I was. The only thing that kept me going was the warm air that emanated from a distance.

I was getting close, and there I was, standing in front of a crowd, with stalls lining both sides of the street. It seemed like a carnival of some sort. The smell of roasted duck, grilled steak, cheesecake and chocolate engulfed the whole area. Lights lit up the place. Anyone would have been mesmerised by the sight.

The people at the carnival seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot. Suddenly, a chubby man with pink cheeks tugged on my sleeve.

"Hello, little girl! Welcome! We are having a lovely, amazing, marvellous celebration here!" he squeaked. I wondered whether that was really his voice or he was speaking in falsetto. It sounded weird but it seemed insignificant at the time. Something was pulling me towards the carnival, as if there was something in there that was waiting for me. I didn't care what kind of celebration it was, I just entered.

The first stall I saw was filled with treats - candies on sticks, chocolate fountains and all sorts of cakes hanging at the sides like Christmas decorations. They lured me like a bee to honey and I ate them with great pleasure. I didn't pay for anything, which would be strange in reality, but somehow I wasn't aware of such trivial matters.

At the next stall stood a beautiful woman with ringlets. She pulled me closer and started braiding my hair. She had the kindest eyes I had ever seen, eyes that only a mother could have. After braiding my hair, she handed me a red satin dress which glittered and shimmered under the lights. I wasn't really in the mood for wearing a dress but she convinced me that this was part of the celebration. I wanted to skip such formalities but her eyes persuaded me.

At the third stall stood the most handsome man in the world. He had a muscular body and wore a tuxedo. The exquisitely good-looking man gave me a smile and beckoned me to come close. He didn't say much, but just handed me a bracelet.

"Wear this, it'll make you look better in the celebration. It'll help you blend in," he said.

I didn't really comprehend what he meant by blending in, since everyone was wearing different styles of clothing. Most of them were in casual wear, some even wore shabby clothes, but only a few wore satin dresses like mine.

After passing several more stalls, I felt the air around me starting to chill. The lights seemed to die down a little. The crowd weren't as active or cheerful as before. There were no longer treats or grilled steaks or beautiful people tending the stalls. Mean-looking people tended the stalls which were now piled with stacks of paper and different types of tools used for crafting and mining. The pavement was cracked and rats crawled around. People were acting and walking as if they had turned into zombies.

I wanted to turn around and leave, but the minute I spun around, the attractive part of the carnival was gone, and only darkness remained. I trudged past the stalls, avoiding eye contact with anyone, hoping to reach the exit.

Suddenly, a scrawny woman yanked at my dress and gave me an evil glare. She then dropped a big pile of paper in front of me and ordered me to carry it to the very end of the street. Normally I wouldn't listen to such nonsense but her tone was deadly and with each step I took, she followed, tagging along, keeping watch on my every move. That was when I noticed that she carried a sheath. Inside, I guessed it contained a sharp, deadly knife that would look as evil as she did. I gulped at the sight and kept on walking.

On the way, I met several other people, all carrying stacks of paper or heavy tools that looked like they might break your arms if you didn't have the strength to carry them. Beads of sweat trickled down my forehead and my arms started to wobble from the weight of the paper I was carrying. I wanted to put it down and rest, but the scrawny woman behind me seemed to read my thoughts and glared at me menacingly like a hawk. I was praying for help. I didn't know what kind of celebration this was, but I wanted to get out.

Without warning, I spotted the beautiful woman who had appeared earlier. She was kneeling down and scrubbing the floor with all her might. Next to her stood another woman who looked similar to her, but with a look of impudence as her beady eyes seemed to twitch with delight over someone else's pain and suffering. She seemed to be ordering the beautiful woman around. I tried to call for help, but she didn't hear me. The look on her face pained me and the words that were spoken by the woman next to her were scathing. I glanced behind me to check on my "guardian angel", who watched me with a poker face.

As I continued along the street, I saw the man in the tuxedo who now looked distraught as he sat on a bench wiping sweat from his forehead. That was when I started to feel hungry. I spotted a stall selling food. I limped over there with my fatigued hands dangling like the overgrown arms of a monkey.

As I reached the stall, I moved to grab one of the snacks with my mouth, as I dared not lay the pile of paper on the ground. But a hand swatted my head and a voice boomed out, telling me to pay. I was trembling, shocked, as I thought all the food was supposed to be free at this strange carnival. I was about to leave, as I had no money, when the beautiful woman and the man in the tuxedo appeared behind me and dug out a few coins from their pockets to pay for the food.

"Eat, dear one, always be prepared," they whispered, then they faded away and I suddenly felt replenished without even touching the food. It was strange but I was too confused to even ask why.

I kept on walking until a light flashed in front of my eyes. There at a distance was a parade, and in front of it was a finishing line which I felt was made for me. I had reached my destination. I was going to make it.

I ran, holding the stack of paper, as the woman behind me now pulled her knife out of its sheath and pointed the tip of the blade at my back as if preparing to stab me if I dared trip. I told myself that I couldn't fall now, not when I was so close to reaching the finishing line. I stared at the parade and there again I saw the beautiful woman and the man in the tuxedo. They were waving happily, beckoning me to join them. I didn't know what kind of escapade this was, and how the same person could appear in different places in such a short time. But somehow I wanted to see them happy … I wanted to immerse myself in such happiness.

Suddenly I felt a sense of foreboding that made me tense up. When I looked to either side, the stalls were no longer there - they were transformed into ugly monsters, all roaring and snapping. I guessed they weren't going to attack because they only seemed to be there to distract me.

I ran with all my heart, hoping to end this experience, but then - snap! I tripped over a branch and fell down. I felt a sense of nausea and my vision of the parade started to blur. Then everything went black.

The last thing I heard was "Thank you for joining the celebration!" and then I was startled awake.

A week later, I realised what my nightmare meant. I understood what kind of celebration it was. It was a celebration of finally recognising what the road of your life looks like.

The carnival started to change as I aged, turning my life from a series of treats and dresses into years of hard work. The people around me made the unfairness, selfishness and sadness more noticeable. Scathing words, hatred and rage were all revealed. The coldness and emptiness in humanity that I always hoped to escape from was all displayed in my dream.

I now know that this nightmare will stay forever in my memory because I'm living it - life is like a nightmare.

In order to reach the parade, your dreams, you have to make it to the finishing line: make it to the end of the celebration which life has prepared for you.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
A celebration of nightmares

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