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Has anyone else had a strange man at their door recently?

I suppose I need to be more specific. Calling him a strange man doesn't quite do him justice. I've found myself thinking of him simply as The Strange Man, so I might as well keep calling him that.

It was late afternoon when I heard a loud but polite set of three knocks at my front door. I wasn’t expecting anyone, but I just sort of assumed it was a package that needed a signature or something, and I opened the door without checking first. It’s really not like me to be so cavalier about home security, but at the time I just chalked it up to being taken by surprise and the friendly nature of the knocks putting me off my guard.

Standing on my welcome mat was The Strange Man. He was quite a tall and lanky fellow; in fact, he was taller than the door frame itself. Our height disparity was so severe that I had to crane my neck upwards and he had to stoop down just so that we could make eye contact. His abnormal height didn't go unnoticed at the time, but it didn't strike me as all that interesting either.

His shabby brown suit was old and tattered, almost like he was a transient in the Great Depression and had jumped off a train in it. His head was disproportionately large and round, and yet lacked any discernable facial features that I could focus on it. Don’t misunderstand me; it’s not that he didn’t have a face. It was more like when you stare straight at your own face in the mirror for long enough that it starts to melt and warp, except that his face was always like that.

“Good day morn-after-evening night, dear sir or madam, to you,” The Strange Man said with a courteous nod of his bulbous head. His voice sounded like it was an old cassette tape being played backwards, as if someone had recorded themselves speaking backwards so that it would be intelligible when played in reverse. His voice was also the only sound I could focus on, as though all the ambient noise from both within and outside my house had suddenly gone dead quiet. A moment before, there had been birds and insects and children and vehicles and appliances and plumbing all making noise, but now there was only the strange voice of The Strange Man.

“I am out. May I come in?” he asked as he cocked his head to the side. “I am assessing eligibility for specific programs offered by the Fair Folk – apologies; fine folks – of The Dire Insomnium. There are substantial benefits if you qualify, and only completely tolerable penalties if you do not.”

He held out his clipboard – which I hadn’t noticed before then – so that I could see it, tapping it with his pen a few times. The form had a logo at the top of it that looked like a dreamcatcher with an eye in the center, but all the text was just a bunch of chaotic glyphs that I couldn’t begin to decipher.

“Well, that certainly looks official,” I muttered half-heartedly, unsure of why I was even humouring him. “But, I don’t think I’ve heard of this Insomnium you say you represent. Why would I face penalties for not qualifying for your programs?”

“One cannot offer rewards without the threat of punishment as well,” The Strange Man explained.

“I suppose that makes sense,” I conceded, speaking only because for some reason I couldn’t yield to my growing desire to slam the door in his scrambled face. “What sort of penalties are we talking about?”

“Tolerable, as I said. Trivial, in fact. Token, even,” he assured me in a calm, soothing tone that was wildly out of sync with the inverted cadence of his speech. “Non-financial, if that puts you at ease.”

“It doesn’t, quite frankly,” I muttered, managing to push the door shut just a little bit. “Could you please be a little more specific about exactly what it is I stand to gain and lose from submitting to this survey, or whatever it is you're here to do?"

“I’m afraid not, as that information would skewer your responses. But I can assure you that the potential rewards outweigh the penalties enough to be worth your while,” The Strange Man insisted. “Please, invite me in, so that we may proceed.”

“You… you can’t come in unless I invite you?” I asked with a small glimmer of hope, succeeding in shutting the door a little further.

“I cannot cross the threshold to your domicile without consent, correct,” he said with a gentle nod. “However, I am not obligated to move from this spot, either. I do not wish to be an imposition longer than necessary, and it would be greatly appreciated if you were to invite me in.”

I swallowed nervously as I considered my options. I didn't want him in my home, but I didn't want him lingering on my doorstep forever either. Fighting him seemed like an abysmally suicidal idea, so there was nothing left to do but play along.

With a forced smile, I opened the door wide and gestured for him to come inside.

“Won’t you please come in, sir?” I asked in a cheery tone I was sure came across as forced; but if he noticed or cared, he gave no sign. “May I have your name, please?”

“Unfortunately not, as my superiors have a lien on it at the moment,” he replied, ducking down as he stepped through the door. He rose to his full height once he was inside, his head rising to a mere sliver below the ceiling, looking a bit like Gandalf in Bag End.

“Ah…. please, won’t you sit down?” I insisted, concerned that he might unintentionally break something just by moving around. “Can I offer you some tea?”

“Just hot water, please. Tea leaves might reveal something about my future that I’d rather not know,” he requested.

Shutting the door, I gestured for him to take a seat as I went to fetch his water. He took great care as he moved through my house, mindful that his unusual stature and proportions didn't cause any damage. He did, however, leave black footprints of what I assumed was soot on the carpet. He walked over to the curtains and pulled them shut before sitting down, which immediately sent my stomach roiling as I wondered what it was he intended to do that he didn’t want anyone to see. His knees creaked audibly as he lowered himself onto the couch, like old trees in a strong wind, but when he sat down the couch cushion barely depressed at all, as though he were far lighter than his size would suggest.

When I got back with his hot water, I saw that he had set his clipboard down on the coffee table in front of him, and was hastily jotting things down in an illegible scrawl.

“Are you sure you have enough light to write by?” I asked, gesturing to the window in the hopes he would let me pull the curtains back open.

“Keen eyes see the truth no matter how dark the world gets,” he said in an almost trance-like state, not bothering to look up from the clipboard.

“That’s… very true,” I sighed as I sat down on the loveseat across from him. “Ah, have you been working for the Insomnium long?”

“Non-consecutively, yes,” he replied, refusing to elaborate any further.

“Good. Good. I… hope you didn’t have to travel too far to get here,” I smiled, determined to make small talk to fill the unnerving absolute silence of just sitting in his presence.

“Distance isn’t applicable to the Insomnium. I had no need to travel,” he assured me.

“Ah, well, that’s good, then,” I murmured, nervously clearing my throat. “May I ask how it was I came to the attention of this Dire Insomnium?”

At this, he actually stopped writing and cocked his head as he pondered his response for a moment.

“They are very good at seeking; better than you were at hiding, in any event,” he said thoughtfully.

Setting the clipboard down he sat back up straight and picked up the cup and saucer I had set down in front of him. He sniffed it first, possibly to confirm it was just water, but I think it was more likely he was trying to replicate the act of drinking tea without properly understanding it. He raised his pinky finger as he sipped, before putting the cup back down on the saucer in his lap.

“Can you remember your name right now?” he asked casually, as if it were as normal a question as any of mine had been. “And please don’t just answer yes on reflex; make sure you actually do remember it.”

“I can, yes,” I nodded, having no trouble bringing my moniker to the forefront of my mind. “Are you asking for my name?”

“Certainly not; that would be an egregious violation of our etiquette protocols,” he replied, picking up his clipboard again. “Next question: are you still sane?”

“Ah, I beg your pardon?”

“I know; the way the questioned is phrased presumes you were sane to begin with,” he said with a sad nod of his head. “But if you would be so kind as to humour me?”

“Well, that being said, I suppose my answer would have to be ‘as sane as I ever was’,” I replied with a forced laugh.

“Yes. I like that,” he chuckled as he scratched something onto his clipboard. “Do you think that you are more sane when you dream, less sane, or about the same?”

“If by sane you mean lucid –”

“Certainly not,” he cut me off promptly.

“Oh. Well then, I guess more sane,” I said, despite not really knowing what his definition of sanity was.

“Interesting,” The Strange Man said with an intrigued nod. “And are you dreaming right now? If not, why are you taking this survey in a less sane state of mind?”

“Well, this certainly seems quite dreamlike, but I don’t have lucid dreams, so I suppose I can’t be dreaming,” I reasoned. As surreal as the whole experience was, I was nevertheless certain that I wasn’t dreaming. Everything was still too coherent and consistent to be a dream. “As for your second question, I can’t dream on command, or while awake. If you want to survey me while I’m dreaming, then I’m afraid you’re the one who will have to be accommodating.”

“A reasonable enough request,” he nodded. “But since I’m here now, your current state of mind will have to suffice. How much time would you say you’ve spent dreaming?”

“You mean, in total, for my entire life?” I asked.

“Up to and possibly including the present moment, yes,” he replied.

“I recall reading somewhere that you normally dream for a couple of hours a night, so I imagine it would add up to well over a thousand days, at least,” I answered after doing some rough math in my head.

“I’ll put approximately three non-consecutive years,” The Strange Man nodded. “And do you retain any conscious recollections from those dream years?”

“You’re asking if I remember my dreams?” I asked, still having trouble following his strange line of questions. “No, not really. A few odd bits here and there, I suppose.”

“But nothing substantial,” The Strange Man said as he made a small mark on his board. “And do you consider this situation regrettable?”

“I’ve never really considered it before, but since you ask, I don’t see why I should,” I replied truthfully. “Dreams are nonsense. They’re just a side effect of whatever my brain does while I sleep. They’re not important in and of themselves.”

“But what if they could be?” The Strange Man asked hopefully, leaning forward with a sudden sense of fervour in his previously listless demeanour. “What if those three forgotten, wasteful years could have been put to good use? Freed from the constraints and preconceptions of waking reality, your dreaming mind has a far greater capacity for lateral thought; the kind of thought the Fair – fine – folks of The Dire Insomnium can’t get enough of.”

“I’m not sure I quite follow what you’re suggesting,” I said as I slightly recoiled in my chair.

“Your dreams right now are like wind – an untapped source of energy,” The Strange Man claimed. “What The Dire Insomnium wants to do is go into your mind and put up some windmills so that they can harness the power of your dreaming mind – a power which you just now admitted you make no use of. Hardly something that you would miss then, correct?”

“These are… figurative windmills, I take it?” I asked.

“Conceptual, yes. When you dream, you will see them as windmills, and if you were to step inside you would behold interlocking toothed gears, grinding away at whatever fodder’s been laid beneath them. None of it literal, but all of it conceptually accurate.”

“I see. And the presence of these windmills in my dreams would be the only noticeable effect?” I asked.

“The windmills are in your mind, not your dreams. They are powered by your dreams and that is where you can perceive them, but they do not cease to be during the doldrums of your waking life or because your conscious perception is elsewhere,” The Strange Man explained. “But they will always be there in your subconscious, turning and creaking away. It’s hard to say if that would impact your thoughts or behaviours in any way or not. The Dire Insomnium itself may also occasionally need to conduct maintenance or auxiliary tasks within your mind, the scale of which would be… on a case-by-case basis."

“Well sir, I’ll be blunt; you’re not doing a very good job of selling me on this. I’d much rather have my dreams go to waste than deal with conceptual windmills in my subconscious, thank you very much," I told him sternly.

“Of course, The Dire Insomnium will compensate you for their operations,” The Strange Man assured me. “As you may have likely inferred from their name, those in The Dire Insomnium are unable to enter anything resembling a sleeping or dreaming state. In order to benefit from its restorative and creative powers, the Insomnium must outsource its sleep and dreams to others. As these are vital resources, they are willing to pay handsomely for them. As I mentioned, the Insomnium will always be present in your subconscious whether you are aware of them or not; but they will always be aware of you, a watcher that never sleeps. They will, at times they deem it cost-effective to do so, employ their expertise with dream energy in ways that are to your benefit. These benefits will be subtle at first, largely mental, but they will compound with time and start to bleed over into the real world. If you like, you may even enter the windmills in your dream and converse with the Dream Millers if you have any requests or issues in how they are handling your compensation.”

“Well, I’m afraid that’s all still far too vague for my liking, especially for some conceptual creeps making themselves at home in my mind and watching everything I think and do,” I said frankly. “I’m going to have to decline your offer.”

The Strange Man made a sort of displeased grunting noise as he shifted in his seat, reaching for the cup and saucer once again.

“Look out the window,” he ordered just as he took a sip of steaming water. Though his voice was level, his tone was so commanding that I didn’t dare to refuse him. Slowly, I rose from my chair and walked over to the window, drawing back the curtains with a single motion.

Outside, my neighbourhood had been replaced with rolling hills of crimson, windswept grass, blowing about so tumultuously it almost looked like a raging sea. The sky was filled with turbulent, purplish-red storm clouds flickering with lightning, and on the crest of the most distant hill I could see was an enormous black windmill. Its mammoth sails were whipped around furiously by the howling wind, and in the instants where I could see the tower behind them, I could make out a faint silhouette standing in the highest window, coldly glaring back at me.

“Well, what do you think now?” The Strange Man asked me.

“Of what? Of this? This isn’t real!” I balked at him, pulling the curtains closed, the thunder and howling wind dying as soon as I could no longer see the estranged world outside.

“Does that matter when it’s superseded your reality?” he asked. “Step outside, behold The Dire Insomnium yourself, and speak to those at the windmill. Then see if your feel inclined to reconsider your decision.”

“No, I think you’re the one who needs to step outside,” I said firmly as I marched over to the front door. “You’ve outstayed your welcome, sir. I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist that you leave!”

I pulled the door open, and the dream world that The Strange Man had somehow manifested was still there. The wind was so powerful that it forced the door open on its own, practically pinning me up against the wall in the process.

The Strange Man though, for his part, made no protest. I had nothing to threaten him with, but it seemed that he needed my consent to remain in my home just as he had to enter it. He appeared to make an X on his clipboard and then stood up from the couch.

"Most regrettable," he sighed, leaving a fresh set of black footprints on my carpet as he strode towards the door. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a small business card. It was emblazoned with the same icon of a cyclopean dream catcher and the same incomprehensible glyphs that I had seen on his clipboard. “I’ll leave you with this, in case you should you ever have a change of heart. Given enough thought, and time, and pain, you may come to realize that our offer was a better bargain than it first seemed.”

He slipped the card into my front pocket, bowed slightly, and remained bent over so that he could pass through the doorway. Fortunately, he courteously pulled the door shut behind him, sparing me the indignity of trying to force it shut myself against an imaginary wind. When I peeped out the window, The Strange Man was gone, and the world was as it should be. I was tempted to just dismiss the whole episode as some sort of psychotic break, but the card in my pocket and the footprints on the floor assured me otherwise.

The Strange Man is real. He’s out there, going door to door, offering to buy your dreams for those who cannot sleep. In exchange, your forgotten dreams will be used for vague promises of self-improvement, like spinning straw into gold. I can’t speak to the truth of these promises, but I do know the world I saw outside my window that day isn’t one I want inside my head. I've swapped my welcome mat for a no-soliciting sign, and all I can do is hope that’s enough to keep him from peddling his programs at my door again.



Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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