Flash Fiction: The Collector

Image shows an electronic reader propped up on a bar top with a decanter of an amber colored liquid beside it and bottles of alcohol behind it. A man's hands are visible in the far right corner. He holds a book in one hand and in the other, a short tumbler with a drink in it.

by Lynette M Burrows

I clung to the familiar bar top and thanked the gods for it. The coolness of the reclaimed metal grounded me. Slowed my pounding pulse. Soothed my soul. I didn’t care how I got there. To Station B’etti or inside Charlie’s Spaceport Cantina. Even the nattering of the tourists that filled the cantina behind me comforted. A shuddering sigh escaped me. I’m alone. Safe. 

My gaze settled on the green and purple swirls of Vroke in the shot glass before me. I downed it in one slug. Banged the empty glass on the bar top. 

The sour cherry Vroke burned my tongue and throat. Hotter than the hottest pepper in the universe, it scalded all the way down. Smoldered in my stomach, seared away the torment of nightmares. Left me in a blessedly peaceful bubble for as long as it burned. As long as I kept drinking, that bubble wouldn’t pop. 

A scraping sound made me tense.  I didn’t turn. Didn’t want company. Of any kind. “There’s an open seat at the other end of the bar.” My voice was loud and gruff, even to me. I scanned the hammered bar top to the shot glass I still gripped. The shot glass full of Vroke. I gaped at it.  I didn’t see the bartender come by. 

The seat puffed air.

I glared at the intruder. He wore a wide-eyed goofy grin and one of the latest one-piece suits. Silver, of course. The glare of the shiny fabric screamed first-time-space-traveler.

I ignored him. Drank the Vroke. 

After a couple of non-starters about the spacestation and the cantina music and visiting the planet below, he asked about my worst day on the job.

I shivered. Ignored the fluttering in my chest. Stared deep into the swirling green and purple liquid that shouldn’t be in my glass.

“I can see it was a bad one,” he said kindly. “Talking might help dispel the—” he chuckled, “—monsters.” 

Not funny. I threw another Vroke down my throat. My safe bubble steadied me.

“It used to be simple. My job. I circled the earth, emptied every dream catcher.” Why did I say that? “Once my collection bag was full, I’d bury the nightmares and such. Nightmares were simple then too.” How many shots have I had? I shook myself, but the urge to say more kept me talking. “Planet hopping became a thing. I had to hire assistants to manage galaxy-wide collection. The nightmares increased exponentially. I had to find a super planet where the gravity would contain them and not crush me.”

“Which planet?”

“I can’t tell you that. It’s a holy place. Like a Dharax meditation garden. Except—” A huff of breath escaped me. “Gathered together, nightmares multiply. In number and terror.” Trying to hide the way my hand shook, I downed another shot. Waited for the Vroke to settle to a sizzle in my stomach. My wagging tongue wouldn’t stop. 

“I can’t feel, see, or hear them. Nightmares. Can’t sense spirits. Good or evil. Not supposed to. I collect ‘em.” I scraped the back of my hand across my lips. “I am The Collector.”

“I’ve heard of the Tooth Fairy. Are you the DreamCatcher Fairy?” His tone and smile mocked me.

A burst of air exploded from my lips. “Look half-wit.” I flexed my tense shoulders. “No wings.”

His Adam’s apple rode up and down. “I thought they might be under your coat, or disguised somehow.”

I gave him a full-on glower. 

A dubious look flashed across his face. “No offense,” he said hastily. “Let me buy you another.” He gave a shrill whistle. Pointed at my empty glass.

I squinted down the bar. It faded away into a haze, as if there were no end, as if there were no barkeep. Glanced at my glass. Full again. The Vroke scorched away the clouds. Brought his shiny suit into sharp focus.

He gave me a couple moments’ peace, then asked, “How do you get to all the dream catchers?”

“I move by controlling electrostatic charges around me.” I rubbed my thumb across my first three fingers, produced a small, visible electrostatic charge. “Sort of like that, only not so flashy.”

He looked impressed. “What’s your—official—job title?”

“I’m the Collector of Bad Dreams, Nightmares, and Evil Spirits. The Collector for short.”

He nodded. “When were you there last? The super planet. Where you dump nightmares.”

Something prickled down my spine.

“Was that your worst day on the job?”

Was it only one day? “December 31st.”

“Last month was your worst day on the job?”

“Um, what year is it?”

He gave me a puzzled look, opened his mouth.

“No, don’t,” I interrupted. “Better—” Better if I don’t know. I rubbed the back of my hairless neck. Rolled my head until it made my neck crack.

“Go on.”

Wave after wave of ice ran over me. My worst day was thousands of nightmares. Nightmares I didn’t want to relive. But that urge to tell all was overwhelming. “I got caught in a—call it a riptide—a nightmare riptide. It was a typical nightmare where you’re in a maze of a house. You run and run and run, and don’t know why. You just have to escape whatever is chasing you.” 

“Oh, yeah,” said my listener. “Those are the worst.”

“Not by a long shot,” I murmured under my breath. Wiped dampness from my upper lip. 

“I didn’t catch that.”

Tugged at my collar. Someone needs to turn on the air mover in here. “Snap. Day changed to night.” My mouth was dry. My pulse rocketed. “Yellow eyes, evil eyes, glowed all around me. Growls grew into snarls.” Vroke spilled over my hand. I set down the glass I hadn’t picked up.

“What did you do?”

“I ran—“ I raised my hand to cover my trembling chin. The shot glass hit my lips. “The beasts—so fast— Their breath—hot on my back. I was about to be a pile of picked-clean bones.” “But Guah—” Crap! My staccato heart stole my breath. How could I almost say his name? Can’t let him into the real world. 


I swallowed my drink in one gulp. Kept the glass in front of my mouth to hide the deep breaths it took for me to trust my voice. “Be glad you don’t know.” Mostly steady, but high pitched. Tight.

My new bar-friend opened his mouth as if to ask another question.

I slammed my glass on the bar top. “Want me to tell this story or not?”

He spread his hands, palms up. And there it was again, that goofy-grin and eyebrows. He looked like some idiot kid.

I blinked. The beasts and the dark vanished. I was in a—I think they called those rooms parlors—in an old house lit with ancient gas lanterns. Spider webs heavy with dust draped every corner and doorway.” Stole a glance at my glass. Full. The chills that raced through me weren’t from bad memories.

The air was still. It wasn’t cold. Wasn’t really warm either. The stillness, the utter quiet—raised the hairs on my back.

I dared darting glances at the back of the bar as I spoke. “I walked from one nightmare to the next and the next, hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Each one worse than the next.” Behind the bar. On the wall were pictures I’d seen a hundred times. Now? They were hazy shapes as if hidden by gauze curtains. The shakes hit me. Hard.  

“You’re here now. You got out of there somehow.”

I locked eyes with him. “Did I?” 

He smirked. “Whatever do you—”

Dense fog churned. Filled the air. Erased sound, my bar friend, the bar, and my hope.


© 2023 Lynette M Burrows

If you liked this story read:

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Women’s Fiction

Alternate History

  • Fellowship, a Companion to the Fellowship Dystopia
  • My Soul to Keep, the Fellowship Dystopia series, Book One
  • If I Should Die, the Fellowship Dystopia series, Book Two
  • And When I Wake, the Fellowship Dystopia series, Book Three –Coming Soon!