Last time Master was this angry, I bled rose-pink syrup until morning. Loona licked my wound, the cotton candy skin around it hardening into crystallized sugar. Still, I was thankful for the comfort of Loona’s squeaky body pressed against me.
Now, Master’s fever-bright stare pins Loona, who trembles in the barn stall beside mine. Air whistles out of her, and her nylon-patchwork back crinkles with fear.
“People pay good money for sweet dreams,” he bellows. “What do you think happens when their brats get nightmares instead? They stop supporting Morpheus Farm, that’s what.”
The lightning snap-crack of the whip echoes; the air rushing out of Loona’s balloon-skin fissure is even more deafening. I rear back and neigh as Loona frantically tries to breathe air back into her sagging leg joint. She’ll develop a limp if Master doesn’t patch her up soon. He needs her intact so she can keep running on the treadmills—he needs all of us ponies to produce the sweet dreams Morpheus Farm is renowned for. But for now, he hangs the whip on a peg—a constant reminder.
“Any more nightmares, and I won’t be so kind.”
His heavy steps and heavier words linger long after he’s gone. I wonder if all the children we send good dreams to grow up to be like him.
I trot toward the wooden divider between our stalls. Loona’s breath comes in sharp bursts through flared nostrils. Her leg is fully blown out now; the deflating stops at the knot of her shoulder.
Loona’s head rests weary against me.
“It’s going to be okay,” I whinny. She doesn’t call me out on my lie, and I don’t complain when her balloon skin causes my candy mane to frizz.
The faster we run, the more dreams we produce. Wispy, silver threads travel through the tubes attached to our treadmills. Sweet dreams. I breathe a sigh of relief. We’re safe, at least for now. By nightfall, the dream energy will have found its way outside the farm, into the sleep of children whose parents have the money and connections to afford it.
When Loona canters on the treadmill, her legs rub together in a constant squeak. She’s so light, her hooves barely touch the black moving belt.
This morning, when he came to feed and bathe us, Master inflated her limp leg.
He patted a nearby dream-tube. “Better make them good today.” Then, after chaining us to our treadmills, he set off toward the next section of Morpheus Farm.
Over the years, I’ve glimpsed other ponies, bred or captured for their magic. A mare made of teddy-bear cloth. A string of foals with skin like rubber ducklings.
As I run, I picture the children in their beds; the happy dreams I need to send their way. When I glance at the tubes, panic seizes my sugarplum heart. Instead of shimmery silver, the dream-threads are a deep, unmistakable black.
I don’t know why this keeps happening. Don’t know how to make the nightmares stop.
When Master forgets to lock the stable doors, I convince Loona to escape with me, that together we stand a chance.
We don’t. We fail.
I lick my pink cotton candy skin until it mends: hard, crystalline-scarred, misshapen. My tears don’t help; everything keeps melting and twisting into something nightmarish.
Loona was a deflated, flat sack after Master was done with her. Only a few pockets of air remained in her nylon body when she was carted away.
I want to believe that I didn’t doom her with my half-formed plans and bright ideas.
We can always dream, right?
For the first time since I can remember, I step on the treadmill without Loona by my side.
I close my eyes and run. For once, I don’t picture the scenes I want the kids to see tonight, the dreams of cotton candy, balloon animals, and manufactured happiness. I know better than most the cost of dreams, but this one is all mine. I’m galloping, similar to this, surrounded by dewy grass, open sky, and wind not produced by the crack of a whip or by Loona’s open wounds.
Loona is with me. Inflated, wild, beautiful.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, The Forge Literary, Wolfpack Press, Argot Magazine, The Colored Lens, and other venues.