‘The Man in the Cowboy Hat’ by Jude Coulter-Pultz

Illustration by Romeo Esparrago

Illustration by Romeo Esparrago

It’s the same every night. The same nightmare every night for weeks. It never changes, and that makes it all the worse.

In the nightmare, I’m only six years old. Even though I know I’m really sixteen, it doesn’t matter. You can only run so fast when you’ve got the legs of a kindergartner. In the end, I’m going to get chopped up by the man in the cowboy hat, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

It starts in the old Halloway house — the perfect setting for a game of hide and seek. It must have been built at least two hundred years ago, back when nooks and crannies were all the rage. I’ve been Nick Halloway’s friend for years, so I know all the best places. No one apart from Nick himself ever found my hiding spot behind the laundry machine in the basement. You have to crawl on all fours through the spiders and their spiderwebs, and lord knows what else just to reach it. Then you have to sit there in that dark, square hole, with your arms, legs, head, and butt all scrunched up against the damp pipes and the dusty floor.

I hear footsteps. Even the first time I had this dream, I knew what the footsteps meant. One by one, down the stairs. Each footfall seems to be carefully filled with the greatest possible amount of malice. I consider running over to the door to lock it, but it’s too late. It’s always too late. The rusty hinges let out a low creak as the man in the cowboy hat steps into the room. I can’t see him, but I know he’s there. I can hear the jingle-jangle of his spurs now, coming closer and closer. Ching. Ching. Ching. My only hope is that I can hold my breath until the man in the cowboy hat decides to walk away. The footsteps pause. He must be almost on top of the laundry machine by now. Time passes reluctantly, as if being squeezed from the air. Gradually, an itch grows at the back of my throat. It feels like one of the spiders has somehow crept into my mouth and has started spinning a web down inside my trachea. The waiting is unbearable.

At last the man in the cowboy hat turns and leaves, jingling and jangling and full of menace. Still I wait, fighting the maddening urge to clear my throat, until the footsteps disappear completely up the stairs. I emerge from behind the laundry machine like a drowning sailor, a coughing, gasping, sputtering mess. As I try to muffle the coughs with my hand, I spot a spider scurrying away over my fingers. It’s the same thing every night. I flick it away and wipe the strands of silk from my lip. Every night for weeks.

But this time, something happens to make me freeze. Standing in the middle of the darkened room is Nick Halloway, as if he had been waiting for me all along. This isn’t right. He’s not supposed to be here. Not now. My stomach suddenly turns heavy and cold. I thought knowing what was going to happen was what made this dream so awful. Now that it seems to be changing, I’m filled all the more with dread.

“Derek? Derek Young?” The voice that comes out of his mouth is not his. It’s older and it doesn’t belong at all.

My head starts to spin, and I feel like I’m going to throw up. I call out his name. Maybe if he hears his name, he’ll snap out of it and turn back into my best friend.

“Nick? Who–?” He looks down at himself and then smiles ruefully. “Oh, right– sorry. I forgot about that. Hold on.”

Nick takes a slow breath, closing his eyes and his lips tightly. Then, before my eyes, his body begins to inflate like a long balloon. Features come anew to his face and his body, defining a tall, pale man in a trenchcoat. His hair is an untamed mess that looks like it’s been slept on in all the wrong ways. As a finishing touch, a pair of fashionable shades appear atop his slender nose, although he immediately removes them. Underneath, he has the red-rimmed eyes of a profound insomniac.

“Gato, Nightmare Hunter, at your disposal,” he announces, with a slight bow.

* * *

It’s all too much for me to take. I throw myself at him, punching and screaming. He’s taken completely off guard and topples like a stack of books, hitting the ground with the same amount of grace.

“What did you do?! What did you do to Nick!?” I scream, still whaling on him with a passion beyond my control.

“Whoa, kid! Whoa! Will you give me a minute, here?” He gets to his feet, then picks me up with ease. “I didn’t hurt your friend. I’m here to help you.”

My anger subsides as quickly as it came. I feel the sting of tears pressing behind my eyes, and a sob tries to force its way out of my throat, but I swallow it. Gato gathers me into an awkward hug. I can tell he’s trying to calm me down, but he’s too bony. He has none of the warmth that a mom or a dad has.

“Listen, kid. What you saw wasn’t your real friend, OK? Well, of course, nothing is real here. You’re dreaming, of course, so it’s all just figments of your imagination. Except for me. I’m a figment of my imagination. But your brain doesn’t know that, so it– Wait, let me back up. You do know you’re dreaming, don’t you?”

I nod into his coat.

With a yawn he says, “OK. At least we’ve gotten that far. So, like I was saying, everything you see here is a product of your imagination, right? That means if an outsider like me steps into your dream, your brain won’t know how to deal with it at first, and you’ll end up seeing something like you just did. Like your friend. Got it?”

“I think so,” I tell him, swallowing another sob and rubbing away the last of my tears.

“But I don’t blame you, kid. Gangly guy like me, barging into your dreams uninvited… I’d be bawling, too. Company’s got to do something about that glitchy entry process.”

“I’ll file a complaint with the marketing department,” says a deep voice, reverberating off the walls of the narrow laundry room. The voice is overly dramatic, like something in a movie preview. A dress shirt and slacks unfold themselves from on top of the ironing board, followed by a suit jacket, a tie, and a pair of polished shoes. From inside the shirt, a pair of gray hands wriggle their way out of the sleeves and a very strange head forces its way out of the top. It looks in every way like the head of an elephant, only human size. With his hands, which are covered in thick, wrinkled skin, the elephant man has to pull the rest of his trunk out of the shirt’s collar. Despite his bizarre appearance, his eyes have a rather bored and aloof look to them — but then again, all elephants look like that.

Gato crosses his arms. “If you don’t mind me asking, sir, what are you doing here?”

As the elephant man fixes his tie, he continues in his booming voice. “Have you, Agent Gato, confirmed this entity to be the projection of our client, one Derek Young?”

“I have,” answers Gato. “You know, to the best of my ability.”

The elephant man grabs a clipboard from the ironing board, as if he had left it there, and flips a few pages back. “According to our profile, Mr. Young is supposed to be sixteen years old.”

“So what?” says Gato with a shrug.

“Excuse me,” I say, and both visitors turn to face me. “I really am sixteen, uh, sir, but in this dream I always seem to be six.”

“One assumes,” the elephant man says, casting his eyes down at me over his trunk. Then, turning back to Gato, he adds, “The fact of the matter is, whether or not his root consciousness is sixteen, the client in question happens to be six at the moment. And since there is no suitable guardian or representative present to vouch for him, that liability passes to you.”

“What kind of liability are we talking about here?”

The elephant man reads from a document attached to the clipboard. “Do you hereby agree, as the exterminator assigned to this sector, to bear all responsibility for any psychological or neurological injury, irreparable or otherwise, that may be incurred on the part of the dependent, our client, for the duration of this operation?”

Gato scratches the back of his neck. “Let me get this straight. You’re saying if this kid ends up with brain damage or something while I’m dealing with his bad dream, I’m the one who has to pay?”

“I believe that’s what I just said, yes. Would you like me to recite the statement again?”

“Uh — no, that’s OK. I’m all set with that. But listen,” he says in a quieter voice, though not so quiet that I can’t hear, “the company doesn’t exactly have the best track record in this department, does it? I mean, the likelihood of me getting saddled with something serious is pretty high, isn’t it?”

“We’re all well aware of your track record,” the elephant man replies, making no effort to keep his voice low.

Gato’s pale face flushes and he grabs the clipboard from him. “Where do I sign?”

“At the bottom of the document. There.” The elephant man gestures with a wave of his trunk.

Bringing the clipboard close to his mouth, Gato blows gently over it, as if trying to clear off some dust. Instead, his signature appears on the paper in wet ink. With a flabby hand, the elephant man takes back the clipboard. Then he disappears, letting the uninhabited clothes fall without ceremony to the floor.

“Company never cleans up its own mess,” grumbles Gato as he steps over the heap of laundry. “Well, no time for that, right Derek? We’ve got a nightmare to kill.”

My heart trips over itself as I abruptly remember where I am. “Oh no! I’ve got to find my friends before he gets to them!”

“He?”

“The man in the cowboy hat! We were all playing hide and seek, and then all of a sudden he came. If we don’t find them first, he’s gonna — he’s gonna –”

“Gotcha. But you’ve had this dream before, right? So don’t you know where he’s headed?”

“It’s all different now, since you showed up. I don’t know what’s going to happen anymore.”

“Hmmm –” Gato casts his eyes around the room, seemingly lost in thought. He looks anxious, maybe even afraid. When he first stepped into my nightmare, he might have been walking straight out of an action blockbuster, with his fluttering coat and stylish shades. Now I see that there is something else behind the hero’s mask he wears, something smaller.

“Gato?”

“Yes?”

“I hope you can beat him. I don’t want to have this dream anymore.”

He smiles at me, but I can’t help noticing how fake it looks. “Well, that’s what I’m here for, right? I may not have been in this business for a long time, but I’ve certainly dealt with a lot worse than this Class Four you’re having.”

“Class Four?”

“That means on a scale from bad to worse, this one is only slightly more dangerous than a wet dream. Don’t worry, kid. We’ll bust his scary butt in no time.”

A scream reaches us from somewhere upstairs. One of my friends. Without wasting a second, Gato slings me over his back and leaps into the stairwell beyond the door. We spiral our way up and up until we’re in something more like a castle tower. Stone walls with grimy windows blur past us as Gato takes the steps three at a time, four at a time.

* * *

Illustration by Romeo Esparrago

Illustration by Romeo Esparrago

It seems like we’ve passed the same window at least five times already.

Gato puts me down, gasping for breath. “Wait here a sec,” he tells me, punctuating the sentence with a raspy cough that would make the proudest of smokers jealous.

He closes his eyes and stands absolutely still. After only a few seconds, his breathing calms down. Not only that, but he looks somehow stronger than he did even when he first appeared. Then, as if in a trance, he raises his arm toward the window and clenches his outstretched hand into a fist. The glass breaks in a way that you’ll never see glass do if you’re not dreaming. It collapses in on itself without shattering, becoming something like a ball of paper, making little tinkling noises as it bounces and rolls down the stairwell and out of sight. From the empty window, mist begins to seep in and I hear a hissing sound like rain.

“How did you do that?” I ask, unable to keep the awe out of my voice.

“What? Never had a lucid dream before?”

“You mean like when you’re dreaming and, right before you wake up, you realize you can fly or something?”

He scratches his scalp. “Yeah, that’s right. Only thing is, if you practice hard enough at it, you can do it whenever you want. The trick’s remembering that you and I — we’re dreamers. And that means we’re in control. Everything else, including your little cowboy friend, answers to us — as long as we let ’em know who’s boss.”

We both seem to remember the scream at the same time. Without another word, Gato picks me up again and carries me through the space where the window used to be, into the fog. We emerge from a broken mirror, easing our way down over a porcelain sink and into a steamy bathroom. The shower’s running and the plastic curtain’s drawn. Behind the curtain, through the stifling misty air, I can make out a dark shape.

Gato seizes the shower curtain in one hand. The other is wrapped around an enormous pistol. Maybe he took it out of his coat, or maybe he pulled it straight out of the air. I don’t know. It looks big enough to take down a bear, but I don’t think it’s going to help anyway. Even if Gato had a cannon with him, I doubt it would mean a thing to the man in the cowboy hat. He throws open the curtain, and a look of undisguised horror comes to his face. And, even though I’ve seen it countless times, the sight never fails to astonish me anew.

There’s no mistaking it was once one of my friends, but all the usual signs — eyes, nose, mouth, hair, most of the limbs — have been — removed. As gory as it is, there’s no blood to be found. It’s as if he were made of stone or wood and someone had chiseled away at his body, leaving this lump of flesh, now more potato than boy. As Gato and I stare, dumbfounded, the patch of skin where his mouth should be begins to move, and a faint, wordless whimper comes out.

“My god, he’s still alive –” Gato mutters. Then he seems to come to his senses. He shuts his eyes and, letting his breath out long and slow, he turns the horrible sight into a puddle of harmless water. Pulling the plug, he lets it all vanish down the drain. But the gruesome image doesn’t leave my memory so easily.

As Gato turns the shower off, I hear a sound from somewhere behind the bathroom door that makes every hair on my neck stand on end. You’ve never heard a harmonica sound so unsettling. The notes meander up and down, never quite forming a melody. Joining the ensemble, a pair of spurs take up percussion, getting louder and louder with each agonizingly slow step. Ching. Ching. Ching. The eerie wail of the harmonica slips under the crack in the doorway and fills the room, echoing off the narrow walls. It sounds to me like a ghost, humming to himself, trying to remember the notes of the last song he ever heard.

Then, finally, it stops. Without warning, Gato bursts through the door like a gunslinger on the big screen. Having secured the dark hallway beyond, he gestures with a nod of his head for me to follow. As I step out of the thick mist of the bathroom, I’m wishing for the dream to go back to the way it was before Gato arrived. The fear was easier to deal with when I knew what was coming. At least then I knew things couldn’t get worse.

Apparently Gato’s pistol doubles as a flashlight. The beam leaves the firearm from the same place bullets do, illuminating the end of the hallway where it joins with a larger room. It is into this circle of light that the man in the cowboy hat steps. First one boot and then the other. Ching. Ching.

As always, he looks like he’s been cut out of an old spaghetti western and superimposed onto my dream. He doesn’t belong. From hat to heel, he’s black and white, and little film scratches run up and down his body like strange worms. Every move he makes is jarred, all the sounds he makes are tinny. His long frock coat stirs behind him in a gust of imaginary prairie wind. His hat is wide-brimmed, concealing his face so entirely in shadow it’s as if he has no face at all. But then, as Gato lifts his pistol-flashlight, the shadow slips away and I realize I’ve never seen the nightmare’s face before. His ugly features are revealed one by one, starting with a jutting cliff of a jaw. Above that is a fierce scowl and a hatchet nose. His flesh is stretched tight over his face, almost failing to hide the bone underneath. Last of all, his eyes come into view, squinting back at us, black and evil and reflecting nothing.

The man in the cowboy hat hacks up a wad of phlegm from deep in his throat and spits it out onto the floor. Seeming to notice us for the first time, he shows a toothy smile and lets out a long, scratchy laugh, like a dead tree creaking in the wind. “Hooo-eee, wilya’ look at that! Some new whittlin’ sticks! Ain’t nothin’ soothes the mind like a good whittlin’ now an’ then.”

“I’m afraid your whittling days are over, partner,” says Gato, putting his shades back on. “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

“So a hunter thinks he can move in on my ranch, huh? Looks like things’re gonna git interestin’.”

“Not very.” I feel the deafening bang of his gun just as much as I hear it. Gato’s feet dig into the wooden floor, sending splinters into the air as he braces against the recoil. The flashlight blinks off and an otherworldly silver streak draws a line from Gato’s pistol to the man in the cowboy hat, burning itself into my eyes.

Blind and nearly deaf, I stand there clinging to Gato, praying that he’s actually done it, but knowing he hasn’t. It couldn’t have been that easy. Sure enough, when my vision returns, the man in the cowboy hat is just getting to his feet as if from a long nap. He’s lost his hat and most of the right side of his face. Inside he’s hollow, except for an amber liquid that’s spilling out of him like water from a broken glass. What’s left of his mouth is no longer smiling, and his one remaining eye is fixed on Gato.

“Now ya done it,” the nightmare says as he wrenches a knife from a leather pouch at his side. “Now ya gone an’ spilled my whiskey.”

Gato is completely unfazed, until he realizes the pistol in his hand has become a skinned rabbit. Our source of light disappears along with any hope of winning this war. The last thing I see is the grin returning to the nightmare’s shattered face. Then we’re running, Gato’s bony fingers choking my arm, pulling me through layers of blackness.

The hallway is immeasurably long and far from straight. It twists, shrinks, and expands as if actively trying to disorient us. More than once Gato and I crash headlong into a sudden bend or tumble down an unannounced staircase. At times, I don’t know whether we’re running on the ceiling or the floor, or if we’re even going anywhere at all. At last, I can’t run anymore. My legs feel like they’re wading through hardening cement. Panting, I fall to the ground, which has become strangely uneven.

* * *

I hear the rustle of Gato’s coat as he lets his body slide down beside mine. Soon after, there’s a metallic click, and I can see again. He’s examining a pocket watch, the face of which throws out a soft beam of golden light, illuminating the space around us.

I don’t know whether to continue calling it a hallway or start referring to it as a forest. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling are formed by trees growing so close together, they’ve become a solid, undulating mass of pale bark. Here and there, the more eager branches and roots claw their way out into the cramped space of the tunnel. If we’re outside, it’s impossible to tell. No light or air penetrates this mysterious place.

“I don’t get it,” I say, getting shakily to my feet. Gato doesn’t take his sunken eyes off the watch’s face. “Why are we running?”

“Hmmm?”

“I mean, you said it yourself. This is a dream and we’re dreamers, so we’re in control, right? You crumpled up that window back there like it was tinfoil. How come you couldn’t just do the same to the man in the cowboy hat?”

Gato sighs. “Remember what I said about this nightmare being a Class Four?”

“Yes.”

“I take it back. Class Two. At least.”

In the silence that follows, I peek over Gato’s shoulder. The surface of the pocket watch is made up of numbers on little ticker wheels that make clicking noises as they turn and change. There are too many of them to denote any kind of time that I can make sense of, and they don’t seem to be changing in any discernible order anyway.

Then Gato stands up and turns the watch away from himself, using it like a lamp to examine our surroundings. “But don’t sweat it, kid. We’re out of harm’s way for now. Your nightmare won’t be following us out here.”

“Why not? What’s stopping him?”

“We’re not in your dream anymore. What we’re standing in now is a passageway between dreams. Only dreamers like you and me can reach it.”

I fix him with an incredulous stare. In my experience, the only way to escape the man in the cowboy hat is to wake up.

“It’s true. You see this?” With a gesture, Gato reveals a silver strand extending from the back of his head. It’s almost invisible, like silk from a spider’s web, and it weaves a fluttering trail down into the depths of the dark corridor until it vanishes from sight. “In the business, we call this a ‘tether.’ Whenever you venture outside of your own dreams, you leave a tether connecting you to your ‘root consciousness.’ Think of it like you’re scuba diving and this is your oxygen tube. This one has been with me the whole night, but you can only see it in places like these. Now you have one, too, look.” He reaches behind my head and pulls an identical thread gently into view. “So you see? No more dream, no more nightmare. Nothing’s gonna touch you, kid.”

“So what do we do now?”

“Well, according to my watch, the sun is already rising. We just wait this guy out a little longer and you can wake up and go back to life as usual.”

With a sinking feeling, I realize I’m going to have this dream again. “You mean that’s it? We’re out of time?”

“Looks that way. But you get off easy. I’m the one who’s losing my bonus pay. We’ll have another shot at Mr. John Wayne Wannabe tomorrow night.”

“No, no, no!” I grab Gato’s coat and shake my head back and forth so violently I’m amazed it doesn’t fall off. “I can’t have this dream again! How many nights is it going to take? What if it never stops? You have to get him tonight!”

Only when I stop screaming do I hear the dead-tree cackle of the man in the cowboy hat. No jingle jangle this time; he’s just there, standing behind us. His blade catches the light from Gato’s pocket watch as he whittles at a pink lump in his hand.

“Mmmmm, this ‘un came out nice. Whittled ‘er jus’ for you, boy. Thought ya might ‘preciate it.” The nightmare tosses the lump toward me and it lands skittering at my feet. It’s a doll, carved out of flesh, and I recognize the features as well as the muffled voice coming out of it as belonging to Joan, my high school crush. I pick her up and clasp her in my hands. She’s quivering, and warm to the touch.

Gato’s eyes and mouth are wide with disbelief. “What the hell are you? How did you find this place?”

The man in the cowboy hat squints intently, as if gazing at a sunset in another dimension. “Maybe we’re not so different, you an’ me. After all, even a dream can have dreams.”

Just then I hear a snap and Gato is in the air. In one hand he holds the golden pocket watch and in the other I see a broken branch. Covering the distance fast as lightning, he brings the stake down hard into the nightmare’s eye. In the same split second, the nightmare’s arm flies out with equal speed and ferocity. Behind it trails the flash of steel. Both the nightmare’s eye and Gato’s chest are impaled, but only Gato lets out a cry. He falls heavily against the floor of living wood. The man in the cowboy hat throws his head back and laughs before ripping the branch from his shattered, hollow skull.

There’s a tinkling noise, like a spattering of ice rain as the pocket watch hits the ground and instantly becomes a million sparkling pieces. The light begins to fade.

“Gato!”

I’m at his side in an instant, but thick, arterial blood has already begun to bubble up from his chest. It soaks through his shirt and runs down his sides to collect in pools inside his coat. There’s nothing I can do. My whole body starts to shake.

“Kid–”

His voice is so faint, I think I’m imagining it at first. But his lips are moving, ever so slightly. Blood has painted them a morbid red. The words themselves seem to cause him pain.

“Can you hear me, kid? You still have a chance of taking this guy out. But you’ve got to concentrate…”

“Concentrate? I don’t understand.”

“Even if we’re not in your dream now, you’re still dreaming — this is all a dream — just concentrate on that.” He takes the handle of the black and white knife in his hands and, before I have time to look away, he rips it out. “Here, you’ll need this –” he tells me, offering the gory blade. Blood oozes between my fingers as I take it from him. He tries to say something more, but all he can manage is a low groan.

With sadistic pleasure, the nightmare approaches us. I try to stand, but my legs won’t move. The roots from the floor are coiled thick around my feet. As soon as I realize this, branches lash out from the wall like whips, seizing my arms.

“I reckon it’s about time to end this,” says the man in the cowboy hat. From the hole in the side of his head, something black and wet begins to emerge. It looks like a spider, with a single fist-sized orb for a body and dozens of jointed legs, each as long as one of mine. I know at once that this is the true body of my nightmare. I’ve never seen it before, but it has been with me all along, growing in the darkest cellars of my mind. The creature moves with the cunning of a predator, climbing patiently down the outside of its shell, dripping whiskey like a yolk.

“I’m not afraid of you,” I say, not meaning a word. “Every night you’ve chopped me up and turned me into one of your dolls. And every night I wake up and it’s just a dream. What else do you think you can do to me?”

The nightmare speaks through the mouth of the hollow man. “Ya still don’t git it, do ya? This ain’t about jus’ some bad dream yer havin’, boy. I’ve been trapped here in this insane hell since long ‘afore you were born. Ya can’t possibly imagine it. Ya forget who ya are. Ya forget what it’s like to live. But at last, after all these god-forsaken years, I’ve found a way out.”

“What’s that?” I ask, barely able to find my own voice.

In the rapidly diminishing light, I can just make out the smile coming from the man in the cowboy hat. “That’s where you come in,” he says. And then the creature is upon me. I can only wait in perfect, feeble horror as it pries open my mouth and begins to descend inside. It has an overwhelmingly vile taste, like sour milk or rotten eggs. Soon I feel its tendrils reaching deep into my throat, forcing me to swallow it. White lights burst before my eyes as my body cries for air. I’ve already abandoned hope when a tiny flash of silver changes everything. A string, just like the ones attached to Gato and me, is hanging out of my mouth.

Realization hits me like a slap in the face. That’s what Gato was trying to tell me. That’s why he gave me the knife. All I have to do is cut the tether and this will be over. I try biting it, but it’s too thin. And the roots and branches are still wrapped firmly around me, cutting into my ankles and my wrists. There’s only one thing for me to do. I close my eyes.

Clinging to the quivering doll that used to be Joan, I force myself to replace the darkness with pieces of her. Her white teeth showing through her smile, the smooth touch of the pads of her fingers, the shape of her small breasts under her shirt. Like frightened mice, the fragments of memory scuttle about on the border of my consciousness, but one by one I’m able to capture them and hold them in place. And as I do so, I feel myself changing. I can feel every bone in my body stretch outward and upward. I feel cords of young muscle inflating inside my arms and legs. I even feel the tiny hairs scrambling their way eagerly out of newly opened pores in my skin. Ten years of growth go by in less than ten seconds. The wooden bonds break. I scarcely seem in control of the knife as it slices through the silver thread inches from my face.

Instantly, the nightmare is gone, and the man in the cowboy hat disappears like a TV set turning off.

Soon after, the last piece of the glowing pocket watch gives out, leaving me coughing and sputtering in darkness.

Dropping the knife, I feel around the room blindly, searching for Gato. Instead, where his body should be, I find a strange, little hole in the wall, just big enough for me to crawl into. I have to get on my hands and knees to fit inside, and even then it’s a wonder I don’t get stuck. When I come out the other side, I find myself behind the laundry machine in the basement. Automatically, I draw my hand across my lips, pulling away a strand of silk.

Then there’s Gato, standing in the middle of the room; same as before, not a scratch or a drop of blood on him anywhere. I feel like the floor has dropped away beneath my feet. Have I awakened from one nightmare into another? Has this all been a cruel trick played by the man in the cowboy hat?

Gato starts to walk toward me. I back away, my head swimming. Balance leaves me, my knees give out. Reaching desperately for something solid, I find the laundry machine, but even that seems to be swaying in and out as if in some sort of tide.

“Get away from me!” I yell at him. “I don’t want to dream any more. I want to wake up!”

“Relax, Derek, it’s over now,” he says. For the first time, I can hear the soothing sound of sincerity behind his words. He comes around to where I’m standing, takes off his coat, and lays it across my shoulders. Underneath, he has been wearing a simple T-shirt and an old-looking pair of jeans. Now I can make out the outline of his stooping shoulders, his thin and fragile frame.

I stand up and pull myself out of the narrow space between the laundry machine and the wall. “Thank you,” I say, feeling a little foolish. Even after ten years of added height, I’m much too small for his coat, which drags along the floor as I walk.

He squats down so his weary eyes are level with mine. “Don’t mention it, kid. We did it together.”

“Is it really over?”

“See for yourself. You should be in full control now.”

* * *

I cast my eyes around the room for something I can change, coming at last to the grotesque doll in my own hands. Her warmth and familiarity, however warped, have been comforting, but I can no longer bear to see Joan in such a form. This time it takes only a single thought to alter the dream. I make her into a heap of sand, which flows between my fingers grain by grain, and fades away before reaching the ground. Then I turn my gaze on the rest of the room, deconstructing everything in the same way. The laundry machine, the ironing board, the clothes on the hangers, the little hole, the spiders, their webs, the door, the windows, the walls — the whole house evaporates in a cloud of golden sand. In its place, I leave a wide expanse of rolling, green hills. I put the sun high in the clear sky and summon a cool breeze to blow against our cheeks.

The beginning of a true smile comes to Gato’s face. “That’s pretty good, kid. Couldn’t have imagined it better myself.”

“But I don’t understand. Why is it so much easier to do this now? What was stopping us from being in control before?”

Gato sighs. “I could give you many different reasons. For one, it’s never easy to pull yourself out of a nightmare. Otherwise, I’d be out of a job. And it isn’t easy for me to remain lucid, either, because I’ve got to do it from inside someone else’s head. See what I’m saying?”

“I think so.”

“But you’re absolutely right, Derek. It shouldn’t have been as hard as it was for us tonight. I mean, I’ve fought some tough nightmares before, but they never gave me a whooping quite like yours did. It was like he was the one in control, not us.” While I struggle to comprehend what he’s saying, he continues. “Which is why I don’t think he was a nightmare at all. At least not originally.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, this is just a theory, kid, and a pretty far-fetched one at that — but I think the man we met tonight was another nightmare hunter. And not any nightmare hunter, but the original. Mind you, no one knows for sure if he’s real, but there are stories of a man — a freelancer — who went from dream to dream, taking care of people’s nightmares long before any of the companies were around. He didn’t ask for anything in return, just did it because he was a good Samaritan or some kind of saint. And they say he dressed himself up like a cowboy, and talked like one, too. Guess it was all part of his persona — his shtick.”

With my attention on Gato, the world I’ve created has taken on a life of its own. The breeze becomes a full-fledged gust, sending ripples through the fabric of Gato’s coat, which now, oddly, seems to fit me. I watch as the wind dips low to rush over the blades of grass, leaving shimmering paths that soon vanish in the distant hills.

“If he was such a saint, why would he come to my dreams every night to turn me and all my friends into disgusting dolls?”

“Like I said, it’s just a theory,” says Gato. “Some German philosopher — I don’t remember his name — once said, ‘When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you,’ or something like that. Point is, if you devote your whole life to chasing monsters, you run the risk of becoming one yourself.”

“You mean, after hunting nightmares for so long, he just went crazy?”

“Hey, you never know. Personally, I wouldn’t blame him. You see some of the horrible things I’ve seen in this job — well, it takes its toll. And you know what, kid? I’ve had enough. I’m glad I was able to help you overcome your nightmare and, in some way, I’d like to think he’s better off, whoever he was. But when I wake up, first thing I’m going to do is turn in my resignation papers.”

We take in the field and the sun together in silence for some time before saying our good-byes. And then Gato just stops being there. Everything is perfectly quiet. I decide to kill time before morning by experimenting with my new-found power. Simply because I will it to, a tree bursts up out of the ground, full-grown, its fat branches billowing with leaves. Then another one obediently rises from the earth. By the time I’ve finished the third, I notice I’m no longer alone. The man with the elephant head is standing beside me, waiting.

“What do you want?” I ask, somewhat startled.

“I’m here to make you an offer,” says the elephant man. “It seems we’re in need of a replacement.”

*

About the Author: Jude Coulter-Pultz is, on the surface, a college English teacher in Japan, on the outskirts of Tokyo, but whose real abode is in the crumbling fortress of the mind, on the outskirts of Sanity.  That is where Jude weaves new worlds out of dreamstuff, which gathers there in the corners, like cobwebs. No kidding.
Story copyright 2009 Jude Coulter-Pultz pvcnav@gmail.com

About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago likes making pictures.
Illustration (c) 2009 by Romeo Esparrago

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One Comment on “‘The Man in the Cowboy Hat’ by Jude Coulter-Pultz”

  1. >Making it up as I go along | A Mighty Pen Says:

    […] Coulter-Pultz, the editor of Eight Clouds, is a fine author himself. I recommend reading “The Man in the Cowboy Hat” and “A Park Bench on Death Row”. Both are great stories founded on clever ideas I wish I […]


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