The idea that I was being chased by semi-real nightmares that hungered for the magical flesh of my incorporeal body was somehow an even less pleasant thought than the idea that shadows wanted to eat my mind.
To be accurate, neither was all that appealing, but when I thought I was being chased by shadows, my options seemed pretty obvious; stay in well lit places and run like hell if the shadows started moving when they shouldn’t. Nightmares probably had rules to follow too but I didn’t have the first clue what those might be.
“When I used to have bad dreams, I would just wake up,” I said, rocking back on the bench in front of Grandma Apple’s house. “I don’t get to wake up from this though do I?”
“Weirder things have happened,” Great Gran said. “But you probably want to find some other trick to stay safe. You don’t know any friendly witches by any chance do you?”
“I think I do!” I said and told her about Penny, Rosie and Betty.
“That’s a nice collection of friends you’ve picked up,” she said. “You’ll want to avoid them like the plague for a while though.”
“What? Why?” I asked. “Can’t they help me?”
“Help you? Yes. Save you? No. You’re going to have to do that for yourself I’m afraid,” Great Gran said. “Till then you’ll be a danger to them and anyone else you come across.”
Her words hit me like a spike between the eyes.
“But…but I can’t fight this alone,” I said. Ghosts don’t cry. We don’t have tear ducts and we don’t have pain nerves. That didn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings child, I truly am, but it’s how things are,” she said.
“Where can I go then?” I asked. I wanted to run away. Anywhere, but definitely away from her. The problem though was that for as much as I wanted to flee from what she’d said, I was still more worried about running into the jaws of a nightmare.
“Not a lot of places where you can take shelter from nightmares,” Great Gran said. “Usually you’ve just got to face them.”
“I can’t do that!” I said, tears streaming down my face as I tried to wipe them away.
“Well then, your body might offer some protection,” she said. “It used to do that when you were alive so it should still know how.”
“I don’t remember where my body is though!” I said.
“Of course you do,” she said. “There isn’t a person born who doesn’t hold their body as one of the most important parts of the living world.”
“I don’t think I was anyone important though,” I said.
“I didn’t say that,” Great Gran said. “Your body is important to you, even if it’s important to no one else. Love it or hate it or don’t pay it any mind, it’s still one of the things you’re most connected to in the living world.”
“How does that help me find it though?” I asked.
“Listen for the echo of your heartbeat,” she said.
“I’m dead, I don’t have a heartbeat.”
“That why you’re listening for its echo,” Great Gran said. “The things we do, each breath we take, their ours through all eternity. We claim the moments of our life by living them and whether we mean to or not, we change the world with each one. Listen for the echo of that. Your body remembers things even as it leaves you behind and slowly changes into something new.”
“What should it sound like?” I asked.
“Like a heartbeat, from far away,” she said.
I turned, closed my eyes and listened for what used to be my heartbeat, but I heard only silence and the wind frolicking in the trees above.
“I don’t hear anything,” I said.
“Listen to yourself,” Great Gran said.
“What?” I asked.
“Put your wrist to your ear and listen to yourself,” she said. “You’re ectoplasmic body is shaped from the memory of your living one. Listen to one body and you can hear the other.”
I did what she said, and I still didn’t hear anything. Ghosts don’t have a pulse.
Except when we do.
When I turned away from Grandma Apples’ house I heard the slow beating of a drum. It was soft and impossibly far off, but I felt an electric chill wash over me. I knew that drum. I’d heard it all my life without being aware of it on any conscious level.
“It’s there!” I said, meaning that I could hear it. “It’s there!” I repeated, meaning I knew which direction it was in. Great Gran’s smile told me she’d caught the distinctions in my words.
“Now the trick’s going to be getting there,” she said.
“Will the nightmares be chasing me?” I asked.
“Were they chasing you before?” Great Gran asked.
“Then there’s your answer,” she said.
“I don’t know how to run away from them,” I said.
“Quickly would be good,” Great Gran said. “Unless they’ve gotten a bite of you, they won’t be able to travel in these lands, so it shouldn’t be that hard. Just be careful about not going back to the lands of the living unless you know it’s safe.
“What if they catch me though?” I asked. “Some of them might have taken a bite out of me already.”
“Think happy thoughts,” Great Gran said, she let out a long, easy exhale and I thought she turned a little less substantial. “It takes more than that to keep nightmares away but a good happy thought can make it harder for them to find you.”
“I’m not all that full of happy thoughts,” I said. “Is there anything else I can do.”
“Find someone who can be happy for you, or run very fast,” Great Gran said, fading even more.
“You’re going?” I asked.
“Afraid I must,” she said.
“Where? Can’t you stay?” I asked.
“I need to rest again, and you don’t want to follow me down into the dreams of ghosts. It’s no place for a bright thing like you,” she said.
“I’m not bright though!” I protested, but she was already gone.