Staring down at your own body is a deeply disturbing thing to do.
I’d called myself a ghost for a while but it wasn’t until I saw myself laying motionless on a hospital bed that I was able to absorb the full impact of what that meant.
I wasn’t ok. Something bad had happened to me and rather than fight it or make it better, all I could do was lay there. Still. So still.
I stared at my own chest, waiting, hoping to see it rise. The machines I was connected to weren’t breathing for me, which was good, but also frightening.
I was a ghost. Why in heaven’s name would the idea of dying, or already being dead, be able to bother me?
“Bet you never expected this?” Betty asked.
I could have gotten into my room by walking through the wall. Or just walking down the hallway in the Inbetween instead of in the living world. Penny, Rosie and Betty had come along with me though for moral support. Or mortal support, if I was feeling funny. I thought I didn’t have a heart to have an attack with, but I’d been wrong. I didn’t have a heart in my ghostly body, but there was one pumping slowly within the body on the bed, and it was definitely mine.
“It doesn’t look like there are any nightmare’s here at the moment,” Rosie said. “Which would be weird if the flow hadn’t trickled off the closer we got to this room.”
“Do you feel any different?” Penny asked, laying a corporeal hand on my ghostly one.
“Nope,” I said. “Still freaked out. Which is just so wrong. Since when are the living supposed to scare ghosts. The world’s all backwards today.”
“That’s why I put these bad boys on,” Rosie said, gesturing to a pair of rearview mirrors that she’d mounted on her wheel chair. She had other reasons for wanting ready access to mirrors but something about a race quality wheelchair struck me as just mad enough to break through the strangeness that had swallowed up the world.
“I don’t know what to do next,” I said.
“You’re still connected to your body, right?” Penny asked. “Maybe try to draw on that?”
I didn’t want to. I’d followed the sound of my heart beat when I thought it was some weird magic thing that would lead me to my bones. My bones were harmless. Or I thought they were. My body was different though. If I made it back inside my living body, I could be hurt again. And if I tried and failed that would be so much worse somehow.
“It’ll be ok,” Penny said. “We’ll be with you no matter what happens.”
I don’t make friends that quickly. It was weird to see someone I’d basically just met giving a damn about me. Weird and incredibly comforting.
I reached forward and the moment my ghostly hand made contact with my physical body I felt myself start to fall to pieces.
I was washing away and being pulled forward at the same time. The lights of the room dimmed as I looked around for help, but all I saw was darkness swallowing everything.
And then I was gone.
Except my heart was still beating.
And I wasn’t alone.
Purple fire flickered in the darkness and the room sprang back to life around me.
A woman with a crown of purple flames, and robes so black I couldn’t see them as separate from the shadows, sat at the foot of the hospital bed. I had the sense that she was resting on a throne taller than the highest mountain but she was roughly at my level so that seemed impossible.
In the bed, as before, my body lay. Lit by the weird purple flames it looked like the ghostly one, while my incorporeal form seemed somehow more solid than ever.
Then there was the girl who sat on the other side of the bed.
And looked exactly like me.
“Who are you?” I asked, looking from the one of them to the other.
“I’m you,” my opposite said. “Or the other half of you.”
“What other half?” I asked.
“You are the Heather-Who-Is,” the crowned woman said. “She’s the Heather-Who-Never-Has-Been.”
“What?” I asked, unable to come up with the better question.
“You came in search of nightmares,” the woman said. “Is it any surprise that you wound up in a dream?”
“I’m just asleep now?” I asked.
“We’ve been asleep for a long time,” Other Me said, looking down at the body on the bed.
She turned her gaze to look at me with suspicion and anger. Like I was a threat to her. Except I didn’t see how I could be.
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“That depends greatly on your point of view,” the crowned woman said. “In your case there are some exceptional consequences though.”
I didn’t have to think about that comment all that long.
“The nightmares, the ones that got out into the real world,” I said. “Those are my fault, aren’t they?”
“No,” the crowned woman said. “They’re hers.”
She nodded slightly towards Other Me.
“Am I supposed to stop her?” I asked, and my opposite’s frown deepened.
“You’re going to have to,” Other Me said. “But you don’t have it in you. You ran away after all.”
“I did what now?” I asked.
“Ran away,” Other Me said. “We were supposed to be trapped in this together, but you figured out how to escape, and so it was only me that was stuck with Heather-the-Meat-Bag here.”
“I don’t remember that,” I said, looking to the crowned woman for a denial that Other Me’s words were true.
“It doesn’t matter,” Other Me said. “I do. And if you want to stop the nightmares from getting into your world, you’re going to have to stop me first.”
“Why would you do that though?” I asked.
“Because I’ve been here a long time and they were the only company I had,” she said.
“Why let them go though?” I asked.
“If you love something, set it free right?” she said. “Maybe I’m waiting to see if they’ll come back to me.”
“So I have to fight you because your friends are soul eating monsters?” I asked.
“You don’t have to fight me at all,” Other Me said. “You could just let the nightmares keep coming. There are plenty of people in the world who deserve them.”
And plenty of people who don’t, I thought.
“Is she right?” I asked crowned woman.
“Yes and no,” she said. “It is true that that if nothing changes, nightmares will continue to crossover and become more and more real though.”
“I can’t let that happen,” I said, thinking of houses covered in nightmares and the teeth in the dark that had pursued me relentlessly.
Other Me rose from her seat and walked away from the bed where our body lay. As she did, a halo of light followed her, illuminating not the rest of the hospital room, but the brick and pavement of the street where I’d had my first serious fight.
I’d been nine years old and three of the boys in our grade had been harassing one of my friends. They’d followed us as we walked home, taunting and jeering us right up until the moment I saw tears falling silently down her cheeks.
I’d swung around in a blind rage and broken the leader’s nose with a single punch. With blood flowing everywhere, the boys had run off screaming in terror and I’d felt my anger subside into a malicious pride. Pride that soured when I saw that my friend was crying more than she’d been before.
I hadn’t saved her, I’d just escalated the conflict.
“You’ll oversee this fight?” Other Me asked the crowned woman.
“I oversee everything here,” she said.
I rose and walked into the tableau of the street scene.
“If this is a dream though then none of this is real, right?” I asked.
“This is the Dreamlit World,” the crowned woman said. “It borders both the real and the unreal and what happens here echoes in both.”
“So if she destroys me here?” I asked.
“Then it will be as though you never were,” the crowned woman said.
Her words reverberated with meaning. I tried to puzzle out what she was trying to tell me when Other Me leaped and started swinging.
We went down in a tangle but kicked free of each other and came back to our feet about fifteen feet away.
“I’m the Heather-Who-Never-Has-Been,” Other Me said and shifted into a more focused and formal stance. “Heather never became a martial arts master. So that’s part of who I am. You can’t win this fight.”
She flew at me, ready to hit me a hundred times with every striking surface she had, as I finished translating the crowned woman’s words into the warning they were meant to be.
If I was destroyed in this dream space, it would be as though I never existed. The same had to be true if I destroyed Other Me.
I didn’t fight her.
I couldn’t. There was no way to win if I did that.
Instead I let her pass right through me.
I’m a ghost. We can do that sort of thing.
“Neither of us can win this alone,” I said, reforming on the hood of one of the cars on the imaginary street.
“You have to stop me,” Other Me said, circling around for another angle to strike from.
“We can only do that together,” I said. “Who I Am and Who I’m Not Yet. That’s what our future is made from.”
“You left,” Other Me said, her guard still held high.
“And I will again,” I said. “But when it’s for real, we’ll go together. I promise.”
“Can she do that?” Other Me asked, turning to the crowned woman.
“That’s not the question,” the crowned woman said.
“She’s right,” I said. “It’s not about what I can do.” I extended my hand to her. “It’s about what we can do together.”
She took my hand and I opened my eyes.
My real eyes.