I remember my mother saying I must be psychic because I got chills when people mentioned certain things. It would be little things that struck me out of the blue, but usually they’d turn out to have some meaning later on. Like the time my brother was talking about crashing his red Hot Wheels car into the wall so hard it would explode into a million pieces, and I told him never to joke about it, but I was so serious he started crying and my mother scolded me. An hour later we learned my Aunt was rear-ended by a red sports car, she was ok, but I wasn’t able to sleep that night at all.
Apart from things like that though, I liked the idea of being psychic. Since all I ever got were weird flashes that only seemed meaningful after the fact, it wasn’t something I ever felt like I could count on. When Great Gran mentioned that the kind of things that could hide in shadows were a “real nightmare” though? That sent a chill through me the size of an iceberg.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What kind of nightmares?”
It doesn’t make sense to fidget as a ghost. No body means our actions aren’t much more than pantomimes. Didn’t stop me from running my left hand along my right arm though. Some habits die hard, and some habits just won’t die at all.
“The hungry kind,” Great Gran said. “I’d say you got that part right, but anything with a lot of teeth is going to look pretty hungry I expect.”
She had her hands on her knees, massaging them, and was rocking slowly back and forth on the bench that sat kitty corner to the one I was on.
“How can nightmares be hungry?” I asked. “Dreams aren’t real. I mean they’re dreams right?”
“That’s right,” Great Gran said. “And also not right.”
She glanced over at me, reading my expression I think, or maybe waiting to see if I would interrupt her. I didn’t. She clearly wasn’t done explaining things yet. I was rewarded for that decision with a smile and a small nod before she continued on.
“Dreams aren’t real,” she said. “They can reflect what’s real, they can mimic what’s real, but, in the end, there’s no substance to them. No weight to keep them in the world.”
“Like with ghosts,” I said, after Great Gran paused to see if I was following.
“Oh no, us ghosts are much more real than that,” she said. “We might have misplaced our bodies, but there are still bits of us that were real once. Do you know what makes up a ghost?”
I stopped rubbing my arm and drew in a breath. I knew how I felt, but knowing what I was exactly, or even how things worked for me? I couldn’t claim to have the first clue about that. Not really.
“Ghost aren’t what most people think,” Great Gran said. “We’re not the spirit of the deceased, or we are, but we’re more than that. We’re spirits bound to a shell of ectoplasm rather than muscle and bone.”
“How does that work?” I asked, leaning forward a bit.
“Different ways for different folks,” Great Gran said. “For a lot of people, when they die, their spirit just lights off for parts unknown and unknowable. You ever seen that happen?”
“A couple of times, I think,” I said. “Some of my earliest ghost memories, at least the ones I still have, are from walking around a hospital.”
“Lots of ghosts in hospitals,” Great Gran said. “But not as many as there should be, are there?”
“That’s what it seemed like,” I said. “I saw a bunch of them, but there should have been hundreds or thousands of them there, right?”
“If everyone who died left a ghost?” Great Gran said. She’d stopped her rocking and was leaning back on the bench, her gaze cast towards the stars above us. “Places would be flooded with them. They’re not though because it’s only us lucky foolish few who stick around to see what comes next in the mortal world. For the vast majority of people, death means they get to find out what comes next in the great hereafter.”
“So why do people like us stick around?” I asked.
“I don’t know about you, but for me it was unfinished business,” Great Gran said. “I had a feud going on with another witch, and, well, I let that get the better of me after she got the better of me. For you though I think the story is probably a little different.”
“I can’t remember any of it I’m afraid,” I said.
“You might be better off like that,” Great Gran said. “I was telling you what a ghost is right? We’re ectoplasm bound into a shape with either our own magic or someone else’s. Think of it like making a new body for yourself once the old one wears out, except the new flesh is made of smoke and the nerves are starlight woven throughout it.”
“It sounds like we cast a spell to do it or something,” I said.
“That’s pretty much what happens,” Great Gran said. “Right after we die, after we leave behind the body and the mind that we had on Earth, we decide that we’re not done yet, so we conjure a new form to host our spirits. Very powerful spellcasters can manage to create whole new bodies for themselves, but most of us don’t have that kind of energy, so we work in an easier medium.”
“And that’s what ectoplasm is?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Great Gran said. “And that’s what a Hungry Nightmare is after. See they’re not real, but they can come really close to being real. Close enough that if they can take a bite out of something that’s soft enough, they slip over from being dreams, to being something that’s part of our world.”
“So they didn’t eat my memories?” I asked. “They ate bits of my ghost body?”
“Let’s hope not,” Great Gran said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if they got a taste for you, they’re going to want a whole lot more,” she said.