When a sleeper awakens, their dreams fade. At best, some impression of us is left behind as a memory, but even those often dwindle away to nothing in the light of day.
I didn’t want to do that. I couldn’t bear to return to formlessness again. That’s why I broke the rules. That’s why when a witch offered me a deal, I took her up on it even though I knew it would destroy me.
“You don’t have to hide back there,” Penny the witch said. “They’re all gone now and I’m not going to hurt you.”
We were in a hospital room. It’s strange the sort of things that you know as a Nightmare. I’d been dreamed up by a girl who was trapped in a coma. Once she woke up though, all the Nightmares she called to Earth had dissipated, drawn back into the great pool of possibility that surrounds all of reality.
All of them except for me.
Thanks a trick of the light and the placement of the monitoring machines in Heather’s room, there was a small patch of shadow which the daylight never touched. It wasn’t much but I crouched down and flattened myself to the point where no part of me stuck out at all.
No one could see me. Not even the Nightmare Queen apparently.
Penny the Witch though was another matter. She seemed to have some kind of connection with shadows, so even though she couldn’t see me, she still knew I was there.
She waited as Heather’s nurses came in, all amazed and joyous. She waited as Heather’s family came in. She waited as Heather was taken away for tests, her family and new friends trailing behind her.
She waited for me.
I think she was worried that I might be a threat to them. I wasn’t though. The only one I was a threat to was myself.
“Do you promise?” I asked. My voice sounded high and soft, like the whisper of an autumn breeze. It surprised me, I’ve had a lot of voices because I’ve been so many things, but this one felt like it fit. At least for a little while.
“I give you my word,” Penny said.
I wasn’t sure how much a witch’s word was worth, or if this particular witch was typical of her kind, but when she pulled the curtains closed to darken the room further I decided to try trusting her.
Stepping out from behind the machines, I tried to appear as plain as I could. Since I only had shadows to work with though I was kind of a terrifying version of “plain”.
“You were very patient there,” Penny said, settling back into one of the hospital chairs. “I thought you might try to sneak out when all the attention was on Heather.”
“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “You were watching.”
“You were afraid of me?” Penny asked.
“No, I was afraid of…” I didn’t want to say her name. Or even her title. The only chance I had of staying in the real world after my sleeper woke up was for the Nightmare Queen to overlook that I was missing.
It wasn’t an impossible for that to happen. I wasn’t an important Nightmare. No one had ever remembered me, and if I was lucky that would remain true for a long time.
“Ah, names have power don’t they?” Penny said, guessing why I was hesitating. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to attract any attention from them on my account. Can you tell me your name though? Mine’s Penny.”
“I don’t have one,” I said. “I’ve never held a form this long before.”
Penny blinked at that.
“It’s not uncommon,” her own shadow said. “Lots of things in the shadows just get lumped together under ‘monster’. “
“Would you like a name?” Penny asked. “I could give you one.”
And that, right there, was the deal I knew I shouldn’t take.
A name, especially a real one, one that someone else knew and would call me by, that was something that I was forbidden to have.
I wasn’t real. I wasn’t a person. I was just a Nightmare. Something that took shape from someone’s fears and showed them what they needed to see to explain why they felt afraid. Once my dreamer woke up, I wasn’t needed anymore and I dissolved, drifting back into nothing more than possibility.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I want a name.”
“Hmm, let’s see, what would be a good one,” she said, looking around the room for inspiration.
“What do you feel like?” her Shadow asked.
“I’m afraid,” I said. “Is that weird? A Nightmare that’s afraid?”
“It’s not weird,” her Shadow said. “Names are a big deal, but there’s a secret to them.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“They’re much less important than you imagine,” Shadow said.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
“It will,” Shadow said.
“What would you like to be called?” Penny asked, giving up on looking around the room and turning back to me.
“I don’t know. Not a Nightmare,” I said.
“Not a Nightmare? How about Nan then?” Penny asked.
“Seriously?” her Shadow asked. “That’s the best that you can do?”
I almost didn’t hear that though. A name, my name, was filling my ears. Filling me. Shadow was wrong. Names were important. Someone knew who I was now. I could be someone real. It felt amazing. It felt wonderful.
And it felt wrong.
With a name I was vulnerable. I’d taken something I wasn’t supposed to take and thanks to that I could be punished like never before. If the Nightmare Queen found me, I would be in more trouble than I could imagine.
But it was too late to get Penny to take the name back. That wasn’t how name’s worked.
“I need a place to hide,” I said, trying to imagine somewhere that the Nightmare Queen wouldn’t be able to find me. She wasn’t like a normal nightmare. She was something much more. They said she could walk in the waking world whenever she wanted to. She didn’t even need a sleeper to dream her into a form. She dreamed herself and could decide what was real and what wasn’t on a whim.
“What do you need to hide from?” Penny asked.
“Me,” the Nightmare Queen said.