Walking towards the hospital filled me a sense of irony. I was returning, slowly and painfully, to a place I’d run away from. I’d fled because of how much it hurt to be there, and yet returning was much less pleasant in terms of overall the aches and pain I had to endure as I walked. Despite that, I expected to feel better once I got there, even though I had no intention of letting anyone tend to my wounds if I managed to arrive in one mostly functioning piece.
The bit I found myself chuckling at the most though was what a relief even the pain was. In dreams, I could remember people growing occasionally lucid and taking strength from the knowledge that the suffering they experienced wasn’t real. That it was just a nightmare and that I would fade away from them.
Walking down the street, I counted the concrete slabs that made up the sidewalk and breathed in the crisp, early morning air, until my ribs ached from the damage the Fisherman had done. The world didn’t bend around me. I didn’t lose track of where I was, or the people that were starting to walk by me as they began their days. The suffering that came with each step wasn’t an illusion, it wasn’t going to blow away on its own, and that comforted me as little else could have.
I wasn’t a fan of the pain, but the sense of solidity, of the realness of the grey sky above me and the black iron fending beside me, I was able to draw strength from those. It sucked to feel so weak, but overcoming that weakness, step-by-step, let me suture together wounds in my spirit that had been bleeding out something more precious than any blood I could have lost.
By the time I arrived at the hospital’s doors, I felt human. It was a novel feeling. I kind of liked it but I still had the sense that I was missing something important.
The lost bits of myself weren’t in the hospital. I knew that. The cold white building offered very little to me. Only a small, fleeting chance to say thank you to someone who deserved it. To do that though there were walls of awkwardness to get past that felt like they were a mile high.
It had been so many hours that I didn’t have any reason to think Penny might still be in hospital. With the day just beginning she was probably back home, getting ready for school or already heading to it.
I kept telling myself that, so my hopes wouldn’t be dashed when she wasn’t easily accessible in the room where I’d last left her.
I’d run in a panic, so the path back to the coma ward wasn’t one I could trace from memory. Walking forward at a purposeful pace and looking distracted though let me wander down a lot of hospital’s shiny, bright corridors without anyone stopping me to ask difficult questions like “why are you here?” or “who are you looking for?”.
I searched for about a half hour before I found the right wing, then the right floor and then the right room.
I wasn’t sure as I approached my destination if I’d found the correct spot but once I got there I knew it was the right place.
Penny was waiting for me.
And so were a number of other people.
“I win,” Betty, the goblin girl, said.
Wordlessly Rosie, the enchanter, passed a ten dollar bill over to her.
“Welcome back,” Penny said.
“You…expected me?” I asked. “Wait, who are you waiting for?”
“You, Nan,” Penny said.
“They weren’t sure if you coming to see us, or if you’d left something else here,” Heather, the ghost girl, said.
I didn’t so much sit down into the empty chair that had been pulled up beside Heather’s bed as tumble backwards into it.
“How did you know?” I asked. “I mean that I was coming back. Or that I’m even me! I looked kind of different the last time I left here.”
“Yeah, we’re used to people looking different on occasion,” Betty said, allowing her disguise spell to flicker away revealing her goblin heritage.
“I have to confess I’ve been spying on you too,” Heather said.
“Spying?” I asked. They all seemed happy to see me, which was so unexpected I was having problems processing anything else they were saying.
Heather sank back into her bed and let her eyes close.
Then she tapped me on the shoulder, from behind.
“Spying,” she said, as I turned to see a translucent form floating there.
“You’re a ghost,” I said, not surprised at all. I was a nightmare, we’re used to ghosts appearing in unexpected places.
Heather’s ghost faded away and she opened her physical eyes.
“When I need to be,” she said.
“We were going to try to find you but by the time things cleared up here you were already heading back towards us,” Penny said.
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“You passed through me when you moved out of the Dreamlit world,” Heather said. “I know you’re not a dream anymore, but there was still enough of a connection there that I could tell where you were. With a little help from Penny.”
“Why were you looking for me at all though?” I asked.
“In case you needed us,” Penny said.
“This world’s a lot scarier than dreams,” Heather said.
“It’s not kind,” Betty said.
“Or fair,” Rosie said.
“But we can be,” Penny said. “I chased you to the bridge, but I couldn’t jump in after you.”
“She wanted to race home and put together a spell to find you, but I kind of messed that up,” Heather said.
“You didn’t mess anything up,” Penny said. “And you were the one who found Nan.”
“It’s more like Nan found us,” Rosie said.
“Which we’re not ungrateful for,” Betty said. “I am curious what brought you back though?”
“I wanted to let you know I was ok,” I said. “I know I left kind of badly.”
“It looked like you were flying to pieces, almost literally,” Penny said.
“I was, that’s why I had to get away,” I said.
“You seem to have that under control now though?” Penny asked.
“Sort of,” I said.
“Is that why you’re bleeding?” Betty asked.
“Bleeding?” Rosie asked.
“Yeah, like there was a pack of aggravated piranha waiting in the river,” Betty said. “Smells like lots of little cuts. Maybe not gushing blood or anything but that’s got gotta hurt like hell right?”
“It’s not all that pleasant,” I admitted.
“Did someone do this to you?” Penny asked.
“Yeah,” I said and explained my encounters since I left the hospital.
By the time I was done the happy smiles in the room had turned universally to frowns and I felt a wave of fear that I’d done something to offend them.
“So this Fisherman you encountered,” Penny asked. “Could you identify him if you saw him again?”
“Probably,” I said. “He kind of left an impression.”
The look of malevolent delight on Penny’s face was both unexpected and reassuring. I knew horrible things, I felt comfortable around them and whatever Penny had in mind for the Fisherman was something I was sure I would be right at home with.
“Let’s introduce him to Grandma,” she said.