My interview with the Nightmare Queen ended like it began. One moment she was there and the next it was like she’d never existed at all.
Except for the necklace she left me. The one that could destroy me.
I hugged it to myself and felt unbelievably safe. I had control over my own fate. Tangible, real control. I wasn’t going to be obliterated by the light. I had permission to exist, even if it was provisional. If I had tear ducts, or real eyes for that matter, I would have cried them out.
“That was….interesting,” Penny said. The squeak in her voice suggested that even her goosebumps had goosebumps. Not an unreasonable reaction to meeting the Queen of Nightmares.
“We’re still here, so I guess that’s a good sign,” Penny’s Shadow said. “I guess the next question is how we’re going to get out of the hospital and where we go next?”
“Yeah, Nan’s going to need somewhere to stay,” Penny said.
“That’s not a problem,” I said. “There’s plenty of dark corners I can hide in.”
“What do you have left to hide from?” Penny asked.
“The daylight,” Penny’s Shadow said. “Right?”
“That and the Nightmare Queen said being what I am would make me a target, so I figure the longer I stay out of sight, the safer I’ll be.”
“There’s just one problem with that,” Penny said, sweeping her gaze up and down.
“What?” I asked, looking up at the ceiling and down to the floor for anything that was ready to jump on me. I was a nightmare. People may not think to look up enough but when your whole job is to be terrifying, you learn to be aware of unconventional ambush routes.
“You’re not a shadow anymore,” Penny said, fixing her gaze right on me.
“What?” I looked at my hands. They were the thick, calloused, hairy paws of Penny’s gym teacher. When I looked up from them, I noticed that the angle I was viewing Penny and her Shadow from was slightly different too. As though I was almost a foot taller than her, rather than about the same height.
Arms, legs, beer belly gut, shoulders, in all the obvious surface details, I was her gym teacher, Mr. Russo.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
But I knew.
I remembered Mr. Russo criticizing Penny’s form during calisthenics. I knew how much she dreaded the fitness trials he put her class through. Even with magic, she couldn’t run fast enough for him, or do enough push ups, or complete any of the tests well enough.
“I don’t know,” Penny said. “But I don’t think hiding you in a dark corner is going to work.”
“We’d be kind of hard pressed to explain why Mr. Russo was going to spend the night in your room too,” her Shadow said.
“I don’t have to stay like this,” I said. “But I am going to have to work something out.”
“We’ll have to work fast,” Penny said. “There will be people coming back to this room in a few minutes.”
“Thank you for your help,” I said. “I don’t want to get you in trouble though, so I’ll just leave.”
“Wait, where are you going to go?” Penny asked as I started to leave the hospital room.
“I’m not a shadow anymore,” I said, “I think I’ll go greet the sunrise for a change instead of hiding from it.”
I meant to sound brave and carefree, so nobody would worry about me. The words that came out sounded much too forced though, and i could see in her expression that Penny didn’t believe a bit of it. She tried to follow me, but the moment I stepped out of the room, I changed again.
I was an old woman, bent over and walking with a cane. Technically I was deceased, or the woman whose image I wore was. Shelly Casternack. She was someone who’d passed away on the floor recently, a coma patient who’d never made it back to consciousness after a heart attack. Several of the nurses felt badly about that, several were haunted by the question of whether they could have done more. I was careful not to let them see my face as I hobbled along.
Penny missed me completely, skipping around me as she tried to find “Mr. Russo”, and I smiled.
I was still a nightmare. I could still take my likeness from the lurking fears in a person’s heart. That complicated my idea of staying hidden, but in the short term is proved useful. Sneaking around as the person who scares anyone they encounter is a tricky thing.
Nightmare’s tend to stand out. We’re, by definition, memorable for the people we draw our likenesses from. All they need to do is catch a clear glimpse of us and adrenaline will ensure that they’re fully aware of what we represent. That reaction works in our favor though, or at least in dreams it does.
Normally people don’t want to see us. Denial is the first line of defense and if we’re not ready to be menacing, it’s a powerful tool for staying unnoticed.
I was hoping the same rule would apply in the waking world, and to a large extent that seemed to be true. I made it out of the coma ward and almost completely out of the hospital just by keeping my head down and thinking about how scared I was of being caught. Even as I switched from form to form, my overall demeanor of harmlessness was enough to support people’s natural desire to deny what they were seeing when they looked at me.
Until I ran into a five year old girl.
I don’t know what made her scream. Maybe it was that she was between me and the door to hospital and I had to keep moving towards her if I was going to get out. Maybe it’s that small children are less adept at denying the impossible. Or maybe whatever brought her to the hospital was so bad that the form I’d taken was the lesser of two scary things.
In the end it didn’t matter. She started screaming, and that was all it took for everyone to look at me.
I ran, but the mass of attention felt like it was tearing me apart. So many different fears and forms fighting to twist me into their shape.
I don’t know what I was when I burst out of the hospital. All I knew was that I had to get away from everyone, and that I’d attracted a lot of attention.