After I fled the hospital, the most important thing in my world was to get away from people.
I took my shape from the memories and fears of the sleeper whose dreams I lurked in. The problem was that in dreams I was only seen by one person at a time. In the waking world, all of the sleepers could see me at once and everyone who saw me projected an image for me to conform to.
I was the villain of a horror film, I was a disapproving parent, I was a dead child, I was so many things at once that I could feel the fragments of memory whirling inside me like a tornado of glass.
It wasn’t until I struck the water that I noticed I’d ran right off the side of a bridge. As the cold and the dark swallowed me up I felt the mass of stolen identities washing away until I was left with only myself and the necklace the Nightmare Queen gave me.
I felt my shoulders touch down onto the silt at the river’s bottom before it occurred to me that since I wasn’t a shadow anymore, physical effects might be dangerous for me. Or more precisely, I felt a stab of fear at the thought ‘what if I drown?’
Two things worked in my favor there. First, the river wasn’t very deep. Swimming back up to the surface was doable but still difficult because it was the first time I’d been immersed in real water and all I had to draw on were the hazy fragments of memory I’d kept from the rush of people I’d been.
The second thing that saved me was that the river’s current was reasonably strong. By the time I surfaced, I’d been swept far enough from the bridge that the people who saw me plunge over the edge couldn’t see me pop back up into the air.
So no new rush of foreign identities. Which was good. One more inflicted change and letting the water claim me wasn’t going to be something I’d be able to fight.
“It’s curious how the people who are so eager to hurl themselves into me are so grateful when I give them up. But then I suppose I have to ask, are you a person?”
The river was speaking to me. Not a fish person. Not a person in the river. The river itself.
“Umm, yes, I think so, who are you?”
Nightmare’s aren’t supposed to be confused or at a loss for words. We embody the fears that plague a sleeper’s mind. We give form to the terrors they’re grappling with. It makes our lives, such as they are, pretty simple. From the memories of the forms we wear, we have a general outline for how we’re supposed to act. We know what we need to know to be who or what we are representing and from there it’s just a matter reacting to what the sleeper does. If they run, we chase them. If they breakdown, we swallow them up. If they turn to face us, we rise up to show them what their fear really looks like. Sometimes that breaks them, sometimes they wake, and sometimes we wither under the glare of their new found courage. No matter what happens though, our role and the path we have to walk to follow it are clear.
Trapped in the embrace of a night darkened current of water seemed like the opposite of that. Nothing was clear. Not the water, not what I was supposed to be doing, and not even what I really was.
“I am the water that surrounds you, I am flowing, changing, and unbindable. Names are given to me, but they can never hold me,” the river said.
“Is there anything you’d like to be called?” I asked. “Not to constrain you but just so you’ll know when I’m speaking of you rather than someone else?”
“You would call to me?” the river asked.
“You saved me,” I said. “I’d at least like to be able to thank you.”
“I did not change my movements for you though,” the river said.
“You didn’t need to,” I said. “Just being who you are was enough.”
“It has been a long time since anyone has considered me enough as I was. That is all the thanks I would ask for,” the river said. “You may call for me as Willowbrook though. There was once a Willow on my banks. I enjoyed speaking with them and being remembered as part of their history.”
“Thank you Willowbrook,” I said. “Is it ok if I rest here, within you, for a while?”
“You do me no harm floating in my waters,” Willowbrook said. “It is unusual to find a human that wishes to spend time with me in this season though. Will it be ok for you?”
“I’m not precisely human, ” I said. “So maybe?”
“You appear as a human but there is something I unfamiliar about you,” Willowbrook said.
“I’m a Nightmare,” I said. “Or I was. I’m not exactly sure what I am now.”
“I see. The nightmares of humans are very different from the ones I find in the depths of my dreams,” Willowbrook said.
“River’s have nightmare’s too?” I asked. Despite having been a creature of dreams, I was far from knowing everything about them. The Nightmare Queen herself claimed that the extents of the dreaming world were unknowable. So it wasn’t a surprise to discover that there were other varieties of nightmares out there but it did make me wonder how many of them had ever done what I did.
The idea that I was unique seemed absurd, and if that was true, then there were others in the waking world, somewhere, who were like me.
That thought hit me like a gong being struck by a hammer the size of a mountain.
I had to find them. The other Nightmares. The one’s who would know how to survive in the waking world.
“Yes, would you like to meet them?” Willowbrook asked.
“More than anything you can imagine,” I said.