I drifted down Willowbrook’s waters, allowing the river to steer me where I needed to go.
“So what are river Nightmare’s like?” I asked.
“They will seem strange to you I think,” Willowbrook said.
“Have any crossed out of dreams like I have?”
That was the critical question. Going back to dreams would keep me safe from the crushing pressure of acting as everyone’s hidden fears, but I could never maintain a constant identity in dreams.
“It’s more common than it is for the dreams of humanity that you embody,” Willowbrook said, “My domain is not like the human domain though. We are closer to our dreams than they are I believe.”
“So your Nightmares have an easier time crossing over and coexisting? I guess it helps that you don’t mix with other rivers very much.”
“I mix with all the waters of the Earth,” Willowbrook said. “But we do not gather with the same immediacy or numbers than your humans do.”
“Is it lonely?” I asked. I may have been the first Nightmare ever to conceive of that idea but I’d learned things watching people’s dreams. Some of the worst ones involved nothing more than emptiness and abandonment. From children dreaming of being lost in a crowd to adults drifting in an empty world where those they loved had passed away, those were the sorts of nightmare I liked being part of the least. The empty dreams reminded me too much of what it was like to be a Nightmare.
“If I hadn’t spoken with the ghosts of those who drowned in my waters I would not know what that word meant,” Willowbrook said. “We rivers are all connected. We cannot be lonely. Even though our waters may only touch when we reach the great ocean, or when we join to form a new, grander river, we always have a connection to each other.”
“What about the rivers that are far away though. The ones that run into different oceans?” I asked.
“Some rivers I touch through my waters, some I meet in the ocean that we all flow down to, but the others I meet in the clouds,” Willowbrook said.
“There are rivers in the clouds?”
“The clouds are rivers. And lakes and streams and oceans. Just because we change does not take away who we are,” Willowbrook said.
“Being a river sounds nice,” I said. “I’ve changed so much I don’t know who I am anymore. Or even if I ever really was anyone at all.”
“Being a Nightmare sounds nice,” Willowbrook says. “You can question and explore who you are. There is discovery that awaits you. For me, I am my headwaters and my terminus and all the flow in between. I know myself but the price of that is that there is nothing new for me learn about who I am. I change but I can never truly be different than I am.”
“Do you want to?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” Willowbrook said. “When I dream.”
“Good dreams or bad ones?” I asked.
“Both,” Willowbrook said. “Good dreams leave me with longing for that which I am not. Bad dreams leave me with the fear of what I might be. I can only change so much on my own, but at least in my dreams I can see what I might be if I wasn’t what I am now.”
“Most humans don’t seem to like Nightmares,” I said. “I think that was one the reasons I wanted to become something else.”
“Humans do not know themselves as well as I know myself,” Willowbrook. “Their ghosts have told me that facing what was hidden about themselves can be an agony. They also say though that they wished they’d done so before they became ghosts. Apparently as spirits they can see themselves more clearly, but nothing can change as quickly as the living can.”
“Nightmares can, I think,” I said. “I change every time someone so much as looks at me.”
“I wonder if that’s true?” Willowbrook asked.
“It’s what drove me to jump into your waters,” I said.
“Was it changes to who you are, or the need to meet their perceptions of you?” Willowbrook asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel different with each form I take. It’s hard to say what I am when my body changes so often and in so many different ways.”
“I feel different with each bend, and with every shallows or deep pool that I pass over,” Willowbrook said. “They are but parts of me though, elements of the greater whole, as I am an element of the greater whole that is the world. I do not know if it is the same for you, but your spirit does not feel so alien to my own. We are both ever changing and ever bound by our natures.”
“I think I need to figure out how to change into a state that’s bound up closer to who I am,” I said. “Or maybe who I want to be.”
“What a wonderful flow that sounds like,” Willowbrook said. “If you can, come see me as you change, I would like to see the person who you want to become.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I will, if I can. If the Nightmare’s you know can help me, maybe I’ll even be able to visit you without jumping of a bridge in a blind panic.”
“Hopefully you will know soon enough,” Willowbrook said. “We are here. Welcome to the twilight shores.”
I looked around and found that I’d floated to a strange land. It was too solid to be a dream and too alien to be the real world.
From the water I could see hills rolling upwards., each higher than the last, stretching so high that they eventually met the hills from the other side of Willowbrook’s banks in the middle of the sky and formed a long tube at the top of which ran another river that was the mirror inverse of Willowbrook. Each end of the tube was curved down as though I was on the inside of a donut.
“How do I find them?” I asked.
“Step from my water,” Willowbrook said. “They are waiting for you already.”
I did as I was told and found myself on a stretch of dry land that lead to hills that were impossibly far away. A broad channel ran down the center of the land, but nothing filled it except the withered remnants of scrub brush.
I looked around for the person who was supposed to be meeting me, before figuring out my mistake and heading into the channel.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m here to meet the River Nightmares.”
“Hello, we are here to be met,” the dry channel said.
I walked into the the dream of a dead river and felt its presence, both alien and familiar wrap around me.