The River Nightmare’s grit took me down into a long and silent place. I wasn’t dreaming. I wasn’t asleep. I was myself, held in a single moment that stretched on and on.
I had the sense of waiting without the accompanying dread of anticipation that permeated the dreams I was used to living in. It should have been weird, or scary, or delightful, but it wasn’t any of those things. It just was.
This was a life I could have. The sense of of it crept through me. Calm, quiet, peaceful. It was all the things that the River Nightmare had promised. It just wasn’t what I wanted.
I was myself and only myself, but alone I wasn’t really anyone at all.
The things I wanted? I wasn’t even fully sure what they were. I knew what I didn’t want. I was defined by that. “Not a Nightmare”. Nan. My name was as much about who I wasn’t as who I was.
And who I was didn’t seem as important as who I was going to be.
I was so used to changing, every moment, flipping from the image of one thing to the image of another. Those were all masks though, as quickly removed as they were put on. Each face held a glimmer that felt right, that felt like a real part of the me.
Which was amusing of course. I was a nightmare. No part of me was real. That was the point. I was supposed to let other people see what scared them without actually being that thing.
Nightmares are frightening but ultimately we’re also safe.
I could chase people in their dreams, but never catch them. Or if I caught them, never kill them. Or if I killed them, they would wake or the dream would change and I would chase their ghost instead.
Whatever path their dream took though, they would always wake from it with no marks from my teeth, no wounds from my knives, and nothing missing or lost at all. Because I didn’t exist.
But if I didn’t exist, then what called to me in the masks that I wore? If I wasn’t real, why had I tried so hard to stay behind when the other Nightmares were drawn back through the portal to the dreaming? Why was it so important to me that I not fade away, not forget and be forgotten until the next sleeper needed me?
I’d dared the wrath of the Nightmare Queen for a chance at being real. What was in me that I couldn’t just be a normal nightmare and flow in and out of the sea of the unreal like I was supposed to?
I was asking the wrong questions.
It didn’t matter why I was different. What mattered was deciding where that was going to take me.
I couldn’t stay where I was. The Dry River’s path was not mine. Willowbrook had said that rivers knew all of themselves at once, from their beginning to their end and everything within them.
I wasn’t like that. I was a mystery to everyone, including myself, and I couldn’t explore that mystery if I stood still in a timeless moment. There was so much out there that I hadn’t seen or experienced.
I was safe so long as I was unchanging. So long as I let time flow around me but kept myself apart from it. With the world out there, I could stay isolated and unaffected by the chaos and the noise and the pain that was a part of being real. I could be safe but that safety was as crushing as a tomb. So I had to leave safety behind.
Except that was a lot easier said than done.
I tried to call to the Dry River, but speech needs time to pass to be heard.
I tried to drop the withered leaf the Dry River had given me but gravity needs time to pass to pull things away from us.
“I don’t want this,” I said to myself, the thought beginning and ending as a single whole to fit into the space I had to work in.
What I wanted made very little difference to what was though. Wishes and dreams didn’t change the world, they could only inspire people to change the world.
“I want to change,” I said, again forming the whole thought as one.
In one of my hands I felt necklace the Nightmare Queen had given me.
I could break it. I could invoke its curse and change myself back into the pure Nightmare I’d been before. I would sink into oblivion for a time and emerge free of the prison of tranquility I was trapped in.
Losing what little self I’d gathered together in order to save myself was clearly a terrible idea, but thinking of the necklace did lead me to another thought.
I was a Nightmare.
And a person.
Wild and without form, but also solid and present. Real and Unreal.
That was who I was, but the Dry River’s leaf was holding me into being just one thing. A person, but unchanging. Alive, but more inert than the dead.
I’d been so unreal before, so ephemeral, and while I didn’t want to go back to that, I also couldn’t deny that it was a part of me and that there were some good aspects to it as well.
“I want to be different,” I said, embracing the memory of the dream that I’d been.
The leaf dropped from my hand and time rushed in on me.
I was a shadow once more, but with the kind of sharply defined lines that no real absence of light could ever possess.
“You are no longer at peace?” the Dry River said.
“I have a different kind of peace to find,” I said. “Thank you for showing me yours, I think I needed to see it.”
“Where will you go next?” the Dry River asked.
“Back to the waking world,” I said.
“But it will tear you apart, won’t it?” the Dry River asked.
“I think it tears everyone apart,” I said. “The trick seems to be working out how to put yourself back together in new shapes until you find the right one.”