Getting back to the waking world wasn’t easy, but I guess that’s often true for people who are used to living in dreams.
I followed the Dry River’s bed to its end in a stinking swamp, which turned out to be another River Nightmare. The Swamp offered the same advice the Dry River did, but I was able to explain how the peace I needed was different from the one they had found.
I wasn’t sure if the Swamp understood me, but they accepted my words anyways and directed me to one of the streams that fed it, which turned out to be a passage back to the waking world.
It wasn’t a long swim to return to the world I’d left, but stepping onto the banks of the stream and feeling solid, real ground under my feet was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever experienced. Things had not gone well the last time I was here and I didn’t have any answers for how to make them better this time around.
The stream wasn’t a one way passage though. It’s current was slow enough that I could step back into the liminal world where the River Nightmares dwelled and having that as an option made moving forward a tiny bit easier.
Then it got a lot harder.
“Well look at that, didn’t think I’d catch anything at all tonight and then you just come walking right up out of the water as easy as you please.”
The speaker was a man in full fishing tackle. Hat with flyhooks, armpit high waders, the whole works.
I froze in place and gritted my teeth against the change that was going to come over me. And waited. And waited.
“You look like you’re expecting to turn into jello or something,” the fisherman said.
I drew in a slow breath, looking him over and trying to understand what was happening.
“Ah, a Nightmare,” the fisherman said. “That explains things. Don’t worry, I’m not afraid of you. I’m not afraid of anything.”
Which explained my lack of shifting. I couldn’t turn into a hidden fear if he did have any.
“How do you know what I am?” I asked him.
“Seen your kind before,” the fisherman said. “Pretty pathetic bunch in you ask me.”
“Where are they now?” I asked. The River Nightmare’s path wasn’t one that worked for me, but human Nightmare’s might have something else I could learn from.
“Out there somewhere I guess,” the fisherman said. “Leading whatever sad, normal lives they could find.”
“How are they leading normal lives?” I asked. “Don’t they have to stay hidden away all the time?”
“That’s a problem a lot of them had,” the fisherman said. “Too connected to the people around them. Drove some of them mad.”
“What happened to them? The ones that went mad?” I asked.
“I can’t say for sure,” the fisherman said. “They’re gone. That’s for certain. And I don’t think they left of their own choosing. Seemed more like something or someone made them leave. Maybe pulled them back to where they came from, or maybe killed them. I don’t know if there’s much of a difference there really.”
“What about the other, the ones that didn’t go mad?” I asked.
“They’re still around I guess, those that didn’t live out their lives already,” the fisherman said.
“How many Nightmares have you met?” I asked.
“Over the years? Quite a few. Not all of them, for sure. Plenty out there that don’t swim by my nets,” he said.
“You fish for Nightmares?” I asked.
“I fish for all sorts of things,” he said. “Anything from beyond this world, I try to sweep it up.”
“Why?” I asked.
“No sense letting trash go to waste,” the fisherman said.
“Nightmare’s are trash to you?” I asked.
“Well they’re sure not worth much on their own,” the fisherman said. “Look at you for example. You’re a soaking mess. Bet you pitched yourself in that stream because being around humans was just too much and you wanted to end it all right?”
He was wrong on both counts, but only because I’d fallen in by accident and I’d been lucky enough to fall into Willowbrook. If I’d been surrounded by people any longer I might have lost what little bits of myself I was able to hang onto and done something really stupid.
“I don’t think I’m trash,” I said.
“Didn’t say you were,” the fisherman said. “Said Nightmares are trash. You’re about ready to become something more though it looks like.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’ve seen it all the time,” the fisherman said. “Nightmare’s get to a state like the one you’re in and they either fall apart and go mad, or they leave all their mystical mumbo jumbo behind and step into the world as real people.”
“What? How do they do that?” I asked, stunned at the idea that I could become a normal human somehow.
“I help them sometimes,” the fisherman said. “I’m used to catching up junk and I know a thing or two about untying knots that are binding things together that you don’t want tied up anymore.”
“What do you have to do to take the Nightmare out of someone?” I asked. “Does it hurt?”
“Not at all,” the fisherman said. “Few little pinches and they say it’s the best they’ve ever felt afterwards.”
“Can you do that for any Nightmare?” I asked.
“I can do it for you, if that’s what you’re asking,” the fisherman said. “But you’d need to say please.”
“Yeah, ask nicely now and I might be able to help you out,” the fisherman said. “If you don’t want to that’s fine too. This streams all fished out for the night, so I’ll be moving on and trouble you no more.”
“Wait!” I said. “Ok, so you can make me normal right? Please, do that if you can, take away the Nightmare part of me and make a normal human.”
“Well, since you asked so nicely,” the fisherman said, and reached out to take my hand.
It was more than a few pinches. It was agony. Hooks ripped through every part of my body, stretching and pulling away everything that I was.
I screamed at some point and hit the ground on the side of the river bank hard.
When I looked up, the fisherman was gone, and I was alone.
I held a trembling hand up to my face and saw coppery skin illuminated in the moonlight. I was human, fully human as far as I could tell, but I couldn’t stop trembling. The hooks had taken more than the Nightmare away, they’d taken parts of me with them.