No matter how unhappy you are with yourself, getting ripped to bits by fishhooks is not how you want to change into a something new.
I collapsed on the bank of the stream and curled into a fetal position. I wanted to be normal, but the price had been far too high. My focus was shattered as my mind searched for all the missing bits of myself that the Fisherman had torn away. I lay there, shivering, crying, and feeling nothing but broken.
Except that I wasn’t.
The Fisherman had ripped me apart, but there were still pieces of me left. Bleeding, uncomfortable pieces, but I could still move. I could still talk. I could still feel.
If there were parts of me missing, that was bad, but there were still parts of me left too. It took me a long while to put together the idea that I didn’t have to lay down and die. I was breathing. I couldn’t run but I could do better than crawl, so I got up and started walking.
I wouldn’t describe my gait as heroic or even steady. I tripped and stumbled more than anyone I’d ever chased in a dream, but despite that I was able to maintain something like a noticeable amount of forward momentum.
I’d lain on the ground long enough for my core temperature to plunge to dangerous levels. I knew that from a fragment of a memory that remained of freezing someone to death. I couldn’t remember the person, or whether they froze in water or snow, but I had the sense that they woke before we got to the always interesting “will they become a ghost or not” bit.
Not that the dream’s resolution was important. All that mattered from it was that I knew I needed to warm up, quickly. I thought of starting a fire. Then I thought of finding a volcano to warm myself beside. Those weren’t helpful thoughts, but in my defense my mind was somewhat scrambled and coherent thought takes a lot of work and energy.
Eventually I settled on “find someplace nearby that’s warm”. It was a good, simple strategy and I clung to it like I was drowning.
Find someplace warm. Find someplace. The words echoed in my head as I walked away from the stream, and down the road beside it. I passed houses that were just starting to awaken. They were warm but there were people in there. Being near people hurt. Worse than being cold. So I couldn’t try the houses.
I passed by a coffee shop, already open and serving people starting their day. Again though, people, so I passed it by.
The gas station that followed and the diner after that. All warm, all filled with people, so I trudged on, feeling more fatigued and more shaky with each step.
Why did I want this?
Why be real when being real meant feeling this kind of confusion and pain? When it meant that people could and would take advantage of you? Hurt you. Cripple you.
Those questions got harder and harder to answer with each step I took.
I still had the necklace in my hands. The one that would end me and bring me back to the Queen of Nightmares.
Or it would if I was still a nightmare. What the necklace would do to whatever was left of me was as much a mystery the rest of my life.
“Excuse me son, could you use a hand?”
I turned to see a priest behind me. He was stooped a bit with age and his face bore the kind of deep lines in his black skin that only decades could put on. His eyes were kind though and his looked at me very differently than the Fisherman had.
“Cold,” I said through chattering teeth.
“I’m just about to open the church up,” he said. “Come inside and get warm if you like.”
He turned and ambled down the small stone path that led to a side entrance to the church I’d been walking beside, clearly assuming I would follow him.
I was halfway to the door when it pierced my wound-addled mind that I hadn’t changed.
I wasn’t whatever he was most afraid of, and that made me afraid.
The last person I hadn’t changed near was the Fisherman and that had turned out so very poorly.
Did priest’s not have fears? Were they protected by their vows? I didn’t think so, but my memories were missing in too many places to be sure.
I hesitated a moment, but the priest only glanced back before putting a key into the door’s lock. He smiled and nodded that it was ok for me to follow and then proceeded inside.
Running away seemed like a good idea. Even if I wasn’t changing anymore, people hurt, and I wasn’t sure how much more hurt I could take.
Being alone hurt too though, and, in the end, I needed warmth.
The inside of the church was still cold, but I could hear the furnace rumbling to life and saw the priest had turned on a small space heater in the office we were in.
“Your clothes look like they’re soaking wet,” the priest said. “We have a donations box I can get you some dry ones from if you like?”
“That would be great,” I said, feeling proud at being able to put that many words together into a sentence.
In the brighter light of the office, I saw the priest look me over, a question flickering behind his eyes.
“I’m sorry if I misspoke earlier,” he said. “What’s your name? Mine’s Father Kendell, but you can call me Mike.”
“Nan,” I said.
“Short for Nancy?” he asked.
“No, just Nan,” I said.
“Let me get you those clothes then,” Father Mike said. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“Just need a little warmth,” I said. “Fell asleep in a bad place.”
“Dry clothes it is then, be right back.”
He was gone for what felt like either several hours or, more likely, a little over a minute.
“We have restrooms just out through that door and to the left,” Father Mike said. “You can get changed there if you want to.”
I took the pile of clothes he offered me and headed off to change. I laughed at the thought when it occurred to me. I’d ‘changed’ into the clothes I was wearing with magic. This would be the first time I’d changed clothes without simply morphing from one form to another.
Strangely, nightmares don’t cover getting dressed all the much. Even “I’m nude on stage” dreams don’t bother undressing the dreamer, they just vanish the clothes right off them.
In the pile Father Mike gave me, there was a plain green T-shirt, blue jeans that looked at least close to my size, a heavy blue sweatshirt with a hood, two pairs of underwear and a bra. I deduced one of the pairs underwear was for girls and the other boys.
As a Nightmare, I didn’t have a gender. I was whatever the sleeper needed me to be. I thought that was due to my supernatural state, but looking at it without any dreaming unreality twisting me around I saw that even as a normal person that was true for me too. Boy? Girl? Neither of those spoke to who I was. I was just me, and that was something the Fisherman hadn’t taken from me.
Both sets of underwear fit and, since that was the warmest option, I put them on and then the rest. I wasn’t sure if it was quite the style or choices I wanted to make long term but I was so cold that the thought of what other people might say or think was impossible to care about.
“Well you look a fine sight better than you did,” Father Mike said when I arrived back in his office. “I can have your old clothes dried if you want?”
“I think burned might be better,” I said. I hadn’t come out of the ‘Stinking Swamp’ dream smelling like roses, even with the swim through the stream to clean off the worst of the odor.
“My dryer will thank you for that,” Father Mike said. “Would you like some food? We’re having our a Pancake Breakfast after the first mass today, but I can make up a batch before then. You know, get the kitchen ready for the rush.”
I’d never had pancakes before. Technically I’d never eaten before, and my stomach rumbled at the thought of food. The hint of a long lost memory told me pancakes would be an excellent first meal and my mouth got the message and started watering in anticipation.
“Thank you,” I said. “That sounds like it would be very nice.”
I smiled. I didn’t know who I was, but, one step at a time, I was starting to figure it out.