(Fiction) To catch a waking nightmare

Mr. Étranger watched her fly into the night. He turned to me.

“Do you know her?” I sniffed. My cheeks were red from running in the cold. I could hear a semi pass on the big freeway down by McDonald’s.

“We were lovers. For a while. You’d better come in. There won’t be much time.”

“With a raven?” I asked.

I walked in and he shut the door. There was flat carpet, the kind that people get when they’re afraid kids will spill stuff on it, and fake wood on the walls. There wasn’t any TV or anything. Just a single bed with a table next to it. And one lamp. There were boxes all around, just like the one with his books in it. Most of them were empty. Everything smelled like old cheese.

“That wasn’t a raven.” He shuffled past me toward the bed, which rested at an angle in the living room. “It was her voice.” He tossed the dagger onto it and laid down. “Ravens and magpies were often used as messengers. They are strong birds, both winged and intelligent.”

I saw the little totem pole on the table. The two pieces at the top were still blank. I looked at the kitchen, which was open to the living area. It didn’t seem like he had any food.

“How come you won’t eat?”

“I did something. Long ago. And I am trying very hard to make amends.”

He closed his eyes and I took a better look at him. He was so skinny I could see the skin of his neck throb with each heartbeat. “Is it working?”

He chuckled. “I won’t ever know.”

I knew what that meant. He had to die.

“Maybe I could help instead.”

He smiled. “You’re a good boy. And I have appreciated your company. More than you know. But you have enough to deal with, I think.” He raised himself up in the bed with a groan. “It’s an apparition. Your secret. A fear-eater. People think it haunts closets and the spaces under our beds, but what it truly haunts is our minds. We simply project our fears into those other places. And it feeds on that.”

He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slow.

“Like a bogeyman?”

“Yes. That’s it exactly.” He was wheezing. I could hear it. “It is a bogeyman.”

I walked to the sink and got him a glass of water. All he had in any of the cupboards was a pack of red plastic cups.

“It will be close,” he said. “Every child it has attacked has been in your neighborhood, near the little forest behind your house.”

The hollow! That was it. That’s where I was when it attacked me. I felt better right away, and I thought maybe I was right to come for help, even though it probably meant Dad would send me away forever and I’d never see him or Mom or Wilson or Sudoku ever again.

“But you cannot sacrifice yourself like you did before.” He took the cup and took a drink. “It is not the creature you knew. It has been feeding. Growing strong.”

“What do I do?”

“It will be powerful. More powerful, I fear, than a child.” He looked at his shaking hands. He shook his head. He laid down. “And no one who can help knows I am here.” He chuckled. “That is why I came.”

“I can do it.”

He closed his eyes. “But you shouldn’t have to. Not by yourself.” He opened them again. “To trap a waking nightmare, you need a dreamcatcher. Have you seen one of those?”

I nodded.

He sat up. “This is a special kind. You will need many things.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you will get them. I have no money. I have given it all away. And your father has fired me.”

“What kind of things?”

He tore a piece of paper from a junk mail flyer on the floor and found a pen and started to draw. I stood next to the table and watched. His hands were shaking so bad.

“A small hoop. As perfectly round as you can make it. Some string to weave and make this pattern. It looks complicated but it’s simple to make. Do you see? Over and under at each of these three points to make nesting triangles, like a funnel.”

I watched. I nodded again.

“Below it you must hang a symbol of the apparition you want to catch, such as a form it likes to take. You also need something shiny, to get its attention. It needs only to look. It is a dream, so one glance is enough to snare it.” He kept drawing with shaking hands. Then he got tired and had to stop. He was so weak. And breathing hard. “But most importantly, you will need a birthstone. To trap it.”

I looked at the pictures he drew in the blank space between the everyday low prices.

He leaned back against the fake wood on the wall. “What month were you born?”

“December,” I said.

“Of course.” He shut his eyes and breathed hard. “Do you know what turquoise looks like? It was prized by Native Americans.”

I didn’t respond. I was staring at the page. I had seen those things. Everything he had drawn. All of them. A ring. String to weave around it. Something shiny.

Everything.

It was the raven’s collection. She had brought me everything I needed to trap the fear-eater, the bogeyman. To thank me for saving her.

I pulled the blue pebble out of my pocket. “Is this it?”

Mr. Étranger froze perfectly still. He stared at the stone in my hand. Then he looked into my eyes. He was still. Then he said something strange. Something I didn’t understand. It was just a whisper.

“Every time I played the flute, you came . . .”

I looked at the picture he drew. I frowned.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I had everything. All of it. But I lost something. My dad took and threw it away.”

“Are you sure you don’t know where it is?” he asked.

I nodded.

“This is very important. Are you certain you aren’t just saying that? Are you certain it is well and truly lost?”

I nodded again. I tried not to cry. The white raven had given me everything I needed to stop the fear-eater, to save Trevor who didn’t say his S’s right, but I wasn’t strong enough to hold onto it all. I let my dad throw the Frisbee away.

I thought Mr. Étranger would be disappointed with me. But he wasn’t. He pointed to a coat hanging near the door. It wasn’t like any coat I had seen.

“Reach into the pocket,” he said.

“But my dad threw it away,” I said.

“Reach into the pocket,” he urged. “If it is truly lost, it will be found.”

I walked to the jacket. It was smoky colored and had big flaps in the front that closed with funny buttons. I reached into the pocket and felt a plastic ring.

I pulled out the Frisbee. It wasn’t a different one. It was the same kid’s size yellow ring with the broken hollow center.

I turned to Mr. Étranger.

“Good boy,” he said with a nod. “Well done.”

I put my arm through the ring like it was a bracelet. I folded the picture he made and put it in my pocket with the pebble. I picked up my backpack. I opened it and pulled out the snacks my dad had packed for me: fruit gummies and peanut butter crackers and a banana. I left them on the table next to the cup of water.

He just watched. “They brought me right to you,” he said, as if it were the most amazing thing he’d never considered.

“Who?” I put my backpack on walked to the door.

“Ólafur . . .” He looked at me intently. “Use the shell, the boundless ocean, as a prison, just as I have shown in the picture. Seal it with the stone. It will try to fill your mind with fear, then devour it whole. You must not succumb. Or you will be lost forever. Do you understand?”

Mr. Étranger had told me how to trap my secret. That meant he thought I could do it. No one had ever thought I could do anything. Not by myself.

“I can do it,” I repeated. “I promise.”

“It will not be so easy. The bogeymen attack children because they are vulnerable and easier to scare. A friend of mine lost his brother to a fear-eater—a young boy, no less brave than you. They are not to be taken lightly.”

I opened the door. He raised a hand in parting, like he was afraid he wasn’t going to see me again. Then he said, “Whatever I have left is yours.” His tattoos were almost gone. There was only one left, right in the middle of his hand: a perfect circle. I thought it had been in two halves before. But now it was whole.

I ran to the hollow. It was getting dark now. Adults were on the street with flashlights. And the police. They were looking for Trevor. I knew if they caught me they would take me to my dad. I hid in some bushes once. Then I ran some more. When I finally got to the woods, it was dark and quiet. I didn’t want to run in the hollow. I was too afraid I would trip, like before. I stopped and pulled the little key chain flashlight out of my backpack, the one I used as a night light when we stayed at my grandma’s. It was LED. It was bright. I decided I didn’t like the hollow anymore. It was too scary. I wished Wilson was with me. And Mr. Étranger. I wished my mom was home and my dad liked me. I wished my secret would go away and never come back. I wished I was strong enough to beat it. Maybe if I beat it, Dad wouldn’t worry so much and I would get to stay.

I walked through the gap in the ring of downed trees. The moon was faint overhead. Everything was so dark. And quiet. I took a deep breath. I could see the slim opening to the basement. Right away I knew it was inside. It had chosen the same place I had. A place adults didn’t know. Someplace dark. Someplace hidden. Someplace close to all the kids in my neighborhood. I looked at that dark hole. There could be anything inside. I walked forward. That’s when I saw something new resting on the dead leaves nearby. It was a dead rat. Someone had skinned it and left it sitting. They had burned a candle to its head, which left little spires like a crown. Above it, they’d folded green twigs back and forth together to make a kind of scaffolding.

And there was a wasp. A big one. As big as three of my fingers. It crawled over the back of the rat, antennae twitching. It saw me. I heard its wings buzz and it flew right at me.

The white raven snatched it from the air. She swooped to a nearby branch and swallowed it in one gulp. But she didn’t call. I think that meant we had to be quiet.

I held my breath.

I made fists.

I put the little flashlight in my mouth and got on all fours and crawled into the hole. I was just small enough.

There were wood stairs. I slid my feet around in front of me and stepped on the first and it creaked. I listened. But there was nothing. It was so dark. Like outer space but without the stars.

And quiet.

I climbed down one step at a time into the basement of the hollow. The stairs creaked as I stepped on them, and dust fell. The staircase ended before it reached the floor, like it had broken off. I had to jump a little ways. I waved my flashlight around. I was shaking. There were lots of dead leaves everywhere and some trash in the corners. Tree roots had grown down from above. Big ones. They twirled like fat snakes sprouting tiny hairs. There were cobwebs everywhere and little crawling insects on the walls like the ones you find when you lift a big rock, like the ones I had fed the raven when it was sick and hiding in the garage at my old house.

I was shaking so bad I could hear my teeth rattle. I slapped my hand over my mouth. I raised my flashlight. And there he was. Trevor. Lit by the round beam from my light. He was so small. I could see his face. His eyes were closed, but they fluttered like he was half awake. His head, arms, and legs jutted from a round, white sac hanging from the exposed roots. It was just like the sac spiders make. Only bigger. Big enough to trap a small boy. And it was throbbing.

The fear-eater had laid eggs. Its young squirmed inside. I looked around but I didn’t see the monster. But I saw my plastic bag a few feet away. I had missed it at first because it looked like any old bit of trash blown in by the wind. I ran to it and set my flashlight down so it pointed up at the dark ceiling. Old webs hung from it like drapes and reflected the light in all directions, and then I didn’t feel so scared. I dumped the raven’s collection on the ground and got to work as fast as I could.

That’s when I heard it. It was like a laugh, but full of snot. And hunger.

My heart beated faster. Don’t be afraid, I told myself. Don’t be afraid.

But it was in there with me. It was close. I looked around. Everything beyond the reach of my little night light was dark. It was somewhere in those corners. How far back did they go? I couldn’t tell.

Then it spoke, like a thousand hissing spiders all talking on top of each other. But there was no sound. It was in my head.

Did you think because you nursed me as a youngling that I would spare you?

“You said you were starving! You said you didn’t want to hurt anybody! You said if I helped, you’d leave everybody alone! You said!” I grabbed the twine and the Frisbee ring. I laid the clips out in a row.

Young minds. So easily scared. So ripe with terror. Like sweet, bulging fruit.

I heard a sound like it was licking its lips.

I have tasted you. And I cannot stop. You saved your little friend. But I was just a worm then, barely more than the young I have begot.

I tried not to think about the squirming things inside the sac in the corner. How many of them were there? Hundreds? Thousands?

But you lied to me! it cursed.

“I did not!”

You tricked me. I needed to feed. But you don’t have fear like the others. You kept me starving. Barely alive! Unable to grow.

“I had nightmares every night!”

A mass of rats exploded from the dark. I turned to look. I couldn’t help myself. They rose up into a two-legged mass. A shape like a mouth opened at the top and spiders spilled out. They rose up and white leeches spilled out. And so it leapfrogged itself, each form changing and disappearing, getting closer. Closer.

I turned back to my work and wrapped the twine faster.

Mosquitoes rose up in a buzzing swarm, so loud I could barely think, and then it was quiet and I saw my mom. I stopped what I was doing. It didn’t look fake. It looked like her. She was in her red work suit. I could smell her, like when she would hug me after school. Laundry detergent and perfume.

“Mom?”

She just stood there looking at me. But her eyes were so cold. Like she didn’t even recognize me. Not at first. And when she did, like she didn’t care. Like I was just someone in her way. Someone she used to know.

“Mommy . . . ?” The corners of my lips turned down. My mouth quivered as I sucked in breath. “Please don’t look at me like that. I won’t be bad anymore. I promise.”

But she just stood there, looking at me. With those eyes. Cold. Uncaring.

She stepped closer. Just looking.

My mom didn’t love me anymore. That’s all I could think. She stood over me and looked down with those eyes, like I should just get out of her way. She was important. She had important things to so. And she didn’t want me. Not anymore. She barely even remembered my name.

She leaned over and reached for my throat and all I could do was cry. I felt her fingers wrap around my neck, nail polish and all. I was losing something. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I knew I was going away somewhere. And I wouldn’t come back. And that would be it. I would be gone.

I couldn’t fight. Not anymore. I was tired. Everyone said I was bad all the time and I was tired of being bad. Maybe I should just sleep. Yes. I would sleep.

But I couldn’t because there was a noise. In the distance.

My mom lifted her head. That meant it wasn’t in my mind. It was real because she heard it, too.

There it was again.

It was my name. Someone was calling my name.

My dad.

My mom turned to face it. She looked worried. And then I knew. It wasn’t her. Not really. She wouldn’t be worried about my dad. It was just a fake. A nightmare. A terrible, awful nightmare. It wasn’t the truth!

My dad yelled my name again. Mr. Étranger must have called him and told him where I was going to be. The sound of his voice carried through the still, cold air of the hollow. He was out there looking for me, calling my name. But he was still so far away. He couldn’t find me.

I pushed my mom, but she was too strong. She snarled and gripped tighter.

But now I knew it was a lie. I remembered that my mom loved me. And as I thought that, I felt the fear-eater’s grip loosen.

So I thought it again. And again.

And again.

I gasped for breath. Then I pushed as hard as I could. I pushed up with my legs and my nightmare fell free. But I stumbled too and knocked over my flashlight. It turned and the leaves blocked the light. It was completely black. I heard the fear-eater hiss and slither and buzz and snarl around me in a circle, but I couldn’t see it. And I couldn’t see my dreamcatcher, the one I had almost finished. The white raven had given me three paper clips, and I had attached them to the ring of the Frisbee at the points of a triangle and used them as anchors as I wrapped the twine back and forth. The rubber spider dangled on one side and the shiny bottle cap on the other. It was almost ready. But now I couldn’t find it!

I began to feel through the leaf litter.

“Oh no . . .”

The fear-eater was swirling, gathering itself again, like a rattlesnake getting ready to strike. It rumbled and hissed and howled and snapped and clawed and stank. I couldn’t hear my dad anymore. I tried to call to him, but my voice was lost in a storm. I felt the earth shake. I saw the sky rip free. And I heard it speak, like the rumble of thunder.

Let me show you the future, boy.

And then it didn’t seem like I was in the hollow anymore. And what I saw made me cry. Babies, skin cracked open like dried earth, right down to the red, were shrieking in nurseries, one after the other. Thousands and thousands of them, all over the world. They had some new kind of disease. It was everywhere. Then I saw rows of coffins draped with flags, filling a runway for a mile as soldiers loaded them onto a row of transport planes, even as more and more were coming. The sky burned above. Deserts spread across the world. Oceans rose. People moved but they didn’t know where to go.

And that was the worst. The faces. So many people. Good people. Ready to give up. Working and working and never making anything better. Still sick. Still poor. Still powerless.

This is what awaits your world. Now that He has risen. In death and despair, there will be so much fear. More than we can drink. We will grow forever and walk like gods among you, feasting for all time!

And then I saw the giants, walking with wings and tentacles through the ruins of a city. Skyscrapers were cracked and frayed like corn husks. Others had fallen to the streets. There was no power. Everything was dark except the smoke in the air. It reflected red as if lit by a big fire far away.

I was supposed to be afraid.

But I wasn’t. Not even a little. Because I knew something no one else in the whole world knew. Not even Mr. Étranger. The stag had told it to me. I knew the word. And I knew that if the Others had given it to us, that meant it wasn’t too late.

I felt my dreamcatcher in the leaves. I raised it. I held the sea shell on the other side. I lifted them high and kicked the litter from my flashlight. The shiny, dangling bottle cap caught the freed beam and the fear-eater shrieked. It wanted to turn, but it had glanced.

And just like that, it was gone.

My waking dream disappeared and the earth over my head returned and the wriggling in the white spider sac stopped. It shriveled. Thousands of unhatched worms, like long, squirming maggots, fell to the ground. They dried up and turned into dead leaves.

Trevor fell, too. He was unconscious. I think.

I looked down at the shell. A little insect, like a stinkbug, was trying to wriggle out. I took the blue pebble out of my pocket and wedged it in the opening to trap the bogeyman. Then I put the shell in my coat and ran to make sure Trevor was breathing. When I saw his chest move, I ran to the stairs and yelled as loud as I could for my dad.


 

I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s scheduled to be released later this summer. You can sign up here to be notified.

You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.

The next chapter is: (not yet posted)

raven

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