Rufus settled into a plush settee and all their faces turned expectantly towards Rowan, who gaped her maw at them again, crossing her eyes into a horrifying expression. When their gazes remained constant, not even a flicker, she snapped her jaws together again and heaved out a sigh that sounded distinctly like a disaffected teenager.
“Fine,” she said. “Should I begin at my beginning or yours?”
Mara and Rolly looked at each other for a moment.
“Yours,” Mara said.
“Ours,” said Rolly.
They looked at each other again, and Mara laughed a little. “Start wherever you’d like, because honestly I don’t think either will be less interesting than the other and I don’t think we’re going anywhere for a while anyway.”
Bony shoulders shrugged. “Okay, mine then.” She wriggled herself around to get more comfortable, but as she wriggled a strange thing happened. She seemed to fill out her bony frame; the angles of her face became less severe, her head smaller, the cracks in her skin sealing together. As Mara and Rolly watched with increasing fascination, she became a normal looking, very pretty girl of probably fourteen or fifteen.
“So this is what I looked like about a hundred years ago,” she began. “Or, like, twenty probably. I dunno, time gets weird, so it feels like a hundred but it wasn’t.”
Rufus shook his head and smiled. “It wasn’t a hundred years ago, dear, it was seventeen years to be exact.”
“Longer than I was a real girl, then. So, seventeen years ago I looked like this. I know my name has always been Rowan, but some of the other details of my past have grown a little fuzzy. I know I lived with my mom, and my cat Zeus. I don’t really remember my dad. I don’t think anything bad happened to him, I think he just left or they got a divorce or something.”
She shrugged again. “I was never what you would call a happy or well adjusted child. I was, as my mother said, constantly prone to flights of fancy. It wasn’t fancy, though, that’s way too sugary of a word for it.” She paused for a moment, looking very human and sort of sad. “I saw things, all the time, things that weren’t really real. I would have these dreams, these god awful vivid nightmares. Horrid landscapes in lurid colors, with these brutish creatures everywhere. They tore each other apart, literally, they just, flung pieces of each other all over the place, they sprayed blood and guts across the sky like they were trying to paint it. I would wake up sweaty and crying, and fucking terrified. I had no idea then what this place was, I didn’t understand why my dreams always took me there, why I couldn’t ever just sleep and dream of fluffy fucking bunnies and unicorns like a normal kid. Never once did I ever remember a dream that wasn’t in the Nightscape.”
“How old were you when they started?” Rolly asked quietly. He was too familiar with nightmares to not be moved already by her story.
“I don’t really know. I think I first started really remembering them when I was about seven?” She looked to Rufus for confirmation. He nodded.
Mara spoke up. “Wait, how would you know when her nightmares started if she doesn’t?”
“It’s all in the Chronicle, dear. The Dreamer’s Chronicle. There aren’t many full-blooded humans who can or want to visit the Nightscape, and certainly far less who arrive there by accident. When this happens, I know of it immediately.” He held his hand up as Rolly started to speak. “I will tell you all about it, after Rowan’s story time is over.” He gestured for Rowan to continue.
“Okay. Well, so, it got to the point where I would do whatever I could so I wouldn’t fall asleep. My mom would put me to bed, and I’d sneak down to the kitchen and eat sugar and drink coffee, anything I could think of that would help me stay awake. She couldn’t understand why I was so tired all the time. I was doing even worse in school then I had been. Before I had just been bored and I didn’t care, but now I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me, I couldn’t think straight, I could hardly speak a coherent sentence.”
She looked up as Rufus walked over and held out a glass to her, with some sort of dark grey liquid in it and vague wisps of smoke floating from the top. She nodded her thanks.
“Everyone was concerned, confused, I think. I don’t know what the hell they thought. It never crossed my mind to talk about it. It’s not like anyone can help you to not have bad dreams, is what I figured, and I figured that’s all they were. No need to make myself weirder than I already was, and since I’d never heard anyone talk about anything even remotely along the lines of what I was going through, that’s what would happen. They’d think I was depressed or suicidal, or just plain bat-shit crazy. Why wouldn’t they? That’s probably exactly what it seemed like, from their point of view.”
“Then, one morning, when I woke up from a sleep I just couldn’t stop myself from falling into, the nightmares followed me. I was dreaming that I was being chased, that this time the creatures had seen me or scented me spying on them. They had roared their disapproval, spun themselves around, searching for the interloper. They weren’t, any of them, looking right at me so I don’t know how I knew, but I was so scared that I pissed my pants right there and ran for it, just went screaming, pinching myself, telling myself over and over again that it was a dream, wake up you idiot, wake the fuck up!”
She stopped abruptly and looked around. “It’s like it just happened,” she whispered. “I can’t remember what my mom smelled like or if my stupid cat liked having his ears scratched, but those foul disgusting sons of bitches are right there, in high definition.” She sighed. “So, anyway, I wake up and I’m on my living room couch and I really had pissed myself, which was revolting. I was so grateful to be awake and out of there that I didn’t really care too much, I just wanted to take a shower and change my pants. I stand up from the couch and, boom – hanging in mid-air in the middle of the dining room is this giant face, one of their faces. One lopsided eye and one battered eye socket, fangs sticking out over cracked lips, just a hole for a nose, shaped like a shovel. All by itself, one of them, in my house, in the real world.”
“It winked at me, and then it faded away, and I screamed. I screamed and screamed and screamed, until a neighbor broke down my back door and ran into the house. He shook me and called my name, he tried over and over again to find out what was wrong, but I just kept screaming. I heard sirens in the distance, figured they were coming my way, and still I couldn’t stop screaming. I screamed until I finally threw up all over that poor, scared man, and then I passed out.”
“That’s when Rufus came and found me.”