The nightmare drifted at the girl’s shoulder as a dark, sinuous coil of mist. As I crossed the room, its eyes followed me, as red and changeable as coals glowing in a grate, and the sharp sting of its malice raked over my skin.
“He won’t hurt you,” said the girl. She sat cross-legged at the head of her bed, unicorn plush cradled in her lap, eyes wide and earnest. “He’s nice.”
The nightmare’s tail lashed, and it curled around the girl’s shoulders. Resting its jaw atop her curls, it bared fangs that dripped with ectoplasmic venom. She giggled, swatting it away.
This was not what I had expected.
Her parents had worried that little Marie’s new imaginary might be somewhat out of the ordinary — not that they could even see their own imaginaries anymore. The mother’s had been a wispy husk of a creature, small, fluffy, and dull. The father’s was so faded as to be barely an outline, drifting listlessly in his wake.
“Seems a bit on the scaly side,” the mother had said, holding out a crayon drawing for my perusal.
A stick figure with yellow squiggle hair stood beside a jagged scrawl of black and green. Red eyes glared up at me from the paper. Between the figures, a pink heart had been drawn with gentle care.
“Not something we’d ever pictured for her.”
“Dark,” agreed the father.
“I mean, with the accident. Her brother…”
“It’s okay.” I had smiled my best professional smile. “I’m here to help.”
I eased myself into the child-size chair, tucking my skirt beneath me with one hand. As an afterthought, I settled my clipboard across my knees and turned my attention to the bizarre cuddle-session in progress.
The nightmare had wrapped around Marie again and again, but its eyes remained locked on me. Nightmare or imaginary, only the ones bonded to them, who believed in them, could hear or touch them, but I sensed this one snarling.
The girl traced patterns along the creature’s skin with one tiny finger, pink nail polish against matte shadow.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“No. Where’s yours?”
“Vets don’t have imaginaries,” I said. At her frown, I explained, “Veterinarians — I don’t know who picked the name. I guess imaginaries are somewhat like pets, right?”
“But why don’t you have one?”
“So we can see other people’s.”
“You can see him?”
She beamed. “Isn’t he great?”
“Question for a question?”
She stuck her tongue out from the gap where front teeth had yet to grow. “Fine.”
“Did you imagine him yourself?”
I had never heard of a child mistaking a nightmare for an imaginary before — they were utterly different, hopes and dreams against doubts and fears. Still, stranger things in heaven and earth…
Marie shook her head, curls bouncing. “Uh-uh. Who do you dream with?”
“I don’t dream. Well, not like you mean. Where’d you find him?”
“Under brother’s bed.” She slumped against her pillows, fingers plucking at her unicorn’s rainbow mane. “I heard him, and I told him I don’t know when brother’s coming back. And I said he could wait with me.” As though she had been holding the question back, she blurted, “You’re not taking him away, are you? Because he is nice! He won’t let monsters get me — they don’t crawl under my bed anymore, or in the closet, and he comes to school and everything. You can’t take him away!”
Tears pooled in her eyes, and the nightmare arched over her like a cobra, snapping at the air.
“Let me talk with your parents,” I said. “I promise, it’ll be okay. I’m here to help.”
The nightmare’s eyes followed me as I fled.
That night, I dreamed of dark scales and glowing red eyes, of the sudden impact of fangs against my throat, and then sunlight through my curtains and sweat drying on my skin and my alarm clock blaring.
In the kitchen, I had just poured myself some coffee when I sensed more than saw the growing gloom in the corner.
Heart pounding, I turned. Floating in a swirling, never-ending ouroboros, Maria’s nightmare glared at me with the intent focus of a raptor observing a mouse.
For one eternal moment, we stared at one another. Swallowing around a tongue as unwieldy as a lump of sand, I mustered my voice.
“I can’t have you removed,” I said.
It did not react, continuing to twist around and around. My hands trembled around my mug, and I concentrated on the warmth against my palms. Anything except that dark corner of my kitchen.
“I can’t force any imaginary to leave — even nightmares. I can recommend therapy, tell whether it’s working. She holds the power here.” I squinted out of the corner of my eye — it seemed less terrifying that way. Nightmares screwed with your head. It could not hurt me, except in my sleep. “Since she’s happy, and you don’t seem to intend harm…”
“Even if she does reject you,” I added, “you won’t fade. Not like regular imaginaries.” I smiled, tense and bitter. “People share much more fear than hope. You’ll find somewhere else to haunt.”
I held my breath.
When it moved, it slid toward me like a ripple along a lake, smooth and slow.
I could count the fangs, jutting in uneven fractures from the misshapen jaw. It had gills, rippling silently in the air, and patches of dead and rotting skin hanging off its frame in tatters.
It crept closer and closer, until I could see my reflection within its eyes — small and pale and wide-eyed and wild-hair.
And then it vanished.
That night, my regular nightmares returned.
I faced them, a ring of glowing eyes of countless hues, shadows that hissed and gibbered and snarled. Drawing in a fortifying breath, I reached for my clipboard, holding it to me like a shield, mustering a weak smile.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m here to help.”
Katherine Clardy lives in Toccoa, Georgia, and works in the local antique market. She received her Associate’s degree in commercial photography from the North Georgia Technical College, where she currently attends as part of the web design program. When she’s not selling old stuff, shutter-bugging, or wading through HTML, she’s glued to her notebook/computer/convenient scraps of paper and scribbling down wild words and strange worlds.
Become a Patron!
We need all the help we can get. For more info on any number of flash-tabulous rewards including extra stories, personalized critiques, and more:
If you enjoy Flash Fiction Online, consider subscribing or purchasing a downloadable copy. Your donations go a long way to paying our authors the professional rates they deserve. For only $0.99/issue that’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. Or subscribe for $9.99/year.