“The Nightmare” (1998)

The dream was horrible: naked terror, flash-freezing her insides like frostbite so that, in the fleeting instant of waking, her tears ran cold down her cheek. The dream was horrible; but it wasn’t until she awoke and lay shuddering in bed, eyes widened, that she saw the Nightmare. And it was then, foolishly, that Charlotte knew that everything would be all right.

Noun: a terrifying, frightful dream in which the dreamer experiences feelings of helplessness and/or extreme anxiety. The term’s origin is indistinct. Possible derivations date back as far as the European Middle Ages, rooted in archaic regional folklore. Many of these folk tales contain occult influences.

It stood impassively at the far edge of her bedpost next to the dollhouse, and Charlotte’s lips parted unconsciously with awe as she focused her gaze upon it. Its hide was dark as pitch, so black that it seemed to pull the surrounding moonlight into its depths, giving off no sheen or highlight; its thick mane, in contrast, was an ebony waterfall, shiny and rippling. Her parents had left the window open tonight, and the wispy curtains, billowing in a slight midnight breeze, lapped at the edges of its lithe form like a creamy tide on a beach of night. Its four legs were long and powerful, raising it up high above tiny Charlotte’s eyes, and she felt the quiet rumble of its mighty hoof pawing the rug as it regarded her. This it did with a head held high and sharp, with eyes that at once appeared both blood red and deep indigo—eyes that seemed to sink back endlessly into blackness but shine forth brilliantly at the same time. It was with these wonderful, terrible eyes that it stood silently as a statue, save for an occasional brimstone haze emitted from its nostrils, staring down at Charlotte, who sat utterly transfixed.

How such a majestic, fearsome beast might have turned up in her bedroom in the middle of the night was not a thought to pass through Charlotte’s eight-year-old brain. All she knew was that the fear that had gripped her mercilessly mere moments ago had been completely erased by the sudden presence of this mighty animal; and for that, she was grateful.

Perhaps little Charlotte was just not as easily frightened as most other children. Perhaps, she would later ponder, she should have been. She simply felt unusually calm. Fascinated with the otherworldly beauty of the animal, she unclutched her bedcovers and reached out with a tiny hand to try and touch it. It was too far away, so she crawled gingerly out from under the covers and began to move closer. After all, it wasn’t doing anything very scary; it wasn’t doing anything at all except standing there. And Charlotte had always loved horses.

The dark beast motionlessly watched her approach. Then, as Charlotte inched closer, it let forth a low snort from its nostrils and began to back slowly away from the edge of the bed.

One of the most interesting of these folk tales was told amongst serf families living on the continent’s many feudal estates. It describes a phantasmic stallion which would appear to an individual during sleep (thus offering an almost-literal derivation of the term). This phantom, though usually intimidating in appearance, was not maleficent; according to the tales, its arrival would occur in response to the individual’s bad dreams, which the steed would dissipate, allowing the person to rest untormented. Nevertheless, there apparently were, according to one tale, gravely specific rules one had to follow when visited.

“What’s the matter…” Charlotte whispered, in the same soothing voice she used when trying to coax Guffin, her kitten, off the top of the television set. “I’m not going to hurt you.” She inched closer. “Yes, that’s it…” She’d never been this close to a horse before, and she wanted so badly to feel its hide and stroke its beautiful mane.

But it continued to back away, ever just out of reach of Charlotte’s fingertips, snorting again as it did so. What was it afraid of? she wondered. She glanced up for a moment, and as if in answer, suddenly found herself locked within its ghostly gaze. The cavernous, crimson orbs peered deeply, forcibly inside her; Charlotte trembled, just for a moment, with a chill of cold dread as she realized that her initial assessment had been mistaken. These were eyes that had never felt fear. These were eyes that called it forth.

She sensed herself being drawn into its gaze by an inorexable pull; something had caught her eye. Something was there, swirling within the murky depths of its dark stare, ephemeral, barely distinct. Charlotte’s breath drew in sharply. It looked, if one could ever see one, like a scream…

Charlotte broke away abruptly and squeezed shut her eyes. Immediately the thought coursed through her: perhaps she should just go back to sleep. But when would she have another opportunity like this? It had frightened her deeply when she looked into its eyes, but up until then she had felt no fear at all. When she opened her eyes again it was still there, just a hand’s breadth away from her, and now, just as before, she knew she wanted desperately to be closer. Oh, the stories she would tell Lucy Gardner on the phone in the morning, how jealous she would be…

The Nightmare stood there silently, still staring as Charlotte’s hand drew closer. It paused as if in a moment’s reflection. Her hand hovered, now mere inches from its black hide. Then slowly, gravely, it turned its gaze away. It did not move.

Charlotte’s mind danced with anticipation. She had managed to tame it after all! It would feel ever so soft under her fingertips, she just knew it, just like in all the movies and storybooks. She licked her lips tentatively without thinking about it, pausing with a split-instant of apprehension. But then that instant was gone, and she put forth her palm and laid it upon the lightless surface of her visitor’s broad back.

The reaction was mercilessly swift.

The breath fled her lungs in a mad rush. Her eyes stretched wide and then slammed shut with such force that it seemed as if they might never open again. But this did not in the least encumber what was passing through Charlotte’s mind, her heart, gut and soul. Had she the presence of mind to pay attention, she would realize that what her hand touched was unlike the hide of any earthly creature; it would feel as if her fingertips were touching the very top surface of a pool of deathly frigid water, in the way that one can feel the subtle barrier of the water but can just as easily sink into it. Except that this was not water, but sheer empty blackness; and indeed, Charlotte did not have the presence of mind to notice any of these minor sensations. Her tiny body was now trembling with the visions that flowed into her like blood geysering from an unstaunchable wound:

The gnawing anxiety of sitting home alone in the night, knowing that your parents had promised they would have been home two hours ago, then suddenly hearing the phone ring—and you were not expecting a call. The rising pounding of blood in your ears as you walk down a deserted city street, glance behind into the dim pools of lamplit sidewalk, and discover that the ragged-looking man you had passed quickly in the alleyway is now following you. The shrieking of every muscle in your body as the old woman up ahead on the corner slips and falls on her knees into the road in front of your car, and there is no room, no time to turn. The bile churning in your throat as you let the dog in and realize that the wet, gristly bone you have just taken out of its mouth is the exact size and shape of a small child’s femur. The thudding numbness that drops over your mind like a lead shroud when the surgeon has just informed you that they cannot operate, and you will endure two weeks of torturous agony before death. The explosive, terrorized gasp that wrenches itself out of your throat when the murky water has completely filled your tiny cabin, and you’ve held your breath for as long as possible, but know now that you will, and must, drown...

All of this, mottled together into one monstrous blot, was but a mere fraction of what Charlotte experienced upon touching that hide.

Her mouth dropped open to scream, but emitted nothing but a strangled whisper. The Nightmare made no sound.

Supposedly, most people would be so dumbstruck by the phantom that they would do nothing; but one tale tells of a particularly curious man who, when visited, attempted to interact with it, prompting the story’s single admonishment: The Nightmare must never be disturbed. According to folklore, the realms of spirits and of men were sacredly separate and forbidden to physically meet. Forsaking this division had extreme consequences. When the man in the ancient tale touched the ghost, he was immediately assaulted by all the terrible dreams it had ever absorbed. The story states that the phantom would always attempt to discourage this violation from occurring, but had no true preventative power, for it was always respectful of the division between worlds.

Charlotte’s soul spasmed and twisted with agony for a tiny eternity—and then her reflexes finally completed their circuit, jerking her hand away from the black surface. Once the contact was broken, the choking supernatural miasma evaporated. But its ghastly imprint remained; it dripped slowly, thickly, down the surface of her mind like gory remains on an executioner’s blade. Tears squeezed painfully out of her eyes and ran freely down her pale cheeks as she stiffly drew her hand back and buried it, with the other, as a clenched fist in the folds of her nightgown. She still had not drawn in a breath.

As if in slow motion, she crumpled to one side and lay folded up in a ball on the edge of her bedspread. When she finally breathed, it was soft and ragged. There she lay still as a corpse, her hoarse gasps slowly growing into loud panting sobs that filtered out the open door into the darkened hallway beyond.

The Nightmare stood over her, watching. Its soulless eyes held no pity.

Consequently, this meant that the breach, once committed, was treated by the ghost as a sort of irreversible bargain—with the unholiest of terms.

It was only a matter of time before Charlotte’s mother and father heard the wails and awoke to investigate. At first they simply thought that it was her baby brother Nicholas’s usual midnight cacophony, but as it gained volume they soon recognized the difference. Charlotte was young, but far from a baby now, and not prone to sudden bouts of nightly crying. With that thought firmly gripping each parent’s mind, they quickly threw on their robes and made their way down the dim hallway towards their daughter’s bedroom. The sobbing seemed to grow more and more tortured with every step. With swelling alarm, Charlotte’s father burst open the door.

He charged across the empty room towards his hysterical daughter, who was curled up in a near-fetal position at the wrong end of her bed. His wife followed, looking down over his shoulder. “Well, what’s wrong?” she whispered. The girl’s eyes were tightly shut. He bent closer and touched Charlotte’s arm gently.

At that moment Charlotte shrieked with unbridled terror. Her father jumped back and knocked into his wife as she rushed forward in a hurried attempt to calm her before the noise woke the baby in the next room. Charlotte would not unclench her body, but did manage to wrap her arms instinctively around her mother’s bosom and continue weeping into her ear.

By now her father had regained his calm and was studying Charlotte as she clung to her mother. He squinted in the dim moonlight, taking her right hand in his. Suddenly he jerked his wife’s arm and told her to call a doctor immediately. She asked him what was the matter; with a frightened look upon his face, he placed Charlotte’s hand in his wife’s. She stifled a gasp. The tips of her daughter’s fingers were absolutely icy to the touch, and even appeared slightly blackened, as if burned.

By physically disturbing the boundary between the ghostly steed and its material surroundings, the man had consciously chosen to invade the spectral realm. And in doing so, he had entered into an exchange…

The doctor was unavailable to the family’s immediate needs; Charlotte’s parents resignedly decided that, at the very least, they could try and soothe their daughter’s hand and perhaps get her to rest for the remainder of the night. She clung to her mother as they brought her down the hall to the bathroom, but upon reaching it, her parents were relieved to see that she had stopped crying and appeared to be slightly more relaxed. As she ran her daughter’s hand under a flow of lukewarm tap water, Charlotte’s mother gently whispered into her ear, trying to draw out the cause of her fright.

The parents, after much unsuccessful coaxing, simply decided that they had done all that they could do until she saw the doctor in the morning. Charlotte had indeed calmed down, and when asked by her parents if she would be able to fall back asleep, she tentatively agreed. She was still frightened; her right hand still stung; but she had listened to her mother’s assurances that her ordeal had merely been some sort of vivid dream. She wanted to believe it. And as she walked back down the darkened hallway towards her bedroom, she did begin to believe it. She walked very slowly—little Nicholas had a reputation as a notoriously light sleeper, and his door hung slightly open. Somehow he had not been woken in all the commotion, and she didn’t want to ruin that good fortune. She crept past the door.

Out of the corner of her eye, through thin gap in the doorway, she caught a glimpse of shadow—a swath of blackness darker than any earthly night. It moved.

Charlotte stumbled against the wall, clutching it as if she were likely to fall. Her breath stopped dead in her throat. Her hands gripped the edge of the doorjamb. Everything would be fine—there would be nothing inside but a crib, and a sleeping baby in it, and stuffed animals, and blue wallpaper. As her hands unconsciously clenched around the corner, her blackened fingertips suddenly felt hard and numb against the plaster. No…Mommy said it was a dream…Mommy said it was a dream…Mommy said…

And yet, she could not keep herself from peering around the corner into the bedroom.

The man had taken a portion of the other world into his own. It was only right that the ghost should do the same.

The baby’s room was silent and serene. The white curtains wafted in a cool nightly breeze, lazily rotating the brightly colored mobile that hung from the ceiling above Nicholas’s pillow. The moonlight fell in a beautiful glowing pool onto the crib through the open window. Charlotte’s lips parted, warping into a small, quivering hole.

The Nightmare stood beside the window in the dim void beneath the shaft of moonlight. The curtains drifted aside as it turned its heavy black head to notice her presence. Nicholas’s tiny body hung beneath its mane like a old rag doll, suspended by an arm caught firmly between black jaws. His woolen blanket lay in a puddle on the floor beneath him. There was no blood.

The Nightmare regarded her for a long moment, still as stone. Its purple-red gaze said nothing, empty as the blackness of its hide. Then it stepped through the window, lithe as a wraith, and was gone. And Charlotte stood there until dawn, alone in the quiet, empty room, still frozen in the rictus of her silent scream.