The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2021 Winners Anthology, A New Story Rises here.
“Where Nightmares Come From” by Lucy Fromm, Monroe Middle School
Third Place, Middle School Level, 2021
Where Nightmares Come From
By Lucy Fromm
Monroe Middle School
Lillia Bergasji’s Private Journal:
Have you ever noticed a cut or bruise that you never realized you had? You don’t know how it got there, all you really know is that you see it today, and that it hurts. A lot. Maybe you fell, and got cut without realizing it, maybe you were making something, and all of the sudden it went horribly wrong, just without you realizing it. Or maybe, you were exercising, and pulled one of your terribly fragile human muscles. There is one story however. It’s completely childish, and no one would ever believe it to be true . . . but for some humorous reason, I can’t seem to shake it out of my head.
October 17, 2018
The weather today is just plain boring. Fog covers every inch of the sidewalk, even the clouds up in the sky, so all you can see of the sun is a faint orange ball. I have to go to school. I don’t necessarily want to, I’d be surprised if anyone does, but my parents pay for the private school in our secluded town on the Pacific coast. It’s relatively small compared to the vast castles you see in movies, but at least that would make school interesting. Perhaps we could wear fancy uniforms rather than the boring gray sweaters, skirts, and socks we have to wear. I would rather wear ripped jeans and a bright yellow halter top any day, but thanks to the dull taste of the school supervisor, I doubt there’s any chance of that happening.
“Emma!” I call after my best friend, running up the school steps toward her. Ouch, I suddenly feel a blistering pain in my right ankle. I pause to pull down my sock, and notice a dark purple bruise on it. Huh, I wonder where that came from.
“Hey, girl, did you hide a knife in your sock? Finally something exciting in this boring town,” Emma heads over to me. See, she’s cool. Someone in this drab world understands me.
I happily laugh, and ask her if she finished the math homework. She got halfway through, then decided to give up and take a longer break than she originally thought she would, just like me. We laugh and head into the old brick building of a school.
I walk into homeroom, then feel the sharp pain in my ankle again. I limp quickly to my desk, ignoring a weird look from Jason, my deskmate. I roll my sock down once more, and my bruise is now a darker purple, and hurting more by the second.
“Are you okay?” Jason asks, looking at my bruise with a funny look on his face.
I reply that I’m fine, and dismiss the fact as quickly as I can, not really wanting to talk to him at the moment. The teacher walks in, and I pull my sock back up.
“Class, I hope you have turned in your essays around horror stories and your own short story,” the teacher says. “They were due yesterday.”
Crap. I forgot all about that. Why do I never write down what I need to do in this journal? Well, I guess mostly because I don’t really care, but I might as well try to turn things in on time. I pull out my finished short story and half-finished essay to look it over when I notice a tiny cut on my finger that looks rather new. Where are all these injuries coming from? I dismiss it quickly again as it isn’t bleeding, and glance over my essay, reading what I said about how horror stories help us escape from reality, and think of our problems as less bad than we typically seem to take them for. I suppose I can wrap this up quickly and turn it in before the end of the day.
Later . . .
I’m sitting alone at a lunch table, since Emma’s lunch break isn’t until later, with my earbuds hidden best as they can be beneath my brown bob with streaks of purple in it. I’m munching slowly on one of the school’s disgusting sandwiches and listening to my favorite alternative band, Calpurnia. Jeez, you would think with all the money they get from student tuitions, the school could at least give us edible food. I glance at the tiny cut on my finger again. I must have gotten a tiny papercut while opening my journal. Huh, it’s redder than earlier. I glance away out the window. Someday I’m going to move out of this small town and travel the world.
Bobbing my head slightly in beat to my music, I let my eyes wander across the cracks in the walls around me. They spiral out from the floor beneath the window, and stretch out like hands to the school kitchen on the far end of the cafeteria, and then creep out into the hall. They’re almost pretty, actually. They add a bit of imperfection to this uptight, practically perfect school. It’s nice to be reminded sometimes that nothing is perfect, and that’s too much to expect from someone. Everybody has their faults, and everybody has their weaknesses. I pack up the sandwich and toss it into a trash can as I head to the courtyard to my favorite place, the large tree near the fence. I hop up in its branches, and stretch out, pulling my essay out from my pocket, and smoothing out the wrinkled paper, watching my shadow sway in the wind in beat to my music.
October 18, Thursday morning
I woke up to a weird sound last night. Sort of a swishing noise, but with a beat, like a heart pumping so fast it would burst. I opened my eyes suddenly and turned my lamp on, but nothing was there. I got up to close my window, where my curtains were blowing in the wind, and looked out. The fog was still here, and there were no stars, not even light from the moon.
I’m in class now, and my bruise looks more red rather than purple now, not a healing kind of red, but like multiple veins are being pushed out. I wore my boot-cut jeans today, despite the dress code, to cover it up.
“Miss Bergasji?” I hear my teacher call from the front, and I look up. “In the future I should hope you remember to stick to our dress code and dress appropriately. I’m letting you off with a warning; if you should wear jeans in the future, that is a detention and a mark on your permanent record for future schools.”
See? Uptight school. I’m lucky Emma goes here, because practically everybody else here is just as bad, if not worse, than the teachers.
I hear a snicker behind me, from the blonde Bailey, a professional cheerleader at the dance academy on the rich side of town. I ignore it, and nod to the teacher who is still waiting for my response. What a wonderful world! Not.
October 18, Midnight
I woke up to the noise again, but with my windows closed this evening, I’m starting to get a little nervous. I quickly turn my lamp on, and jump out of bed. There’s a shadow looming across the room, a large one for that matter, shaped like the hands cracked into the walls at school.
“Hello?” I whisper, reaching for the nerf gun my brother left on my floor.
The shadow moves, but nothing else in my room does. Nothing . . . physical moves.
“I’m armed!” I whisper a little louder.
The hand stretches across the floor, reaching over to my leg, and points at my ankle. Nothing physical is moving again.
It signs yes in sign language, then grabs my ankle all of the sudden. A shadow! Grabbed my ankle! I try to scream, but another hand morphs out of the shadows and grabs my mouth as well.
I struggle, and try to wring myself out of the hands, but suddenly I feel like I’m falling.
And then everything goes black.
I hear faint whispers, and the sound of a beating heart, but not a human heart, the beats are inconsistent and come three at a time. I slowly open my eyes, and realize I’m not home anymore. I don’t even think I’m on Earth anymore. Everything seems to be made out of shadows across a dark, black plain that stretches out forever. Silhouettes of mountains loom across a black stone floor, and the shapes of people stretch across an asphalt sidewalk, without anyone, or anything physical in sight. Whispers escape the outlined lips of the shadows, but each is so faint and quick that it sounds like a second language. I look down, and notice that I seem to be becoming a shadow too, fading into the darkness. Odd, my injury on my ankle seems to be gone.
“Welcome,” a deep voice booms out of the darkness, and suddenly a dark figure looms before me, made of the same fabrics of shadow as those walking around me, then transforms into the only physical figure in the realm, shaped similar to a human but appearing to be made of stone.
“We have been waiting for you.”
The faint whispers of the shadows rise into a deafening white noise.
“You may have noticed,” the stone figure swoops over to me and hovers above the ground, pointing at my ankle, “your injury. Yes, not as coincidental as you might assume. You see, for every human that lives, a shadow lives also. Typically, humans get injured on their own, but every so often a shadow moves . . . farther than they are supposed to, steps out of bounds, takes a risk that is not allowed, and their human,” the stone figure taps my ankle, “pays the price.”
I stare at the figure, and try to open my mouth, but it interrupts me.
“Yes, shadows move with human movement. But your kind is not entirely oblivious to our kind. Peter Pan, I believe his name was? Yes, his story was fictional, but not entirely removed from reality. His author had a feisty shadow himself, who would overstep our boundaries. Don’t worry though, he’s in a . . . good place.” The stone figure grows and looms over me in an intimidating manner.
“Why bring me here then?” a whisper escapes from my lips.
“Well, you see,” the figure lets its fingers trace across my arm, “every time a shadow . . . leaves us, we really find, well,” it chuckles, “no more use for their human.”
I try to step back but find that my legs are fading into the darkness and I am unable to move.
A fearsome laugh escapes from the stone figure. “Yes, try and run! You will find yourself unable to, so I’m afraid I do not recommend it.” It swoops around me, and whispers in my ear, “You will not be able to go back to your earth, I’m afraid.” The chuckling grows louder “At least not physically.”
Suddenly I feel weightless, like I could fly, and suddenly I’m back home!
Only, wait. I’m not home, home.
I’m in someone else’s house. I can’t stand up straight, and I seem to be plastered to the floor! I quickly look at the parts of me I can see, and I am now made of the same dark fabrics that all other shadows are made of. I feel myself being pulled in another direction, and I see a young girl get out of bed and turn her light on. Emma! I try to open my mouth, but such a simple act seems to be impossible for me.
I’m forced into the hallway with her, and follow her toward the school, when I remember it is possible for shadows to move on their own! I use all my energy, and when I feel I could just burst, suddenly I move my arm. I move my legs. I move my head and my other arm. I float to the wall in front of Emma to get her attention, but suddenly she screams in pain and grabs her shoulder. I see a deep cut forming in the shoulder, and float back toward her, which only seems to make her hyperventilate out of more pain. I move back beside her to be her shadow again, but she disappears, like a shadow in a dark room. Suddenly I’m back where I started.
Only now I am among the whispering figures in the shadows. Lost. Hopeless. Being forced to stay still as if we are just waiting reluctantly for death. Trapped as if the expectations of the world have forced us to silently wait.
The stone figure from before floats around Emma a great distance from me, giving her the same monologue I had heard only earlier that day, and I see her fade away into the darkness, when the figure snaps its head in my direction and crawls at a great pace toward me, cracking noises bursting from its limbs as the rough and tattered black stone falls away and reveals a slimy skeleton of sorts, with a shadow-like transparent skin surrounding it.
It hisses and crawls around me, looming far larger above me than before.
“How dare you come back,” it whispers hideously, leaning its cold lips against my shadow of an ear. “Did you really think you could meet a fate better than all the others before you?”
I shiver involuntarily.
A cold snicker escapes the figure’s horrendous sneer. “Yesss. We have much in store for you.” It snaps its fingers and I feel my surroundings morph around me again.
I wake up, but seem to be unaware of my surroundings. I can see, but I can’t think right. My shadow limbs feel heavy, and I can’t move them with any force at all. I try to look around but it’s like being blinded by the sun, I can only see the vague silhouettes of what is in front of me.
I feel myself sway a little bit, and I realize I’m not the shadow of a human anymore. I lay below a large tree, all alone in a forest, unable to move no matter how hard I try. No free will. I’m trapped. Forever.