Copyright © 2016 by Jayne Fresina
First the light, like a dying heartbeat, began to waver and dim. From that moment onward, everything that was normal and comforting transformed, from a once cheerfully glowing wick to a blob of fragile soot that curled inside the last tired lick of flame and finally expired, leaving a thin grey sigh.
Then she felt the space thinning, smelled the burning, saw the air squeezing in on itself. And suddenly she stood in a tunnel, facing into the dark, her bones trembling with the vibration of a steam engine thundering closer. The steady, unrelenting pulse of approaching peril. But from which way did it come?
This is how it always began, and once it began there was no stopping the dream until she found the power to scream loudly, desperately enough.
All around her the newly menacing world crunched and crackled with energy. The buzzing filled her ears and overflowed all the way to her chewed fingernails. Her small palms were damp, her heart thumping like a desperate fist trying to beat its way out.
The worst came when the whistling began. A repetitive tune that echoed along the dripping, soot-blackened brick walls, mocking her. Over and over, the same few notes of a broken chorus.
And then the whisper. "I'm coming to get you." Sing-song, as if they played a game of hide and seek. But this was no game.
She looked around, trying to see through the thick, floating ash and the wet steam, her eyes sore, nostrils filling with dust. Her senses strained into the darkness, feeling with every pore, every vein.
Which way to run?
"I'm coming to get you!"
Surely it was more sensible to run back toward the pink daylight— the way she had entered the tunnel. But something told her that he came from behind, that he followed her. And she couldn't remember entering the tunnel, so she had no idea what was outside. What if there was nothing? What if that was not the way back to the real world at all, but deeper into her dream? It could be deceptive.
Not knowing how she got there, or what drove her into the tunnel, she was helpless, stuck in the middle.
This may not even be the middle. She could not see the end. It could go on for miles and miles.
Should she risk running into the dark?
The whistling was louder now, chirpy, false cheeriness in a tune that never ended. It made her think of the "Pied Piper", who lured children away into the mountain with his magical music, just to punish the townspeople after he rid them of rats and they reneged on the promised fee.
She knew he was closer. Coming faster. Now she could hear the creature breathing, its lungs and heart working like giant pistons, heavy and yet sleek. He was a vigorous force that folded the world in around him as he came inexorably toward her.
Her mind was made up. Run toward it. Run toward it and get it over with. Because the horrible thing would catch her eventually and running away merely prolonged the horror.
So she turned and ran toward the monster. Wind rushed by her face, drying her tears.
It loomed before her. The limbs were huge, filling the tunnel, muscles moving like a tortuous, clanking, complicated engine of pulleys and levers. Baring its gleaming teeth, its eyes two big, gleaming, uncaring headlamps, the angry creature roared forward, ready to consume her whole. She saw the flames in its throat, felt the stinging heat. Then she knew it was time to scream.
So she did.
Ever Greene screamed so loudly, and at such a pitch, that she broke the glass of milk beside her bed and her mother came running from the room across the hall.
She sat up, still screaming, her skin moist, the nightgown sticking to her back.
"Ever! Wake up. You're having a nightmare again! Ever!"
But even with her eyes wide open, she still saw the beast breathing fire before her. He swiped angrily at the glass that had broken all over him and the jagged shards cut his scaly skin, made it bleed. For those few moments the image remained to haunt her, until it burned away like scorched paper and left only hot tears in its wake.
For tonight he was gone again, but he would be back. He had promised to come for her.
And his name was Pumpymuckles.
She'd seen it painted on the brick wall of his tunnel. The letters were faded, dirty, torn and peeling, but she could still read them.
"Pumpymuckles is going to get me," she murmured, while her mother, who never quite knew how to comfort her daughter under any circumstances, stiffly patted her shoulder blades, and told her there was no such thing as a Pumpymuckles.
Look at that mess on the floor. Had to be milk, didn't it? Couldn't be water. One of my best glasses broken too. What is she doing, bringing milk to bed? Ooh, there goes my back again. And now I won't get any more sleep tonight. Not with this headache. Such a scream this girl has. Sometimes I wish she was still a mute.
As her mother fussed over the broken glass and the wet floor, Ever's father hovered nearby, trying to be helpful. His thoughts were calmer.
No point crying over spilled milk, Astrid.
Of course, he didn't say it out loud. His wife had no sense of humor, and she wouldn't appreciate the old adage at that moment. But Ever silently shared the joke. Her father's calmly amused way of looking at the world always made her feel as if, no matter what happened or how badly things turned upside down, everything would be right again soon.
If only he could come into the tunnel with her; he would know which way to go. But her father couldn't come with her. It was something she had to do alone, and she knew that from the beginning.
The next morning, while Ever floated a few inches above the stairs in the hall— just because she liked the sensation and nobody was watching— she heard her mother exclaim, "Pumpymuckles, indeed! Only she could come up with such an odd name for a monster. She has your eccentric imagination already, Everett, and that tone of discourteous sarcasm that passes for wit. A six-year-old cynic with the vocabulary and confidence of a thirty-year-old woman is a most unnerving creature."
Her father replied, "She's an old soul."
"She's a peculiar child, that's what she is." And she terrifies me.
Over the pungent aroma of buttered kippers and with the occasional crisp snap of toast triangles to punctuate, they discussed this latest development — on the surface, as if it were a matter of mere inconvenience, no more troubling than a little girl out-growing her shoes too soon.
But inside they worried. She heard her mother's chattering mind. What are we going to do with her? Such an odd child. He doesn't seem to realize, or else he doesn't want to. He will not talk about the vanishing and how she came back changed. Why doesn't she terrify him too?
Her father's thoughts were steadier, almost placid. I'm sure the girl will be alright. She has an imagination and that's all it is. Astrid anticipates the worst. It's as if she doesn't recognize our daughter. Not since Cromer pier.
Cromer pier: the place that could not be mentioned.
Out loud he made one of those non-committal grunts meant to placate his wife and show that he listened. But he was attentive only to his newspaper now, his thoughts transformed into a slow, methodical rhythm as he absorbed the words he read. The newspaper brought him comfort with its neat columns of print, and there was always something amusing there to balance out the bad. Something ridiculous to make him shake his head at his fellow man and then go on with his own day, content in the knowledge that he knew better than most.
She couldn't remember when she began to read their thoughts, but for the first six years of her life, Ever had not bothered to speak at all, assuming everybody could hear her thinking just as she could hear them. Once she discovered this was not the case, and realized that it would probably be better if they didn't know what she could hear, Ever had finally decided to transform her thoughts into noises, the way other people did. Much, apparently, to her mother's consternation. Astrid Greene would have preferred a silent daughter— even if she must explain her to the neighbors— rather than one who expressed strange thoughts aloud without caution or censor.
As she listened outside the room that day, Ever was darkly amused, as always, by the way the sounds her parents formed with their tongues and lips did not match the sounds they held in their minds. They, of course, did possess a natural form of self-censorship. She had yet to learn the art.
A moment later her mother made an innocuous comment about the weather, while thinking about the cramping pain in her right hand again, worrying about getting old and pondering how her life might have been different had she married someone else. Someone who listened to her, understood her. There was a handsome young vicar once in Swaffham Prior, where she had given piano lessons to an ungracious, runny-nosed child...
So Pumpymuckles was forgotten. By them. But that was only the third or fourth time their daughter suffered the nightmare. They had no idea what was to come.
But by the time Ever was thirteen and still occasionally waking them in the night with heart-stopping screams— a surfeit of noise and emotion that was not otherwise heard in their house—her parents no longer found the monster so easily dismissed. And they began to think that the infamous Pumpymuckles was somehow connected to the incident they labeled, in their thoughts, as "The Vanishing".
* * * *
Excerpt from Case Studies: The Fugue State of Ever Greene,
by Dr. Owen Frazer
The first reported event transpired when the subject was six. This was the first occurrence of what we later came to recognize as a "fugue state", when the subject suffers an unexplained loss of awareness, identity, place and time. These episodes continued intermittently— and lasted for varying lengths of time, ranging from hours to days—over the subsequent ten year period, with the last recorded lapse into an observed trance state occurring on the subject's sixteenth birthday.
It should be noted that Ever Greene, a bright child of higher than average intelligence, had not used speech at all until the late age of six years. The cause of this failure to communicate with speech at a standard and expected rate of development was never diagnosed. There were no physical abnormalities and, once speech was used, no delay in catching up with other children of the same age. Her speech patterns, sentence structure and vocabulary were, in fact, advanced beyond her age, despite the preceding six years of apparently voluntary silence.
That the sudden onset of speech should occur after the first incident of "fugue state" and shortly before the night-terrors began, may or may not be connected, but should not be overlooked when considering all the facts known to us.
And the facts begin here: Ever Greene vanished from the end of Cromer pier when she was six years-old. Despite an exhaustive search, no trace of the child was found.
Four months later, she returned to her parents' house in Cambridge, more than eighty miles from where she disappeared.
Ever Greene was alive, well fed and in good health, with no recollection of where she had been or with whom in the days between.
In her hand she clasped a small, silver and enamel seahorse brooch.