I’m not what I seem. What people see on the surface—delicate features, ready smile, and white-blonde hair—belies something dark inside. Something buried so deep that even I don’t know what is. All I know is it’s crawling its way to the surface.
The dark thoughts churned through my mind as I stared into my mirror at the reflection of a sweet, naive looking young woman whose pale blue eyes, paler skin, and softly rounded features mark her as fragile, someone to be shielded and protected from the harsh realities of the world. As I stared at that young woman, the reflection began to shift. Her features melted and morphed, turning gruesome as her mouth changed into a gaping maw, teeth lengthening and sharpening. Her skin turned dark, hair and blood covering her face.
Shuddering, I squeezed my eyes shut for a long moment. When I opened them my reflection was pretty and idyllic again though marked with the terror that bubbled up inside me. It hadn’t been a vision. That I knew. I’d had enough of them over my life to know the feeling. Instead, it had just been the lingering effects of my nightmare. The same nightmare that had interrupted my sleep night after night for weeks.
In the mirror I caught a glimpse of my bed behind me and turned to look at it, longingly. The blankets sprawled across it in a chaotic mess from my tossing and turning. I knew better than to try to go back to it, despite the early hour and my bone-deep weariness. There would be no more sleep for me tonight.
I’d spent countless hours for weeks, perhaps even months, in that bed staring, unseeing, at the ceiling, panting and heaving, trying to recover from yet another nightmare that I couldn’t quite remember.
The first night I’d woken Farrah up with my screams of terror and panic. Not knowing what was happening, as I’d never had a nightmare before. That night I hadn’t been able to remember the dream. I had convinced both Farrah and Pinky that I’d had the bad dream because I’d read an ancient horror novel Carly had loaned me from the City Archives. I’d even convinced myself of that, until I woke up with the same feelings of terror and panic the next night, and the next, and the next.
After the first night I hadn’t screamed, yet I’m unsure why. Instead I woke up with a start, my body convulsing and gasping for breath, and unable to move. And every night, as I lay there waiting for my breathing to steady and to regain control of my body, so I could rise, the same dark thoughts churned through my brain. I could never quite remember the dream from begining to end, though I was certain it was always the same dream. Instead terrifying flashes, like the one that I’d just had, plagued my waking hours, popping into my head at random moments.
Shaking my head to clear it of the memories, I grabbed my most comfortable house-dress from the rack on the wall beside the mirror and slipped it over my head. Tiptoeing out into the apartment, I paused for a long moment listening for Farrah’s soft snores before I remembered I why I didn’t hear them. Dawn would usher in the start of Market Week, and my busiest week of the month at the Public Market. With merchants from all over Appalachia, and some from across the Mississippi Sea setting up shop in the market, and shoppers from all the small towns and Outer Zone settlements within fifty-miles flooding into town to sample the wares, Nash City would be brimming with people.
That meant that night before market week was always the start of the busiest week of the month for the other businesses in Nash City, especially those within a mile or two of the Public Market buildings. Which meant Pinky’s Pub, with its prime spot on Broadway, less than a mile from the river docks and the public market, would be hopping busy in the wee hours of the morning. Which meant Farrah was working downstairs in the pub as she did on the busiest nights.
Stepping out into the main hall and beyond the reach of the sound-deafening spells that kept our apartment quiet, the familiar, raucous noise of the pub on a busy night wafted up to me. I smiled to myself, and for a moment thought about going down to lend a hand waiting tables or washing glasses. But the jittery nervousness that still ran up and down my spine, leftovers from the nightmare, told me I wasn’t yet ready to be around that many people. And I definitely wasn’t ready to come face to face with Pinky. My father could read me like a book. Since I hadn’t told him about the recurring nightmares, or my loss of visions, I needed to collect myself before I went downstairs.
Though I knew that even Vampire hearing wouldn’t be able to hear my footsteps over the noises downstairs, I walked as lightly as I could up the back staircase and out the door to the roof, shutting it gingerly behind me. The cool, night air washed over my skin and I inhaled, pulling the fresh air deep into my lungs. I always felt freer, more in control of myself, when I was outside in nature. Of course, there’s not much nature to inside the crumbling concrete and rusted steel walls of Nash City. Dirty streets, old buildings, and the constant noise and bustle of the city surround he few plots of grass and scraggly trees present. Even the river is a constant jumble of boats gliding in and out of Nash, stopping just long enough at the piers along the docks to drop off or load goods.
But up here on the roof, in my little oasis, I can breathe in fresh air, walk with my toes in the grass, and tend my garden in quiet and peace. I stepped forward off the stone path that ran the outer border of the rooftop and into the strip of alfalfa grass that led up middle to the center area set aside for sitting and communing with nature. I had carefully planned and arranged the rest of the square footage of the roof to maximize planting space for the vegetables, fruits, and herbs I grew and sold at the Public Market.
Striding over to my favorite spot, under a potted apple tree, I pulled my dress up so that my bare skin would touch the grass, and sat down, cross-legged, the skirt of my dress spread out around me. Having direct contact with the dirt of the earth, even if it had been transplanted from somewhere outside the city walls to my little rooftop, helped ground and center me. I started the familiar breathing exercises that would help take me into the center place inside me, help me find myself and clear my head.
Except, even though I’d been meditating every morning and evening for most of my life, I could no longer find my center. I could no longer see myself.
“I don’t know who I really am. No one knows who I really am.”
The unbidden mantra played over and over in my head until I let out a deep, bone-weary sigh and fell back in the grass, gazing up at the stars. It was true. No one knew who I really was. Not my father. Not my sisters. Not even me.
I was abandoned as a child, found in the bottom of a boat floating on the Cumberland River by a little girl named Fiona. She promptly brought me home to her foster father, a vampire named Pinky. They estimated my age to be around three years old. I could speak, but I couldn’t tell them my name or anything about my history. They named me River and kept me.
I’d had a good life with Pinky and Fiona, and a few months later, Anya. Fiona, Anya and I were all orphaned or abandoned and one night under the stars we’d vowed ourselves to be forever sisters and gave ourselves the last name Moon, because the Moon is the only thing that ever stays the same. Pinky was a good father, giving us love and happiness none of us had ever known. We had a childhood full of fun and innocence that would not have been there had he not taken us in.
When I was barely five Pinky went with us one day to Fiona’s favorite fishing spot, and he’d watched how I’d sat in the grass and dug in the dirt the entire time. Later he’d told me it was the most peaceful he’d ever seen me up to that point. So, the next day he hired some men to haul wagons full of dirt from outside the gates up to our roof. We started out with a few grass seeds, but eventually he helped me turn the entire roof into a green oasis, and profitable garden.
I sighed again, but this time it was more contented. Thinking of my family always helped sooth away the lingering irritation. My family was everything to me. For all of the things I had no idea about in my past, the one thing I could never, would never, doubt, is how much my adopted family loved me.
They all doted on me. Both because I was the youngest and because my pale, almost white hair, and pale skin gave me a fragile, ethereal appearance. They babied and sheltered me. And I let them and repaid them by doing my best to take care of them as well.
But they never saw what was really inside me. The darkness lurking so deep inside me that I couldn’t touch it, but I could feel it there. Not that I’d ever tried to touch it. I did my best to keep it down, hidden from myself as well as my family. But it wouldn’t remain hidden for much longer. The hideous black thing that lived down deep in my soul was crawling its way up, inch by inch. Night by night with every nightmare it was that much closer to the surface. I feared that once it surfaced, it would destroy my entire family.