black water

When her feet stop at the edge of the bridge, Mara realizes she’s having the dream again.

This is an old dream, one that comes year after year. Always in October, almost always the same cold night. And because she knows the dream, she remembers what happens next.

She watches the road beyond the bridge. Its lone streetlight flickers, as it always does, right before the shadows start dripping down the asphalt.

It’s always the road first. She sees watch them coming for her, the wrongness of those shadows crowding in the light. And then…

A tinkle of glass as the light bursts, leaving her with only the moon. Soft blue light, hazy and surreal, smudging the mist roiling from the river below into smoke. She can’t see where the shadows are coursing, but she knows they’re spilling down the road toward her like a flood.

A cloud passes over the moon, obscuring the light.

She clenches her fists in the dark. They can’t cross the bridge—can’t cross water. Even in dreams, she’s protected this bridge, as well as the space behind her.

A susurrous rises, scrawling the air. “Mara,” they whisper, their voices snapping branches, broken glass. “Bad dream, bad dream, bad dream. Mara.”

She steps back three paces, far enough to keep out of their reach. Oily darkness mixes with the hazy mist from the creek, struggling. They undulate and shudder, black against black, slippery and viscous. The outlines of their bodies are not entirely human, and that reminds her to step back another three paces. Back to the circle within the square, careful not to break the line of salt.

“Mara. Mara. Mara.” The shadows claw and fight, struggling to cross the center of the bridge. Water runs below them, but…

One breaks free.

One screams, discordant, furious as it bleeds and tears. It doesn’t stop. The figure bursts across, slamming against the first line of salt like a wave.

Now she remembers the line isn’t enough. The ward crumples in her hand.

“Bad dream!” the shadows on the bridge screech. “Bad dream! Bad dream! Bad dream! Bad dream!”

The shadow shreds itself on the first line of salt. It strips the oily black from its skin, revealing its true face.

She hates this.

She remembers this.

She always flinches.

“Mara.”

It’s a voice that shouldn’t exist.

“Mara.”

It’s a voice that was drowned in the waking world twenty years ago.

Scoured by the salt, it has eyes now. Those deep brown irises are the same. The smile is the same. But its skin is wrong, its body hideous, and the way, the way it moves shouldn’t be possible.

“Bad dream.”

One swollen foot destroys the salt line. The shadows howl, their fury reignited. They are a dam bursting, spilling, coming to crawl over the thing staring at her. They fall on it like a cloak of insects. Shuddering and climbing and rustling over its skin as it walks to the second line of her circle.

They can’t cross this one. It’s a fevered thought. They crossed the bridge. They broke the rules. But here, she is safe. She is safe. This is just a—

Bad dream. Bad dream.”

They can’t—

The thing shoots forward, its mouth a snarling rictus, claws splayed wide as it reaches for her face.

The charm drops from her hand.

The circle breaks.

It doesn’t stop, it’s relentless, it doesn’t care, it will never stop, it—

She opens her eyes. Someone is frantically shaking her shoulder.

She can’t see.

The words burst out of her in a shout. “Light! Turn on the light!”

The switch clicks. Pale yellow light fills the room, buttery and reassuring, but this is the part where she wishes for darkness.

The light reveals its true face. The irises are the same. The smile is the same. And the hands reaching for her are as she remembers.

“It’s okay.”

His hand is warm. He smooths her hair away from her face, wild grey waves she did not have when he was alive. He straightens the collar of her nightgown with the other hand, dimples creasing the right corner of his mouth.

“It was just a bad dream.”

“No.” Her voice shakes. “You aren’t here. You’re gone.”

“It was just a bad dream.”

She closes her eyes, swallows. Remembers. Remembers the phone call. The night she lost him unfurls in memory, ugly and awful—

The car, speeding past the streetlight.

The car, fishtailing before the bridge. Swerving left, breaking through the barrier, hanging in the air—

Plunging down into black water.

“It’s okay, Mama.”

The way black water dripped off his body as they pulled him out.

Those swollen hands and feet, distended, the awful color…

His hand is cold now, but still, still it wipes the tears rolling down her cheek.

“It was just a bad dream.”

She looks at her son one last time, and he smiles.

 

When she wakes up, she no longer cares about the light.

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