They came for us in our dreams, in their shadowy forms from another world. They dangled desires and promises over us, using their smooth words and tempting visions.
Everyone grew up with the warnings. That they would visit our sleep. That once they arrived, they would tempt us for months, sometimes years. That we should never accept their promises.
There were four of us. We’d been close friends for years, and had come to think of each other as family. We always thought that when they came, they would be easy to resist.
How wrong we were.
I remember Cassy stumbling over her words, she was so excited. They promised me wealth. She’d said. They promised diamonds to grow at my feet, and rubies to fall from my lips.
We told her it was too good to be true. We all knew it couldn’t end well.
But I couldn’t blame her. She’d lost a brother to the slums, and her father’s mind remains buried in the mines. Her eyes had always carried black circles from overworking and never sleeping. It was a wonder we had time to know her at all.
They took her, and we resigned ourselves to never seeing her again.
They came into my dreams that night, and they offered me wealth. Join Cassy. They said. And never have to worry about what you can afford.
I woke up screaming my answer. No!
Harold was the cautious one, I never expected them to entice him. None of us did. I remember the shock jolting through me in waves as he told us the promises they’d made for him. They promised me knowledge. He’d said. They promised I would know things ignored by common man, that I would learn many things in my dreams.
There was no reasoning with him. How could we? He was the one that kept us from being foolish, not the other way around.
We tried anyway, and he left with the bridge burning between us.
They came to me that night, offering me the ability to learn. You are always so behind in your studies. They said. Wouldn’t you like to be ahead of the class? To learn in an instant?
I woke up shaking in a cold sweat. It scared me how close I’d come to saying yes.
Hanna was the last to leave me. I almost managed to persuade her to refuse. They promised me change. She’d said, not quite meeting my eyes. They promised me the ability to shift, that I would never have to stay trapped in one form.
I’d begged her to stay, telling her that our parents were right, it was never worth it. I told her she didn’t need to change herself to be able to breathe. But she felt suffocated, and in the end, even I hadn’t been enough to change her mind.
They visited me that night, offering me freedom from the life I had. Don’t you ever wish you were different? They asked. Wouldn’t you like to change?
I woke up with a jolt, my reply dying on my lips. Change from you can only bring sorrow.
Still, I found myself staring at my reflection, wondering what I could have become if I’d said yes.
My friends’ absence haunted me, and I threw myself into school, then work, to try to distract myself.
Even still, every decision I struggled to make brought Harold to mind, how he would probably know right away which path was the best to take.
Every job interview and every party, I would look at my reflection and wonder if Hanna would’ve been more comfortable, with her ability to change her skin.
Every day at work, and every night I dragged myself home, I wondered what it was like for Cassy to not have to pretend to be nice to a shouting customer just so she could pay her bills.
They continued visiting my dreams, dangling offers, every one more tempting than the last. Wouldn’t you want to be famous, to be known? To have no need for food, to live without eating? To fly, to soar through the skies? To never be sick, never need sleep?
I would wake up in a sweat, or crying, or screaming at them. No! Leave me alone. You took my friends. I want nothing you could give me.
The last night they visited, I braced myself for their best, their juiciest offer. I prepared myself to shout the answer No! before I could even consider it.
Would you like to be with your friends? Would you like us to promise they would never leave your side again? Don’t you miss them?
My prepared answer died in my throat.
They saw my hesitation and pounced, showing me visions of my friends. Cassy, wearing beautiful finery, walking on diamonds that sprang at her feet. Harold, writing at a desk, papers piled high with his thoughts and knowledge. Hanna, dear Hanna, shifting into a tall, confidant woman before a mirror. Smiling at her reflection.
Yes. I’d murmured.
They’d eagerly pulled out the paperwork, eyes glowing, ready for me to sign.
Yes, I want to be with my friends. Yes, I miss them. Hands trembling, I’d taken the papers from them, glancing at the blank line at the bottom.
Then I’d looked back up at their hungry faces, and ripped the papers to shreds.
But when I see them again, it will be in spite of, not because of you.
They raged, they wailed, and I’d woken in a panic of tears and screaming.
They didn’t know, however. They must not have realized, but when they showed me my friends, they’d left a trail for me to follow. I wasn’t the kind of person to let a trail like that go cold.
It took me months before I found Harold. I’d barely recognized him, his face was so tired, so worn down. He jumped at the slightest noises. The bridge he’d burned between us was long gone, forgotten under a pile of nightmares.
I know things ignored by common man, he told me, and what men choose to ignore is the ugly, the terrible things in the world. I understand why, for who would want to dwell on such things?
He refused to sleep, terror filling his eyes. They promised I’d learn in my dreams, but they didn’t tell me what or how. Every night, there is a new terror to learn, a new horror to discover. His eyes were hollow.
They feed off of their cruelty. It was the first thing I learned.
I took him with me, to my home tucked back on a forested hill, away from the jarring sounds of the city. I did what I could to make him comfortable, trying to find something to give him so he could sleep without dreams. I reassured him when he panicked and kept soft music on to soothe him, hoping that maybe, if I take away the satisfaction in their cruelty, they might grow bored and leave him alone.
I found Cassy a year later, lying in a hospital bed. Her feet had been shredded by the diamonds constantly below her feet. Her lips were swollen shut from the rubies that had scraped by as they fell. She hadn’t been able to eat because of the swelling and pain.
How foolish I was, she wrote for me, to believe I could escape suffering and pain. I cannot be understood when I speak, the rubies garble my speech and cut my tongue and lips. I have become nothing more than a prize to be shown off. I belong in an art museum.
I’d taken her hands in mine, shaking my head. You belong with me, I’m taking you home. Perhaps you cannot escape suffering and pain, but maybe you can discover other things that make them bearable.
It took weeks for her mouth and feet to heal. I put her in my guest room on the main floor and found her a wheelchair. As long as her feet didn’t touch the ground, the diamonds were held at bay.
Harold cautiously started coming out of his room to learn sign language with us, so that Cassy doesn’t need to open her mouth to the rubies inside. Slowly, I saw his eyes catch the tiniest spark of joy as he learned something that wouldn’t haunt his every step.
Hanna was the hardest to find.
I looked everywhere before eventually, she found me. Deep in the allies of a no-good city, she was in the form of an old woman, bent over with age and barely strong enough to walk. When she found me, she collapsed into my arms in tears.
Every day, I wake in a new form. She’d whispered between sobs. They promised change. They never said I would have control of it. There is no stability, nothing remains once the day is over. I have been so alone for so long.
I held her and kept my voice firm and gentle. Not anymore. I promised her. You’re coming with me.
I put her in the last available room next door to mine, and every morning I would figure out what to do with the forms she took. Sometimes she would be a small animal, and she’d spend the day with one of us, often curled up on Cassy’s lap or laying in Harold’s arms. Sometimes she would wake in an elder’s body, and every once in a while we would have to care for her in a baby’s form.
Always, she woke in a body not her own, and we would care for her in whatever way we could.
Years have passed, and slowly, the four of us found a normality that was our own. As time wore on, I think we became unsatisfying for them–for those creatures of our nightmares.
A month ago, I smiled through my falling tears as Cassy slowly spoke for the first time without a single ruby dropping from her mouth. She was asking for help to reach a book on the shelf.
Last week, Hanna woke up in her original form–or what we think her form would look like after her teenage years–and stayed that way for two days before changing again.
Just yesterday, Harold told me he slept the whole night through and he’d had a regular dream without terrors. He goes for short walks outside now, pushing himself a little further every week.
Their eyes are sparking with hope again. I’m beginning to have more time to myself, to work, to think, to do what I love.
I think I love working against those monsters from our teenage years. They don’t have a name, and they don’t need one. I don’t plan on letting them live much longer anyway, and they don’t need to be remembered.
My friends agree.
Harold tells me everything he knows about them, along with where they usually leave their victims to wander with their curses.
Cassy gave me a box of diamonds and rubies that she’d saved, from the times when she’d tried walking or speaking before their promises had begun wearing off. Use their curses against them, she said to me with triumph in her eyes, find people to save with the gems they gave us.
Hanna stays by my side, ready to open her arms to the frightened, the lonely, and the disparaging. I will be here for the people we find, she promised me, like you were there for us.
My home is expanding, more rooms are being built in, and more people are arriving, clinging to the frailest hope that we fan into a flame.
There were four of us.
Now we will become many, many more.