It looked up at me with sallow eyes, sunken into his decrepit skull; tear trails of blood stained taut, crusted cheeks. Lips drew tight against foul-looking teeth, the corners stretching to the edge of a lower jaw bone. Holes entered the skull where cartilage of ear and nose should be. It sat hunched in a corner, completely hairless; leathery and scarred skin barely covered bone, wiry sinew the only thing showing life in the rest of the skeletal body. The fingers ended in pointy claws with small, broken nails adorning both grotesque hand and foot.
My back was against a wall. The only door to this room was across it, next to where the thing had apparently been hiding the entire time. All my hairs stood on end, and it hurt to breath, I was so scared. I dared not move, in case it would attack me.
The silence stretched out between us in the torchlight. I forced myself to breathe, albeit short and shallow gasps, my hands nervously twitching against the wood planks of the wall behind me. The thing never moved. It just sat there, curled up in the corner, gazing into my eyes with sadness. I finally worked up the nerve to say something.
“Who – what are you?”
The creature flinched at my question.
“What are you?” I asked the gray form again.
It shifted a little, moving away from me and pressing its bony side into the wall. Those gray, sunken eyes never left my own, staring sideways at me.
“Can... can you understand me?” I asked hesitantly.
It looked away for a second, and then returned its gaze to me, moving its head up and down in an almost imperceptible nod.
“Can you talk?”
A visible shift in what appeared to be the creature's adam's apple produced a dry, husky swallow. It nodded again.
I worked up my nerve, and then took a small step forward towards it and the door. I kept my fingertips on the wall behind me.
“What are you?” I spoke once more.
Its eyes seemed to glisten with moisture, and it looked away again. I debated taking a step closer, and then a heaving, scratchy voice hissed through the room as the creature opened its mouth, and I took a step back as it spoke to me for the first time.
“I am nightmares,” it said, turning its mournful gaze back to me. “I am the thing that stalks all dreams, all fears. I am the boogeyman, the monster under your bed, the vampire. I go by many names.” It paused a moment, its lower jaw trembling. “But I am none of these things.”
I hesitated before questioning further; the hissing stung my ears and chilled me to the bone. “So what are you?”
The beast snorted once, twice, three times in what almost sounded like a slow laugh. “I'm nothing you know, or ever will.” It wrapped its bony arms tighter around itself and began rocking back and forth, removing its gaze from me and tucking its chin behind the knobby knees.
“Do you have a name?”
The thing shook its head. “I have no name I go by.” It stopped rocking and looked back at me. “But I have one I would like to be called.”
A moment's silence. “Nemo.”
“Nemo?” I echoed dumbly. “Why Nemo?”
It took a moment, looking as if considering something. And then it unraveled and stood up.
My body cowered in the corner; I pressed myself against the wall, pulling my legs close to my chest, my heart beating hard in my ears.
He stood nearly eight feet tall; the top of his skull brushed against the peeled ceiling, bony shoulders scrunched up around his ear holes. I could see each rib as it radiated out from the sternum and wrapped around to the creature's protruding spine; an empty, desiccated gut was visible through the bundle of skin stretched taut between the chest and pelvis. A small shriveled something-or-other dangled between his thigh bones. Veiny sinews reached up from each thigh onto the hips, and created almost frost-like patterns under the skin. Spindly arms hung down, the fingertips of each ugly hand reaching almost to the knee. The thing's membrane was covered with knifelike impressions, almost like it had been cut time and time again.
“That,” the beast cracked once more, “is exactly the reaction of everyone I have met throughout the last three hundred years. They see me, and they run in terror.” He turned away... and I saw the bloody tears sliding down his face.
“I was driven from all the lands where people lived. I was called a demon, a spawn of Hell, and many more hurtful things... none of which are true. I was born with a neverending want to love, and share my wisdoms granted to me from birth. I want to help, I want to love.
“I thought perhaps somehow, some way, a person would wait, give me a chance to speak. But no. Humans cannot bear to look upon me. They shun me, beat me, try to kill me, drive me away.” He collapsed back into a sitting position against the wall, not bothering to wipe the drops of blood away from his cheeks. “But I cannot die, and every time I meet someone new, they strike me and bring fresh pain, or they run.”
“I'm still here.”
His eyes found mine. He smiled – a sickly, twisted Glasgow smile of melancholy.
“And I fear it is too late. For now I cannot remember any message I could impart that I had upon my creation.”
“So why Nemo?” I asked again.
He looked down. “Nemo. In Latin, it means human.”
“So you want to be human?”
He looked up at me again, the sad smile coming back wider, his lips parting farther into a nihilistic grin to reveal recurving fangs, browned and chipped. “No. Humans are so able to feel love... but you choose to feel fear instead. Something comes to your attention that you don't understand, you choose to fear it, run from it, deny that it can exist for any good.”
I stared at him, perplexed. “So then, why Nemo if you don't want to be human?”
His grin faded as he curled up into a ball again, seeming to shrink in size as he slowly wrapped his arms around his legs.
“It also means nothing. For that is what I wish to be. I no longer have purpose, any real identity, no reason to exist. I'm nothing but an eyesore.”
We sat in silence, both of us curled into our own little balls. Thoughts raced through my mind. Three hundred years? Wanting to share knowledge? Wanting to love? I glanced at the creature, taking in its hideous form. What if he's lying to me? What if he is some sort of demon, trying to trick me? Is such a horrifying being even capable of love?
Can I trust him?
“Why did you come here?” the creature croaked at me, snapping me out of my reverie.
“Because this place was said to be abandoned for thirty years and to be haunted, and I wanted to see if it was true.”
He stared unhappily at the floor. “So it would seem I am forced to move elsewhere again.”
He unfurled himself, and stood once again. He seemed a little shorter this time; he was stranding straighter, his head not bumping the ceiling anymore. He turned and slowly moved through the open door, bending under the doorframe.
He kept walking, the light from my torch burrowing into his fleshy back.
“Hey, wait!” I stood up and quickly stepped outside, turning to where he had wandered out of sight. My torch passed over the walls of an empty hall, rotten beams from the ceiling fallen to the slat floor in showers of dust and rotten wood chips. Wallpaper peeled off the walls, faded beyond any recognizable pattern.
“Hello?” I called out, moving forward and looking into each room as I passed them. A kitchen with a collapsed wooden stove, a sort of bedroom with a moth-eaten mattress and a smashed dresser, a library with a few tattered books strewn about the floor along the empty rotting shelves and collapsed chairs. I called out again as I stepped into the foyer. I followed the beam of light as it passed over rubble of the collapsed stairwell and the open door I had come through. I listened, hearing nothing but the faint sound of crickets outside. The nearest sign of lived-in civilization was a good three miles away.
I made my way towards the open door, wondering if what I had seen was all a dream, if I had blacked out or something else. As I stepped over the threshold onto the first of three concrete steps down to the pathway leading up to the house, the sound of the crickets grew far louder, and I felt the chill of the midnight air seep through my clothes. I looked around again, searching outside for the creature.
I called out once more.
My voice was answered with chirping and the hoot of an owl in the distance.
I turned back towards the house, debating whether I should go back inside or go home, when I felt an icy hand wrap itself around my shoulder. I froze up as I suddenly felt a presence behind me, a head lowering itself down next to my ear.
I waited for words, but heard nothing.
“N-Nemo?” I stammered, my teeth chattering. I couldn't turn around if I tried; my body felt paralyzed, locked in place.
A small puff of frigid air blew over my bare neck, sending a shiver down my spine. The hand on my shoulder released its grasp, and I felt myself shaking.
“Nemo, if that's you, please say something.”
I heard nothing. I didn't even feel the presence behind me anymore. Slowly, I turned around, pointing the torch in front of me like a weapon.
There was nothing there.
“Nemo, this isn't funny.” I began looking around frantically, breaking out in a cold sweat.
I heard a crack behind me, and I whirled around, directly into a shadowed face with burning yellow eyes. Before I could move, frozen hands gripped my arms, and I was staring into a face straight from Hell. My torch spilled light across an empty abdomen and a ribcage covered with a mottled gray membrane. I could see the vertebrae connecting the chest and the pelvis.
I couldn't speak. It was as if its touch turned my body to ice; I couldn't move, couldn't think, couldn't hear. Those eyes, little yellow orbs of spiteful fire...
“I am sorry,” the face hissed viciously, blowing glacial air across my face. “I forgot what being with someone was like.”
“It's no problem,” I hear myself saying, and jerk up out of bed, sweating bullets.
I look around. The warm green walls covered with posters and school pictures greet my eyes in the bright moonlight, my stocked bookshelf and dresser standing in their happy places at the foot of my twin bed. To the left is my little oak nightstand with the goofy dinosaur lamp, my old Magic cards scattered around a half full cup of water and the alarm clock. I can barely discern the analog display reading 3:04.
I rub my eyes, picking up the cup and taking a swig of the water. I swallow and set the empty cup down with a sigh.
I glance to the right corner of my room. I smile, and lay myself back down, pulling the covers up to my chin as I close my eyes.
I roll to the side and drape my arm down the side of the bed. I can almost touch the floor now. Finally. It only took twenty years of growth.
I feel something wrap around my fingers. The touch is cool, but soft, caressing, gentle.
“Have a nightmare?” I hear a voice quietly croak out.
“Yes. It was of you again.”
“You cannot ever forget that first meeting, can you?”
I smile. “Nope.”
“How are you feeling?”
“You know after next month, backing out of this is not an option?”
“I know. But I want to help you remember.”
I feel the fingers slip away, and warmth returns to my body. I open my eyes, watching the corner of my room, and I can barely make out two small yellow pinpricks and a vague shape. He stands shorter now, maybe six and a half feet tall. He doesn't want to come out where I can see him well; he says it will frighten me again, and we'd have to start this over again, if I do not decide to back out. He also does not want me looking at my reflection if I can help it; that is far more difficult, as my curiosity is growing ever more about the changes I can feel occurring in my body and my mind.
Lately, I have been interacting less and less with other people. Sometimes I get odd stares from people passing by me on the street, and people at school give me a wide berth when I'm walking through the hall. I still have a few close friends, but we don't hang out much anymore; I miss the old times, but they give me similar looks like the strangers and ask if I'm okay. They have been doing it more often, and in consequence I want to hang out with them less frequently, and more at home with Nemo. I like them more and more, but their actions have slowly distanced me into isolation.
I look at our newest canvas piece in the moonlight – swirls of mechanical structures mixed with flesh, all in greys and muted browns. I have been doing more creative work at Nemo's recommendation; my drawings have suddenly evolved from little measly sketches to really cool paintings, things of almost an otherworldy nature. He has been painting, too – landscapes that look like they could come to life, portraits of people that look like a photograph. He says it will help the process go, help speed things up. What he means by that, I'm not totally sure, but I know I am changing into something different – what I can see of my body looks more matured, almost every waking moment I have information pouring into my mind like liquid mercury, little tidbits of the world like what my friends are thinking when they see me, to such broad ideas like the creation of the universe.
“You know, you never told me why you wanted to help me remember.” Though still rough and dry, Nemo's voice has grown more tolerable, less grating on my ears.
“I don't know what your message was. If I can do something to help it come back, I'm willing to try. It might be something that could help everyone.”
Even though I cannot see it, I know he is grinning his nasty little grin. He's grown much more amicable and happy. Even though we do not really see each other, we both enjoy the interaction. He tells me I am the first person that has allowed him to love, and I am learning so much from him.
“I truly hope so. I'd hate to finally remember and realize it is a doomsday message.”
We both chuckle, and I stop short as I realize it is the first time he's spoken with a contraction.
“What's wrong?” he asks.
“I am not the only one changing, am I? You are changing too.”
The room fills with silence. For the first time in a long time, I am unsettled while awake.
“Yes,” Nemo finally answers. “I'm changing too.”
“What are you becoming?”
I watch the pinpricks of yellow spin away into his silhouette, then reappear. “I want to tell you, but I don't think you are ready yet.”
“I have grown and changed a fair amount myself, Nemo. I think I can handle a little extra information.”
He says nothing. I start feeling sadness creeping forth from his shadow.
I reach forward with a hand, somehow grasping his without even trying. “I just want the truth, Nemo. That is all.”
He pulls away from me, and I watch as his form sidles up to the window. He pulls the blinds; as he does so, I catch a glimpse of his hand. It is far more human than I remembered – the taut skin seems to be hanging more loosely, the tips of his finger bones not quite so daggerlike at the ends. It looks almost human. As he drops the blinds, we are pitched into darkness. Small beams of light trickle through the closed blinds, but only enough to let me see Nemo walk up to my bed, and kneel down in front of me.
“What is it?” I ask him.
“I am beginning to remember.” His eyes burn at me from the darkness enshrouding his face. I make no reply, waiting for him to continue.
“You are right; you are changing. Changing into a form so full of love, so knowing what it's like to want to love, and be unable to. Something so full of knowledge, so one with the secrets of the universe... and unable to share it, because people won't listen.”
“So you refuse to tell me anything?”
“I tell you nothing, because all that I could tell you will come to you in time. But you will forget other things. Who you are, how this happened...”
“What do you mean?”
A torrid chuckle passed Nemo's lips. “I forgot too, until just now.”
“What?” I ask again.
“I used to be human.”
I feel his clammy hand touch my cold shoulder. “I used to be human, like you.”
He leans in close. His breath is surprisingly warm as he speaks in a soothing, gravely tone for the first time. His eyes have changed color; all I see is the blackness of his face as it hangs above mine.
“And it's the most wonderful thing to be in this world. When you and I trade places, I have the power to choose again.”
He pulls the blinds, and I stare.
He is in my body.
“How dare you!” I hiss at him. I reach for my throat when I realize the dry cracking was me; my bony hand clutches at loose folds of withered flesh.
“It's nothing personal. You get to learn a lot, being around for three centuries.” He walks over to the dresser, and pulls out a pair of boxers, slipping them on.
I throw the covers away, standing up beside the bed. I suddenly realize I am nearly a foot taller as my head touches the ceiling. I feel a tickling sensation on my back and shoulders; I look down, and see hair drifting down onto the floor. My hair.
“You know what the best thing about this is?” He turns towards me, eyes alight with golden streaks for the last time. “Tomorrow morning, I will think this is all a dream. And in fifty years, I get to die, and forget all of this the next time around.”
“What about me?” I croak. I take a step towards him.
“You got as much time as you want. Create a potion for immortality. Paint the Mona Lisa again, by all means. Teach humanity what it means to accept someone for what they truly are. If you can, that is.” He walks over to the bed and flops onto it with a groan.
“Oh man, I missed this... it feels so good to sleep. So good to dream.”
“I already told you, this is my life now. We both have so much potential at our fingertips. If you want to skulk around me and kill me, fine. I get to rest sooner. Or, you can do something really great. You have all the time in the world.”
I consider his words. Forever to discover something? To figure out the secrets of the universe, what makes man tick? Perhaps this is better than it sounded.
I look down at his sleeping form. I know that, as much as I want to stay, I have to go elsewhere.
“Goodnight, then.” I turn to the window and slide it open.
I smile a thin smile, and slip out the window onto the ground, off into the night.