You know that moment where you felt like you've been denied essential, NEED-TO-KNOW information? I'm having one of those moments.
I can't believe that Jamie went off to save the world without telling me – and, more importantly, without inviting me along for the adventure.
"And that, child, is how I came to be imprisoned in my own realm. I hope you enjoyed that story, because I am never going to tell it again. Now, if you would do me the same… pleasure… and explain yourself: how did you come to be stuck in here with me?"
Despite the seriousness of the question, I have to hold back laughter. Mr. Blackie (that's my newest nickname for him) is clearly oblivious, because even after our game of "20 Demands" and Ring-Around-the-Boogeyman, he still hasn't noticed his stylish mustache. I'll tell him eventually, but I don't think he needs to know that right now. Besides, he asked me a fair question, so I guess I should give him an answer.
"Very well then, Blackie. My story starts with two young children – I have a feeling you know at least one of them, actually. Their names are Sophie and Jamie Bennett –"
Booger's eyes flash in recognition. The only way to describe his subsequent scream is that it sounded vaguely like an exploding lawnmower. "JAMIE. BENNETT!" He's actually shaking – I thought that people only did that in movies, but he looks like a soda can that's about to blow. "That's the human brat who befriended Frost and ruined my whole plan!"
I am suddenly weightless again; his fingers encircle my throat, squeezing tighter with every breath, making breathing become more and more of a challenge. Booger brings me up to his eye level- he is about a foot taller than me mind you- and judging by his expression, he is not thinking about rainbows and ponies.
"Where. Is. That. Brat?"
Dear God, he really is Mr. About-To-Beat-My-Brains-Out!
I kick my legs wildly in the air, desperately trying to get a foothold, a handhold, an anything-hold that will make him let go of my neck. Patches of black are fading in and out of my vision. As a last resort, I kick him in the place where no man should be kicked – yep, that place. I went there. I have no regrets. Sorry, Booger, but I like my air… and you, my friend, were taking that away.
My aim was true; the kick, solid. The aftermath: He sounds like a balloon leaking air. He collapses to the floor in pain, holding his… uh… manliness. Is he dead? I hope not. I'll have to talk to the shadow-ponies for the rest of my life… I nudge him; he manages a sound that reminds me of a squeaky toy. Well, he's not dead, I decide. And I have a new nickname for Boogers – Sir Squeaky.
"Ha! That's what you get, Sir Squeaky, for messing with Haley the Nightmare Tamer, Master of the Groin Kick! But back to the story – Sophie and Jamie Bennett were oh-so-worried about their beloved babysitter, and told her she should go outside for a walk, so the babysitter – who, in case you didn't figure it out yet, my dear Booger, is me – took a walk in the woods. And then… Oh! Hold on a second."
Leaving the slowly recovering Sir Squeaky behind, I run over to get my flashlight; it makes everything scarier and much more dramatic. Finding my old-fashioned black flashlight, I return to continue my story.
Plopping on my makeshift chair/story-telling mat (aka. my sleeping bag), I flip the switch that gives light.
"Where was I – oh, yes! The Babysitter – that's me, in case you forgot, seeing as you're currently distracted by your man-pain – well, I decided to venture into the deep, dark woods, which are rumored to make unlucky girls disappear, never to return… ooOOOOOOOO!" I wave my flashlight under my face for added effect, but sadly, Boogerman has recovered enough to be unimpressed by my amazing theater effects, if the rolling of his eyes is anything to go by.
"Do you think that will scare me, the Nightmare King? If so, then you are more foolish than I thought, brat."
I shake my head and stick my tongue out at him. I may be foolish, but at least I don't sound like I'm on helium.
"Now, before I was so rudely interrupted by SOMEONE WHOSE NAME STARTS WITH BOOGER… the girl went into the woods, found a clearing with a broken bedframe, realized belatedly that said bedframe covered a hole in the ground, and proceeded to fall into said hole in the ground. The hole, which magically disappeared, led to the horribly decorated home of the aforementioned SOMEONE WHOSE NAME STARTS WITH BOOGER, who wears dresses in public. I hope you enjoyed today's 'Story time with Haley'… because Haley dislikes listeners who interrupt. Especially when their names start with BOOGER."
By the time I said man-dresses, Booger looked ready to go for round two of "Tackle the Babysitter", but I guess the idea of having an even sorer bottom – or even worse, another groin kick – was not on his agenda.
"This is not a dress. It is a robe. A roooooobbbbeeee," he says, drawing out the word for effect.
Well, then – it looks like Booger is trying to defend his nonexistent pride. Unfortunately, I can hear the horses snickering behind me. My internal shadow-horse-inese translator informs me that they're saying, "Of course it's not a dress…" and laughing dementedly.
The shadow-horses are on my side. In your face, Blackie.
Speaking of Blackie – I should probably pick up that water bottle I used to wake up him up.
I stand up to retrieve the empty plastic bottle I left on the floor, leaving Pitch as a sputtering, prideful mess. Why did I leave him, might you ask? Because I want to recycle the water bottle, be green, save the world. My parents taught me well, contrary to popular belief. A certain someone whose name starts with BOOGER thinks I was dropped on my head as a child.
I kneel down on the cold gray floor, water bottle in hand – and that's when I notice the label. Hey! This isn't the type of water bottle in my backpack… Where did Fredrick get that water bottle? The only place he could get this is… My eyes bug out of my head; at least, they must be, because they feel like they're going to pop out of my face. He must have reached a store… which means that HE HAS A WAY OUT OF HERE.
HE HAS A STINKING WAY OUT OF HERE.
Annoyance and anger boil beneath my skin, and I start trembling like a time bomb. "Fredrick! Where in Hades are you?!"
My trusty steed appears besides me in a flurry of dark sand, whinnying nervously from my call, probably thinking something along the lines of, "Please don't braid rainbow ribbon in my mane."
I give Fredrick my best glare-o-doom, which I have successfully learned from Sir Squeaky. "Why didn't you tell me that you can – oh, I don't know – LEAVE?" Tapping my foot impatiently, (I've never been a patient person,) I wait for Fredrick's answer.
Suddenly, a pressure on my shoulder reminds me that I might not be the only one who did not know this very important piece of information.
"Yes, Fredrick," Boogerman says. He's crawling towards me, teeth clenched, making a sound like an injured ferret. "Why didn't … nor the child… know that you, along with the rest of your… kind, can… leave?"
At this point, Fredrick looks ready to make a mad dash to the nearest shadow. In fact, he looks ready to hide there for the next fifty years.
I blink, and at some point during the blink, Fredrick bolts. Another shadow-horse guards his retreat, but alas, said shadow-horse is promptly wrestled by Ferret-Man (yes, I went there). Despite his defeat, the shadow-horse holds his head high, as if to say, "I served my fellow horses with honor, and with honor, I will die."
Pitch promptly disintegrates the shadow-horse with a snap of his fingers, and then proceeds to form reins out of the resulting dust. He passes the reins to me; they feel cold in my hands, and impossibly light, as if they aren't really here.
"You are the first human who has not run away screaming with terror," Ferret-Man squeaks. "And for that, I grant your wish to leave."
I look at the reins in my hand before meeting his eyes. "You do realize I'm going to come back and visit, right?"
He smirks, his gold eyes sparkling with… humor?
"I would have it no other way, child."
This would a profound moment, if only his voice didn't sound like Elmo.
Still, I can't help the flash of joy that spreads across my face. I'm free. I'M FREE.
"Onward, my steed… to the surface!"
And we're off, the wind blowing my hair behind me. Shadows surround and enfold me, we race upwards towards the ceiling, there's a splitting pain in my head… and I fall into darkness.
I awaken to the sound of horse laughter, accompanied by the smug, moustache-less face of Probably-No-Longer-A-Ferret-Man.
"What…happened?" I mumble. I mentally add, And where is your mustache? I sit up slowly, but the dizziness is still powerful enough that I almost pass out.
He looks down at me and says in a soft, certain voice, "You can't leave; you are stuck here, just as I am. When the Guardians locked me in, they took away any chance of anyone getting out of here for at least ten years."
My eyes widen. He rammed my skull into the ceiling on purpose, but now I have a bigger problem. Stuck… for… ten… years… In ten years, my mom could get married; Jamie could get a girlfriend; Sophie would be about my age now; I would be twenty-five when I got out of here, if I ever escaped at all.
My vision blurs asI feel tears trickle down my face. "My mom will think I'm dead. She… she won't be able to handle that, not… not with what happened…" My voice cracks; I'm sobbing now, full-blown sobbing, but I'm breaking down now and I just don't care.
I hear the ruffling of fabric, followed shortly by the Pitch's hand as he abruptly lifts my chin; he wipes away my tears, his thumb pressing against my cheek. "You shouldn't cry; it doesn't work with your… special personality." His voice was gruff, but I could hear a faint, comforting undertone – the whisper of what might have once been a nice guy.
I look up at him, my vision still interrupted by blotches of color, before shoving my body into his suddenly stiff form. I wrap my arms around his body, my fingers digging into the back of his clothes, like it's my lifeline. And maybe it is. I can't think through the tears.
"I'm scared," I whisper, but I'm not sure if I'm talking to him, or the shadow-horses, or myself. "I don't want to be alone anymore."
Slowly, he relaxes, wrapping his arms around my still-shaking figure. "You don't have to be afraid of being alone… your nightmares will never leave you." I shiver at that truth, conflicted sensations of comfort and fear coursing through my veins. Maybe he means to help me, but the words make me shake harder. "You don't need to be afraid of the Nightmares, either. I've never seen anyone else tame them. Maybe they… like you." His nose wrinkles at the thought, as if he's smelled something particularly unpleasant.
My grip on him eases as I start to calm down. A random thought enters my mind, and as curiosity gets the better of me, I ask, "When was the last time someone hugged you?"
His voice comes out in a low whisper. "A very, very long time ago…"
And maybe it's insensitive, but I have to ask. I bring my head up to look at him. "Who was it?"
He flinches, "My…my daughter." His eyes shut, and I recognize the look on his face. He's not hiding from me; he's hiding from himself.
I let go of him, giving him some space to breathe. "From what I can tell, you were an amazing dad... assuming that you didn't run her into ceilings, of course. I'm sure that she loved you."
He opens his gold eyes and looks down at me. "She did." He stands up suddenly, walking off towards a dark tunnel, and at the entrance he turns back to look at me. "No more crying; understand, Haley?"
I nod my head, a loopy grin finds its way to my lips. "Whatever you say, Blackie."
He smirks. "Good." And he walks into the shadows.