"She's gone." Eric set his coffee mug down with a symbolic thud. Mara whirled away from the filing cabinet, her eyes wide in disbelief, and stormed over to his side.
"What do you mean?" she demanded, bending low over the computer screen. "You're kidding! I specifically told her not to fall asleep. And what does she do half an hour later? She falls asleep!"
"I don't think it was voluntary," Eric mumbled, taking another swing of his coffee as he examined the page he had seconds ago printed off the internet.
"Of course it wasn't," Mara mumbled as she slumped into the chair beside him. "It's never on purpose. They just get so tired and decide to just rest for a bit and bam! They're here." She sighed and stifled a yawn, grabbing Eric's mug and sipping the hot liquid. "Trust me, I know."
Eric shook his head and ruffled the papers under his partner's nose. "No, I mean she wasn't even tired. According to these she was scheduled for an operation, one that required her to, well, you know."
Mara grabbed the thin sheets of paper and squinted to read the small print by the faint glow of the computer screen. "Why didn't she tell us about an operation? We could have helped," she mumbled.
"How?" Eric questioned, swiveling around in his chair to pour himself another cup of coffee. "If she needed an operation, then she needed an operation. Not much we could have done."
Mara didn't respond. She sipped from the mug slowly, watching the flickering light of the screen. It always turned out like this. One second everything was safe, with only her and Eric at risk of unleashing the terrors of sleep into the real world, and then some smart ass kid came along and ruined everything. Why couldn't they just stay within the safety of their own dreams and not wander into the Other Half? It was hard enough dealing with the creations of your own mind, much less the problems of a whole other species.
"Alright, just tell me what she released," Mara said finally. Eric obediently typed something onto the keyboard and the next second a picture appeared on screen.
"Type C Nightmares. Not to bad, we can handle it," he said optimistically.
Mara grimaced. Staring back at her was a pale figure downed in a long, black coat that covered its thin body with swaths of fabric. Its face was hidden in shadow with only the terrorizing glare of its red eyes able to be seen. A milk white hand reached out toward the camera, as if trying to crush it in its clutches.
"I hate Type C," Mara muttered as she exited out of the screen. "How many?"
Eric squinted at the screen. "Only three, but one's female so we better hurry. You ready to go?"
Mara rolled her chair to her side of the room and lifted from the drawer in her nightstand a belt equipped with hand guns and disinfecting shots and numerous other necessities she required for her line of work. "Aren't I always?" she asked as she buckled it around her waist.
Mara waltzed into the hospital as if she owned the place. Head high, eyes wide, and her mouth positioned into something resembling between a grimace and a grin, she approached the reception desk, placing her hands firmly before of the nurse behind it.
"I would like to see Laura Anderson," she said briskly.
The woman looked up from her magazine long enough to acknowledge the haughty teenager before her. Through her wide lens glasses all she saw was a suspicious looking girl up to no good. "I can only grant access to family members," she said.
"Well make an exception," Mara demanded impatiently.
The nurse raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
Eric took Mara by her shoulders and pushed her away from the desk, taking her place before the angered nurse. "What my friend meant to say," he began, casting a wavering glance towards Mara, "was, are there any exceptions? It's very important that we get to see Laura."
The nurse sighed and flipped through a binder, chewing on the tip of her pen. "If she asks for you then I see no reason why you can't go in," she said. "What are your names?"
"Tell her Mara and Eric are here," Eric said and the nurse nodded to signal that they were dismissed. Mara was pulled away by Eric's determined grip and slumped into a chair in the waiting room, folding her arms across her chest.
"I hate hospitals," she told him. Eric rolled his eyes and slid into the seat next to her, selecting a magazine from the table beside him.
"They save lives," he told her as he flipped through the pages. Mara only snorted and fell deeper into her seat.
The time passed slowly, as if time had frozen and had nothing better to do than torment Mara. She fiddled with a stray thread in her jacket, the one that covered the tool belt around her waist, and hummed under her breath until Eric cast an annoyed glance. After that she took to counting ceiling tiles.
"Is there a Ms. Mara and Mr. Eric here?" a timid voice called.
Eric had to grab Mara's shoulder to stop her from jumping out of her seat.
"Inconspicuous, remember?" he whispered as he calmly rose to his feet and approached the nurse who had spoken.
"That's us," he said, flashing a quick smile. The nurse nodded and opened the doors leading to the recovering rooms.
"A Laura Anderson wishes to speak with you," she said.
Mara followed her partner through the wide double doors, keeping a hand in her pocket where a small handgun lay concealed. "You see anything?" she whispered. Eric only shook his head.
The nurse led them to a small room at the end of corridor, painted blue with a small window to peek through. A young girl of maybe 12 years lay on a cot, plastic tubing running through her nose and her gaze turned toward the TV.
"I'll just leave you alone then," the nurse said and turned back down the hallway.
"Alright, they're probably in there," Eric muttered as soon as she was out of ear shot. "Stay alert but don't shoot unless you're sure what it is. There are lots of people here and I don't think they'd hesitate to call the police."
"I'm not stupid, Eric," Mara whispered back. "I know what to do. Just open the damn door."
Eric glared but twisted the door knob gently, and the door swung open on a gust of air. Laura turned to look at them, her bright eyes a symbol of innocence.
"Hey," she said softly before turning her attention back to the screen.
"Hey yourself," Mara said, taking a seat beside the bed. "Why didn't you tell us you were getting an operation?"
Laura shrugged. "I didn't think they'd put me to sleep," she said.
"What'd they do, exactly?" Eric asked, his eyes searching the room fleetingly.
"Took out my appendixes or something," she said absently.
Out of the corner of her eye Mara saw a shadow move. She breathed in sharply, but said nothing. "Did you dream, Laura?" she asked instead.
The girl shrugged again. "I don't remember."
Mara's hands clenched into fists at her side but at a warning look from Eric, she kept her mouth shut.
"Laura, please," he said as he stepped in front of the TV, "you have to remember. Tell us what you dreamed about."
Laura sighed, her brow furrowed in concentration. "Let me see…there was an ice cream cone that talked and a bunch of marshmallows sitting around a campfire and some sort of white thing—"
"Whoa, hold on," Mara cut in. "What did this thing look like?"
"I said it was white didn't I?" Laura huffed impatiently.
"Well yeah but can you give us a little more detail? Was it tall or short? Did it have hair or cuts or something? Was it—"
Eric cut her off with a wave of his hand. Mara fell silent immediately, watching her partner peek outside the door and return with a grim expression.
"They're here," he said.
Mara cursed, whipping her gun out of her pocket. Laura sat unmoving on the bed, watching as the two approached the door cautiously, opening it faintly.
"All of them?" Mara whispered.
Eric nodded. "They're weak though. They've been here to long. We should get them easily."
Mara wasn't so sure. "Let's just get this over with. I'll take the two on the left."
"I don't think so, Mara."
"Why not? I can handle them."
Eric raised an eyebrow. "Remember what happened last month?"
Mara's cheeks reddened. "That was different," she said sheepishly.
"We'll shoot one down from here and then take one each when they charge. How's that?" he said.
"Fine, but I get the big one," she answered firmly, adjusting her position to have a better aim at the back of one of the pale creatures. They were searching the corridor with an anticipation she had never seen before; eagerly throwing open doors in search of their prey.
"Six yards away," Mara whispered, squinting one eye shut as she lifted the weapon's barrel so it was directed between the Nightmare's eyes. Its skin was chalk-white, pulled tightly over a rounded skull in an almost inhuman-like fashion. The gleaming red eyes Mara had become so accustomed to were hidden behind wide sun glasses and its unnaturally long fingers where concealed beneath gloves. "Three doors down," she added.
Eric clamped his hands over his ears. "You only get one shot," he reminded her.
Mara didn't reply. She raised her hand slightly, hesitated for only a moment, and pulled the trigger.
It was hard to distinguish whose scream was louder: the Nightmare's or Laura's.
"What the hell?" she muttered, turning at the young girls shriek. Laura lay motionless on the bed, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling tiles, her skin a sickly shade of gray. "Eric, what's going on?" Mara gasped.
Before he could answer a pale hand wrapped its long fingers around his throat, hoisted him off his feet, and slammed him against the wall. Eric coughed and sputtered, furiously clawing at the creature's hands as its grip contracted, cutting off the air to his windpipe. Mara adjusted her aim to Eric's captor but as she reached to pull the trigger a different creature seized her by the shoulders and threw her onto the floor. It leaned over her with a menacing grin plastered across its thin lips, chuckling unnaturally as it raised her own gun, aiming it shakily at her forehead.
Eric could feel himself loosing consciousness. His fight was weakening and the Nightmare was only growing stronger, its face looming dangerously close to his.
"Who's the tough guy now?" it said in a raspy chuckle. Eric's hands where shaking and he could feel his cheeks getting numb, the blood traveling to his brain turning to only a mere trickle. Time was running out. Without considering the consequences Eric grabbed the creature's wrists with both hands and pushed against it with all the force he had left, adding to it with a lunge against the wall with his feet. With a strangled cry the creature fell onto its comrade whose aim was mislaid from Mara's forehead to her shoulder.
She screamed anyway.
Eric launched himself at the Nightmares, grabbing each in one hand and slamming them against each other. They staggered on the knees, reaching out their long, skinny arms to keep their balance. One tripped over Mara's legs and, seizing her gun from beside her, she shot it in the back. Eric slammed the other's head against the floor and knocked it unconscious.
Mara let herself relax against the floor, clutching her shoulder. The wound wasn't large, hardly the circumference of quarter, but it throbbed through her arm like a million pins stabbing her at once. Eric leaned against the wall and breathed deeply in an attempt to return the oxygen to his head. He could feel the bruises that encircled his neck and reached out a tentative hand to touch them, only to draw back sharply.
"Well this sucks," Mara gasped, shoving the creature's body off her legs with her good arm. "Now what?"
"We…get out of…here," Eric said. He was short of breath and his words came out painful and slow. "Come on…back to the…apartment."
Mara nodded and hoisted herself to her feet. She stole a quick glance at Laura, who remained motionless on the bed and allowed herself a soft sigh of pity. "Guess they got to her after all," she muttered as she stumbled out the door.
Eric sipped his coffee and winced, each swallow a new pain in his throat. The computer screen before him was wavering in and out of focus, but he strained his eyes to focus on the printed words.
"What the hell?" he muttered, leaning closer to the screen.
"What?" Mara called from her place on the couch. She stood and wandered to his side, her right arm supported by a sling. "What'd you find?"
He shook his head. "I'm not sure," he said in a raspy whisper. "It looks like rain."
Mara raised a critical eyebrow. "What's wrong with rain?"
"It's….different. Usually rain moves in from somewhere but this one…it just appeared.
He shook his head. "I'm not sure, but something seems wrong to me."
Mara rolled her eyes and went back to the couch. "You worry too much. Try to think positively: if there's a storm, then we finally get to sleep for once," she said.
Eric had to smile at that. It was true: if lightening was the case tonight then they would finally be able to rest without having to worry about crossing to the Other Side and unleashing the Nightmares. Just like Laura the two were able to grant access to the creatures, but their ability was much stronger. Laura had only ever been able to produce a Type D or below, but Eric and Mara were capable of at least a Type B, maybe even A.
"Just watch for a storm, Eric, and quit worrying," Mara said as she relaxed against the cushions.
"Easier said than done," Eric muttered, but reluctantly excited out of the screen and went to join Mara on the couch.
"I thought you were going to watch for one?" Mara asked as she flipped on the small TV before them. Eric shrugged and grabbed a soda from the mini-fridge beside the couch.
"Just listen for thunder," he said as he popped the can.
"You're lazy today," Mara noted. He ignored her, concentrating on the TV. She sighed and settled into the cushions, adjusting her sling into a more comfortable position. Television had never been her favorite pastime, but she dutifully endured it in silence as rain splashed against the tiny apartment's windows. She eagerly awaited the anticipated crash of thunder or flash lightening, feeling her eyelids droop and her yawns grow wider as her consciousness slowly left her.
It was strange how tired she could become on a boring night simply sitting at home but her alert she was on a search for Nightmares. She and Eric on average probably only received fifteen hours of sleep a month, if they were lucky. They could only rest peacefully during a lightening storm, as the door to the Other Half was closed when such electricity and power was thrust wildly into the air. Not that they needed much sleep anyway, they wouldn't be alive if they were like normal humans, but thankfully for them they were a special case. Everyone who could call Nightmares from the Other Half was a special case. They didn't need to rest even a quarter of the amount normal humans did, maybe not even half of that. Mara didn't know, she was hopeless when it came to math.
Just as she was about to give up hope of receiving a good nights rest tonight, she heard it: the unmistakable crash of distant thunder.
"Yes!" Mara shouted, jumping off the couch and pumping her good hand into the air. Eric lifted a questioning eyebrow in her direction, but couldn't hide the smile from creeping up his face. "Alright, get off," she said once she was sober again.
"What'd you mean?" Eric asked.
"I get the first sleep since I was injured the most, so get off the couch," and she grabbed him by the shoulder and dumped him onto the floor. Eric glared as he propped himself on his elbows, watching her grab a blanket from the linen closet and falling onto the couch's cushions with a sigh.
"You get twenty minutes," Eric muttered as he fell into his desk chair.
"Yeah, yeah," Mara muttered, and in seconds she was fast asleep.
Eric logged onto the local news channel's website and checked the status of the storm. It looked like a big one, with promise of lasting at least two hours. If he was lucky he would at least get an hour of that. The two traded off their sleeping times for obvious reasons: in order to not sleep beyond the storms presence. If they dreamed after it had passed, they were at a good risk of releasing the Nightmares. So he settled back and set his watch's timer for twenty minutes.
The night was silent and still, with only the downfall of rain on the roof to disturb the peace. Eric struggled to keep his eyes open, watching the now muted TV behind half-closed lids. He knew he didn't have long to wait, only ten minutes left at the most. He could do it. He could stay awake for just a while longer…
Soon he was snoring.
Minutes later, the storm had stopped.