The Night Mare was coming. Everyone was talking about it. It’d been just over a year since its last feeding, so if there was ever a time for an entire town to hurry, even one as desolate and exhausted and down on its luck as Flandreau, this qualified. People had to get home. Get things ready. Their darkest dreams were waiting.
Lector squeezed his son’s hand as he hurried through the crowded streets. Having not slept well since his wife’s passing, he, perhaps more than most, could hardly contain himself.
“Papa, you’re hurting me!” cried Billy. “My legs aren’t as long as yours!”
“Sorry, son, but it’s already getting dark. We can’t be late. If we miss this feeding, we’ll have to wait another year, maybe longer. God knows we can’t afford that. You’re just going to have to try and keep up.”
To avoid the chaos, Lector tugged Billy down the alley known to the townsfolk as Waste Space, where everything imaginable and unimaginable was discarded. Thanks to the cloud coverage, Lector couldn’t identify what he and his son were treading through, but given its smell and mushiness, he had a few guesses.
“Come on, Billy,” said Lector, ignoring the brown spatter on his boots. They’d reached the cornfields. “We’re almost home.”
The rusted hinges squealed as Lector barged through the front door.
“Here.” Lector pulled on a pair of gloves, handing a second set to Billy. “I’ll grab mine while you gather yours. After that, we can load the wagon with what’s in the shed. It’ll take both of us since there’s still some of your mother’s in there.”
As Billy scampered down the hall, Lector stormed the other way, heading for his bedroom. Once there, he hurried to the corner where the dreamcatcher dangled from the ceiling. The second he grabbed the half-full jar resting beneath the feathers and beads, the inky liquid sloshed inside the glass, then started bubbling.
“You may be the worst of the worst,” said Lector as he unhooked the thin hose that connected the container to the catcher. “But after tonight, you’ll be gone like the rest and I’ll sleep sound once again.”
After double-checking the cork was secure, Lector made his way back to the living room.
A moment later Billy came jogging down the hall, carrying his own plugged, tar-filled jar.
The trough for the Night Mare was assembled in the town’s center, the cedar, sap-sealed feeder stretching across the cobbled square. People were lined on one side with their carts and jars, dumping the latter into the channel, filling it with a severe amount of what looked like charred syrup, while a man wearing a beaked mask stood on the other.
“Careful, Billy,” said Lector, uncorking his sixth container. As he discarded the black fluid into the trough, he felt an immense weight drop from his shoulders. “I heard the Cormac’s daughter spilled some on her toes and is now having them amputated.”
Shortly after Lector and Billy finished emptying their vessels, the man wearing the mask raised his hand. “Enough! The moon is now at its highest. It’s time for the Night Mare to feed. Please, step back.”
There were still two families working to empty the last of their containers, but neither put up a fuss. People knew what would happen if the feeding was delayed. Their nightmares––the sludge they’d dumped into the trough––would run the risk of being spared. If the rumors were true, then, by comparison, having to store a few extra jars until next year was a picnic.
As soon as the masked man dropped his hand, a stark white horse, a mare, appeared next to him, its mane bright as coins in the moonlight.
“Go ahead, friend.” The man prodded the Night Mare forward. The horse trotted back and forth, sniffing the pool which filled the feeder to the brim. In previous years, the horse had dug right in, but it wasn’t doing so tonight. The hesitation made Lector squirm, but, thankfully, he wasn’t the only one.
“Eat, you damn horse!” shouted someone from the crowd. The murk bubbled. “Our monsters are stirring!”
A small commotion broke out, but it was soon silenced as the Night Mare nickered and reared, clapping its hooves against the cobbles. After a couple more snorts, it began eating.
Mouthful after mouthful, the horse hungrily slurped the liquified nightmares, its tongue, mouth, and chin blackening with each swallow. Not once did its appetite waver during the feeding, and by the time it had licked the trough clean, its stomach bulged, the veins in its belly fat as worms.
“Flandreau,” said the man. His leathery, studded beak wobbled as he turned his head side to side. “Consider yourselves cleansed!”
The town square erupted with applause, many embracing one another while holding back tears.
“Can’t you feel it, Billy?” said Lector, kneeling. He hugged his son. “Our slate has been cleaned once––”
A scream punctured the night, putting an end to the celebration. No one seemed to know who had wailed, but none seemed to care either. Not when they caught sight of the Night Mare.
The horse was lying on its side, panting. Its stomach writhed like something was trapped inside it, pushing and punching and clawing.
“Friend?” The man in the mask crouched by the animal as it whined. “What’s wrong––”
A hand tore through the Night Mare’s belly, grabbing the man by the neck.
“Run, Billy. Now!”
Lector shoved his son through the panicking crowd, looking over his shoulder. His heart galloped as he stared at the crooked fingers choking the life out of the masked man. He’d seen that hand before. Often. It lived in his nightmares, yes, but also, it lived at the end of his right arm. For the hand reaching out of the dying horse was his own.
The one he’d strangled his wife with.
About the Author
Cody Nowack currently lives in southwest Montana where he and his wife own and operate Bookies––a franchise of bookmobiles and literary-themed bakeries. He has sold multiple short stories to a variety of markets and has had his work represented by the Cyle Young Agency. When not barricaded in his office or running one of the book buses, he can be found hiking to the tops of mountains and, occasionally, on Twitter @codynowack.