Interlude: The Tale of the Fingernail Monster
"And that," Dhaymin said, "was the story of the little brother who didn't know when to shut up."
"That was a terrible story!" Jen leaned over so he was closer to the fire, rubbing his hands in the glorious warmth.
"You think you can do better?" Dhaymin said, leaning back with a smug smile on his face.
"Course I can!"
"Prove it then! Come on, let's hear a good scary story, if you're so smart!"
"Right then, I will!" Jen edged around the fire, settling down beside Dhyamin. At their backs lay the forest, cold and dark. Their camp might have been the last vestige of humanity in the world, for all anyone could tell tonight. "I'm going to tell you a properly scary story. I'm going to tell a story about... the fingernail monster."
"The fingernail monster. Right."
"You don't think that's scary?"
"Jen," Dhaymin sat back up and sighed, his breath escaping in a cloud of fine mist. "There's no such thing as the fingernail monster."
"We hunt monsters."
"Yes, but.." Dhaymin waved a hand in the air. "Still no such thing. There's monsters and monsters, right? The monsters we hunt... you're not telling me any of those sleep all year and come out at midwinter. You're not telling me they go after bad children to rip out their fingernails and wear them on their- no. There is no such thing as the fingernail monster."
"Awww, are you scared?" Jen placed a hand on Dhaymin's shoulder, giving it a squeeze. "I'm sorry. I'll not tell the story, then!"
"I am not scared!"
"So you do want to hear the story?"
"No. But if it'll make you shut up, go on and tell it."
"I will." Jen paused a brief moment, then continued. "Just so you know, this isn't like your story. I'm not making this up. This actually happened... to me." He leaned in closer. "You might even remember it."
"Well, if it happened to you, it can't be very scary," said Dhaymin, "because you're still here telling me this shit. Also will you back off?" He edged away from Jen. "I'm blind, not deaf."
"Oh... sorry." Jen retreated a little. "Well, it still happened to me. It was a long, long time ago, we were both still children. And it was one snowy midwinter. Well. Snowier than usual, I suppose. And dark. Er. Darker than usual."
"Was it the one where we all nearly starved to death? Because I'm sure I started seeing things back then, and that wasn't the fingernail monster, I was just crazy from hunger."
"No. Further back than that. It was... no, not the one when Mother and Father didn't come back and we had to eat that squirrel. Longer ago than that. You remember how Father used to light the candles and say the sun-chant at midnight? I remember how that felt. Like the winter had gone away, just for some short while, and I had everything I needed there, you, Mother, Father... it was like the world was warm and safe again. Like sitting around this fire. The world's dark, and freezing cold, and deadly. But there's this little spot of light, and you're gathered around it, and you just know everything's good as long as it's there." He took up a stick and gave the fire a nudge, pushing a long over and sending a spray of sparks into the air, creating an all-too brief shower of light before they faded and died. "I was scared of the fingernail monster too, when I was that age. I suppose everyone is. But I had my family with me, and when you're that age you don't care how scary the world is when you've got family, right? The fingernail monster could go freeze to death for all I cared."
"Wait, sorry. I forgot, is this the scary story game, or the happy tales of family love game?"
"I'm building up to it! Anyway, I think we were too young to stay up until the dawn, so Father put us both to bed after he'd done the sun-chant. And everything felt normal for a while. You know, we had the usual arguments over whose side of the bed it was and who was stealing too many blankets and all that. I think you fell asleep fast. Me... I couldn't. I lay awake for a while, and then I realised... I was too awake to sleep. I was so tired, I'd never been up so late in my life. But I couldn't sleep. It was as if all the stories in my mind kept repeating, over and over. And I kept thinking... was I good enough? To avoid the fingernail monster? I remember hearing you breathing, all slow and quiet, and I though no, it'll never come for Dhaymin. He's always the good one, he's the one Mother and Father are always proud of. No, it's going to come for me. The bad one."
"Oh, I know!" said Dhaymin. "This is the talk about our feelings game!"
"Shut up, I'm still building up to it! Well, I thought to myself, Mother and Father won't ever be proud of you if you don't try to be brave, will they? And I was going to be a beast-hunter when I grew up, and what sort of beast-hunter is scared of the fingernail monster? Maybe if I faced down the fingernail monster when it came for me, it'd see I was good and brave, and it'd leave me alone, but if I stayed in bed, it'd see I was really bad. And it'd come for me, and sneak into the room. I thought about the door swinging open. Thought I could see its shadow in the dark. And it'd hold me down, and rip out all my nails, one by one. There'd be blood everywhere, I'd be screaming, and you'd be lying there asleep and you'd never know. You'd never even wake up."
"Hey, come on now." Dhaymin let out a quiet little laugh, and patted Jen on the shoulder. "I'd have woken up! And I'd have fought it! Wouldn't have got past me. I'm supposed to be a beast-hunter too, remember?"
"No, you wouldn't. That's how the fingernail monster works. You scream and scream, but nobody ever hears you, and you don't stop screaming. Not until you're too tired to. Or you lose enough blood. I'm not sure which, I suppose it's whichever one comes first? So I thought no, that's not how it's going to be. I'm going to be brave, I'm going to face down the fingernail monster, I'm going to be a proper beast-hunter just like Mother and Father. I remember how cold it was. One of those winters where you wake up and there's frost on the walls beside you. But I didn't want to let that stop me. I went over to the window, pulled the drapes aside...
"..it wasn't there. I don't know what I expected, a face looking in at me? Nobody told me what the fingernail monster is supposed to look like. But I remember seeing the stars. They looked so cold too. Like little specks of ice in the sky." He looked up - the night was a clear one, the stars as vivid as his story. "Just like tonight. The stars are out now. It's clear, no clouds, no moon, just the stars. They're watching over us, again. But I don't know why.
"I stood there for a few minutes. Didn't know whether to bolt or stay where I was. But the more I looked out of that window, the more I thought... it's here, it's waiting. I looked back, I could just see the bed, faint in the starlight. Could just hear you breathing under all those blankets and furs. You know how you always feel safe under a blanket? I thought that bed was the only safe place in the world. The only warm place in the world. Just like here, tonight." He could feel the cold at his back. There would be frost in the morning, maybe even snow, but morning was such a long way away. In the depth of the night, he sometimes felt as though it would never come.
"Well, that's the world, isn't it?" said Dhaymin. "All that forest, all that sky, all that, well, nothing. Then those few little safe places. That's just how things are, right?"
"I know. All I wanted was to get back in bed and hide under that blanket. But I knew if I did that the monster would find me, because it wasn't what a good, brave beast-hunter would do."
"I... don't remember any of this."
"You were asleep the whole time! You didn't know anything. That was when I ran from the room. I knew wherever it was, I had to find it. Had to be quiet, too. Couldn't wake Mother or Father either. I mean... I know I was trying to be good by tracking down the monster, but I knew if they found me running around the holding at night I'd have done something wrong. I found myself in the hall at the end. I'd seen it every day of my life. But you go in there in the dark, on the longest night of the year, all alone, and it's not the same place. You might have walked the same way to get there, but you're not really there. And it was cold. Colder than I'd ever felt. I could have unlocked the door, walked outside, buried myself in the snow, and it wouldn't be as cold as this. Felt like my skin was freezing over. I looked at my arm, and maybe it was the starlight, but I thought it was all covered in ice. And there was this tingling feeling, reaching all over me, down my arms, into my fingers, under my nails...
"Nobody told me what the fingernail monster looked like. And in that moment, I thought - maybe it doesn't look like anything. Maybe it's the cold at midwinter, that feeling you get down your back when you hear something behind you..." He leaned closer again, and Dhaymin pulled away.
"Stop it. You never met the fingernail monster. You've got all yours still!"
"I know. Because I ran. I didn't care about being a brave beast-hunter anymore. I didn't care what Mother and Father would think if they found me running around the holding at night. I just wanted that last safe bit of the world. I ran all the way back, and I didn't even know if I'd lost it, because it's dark, and you can't see it, and what if it was the dark, and the cold. and all those winter things? What if that's why it only comes out at midwinter? I'll tell you, be thankful it's not midwinter tonight. Because you'll be just like me, running for warmth. I got back into bed and pulled all the blankets over me. I don't really remember the rest of the night. I thought I might suffocate under there, but that's better than the fingernail monster. Maybe I fell asleep eventually, just before morning. It's all a mess. The next morning everything went back to normal. Everyone walking around and acting as though nothing had happened. But I knew. I couldn't tell anyone, but I knew, that night, I'd met the fingernail monster, and next year it would be waiting..."
He sat back, gazing up at the stars again. Dhaymin sat in silence, occasionally holding his hands over the flame, perhaps lost in thought.
"I'm sorry," Jen said. "Was my story too scary?"
"Course not! Everyone knows there's no such thing as the fingernail monster!"
"Mm," Jen said. "It was just a bad winter, and you know what it's like when you're little. All that imagination..."
"Go out and get more firewood, will you?"