Beautiful Poison in Pastel15 min read


Beth Dawkins
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Death or dying

The interrogation room smells like gasoline. The walls are deep gray, a shade darker than my front porch. I prop one of my ankles on a knee and lean forward. I have mortal arms and hands because of the utility they provide.

“I was told you were willing to confess,” says the nightmare in front of me. She is a drowned girl, no older than ten years old. Her skin is pale gray and blotched with gigantic spots of black mold. An endless drip, drip, drip follows her. Water torture and her ability to stay perfectly still are unnerving, even for other nightmares. Her victims will hear her coming for them.

“Yes,” I agree. I’ve done nothing wrong, of course. “It started with the pastel …”

Pastel is beautiful against black. I cannot tell you where I first saw a flash of mint green, or where I’d heard of the word mint. It was bottled inside my head, waiting for the cracks in the sky to flash pale blue. The sky, they say, will be blue at the end of times, when the pastel eats us all.

The colors didn’t start with me and it has jumped past me a dozen times. It’s nature, and nature hasn’t a care for any one person.

Our livelihoods are the nightmares we become in the dream pool. Mortals wake in a cold sweat, gripping their arms in terror because one of us just hacked it off one of those arms in his father-in-law’s basement, the one with the drain in it. One of us wore the face of his father-in-law. It wasn’t me. I never turn into a human shape. I like to think it’s because I would never fit inside one.

How could we spark the substance of terror in mortals if our bodies are the color of Easter eggs?

It will eat us, piece by piece, pouring in under my skin until we’re as brilliant as a teenager’s black-light poster. Our fingers will fall off, my toes, my eyelids, my lips—all of it will wilt into pastel, shrivel onto the floor, and where it falls it will spread.

You could pour gasoline on it and light a match. Even the soft-colored destruction would be beautiful.

Water puddles under my interrogator’s arm. She lifts her palm, resting her chin in her hand and lifting her brooding eyebrows, the picture of pre-teen boredom. “Would you please get on with it?”

“The pastel came to my room, right beside my nest. It was on the wall behind it. Mint green dots, as if my wall was speckled with paint,” I start to explain.

The drowned girl rolls her gray, dead eyes.

The mint green appeared after a day at the market. My fingertips hovered above the spots. It stood out against the shades of gray and brown. I itched to feel its delicate texture, but before my index finger could stroke the spot, I curled my hand back toward my chest. I shut the door to my nest and decided to make another in the living room.

The problem is I want to touch it, but I don’t want to be devoured.

It spread behind my door as it spread outside. The market stalls had spots of pale yellows, blues, and purples. The colors dappled the sides of buildings, along the cracked pavement of sidewalks, and curled in the veins of leaves. Where trees bled in the autumn, they bled cotton candy pink.

Then my neighbors became dappled. I first discovered baby blue spots on the shoulders of Talon. He was an older monster who relied on his sharp claws and equally sharp teeth to classically frighten his dreamers. He had few dreamers, and I had to wonder if that was the reason the pastel was attracted to him.

I saw him with a brown sack walking by. The blue specks were like a spotlight.

“Talon,” I called.

If the mint green didn’t get me, perhaps his baby blue might.

“You don’t want to get close,” he warned, and he was right, I didn’t—but the closer he crept the more aware I was of a scent coming from him.

Crushed berries and summer days.

I stepped closer, and he took a step back, holding out his hand that ended in sharp claws.

“You have a smell.”

Talon’s face was a cross between mortal man and wolf. His eyebrows shot out like tiny wings with long hairs that stood straight off his face. They rose, furrowing at me. “It’s awful.”

“And beautiful.”

Talon shook his head. “Yes,” he admitted. “There were others at the doctor’s office. We don’t know why it happens.”

“Did you touch it?” I asked, wanting to get closer and inhale him.

Talon shrugged. “I didn’t think so, but how can we be sure? I know they’re bright but I could have stepped on a piece or it brushed against my shoulder. If you found spots on you tomorrow, would you think you got it from me or somewhere else?”

He had a point.

“Does it hurt?”

“Not for me,” he explained. “It does for others. I heard someone saying some colors hurt.” He pointed at his chest. “The doctors are worried that it is leaking into everything.”

I shuddered. How would we slip into dreams if we were no longer frightening, but brightly colored clowns? How would we feed ourselves?

“They’ll figure something out,” he said.

I nodded without the same faith.

“Do you mind if I come by and check on you?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see him out of curiosity, a death wish, or to get even closer to the pastel.


“This isn’t when the incident occurred?” the girl asks.

“No. Of course not.”

I can see my reflection on the table’s dark surface. My eyes are obscured by smudge marks left behind by other occupants who stroked the table with greasy fingers. There could be pastel growing on the surface, too small to see yet.

“I want to hear, in your own words, what happened to Talon,” she says, and not for the first time.

“If you want it in my words then you have to listen to the entire story.”


Her rudeness, I believe, cannot be helped. Our natural bodies are horrors, formed by those we serve, and I would rather be anything other than a drowned child. They are too close to mortals. Even demon toddlers are better options.

Dreams and nightmares walk a fine line. One moment a mortal plummets to her death in a nightmare and then she is lounging against velvet pillows being waited upon. This isn’t how it works for nightmares. We are the fall and the rushing ground. We are the hands that pushed her.

Or we were.

We slip into the dream pool, which is and isn’t in our world. My nest, made of inky black feathers, polyester gray blankets stained with mysterious liquids, and old, faded pillowcases used to smother victims, becomes a doorway.

That word, doorway, implies an opening, a stepping in. The opening or seam is closer to sinking into the water. I can breathe when I cross. My arms, legs, and torso sink into a substance that, for a time, presses against my body. It isn’t wet, but the air has density. For the first handful of seconds, I fight to breathe, but then I suck it in and lift my arms. My fingertips dance in the air as I discover my surroundings.

I’m not the same kind of nightmare as Talon. He is classical. A representation of mortal fears manifested by a creative mind. I am a small nightmare, though not small in the minds of those that dream of me. I am a spider that hides in a shoe. A scorpion that is normal, but somehow grows bigger and bigger as it chases you down a never-ending hallway. I am insects and creepy crawlies, but I am never more than a snake. As it happens, snakes are my least favorite.

No, if I could decide on what form to take each time, it would be a spider for the way they move is a joy.

I am not a many-armed creature as I curl into my nest, hoping to become a web spinner. I am bone pale with long, thick whiskers that cover my arms and many legs. I contain forty-four eyes. The forty-fifth is dead due to a childhood accident.

Once curled into a ball, I close my eyes and the air grows thicker. I start to sink into the depths of a nightmare. I am small and sit inside of shadows and then I am many. I turn into an army with one mind. We must drag our findings home where they will become a food source for our queen. The hive mind of an ant is all-consuming.

My last thought before the hive takes over is that the ground is made of what I believe is cotton, and in a wave and insight, I—no—we, are on the march.

The shadows lighten and an intruder comes.

It crushes one of our bodies and we attack, the whole army. It refuses to remove itself from the cotton cave and we sting. We will continue until our victim wakes.

There is an ear-shattering scream and then we are one, in my nest.

Warmth rises like a tide, sinking under my skin and I touch my belly. The nightmare fills me. Without it, we would starve.

I lay, drunk on a mortal’s fear, licking my lips. The shadows of the dream linger over me and crumbs rest against my shoulder, the same crumbs the ants carried. That’s how I find the spot on the far wall. It isn’t mint green but a soft pale yellow.

I do not share the dreamer’s nightmare and the well-girl doesn’t expect me to. They are mine. We observe our symbiotic relationship with a race of creatures that live in a different world with reverence.

 “Are you going to claim the pastel made you do it?” asks the well-girl. “You do know we’ve heard it all.”

I tilt my head wanting to ask her to repeat what she’s said. “You mean others have done the same thing?”

“Is it not our nature? But we must have order.” She brings her hand back down and her fist knocks against the tabletop. She leans back in her chair. “Continue, please.”

The yellow was the color of painted eggs in early spring. Each day it called to me. I came back from a nightmare and there it rested upon my wall, growing each day.

The larger it grew the more curious I became. Would it taste how it looked? It had a smell. It was new blossoms and the nectar of bees.

I tried to do something to get rid of it. I purchased black paint but couldn’t bring myself to even put the paint can next to the spot. I stayed back from it as if it were a rare masterpiece, still wet from the painter’s brush. It was beautiful poison.

Being on the wall, inside of my home, meant that it was here. I breathed it. I lived it. It would change me from the inside out.

I should have painted over it, but instead, I went to see Talon.

I knocked on the door he’d painted blood red years before. The windows were boarded over, but as I listened for the telltale sound of his feet moving across the floor, I heard a woman singing. The sound was muffled and like nothing I’d ever heard before. There was a melody that moved like a rushing river, and yet nothing was swept away by it. Electronic notes accompanied her voice. It was mortal, but not a nightmare sound. The impossible was becoming possible.

The voice cut off and I knocked again.

“Talon!” I called. “Are you okay?”

The door opened and the pale spots had grown across his arms and up his neck. They dotted his chin with a few sprinkled on his cheeks.

He smelled sweet, like bubblegum and cotton candy. My mouth watered, but I had never had mortal sweets. It was their nightmares that fed us. I wanted to lick his neck and bite into it.

“Would you like to come in?” he asked. “I don’t want it to get you, but you look like you want to come in. I’ll give you a key if that pleases you?”

The question at the end of his statement took away all thought of how yummy his neck might taste. While we are friendly monsters, we don’t seek what pleases each other. Not only did the pastel paint us in its image, but it also changes us. Next, I imagined he might try his hand at…baking.

“Oh,” he muttered, touching his mouth with his claws. His knuckles were lines of pale blue.

“Are you slipping into the dream pool?”

He nodded. “I haven’t stopped scaring them yet.”

“What about form manipulation?” Form manipulation, created by the dreamer, had stopped working for others—or only working in part. I imagined turning into multi-colored ants, like rainbow sprinkles.

“Yes. But I’m still pastel in the same places. It doesn’t go away, no matter what form I take. It sometimes stops the nightmare and goes back into a dream.” This means we don’t eat. Usually, when the monster captures the mortal and opens its maw, the mortal wakes up, and this feeds us. If instead, the mortal’s dream changes to a garden vista, or, most likely, sex, we don’t gain nourishment.

Regardless of dream or nightmare we often bring things back—like the crumbs from the ants.

“Is that where the music came from?”

“It’s a pop album I pulled from a camper’s dream. Would you like to hear it?”

I should have said no.

The well-girl smiles, showing off double-rowed shark teeth. “Was this the day in question?”

“No. Sorry to disappoint. It was only that once I was inside his house it was…intoxicating.”

“Are you stalling out of concern about what I will think?”

The light bulb above the table is dull and covered by a light shade that has browned with age. The fixture hangs from a black chain that is covered in cobwebs.

I ask myself her question and shrug.

The pastel was growing in my house like a cancer. But cancer is a nightmare and the pastel eats nightmares.

There is a common nightmare that feeds me again and again. It doesn’t last long and is one of my favorites. I spend a lot of time in a dark empty room. The room is almost always different. Sometimes the walls are white, gray, blue, honey-yellow. Occasionally, it’s wallpapered. Each wall’s decor has a season when it comes to mortals. The room is empty of occupants, and sometimes, of objects. The majority of the time it is a bedroom, which is radically different from the room I kept my nest in.

It isn’t the bedroom or bedside tables that I enjoy. The room is not terrifying, which means I do not have to share my meal. I am the only nightmare.

I am a gigantic spider, waiting in the dark.

I appear the same each time. The long brown whiskers of my natural body are thicker in the dream. I have fangs that itched to dive into someone. The door whined on its hinges. The mortal has seen me but doesn’t take it in. They double-take.

I love when the mortal stares endlessly at me, knowing and accepting what comes next.

I pounced every time.

I dug my fangs in and tasted blood and fear.

I would wake in my nest with their terror pulsing on my tongue. It was how I drifted off to dreamless sleep because nightmares don’t dream.

That means I have never bitten anyone. They were all biting themselves.

It was simple.

The waking world is different but, for a moment, the two collided. Like in the dreams, I never decided to kill Talon, it just happened.

On my third or fourth visit, Talon was changed. His body wasn’t just pastel blue but a mix of pale blue, soft pinks, and the lightest of lavenders. It was beautiful, or could be beautiful if it wasn’t for how thin he’d become. I didn’t know we could fade so fast, and I wondered if he could still be considered a nightmare. Would he be a brightly colored corpse, or become something else?

Others had disappeared, lost to the pastel, but no one could say what happened to the remains if there were any. I like to believe they became one with the pastel.

“Archie,” he said, opening his door.

We both glanced down at him, taking in the thin arms and sharp collarbones. He wore a black t-shirt with a mortal playing guitar. Talon, despite his maw, was far more humanoid in appearance than I.

That might also be why the pastel took some of us and left others behind. Who knows?

“Come in,” he said.

There was no joyful pop music screaming about overcoming. I wondered if that was because there was no overcoming.

The door shut behind me and I entered a different house. The walls were a fun house of colors so bright that my many eyes strained to take them in.

It smelled like funnel cakes and joy. I waited for the sound of children’s laughter that never came.

“I know. It’s awful,” Talon said and stepped closer to me as if he would attract my horror into him.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I admitted.

Instead of keeping my distance, I couldn’t tear my gaze from the purple that covered his neck. It was nothing like a bruise, and in any other setting, it would stand out, bright as the sun.

“He didn’t run and when I started to chase him, he… well he laughed at me. It’s almost impossible to eat someone while they are laughing. It turned into a dream,” Talon explained.

Dreams aren’t nightmares.

That was the moment I understood, the pastel makes it so you’re not a nightmare.

I was a nightmare. Common sense and years of following the path of horror made it clear what needed to happen. I didn’t think about it. I just stepped closer.

His eyes grew wide but I didn’t stop to wonder if he read my intention.

I pounced and sunk my fangs in deep. I closed every one of my eyes. Blood didn’t leak into my mouth. It was the sugary flavor of cherry cola. It flooded past my tongue and kissed my taste buds. My arms wrapped around him, holding him in place. I squeezed him like a child squeezes a yogurt pouch. I couldn’t get enough of the sweet tart flavor of his skin. Yes, the purple tastes different than the blue and the yellow. I bit off a piece of his skin, taking with it liquorish-flavored veins and sinew. I dug into his shoulder and found that the muscle tasted like half-melted chocolate bars.

I should not admit to this, but his eyes were like popping gumballs, and his heart—his heart was like a donut that’s still warm.

When I was done he was nothing more than stains on the mud-colored carpet.

The well-girl is silent as if waiting for me to go on. Seconds tick by and she glances at her lap, letting her black hair hide the sides of her face. “That’s it then?”

“Did you expect more?” I have somehow dashed her hopes for a glorious horror story that might feed her. The telling of it is hollow and the only reason I attempted it was in the hopes of being understood. “Clearly it doesn’t matter.”

“No. It doesn’t.” She sighs. “We all have a horrific nature, but when we become a danger to those around us…Look, mortals are monsters, right?”

I nod. We all knew that what we did was nothing compared to what humans did to one another. They made us what we are.

“Right. So we cannot have our kind turn into them.”

“But the pastel—”

She held out her hand and her gray eyes shot back up. The effect was horrifying. “You cannot blame your neighbor’s murder on him tasting good. Do you not have a shred of self-control? Are you that much of a mortal?”

I don’t answer the insults. I run my hand over the tabletop, leaving my grease behind. My many eyes gaze back at me, reflected on the table’s surface. “Are you going to destroy me?”

She snorts. “No, though you might wish we would.” She gets up and her chair scratches the floor, like a scream. “You will be locked within a nest.”

I shudder. “Wait.”

The door opens to admit two abstract horrors. Their bodies are malleable, full of tentacles, black stitches, oozing fluids, and teeth. They are the strongest horrors, those with no names or faces. They rush in, surrounding me before I can scream. They will lock me into a nest where I can only be a nightmare. There will never be trips to the market, no conversations with my neighbors, or hanging out with old friends. The last thing I see is the retreating back of the well-girl, and then I am the gigantic spider in the corner of the room and soon, the door will open.


  • Beth Dawkins

    Beth Dawkins grew up on front porches, fighting imaginary monsters with sticks, and building castles out of square hay bales. She currently lives in Northeast Georgia with her partner in crime and their offspring. She can be found on Twitter @BethDawkins.

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