During the summer of my fifteenth year, after the accident, my parents sent me to stay with my grandparents.
I had always liked their house. They were well-off, so the house was huge, complete with three stories and a winding staircase. I always slept on the west end of the second floor, with its window overlooking the surrounding grove and grandma’s garden.
I was actually looking forward to spending my summer there, if I’m honest. I wanted to get away from my parents – the pitying stares they gave me, the probing questions. My grandparents never pitied me because they knew that it wouldn’t help. I’m simply not that kind of girl. They gave me space, gave me time to collect myself. Plus, my grandma let me garden with her, which I always enjoyed, so it was perfect for me.
I still remember that hot day in June when I moved my things into the spare bedroom. It had a four-poster bed, complete with a pink canopy and pink quilt – a holdover from when I was a child. A few of my childhood toys had ended up in that room over the years, and I found that I liked them there, as fond memories of a time when things weren’t so messed up. The room was huge, with a bay window and a gaping fireplace that I loved to explore when I was little.
I remember looking at that fireplace then, wondering how long it had been since it had seen a flame. If it weren’t so hot, I wouldn’t have minded starting a fire myself. Might give me something to do.
But, as it was, I found myself sitting on the fluffy pink bed, staring out the window at an endless blue sky promising happier days.
I felt very alone. And that was okay.
I spent a lot of time in that room.
It’s not that I didn’t like being outside. It’s just that I’d float off sometimes, sitting in my bed and staring out the window, my mind somewhere in the clouds, thinking of things I can’t even remember now. It would feel like just a few moments, but in reality I’d sit for hours like that.
The doctors said that was normal. I didn’t really mind.
It was on one such day, my fingers absentmindedly picking at the purple embroidery in the quilt on my bed, that I began to hear it.
It was something of a deep thrumming sound, trembling in the air around me. It was low, at first, almost unnoticeable, except in that secret place in the back of my mind that knows things I prefer to ignore. However, the sound became more intense, shaking around me with a ferocity that I couldn’t keep at bay, and I found my eyes scanning the room for the source of the sound.
I can’t say it stopped, exactly – it didn’t feel like the noise could just stop existing. No, it was resting, waiting for something, perhaps. With that in mind, I rose to my scarred feet and walked over to the fireplace, feeling drawn to it like a hapless moth to a flame.
It was darkened black with age, a thick layer of soot carved into the stone. I knelt down by it and let my fingers drift over the grime, watching it coat my skin.
It felt nice there. Even after all this time, the fireplace radiated warmth. My eyes slipped shut and I let myself fall asleep, curled up in the memory of cinders like some fucked-up version of Cinderella.
After that, I took a liking to the fireplace. Whenever I was in my room – which just so happened to be most of the time – I would sit in front of it, feeling rather more tranquil staring into its darkness than staring out at the sky. Ever since that day, I didn’t really like the sky. No, the stone and the black and the quiet heat was much better for someone like me.
Sometimes, I would find myself mumbling to the fireplace, as though it had gained sentience and waited patiently for me to share the secrets of my life with it.
Most of the time, I just drifted around, engulfed by its remaining heat.
Sometimes, when the nightmares kept me awake, I would sleep in front of it, too. I liked to pull my comforter and all the pillows on the bed to make a nest for myself on the floor.
One night, as I gasped myself awake from loud and vivid dreams, I heard a voice.
It was a low voice, vibrating with intensity, shaking and piercing me. It almost seemed as though I heard it not from my ears, but from somewhere deep inside of me.
“Why do you not sleep?” it asked.
It was a nice voice, I decided. Very soothing, and with an air of kindness about it. I answered immediately, “I have nightmares. Bad ones. Every night.”
The room was silent for just a moment, before it asked, “May I see?”
I nodded a little hesitantly. I didn’t know what it meant by “see,” but I didn’t question it – rather, I found myself wondering if the voice would go away after it saw what went on inside my head.
As soon as I gave my consent, I felt something stirring around inside my brain. It was like long fingers were snaking their way into my ears, probing around and tasting the contours of my brain. I closed my eyes as a vision sparked behind my eyelids.
I saw the car that we’d ridden in that day, its dark tinted windows and the dent on the left side.
I saw my boyfriend sitting in the driver’s seat and my best friend sitting in the back. I must have been in the passenger’s seat.
I saw a blur of loud color as the car rolled.
I smelled gasoline pouring around me as I looked first from him, then to her, then back again.
I reached for my boyfriend. I shook him. Nothing. My fingers fumbled around his neck. No pulse. Dead.
I tried not to think as I dragged myself to the backseat, my hands grasping at my best friend. Her body was bent and broken at all the wrong angles, but my hand ghosted across her mouth and I felt her hot breath on my skin. Still alive.
The rear window was shattered. I pulled her out of the seatbelt and crawled out of the car. I tried to stand, but the glass around us cut my feet and I fell to my knees. Pieces of glass were embedded in my skin, but I was too focused to worry.
I dragged us through the grass away from the car, expecting it to explode at any second.
Except… it didn’t.
That was when the real nightmare began.
The fingers in my brain massaged out my memories as I gasped and shuddered. I didn’t like thinking about that day. No, I’d prefer to think of anything else.
The voice understood. “Would you like to sleep again?” it asked.
“I’m afraid,” I whispered.
“You do not have to be,” it said.
I believed it, as though on an instinctual level I knew it to be telling the truth. I laid down in my little nest of blankets and pillows and felt the fingers searching around my mind as my eyes slipped shut once again.
This time, I didn’t dream of the accident. I didn’t dream of anything, exactly. All I saw in my mind were colors. The dark gray with swirls of black from the fireplace, to be exact. I liked it. It was soothing. It felt right.
I slept very well that night.
From then on, I kept up a constant conversation with the voice in the fireplace.
It only responded on occasion, but I didn’t mind that at all. I found that there was no lack of things to discuss, even when it remained silent for hours at a time. I told the voice about my family and my house. I talked about school and the way the other students avoided me after the accident. I talked about things that used to make me happy, but didn’t anymore.
Occasionally, the voice would ask me a question.
“Are you afraid of death?” it would ask.
“No,” I would say, my fingers trailing patterns in the soot. “I used to be, but I’m not anymore. Sometimes, I wish it would come faster.”
“Do you miss them?” it would ask.
“Yes,” I would say, “They were very important to me.”
“Why do you regret what you did?” it would ask.
I wouldn’t answer that one.
I no longer had nightmares. Each night, the voice would send its invisible fingers to squeeze into the cracks of my brain, lulling me to a dark, pleasant sleep. It was very kind to me.
We were fast friends, that voice and I.
My grandparents began to worry about me.
Other than coming downstairs for my meals, I would stay in my room, staring at the fireplace and muttering to myself. I imagine they thought I was getting worse, not better. That was simply untrue – the voice was healing me.
Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night, the voice retreating back into the fireplace as my grandparents came into my room to check on me. They’d whisper and argue.
They’d talk about doctors. The voice would become tense. It didn’t like when they came to my room.
One day, the voice told me it was hungry.
“Why don’t you eat?” I asked.
“I wait,” it said.
Then it told me that it didn’t eat very often – once every few years. I was fascinated. I asked if I could find it some food, but it didn’t seem interested in anything that I ate.
“In time, I eat,” it said.
My grandparents wanted to take me to the hospital.
“You aren’t getting better, Kelly,” said my grandmother. She had already brought up my shoes and sat them down in front of me. Apparently, they wanted me to go right then and there.
“You’ve been here for months and all you do is sit in front of that fireplace,” said my grandfather. He was a gruff man, usually very stoic, but even I could hear the concern in his voice.
My eyes drifted out the window for the first time in… well, in forever. The sky was decaying with the vestiges of fall and I wondered exactly how long I had been in that house.
“We’ll get you help,” said my grandmother, reaching out to comfort me.
I didn’t mean to recoil – it’s just that I didn’t want to think about leaving the voice. I think it was rather lonely, stuck in that fireplace for so long. It needed me, and I needed it.
Apparently, the voice thought so, too.
A strange rumbling came from the chimney, and a haze of soot and dust showered down into the maw of the fireplace.
My grandma and grandpa stood very still, looking at the fireplace in fear and confusion. I looked, too, only it was awe that I felt.
We watched together as it began to come out.
First came its hands as it crawled its way down the chimney. They were really more like claws, so white and thin that I thought they must be bone. As it came closer, I realized it was skin, leathery and stretched taught against spindly appendages.
Its arms were long and lean, trembling a little with the weight of its body.
Its head poked out next, but it was folded down near its body, and I couldn’t see its face.
Its torso came into view, and then its feet. It was almost human in its presentation, but for the fact that it was simply too long, its torso stretched out and ribless, it’s legs crouched under it like a beast. Its feet were long, each toe ending in a sharp point. The claws on it’s hands tapped against the dust of the fireplace.
It lifted its smooth, white head. It was awfully white for something that lived in the grime.
My grandparents screamed when they saw its face, but I couldn’t breathe enough to make a sound. It had sunken holes where it should have had eyes, but I could sense that it was somehow able to see. It didn’t appear to have a mouth, but there was a ragged black mark stretching across its jaw like some kind of strange rash.
It inclined its head at me, staring. My grandma grabbed my arm to pull me from the room.
That made the beast angry. It scuttled towards us – yes, scuttled, that’s the word for how it moved – and reached for my grandma. She shrieked as my grandfather reached out to fight it off.
It was a very quick fight. The thing’s long arm lashed out and, suddenly, deep grooves appeared in my grandpa’s chest. He fell to the ground as the blood poured out of his body, leaving him dead on the floor. My grandma didn’t even have a chance to move before the thing’s hind leg kicked towards her, stabbing straight through her stomach and out the other side. She died quickly as well.
I sank to the floor as the thing rumbled, a sound of deep hunger in its body.
The black skin of it’s jaw began to pull apart, revealing an even deeper darkness within. It began to lap at the blood and flesh of the bodies at its feet, using its claws to tear at the skin and meat. It didn’t take it long at all to consume the bodies of my grandparents – in less than an hour, they were picked clean, their skulls and broken bones left in a bloody pile on the spare room floor.
Once its feeding was complete, it turned towards me, sitting back on its haunches and staring at me. It’s body was stronger, now, and it no longer struggled to hold itself up. It had been satisfied.
We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. It had things to say. I did, too.
“Why not me?” I asked.
It inclined its head again, and I thought for a moment of a puppy I’d had when I was a child, one that had been run over by a car.
An image flashed to my mind, one that I’d been trying to forget for months. The police officer at the scene, as he had bent down to examine my best friend’s body. It had ruined my life, the moment he said that she had broken her neck… and she may not have died if I hadn’t moved her from the car. The car that didn’t burn, didn’t explode. No, it sat there like a blight in my eyes, forever peaceful in the twisted grass of that low ditch.
“They say it wasn’t my fault, you know,” I told the thing. It must have known that I never believed them.
“There is nothing less important than that,” it said. It was right.
“Are you going to leave me now?” I asked.
It nodded, and I could sense a deep sorrow from inside it. “I have never had a choice.”
“Can I come with you?” I asked.
“Maybe some day,” it said. “But not today.”
It could sense my disappointment. Perhaps in an attempt to make peace – it had just slaughtered my grandparents, after all – it scuttled back to the fireplace and reached up into the chimney. It took something down in its long claws and crawled towards me. As it approached me, I felt a deep heat radiating from inside it, as though it was made of fire itself.
It placed something in my hand – a few small bones, so tiny and light that they must have come from a bird. Even now, I have those bones. They let me keep them.
“Will I see you again?” I asked.
It reached out and patted me on the head, carefully. Gently.
Then it turned and crawled back up the chimney.
And I was alone again.
The doctors, the police, my parents – none of them know what happened.
The police found me the next day – apparently my grandparents had been giving my parents daily updates on my condition, and they became nervous when my grandparents didn’t call. The cops found me sitting in the spare bedroom, staring at the remains of my family.
I told my story from start to finish. I knew the beast wouldn’t mind. But nobody believed me.
Nobody believed that I killed them, either. It was simply impossible – after all, how could I have made such work of their bodies in such a short amount of time? There was no evidence to say that I had a hand in their deaths.
Everyone was at a loss.
The only thing they all agreed on is that I’m crazy.
My parents sent me to a mental institute. The cops didn’t have the heart to insist I reside with the criminally insane – they understood that I hadn’t committed murder, at least not that day. So I went to a nice little hospital just a few towns away, with glaring white rooms and a little garden out back. I like the garden the best. It reminds me of my grandmother.
The doctors ask a lot about the beast. They call it a monster. I don’t think that’s quite right, but, then again, I’m no expert in monsters. They ask me to describe it, over and over. They’ve had me draw it a million times. They look for inconsistencies. I don’t mind.
I miss my beast.
Some days, when the sky is gray like soot, I like to look into the clouds and wonder if it is out there somewhere, thinking of me. Waiting for the day it can come back to me.
One day, I will see it again.
Until then, I bide my time.