In the end, I know that I’m damned. I’ve lost them twice over; once in failing to save them, and again in failing to avenge them. Whatever mercies God might have shown me for these troubles have surely been swallowed up in the magnitude of my failure. I can sense the end that’s coming for me, the scratching behind my eyes, the chill of the air that has nothing to do with this shattered bedroom window or the life that is leaking from my wounds. A part of me wishes I could simply bleed to death, but I know the violence I’ll suffer soon will be far more deserved.
I’ve quite run out of hope, and if you’re reading this, you might have as well. Maybe, like me, you were once one of the lucky ones, having never caught a glimpse beyond the veil. Maybe there was a time when this world still held moments of brightness and beauty when you could forget your troubles and feel honestly, truly safe. I wish that you could turn back. I wish you could unsee what you’ve see, slam shut this wretched door and go running back into the daylight. I wish you didn’t need the knowledge I have to offer.
But whoever or wherever you are, you do. I know it. This message wouldn’t have found you otherwise. Maybe you’ve woken in the presence of something other in the middle of the night. Maybe you’ve seen it from the corner of your eye when you linger alone in lightless places. Maybe you’ve heard it howling, first far off into the distance, then closer and closer as the nights grow longer. If you’ve had the faintest glimpse through the darkened mirror to what really waits for us on the other side, then you are in desperate need of what I am about to write, of the truth I can give you.
It can be hurt. It can be stopped. It can even be banished, for a time, and I suppose that means it can also be bound. I have my doubts in regards to any more permanent solutions; we’ve moved far beyond any crude suggestions of whether or not it can be killed. That is a mortal word, for mortal creatures, and whatever this thing once was, it hasn’t been mortal for a long time.
You must content yourself with what I have learned. A chance, no matter how small, is still a chance. If the least we can do is push it back, turn it aside, force it to slumber, then that is enough. You must understand that once it turns its gaze your way, you’re already dead. You must embrace this morbid truth as a gift. Wrap your arms tight around damnation and don’t let go. That’s the only chance you’ll ever have of saving the ones you love.
They are coming. I don’t have much time.
The first time I saw it was during my daughter Madison’s birthday party. She loved the park down the street from our home; a miniature forest on the banks of the Detroit River called ‘Elizabeth.’ The sprawling greenery was dotted with playgrounds and picnic tables and crumbling stone bridges crossing over the clear waters of the canals that ran into the city from the river. At the very edge of the park, a boardwalk had recently been raised, extending out over the calm waters, providing a view of the massive steel bridges that connected the city to the nearby river island of Gross Ile.
There was a small petting zoo there as well, in a clearing next to a playground, and that was where Madison had asked to have her birthday party. It wasn’t cheap; Victoria and I both had been saving for her seventh birthday some time in advance, and I’d even taken on a second job as a delivery driver on weekends to scrape up the extra cash.
We had wanted to do something special for our daughter. She’d been having an extremely difficult time in school, provoked by a lack of sleep brought on by vivid night terrors. We woke to the sound of her crying out almost every night, insisting that a crowd of people had been in the room with her. More than once we found her in the attic, sobbing as she rummaged through old boxes and bins that had belonged to the previous home owners in her sleep, searching for something she’d seen in a dream.
Madison was always unable to tell us what she’d been after upon waking from this fugue state. She would merely peer up at us sleepily, smile, and say, "I was looking for the fire."
We’d been greatly concerned. Along with good counseling and more attention, we had hoped that throwing her an extravagant party might help take her mind off of things. The look on Madison’s face when we arrived at the petting zoo, all decked out in bright streamers and balloons wishing her a HAPPY BIRTHDAY! was worth all of my and her mother’s effort.
The children that came to her party were as appreciative as she. Victoria made small talk with the adults she recognized from school meetings and parent-teacher conferences, and quickly became friends with the ones she didn’t. I didn’t know any of these people; my work schedule allowed me just enough free time for my wife and daughter. I smiled at the pleasantries, laughed at the jokes, but my eyes were on Madison, the expression of wonder on her face as she and her friends took turns riding a miniature horse around a small carousel under the watchful gaze of its owner.
There was a moment, I think, when the animal saw the Grim standing in the bushes. It gave a panicked whiny, and then it was on its hind legs with Madison still in the saddle. I give credit it to the woman who owned the zoo; by the time I was in motion, heart pounding in my chest, she had already scooped my daughter off its back with one hand, while forcefully yanking down on the reins with the other. I shouted my daughter’s name over the alarmed yells of the children. I was at her side in a second, kneeling down to put my arms around her.
“Madison, are you alright?” I asked in a rush, trying to control my fear, my hands checking her for injury though I know she’d received none.
“I’m fine, daddy,” she said, laughing. “He just got spooked a little, that’s all.” I nodded, impressed with her courage, not able to summon any of my own.
“You’re right,” I said, calming myself down, not wanting to spoil her birthday. “The pony just got a little scared. I’m just glad you’re alright, sweetheart.” I pressed my lips to her forehead, making her pull away in giddy, mock disgust.
As I stood, ready to speak harshly with the owner, to demand an explanation, I saw it. It was standing deep in the wood line, almost totally obscured by the thick green forestry. For a moment my mind couldn’t comprehend what my eyes was seeing. I thought at first that some awful person had killed a dog and left its head in the branches of a tree. A moment later I thought
-Dead dogs can’t smile-
as its snout cracked open, thick ropes of drool cascading over jagged yellow teeth, splattering down onto a pale, bare chest streaked with dried mud and grass stains.
It leaned forward. Long, pale fingers gripping the trunk of the tree, curling into hateful claws. I was transfixed, my mouth open, barely hearing the sounds of the party going on around me. Even from a distance I could see smoke rising from where its fingers dug into the tree bark and the utter blackness of its pupils. I could feel the awful power of the hatred and malice behind its gaze.
It was looking at my daughter.
I blinked and pulled her close to me protectively. In that moment it was gone, leaving only a strange afterimage when I closed my eyes. “Daddy?” Madison asked, looking up at me quizzically. “Can I ride the pony again?”
“Uh…” I shook my head. “I think that’s enough pony rides for today, honey. It’s almost time for your presents.”
That was the distraction I needed. She squealed in delight at the idea, rushing over to her mother, nearly bowling her over in the process. Victoria looked over at me as my daughter begged for gifts, raising an eyebrow. I shrugged sheepishly. Madison wasn’t supposed to open her gifts for another fifteen minutes, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t let my daughter see how frightened I was.
I refused to look back at the part of the wood line for the remainder of her party. Perhaps my cowardice is what made them lost to me. Perhaps if I had of done what I should have done, charged at it howling like a beast, heedless of my own safety, shielded from its madness by the primal need to defend my progeny, I could have turned it away from us right then and there. Instead I did what any civilized man would do in my circumstances; I pretended like I hadn’t seen anything. I ignored it, and I ignored the sound of distant howling I heard that night as I tucked Madison into bed.
A week later I saw the creature again. Picking up my daughter from an afterschool program, I saw it standing next to a basketball pole on the playground. It was somehow bending the light around it, creating an unnatural shadow that kept it hidden from everyone’s sight other than my own. My daughter didn’t see it as she walked out of the school and into my car, chattering happily about the art project she’d been working on. I watched its gaze… no, not its gaze, its attention follow her languidly, like a predator stalking its prey. I drove away as quickly as I could. My heart beat so loud I thought it would explode against my ribcage.
The howling came again that night. It seemed closer than before.
Three days later Victoria went to wake my daughter for school, only to find that she was missing. Her bed was perfectly made, and a small folded note had been left by her bed. In childlike scribbles, with the crayons her mother and I had gotten for her birthday, she had drawn an impossibly thin figure, its snarling canine head thrown back, howling into nothingness. It stood on what was unmistakably a pile of crudely drawn stick-figure bodies, their eyes crossed out with violent black x’s, writhing on the page in the pale orange fire she had drawn over them.
“GRIM,” she had captioned simply, underscoring the words. “Don’t run, daddy.”
Do you have children? If not, then you cannot begin to understand the terror, the blind panic that overcame us when we knew our daughter was missing. Victoria was strong, like always, immediately calling the police, taking her fear and turning it into useful action, but she didn’t understand the sinister note that had been left behind. She didn’t understand that it had come after our daughter, and I had done nothing to stop it. Out of fear, I had ignored that monstrous presence, and now whatever it was had my Madison.
A day went by, then two, then a week. I joined in the search parties every day, forcing down my mounting sense of despair. I tramped through the woods, calling out with the others when I knew my daughter couldn’t hear me. Victoria only wept when she thought I wouldn’t notice. The gulf between us grew rapidly. I think she sensed the reality of my guilt, and though she must have known there was no logical reason, she rightly blamed me for this loss.
I began waking in the middle of the night to the sound of Victoria whimpering. Knowing that she wanted no comfort for me, I kept my eyes shut and pretended to sleep. On the ninth night since our daughter’s disappearance, I realized something was different. What I heard wasn’t the sound of heartbreak; it was the sound of terror, of an animal caught in a trap.
Instead of a howl from afar, I heard a low growl so close it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was in the room, at the foot of the bed. I could heard its ragged panting, feel its weight as it put its long-fingered hands on the mattress and leaned over us. My wife’s whimpers grew hysterical; she whispered nonsensical, pleading gibberish, wringing her hands. I squeezed my eyes shut tight and rolled onto my side. I lay there, immobile, until the growling stopped, until the weight of those inhuman hands suddenly disappeared.
I was a coward when it was preparing to come for my daughter. I was a coward again when it was preparing to come for my wife. The next morning she looked at me, eyes bloodshot and wide with terror. “Did you hear him?” She whispered, trembling. “Did you hear what he asked me?”
I shook my head. God damn me to hell, I shook my head. “I didn’t hear anything. Try and get some sleep.” I left her. I went to work. I ignored it. Each night, I pretended that it wasn’t stalking into our bedroom to torment her, that it wasn’t close enough to touch. Out of terror of what my eyes would fall upon, I kept them tightly shut. I did not want to see. My love for my wife was overcome by fear, just as my love for my daughter had been.
Madison. Victoria. Please. You were the lights of my life. Forgive me.
Two weeks after Madison had disappeared, I woke to Victoria’s tears again. As I lay there, she slowly fell silent. After a few minutes of dead quiet, she made a strange snuffling noise low in her throat. A moment later it grew louder, a weak chuckle that seemed absurdly loud in our dark room. The sound terrified me even more then the fear of waking to fight it looming over my bed; the darkness that I once hid in suddenly felt horrifyingly oppressive as my wife’s laughter finally reached a crescendo of cackling madness.
I lurched from the bed, slipping on the sheets that had fallen to the floor. I hurled myself towards the light switch, hands stretched out like a blind man. I missed the switch entirely, running hard into the wall. I collapsed to the floor, stars bursting before my eyes. Victoria’s laughter had become a high pitched howl of animal pain; I heard a fleshy, tearing sound, a guttural chewing and gnawing that finally provoked a scream from my own lips. My hands scrabbled at the wall. They finally fell upon the switch and I hurriedly flipped on the lights.
I immediately wished I had kept them off. My wife was crouched on the bed, shaking and twitching as if in the midst of a seizure. Her wrists and arms were covered in violent bite marks, each one welling with bright arterial blood. Ruddy liquid oozed from the corners of her mouth, splattering over her nightgown, tracing violent patterns down her heaving chest. She looked at me through one eye that was bloodshot and manic, and another that was a bleeding, empty socket in her skull.
She threw back her head and howled. “I don’t have to see anymore!” She was holding her eye, her eye, nerve clusters hanging limply from it as it stared at me. “I don’t have to watch him feed!”
I shrieked as she hurled herself from the bed at me, closing my eyes, throwing my hands up to ward her off. She gripped the collar of my shirt and hauled me to my feet, the mania that was in her giving her impossible strength. “No!” I whimpered eyes shut tight against this new horror, trying as best I could to press myself through the wall and away from her. “No, no, no, no!”
“Don’t run, Jack,” my wife grunted. “Don’t run. There’s no place for any of us to hide.” She put her lips to my ear, teeth clenching painfully on my earlobe. “He isn’t going to get me. Not like he thinks. Not like he got Madison.” Her voice cracked, and through the madness I could hear my wife, afraid and utterly alone, struggling to push through the insanity that had gripped her. “The Grim,” she whispered. “Tlaloc, Baal-Hammon, Kronos, Moloch, Shugg’o’toth. They gave it a name to give it a form, but none of them are real. None of them are true.” She put a hand to my chest, and spoke to me with her own voice for the last time, strong and brave and beautiful. “Put it to the fire. They’ve been looking for him all this time. That was why Madison was searching; she heard the fire, and knew it would save us. Don’t run.”
And then she was gone, leaving me cringing on the floor. I opened my eyes to see her running full tilt towards our bedroom window. I think I cried out at the last, when she leapt through the narrow glass with all the grace of an Olympic diver. The shimmering sound of the pane breaking couldn’t overcome the dull thud I could hear as she struck the concrete driveway below.
The only sounds were the beating of my heart and my frantic breathing. I lay on the floor, my eyes drawn to the bloody splatters that led to the shattered window. I touched my collar where Victoria had grabbed me, my fingers coming away sticky with her blood. I wondered why no dogs outside were barking. I wondered if I this was a nightmare from which I’d soon wake. Slowly, using the wall for support, I dragged myself to my feet, unable to keep my legs from quivering as I stumbled across the floor. The silence was roaring around me; I could hear an insect-like buzzing coming from behind and before me, from within me, growing to a fever pitch as I finally reached the window.
The creature was there, standing over the broken, bleeding corpse that was my wife. I felt my terror run down my leg in a warm stream, my fingers digging into the shards of broken glass in a reflex that shot pain through my hands. I was frozen, transfixed by its attention as it stared up at me. I wanted nothing more than to turn tail and run. I wanted to flee into darkness and never look back, but that was impossible.
I blinked, I think, or managed to shut my eyes. I must have, because when I opened them, it was in the window before me.
Words cannot describe the nightmare. I screamed, like my wife had screamed, like I suddenly knew my child had screamed before she had been consumed. I knew because it told me, forcing the images into my brain, bursting my mind open behind my eyes, assaulting me with words and sounds and colors I could not understand and have no way to describe. I saw my wife, huddling in the dark, its shadow falling over her, dooming her to madness. I saw Madison’s last moments, felt her terror, the blind hope that her father might still arrive to save her from this monster. I heard her voice echoing in my head, over and over again.
It snarled and lunged, teeth snapping shut only inches from my face. I fled from the room, nearly slipping on the rug in the hall. I went for the stairs, ready to throw myself through the door to get outside if I had to, only to be confronted by its terrifying black eyes as it lumbered up the steps towards me on all fours, teeth bared and snarling. I spun round, using the bannister for momentum, tumbling blindly down the hall. The light in Madison’s room was on; without thinking I ran towards it, slamming the door shut behind me so violently it nearly broke the hinges, pushing my body against it to keep the horror out. I had a split second to take in the pink color of the walls and the brightly colored posters of ponies and Barbie dolls, a split second to hear her whispering in my head:
"Don’t run, daddy,"
before the door behind me splintered. An arm that was as filthy as it was pale whipped wildly about, searching for me. It brushed my cheek and I screamed, feeling as though my skin had been touched with fire, or the coldness of the void. The wall itself was coming apart behind me as I ran towards the attic door, flying up the creaking wooden steps towards the last possible sanctuary left me in the house.
I stumbled like a madman through cardboard boxes in the dark, barely able to pull the cord for the light bulb above me. Tears streaming down my face, I fought my way through the boxes and bins left over from the old home owners. Letters and paper litter were tossed through the air in my wake. I banged my shins painfully on an old wooden chest, heedless to the pain in the desperation of my flight.
There was a porthole on the wall at the end of the attic. Barely a foot in diameter, I clawed at it, managing to break the glass with an already bloodied fist. I pushed my face against it, screaming for help into a night that seemed intent on ignoring me. There was no echo for my cry. There was no sound at all. The night was dead, like Madison, like Victoria, like I soon would be, cut off forever from the land of the living.
I fell to my knees, sobbing, leaning over the chest I had run into. It came on like the nightmare it was, its bare feet leaving smoking footprints on the attic floor, yellow claws clicking on the hard wood, the blisteringly hot wind of its breath smashing aside the boxes and the debris and the mothballed furniture. There was nothing between it and me now, the floor covered in the papers that fell through the air. I was naked, exposed in the moment before the end of everything, a squeal of disbelief escaping my lips.
It showed me Madison again, how she had died. I won’t speak of it here. I saw how she had suffered. It had enjoyed her terror, as it was enjoying mine. It had devoured countless thousands of beings over its existence, and not all of them were even human. It wasn’t picky. It was only ever hungry, the grubs and ghosts that went about their pointless little lives at its feet oblivious to its predations until it was far too late. I saw all this as Madison screamed in front of me, dying again and again, her agony distilled down to the last second of her life when she realized no one was coming to save her; the moment she stopped crying for her father.
As it forced me to watch my child’s murder, something inside me changed. The scrabbling panic was still there, but behind it was anguish, enough pain to turn it into rage. I screamed at it, leaping to my feet, tearing at my face with bloody hands, ripping the clothes from my body. It pointed and me and barked; I felt the skin on my stomach blister instantly as I was slammed back against the chest. The edges of my shirt were smoking. My ribs felt as though they’d been singed from the inside out. I howled like a wounded animal, reaching behind me into the chest for something, anything, to cast in defiance at the demon before me.
My hands closed around what felt like a rough-hewn piece of wood. I pulled it out of the chest, holding it up in front of me. It was a short knife with a handle made of what looked like deer antler. The blade was sheathed in a simple leather cap, worn and cracked with age. Something had been carved into the handle; simple notches, hash marks and scratches, cut savagely yet cleanly into the bone.
As I held the blade, I felt Madison’s tiny hands circle around my chest. She stood behind me, her beautiful blonde hair spilling over my shoulder. She pressed her lips gently to my temple in a child’s kiss, leaning her head against mine. “I’ve missed you, baby,” I wept, unable to look at her. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I love you so much.”
And then she was gone, and it was only the Grim, its mouth opening wide to swallow me whole. I forced myself to my feet, swaying unevenly, holding the knife in one shaking hand. There were things on the peripheral of my vision, watching me, pressing eager hands against the thin barrier of reality. I saw that I was surrounded by them, even as I could sense their eagerness, their anticipation of what was about to happen.
I took a halting step toward it, and then another. My vision blurred like static on an old television set. The Grim was the only thing I could see; there was no looking away, no turning back. I think I said my daughter’s name. I broke into a run somehow, unsheathing the knife from its leather pouch. There was a snapping sound like a bone breaking. For a second, my fevered mind fancied that I saw it take a step back. For a second, I saw genuine, human surprise on that demonic face.
I was screaming by the time I reached it, eyes rolling back into my head, pissing myself in terror, foaming at the mouth, hallucinating, feeling as if my skin was being flayed from my body. The hand that held the blade was bleeding, veins bursting, skin blistering as the power within it roused slowly to waking. I raised the knife through the storm of madness the Grim brought with it, and that was enough.
We collided, the monster and I, sensations I have no words to describe overwhelming me. It filled my field of vision, its fingers gripping my face, embracing me, pulling me into a maw that opened wide, billowing with black smoke and the heat of a furnace. I heard another voice scream with me, another thousand voices, the reverberations shooting down through my arm so hard I thought it must have broken. An alien confidence suddenly gripped my mind, shattering the madness and the gut wrenching fear. In that moment the barrier in reality finally broke and they pressed in around me, their innocent blood shouting out for vengeance, steadying my hand, bellowing into my mind:
"THE FIRE, THE FIRE, SEND IT TO THE FIRE!"
I howled out the words my daughter had dreamed, echoing the seething rage of the lost souls that danced like lightning on the edge of the blade, and let it fall.
I don’t know what actually happened when the awakened knife touched that God forsaken form. I know only that it was forced out, shunted abruptly from here to nowhere, leaving only a long, furious howl to mark its passing. Its presence faded into nothingness as I made my way out of the attic, through the wreckage of my home and back into my bedroom. I cannot sense it at all as I compose this message, leaning against the wall, the blade that ended the matter lying next to me on the floor.
I was right to think that it was surprised. It hadn’t expected such a sudden, spirited resistance. The Grim had picked my family because it thought we would be easy prey. It didn’t think it would meet us here. It had thought we were gone forever after all these years, never to return, shattered and scattered when we left the bishop’s hand. I don’t even know what I’m typing anymore, or how I’m even able with the wounds I’ve suffered. I don’t know why it seemed so important to write this down, to send this out, to ensure that you knew the story. Perhaps, like me, you belong to the fire. Perhaps one day it will call to you like it called to US and you will have to answer. I pray for your sake you find courage sooner than I did.
I have failed to defeat the monster and avenge my loved ones. I understand that there can be no forgiveness for these sins, but I take a certain comfort in knowing I will have a second chance. I will meet it again. We will all meet it again, finding new meaning and purpose to our damnation on the edge of that ancient blade. Next time will be different. Next time, we’ll end it once and for all.
Soon the knife will be in my hand again. They’ve shown me the path forward, both a perfect punishment and penance for my fear. I will take the blade to my throat and release my hold on this life. I’ll join the lost in slumber, as one day maybe you will join them, until the hand that wields us ends the nightmare. When you hear it howling in the distance, come search for
us. We won’t be far behind. We will be watching. We will be waiting.
The fire knows its own.