I am three years old. It's bed time. I've developed a ritual to
help stave off 'bad thoughts' as I call them. Nightmares. I
flip, back to stomach, back to stomach, three times. Then, whilst
lying on my front, I turn my head to face the wall, then the
window. I do this five times. Where such a ridiculous set of
actions came from I can no longer recall. Even then, I didn't
really expect them to work. I ascribe them to a small boy
attempting to gain some control over a situation he couldn't
When stretched out to my full length I can only reach two thirds of the way down the bed, though I never attempt this at night. As darkness falls, a stygian cold radiates from the foot of the bed, under the duvet, and crawls up to freeze my toes. With the certainty of a three year old, I know what awaits, should I stretch out my legs. It doesn't have a name, but it has a face. It has eyes. It wants more. It wants to take me down into the cold. I'll spend this night, like most others, in the foetal position, praying to fall asleep.
At least that way I'll have a nightmare to wake up from.
I hear footsteps. Soft, measured. So, so subtle, constant as a heartbeat, like they've always been there but only now, with all other sounds faded out, do I hear them. I lay there awaiting the inevitable; for them to stop, for hands to reach out, for glowing eyes to appear over the lip of quilt and claim me once and for all. On and on they go, never drawing closer, never retreating. Finally I can stand no more. I fling the duvet off and sit up. Better to face it now and get it over with.
The footsteps stop as if they never were.
Heart pounding, I slowly lay back down and draw the covers over me once more. I lay there, waiting...
Silence greets me. Pure, clean silence. I've won. A simple skirmish, true, but that doesn't diminish my elation. Sleep begins to steal over me. Even the arctic cold from the bottom of the bed seems to have retreated in the face of my victory. Burying my shoulder into the pillow and pulling the covers close, contentment washes over me like a balm. My eyes grow heavy, sleep becko...
On the edge of hearing, the steps return.
This time, they're coming closer.
I am five. At school we've been painting. I've just been told off because I've made one of the girls eat the bristles from a paintbrush. During break an inevitable scuffle erupts over who is going to ride 'the Lightning Bike' and who's going to get the second choice of the 'A-Team Van'. Even in infant school I'm one of the largest in my year, so generally get whatever one I want.
After break we are read a story. It's a story about a burglar named Bill. We're shown pictures as the teacher reads out the book. Afterwards, when the teacher is done and the group has broken up, I go to the book and flick through it. I take a closer look at one of the pictures.
Bill has just made off with something valuable. He has his brown 'swag bag' over his shoulder and is tiptoeing away from the scene. He wears black boots and trousers, a black and white striped jumper encircling a round, flabby belly and has a rakish moustache to emphasise his villainy. To protect his identity, he wears a black mask over his eyes. He's looking right at me, a roguish grin on his face, inviting me to join him in delighting over his nefarious act.
At least, I assume he's looking at me. In this picture, he has no pupils. Just two white voids in his mask. Staring, unblinking. His gaze holds me. The smile becomes sinister, lips curled in contempt.
Teacher tells me it's time to go home. I drop the book and leave.
Later on that night, I'm curled up in bed. I can't get to sleep. Bill's eyes won't leave my mind.
Worse, I can hear him.
A whispered, harsh, insidious voice. I can't make out any words. I can just hear him muttering and chuckling to himself.
I feel a weight on my legs.
I freeze. I hope it's my brother in the top bunk climbing down and just being clumsy. Maybe the dog has managed to get in and is resting his head on the bed, waiting for a scratch behind the ear. Whatever it is begins to move up my body.
It's reached my knees.
I try to subtly pull the quilt over my head. Not a chance. The weight on top is keeping the quilt exactly where it is. There's nothing for it; it's at my waist now.
I open my eyes wide.
Two white voids stare back at me. I open my mouth to scream. The figure gives me one of his now familiar grins and puts his finger to his mouth is a shushing motion.
My scream comes out as a gasp of escaping air. I inhale for another try and yell with all my might. My throat tightens and the noise comes out as a feeble series of coughs.
I can't take my eyes off him. Once he sees I'm not about to attempt calling out a third time he takes a step back down the bed and rests, hunched, on my shins. I can now take him all in. He's short, only about four feet tall. He is dressed almost exactly as I remember from the story, though his striped jumper is...different. Subtly changed, and now consists of black bands wrapped around his torso. The white between them is glowing, becoming brighter, lighting his face from beneath.
The whole room is bathed in it.
The light is becoming sickly, flavoured by an emerald tinge.
The two voids in his face begin to glow as well. True voids, not simply eyes without pupils as I first supposed. I can see his skull alight from the inside. The curve of his eye sockets.
Through it all, his grin remains as fixed as his gaze.
I'm overwhelmed. I'm lost. A feeling that transcends terror.
I fight to pull back the day's events. How I came to be here, in order to banish this figment.
Bill. Burglar Bill. He's a story. Just a story, my teacher says. Teacher says...
A harsh whisper bursts inside my head. A single word. One I've not heard before. I know without a doubt that it is his name. His true name.
And with that he's gone, along with his hold over me.
This time the screams come loud and long.
I'm all grown up. 'Double figures', everyone keeps telling me
with the same inane grin, as if we're sharing a joke. Yes, I am
10. It's my birthday. Grendel has been a more or less permanent
fixture since that first night, though thankfully less frequent.
I catch sight of him occasionally, sometimes as a shadow looming
over the bed, or a spectral shape swirling behind the curtains.
Only one other time have I seen him in waking hours.
I woke up late at night needing to use the bathroom. Bunk beds have given way to cabin beds. As I swing a foot out and place it upon the first rung of a ladder, a sharp hiss startles me. Whipping my foot back I look down, ready to believe any of a thousand excuses for hearing such a noise in the dead of night over what I fear it to be.
A bone white face stares up at me from the bottom of the ladder. Elongated, and with needle sharp teeth and those now familiar blank white eyes staring back at me. Cadaverous skin pulled tight over his rictus smile, the hissing continues. His thoughts punch into my head. Not as words. Nothing so crude. Or even as pictures. His thoughts crush mine, overriding and dominating them. A flavour of what's to come. A promise. He tells me that tonight is the reckoning. A finale to a horror story a decade old.
I don't even remember going back to sleep.
A familiar nightmare, this one. A recurring dream I used to have
about 'The Big Bad Wolf'. One of Grendel's many guises.
This time though, it feels different. More vibrant, real.
It starts, the same as usual, deep in the woods set across a large playing field at the back of my house.
A moment of blank confusion, swiftly followed by that cold fist of dread that punches through my chest and grabs my spine, then squeezes. I see him.
He wants me to see him.
He flits through the trees, not closing yet. Of course not. That would ruin the chase. Spoil the fun.
I struggle between the notions of running or just standing still and accepting the inevitable.
Cowardice wins out. I turn tail and sprint. Arms pumping, breath coming in great whooshing bellows, I make for the house. Fallen piles of leaves erupt with my passing. Twigs and dry branches snap and crack underfoot. I already know subtlety and stealth are useless here.
This is his kingdom. He's already in my head.
I'm out of the woods in a matter of minutes. The playing field is big, but I know from long experience I can run from one end to the other in under sixty seconds. I've been playing football on there for as long as I can remember.
This time it takes much longer. My arms and legs slow, as if I'm
chest deep in the ocean, running against the tide. His doing,
naturally. I feel a strong compulsion to turn my head, look
behind me. Not to see if he's chasing. I know he will be.
Following at a distance. A casual walk to my frantic flight. No
hurry. He knows what's coming, same as I.
I'll never make it through the back gate.
I still have to turn my head, simply because he wants me to. I'm trapped in a story with only the illusion of free will. He gorges on the jolt of fear he instils upon catching sight of him. The fear and terror are, after all, why we are here. I have managed to resist before. On at least two occasions I can recall. It doesn't make a difference. If I don't look around, he'll just change the rules. Make me stumble or trip, or even suddenly move the ground underneath me, making it rise up, or even pivoting the entire Earth so my flight away suddenly turns into a headlong rush into him.
So I turn , only to find him mere feet away. Running hard, mouth wide, teeth gnashing, large muscular arms alternatively propelling his motion or reaching out for me, taking great swipes at the air. Grendel is all grown up, and he's not playing anymore.
An involuntary scream. Even as I find new reserves of stamina, a detached part of my mind tells me that this new twist is my own fault.
It turns out complacency can be found even in terror. I assumed I knew what happened next, so he changes the play yet again.
I can feel him laughing, deep in my skull. His sight scours away my dark places, my defences, my secrets, and uses them against me.
I run across the burnt section of grass in the field where we have our annual bonfire, leaping over twisted shards of metal; the remnants of kitchen cabinets incinerated last year. I reach our back gate, snatching up the catch and pulling it open in one fluid motion, I'm through and turning to shut it almost as quickly. The gate is over seven feet tall and made of solid timber slats. For some reason, with him so close behind me, it becomes as thin as cardboard and just as flimsy
I finally manage to latch the gate.
I've never made it this far. Usually he catches me running across the field, or else as I try to get the gate shut. The capture is inevitably followed by a sudden jolt of terror and I'm awake, with only his laughter to keep me company in the dead of night as I still my rapid breathing.
Not this time though. I can feel the raw skin on my fingertips from trying to latch the gate. My chest is tight, my muscles burn. Sweat runs down my forehead to sting my eyes. Still trying to convince myself it's still just a dream, the cold part of my mind is telling me that it has never been this real. What happens when more of you is in the dream than outside? What then?
No time for thoughts.
I run up the garden path. If can just make it through the back door into the kitchen I'll be safe. Free of him. That's a boundary he can't cross. He told me so.
A sweetener to give me hope, to ensure I'm willing to endure the horrors right up to the end.
Ten strides...five. I take the first of the three brick steps that lead to my salvation.
Then it hits.
A lethargy like I've never known. A weight of tons pressing on my shoulders, forcing me down. I can't move my limbs. I go down hard, twisting as I fall, scraping my shins bloody. I just manage to raise my left arm to protect my face from the hard edge of the brick. I realise that I've landed on the third step. One more push, one more effort and I will be safe.
Tears of frustration pour down my face. I can't move. I just sit there, boneless, numb.
The gate opens.
He enters. I've seen him dozens of times. Hundreds, though I still struggle to recall the exact details of his form. Large. Savage. Bestial. As I have grown, so has he. Sometimes a man in jeans or jogging bottoms. A white woollen jumper. Hairless head, slightly elongated at the crown and the mouth. A predator. Sometimes as something more; a great alabaster wolf, claws flexing, a slavering fanged mouth open wide. Occasionally something in between. I realise that the exact details aren't important, and can change on his whim. As he is in my head, I think I'm in his. Is that important? I don't know if that's important.
I don't know anything anymore, except I've failed. Again.
He recognises this. As he walks slowly up the garden steps towards me, he relishes it.
I shouldn't be able to feel pain.
Why does it hurt so much?