I was twenty when I signed up to volunteer with the Long River Fire Company. My dad had been a volunteer fireman with them for well over a decade by then and I took a lot of pride in wearing my gear beside him.
He took a lot of pride in getting to fires before me so I wouldn’t be called on to fight them.
Most of what I got was the leftovers: kitten-stuck-in-trees type stuff. Made it six months before I even got to ride along to something bigger than a flaming trash can at a high school football game.
It was the dead of winter. Freezing cold and snow had been falling steadily all day. The call came in around 7, while I was playing pool at the station, killing time during what had been a quiet shift. A chimney over on Stippleton was blocked up and whatever was up the pipe had caught fire. Neighbors had noticed and phoned us. They needed a crew to go over with the old ball and chain and drop it down a couple times to knock the debris free.
Pop wasn’t in that night to jump up before I could. I got suited and booted along with the other guys and we climbed into our engine to set off, lights and sirens going.
The homeowners were waiting for us outside, their front door and a few windows open. A haze of smoke had filled the house like fog and we could hear the distant, but distinct crackle of flame coming from the chimney flue. I saw the husband hurrying towards our driver, but we were already starting to move and I didn’t stop to see what he was saying.
When the captain asked which of us wanted to go up on the roof, I didn’t hesitate. I was young and enthusiastic.
The ladder went up. I was given Bertha, the truck’s chimney chain, to take with me. As I began my climb, I could hear the homeowners arguing plaintively with the captain.
“Let it burn,” they kept saying. “Please.”
I remember thinking it was a strange request, but not one any of us were listening to. Maybe they thought we were wasting our time and that it’d burn out on its own. Ignorance can lead to bad decisions.
It was dark up on that roof, and the pitches seemed steeper than they did from the ground. Still, I kept Bertha over one shoulder and crept, slow and steady, toward the chimney. Every few steps, I could feel my footing starting to slide on the icy shingles and I’d pause until I was steady again.
An orange glow flickered from the mouth of the chimney flue. I carefully positioned myself beside and got a good grip on Bertha’s chain. I lifted the five pound iron ball over the opening and prepared to let her fly. A few good drops was usually all it took.
The fire popped and spat from the depths of the chimney, and as Bertha swung into place, a voice hissed from somewhere within the flames.
I faltered in shock, and the ball cracked against the bricks. From the ground, I heard my captain calling up to ask how I was doing.
I shouted back that I was fine. I was, of course. It had to have been my imagination. The adrenaline was pumping, I was equal parts excited and nervous. My ears were just playing tricks on me. I tipped my hat back a bit and wiped the beads of sweat from my forehead before hanging Bertha over the opening again.
This time there was no mistaking it. It was a rasping, angry command coming from the throat of the chimney.
Bertha’s chain slid through my fingers, slack with surprise, and disappeared downwards, falling toward the fire. The furious screech that followed had me tumbling backwards. My heel hit a patch of ice. I was skidding on my back down the gabled roof, staring at my boots and the nothingness just beyond them.
It was luck that caught my my hand on the gutter as I slid past and luck that allowed me to hook my leg through the ladder next to me. Two of the guys below grabbed the bottom of the ladder and held it while I scrambled to get myself fully on to it. No easy feat in my gear.
There was a crash from inside the house. A cloud of dust and smoke exploded out the open windows. The homeowners screamed.
In the minute it took me to get down and calm my pounding heart enough to think straight again, the others had already run in to clear the house of any burning debris that might have falling free of the fireplace. My captain checked to make sure I was ok and then a small, tension relieving laugh was had when Bertha was carried out. They thought I’d dropped her when I slipped. They thought the shriek had come from me.
I didn’t correct them.
While we started getting ready to leave, the homeowners practically ambushed me. They were red faced, wide eyed and rambling. I missed most of what they said, it was so rushed, but one thing was clear.
“It will follow you now. Keep a fire lit. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”
I shook them off and hid in the truck. I didn’t know what they meant and I didn’t want to ask. I just wanted to get away from them and their weird chimney.
I got home that night smelling of sweat and smoke. I showered quickly and collapsed into bed. Sleep came easy.
The house was silent when I woke up in a cold sweat some hours later. Despite living alone in the small colonial I’d inherited from my grandparents, I had the distinct, gut tightening feeling that I was being watched. There’s just about nothing worse than sitting in the dark, knowing something’s got its eye on you.
I threw back my covers and was getting ready to reach for the lock box under my bed with my pistol in it when I heard what sounded like a rasping, guttural voice coming from my front yard.
On tiptoes, I crossed my room and pushed the curtains aside just enough to peek out.
The lawn was blanketed in white, which made the dark, shriveled figure standing in the middle of it stick out even more. It was impossible to make out any features, only that it was short and far too thin. Despite that, I was certain it knew I was there. That it was looking right at me.
I ducked away quickly and pressed myself against the wall beside the window. It continued to mutter just loud enough for me to hear and I strained my ears to make out what it was saying.
I stood there and listened as the voice got louder and clearer. It was coming closer.
There was a raw anger in those short words and I knew it was directed at me. I had knocked it, whatever it was, out of the chimney and now it had followed me home. If it had been daytime and there was light and people around, I’m not sure I would have so easily accepted that there was something creeping around in my yard. But right then, alone, in the middle of the night, fear slithered in my belly, up my chest, and into my throat. It tasted icy and bitter. I thought again of the gun in its lock box beneath my bed. Did I go for it? Would it even work against…whatever that thing was?
It occurred to me that the creature had gone quiet.
Nervously, I pulled the corner of the curtain back again and looked out. My lawn was empty except for a set of tracks leading around the side of my house.
There was a thump on the roof, and then the sound of something skittering quickly across it. I stared up at my ceiling, my blood rushing in my ears.
It was heading toward the chimney.
It will follow you now. Keep a fire lit. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.
The homeowners’ words repeated in my head until they were shrieking.
Thoughts of my gun abandoned, I ran from my room and leapt down my steps two at a time. I almost slid headlong into the wall at the bottom of the stairwell as I careened towards my living room. There was a soft tapping of nails, or perhaps claws, scraping stone echoing down the chimney.
I didn’t stop to think about how ridiculous it all was while I threw match after match at the logs stacked in my fireplace. How none of it made sense. How completely insane it was to think that something was slowly crawling down my chimney toward me.
My only thoughts were on those people and how scared they’d looked while they told me to keep a fire burning.
Once I had a fire roaring in the hearth, I backed away, the fire poker clutched in both hands. For a long moment, the only sounds in the room were the flames and my own ragged breathing.
And then, from up the flue, a contented, hissing sigh.
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