Monday, October 29, 2007

Piper and the Gren - Part 8 (Epilogue)

Sunday October 29th, 1995

Though the neighborhood legend would soon say that Old Man Medry was buried under a full moon on Halloween, the actual funeral was on a bleak Sunday afternoon. The cold mist made white noise against Piper’s umbrella as she looked down at the casket. She shuffled her weight uncomfortably. The grass squished beneath her feet. She and Oliver Blair stood alone in the Blair cemetery, but she could feel the eyes of the neighborhood on them, watching from behind their curtains. The official understanding was that Old Man Medry had died of a massive heart attack brought on by the excitement in the graveyard. But Piper, huddled under her umbrella, doubted his heart had anything to do with his passing.

In the awkward silence, Piper looked toward the road and was surprised to see Toady and Simon waiting. Despite their many attempts to visit, she hadn’t spoken with either of them since the attack. She hadn’t really spoken with anyone besides the police who took her statement.

“I was just looking for Old Man Medry’s secret tombstone,” she had told them. It was partially true, so Piper felt safe sticking to the story. She had become aware through her mother, however, that the town was not so quick to accept her innocence in the affair. The most commonly told story had her narrowly escaping when her midnight drug deal had turned into assault.

Additional controversy began when rumors spread that the police could find no record of William Medrier in their database. Most of those who believed the rumor felt it was most likely nothing more than a computer glitch since the mystery went away so quickly. But a small core of conspiracy buffs swore that Oliver Blair had put bribes in the right hands to make them stop asking questions.

Piper twisted her shoes against the damp grass and considered inviting Simon and Toady to join her at the graveside. She wasn’t quite ready.

From a tree-limb overhead, Piper felt a sense of loss that she recognized all too well. The gren crouched unmoving behind a cluster of yellow and orange leaves, his mottled skin invisible had she not known where to look. “More and more alike everyday,” she mumbled as she wiped a bit of moisture from her cheek. It might have been rain, but she wasn’t sure.

“I’m sorry. Did you say something?” stammered Oliver, shaken from his dazed contemplation.

“Nothing. I…I just don’t know what to say. I mean…I didn’t even know him. Why did you think it was so important for me to come here? I’d really rather be back home.”

Oliver nodded sympathetically. “No, you didn’t know him.” He glanced into the branches overhead, “…but you will. He was a…well, if not a good man exactly, certainly a good friend. I think you’ll be happy you came…later.”

A few moments passed before he continued. “I’m very sorry, Piper for everything that’s happened to you.”

Piper shrugged with feigned indifference.

“I know it’s been frightening,” Blair soothed, “and…certainly confusing. But, where we are now…all of us, is a good place for a new beginning.”

Blair fidgeted with his fingers as he spoke and Piper’s eye hovered on the gray-stone ring she had noticed previously. Compared to the other, more decorative jewelry Mr. Blair wore, the ring should have been completely unremarkable, but for one brief moment it seemed to shimmer with a soft jade iridescence. She blinked and found it was once again the same drab gray as the tombstones that surrounded them.

“I don’t know what’s so good about everything,” Piper retorted. “The whole town hates me and Medry’s dead.”

Oliver paused as he considered this. “Well, I wouldn’t say the whole town.” He nodded toward Banner Street where the two boys continued to wait in silent support. “And Will…well…Will had been ready to go for a while.”

A wave of grief washed down from the branches and Piper pondered the gren above. “So, what am I supposed to do about the gren?”

“Well, nothing specific. Just…get him out of that hole he hides in all the time.” He smiled at Piper. “And who knows…maybe he’ll do the same for you, eh?”

“I’m not hiding from anything,” Piper shot back.

“If you say so,” said Oliver flatly before changing the subject. “Look, along the lines of the whole… new beginning things. I wanted to give you this.” He pulled a key from his pocket and held it out for Piper.

She hesitated.

“It’s to the caretaker’s cottage,” Oliver continued. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s still a tenant there who’s paid in full as long as he wants it,” he smiled up toward the gren, “even if he does opt to sleep out back. The cottage is…safe for the gren and you can come and go through the back without people seeing you.”

Piper took the key and started to speak, but realized she didn’t know what to say. She settled on a simple, “Thank you,” before turning back to the grave.

Oliver brushed a bit beaded of mist from his suit jacket. “I think I’m going to step away for a while. Roger won’t be back with the backhoe for a few hours, so take you’re your time if you want.”

“What?” stammered Piper. “That’s it? That’s the funeral?”

Laughter erupted form Oliver as he took a step away. “Yup. Will was never one for long-winded speeches. I think he’d be pretty pleased with how this service is going.” He started to turn but hesitated. “If you need anything…really, anything…you know where to find me.”

As he walked into the steadily increasing drizzle, Piper turned her attention toward Toady and Simon…and the neighborhood behind them. She felt the now familiar pull of the gren’s attention and for the first time since the attack, she relaxed and let him in.

Memories washed over her. She saw Medry, his face noticeably younger and colored by the dancing light of a campfire. The smell of cooking meat and wood smoke filled the air and she recalled having caught a rabbit earlier that day. The Old Man was laughing, recounting a story, the details of which didn’t matter.

Piper smile and concentrated on a similar memory of her father…an unremarkable dinner-time conversation that she missed so much, but which filled her with warmth to recall.

The town still seemed petty and cruel in its rush to judge and condemn her, but Piper suddenly realized that she didn’t care so much anymore. The phrase “this too shall pass” had taken root in her consciousness and she found it suddenly difficult to get upset with the current mindset of people she barely knew. In all likelihood, she had a very long life ahead of her. And while the prospect of an average lifespan had seemed nearly infinite to Piper only a week ago, she found that a longer view had settled in her mind and had changed what she thought important.

Simon, for instance, who had placed himself in harm’s way to protect her in Critter’s basement. Toady, who certainly risked punishment just by being here. Even her mother, who struggled everyday to define a new life for herself in a world without her husband.

She felt warm despite the drizzle as she made her way toward her waiting friends. A song escaped her in a whisper as her feet splashed through shallow puddles. “All I can say,” she sang silently, “is that my life is pretty strange.”

Each boy launched into a barrage of questions as she approached, but she ignored them. “Guys,” she began. “I’m sorry I’ve been weird the last couple days. But…I need to ask for a huge favor.”

“You name it,” said Toady.

“Absolutely,” agreed Simon.

The sky was hazy and the crisp breeze was emptying the leaves from the trees behind the caretaker’s cottage. Glimmers from the surface of the lake far below sparkled through the newly bare limbs and through the mist she could just make out the ruins of the old Snyder castle perched three hills away. She thought of Guillaume Medrier, a life spent sequestered in this fieldstone house. He was vastly changed from the masochistic child he had been, but not enough to continue his friend’s growth. The gren had chosen her to further his understanding of friendship. It was a glorious gift and a horrendous burden.

She was pulled from her thoughts as a tiny shadow zipped behind the tree line and toward the back yard. Piper knew the gren would be waiting by the time they made their way around the back trail. She smiled warmly at Simon and Toady before saying, “I need you to learn sign language with me.”

The End

Message from the Author:

Please sign the guest book

Thanks for reading. As many of you know, this is the first story I’ve completed since I was in college almost 10 years ago. It’s been a struggle to complete and absolutely nerve racking to share with the faceless void of the Internet. I know many of you have opted not to take part in the comment discussions and that’s fine. However, as I finish up the story, I’d really love to put a name to the folks with whom I’ve shared this story. For this final chapter of the story, please send a comment, even if it’s just “I read this.” If, however, you’d like to say more and you’re like many of my friends and family who claim to “not know what to say,” here are some easy ones:

1) Did ya like it?
2) Did you see what was coming or were you surprised by the events that unfolded?
3) Did you feel cheated that some loose ends were left dangling?
4) What questions do you still have?
5) Would you read another story in this series? (I’m hoping yes since I’m currently working on one)

I’m not sure when I’ll have the next story finished, but I’m hoping it goes faster than the first time around. If you’d like to be here for the next story but don’t want to waste a lot of time checking back here or setting up an rss feed, I can send you an email before I post the next installment. Just email me at jkb at acrossthe dot net.


This story is, among other things, about the loved ones around us that make us who we are. I’ve been particularly fortunate in this regard and would like to thank everyone who helped this story be what it is. Since that’s a huge list of friends and family, I’ll only name a few by name (but I hope the rest of you know who you are).

My wife, Moonshot, not only for forcing me to do much needed editing overhauls as she read and reread the story for me, but also for listening to me go on and one about the gren for the past 10 months. I probably would have strangled me months ago.

Simon, Mark, Jess, Elsa, Taltap, Emilie, Mouse, and Louis for letting me know what they were thinking along the ride. Silence can truly drive one to madness when he’s cumpulsivley wondering how people are reacting to his tale. Thanks for talking me through it in the comments section.

My brother, Jet. Not only did her contribute to my sanity by commenting, he also inspired much of the story by actually experiencing many of the hurdles Piper herself faced. He is, for me, the star of this piece.

A friendly nod to Cheeseburger Brown for continually proving that one can work a full time job, suffer through a commute, own an home with all the accompanying chores, spend time with his wife and kids…and still, somehow, find time to write.

And finally, to my daughter, Norah. Visions of one day sharing these stories with her inspired me to pick up writing again and also made it obvious that it needed to be a brave little girl who stood up to the gren. In addition, much of the story-plotting and daydreaming required to put this fable together was done while cradling her in my arms at ungodly hours of the night. This story would not exist without her.

Again, thank you for reading. I truly hope you enjoyed it. If you did, be sure to tell someone.

Your goblin-haunted guide,
Moksha Gren

Friday, October 26, 2007

Piper and the Gren - Part 7

“Struggling won’t help you,” cooed Critter.

Piper’s feet thrashed. She tried to roll but her face was pinned against the damp ground. The taste of sweat filled her mouth as she bit down on the hand Critter had forced over her mouth. He stifled a yell but smoothly moved his hand to her throat.

“Do that again…and you’ll be joining your dead friends here.” A wicked snarl spread across his face as he let Piper taste just a trickle of air. She wheezed loudly but calmed her fighting.

Piper sought confidence by struggling to remember the small, frightened man she had seen behind Critter’s façade. As he knelt over her in the darkness, however, she was unable to find anything but her own fear. She knew what a braver Piper would say to this man and could only hope that acting like a braver Piper would be enough.

“You don’t scare me,” she lied in a croaking voice, the movement of her mouth grinding dirt across her lips.

His eyes flashed dangerously, “Then I’m not trying hard enough,” he whispered. Piper fought as a cloth of some sort was stuffed into her mouth. As she resumed her kicking, Critter rolled her onto her back. There was a tearing sound followed by duct tape slapped across her mouth. She threw her hands toward his face, imagined gouging his eyes with her fingernails but he deftly caught her attack and taped her hand together before she was sure what had happened. Her feet were quickly immobilized in the same way.

“Ya see,” Critter explained as her worked, “I had this gren thing figured all wrong. I’ve been bringing it food. I’ve been offering it shining little trinkets. But it ignored me. I’ve lit candles and danced around all prayin’ like. I’ve even killed a cat or two for it. But it just sits there in its tree and chases me off if I get too close. But the Old Man got his attention, right? Tortured him a little kid and suddenly the gren’s all buddy-buddy with him.”

Piper struggled against her bonds, but couldn’t move. Her screams were nothing more than muffled moans and it was difficult to breath as tears filled her eyes and nose.

“I mean, if the gren liked a few rocks,” Critter’s lip trembled as his eyes followed the curves of Piper’s body, “it’s gonna love this.”

As the wiry man slowly unfastened his belt, Piper felt her mind drifting from the events occurring to her. Her eyes focused past the nearest tombstone and she realized the grave markers aligned to perfectly frame the gren’s hollow. As she lay staring, oblivious to Critter’s continued monologue above her, something stirred in the shadows beneath the great oak. She could not be sure if her sense of time was confused or if everything had truly slowed to a crawl, but the long, shadowy arm that reached from the rotten gloom seemed to move impossibly slow. The glowing eyes moved smoothly into the faint moonlight and Piper watched breathlessly as the vague shape of the gren emerged, reflective eyes set against a form visible only in silhouette.

It was impossible for Piper to follow the overlapping outline of crouched arms and legs, so she had no idea how large the gren would have been if it had stood. But as it crawled forward cautiously, its head cocked to the side to peer around the distant tombstones, Piper could see long, gnarled fingers ending in sharp points that were familiar from her dreams. Its arms seemed too long for its body and she could make out what seemed to be curved horns like those of a ram on its head.

She wondered, in an almost dreamlike way, whether she had been aware of the horns in her visions. She seemed to remember a weight on her head, but couldn’t be sure if she was really remembering it or if she was adjusting her memory.

In an instant, the claws that tipped the gren’s feet dug into the ground and the small creature sprang forward in a blur, charging toward the Blair Cemetery. Piper’s head swam as she felt the gren’s mind brush agasint her own. She could see the small shadow scuttling across Medry’s yard toward the cemetery and feel Critter’s weight holding her down. But, she could also feel the wind rush past her face as she flew on all fours toward the graveyard, familiar rage bursting through her muscles.

Critter had just grabbed the elastic on Piper’s pajama bottoms when he caught sight of the motion to his left. For just an instant, he smiled, confident that he had finally succeeded in winning the gren’s affection. As the reality of the situation dawned on him, his eyes shot wide in panic and he scrambled off Piper and tried to flee. A soundless scream contorted his face as he tripped over his captive and toppled to the ground, clearly gripped by the unnatural fear and hallucinations the gren inflicted on its victims.

The dark streak of the gren shot over Piper’s head and landed beside Critter. The scrawny man’s face was still twisted in terror as his fist swung toward the crouching beast. The gren slid smoothly to the side of the blow without letting its stare flinch from Critter’s eyes.

Panicked, Critter swung again and cursed loudly as his knuckles scraped against the rough edge of a grave stone. The gren pressed forward, a wicked grin taunting Critter to make another attempt. Critter’s legs kicked out at the creature’s head, but by the time his foot extended, the gren had dove to the side. Piper barely tracked the gren’s movement as it pushed off the side of a tombstone and leapt for Critter’s chest.

Imagines of blood and rending flesh filled Piper’s imagination involuntarily as the gren sprang for the prone Critter. Horror filled her as she realized what was about to happen. And although part of her very much wanted to see Critter ripped apart as the gren obviously intended…Piper found herself screaming a cloth-muffled, “No!”

The small beast crouched on Critter’s chest, its claws hovering menacingly over the fallen man’s throat. A look of crazed panic flashed in the gren’s eyes as its focus twitched from it prone victim to Piper and back again. Bloodlust was evident on its face, but it resisted, every muscle in its tiny body taut with internal struggle. Jeffery Creedor lay frozen, his face a mask of unmoving terror as the smell of urine filled the air. The gren sniffed, then shook its head in disgust, driving away the look of uncontrolled rage.

Her blood pounding against her adhesive restraints, Piper had her first chance to view the gren up close.

One curled ram horn flanked the right side of a gristly face with oversized yellow eyes and elongated mandibles. A tale of violence was told by the broken horn on the left side of its head and the countless scars that crisscrossed its face to disappear beneath the thick fur that lined the underside of its jaw. Long, down-turned ears fell behind the horns, but the left ear ended in a jagged, torn edge. A thin line of fur like the ones Piper had seen on the goblins ran down its spine and blossomed into a full coat of dark hair by the time it reached the gren’s muscular legs. It was difficult to tell precise colors in the sparse light, but Piper guessed that its skin was tan with blotted sections of darker browns. And though the gren’s crouch made her estimate sketchy at best, she supposed the gren would stand about three feet tall were it to do so.

It smelled of moss and musk.

Incoherent pleas and apologies blubbered their way from Critter’s mouth. The gren slowly moved one finger to its lips; Piper noticed the smallest finger and half the ring finger were missing. “Shhhhhhh,” it cooed as a smile lit its face. Critter’s eyes flashed to the vicious teeth behind the gren’s smile and was silent again.

Piper lay transfixed by the gren. She remembered a trip to the zoo with her father, watching the hyenas feed. She had thought then that the brutes looked like random pieces of other animals slapped haphazardly together. She had this thought again as she tried to say what, exactly the gren was. There were elements of the goblins she had seen in her dream…the same leathery skin, the same overlong limbs and the same teeth and claws. But this was certainly no goblin. Though no bigger than a goblin, the gren’s damaged and mismatched body radiated strength…power and confidence. Where the goblins’ wild eyes had spoken of flittering creatures that crawl from dark places to spread mayhem and breed in damp pits, the gren’s expressive eyes told a tale of ancient wickedness tucked behind a thin veil of sadness.

Piper was snapped from her contemplation as she heard footsteps slowly approaching from the Medry house. She fought to twist her head toward the approaching sound to see Old Man Medry walking purposefully toward the graveyard with what appeared to be a sword.

The Old Man strode past Piper and without breaking stride, hoisted the sword above his head. Piper again fought to protest through her gag, but this time, the attacker was indifferent to her complaints. As the sword swung a perfect arch, the gren deftly sprang to the side. Critter, suddenly becoming aware of the new attack, had barely enough time to flinch before the weapon smashed into the side of his head. Critter’s face twisted horribly to the side as a loud woody crack and a sickening thud filled the cool air. Medry looked at the now unconscious body beneath him and then looked sadly at the half of a wooden sword in his hand. “hurm…” he muttered. “Shouldn’t have used an antique, I guess.” He shrugged then and turned to Piper. “Seems I’ve broken my bokken,” he smiled. “And you,” he said softly as he kneeled to remove the duct tape from her cheek as gently as he could. “Are you hurt?” His accent was slight enough that Piper wondered if it had faded in the last 22 years or if Critter had exaggerated it in his impression.

“I don’t think so,” she answered, anxious to free her hands so she could wipe the tears from her face.

He nodded and reached to pat the gren on the shoulder before removing the bindings from Piper’s wrist. The gren crouched solemnly beside Medry and watched carefully as Piper freed her legs.

“I always knew this little monster was going to be trouble,” grumbled Medry as he jabbed a finger into the unmoving Critter. “Sneaking around my yard, throwing steaks at the gren’s tree.” He turned to make sure Piper appreciated the gravity of what he had said. “Steaks,” he repeated, “left to rot on my lawn. Waste of perfectly good beef since the gren stopped eating meat back in ’68.” He turned to regard the lanky beast with a warm grin, “Which is itself a waste of perfectly good teeth.”

The gren bared pointed teeth that had obviously been made for ripping and made a flurry of hand gestures.

Medry laughed and turned back to Piper. He noted Piper’s confusion. “What? In this day and age of political correctness and Americans with Disabilities, et cetera, et cetera…are you saying you don’t even recognize sign language?”

Feeling vaguely insulted, Piper ripped the last of the duct tape from her ankles. “I know what it is…I just didn’t expect it to sign. Why doesn’t it speak?”

“Well,” mused Medry, “he’d describe it as a vow of silence, but the truth is he lost his vocal chords in a…little skirmish in Edinburgh.”

The gren cock his head back and to one side to display a gruesome scar that ran from under his right ear to a jagged stop at his left collar bone.

Piper cringed.

“So,” Medry groaned as he pushed himself up and leaned against a nearby tombstone. His aged face appeared smoother, younger in the dim light with fewer shadows to highlight the deep creases Piper knew to be there. “You want to be a friend to the gren.”

“I don’t know,” responded Piper, rubbing her wrists. “I don’t think I ever said that.”

“It wasn’t so much a question.”

“What do you mean? I don’t have a choice?” asked Piper, fear creeping into her voice.

“Of course you have a choice, child,” Medry soothed. “But you’ve already decided, haven’t you? And besides…the gren…he likes you.”

Her eyes drifting to the diminutive beast squatting beside the Old Man, Piper caught the gren looking curiously back at her. As her gaze traveled down its long arms and rested on the wicked claws at the tip of its fingers, the gren casually tucked them beneath its palms.

“He likes me, huh?” pondered the girl. “Is that a good thing?”

Medry shared a weary smile with the gren before answering, “I suppose it depends on what day you ask me. Some days he is a blessing and I cannot imagine my life without him. Other days…” His smile faded into a face of contemplation. “Other days he is a trying child,” he said at last. The gren looked up at his friend and nodded solemnly, accepting the answer with what appeared to Piper a quiet apology. “It is, I suppose,” Medry continued, “the way it is with any friendship that has lasted as long as ours.”

Mustering her courage, “Are you really over 100? Or did you die and come back?”

In the dim light, Piper saw Guillaume Medrier smile in genuine amusement. “As clever as is the story of my death and secret tombstone…I assure you I have lived every one of my long years, right here on the earthly plane. And believe me when I say I feel every one of them in my bones.”

Piper sighed. “So that means the gren probably can’t talk to the dead. I read that goblins could do that.”

“Sadly, child, the veil of death is as closed to the gren as it is to all of us. That’s not a trick the gren inherited from the lutin.” He smiled fondly at the creature beside him. “The gren has enough trouble communicating with the living…let alone the dead,” he laughed. The gren made a series of hand gestures that Piper didn’t understand…but which appeared indignant. The Old Man laughed harder until he noticed Piper’s saddened expression.

“I know what you were hoping,” he began comfortingly. “But even the lutin cannot do what you’re wanting. No one can, not like that. And that’s a very good thing, to my way of thinking.” He let the silence sit for a few moments before adding, “But don’t despair, young Piper. You see, the gren, he has a certain…calm about him these days…when he’s not attacking pedophiles at least. And if you have not yet noticed, he is…quiet generous with his moods, yes?”

“I don’t understand what that has to do with anything.”

Medry nodded. “What you’re seeking, Piper…it doesn’t come from some mythical conversation with those departed,” he gestured expansively about the cemetery. “It comes from our memories of them and through how we live out what they meant to us…what they taught us. So, I know no better way to talk to the dead than to sit for a while and not to talk at all. And luckily, for an active girl with, I assume, very little inclination to sit and reflect on the finer details of life… the gren can make it a little easier.” He leaned in and whispered as if sharing a secret, “He’s been in a bit of a meditative mood the last few decades.”

“That’s not really what I was looking for,” Piper reiterated quietly.

“I know. But I think,” continued Medry, “it is, in the end, much better than what you were hoping for.”

The two sat in silence for a few moments more as Piper digested what she had been told. Eventually she continued her questions.

“Why did the gren choose me?”

Medry hummed thoughfully. He looked serenely about the trees and the night sky, as if contemplating the mystery of it all before answering. “Why are any of us brought together, really? Why do we choose the friends we do? Why this one and not that one? Why does this one like that one but that one doesn’t return the feeling?” He shrugged. “So, if you are asking why the gren likes you and why you feel drawn to the gren…that’s as difficult and as simple to answer as why you and your friend Simon like each other.”

Piper moved to interrupt, but Medry continued. “However, if you are instead asking why you share a bond of communication…well…that’s even more mysterious, in the end. But it is late…and there is, fortunately, a short answer. You are…how do I say it?…emotionally compatible at this particular moment in time. The gren, he can empathize with you…and you with the gren. You are….alike in some manner that is significant to both of you right now. And this is rare. Some…lower creatures like the lutin can do this amongst themselves easily…for their thoughts are simple enough to almost always overlap. But, truly thinking beasts such as the three of us…our minds go this way and that and so infrequently open to others. Do you see?”

Piper looked at the undersized creature. He stared back patiently. “So I can see his memories because we…think the same?”

“Yes, yes, exactly. But not only do you see his memories, he also sees yours. Always a two-way street, yes?” He mimed passing traffic with his hands. “You offer images and you receive images. You’ll get better at choosing what images to make more of a…conversation, but…”

“Wait. You could do this with him for the same reason, right?” Piper’s mind returned to the various images she had seen of the life of the aged man who now stood before her. She fought the urge to scoot away as she recalled his torture of the other child. “The gren could talk to you because you were a monster…just like him.”

Guillaume Medrier nodded quietly. He made no excuses nor explanations. He merely accepted the term.

“Well, what does that say about me?” Piper’s mind raced. The distrusting eyes of the town, the hurtful accusations…had they been right about her? Was this hideous beast hunkered beside a tombstone truly her kindred spirit?

Medry flashed an understanding half-smile and leaned in closer to Piper. “Rest easy, little one. Had you met the gren when I did…he most likely would have killed you. The gren you have seen in your dreams is a gren over 100 years gone…a gren you have almost nothing in common with. We…the gren and I…we have changed each other significantly. Empathy, little one. Empathy with a fellow being. It is powerful. And you saw us both before we had ever experienced it.”

“So you’re saying he’s a good gren now?”

Genuine laughter escaped Medry’s chest. “Maybe in another hundred years, child. Maybe in another hundred years.”

The gren nodded slowly in acceptance of the half-compliment.

Medry continued. “He has much more to learn, much more to grow. Which is why he looks to you, Piper. I have changed more in my lifetime than any man has a right to, but I honestly don’t think I’m going to be able to change enough to take the gren where he wants to go. I don’t think I’m doing him any favors by allowing him to hide away in a tree, for instance. And so…you have found each other. It is as simple and as utterly unfathomable as that.”

“So does that mean I’ll live to one-hundred and something, too?” Piper asked…with growing unease.

“You ask me what will happen?” responded the gray-haired man. “There has been, so far as I know, but one gren. And that gren has had but one friend. So, I cannot say what will happen. We were both surprised, you see, when I kept ticking along past my expiration date. But, if I had to guess…I’d say you’ll have a pretty long shelf life, yourself.”

The horned creature tilted its head questioningly and leaned toward Piper. The now familiar pull of the gren’s mind encircled her own with curiosity, but she shook it away and was startled to realize that she was more afraid of the gren at this moment than at any since she had rescued Toady. That abstract gren that had scurried about in shadows had seemed alluring to Piper, frightening in the mesmerizing way of a horror film. This misshapen beast before her, however, seemed too real. Dirt and twigs clung to the fur on its legs and the thick, leathery skin made Piper’s own skin go clammy. The claws on its fingers and toes were not the fantastical weapons she had imagined from fairy tales. They were horrifying talons clearly meant to rend flesh and Piper had no doubt that they had been used countless times for exactly that purpose. Despite Old Man Medry’s use of the word “friend,” and despite the fact that the gren had undoubtedly saved her…Piper found that the reality of the goblin-like creature before her made her less inclined to forgive his confessed and suddenly very real crimes.

“He burned a baby alive.” She said finally. “He laughed and he burned a baby. How am I supposed to trust a monster like that?”

“So it is the baby that is bothering you?” spoke Medry softly. “Well, as luck would have it…it never happened…what you think happened. The gren, he has done horrible things. I will not deny this and neither will he. But that particular horrible thing didn’t happen.”

“I saw it! I saw it through its own eyes!” Piper protested.

“Yes, yes. I know what you saw. But there is seeing, and then there is understanding.” Medry let out a small groan as he pushed himself up. “But I think I’ve done enough explaining this night. If you have questions, little one…you should ask the one who was there. For myself…I think it is time we alert the authorities to the situation with our unconscious Critter here.”

Critter. Piper had nearly forgotten. She had given no thought to what to do about Critter. “How do we explain any of this? What do I say? I mean…isn’t there just some way for the gren to just…you know…make it all go away?”

“Oh, yes,” replied Medry, “there was such a way. Such was the gren’s way. But you…you opted for compassion. Myself…I would have gone with the gren had the miserable Mr. Creedor attacked me in such a manner. But that just shows why it’s probably best that you teach the gren a thing or two for a while, yes?”

The gren jumped onto a tombstone to bring itself close to Medry’s face as the old man whispered something to the perched creature who responded with a flurry of hand motion. With a final scratch behind the gren’s horns, Medry started out of the graveyard.

“Wait!” called Piper. “I…” But Medry simply waved his hand over his shoulder as if he couldn’t be bothered any further.

She turned slowly to face the gren, perched silently on its gravestone as it watched Medry go. Suddenly, it turned, a twinkle of mischievous amusement flashed in its eyes as it assessed Piper. The corner of its mouth curled in a tiny smile as it raised its eyebrows as if to say, “You were going to ask me something?”

Piper stood defiantly for a moment before muttering, “Fine. Why should I trust you when I watched you burn down a house with a baby in it?” In response, she again felt the familiar encroachment of the gren’s mind and she again fought it away.

The gren shook its head and tapped its long index finger against its temple. Piper reluctantly relaxed her mind and let the images enter.

Piper crept along the roof ledge of a small home. Through the darkness she could see many other tightly packed buildings along a cobblestone street. She felt excited and cantankerous…she was looking for mayhem. Down the street she saw a large, well-kept home and knew it to be the home of the region’s prefect. Powerful men are always the most enjoyable to watch squirm under the heels of misfortune. Piper smiled as she remembered the stables behind the home and considered the beauty of bringing a host of goblin tricks, tricks the rural communities had been suffering for generations, to the house of wealth and fame. She cared nothing for the social justice of such a plan, thought nothing of balance in this instance…she merely enjoyed the unexpected and had elevated the frustrating, the cumbersome, and the frightening to an art form. This pampered man would not be expecting such a thing.

She made her way toward the home, leaping silently from rooftop to rooftop, then froze. Four deft shadows had caught her eye as they moved against the stately home ahead. Pressing herself against a chimney to get a better look, she sniffed the air and her sensitive nose confirmed what she already suspected.

Lutin. Three fully grown and one very small.

The four dark shapes disappeared into a window on the second floor of the house and Piper took the opportunity to slink closer still to the action. After barely a minute, the three grown goblins reemerged from the window. The center beast clutched a human infant in its arms. The baby was smiling and waving its arms happily, no doubt soothed by pleasing glamours.

Piper fought to stifle a laugh. Such delicious bedlam was already underway before she had even arrived and she was willing to give credit when it was due. As she watched the goblins disappear down the street, she amused herself by imagining the panic that would ensue in the prefect’s home when they discovered their baby had been replaced by a changeling. How long would the little lutin inside let the illusion stand? Hours? Days? Years? It was just too perfect. And for it to happen to the prefect made it that much more delicious. Goblins typically aimed this mischievousness at the lower class since the upper class would have the means for retribution. She tried to remember if she could remember the lutin ever swapping a baby with such a powerful family as this, but she could think of no examples.

This gave her pause. Perhaps this was not simple goblin turmoil she had witnessed. Perhaps larger plans than mere discord were playing out this night. She nodded to herself in the darkness, silently congratulating the lutin on an impressive hoax. But in the end, she had no love for the lutin and owed them no loyalty. The fact that they most likely had high expectations for the results of their mischief only made them a greater target for mischief of her own. She had come to town for havoc, and while the frustration of one family was wonderful…the disturbance of all parties involved here tonight would be a masterful stroke.

She crept into the house and quickly went to work igniting luxurious curtains with embers from the various fire places. She took special care to spread a ring of fire around the entrance to the nursery. It would do no good for household to rescue the tiny changeling. She danced and skipped merrily as she played the coming events in her mind. The grieving family, incorrectly assuming their child had burned. The outraged lutin, watching helplessly as whatever plan they had concocted went quite literally up in smoke. The glow of the spreading fire matched her pride as she darted back into the chilled night air.

Piper’s attention returned to the cemetery as the flashing red and blue of the approaching police cruisers rounded Banner Street’s circle drive. The gren glanced at the advancing lights before returning his gaze to Piper. His yellow eyes waited patiently and she knew an unspoken question made him linger.

She didn’t understand everything she had seen. So much context had been missing. But she had confidence, at least, that she had been right about one thing. The gren was not a complete monster…and that was something.

She nodded.

The gren flashed a wide smile that Piper assumed was meant to be reassuring despite the scarred face and pointed teeth. As the gren darted for the safety of his tree, Piper raised her hands to gain the attention of the search lights.

...Concluded in Part 8

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Piper and the Gren - Part 6

Monday October 23 / Tuesday October 24, 1995

Piper had been having the most wonderful dream about horses when she found herself once again watching a young Medry from the safety of a tree branch. As the boy bounced stones off the forehead of his bound victim, she again clapped with glee as blood ran from a gash above the wounded boy’s eye. She knew, as she had before, that she would attack as soon as the theatrics below bored her.

She slowly crept along a limb until she was directly behind Medry. Gently she pushed aside a leafy branch and crouched forward so the tortured child could see her. Blood raced through her veins as the child’s eyes went wide and his ineffectual struggles against the ropes increased.

“Diable! Il y a un monstre derrière toi!!" spat the boy, a spay of blood flying from his crimson teeth.

Medry laughed and bent to find another rock. Piper struck him in the cheek with a hard flung acorn and dropped to the hard packed forest floor. She bared her teeth and flared her claws as she took a threatening hop toward the young Medry. Her grin spread even wider as he screamed and tripped over his own feet in an attempt at flight. Before the boy could recover his footing, she had leapt onto his chest and had reared back to slash his face.

She stopped.

His eyes had locked onto hers and she felt a wave of panic she knew was not her own. She knew, somehow, that the terror belonged to the cringing child beneath her and rather than fill her with glee, she reeled back with terror of her own. For just a moment, she not only saw the boy on the ground, but simultaneously saw visions of Medry’s father, Henri. She felt the elder Medrier’s belt against her back and twisted as a hot iron was branded against her thigh.

She shook her head clear of the images in time to watch Medry’s victim break free of his bindings and flee up the hill to her right. She didn’t care. She gazed at this boy she crouched upon and somehow understood him. His anger and his sorrow brought welcome empathy. His love of torture and pain, so like her own.

Was this, she thought, what the filthy lutin experienced on a daily basis?

Suddenly, Piper’s dream shifted and she found herself in a clearing. The sun had slipped below the hills to the west and the shadows under the trees had grown darker. She raised her ears to the sound of something thrashing through the forest toward her. She turned in the direction of the sound and relaxed…she knew without sight that it was the boy who called himself Guillaume. As she scampered to the center of the clearing to await his noisy arrival, she noticed the small pinpoints of light dotting the hillside to the east. They bobbed and flickered their way into the forest.

Guillaume burst out of the tree line and stood panting. “You have to run,” he huffed at last.

Piper looked toward the lights again and saw a vision, a memory from Guillaume, of angry men gathering torches and weapons; shouts of revenge and slaughter. She ran her tongue over her pointed teeth and imagined the sensation of ripping flesh beneath her claws. She knew this forest, knew its branches and cliffs. If they wanted to fight, she was eager to oblige.

“No,” interrupted Guillaume. “You don’t understand...they’re serious this time. The prefect will only send more. You have to run.”

A phrase, something Guillaume had overheard from the mob, entered Piper’s mind then, “La Purge des Lutins.” Understanding blossomed cruelly that this was not just an angry group, not just drunken men with inflated courage. A decision had been made in the towns of men. They would not be quickly frightened back to their homes. They would indeed keep coming. As much as it pained her…flight was her best option.

Piper turned to flee but found her path blocked by three sets of glowing orbs that glared back from the darkness of the surrounding brush. As the three goblins crept into the clearing, rage and accusation burning from their over-sized eyes, Piper resisted the urge to call out to Guillaume to run. If the lutin had not seen him yet, he could still be safe. She moved herself directly between the boy and the approaching trio and waited until they were close enough for her to serve as an effective shield. She imagined Guillaume running. She concentrated on the image but was unsure how communication such as this worked. Nothing.

The goblins crouched forward onto their long-fingered claws, displaying the thin line of course hair that ran down their spines. Their leathery ears still pointed up from their bald heads, belying their youth. They were angry and overconfident…an older lutin would have known better than to attack her directly with so small a group. But these youngsters obviously thought that their strength of numbers and sense of outrage would allow them to enact their retribution. Piper grinned; she looked forward to proving them wrong.

Piper could hear the slight rustle of the bushes Guillaume hid behind and knew that he had not retreated. She took a half-step backward to buy the boy more time. Emboldened by what they mistook as fear, the goblins lurched forward. Taking a deep breath, Piper brought to mind a memory of running, fleeing pursuers at top speed.

She smiled with relief as she heard clumsy footsteps behind her. Guillaume created an almost embarrassing amount of noise as he retreated back toward the townsfolk, but the lutin did nothing more than follow him with their yellow eyes.

Two of the creatures bared their fangs and snarled while the third pointed to the approaching line of fires to the East. “Yooouuuu,” it slurred through a wet and unnatural voice that sounded as if it had echoed its way from some dank pit.

Glancing at the oncoming mob in the distance, Piper knew she had time to have some fun. She dug her claws into the soil and prepared to leap. She’d take down the talker first.

The sound of a soft scurrying on her rooftop filled the silence as Piper awoke. She threw off her blankets and rolled to her feet so that she could look out the window. The sky was dark. The sliver of a moon that had shown itself the night before was now completely gone. However, the street light three houses down was bright enough to highlight a small and fluid shadow as it slipped across the street and disappeared into the trees surrounding the caretaker’s cottage. From this distance, it might have been a small dog had it not moved so quickly.

Piper slipped on an old pair of shoes and grabbed a thin jacket on her way out the front door. The air was crisp and damp so her pajama legs were wet with dew by the time she stood at the crooked mailbox labeled Medrier. Her initial burst of adrenaline spent, she suddenly felt very small and unprotected so far away from the quiet buzz of the distant street lamp. Her eyes darted back and forth from the gren’s tree and the tombstones of the Blair cemetery, unsure which was more frightening. Upon waking, she had felt brave, eager to rush out and confront the mystery. But here, with the tree looming ahead in the darkness…she was less confident.

“He’s sorry about everything…he only seems bad,” she mumbled, begging herself to believe Oliver Blair’s assurances. “He’s sorry about everything…he only seems bad.” She lost count of how many times she repeated her mantra before she concluded with, “and he can talk to the dead.”

She walked slowly toward the tree. Her eyes never left the base of the old oak tree as she past the point in the front yard where Toady first lost his nerve. She hesitated only briefly crossing into the side yard, looking for any sign that the gren was upset by her presence. When the tree remained motionless, she proceeded on to the place Toady had fallen. Shallow trenches from the heels of Toady’s shoes were still visible. The soil remembered the child’s terror. She stood silently for a moment, suddenly realizing that somewhere during her approach, she had stopped being afraid. She wondered whether this should concern her but sat down to lean against Old Man Medry’s house none-the-less.

“I think,” she whispered into the stillness, “I understand.” She peered deeper into the hollow, but still saw nothing. For a long moment she was content to sit motionless and listen to the leaves of the old tree whisper. Slowly, however, the comfortable silence turned heavy…expectant. She was an actor blinded by the spotlights who had forgotten her lines. She knew she should say something…anything…but she was didn’t know what.

“I got expelled from school for dealing drugs,” she blurted, breaking the oppressive quiet at last. She wasn’t sure if that was the right line in her play…but the pressure felt lightened; the audience seemed please. “It was…so stupid.” She paused and looked toward the gren’s hole. It waited patiently for the story. She continued.

“My Mom took me to this doctor because my grades were slipping and they decide it’s attention deficit disorder. As if it couldn’t have anything to do with getting dragged to this stupid, little town right after Dad died. No, it must be something…something we can throw pills at. Mom likes that kind of problem.”

She picked a fallen, red leaf to give herself something to focus on. “And here’s the thing, do you know how they figure out if you have ADD? They give you Ritalin and see how you react. Just hand you a pill and if it doesn’t make you bounce off the walls…you must need to take more pills.”

She paused. But if the gren could appreciate the irony in her story, it gave no indication.

“But I didn’t want to take the pills, so I was throwing them away at school. And what’s worse is my grades started going up so Mom was convinced the Ritalin was working. Anyway, Christie VanFleet saw me throwing the pills away one day and asked if she could have them instead. And I figured…I mean…they just gave some to me just to see how I reacted. How dangerous could it be? Doctors just hand it out to kids so I think, why not. She gave me a dollar for it and everybody was happy.”

She peeled the leaf down its center.

“When we finally got caught, I think I’d made maybe thirty bucks selling Ritalin to Christie and her friends. But you’d have thought I was some kind of big time drug dealer by the way everyone reacted. It was in the paper, it was on the local news. The way the story got told, they made it sound like I’d come down from the gang-infested city of Indianapolis just to peddle drugs to their innocent little kids.

“So, now I’m out of school for another month or so and everybody looks at me like I’m evil or something. Even Toady’s parents say he’s not supposed to talk to me.” Piper rubbed her eyes and was surprised to find tears. She wiped her nose and tried to regain her composure. “I mean…I screwed up. But…I’m not a bad person.”

She looked to the tree for confirmation…but nothing stirred.

She waited in the quiet and felt her heart beat against the fieldstones behind her. Long after her eyes had dried, Piper sat comfortably facing the gren’s hollow. The thin sliver of moon drifted slowly through the branches of the twisted oak and Piper may have drifted to sleep at some point…but she couldn’t be sure. There was a peace to the night air that made her troubles seem small, made her month exile from school seem trivial. The crisp Autumn breeze was the same as had meandered through countless family campsites. And though she had no fire in Medry’s yard, she felt warmed as she remembered the way her Dad would create shadow theater on the side of her tent.

She remembered that she had wanted so desperately to ask the gren about her father, but it somehow felt unnecessary now. Her memories were so crystalline in her mind that she dared not interrupt them with speech.

Eventually, Piper’s eyes grew tired and she longed for her own bed. She pushed herself up and nodded toward the tree. “Maybe we can do this again sometime,” she said with a smile and started the trek back through Old Man Medry’s yard.

She paused at the old mailbox to look at her neighborhood. As it slept, the houses looked more welcoming than amidst the activity of the day. Darkened jack-o-lanterns waited on porches and yards lay cluttered with hay bails and scarecrows. Piper felt optimistic for the first time in over a year.

“A month is pretty short,” she thought.

Her gaze swept across the street to the old Blair Cemetery where it froze. She squinted to be sure that she was in fact seeing an eerie light glowing from behind a tombstone. She stood frozen as the faint light pulsed, its soft jade iridescence casting granite angel wings into silhouette.

“Are you doing this?” she whispered over her shoulder.

Silence, as the dim glow continued its rhythm.

“Old Man Medry’s tombstone,” she breathed as she gathered her courage and crossed the small dead end road. Piper made her way into the derelict graveyard and stepped carefully around tombstones…creeping toward the glimmering spot. At the last minute, she lunged around the final tombstone.

There was nothing.

Like a dim star when stared at directly, the light was nowhere to be found now that she stood among the grave markers. Piper sighed. She wasn’t quite sure what she had expected, but felt disappointed none-the-less. She checked the names on the headstones near where the light had been, but found nothing but random Blairs and an occasional Shupe.

She started to leave but again froze as a twig snapped behind her. Piper whipped her head in the direction of the sound but suddenly felt a strong hand clasp over her mouth and pull her to the ground. She couldn’t see who had grabbed her, but behind the smell of the grass smashed against her face, Piper smelled liquor and Doritos.

...Continued in Part 7

Monday, October 22, 2007

Piper and the Gren - Part 5

Sunday October 22, 1995

The next day brought rain; a slow drizzle just firm enough to make a bike ride across town a miserable trek. The visit to Oliver Blair would wait until after school on Monday. Piper spent a gloomy afternoon watching the movie Gremlins and jumping each time the house creaked.

A young squirrel visited her in her dreams that night. It perched beside her in the branches of an old maple tree. She was overjoyed that the small creature had come so close. Its tail twitched. It cocked its head to gaze at her and Piper’s heart welled with the beauty of the moment. She reached out tentatively to stroke the squirrel’s fur and it turned to flee. The agony of rejection was crushing. Her hand shot out in an instant, too quickly for the squirrel to react. She snapped its neck.

She awoke with tears in her eyes and plodded down the hall to wash her hands. When even the soap and water failed to remove the feeling of the squirrel in her hand, she returned to her window and stared at the tombstones. Although this graveyard looked nothing like the lush rolling green into which they had lowered her father a little over a year ago, the solemn quiet of the headstones felt the same. But the pain and loss held in the decrepit Blair cemetery was old and forgotten, while the pain in those sunlit burial hills in Indiana was so fresh that her mother had ran. Away from home and to this small, Missouri town. Away from emotions and to helpful pills. Away from Piper and to silence.

Piper cried herself to sleep, her arm and head resting on the window sill.

Monday October 23, 1995

The Blair-Carmichael Funeral Home was a flat-roofed structure with an awkward A-frame chapel jutting from the center. Soft earth tones and a natural stonework façade were clearly meant to be soothing to grieving family members. But Piper, due to either anxiety about meeting Oliver Blair or memories of a similarly soothing funeral home in Indiana, found nothing about the structure comforting. She hesitated in the parking lot.

“Ok, Simon,” said Toady, rocking his bike between his legs. “I guess it’s your turn to sit out here and be our safety net.”

Simon turned to the shorter boy. “I’m pretty sure Blair is safe. He’s a bit strange, but he’s not going to hurt anybody.”

“No way, man. Fair is fair,” argued Toady. “We need a back-up. And this time it’s your turn to make sure we’re nice and secure.”

Simon shrugged and continued toward the door. “Ok, I’ll keep you safe, Toady. I left a note on my bed before I left this morning. If anything happens to us…my folks’ll know where we went.”

“What? That’s not…but I had to…”

Despite her unease, Piper smiled as she led the two bickering boys into the building.

The entry room was filled with soft colors, outdated furniture, and the smell of flowers. A painting of a peaceful creek meandering through trees hung on the wall opposite them. As Piper’s eye drifted to the branches of the painting’s nearest tree, she shivered as she recalled the sickening crack of the squirrel’s neck. She stuck her hands in her pockets to brush away the memory. When even that failed to erase the feeling of guilt that washed over her, she called out, “Hello,” to further distract herself. Even muted against the soft fabrics, her voice was stark against the silence. “Mr. Blair?” she called again, hoping to find him before she lost her nerve.

Sounds of movement from an office to their right preceded the appearance of a meek man in a black suit with thin red pin stripes. He scratched the side of his prominent nose with fingers bejeweled in multicolored rings and glanced behind the children to see if there were any adults following. “How, um…how can I help you, children?” he asked in his awkward approximation of soothing.

Piper had seen this man many times during his visits to Old Man Medry’s house, but always from a distance. She thought for a moment at how perfectly his quiet voice matched his shuffling mannerisms and salt and pepper hair before answering, “I have some questions about the gren.”

Oliver Blair sighed heavily. “I suppose it is almost Halloween. You kids need more details for your scary stories? Need more reasons to harass a poor old man?” He shook his head in disgust and continued before anyone could say a word. “Fine. Um…the gren has to…uh…eat a child once a year to stay alive. Every Halloween.”

“Mr. Blair,” interjected Simon, but the pin-striped man continued.

“No, no. Allow me to continue, my boy.” His hands flittered as if summoning magic. “It’s got claws that can shred little children like…like butterfly wings and the gren’s tree…the tree is stuffed with the bones of the twenty-one children it’s eaten from his past All Hallow’s Feasts. Now, go. Go and spread the sinister stories amongst your candy-fueled, tresspassing friends.”

Silence returned to the waiting room as the three children speechlessly stared at the undertaker. Oliver turned and straightened the forest painting, obviously killing time while he waited for them to leave.

It was Toady who recovered first. “The tree’s filled with bones?”

“Mr. Blair,” began Piper slowly, ignoring Toady. “I don’t know if what you’re saying is true. But I’ve been having strange dreams about the gren and I just want to know what you think they might mean. I’m not really looking for Halloween stories.”

The undertaker’s shoulders drooped as he realized his guests were not leaving “Ah,” he began as he turned back toward them. “So you’ve gotten yourself too scared of your own stories and want me to explain that you have nothing to fear from the gren so that you can sleep at night. All the tales you kids spread about Will Medrier being brought back from Hell finally gave you the creeps?” He adjusted a large, gray-stoned ring. “Suit yourself…the gren’s as tender as a kitten. Probably fall asleep in your arms if you scratch its belly. Feel better?”

Simon rolled his eyes. “I think what Piper is saying is that she’s hoping you can tell her why she’s been dreaming about battles from the Sino-French War and burning babies and Medry as a kid throwing rocks at some other kid.”

Oliver Blair’ gaze drifted from Simon and held Piper’s eye for a few long seconds. He regarded her as if for the first time. “You’ve seen these things in your dreams?”

Piper nodded.

“And Piper, you say? You’re the Piper Bishop who…um…made the papers a few weeks ago?”

Piper reluctantly nodded again.

Unbuttoning his suit jacket’s bottom button, the funeral director lowered himself into one of the archaic chairs. His eyes darted swiftly back and forth as if contemplating his next comment. “How…” he began and then paused. “How did you come to the attention of the gren? Do you think?”

With frequent interjections from her friends, Piper recounted the story of Toady’s approach to the gren’s tree while Oliver stared into the carpet and nodded occasionally. She also told the fidgety man about her dreams, but found herself withholding the details about the squirrel. Of all the horrible things she had dreamed, of all the wicked thoughts she had experienced through the gren, thoughts of the poor squirrel filled her with a guilt unlike the others. The memory felt more personal, more intimate, and less willing to be shared with others. She had held this detail back from Toady and Simon and again felt compelled to hide it from Oliver Blair. She wiped her hands on her jeans to mute the feeling of soft fur against her palm.

For a long moment after she had finished, Blair sat idly running his fingers through his graying hair with a look of confusion on his face. “Well…” he started on three occasions but each time drifted back into thought. Piper stole a glance at Simon who could only shrug.

“Why is the gren trying to scare me like this?” prodded Piper.

“Oh, well…I really don’t think he’s trying to scare you. I’m just…um…hard pressed to come up with a good reason he would be sharing these particular memories with you. I can…I can understand why they’ve upset you. But, rest assured that the gren is…well he’s not…you know, going to hurt you.”

“Wait a second,” spat Toady. “Just a second ago the gren was filling its tree with bones. But now Piper shouldn’t worry.”

Oliver Blair stammered. “Well…yes…er. That was when you were kids pestering the gren. Now that you’re kids being pestered by the gren…well, I think you deserve more of…you know…the truth.”

“And what is the truth?” prompted Simon.

“Well. Have you considered maybe that the gren is…maybe confessing his worst side to you?” offered the undertaker. “Perhaps he doesn’t realize how scary it might be for a little girl to see these things. Maybe this is his fumbling sort of way of making friends.”

Piper tried to consider this explanation, but found herself confused again. “It showed me it burning a baby alive. That’s how it makes friends?”

Oliver’s head bobbed from side to side as he conceded the point. “True, but…” His eyes resumed their jerky side to side movement as he appeared to consider something new. “I went on a date a few years ago,” he began.

“What does that have to do with anything,” interrupted Toady.

“Really great person,” Oliver continued as if he had not heard the boy at all. “And I’m on this date thinking about how it could change my life if things go well, you know. And suddenly, I’m finding myself talking about how I snore and I’m telling gruesome stories about my business. And really, it’s not a gruesome business most of the time. But, that’s what I’m talking about. And I don’t even know why I’m doing it. You know…until later…looking back, it seems clear to me now. Do you see?”

The children shook their heads in unison. Simon finally took the initiative. “I still think the gren killed Medry at the Battle of Bang-Bo to make him his dead zombie slave.”

“What?” exclaimed the stunned Blair. “No. Where are you coming up with that?”

“I know the gren was at the battle from my dream,” explained Piper, “and Critter told us that Medry died at the Battle of Bang Bo.”

“Oh, sweet Lord in Heaven,” Oliver blurted. “Jeffery Creedor is your source of information? No wonder you kids are so full of dark zombie slave talk. Look…if I can prove to you that the gren did not kill Will Medrier, will you promise to consider what I said about the gren not trying to scare you?”

“Sure,” responded Piper.

“And will you promise to stay away from Jeffery Creedor?”

“No problem,” Piper agreed, having already decided this on her own.

Oliver regarded her quietly for a moment before making up his mind. “Ok. Follow me.” The funeral director pushed himself up from his chair and shuffled his way back to the office from which he had emerged. The three children followed.

Except for the immense bookshelf that dominated the back wall, the office continued the theme of generically soothing imagery and fabrics. A painting of a strange church hung on the wall opposite the desk. The stone walls of the building blended seamlessly into the rock face of a cliff. Piper found the image inspiring.

“Did you paint that, Mr. Blair?” she hazarded.

Oliver, who had been making his way behind the desk to the bookshelves, regarded the painting for a moment before answering. “It’s a little rough, but it’s the best I could do when I was twenty-five.”

“No,” insisted Piper. “It’s great. Is that a real place? Or did you make it up?”

“Oh, it’s a real place,” he nodded absently, keeping an eye on Toady and Simon as they appraised the various items on the antique bookshelf.

“What used to go here?” asked Toady innocently, gesturing to an empty frame built into the wooden shelves.

With an eyebrow raised, Oliver replied, “I think there was a mirror there once.”

“Hmm,” was Toady’s thoughtful reply as he continued down the shelves. “Is this you and Old Man Medry?” asked Toady, pointing to a framed photo.

Oliver made an affirmative grunt and he pulled a small step stool toward the shelf.

Toady squinted at the picture. “Wow, you look way younger…but Medry looks exactly the same.”

“Must be one of the advantages of being a dead zombie slave,” whispered Simon. To Oliver he said, “That doesn’t look like Missouri. Did you know Medry before you sold him that house?”

“I didn’t sell him the house. He just lives there,” replied Oliver as he climbed the stool.

Simon pondered this for a second. “So, you’re the gren’s landlord? Cool!”

Blair ignored him.

Simon returned to the photo. “Where are you guys in that? That building looks weird.”

“A long way away from the Battle of Bang Bo…if that’s still what you’re interested in,” replied Blair. Piper nodded and Oliver returned his attention to the books.

Piper scanned the titles and found most of them to be about grief and healing, but Oliver reached to the top shelf and pulled down an engraved box. Placing the box on the desk between himself and Piper, he pulled out a small stack of papers and an ancient, tattered book.

“This is a book called The Quiet Walker,” said Blair, spinning the old book so Piper could see it upright. It made no more sense right side up since the title was written in some sort of oriental language. “It was written by a veteran of the Sino-French War named Zhijun Guo. Beautifully written story. It’s fiction, but pulls from many of his wartime experiences…truly magnificent. However, what’s interesting for your situation is that there’s a scene in which a small group of Chinese soldiers are searching the area around the battlefield after Bang Bo. They encounter a French Lieutenant hiding in a cave and are about to kill him when they are attacked by what the author calls a ‘ferocious xiao yao jing.’ This xiao yao jing kills everyone but the narrator.”

“What’s a sheow yao ding?” asked Piper.

Oliver spun a piece of paper toward Piper. Three Chinese characters had been written in ink above various scribbled notes. “Xiao means small,” began the hawk-nosed man. “Yao means…um…evil in an inhuman sort of way…monstrous maybe. And Jing means spirit. So ‘xiao yao jing’ would translate roughly as goblin.”

“But it was just fiction, right?” asked Simon quietly.

“True enough,” Blair granted. “But see…the rest of this book is very historically accurate. Book critics have countless interesting theories why Guo wrote this strange scene with a magical creature in it. For instance, here’s one who says it represents,” he paused to read from the circled text on a photocopied page, “and I quote, ‘The betrayal of the mythology that had inflated the Chinese sense of invulnerability and which had hindered their ability to properly fight the French.’ Unquote. And while that sounds like an impressive bit of scholarlship, I’d say they’re over-thinking it considering you’ve got a real life xiao yao jing talking to you in your dreams, right?” He smiled reassuringly at Piper. “So, add this to your dream…and I think it’s pretty clear that the gren didn’t kill Will Medrier; it saved him.”

“By slaughtering a bunch of people…a bunch of trained soldiers,” replied Simon. “The gren’s a killing machine and that’s supposed to make Piper feel better?”

“Well…yes, I suppose you could look at it that way. But, the people who were killed were…um…the bad guys, right? So it’s a happy ending. The gren saved his friend,” Oliver seemed to reconsider the wisdom of sharing this story with Piper.

Piper was unsure of how to react. She understood that Oliver Blair intended her to find comfort in the gren’s dedication to its friend…but the image of the gren killing several armed men made her feel cold and defenseless.

His eyes once again darting about in thought, Blair muttered to himself, “Ok, not so comforting as I had thought. How about….” He pulled a piece of paper from his stack and considered it for a moment. “Oh yes, this is….no, no, you’d probably find this disturbing too.”

Simon glanced nervously at Piper as the man behind the desk kept digging through his notes. “Well,” concluded Oliver, “the point is that you promised to think about my alternate explanation if I proved the gren didn’t kill Mr. Medrier. And I did that. So, go on home and…um…just don’t attack Will Medrier in a cave and you’ll be perfectly safe, right?” He forced a chuckle that dwindled away as he realized the children were not joining in his attempted levity.

* * *

“I don’t know about you,” said Simon, “but that didn’t really make me feel any better.”

Piper shook her head in agreement. “Some how ‘it probably won’t kill you, go home,’ just didn’t do it for me,” she huffed as she pushed the dangling ring away and caught it on its return. She had hoped for much more from Oliver Blair and now found herself out of options. “I guess we could try to talk to Medry himself,” she offered.

Toady stood silently, looking up into the multicolored leaves of the Bishops’ oak tree. “I think we should find out what was on that paper Blair didn’t want us to see,” he spoke without looking away from the limbs overhead.

Simon, idly picking at a patch of loose paint on the patio steps, sighed. “Yeah…that guy knows tons he’s not telling us. Did you see that picture, Piper? He and Medry were at some kind of castle.”

“Like Snyder’s Castle?” she pointed to the northwest.

“No, like a real castle. Like knights and kings and stuff.”

Toady stuck his hands in his jacket pocket. “But I think we need to see that paper.”

“Yeah,” snapped Simon. “I agreed with you. But he said he’s not going to show it to us. What do you want to do about it?”

A grin spread across Toady’s face. “Well,” he said as he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, “I think we should just read it ourselves.”

Piper pressed closer, a look of disbelief etched on her face. “What did you do, Toady?” she asked as he handed her the sheet.

“Well…no one was giving you answers. And, I mean…you deserve answers I think. So I…borrowed it.” He smiled sheepishly at Piper.

Piper stammered speechlessly for a moment before managing, “Thanks, Toady.”

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” questioned Simon. “You just kept it to yourself?”

“Yeah…it was a cooler delivery this way.”

As she unfolded the sheet, she saw that it was a photocopy of a hand-written letter. Her heart sank as she looked closer. “It’s not in English.” She looked for any clue that might help. She recognized the word “Medrier” scattered throughout the letter and quickly found one instance of the word “gren” in the second paragraph, but was unable to decipher anything meaningful.

Simon peered over her shoulders, attempting to make sense of the foreign text. “Oh, that says ‘lutin”…that means goblin.”

Toady peered once more up into the tree limbs. “If only we had a translation, huh,” he mused innocently.

Piper and Simon looked up from the letter in unison.

“You gotta be kidding me, Toady.” Piper shook her head. “You got the translation, too?”

Toady grinned.

Simon laughed aloud. “What’s the translation say?”

Shrugging and glowing with pride, Toady held the folded notebook page out for Piper. “Don’t know. I just saw it was a translation and left it at that. I figured I’d leave it for the one getting the death threats from the gren.”

Piper smiled despite her frustration as he pulled another piece of paper from his pocket. She smacked him playfully on the arm as she took the offered page.

The boys waited silently for a few long moments as Piper absorbed the information. The notes were written in flowing, circular handwriting that Piper assumed belonged to Oliver Blair, but the letter itself clearly predated the undertaker. Dated 1873, the letter was written by a Henri Medrier to his local prefect.

“What’s a prefect?” she asked Simon.

“Like a governor, I think. Why? What’s it say?”

“It’s a letter from Medry’s Dad, I think, to his governor. He says his 12-year old son Guillaume was attacked by a creature he calls the gren. He says the gren creature badly injured Guillaume, scarring his back and leaving him bed ridden for over a week. He also says he thinks this creature might be the same one that killed the prefect’s son in a fire a few months ago and he’s requesting the governor’s help in catching the gren.” Piper let the weight of her arms carry the page away from her as she stood motionless under the branches of her tree. Images from her dreams flashed through her memory. The wailing mother and the uniformed man beside her. The gren preparing to attack young Medry in the forest. Her mind flipped somersaults as she tried to reconcile the gren’s burning and assault of children with Oliver Blair’s assurance that everything was fine.

... Continued in Part 6

Friday, October 19, 2007

Piper and the Gren - Part 4

Critter ambled his way to the dark alcove and flipped on the art lamp attached to the drawing table. The sudden cone of light made the rest of the basement seem even darker. The disheveled man brushed a half-finished sketch onto the floor and turned to rummage through the stacks of paper on the bookshelf.

Piper and Simon could only watch quietly.

Critter muttered incoherently and Piper was able to pick out words like, “evidence,” “where the”, and “should be here,” as Critter pulled various sheets and folders to stack them on the drawing table. When he seemed pleased that he had found everything he was looking for, he looked at his pile with satisfaction and gestured for the children to join him.

A spike of panic twisted its way through Piper as she considered joining Jeffery Creedor at his small desk. She needed to know everything she could about the gren, but was unwilling to abandon the safety of the stairs. She turned doubtfully to Simon but the older boy’s face betrayed the same anxiety.

Critter leaned on his table and laughed a sharp bark that echoed off the low ceiling. He made a theatrical show of pushing papers back into folders. “Well…if you’re too scared to even look at what I’ve found…then you’re probably too young to know the truth anyway. It’d just give you nightmares,” he cooed through a toothy grin.

“We have a friend waiting outside,” blurted Simon with as much bravado as he could muster. “If you do anything to us, people will know.”

Critter considered this. “That’s good thinking. It’s who…that Toby Cooper kid that snuck into Medry’s yard last week? The one you kids call Toady, right?” His smile spread as he watched their unease. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. And since I know where he lives…I really don’t see what good it does to have him out there.”

Piper felt Simon’s hand on her shoulder as he started retreating.

Critter laughed again and set off another coughing fit before he managed, “Oh, you guys are priceless.” He tapped his finger in thought. “My point is…if you really want to know about the gren…you’re going to have to take some risks. There’s no way around that. So, you can either just go home and keeping playing your little ‘who can get closest to the tree’ game or you can trust me.” He idly spun the folder and smirked as he caught Piper staring at the research. Something about the way he looked at her made her skin crawl.

Piper wanted to run as far away from Critter as she could, wanted to flee back to the safety of her home and never think about this horrible place ever again. But the obsession of the gren would not allow her to walk away from the promised information. Her dreams of violence and war would not relinquish its hold on her imagination. She moved toward Critter and was stopped by Simon’s hand on her shoulder. He shook his head in confusion. She could only whisper, “I have to, Simon. I have to.”

Simon considered this as he glared at the patiently waiting Critter. He nodded solemnly and released her shoulder but stepped in front of Piper before she could move. He walked confidently across the room and stepped close to Critter, using himself as a shield between the man and the space left for Piper.

Piper took a tentative step forward but was suddenly distracted as a fleeting shadow slipped across the closed blinds of the high window tucked against the ceiling. She startled and Critter whipped his head toward the window. Simon flinched away from the man’s sudden movement.

“Holy crap, guys!” exclaimed Simon. “You scared me.” He looked about in confusion as neither Critter nor Piper moved. “It was just a cat or something. Come on.”

No one but Simon seemed convinced of this theory, but Piper found that while the movement had frightened her, she did not feel afraid of the implications. If anything, she felt the shadows of the dank basement fade slightly and she looked around the dingy room with a new clarity sparked by her small adrenaline rush. She looked at Simon, who had put himself in danger to help her and even now waited to protect her from harm. And Critter, who teased her and attempted to frighten her. As she stared at the greasy little man, she grew angry. Who was he to push her to fear? Who was he to torment her? In a flash of understanding, she looked about the room and realized that Jeffery Creedor was a weak and terrified man. He huddled in his basement and drew pictures of the creature that had scared him so long ago, his fear brewing and overflowing into self-loathing. And it was this self-loathing that had finally made him petty and cruel, so obviously willing to scare young children to make himself feel more powerful.

Suddenly, he looked as small to her as he had at the bottom of the stairs. She set her jaw and followed Simon with no hesitation in her steps. As she leaned against the table, her eyes locked defiantly on Critter. He smelled of liquor and Doritos.

“Ok then,” said a suddenly skittish Critter as he glanced at the window again. “What do you want to know?

“I want to know about the gren saving Medry,” replied Piper confidently. “I want to know why something like the gren would save his life.”

A small smile spread on Critter’s face as he considered the girl across the table from him. “Why? Well, I can’t say why that little beast does anything,” he said, “but I can tell you when…and probably from what.”

“Fine,” breathed Piper. “When? From what?”

“Right,” nodded Critter as his tar stained fingers flipped through a stack of notes before pulling a small stack that appeared to be photocopied from a book of some sort. “The Battle of Bang Bo…the Old Man was a bit sneaky on that. See, while it was fought in Vietnam, it wasn’t fought during Vietnam. And he knew I’d assume wrong.”

Piper glanced at Simon to insure that he was as confused as she was. Critter continued, his blood-shot eyes staring into Piper, attempting to regain the previous balance of power. “It was fought during the Sino-French War, when the French and the Chinese were slugging it out over who controlled what we now call Vietnam. But it was fought in 1885.” He paused with satisfaction and waited for their reaction.

“But that’s wrong,” Simon responded. “That would make Medry over 100 years old.”

Critter silently mouthed some calculations and flashed his stained teeth. “One-hundred thirty….four, actually. But I’ll get to that.”

Piper pondered this concept. Old Man Medry certainly looked elderly, but Piper wouldn’t have guessed him to be much older than her Grandpa…and he was somewhere in his 70s. “So, is he really that old or is he dead like the story says?” she asked just as Critter was about to resume.

The weasel-faced man shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“So, you think the gren can keep him alive like that?” asked Simon.

“No,” Critter muttered sarcastically, “I’m sure he just eats a really healthy diet.”

Simon huffed and countered, “Not if Old Man Medry IS the gren?”

“Pfft,” came Critter’s retort. “They’re not….look, would you let me finish? You came here because you don’t know anything about this and now you keep interrupting me while I’m trying to enlighten ya.” He mumbled something incoherent and then, “Now, where was I?” He startled briefly as he noticed Piper’s cool gaze had not drifted during his outburst.

Piper fought back a smile as she realized Critter’s only power was intimidation. “You were saying that he’s 134,” she spoke smoothly.

“Right. So, we know Old Man Medry says he was in the Battle of Bang Bo, and the history actually supports that. I found a record of a Lieutenant Guillaume Medrier. And before you interrupt me…that’s French for William. He led a small platoon of riflemen during the battle and was apparently a pretty sinister guy. The only reason he even shows up in the history the little as he does is because of French journal entries that talk about him killing his own men for small screw-ups. He supposedly had one soldier tied up and…” He paused. “It doesn’t really matter. Point is…nasty fellow, not very popular among the troops. And by all records I could find, he and most of his men died in that battle.”

“So he is a dead man,” whispered Piper.

Critter bobbed his head as if considering this idea for the first time. “Could be. Could be what he meant when he said the gren saved him.”

Piper recalled her dream of war and thought about Critter’s information. Suddenly her mind felt as if it were drifting back into the haze of the room. A vision of the smoky battlefield in her dream clouded over Critter’s disheveled art room. The smell of stale smoke was replaced by the tang of hot gunpowder and mud. The soft hum of the furnace was replaced by the screams of dying men. And her cool confidence was replaced with panic as she raced again through the horses and cannon fire…searching for someone for someone she had not seen in years…searching, she knew, for Medry. Dead and wounded soldiers lay mud-covered and tattered, but she rushed past them. The scene was clearer than when last she had dreamed it. She could now distinguish French soldiers from Chinese and could tell that French soldiers were fleeing the battlefield, pressed back by the massive number of Chinese.

She scanned the surrounding hills with a memory of a young Medry in her head. A vision she suddenly realized, of the boy who had thrown rocks in dream. She hadn’t seen him in years, she knew this somehow. But she also knew that he was close, lost amidst the confusion and carnage.

She was rushing toward the retreating troops when Critter’s room faded back into view.

Simon was speaking. “So do you think the gren came from Vietnam?”

“No,” Piper answered. Critter and Simon turned curious eyes toward Piper, but she continued, “They already knew each other.”

“Looks like someone knows more than she’s telling.” Critter leaned menacingly across the table.

Piper fought to hold onto her hard won confidence. “I didn’t think I did…but a few things are starting to make a bit more sense.”

“Go on,” encouraged Critter, his eye twitching slightly.

“For the last week or so, I’ve been having these dreams. But, they’re not dreams. I think…”

“Wait,” interrupted Simon. He licked his lips in concentration as he pushed his glasses up. “You’ve got more research in there. I think you should tell us a bit more before Piper tells you what she knows.” Piper had to wonder if he was simply trying to keep her from saying something insane.

Critter glared. “You’re right about one thing, you little geek. I’ve got mountains of research…years of research. And I was just giving it to you…all nice like…just cause you asked. But now you wanna play hard ball with whatever it is you think you know. And what are you even offering? You had a nightmare about the gren? Join the club!” He gestured to the countless sketches on the wall. “I aughta pound the living…”

“Hold on.” Piper calmly leaned away from the table. Her heart was racing but she refused to let Critter see. She knew from bullies in the past that cowering now would only encourage him; she needed to sooth the situation quickly. “You’re right. You’ve told us quite a bit already. But…what I have aren’t just nightmares. I’m pretty sure I’m seeing the gren’s past…through the gren’s eyes.”

Critter’s body relaxed with a smirk of disbelief as Piper continued. “I saw that battle. I was there three nights ago in my dreams. And I’ll tell you everything I’ve seen, but I just have one question first.”

Eyes darting from side to side, Critter considered. “You saw the Battle of Bang Bo through the gren’s eyes?”

“And more. I know the gren had seen Medry when he was about my age. It was looking for him specifically. All I want to know is how you know where Medry came from and how old he is.”

Simon gave Piper a small thumbs-up under the table. She ignored it.

The older man seemed convinced. “Ok, little girl, but then you tell me everything.”

Piper nodded.

A sneer spread across Critter face as he pulled a sheet of paper from the stack and slid it to Piper. “Easy. His enlistment papers from 1878 show his age as 17 and his home as Pignan. Your turn.”

“That’s it?” muttered Simon.

“Hey,” mused Critter. “Coulda asked a deeper question. Your turn.”

Piper looked at the blurry photocopy before her and then longingly at the stack of papers untouched in Critter’s pile. “Fine,” she sighed. “I saw Medry as a boy. I watched him from a tree while he tortured another boy he had tied up. It didn’t know Medry then. I think it was the first time the gren had seen him. It was enjoying watching…but I think maybe it was still going to attack the two boys.”

“Anything else?”

Piper shook her head. “Just the battle.”

Critter leaned back in his chair. “That’s pretty skimpy. I mean…so Medry was chuckin’ rocks at somebody when the gren saw him.” He stopped and turned to one of his drawings as he considered this new information. “I dunno.” His eyes went unfocused, lost in thought. “Maybe that is useful.”

Simon’s forehead crinkled in confusion. “Why would that be useful?”

A smile spread across Critter’s face. “Hey, you’re the one who wanted to start bartering our information. So, unless you’ve got something more to offer…you know, information or…something.” He let his eyes drift across Piper in a way that made her take an uncomfortable half-step behind Simon, Critter shrugged, “Then I think we’re done for today.”

* * *

Piper looked down at Simon and Toady through the branches of the oak tree in her back yard.

“Ok,” began Simon as he swung idly on the rings hanging from the tree’s massive branch, “Here’s my theory. The gren tried to kill Medry back in France, but Medry survived. So the gren tracks him down in Vietnam and kills him there. Then it brings him back from the dead as its slave as punishment for defying it the first time.” He looked up into the branches hopefully.

“It doesn’t feel right,” said Piper, picking mindlessly at a loose piece of bark. “When it was looking for Medry in Vietnam, it felt…I don’t know. It was worried…scared. It doesn’t seem right that it was looking for Medry just to kill him.”

Toady sat at the base of the tree. “I just want to get this straight. Are you both believing now that Piper can see the gren’s history? Psychic visions and stuff? And if so, why are you believing it so calmly? This is about the freakiest thing I’ve ever heard.”

The rings stopped swinging as Simon considered this. “I don’t know, Toady. It just…made sense at that time. Critter had the research that was backing up what Piper had seen. I mean…we are talking about a magical creature that lives in a tree and apparently has the ability to make an old French masochist live for over a hundred years. I guess I’m just not having too much difficultly tacking psychic visions onto the long list of weirdness.”

“God, you’re a geek, Simon,” Toady replied playfully. “Old French masochist…long list of weirdness. You’re right…but you’re a geek.”

Simon smiled and resumed his swinging. A small bit of bark landed in his hair, he brushed it away as Piper giggled from her branch. “But, if we do believe it…should we be a bit concerned for you, Piper? Is the gren just trying to scare you or what?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Piper. “We just don’t know enough, yet. If Medry died in that battle, what was the gren so worried about?”

Toady bounced his heel against a large root. “I saw this movie once where if the bad guy was there when you died…he could capture your soul or something.”

“That actually makes sense,” replied Simon. “If the gren had to be there when he died to bring Old Man Medry back from the dead…I’m sticking to my dead zombie slave theory.”

Toady laughed. “All zombies are dead, Simon. I think it’s part of them being zombies.”

“Yeah,” agreed Simon. “But ‘dead zombie slave’ just sounds cooler.”

“What do you think, Pipe?” Toady called as he picked an ant off his jeans.

“I think ‘dead zombie slave’ sounds silly.”

“No,” returned Simon. “What do you think about Medry and the gren?”

She swung her legs off the branch and climbed down the knotted rope tied to a higher branch. “Medry called the gren his friend…said it saved his life. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Maybe you’ll have more dreams that will give you more information,” said Simon.

“And then we can go back to Critter and trade him for more of his research,” offered Toady, clearly hoping for a chance to prove himself brave enough to venture into the basement.

Piper shook her head and felt her skin crawl at the idea of returning. “No, I don’t think I want to go back to Critter’s. Tomorrow, I’m going down and talk to Oliver Blair.”

A grin spread across Toady’s face. “Just as cool…Simon can face the Critter…but you’ll want a real man with you for a vampire.”

As she slept that night she danced through a burning village. Flames jumped from house to house against a backdrop of a cloudless night sky as she skipped merrily down the alleyways. A woman dressed in a thick woolen sleeping gown was held back from the flames as she attempted to charge back into the inferno of her home. Tears of rage and terror dripped from her cheek as she shrieked, “Mon bébé! Mon bébé est dans la maison!" She beat her fists uselessly against the chest of the man holding her and called out again for someone to save her baby. A barrel-chested man in sleeping clothes stood beside the screaming woman. His jaw quivered with rage. He stared rigidly into the flames as men who looked like police wrapped his shoulders in a colorful jacket of some sort. Piper watched joyfully at the confusion and madness in the crowded streets. When she looked back to the man and the mother, he was staring directly at her as she crouched beside a stone column. Piper scampered away. Her sides hurting from laughter when she awoke.

She rolled out of bed and peered into the darkness. Though the moon was barely a sliver in the sky, it was enough to light the clouds behind the twisted limbs of the gren’s tree. She watched them sway and thought of fire.

...Continued in Part 5

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Piper and the Gren - Part 3

Saturday October 21, 1995

“Critter’s mom isn’t here,” observed Piper as they hesitated on the front porch of the Creedor home. She glanced nervously at the conspicuously empty spot beside the red and primer gray Firebird in the driveway. “Maybe we should come back when she’s here.”

Toady shrugged his shoulders. “Come on, Piper, we went toe to toe with the gren and we’re gonna let the Critter spook us?”

“I don’t know, Toady.” Simon shuffled his feet. “Piper may have a point. I mean, this guy is a little off…and we’re talking about going into his basement by ourselves.”

Toady rolled his eyes and sighed. “Please…there are three of us, there’s no way he’s going to do anything. He can’t trap all of us in there unless he’s got some kind of net set up, just waiting to catch unsuspecting kids who wander into his house. I mean...I don't think he’s down in his basement just waiting with a net.”

The three children stood on the porch waiting for someone to concede as muffled music filtered through the front door. Piper finally broke the silence. “I’m not going in there like this,” she stated. “But, I’ll go if one of you waits outside.”

Toady threw his arm up in confusion. “What? Ten minutes ago you were all set to go in by yourself. Now you’ll go in with just one of us, but not with both. This’s stupid!”

Simon nodded his head. “Actually, it’s a good idea. That way, at least someone who’s not in his basement will know we went in there.”

Toady’s face softened as he realized their plan made some sense, but responded, “Fine, but I still don’t think he coulda caught us all. So, who’s staying out?”

“I need to go in,” reasoned Simon, “since I’ve been studying the gren longer than you guys. I’d know what questions to ask. Besides, I’m older.”

Short even for his age, Toady’s head only reached Simon’s chin, but his back stiffened at the suggestion that was about to be treated like a child.

“I don’t care which of you guys come in,” interrupted Piper before Toady could make his retort. “But I’m the one who needs to look into this…I’m not sitting out my own search here.”

Toady bristled. “You’re also the one insisting somebody wait outside. And I’m the current record holder on the gren. Why should I have to sit this out?”

Several minutes and several rounds of rock, paper, scissors later, Piper watched as Toady sulked off to wait at the end of the Creedor driveway. Despite Simon’s age, she would have rather had Toady’s confidence with her in Critter’s house. However, Simon’s claim to a better understanding of the stories about the gren was probably true, so she made her peace with the current situation. She mustered her courage and reached out to press the doorbell quickly before she changed her mind. The muted sound of the chime blended with the sounds of high-volume Smashing Pumpkins from inside the house.

For a moment, nothing changed. The two friends stood with frozen expectation and listened for any sign that the chime had been heard.

Suddenly, the music stopped and a shouted “Come on in!” could be heard before the music resumed. Simon shrugged and pushed the door open.

The entrance to the Creedor home was dominated by a large photograph of Critter and his mother housed in a gold-leaf frame hanging against a soft blue wall. The table beneath the imposing portrait was littered with a crystal flower vase, lace doilies, and commemorative plates depicting cherubic angels. Mrs. Creedor’s warm smile blended smoothly with these decorative touches, but Critter’s looming face seemed to sneer across the top of the plastic flowers. His greasy hair was pulled into a pony-tail and the bottom edge of a tattoo peaked out from under the sleeve of the collared polo shirt he wore. His rat-like face and weasely eyes made it clear that his nickname was not based solely on his last name.

“I’m downstairs!” Critter’s voice called over the music. “Come on down, bro!” Piper hesitated to take a deep breath before stepping into the house and moving quickly for the stairs.

The steps creaked slightly and Piper felt dread as the open door at the bottom loomed larger with each step. As the music below declared that the world was a vampire, Piper couldn’t help wondering if they should have gone to see Oliver Blair instead.

The room at the bottom of the stairs was filled with a smoky haze and cluttered with worn furniture and empty beer bottles. Piper flinched as her eyes adjusted to the low light and discerned hundreds of sinister eyes and teeth glaring at her from the walls. Countless goblins rendered in charcoal drawings surrounded the room. To their right, an unlit alcove was packed with a drawing table, stacks of paper and a massive bookshelf. The small amount of illumination in the dim room came primarily from the glow of a massive television that dominated the far corner. Speakers on either side of the screen sang out “Then someone will say what is lost can never be saved!” The muted television showed an image of a long-haired man labeled “Shannon Hoon.” Critter himself slouched in a tattered recliner on the far end of the basement, his eyes locked on the screen. “That sucks, man. Blind Melon wasn’t bad, ya know?” His attention did not drift from the image on the screen as Piper and Simon waited awkwardly by the steps.

The carpet in the room may have once been tan, but had been stained and burned in so many places that it was hard for Piper to be sure. Overly full ashtrays lay on random small tables beside the occasional magazine with half naked women on the cover.

Piper took a half step behind Simon as she began to regret their decision to venture into Critter’s lair.

Suddenly Critter let out a violent yawp and turned his attention toward the door as his program went to commercial. “What is it with these rock stars not being able to handle their…”

Critter’s eyes went wide at the sight of the two children standing in the back of the room. His gasp of surprise set off a coughing fit. “What…are” he managed between hacks, his finger pointing as if to pin the children in place while he recovered. “What are you doing in my house?”

“We’re from down the street,” Piper called from behind Simon. “You told us to come in.”

“Well, I thought you were someone else,” he growled. He paused as he looked suspiciously at Simon. His face softened slightly. “You…uh…here to buy?”

Simon looked back at his friend with obvious confusion in his eyes, so Piper again took the lead, “No, we’re just here to…”

“Then, get out,” Critter interrupted, his eyes suddenly angry. “You’re wasting my time.”

Simon stood frozen as Piper tried to explain, “We wanted to talk to you about…”

Critter’s face contorted in rage as he shot out of his chair and started toward them. His legs wobbled for a moment and he caught himself on a ratty couch that sat between him and the children. He shook his head as his eyes seemed to lose focus. “When I get over there, you’re gonna wish you’d listened to me the first time.”

Simon turned and began pushing Piper toward the steps. Her heart pounded as she backed away from the man stumbling toward her. Critter rounded the couch.

As she turned, Piper called over her shoulder, “I talked to the gren!” and ran up the steps with Simon directly behind her.

At the top of the steps, Piper opened the front door and paused only after she had Toady in sight. He had been idly flipping the mailbox flag up and down but stiffened when he saw Piper’s obvious panic. Simon attempted to push Piper out the door, but she held her ground. “Wait,” she whispered.

Silence hovered behind the muffled music as Critter slowly stepped into view at the bottom of the steps. He looked smaller from this vantage, defeated somehow. Piper realized he was actually a rather small man. His breath came in deep huffs and Piper could see the anger slipping away from his face. “Did it respond?” he managed at last.

Piper stepped cautiously around Simon and looked Critter in the eye. She recalled the way the eyes in the hollow had tilted with understanding, the dark fog parting to open a path. “Well…it didn’t talk back. But yeah, I’m pretty sure it responded.”

* * *

“You understand I don’t usually talk about this,” explained Critter as he lowered himself back into his ragged chair. “Well…I talk about the gren, but I don’t really share the stuff I know…the real stuff…ya know?.” The eerie light of the muted video screen set the room’s haze aglow and cast dancing shadows against the walls. “You’re serious about this, right?”

Simon and Piper nodded from where they stood by the steps, their legs ready to dart back to safety in an instant.

“A friend of mine got stuck in Old Man Medry’s side yard.” Piper offered. “He was wedged against the house and couldn’t run, but the gren let me go get him. I just asked. I explained what I was doing…and it let me do it.”

Simon added, “I’ve never heard of that happening before.”

They waited while Critter made thoughtful noises and rummaged about in search of a bottle with enough liquid to make it worth his time. Instead of responding to Piper’s story, he seemed to take it merely as proof of their sincerity and began his own tale.

“Ol’ Man Medry used to have a peach tree back there,” he said as he dropped an empty bottle to the floor with a clink. “I used to go back there an’ pick em when the house was vacant, back when I was probably about your age…before Medry moved in.” He swirled the remnants of a whiskey bottle before tilting the bottle to his lips. “I went back there a couple days after he moved in. Figured he was an old guy…probably wouldn’t notice me, so there was no reason to stop snagging my peaches. Anyway, went back there that time and all the fruit was laying on the ground…” he paused for effect in the still room, “rotten.” He nodded his head. “I’d been there not two days before and that tree was full. And now every single peach was off the tree and mushy in the grass? Crazy.”

Piper glanced curiously at Simon. She had expected something more concrete than rotten fruit and the doubt showed on her face.

“I know, I know…but that’s just the first thing I noticed,” came Critter’s defense. “But that’s still pretty weird, right? Anyway, I’m staring at the peach tree and I get this cold chill. People talk about feeling like they’re being watched, right? Well, this was like…feeling like you’re being hated. I mean hate, just cold and…and furious. I turn around and I see those eyes. Swear to God, I was the first person on the street to see those eyes.” He paused to make sure his claim to fame had time to properly sink in. “So, the eyes are staring out of the shadows, just glaring me down. And I’m all the way in the back yard, remember, so there’s no clean path to escape.”

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Simon, “No one’s made it to the back yard.”

Critter shook his head, “I was already in that back yard. It didn’t show itself until I was back there staring at the peach tree. I guess it’s just more defensive these days, I don’t know.”

Simon still looked unconvinced. Piper’s suspicion that Simon was reluctant to accept this claim due to its effect on the record book was confirmed when Simon mumbled, “Well, that doesn’t really count, I guess.”

Critter squinted as he tried to decipher what the boy had said before giving up and continuing his story. “Yeah, so, I couldn’t run back past the tree to get to the road but I had to get out of there. I was…it was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. And I don’t think I was thinking quite right. I ran up on Medry’s patio. Tried to throw open his patio door, but it was locked. I think I was screaming, maybe crying, but I know I just kept pulling on that door because I couldn’t even think about turning around.” Piper remembered her own panic in the face of the gren’s stare and could well imagine Critter’s state of mind.

“I don’t know how long it took, but eventually Old Man Medry opened the door and stepped out onto the patio with me,” continued Critter.

This struck Piper as strange. “He didn’t let you in?” She imagined herself showing up so obviously shaken at a neighbor’s door and could not believe that the adult would not usher her in to safety.

“No,” answered Critter, shaking his head in the darkness across the room. “He actualy slid himself out so that I wouldn’t be tempted to run inside.”

Piper’s jaw dropped slightly. Of all the horrible bits of street lore she had heard about Old Man Medry, somehow this detail bothered her the most.

Critter continued. “But that was fine. Cuz, as soon as he stepped out there, he sorta nodded toward the tree and the fear just kinda…” he gestured as he looked for the word, “went away.”

Critter’s eyes snapped into focus, back from that day twenty-two years in the past, and glanced around at the empty bottles again. Realized there was no more liquor to be found within arm’ reach, he sighed and pushed himself out of his chair. As he made his way toward a mini-fridge tucked in the far corner of the room, Piper’s curiosity overrode her patience. “So what did he say? What did Medry say to you?”

A smile spread across Critters face as he looked back over his shoulder at his guests. His teeth glowed blue from the television screen.

“He said that I should probably stay out of his yard…or else I’d upset the gren.” The clinking of glass bottles rang as Critter rummaged through the refrigerator. Finding a full bottle, he waved it merrily at Piper and Simon. “You want?” The two friends shook their heads in unison.

“Suit yourself,” Critter muttered. “Anyway…So I asked him, ‘what’s a gren?’ Right? And he kinda chuckles and says in a Frenchie accent, ‘Oh, he eez a bit like a lutin, I zuppoze.’ And before you ask, lutin is French for goblin…I looked it up.” He plopped himself back in his chair and twisted the top off the beer before rewarding himself with a long pull. He wagged his finger in the air as he belched to indicate he had more to say. “So I say, ‘You’ve got a monster livin’ in your tree?’ and he comes back all philosophical like and says, ‘No more a monster than you or me. Really, what eez a monster?’ Whatever that’s supposed to mean, right?”

As Piper considered the question, her mind drifted to the feeling of delight that had coursed through her as the young boy tortured his peer. Guilt welled in her as she recalled her reaction and she glanced about the room for something to distract her. The walls gave no solace. The horrible, twisted faces of a thousand sketched creatures offered only countless answers to Medry’s question. And the small penciled “Creedor” in the bottom corner of each image told her that Critter himself had been wrestling with the question as well. There were versions with horns and versions with ragged, matted hair. Some had clawed feet and some had goat hooves. The only trait each version of Critter’s grens had in common was the vicious yellow eyes. In many pieces, the eyes marked the only color on the page, but on each drawing the eyes were the same as on the drawing beside it. And in each drawing, the eyes were the same as the pair into which she had stared. She shivered under the gaze of so much wickedness.

“Did he say why the gren lived in his tree?” Piper asked at last, not taking her eyes off the drawings.

“That’s a very good question,” Critter smiled. “Which is exactly why I asked him that very good question. And this part I can quote word for word because I have mulled it over countless times. He said, ‘I offer le vieille chèvre a home because eet ees all I ave to offer. Zere ees no longer any other place for eem. Plus he has earned it and more if I had it to give…for he saved my life.’”

Simon, who had been quietly taking in the details of the story, spoke up at this point. “The gren saved Medry’s life. How?”

Critter shrugged casually, “He didn’t really say. I asked him, but instead of saying what the gren did, he just said it was during the Battle of Bang Bo. So, I asked him if that was in Vietnam and he said that it was.” Critter set his bottle on the tv tray beside his chair and waited.

“Then what?” asked Simon, his voice high with anticipation.

Critter shrugged again and said, “Then he told me to go. Made me walk back past the tree, but nothing happened. And that was it. I went back and knocked on his door a few weeks later, you know, to ask him more questions. But he wouldn’t open the door, even though I know he was in there.”

Simon turned to Piper and thought back through the details. “Well, that gives us a little to go on, I guess. We could research this battle and see what comes up.”

Piper nodded. It would have been nice if the Old Man had given more concrete answers, but Critter’s short conversation with Old Man Medry had brought a host of new questions to the field. And it did give them a starting place for research. “So, do we assume the gren came from Vietnam, then?”

Simon’s forehead creased in thought. “I don’t know anything about oriental monster legends. Most the little creatures I’ve read about come from European myths. So, that’s a new avenue of research, too.”

Piper smiled, happy to have Simon’s enthusiast brain working on the problem. “I wish we knew where Medry was from. Probably France from the accent, but it’d be nice to know.”

Critter sat almost forgotten in the gloom. He watched in amusement before casually saying, “Medry’s from a little village west of Montpellier.” He paused as Piper and Simon stuttered in confusion. “It’s in southern France,” he continued innocently, “near the Mediterranean.” When the children continued to stare at him dumbly he smiled. “What, you think just cuz Crazy Critter delivers pizzas and lives in his Momma’s basement he can’t muster up some good research of his own in twenty-two years?”

...Continued in Part 4