Chapter 10: The grim and the walnut tree

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When I was a teenager, I'd met a creature in my hometown. A canine, dark and gloomy beneath a sky full of stars, slinking past tombstones and crosses in unmowed grass. The creature was a church grim.

The grim in question had once been a golden retriever, christened Pepe after the funny internet frog his owner liked so much. His owner, a little girl named Elaina, ten years old when I met her, took good care of him, kept him fed and groomed and walked him thrice a day. Unfortunately, not a single small bit of the girl's unconditional love could stop the poor animal when he ran out onto a busy street in search of a cat he'd spotted, deaf to his mistress' cries, and came to an end beneath the wheels of a passing car. Pepe had lived to the ripe old age of five.

I wouldn't have known about either Pepe or Elaina's existence if it hadn't been for my cousin, who babysat the girl on weekdays for a small sum of money that seemed huge at the time. If left up to Elaina's parents, Pepe's remains would've ended up in the garbage, lumped in with all the other gross, broken things people discarded without a second thought. But my cousin was fond of Elaina and wanted to help her give Pepe a proper funeral, for which she enlisted my aid.

So on a misty morning, when school was still hours away, we set out with Elaina and Pepe's body wrapped in plastic, armed with spades and the determination of youth. We buried Pepe in the churchyard, at the foot of a magnificent walnut tree, its branches swinging in the breeze. It had to be the churchyard, Elaina had said, because Mr. Hamilton at school says dogs don't go to Heaven, but if Pepe rests so close to God, surely Saint Peter will let him in.

I delivered a eulogy. An actual eulogy, singing the praise of an animal I would've feared and despised if he were alive. But improvised speaking had always been a skill I'd possessed, and pretty lies rolled off my tongue with ease even when I was fourteen. But my sincerity wasn't important; a worthy goodbye for Pepe was all we had to provide.

Three years after the canine burial, I found myself in that same churchyard in the dead of night, drunk on blue vodka mixed with sprite, making out with a girl whose name I couldn't recall; perhaps I'd never learned what it was in the first place. We were there, fooling around, judged only by angel statues and the souls of the dead, when the grim charged at us, coming from the direction of the walnut tree. The dog that had once been Pepe was dirty, golden fur turned grey and grimy with dirt, and a wild aura of darkness surrounded it as it bounded towards us, growling and barking, feral.

We ran. Ran as fast as our inebriated legs could manage, ran like the devil himself was hot on our tail. We made it to safety, out of the churchyard and onto small town streets, but the grim, with red eyes blazing, kept watching us as we left, standing defensively in front of the holy building it protected. The churchyard was its territory, and we were naught but trespassers. I saw it staring at me when I dared to look back; its eyes remained trained on us until I'd rounded a corner and left Pepe the grim behind.

The creature across the stream in Algor reminded me of Pepe, in that it took on a similar defensive stance when it emerged from the bushes it had hidden in. The beast was, however, less dog than a grim could ever be: the green glow of the underworld clung to it, and its head was a skull, cracked and dangerous. Its teeth, I saw in the green light, were red with blood.

The sudden sound of Isla's voice next to me shook me out of my thoughts, nearly making me jump out of my skin. "Oh. That's a barghest. Essentially just a particularly disturbing dog. Still dangerous, though."

I turned to Isla with a grimace, astounded at how casually she spoke of this beast. "It's awesome that we know what it's called," I said. "Can you please go murder it? As soon as possible? Maybe right now?"

Isla flicked her lighter on and off before putting it in her pocket. I had no memories of giving it back to her, which probably meant she'd picked my pockets while I'd been busy being shocked. Damn it. 

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