It was the smell of soot that woke her – thick and smoky, like a fire left burning for too long in a closed room. On any other evening Ethel might have been frightened, and may have forced herself through the oily darkness of her bedroom into the comfort of her parents arms and their safe, warm bed.
But tonight was special.
Tonight, that smell meant something different.
Ethel carefully wriggled herself further into the duvet. It was a slow process, but a necessary one. She couldn’t risk anyone knowing she was awake, it could spoil everything. Only when she felt the cool fabric brush against her cheek did she dare open her eyes and squint into the darkness.
She scanned her room for a second, two, and then quickly squeezed her eyelids shut.
She had seen nothing, but that did not mean there was nothing to see.
She opened her eyes again… one, two, and close.
This time she thought she had seen something out of place, a dark shadow against the far wall where her piano should have sat unused, as it had for years. A trick of the light, maybe, but Ethel knew better. Ethel had seen it once before.
She held back a smile, waited, and then opened her eyes once more.
Against the far wall, where her piano should have been, was a large, unlit fireplace. Ethel’s heart beat furiously the moment she saw it. Her stomach twisted with joy and her head filled with thoughts of magic, tinged with just a little bit of smugness. Her left hand snaked its way over to her pillow, and grabbed the hard plastic beneath.
She would not be caught out again, not like last year. It had taken months for the classroom laughter, the name calling, to die down. No one had believed her, but this year they would. This year she would have proof.
Slowly, she pulled the camera from beneath the pillow, wincing as it scraped against the mattress. She licked her lips, held the camera to her chest, and slowly spun onto her back.
She almost expected the fireplace to have vanished, to have slipped back into the shadows before she had a chance to do anything. She was ready for the shame to burn her cheeks, to curse herself for being so stupid. For believing in something so childish when she was almost sixteen years old – practically an adult! But the fireplace remained – unlit and unwavering, grey stone piled upwards until it was lost in the night gloom. In the dark, it almost appeared unending.
Ethel felt a tickle on the back of her neck and shivered. Something seemed off, not quite the same as it had done last year. She pushed the uncomfortable feeling away. There was no time to doubt herself.
After turning her head left and right, checking the coast was clear, she shuffled into a semi-upright position against her pillow and held the camera to her face. The darkness made it almost impossible to be sure of where she was aiming the lens, but Ethel had a pretty good idea. She slipped her finger onto a large button on the top of the camera, took a deep breath and…
Ethel froze, waiting to be caught in the act.
She took another photograph, and then another. She captured what she hoped was different angles. She needed as much evidence as possible if people were to believe-
What was she hoping to prove? That she had a fireplace in her bedroom? So what? Lots of people had those, and nobody had ever even seen her room. No one could prove she hadn’t always had a fire.
She needed something…more substantial.
Ethel took a deep breath, counted to three, and then slid out of bed. Her bare feet landed on cool, wooden floorboards, and she almost yelped out loud in surprise. Her carpet had vanished to whatever magic realm had also stolen her toys. No matter.
She took a cautious step towards the fireplace, testing the new terrain for squeaks and creaks. When only silence greeted her, she took another step, and then another, slowly edging closer to the far wall. The smell of soot was thick in the air, clinging to her throat like honey.
It was becoming difficult to breathe.
Ethel reached out in front of her and felt her fingertips brush against smooth stone – almost marble like in texture, but warm to the touch. She allowed her palm to run across the surface, feeling the grooves and crevices of the fireplace against her skin. She traced a finger down a long, sharp edge. It sliced through her skin as cleanly as any knife.
Ethel winced, and drew her finger to her mouth, tasting blood.
She glared at the fireplace, and was about to turn back towards her bed when she heard it.
Very faintly, almost as though it were miles above her, was the sound of bells.
Ethel smiled, the dull throb of her finger entirely forgotten. She readjusted the camera in her grip and moved quickly to the dark, gaping maw of the fireplace. She kneeled and leaned forward, and turning her head so that she was staring up into the seemingly endless chimney. The smell was almost unbearable now. She needed to cough, badly, and her throat wheezed with the effort of breathing.
Was that movement, deep in the darkness?
She couldn’t be sure, but she no longer had any time to waste. Though she wanted nothing more than to stare into the chimney and await his arrival, to get just one photograph as evidence, but she was frightened of what would happen when she was caught.
As she stared up into the black, biting her lip as she thought, she felt something soft trickle onto her face.
There was someone in the chimney.
He was coming.
Without another thought, she lifted the camera and began snapping the inside of the chimney. Her fingers, slick with sweat, fumbled over the camera.
It fell to the hard wooden floor with a crash that reverberated in the air.
Ethel, not knowing what else to do, froze.
The sound thrummed around her, up into the chimney.
There was more than soot in the air now. Stale sweat and sulphur burned in her nostrils.
Her stomach lurched.
This felt wrong.
She needed to go.
Another trickle of soot on her face.
Was it soot?
It seemed… wet.
She needed to go NOW.
Forgetting her camera, ignoring her blazing chest, her throat tight with smoke and foul stenches, Ethel ran.
Ethel ran past her wardrobe.
Past her bookcase.
She could see her bed, but it was much farther away than it should have been.
Much farther away than her room should have allowed.
Her legs became heavy.
Her breath desperate gulps.
Behind her was the faint tinkling of bells.
Not as faint as they had been.
The bed was closer.
She was going to make it.
She had to make it.
Ethel stretched out her hand.
Heaved herself onto the mattress.
Threw the duvet over her head.
Her heartbeat pounded in her throat and in her head as she caught her breath. She squeezed her eyes shut, tears leaking from the crevice as she did so.
A cool breeze brushed against the back of her neck, and Ethel bit her lip to hold back a sob.
She couldn’t hear the bells, not anymore, but that didn’t mean there was nothing out there.
Fabric brushed against her cheek, slow and deliberate. Sandpaper against her skin.
Ethel felt long fingers brush through her hair.
Nails scratching lightly against her scalp.
“I know you are awake,” whispered the voice at her ear, wet and cracked. A voice seldom used.
Ethel did not scream when she heard the voice.
She did not scream when greasy fingers wrapped around her throat.
Ethel screamed when the flames took her.