Silencing the Bell
by Gary Buller
Harry Stubaker’s ritual had become an addiction, like the booze, but somewhere inside he knew that this would be the final time. He reached for his glasses on the bedside table, ran a clammy palm down his stubbly jowls, and pulled the duvet off. Beneath, he was fully clothed in his blue jeans and Gingham shirt. He rose from the stale, sweaty mattress to look through his window. It was mid-December, and snow had blanketed the entire housing estate overnight. It glistened atop a long barren bird table on his back lawn.
His eyes found the structure in the darkest corner of the garden, closest to the red brick wall of the house. It was shrouded in shadow, but had the sun been shining, he would have seen an old, windowless shed. Ageing and weather-bleached, it was barely held together by rusting nails, and screws. The wood was untreated, and had begun to peel, and warp in recent years. He sighed and descended the stairs where a small kitchenette led to the back door.
He brewed a cup of instant coffee, the stale granules tasting like dishwater, and stared absently at the family photograph. The papers that awarded custody of their son to Shirley lay on the kitchen table, a spider-web of cracks where clear glass had been. Harry looked down at his grazed knuckles, knowing that he was just delaying the inevitable. The terrible shrine called to him, and he felt drawn to it like filings to a magnet.
Sandra was right. He was worthless.
Brrring, Brrring. The bell rang again. Impatient. Anticipating.
Hot coffee spilt over the edge of Harry’s trembling mug, and he cursed under his breath. Slipping his feet into a pair of Wellingtons, cold against the holes in his socks, he opened the door to the freezing night air. His right foot sank through the top layer of frozen flakes with a crunch. It was almost twelve inches thick, and he guessed by the weighty clouds gathering above, that more was on its way.
Brring. Brrring, brrring.
Much louder now, though the snow had a strange muffling effect, the sound of a bell wrapped in cotton wool. A motorway shushed by, somewhere beyond the green belt of land that lay beyond the garden fence. It sounded oddly muted. He thought about the car that had resided on his driveway for the past twelve months, and how Sandra’s eyes narrowed in distrust as he told her that the engine was knackered. He imagined that she smelled the lies on him, as she had wrinkled her nose at the increasingly potent beer sweats.
A flake of snow, no bigger than a fingernail kissed the round of his cheek and rolled downwards like a tear. It was the first of many as the sky came alive. The houses, and trees around him gradually faded behind a white veil.
Pausing at the shed door, he hesitated. The headlights of his car stared judgementally beneath drooping lids of snow, in his periphery beyond the garden gate. A dog barked twice and then fell silent. One hand left the reassuring warmth of his mug, unlocked the rickety door, and tugged it open against a drift of snow. The interior was black and frigid. Plumes of moist air floated from Harry’s mouth in rhythm with the throbbing in his temples, and his shoulders slumped under a heavy burden.
A breath froze in his throat, and he stood statuesquely. He squinted in the low light, praying that he wouldn’t see the pale face from his nightmares. There was a strange kind of electricity in the air like he wasn’t alone in this place. Previously a shuffling, scraping sound had startled him, but he persuaded himself that it was just the wind blowing through the eaves.Shaking fingers reached for the toggle by the door, and found nothing but air once, and then twice before he finally found the cord. The bulb blinked into existence, emitting a thin, sickly light
Shadows chased into nooks, and recesses but the strange electricity remained.
Harry inhaled deeply.
There it was.
A spindly, arachnid frame reclined against the furthest corner. The front tyre was flaccid, and the once perfect circle within crushed. A spiral of misshapen spokes jutted outwards like a fistful of knitting needles. Harry sipped on his coffee, regretting that it wasn’t something stronger, and remembered. The past replayed on loop, like an upended, spinning tyre. Each time, he tried to change what he had done inside his mind, and each time he failed.
A slim figure bent over a glassy pathway, pouring salt from a sack beside an incomplete snowman. A woman, wrapped in a winter coat, raised a gloved hand to protect her eyes from the low winter sunshine. The temperature was sub-zero, but Harry’s nose and ears were warm. He studied the couple as he drove by, his eyes sluggish in his mildly inebriated state.
Later, he used an abrasive sponge to scrub the frame, convinced he saw blood there until he realised that it was flecks of paint from his bumper. In many ways, he thought that this was much worse.
The leather seat was torn, and chunks of foam protruded from the gash. The handlebar was damaged too, twisted like the gnarled limbs of an ancient tree, and plastic handlebars were scuffed. It appeared that only the bell, clasped to one handle, remained undamaged by what he had done. It had rung just before impact and had not stopped ringing since.
“What do you want from me?” he asked.
“What do you want?”
His eyes stung, and he felt a warmth trickle down his cheeks.
Their faces were caught in a horrific freeze frame, powerless to stop the nightmare unfolding before them. The bag of salt hit the pavement, and they sprinted toward the gutter, where a small, mannequin-like figure lay still. A child’s name pierced the air in a faltering yell, faster and faster like they were losing their minds.
Harry wasn’t proud of what he had done. He knew that it was a shameful thing to do.The rear wheel, spinning in the air with a clickety-clack of spokes was his tenuous anchor to reality. As the gravity of the situation sunk in, and his mind swam, he understood that the bicycle was also evidence.
“I have too much to lose…”
Before he realised what he was doing, the bike was on the back seat, and he was slipping the car into first gear.
The father spoke into his mobile phone with short, breathless snatches.
“Yes…ambulance please…hurry…please hurry…not breathing…”
His wife knelt, cradling a pale face that stared blankly at the sky. Neither of them had processed the idea that someone else was involved, yet. Bile snaked up Harry’s throat. He had to get out of there. The car sped off, clipping one pavement side-on, as he momentarily lost control on a patch of ice.
The father waved his arms to and fro in the rear view mirror. He jogged a few faltering steps towards the rapidly departing car, but the idea deflated in his mind with one glance back at his wife, who cradled, and sobbed.
“Shitshitshitshit,” Harry hissed. The heat rose in his face, but he had never felt as sober in his life. He turned right onto the slip road, and pressed hard on the accelerator, joining the other motorway traffic. Somewhere in the brisk winter air, he thought that he could hear the wail of sirens. Taking the first exit, the Ford Escort pulled into a disused multi-storey car park. He sat while the engine idled, wondering what the hell he was going to do next.
Their marriage wasn’t quite on the rocks but had been dangling over the precipice for some time. Harry frequently brought his frustrations home from work, where he produced filter tips for cigarettes. Evening meals became fractious, and awkward, especially when he brought a four-pack to the dinner table. Then he stopped coming home, and went to the Red Lion instead, a short ride from work.
“You’re never here anymore, physically, or up there.” His wife spat, her finger pointed at one temple. How could he argue with that? It was the beginning of the end.
The bicycle, or rather his feverish concealment of it, was a rotten seed that took root in his home, destroying everything from the ground up. He thought about dumping it at the tip, under cover of darkness, but didn’t want to risk it being found. Burying, or burning the bicycle just didn’t seem right; News reports said that the child had died.
He concealed the bicycle under a paint-spattered ground sheet at the back of the shed. His wife would never find it because she didn’t have a key.
Harry would have said that the ringing started on the day his wife left him, except this wasn’t entirely accurate. He thought that he heard a bell pealing in his nightmares, but became sure it was real as he lay in bed at night, listening to it. Initially, he lay blame with the alcohol but quickly came to realise that it was the ghost of his past calling out to him. When his wife and son left, taking with them their belongings, he didn’t bother to cover the bicycle anymore.
Harry stood on a three-legged stool and retrieved a white bottle from one of the shed’s many rickety shelves. It had the black silhouette of a rodent on the peeling label.
He stepped down, turning to the twisted metal frame.
“I know, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have been driving. I should have handed myself in. I’m so tired, so bloody tired.”
Taking a deep breath, he placed a hand on the handlebars. They were cold enough to almost burn his fingers. He imagined that deep underground, at Smithill Cemetery, it was frigid too. “I’ll do right by us,” he ventured casting his heavy eyes to the floor. He moved to the doorway, and with one final, lingering stare, pulled the toggle.
Outside, the snow fell slowly, obliterating his footsteps. Goose-feather flakes drifted all around him, settling on his shirt, arms, and head.
He barely noticed.
Snow collapsed from his car bonnet with a wet thud, exposing the damaged front bumper, and scarred paintwork. Others might not have even noticed, but to Harry, it looked as deep and as dangerous as a yawning chasm.
The Ford Escort was one of the reasons why he eventually lost his job, at least that’s what he told himself at the time. He dared not drive at risk of being seen and didn’t get the damage repaired for fear of what a prying mechanic might conclude. So it remained concealed on the driveway at the side of his house, only visible from the gate beside the shed. He caught the bus to work, but not long after Shirley left, he would disembark outside the Red Lion.
“You’re a no good piss head; you know that Stubaker?” his supervisor once barked.
He supposed that his supervisor was right.
Harry entered the kitchenette through the back door, remembered that he hadn’t brought his mug, and shrugged. He took a fresh one from the increasingly grimy cupboard and warmed the kettle for a second time. Tipping a generous helping of pellets into the mug from the white bottle, Harry thought for a moment and then added some more. He poured the steaming water over them and watched as an unhealthy green sludge formed.
The vapours that drifted from the dissolved pellets smelled chemical. They made his eyes water, but Harry knew what he had to do. The television appeals said that the hit and run killer had not been found, and called for the chubby, spectacled man to hand himself in. The child’s parents couldn’t remember the make or model of the car involved, but they both agreed that it was cherry red.
Harry Stubaker lifted the cup to his lips.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap
The floorboards above creaked as small steps made cautious progress.
His eyes traced the ceiling; a pause here, a creak there, like it was searching. Gooseflesh bloomed across Harry’s shoulders, and down his arms.
He knew that he was alone.
An inquisitive silence fell.
Harry held his breath, sure that someone was listening in the space above. He was certain that if he made the slightest sound, then it would hear, and that was a bad thing. Time passed in the darkness. His eyes bulged, and lungs burned-screaming to exhale.
He just had to.
Harry exhaled in a slow, faltering hiss.
The steps resumed, quicker now. Eager little taps ran across the threshold of the room above, and out onto the landing. They bump, bump, bumped down the stairs, towards him, gathering pace. He sidestepped to look out into the hallway, where the bottom step was just in view but saw nothing. They continued, the sound of small shoes crossing the black and white tiles, increasing in volume and intent.
He wasn’t quite sure what happened next.
The bulb above flickered and then died, plunging him into a milky blue darkness.
“Hello?” he asked, praying that no reply came.
The mug was yanked forcefully from his fingers, and smashed against the far wall, spraying the boiling poison all over the linoleum, and spilling down the bare plaster. Stunned, he looked this way and that but saw no-one.
On the verge of a panic attack, he realised that it was the hallway telephone. Harry sidestepped the pieces of broken porcelain and raised the handset. For a moment he could hear nothing but the anxious thump of his heart.
The line clicked a tap, tap, tap as if the connection was fragile.
“Hello, this is Harry Stubaker, can I help you?”
A stilted inhalation- as if the person whom he was speaking to had been crying, and was struggling to catch their breath. Harry’s heart stopped in his chest.
The small voice emerged from behind the curtain of quiet static and then withdrew. Harry didn’t know if it was male or female, but it was almost certainly a child.
The child. Colour drained from his winter-worn cheeks.
He knew the name well, it had appeared in many articles, and was front page news early in the investigation. Suddenly the faltering, searching sounds upstairs made sense to him; he kept some of the neatly clipped articles in a shoe box under his bed.
“Hope? I…I’m so sorry.”
The line died, and a strange, suffocating atmosphere settled around him. He missed the cradle of the receiver twice, before dropping the handset to the floor, trailing by the chord. Diminutive footsteps rounded the corner from the kitchenette, and he turned to face them.
A semi-transparent figure emerged, distorting the lines of the door frame, and stalked towards Harry. Two ethereal arms reached out, and its mouth was open in a silent scream. Harry’s eyes widened, and his blood turned to ice. The face was the same pale spectre that repeatedly emerged from the shadows of his nightmares. The face Harry saw just before impact, as the bell sounded.
He turned and ran, grabbing the handle of the front door, and out onto the pathway. The shape pursued him, out into the emerging dawn. Harry’s boots slipped on a patch of ice hidden under the powdery snow. He almost fell, but regained balance and continued out onto the street. Insanely the bell pealed again and again, though from this distance it should have been impossible to hear, and he knew it.
The figure was almost upon him, he could feel it like an icy draft at his back.
Then the truck hit him.
George Bradley had worked at the furniture delivery company for only three days when the accident happened. The sat-nav had been unreliable from day one, sending him on convoluted routes through small towns, and down one-way streets- when a simple motorway trip would have done a more efficient job. That morning, it was taking the biscuit. He was sure that he was heading in the wrong direction, through this random housing estate- it transpired that he was correct.
He tapped the touch screen, squinting at the tiny icons.
The lorry collided with the man, throwing him into the air like a rag doll.
George slammed on the air-breaks with a hiss, his mind a jumbled mess of panic and confusion, and he climbed down from the cabin. The snow was thick, and he trudged through the drifts to the unmoving body. He could have sworn that the man had been looking over his shoulder when the impact occurred.
An open door led into a scruffy looking dwelling. George could only see one set of footsteps in the snow but still shuddered as he rang the emergency services. As he spoke to the dispatcher, he thought that he heard something, and looked to the house again. He frowned and shook his head. No, that doesn’t make sense.
“Are you still on the line, Mr Bradley?” the dispatcher asked.
“Yes, I’m here,” he replied. “The house seems to be empty, but I thought that I heard a bell.”