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The Bells

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He cast a last look back. He could hear their voices, baying; hear their feet against the pavement, running. Any minute they would round the corner and see him. He could run, too, faster than any of them. Run and climb and slip into places where others couldn’t follow. But eventually he’d have to come out and this time they’d be there. Maybe not the very minute, but within very few minutes. Panting for him. There would be no escaping the fists or the bats or the faces twisting with the joy of it, the bodies dripping with the exertion of it. A beating wouldn’t appease them, not even a savage one. Not enough blood for them. Not in his whole body.

He never did like orders. Not from anyone. Didn’t like to follow. Didn’t want to lead. Not them anyway.

His fingers closed around the bar of the gate. It was cold, the paint blistered with the weather and the corrosive air. The rough metal was comfortably solid in his hand. He raised his leg, found a foothold and lifted himself off the ground.

He heard the screech of worn brakes and bald tyres and the scream.

He balanced for an instant astride the gate, his eyes flickering back to the corner. It wouldn’t slow them down for long. Just one of the pack gone. He looked across the courtyard, glimpsed the half-open door. He could see the stone stairs inside, the first curve of their tight spiral. A crow squawked above him. He darted a glance upwards. The bird was outlined against the greying sky, perched on the edge of the roof, above the louvred arches where the six bells had hung before they were melted down. It took off, the shadow of its wings gliding over the gate towards the shouting.

He heard the smash of thick glass. Fists and wood pounding on metal. The shriek of the sirens closing in.

He dropped lightly on the other side of the gate. As he touched the flags, the clamour of the treble bell echoed around the empty churchyard. A few steps brought him to the tower door. The clang of the second smallest bell rang against the stone walls.

Around the corner, the sirens stopped. The shouting grew hoarser, wilder. With a roar, a petrol tank exploded.

He slipped through the narrow doorway. No one was ever supposed to go in there. He knew the stairs. They were condemned. Unsafe. He could mount them in the dark. The door was always locked, but he could pick it. Now he didn’t need to. The third bell began to ring. He pushed the door shut, heard the heavy click of the lock and took a deep breath, then another.

Yellow light pulsed through the broken window half-way up the stairs. Outside, the shouts turned to howls.

The fourth bell rang out. The tower swayed with the awakening bells.

The door of the ringing chamber was open. Shadows moved rhythmically amidst the long ropes, but none came to him, whispered to him. He climbed the last flight of stairs, his hand trailing along the wall.

The door to the bell chamber was ajar. He could see stripes of grey and gold light falling across the backs of the rising and falling bells. He eased his head and shoulders into the vibrating gloom. A few feet from him, the fifth bell fell away from its stay. His hands flew to his ears. The wave of sound pressed him against the door frame.

Bony fingers grasped his arm, yanked him out onto the stairs and down them. “Danger there,” a voice hissed as they descended to the ringing chamber, but he didn’t think he could really hear it. His hands were over his ears and they were still throbbing.

He shook his head, dropped his hands. “The danger’s outside. This time they want my blood and I can’t hide here forever.”

Cold fingertips brushed the wayward hair back from his forehead. The wail of a fire truck rose from the stairwell window. The sixth bell began to toll. “Gone.” He leaned against the wall. A strong, thin arm curled around his back. “Gone now." Cool fingers traced along his jaw, down his neck. "All gone." Dark eyes regarded him. "Gone.”

The sound of the bells wove into a pattern. The notes rippling up and down, darting in and out, repeating, changing and repeating. He let his weight settle against the bony arm. Closed his eyes as the buttons of his shirt opened and a cold hand pressed against his heart.

“Gone. Gone. Gone.”

************

He was in a nest of old ropes, several frayed sallies gathered beneath his head, in the ringing chamber when he awoke. He glanced at the tall, grimy windows. No light strobed or flickered. He waited. No sirens blared.

*************

He listened for the click of the door locking behind him, kept near the walls where the old gravestones stood watch until he reached the gate. He could hear traffic in the distance, the faint toot of a horn. He peered through the gate for a minute before climbing over, hugged the walls of the ruined church as he made his way to the corner. He felt the soot on the wall before he could see the scorch marks. The streetlamp around the corner showed the shattered cobbles in the middle of the road.

A bell rang, its notes deep.

Gone now. He could feel it in the air, through his fingertips. He went and stood where the back of the car must have been. It would have taken the whole lot of them. One way or another.

The tenor bell tolled again. "All gone."

All gone. His shoulders straightened as the weight rolled off them, his chest swelling as he inhaled the cool, damp air. He reached up to fasten a couple shirt buttons and turned east, towards the pale grey light glimmering between the scarred stone walls.

"Gone."