I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw him. He just appeared one day. It seemed like everyone knew about him, but nobody ever talked about him. People would see him shuffling down the street in his ruined clothes and do their best to avoid even looking at him. Some kids would joke about the smell, or the roaches that crawled over his skin, but they gave him a wide berth all the same.
Mostly, I remember the bell. A loud, sharp clang that echoed in the air long after he’d gone. It was a steady monotone, and as he passed you’d feel your heart beat in rhythm with it. After a few seconds, the feeling would pass, and you’d find yourself standing in perfect silence wondering what the hell just happened.
My husband Brian always shivered when he came to. We’d only been married a couple of years at that point, and if I’d known then what I know now, I would have left that godforsaken town and taken him with me. It got so bad that when Brian heard the man coming up the street, he’d turn and begin to walk away as quickly as he could. I used to tease him about it. He was right to be afraid.
We lived a mile or so away from the town square, in a small house that Brian inherited from his parents. For the longest time, the bell ringer stayed near the town center. I remember being surprised when I saw him walking up the street in our neighborhood, the sound of his bell puncturing the air with every step. I was even more shocked when I saw Jackson Aldridge following along in lockstep behind him.
At first I thought the boy was mocking him, and I had gone out to shoo him away. I didn’t much like the bell ringer, but it was important to me that the man have some dignity. When I got closer, I noticed that Jackson barely seemed awake at all. He moved forward like he was being yanked by invisible ropes. His eyes were half-closed and he was barely breathing.
I stepped in between them, placing my hands on Jackson’s shoulders. This kid, who barely weighed a hundred pounds, brushed past me as though I weren’t there. I stood in the middle of the street, staring after them in shock. When they turned up the next street and out of my view, I ran back to the house to call the Aldridges.
Tyler Aldridge picked up on the first ring. I know that I must have sounded crazy. I was talking a mile a minute and was still trying to catch my breath. Still, there was something odd about the calmness with which Tyler listened to my story. I could practically hear him shaking his head on the other end of the line.
“Rosie, honey, I’m sure you didn’t see Jackson. He’s at school. Why don’t you lie down for a bit. It sounds like something has you over-excited.”
He hung up the phone before I could say anything else. I stared out the window for a few minutes, trying to think of a plan. I had a few hours before the kids were due back from school, and it wasn’t like St. Martin was that big of a town to begin with. It wouldn’t be hard to find where Jackson had gone. Grabbing my coat, I hurried out the door and in the direction I’d seen them go.
They moved along at a slow enough pace that it didn’t take long for me to to catch them. Wherever the bell ringer led, people followed. Every few minutes, another person would wander out of their homes, and fall in with the rest of the crowd shuffling along next to Jackson. I recognized Mrs. Wheeler, who ran the bakery downtown almost immediately. Henry O’Connor also, who used to deliver milk. There were a few others, people I hadn’t met, but recognized from running errands through the city.
The group was already so large that they stayed in the middle of the street. They walked through intersections with no regard for traffic or the other people around them. The only sound was the clanging of the bell in time with each step.
I followed along behind them for an hour or so, until they turned back up towards my street. Finally, I broke away and rushed back towards the house. I still needed to get the kids from school, and Brian would be home from work not long after that. Together, I knew we could figure out what was happening.
The school was practically empty when I arrived. A few teachers stood in the hallway looking confused, comforting the children that were left. I pulled Mrs. Everly aside, feeling my insides turn to water as she started to cry.
The only words I could understand were “sorry” and “couldn’t stop them”. It took me a few moments to understand what she was saying, and even then I still had to ask the question to be sure. “Hannah? What happened to my babies?”
She only cried harder when she tried to tell me. I pictured them shuffling down the street behind the bell ringer, their eyes vacant like Jackson’s had been. For a moment, I felt my heart break, and then I knew what had to be done. I tried to help Hannah to her feet, but she pushed me away.
The entire drive home, I was torn between wanting to chase after my children and wanting to wait for Brian to help. If I couldn’t stop Jackson Aldridge from following the bell ringer, then I’d definitely need help to stop both Helen and Thomas.
I waited for hours, my anxiety growing worse by the second. The house grew darker as the hours passed with still no sign of Brian. Finally, I saw his headlights shine through the window.
He burst through the door, and pulled me against him. “Where are the children?” he asked. With a shaky voice, I told him everything that happened.I had barely finished when I heard the ringing of the bell. Before I could say anything, Brian was rushing towards our bedroom.
He came out a few seconds later with the old pistol he kept in the closet. I don’t think I’d ever seen him shoot it. I didn’t even know if it was loaded.
I saw them at the end of the block. In the orange glow of the street lights, they barely looked human. He walked at the front, still ringing his bell. The crowd pushed along behind him stretching back farther than I could see.
The bell ringer stopped in front of me, hunched over like a monster from some children’s story. His eyes met mine, the irises a strange yellow color. He stared at me with a hopeful grin and pleading eyes. His mouth opened, like he wanted to say something, but his words were drowned out by the angry roar of Brian’s pistol.
He collapsed, blood pumping from a small hole in his chest. The bell hit the ground with a loud clang, and the people behind him froze. They stared at us in confusion for a second before a look of panic spread across their faces.
I found my children in the crowd, right before they turned to ash with the rest of the town. Their bodies collapsed in on themselves, filling the air around me. The whole time, the ringing of the bell echoed in my ears.
In the cloud of ash, I watched Brian walk forward with a dazed look on his face, then reach down and brush the bell off. I wanted to call out to him, tell him to leave it alone, but I choked on the thick air around me. Brian gave me a sad look over his shoulder as he walked south, ringing the bell with each step.
I tried warning the people of Philipsburg, but they wouldn’t listen to me. Neither would the people of Marshfield. I need you to understand, he isn’t going to stop. He’s coming, step by step, with thousands of people following behind him. You need to evacuate your homes before he gets here. It’s too late for my family, but it might not be for yours.
©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.