It was always there. When I was young it came rarely, maybe when I was close to crossing the street and hadn’t looked left and right yet, or when I left a sharp knife on the kitchen counter, or that time when I was at the supermarket and there was a man that kept following me for four or five aisles, until I found mom again.
I think it somehow connects to my intuition. I’ve heard others describe that they can feel a shiver on the back of their spine, or that the hair on their arms stands up when they are nervous. For me the only time the hair stands up is when I’m cold.
And else, when I’m scared, there is the bell.
I can’t remember the first time I heard it. The first memory I have of hearing it, when I was at my grandmothers’ place at the strange round pile of stones, and I was digging through the stones to look for rabbit babies, when it was ringing, thundering in my ears, I wasn’t surprised or scared. I must have heard it before. It started ringing, loud and clear, and when I kept digging it got louder, as if a huge church bell was slowly moved closer to me, ringing more vigorously and faster with every single stone that I pulled to the side.
Maybe grandma heard the bell too. I remember she came running, screaming for me to get away from the well. I was on top of some of the stones. And the stones started moving. And grandma grabbed my arm, but my legs, they fell with the stones and hit against the wall. I remember how grandma’s arm shivered when she pulled me out of the hole. She was old then already, maybe 60 or 70, and she was the same thin that she has always been in my memory.
“Hold onto me,” she said. “Hold onto me.”
And below us, far below, I heard the stones hitting a hard floor.
The bell only stopped ringing when grandma pulled me out. I never asked her about the bell, the bell was normal and it rang to protect me, always. It always rang for a reason.
Like when Mike Mings waited at the end of the hallway, in fifth grade. He was just standing there and the bell rang silently at first, when I walked towards the exit. But the closer I got to him, first it got faster and then it got louder.
For me, fast is urgent.
Loud is more dangerous.
And the bell rang the loudest when I stopped and he turned and screamed “I’ll get you.”
I ran and he ran after me, and I wanted to turn right, but when I thought about turning right, to the other exit, the bell rang faster again. He was right behind me, and so I turned left, and I heard his friends scream behind me and more feet and Mike screaming and when I wanted to turn right at the next turn the bell got more quiet and so I turned right and the janitor was there, standing in the middle of the corridor and the bell only stopped when I hugged his leg.
They laughed about me and they told the janitor we were just playing catch, but the bell was quiet and I knew the janitor didn’t believe them. He told me to stay with him until my mom could pick me up.
Over time I think the bell got more sensitive. It sometimes gives a few quick ‘Bings’ when I get too close to a street with a puddle near the sidewalk. And it warned me when I saw that dog at the shelter. I wanted to take him for a walk, because he looked so serene and calm and cute, and so I stuck my hand through the metal bars and he slowly moved his head closer and the bell rang, twice, so loud that I had to close my eyes, and when I opened them again my hand was out of the cage and the dog’s mouth was wrapped around a metal bar. The sign said ‘Careful, might bite,’ but I’m absolutely sure I didn’t read that, at least not consciously, before the bell ran.
What I’m trying to say is that the bell, so far, was never wrong.
There are a few times that I remember, where I’m not sure why it rang. That time, when I was on the road and getting fairly close to a white pickup – I don’t know why it rang, not fast, just loud four or five times, just louder than the music, but I slowed down and a while later the pickup left the road. Maybe it was some road-rager, or murderer, or stalker, or just a broken car, or who knows what. I don’t know if it was that pickup or even something else why it rang – there also was a power line, I think – but it certainly didn’t harm me to believe the bell.
In any case, really, I think the bell was never wrong.
And that’s why I can’t sleep anymore. Or concentrate on work. Or relax, even for a moment.
It started ringing four days ago. First the ringing was quiet. It was rhythmic, but not too fast, slower than my heartbeat, for the bell that’s not urgent. I had a coffee in my left and a shopping bag in my right and I slowed down and walked more carefully and looked around for danger. But the bell kept ringing. There weren’t any unusual cars or unusual people, neither in front of me, nor behind me. There were no ladders or flower pots or potholes, and the shopping bag wasn’t going to rip either.
And yet the bell, it just started ringing and since then, for four days, it hasn’t stopped.
It increased in pace when I turned into my street. There weren’t any other people and so I walked quickly to the front door, the key ready, and unlocked it, and just when I opened the door there was a loud ringing and I jumped back, but there was no one inside and the door just stayed as I had left it. I felt cold, but that might have been just the fear provoking the cold, not the other way around.
And then the bell calmed down. I approached the door and it calmed further and so I went inside and locked the door. But it kept going, at the same, slow pace, for maybe an hour, until I had it somewhat zoned out.
I was in the kitchen. The gas heater was on and the stove was too. The water wasn’t boiling yet. It was four minutes to six in the evening. The kitchen door is to the left of the stove and there is a window opposite the door and my fridge to the left of that window. I turned away from the stove and the kitchen door to take butter from the fridge, and in that moment, when I turned towards window and fridge, the bell started ringing like a techno song, exploding inside my head with this loud, thundering, ringing, and instinctively I turned back towards the stove and door and a moment later it slowed down and slowly got quiet again.
The water still wasn’t boiling and the stove looked okay and the living room looked normal, but at the same time the living room also didn’t look normal; as if there were too many shadows on the far wall.
And the bell only really got to the same steady rhythm and faint level again after a minute or two, when the water finally started to boil and I held onto the big meat cleaver the whole time, even while I was throwing pasta in the water.
There wasn’t much else that night. It kept ringing, but I checked the door twice and the windows twice and I looked under the bed and in the wardrobe and behind the sofa and there just wasn’t anything wrong. Even the rooms looked normal, dark as they always are with the bad light, but still normal.
The bell only increased in speed again when I laid down and put the cleaver right next to my head, but when I pushed a bit backwards, with my back against the wall and the door was wedged shut and the blade was in a distance close enough that I could grab it, but far enough that I wouldn’t roll into it – then the bell slowed down. I was awake for a long time, and sometimes I thought it got louder or faster, but really it probably just kept ringing with the same steady, slightly-slower-than-my-heartbeat rhythm.
I heard the bell in my sleep. Maybe I wasn’t fully asleep, it certainly wasn’t a dream state, but the bell was there and it was somewhat soothing because it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t loud. The whole night, just this same, regular rhythm.
There was a short spike when I went into the shower. The hot water came shooting out right away and hotter than usual, but probably just because I was up earlier than usual. And the bell warned me, and then it went back to its slow and steady mode, but for the rest of the day, while brushing teeth and eating breakfast and driving to work, it kept this same rhythm and still I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Work was hard. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t do any calculation in my head. I just ended up staring at my email for hours and somehow I drank a lot of coffee, black and strong.
Coming home the bell increased in speed and volume and it got to its loudest when I approached the door. I stood there, staring at the white front and the two mail boxes when I heard footsteps inside. I was ready to run, but there was a key in the door and the bell slowed down and the door opened and my neighbor walked out and said hello and I quickly ran into my apartment, while the corridor light was still on.
Most of the night I spent in my room with the door wedged shut, blankets wrapped around me and the laptop on my lap with the volume on high. I couldn’t stop staring at the door. The cleaver was right next to me. When the second film finished there was no soundtrack and I couldn’t ignore anymore that the bell was ringing somewhat faster than my heartbeat and also slightly louder. Sometimes I felt as if there was something dark behind the door, but that must have been my imagination because it’s solid wood and you just can’t look through solid wood. I threw a sweater over the keyhole and another one at the foot of the door, where the small slit is between carpet and door.
The night was long. My mouth felt disgusting and my teeth were a strange stickiness because I didn’t brush my teeth. But I sat there, when the movies gave me an even bigger headache, listening to the ringing bell that made the headache worse. I remember I daydreamed about sleeping and I guess somehow I must really have drifted off, but I still heard the bell, all night, clear and loud in my head and with every ring my whole head was shook.
The sun was bright already. I carefully removed the sweaters, but the beat stayed the same. The cleaver in my left and the right foot kicked the wedge out. My heartbeat increased and my hands were sweaty, but the bell stayed steady. I pulled the handle down and the door open and swung the cleaver into nothing.
I went to the swimming pool and when there were a few others in the shower I quickly took a shower and brushed my teeth and I’m sure I never dried myself off or got dressed that quickly.
Bought a book. Six coffee, maybe seven. Most of them I drank cold, just to make sure that they wouldn’t kick me out. I sat there until the afternoon, then another two hours in a restaurant. In the course of the day, all this time among people, I think the bell slowed down.
Saturday night I met friends. The bell slowed down and got quiet from the moment I hugged Kendra and Joshua hello, so much so that I only heard it when both music and conversation had a break at the same time. But it was still there, it never left, it never went away completely.
I got drunk, I have to admit. Those six coffees were followed by at least six beer. Kendra and Joshua and Yah, Kendra’s friend that they were trying to set me up with for weeks, were also fun and happy and a good motivator to keep drinking. Maybe it was the adrenalin or how Kendra and Joshua kept throwing the most shiny conversation topics in my direction, but we were all drunk and happy and somehow I walked Yah home and even through my slurred words and her giggles the bell kept setting the beat, so much that Yah said that I was making funny and small steps and when she said it I realized I was walking in sync with the bell.
I walked her up to her apartment. When the lights in the corridor went off, in that moment I heard the bell again, loud, once, then the door locked shut and a moment later there were lips on mine and hands pulling on my shirt and I didn’t think about the bell anymore.
At least not until she was asleep, with her head on my shoulder. The room was dark and the door to the living room was open and her living room was dark too, except for the streetlights shining in and throwing long, gently swinging shadows on the floor.
The bell sped up. It didn’t get louder, at first, just faster. Urgent. Do something. Do something, fast.
I pushed her head off my shoulder, slow enough not to wake her up, but as fast as possible, yet not fast enough because the bell rang even faster, screaming with urgency, and then, when I finally was on my feet, louder, and louder even when I jumped towards the door and I imagined a shadow moving towards the doorway, but just managed to swing it shut again. Clothes pushed against the door made the bell calm down further, but Yah mumbled something and so I climbed back into bed and she put her head back on my shoulder. She said I felt cold. I pulled the blanket over us. At some point she fell asleep again and the bell slowed a bit, but it didn’t get quiet again and so I spent the night with her head hurting my shoulder and with my bladder exploding in pain from the beer and whatever that green thing was that we drank, and with my eyes locked towards the door.
The bell calmed when the birds started singing. Then it got more quiet, finally, when the sun came up. I think I fell asleep then.
Yah was sweet to make breakfast, but she interpreted my tired brows as a sign of anger or irritation and even when I told her I just didn’t sleep very well in the last day she was still upset over it. I left at 2pm and we said we would meet at night, but by 4pm she sent me a text that she would have to see her mother in the evening and so I met Joshua for coffee instead.
I mentioned the bell to Joshua before. It was a passing thing, a curios thing about me, and he seemed to believe it, but when we met he didn’t even listen.
“Usually it only rings when there is danger or something.”
“It just keeps going.”
“Are you sure?”
“On and on and sometimes it gets louder or faster.”
“I think that’s just in your head.”
“It’s as if you would have constant shivers running down your spine.”
“That doesn’t happen.”
“That’s what I mean, it…”
“Dude, really, don’t act crazy.”
“So you don’t like Yah then?”
“Dude, she’s great.”
“I know, but…”
“That’s a fucking bad excuse to blow her off.”
The more we talked the more angry Joshua got. I was tired and exhausted and he said that I was irrational and wrong and crazy and acting like a dick – and probably he was right in at least one of those respects.
I reached home by 6pm and the bell instantly sped up, the closer I got to the house. There were other people on the street and I must have looked like a maniac, slowly approaching my house and jumping up to look into my own kitchen window, but the bell kept at it, not at its most urgent, but painfully loud.
I don’t know if I’m somehow getting used to it. At some point I just went and unlocked the door, even as the bell thundered through my head and I only stopped opening the door when the handle shook somewhat and I had the feeling that it was being pulled from the inside.
I went to a hostel. A shared room. I stopped myself from asking for an especially full room, they would probably kick me out for a request like that.
There were three other guys, two snoring and one quietly sleeping below me and still I saw the shadows below the door and under the bed on the other side of the room and the bell kept ringing fast and loud in my head. It rang louder whenever I moved.
I was lying there, dead tired and unable to sleep and unable to move. I thought about screaming loud, just to wake the others up and not be alone for a moment, but they would probably kick me out for that too.
At the end of the night I was staring towards the ceiling and the bell was so loud as if it was right beside me, as if the stones were falling away from under my feet, just that instead of grandma grabbing my arm it felt as if something else was there, something cold right below me and pushing through the thin mattress and slowly wrapping itself around the mattress, up, towards me, until I couldn’t take it anymore and I screamed and screamed until a warm hand shook me.
I spent the rest of the night in the reception area, with the night receptionist. I told him I had night terrors and that I was scared of being alone. What a pitiful image, a grown man, scared to be alone in the dark.
And yet, even while the night receptionist was there, in the small room with not much more than a table and a bed, sitting right next to me leaned against the same wall and talking about his travel dreams and looking towards the same wall that was the only opening to the room, even then the bell kept ringing, loud and clear and not as fast as it had done in the bedroom, but still as quick as my heartbeat, and the receptionist didn’t say anything, but I’m pretty sure he saw that I was crying.
I’m not sure how I even survived the day. There was so much coffee that I still feel my stomach burn from it. I couldn’t stomach any proper food. I just sat at my desk, staring at the computer, and then I went down to the cafeteria bathroom, the one that’s never empty, and I locked myself in one of the cabins for an hour or two, but the bell didn’t stop.
I ate a burger, so that’s at least something. The bell slowed while I was writing, but now the internet cafe is nearly empty and I think they’ll close in a few minutes. The bell is ringing loudly again, loud and fast, because I guess it knows I’ve given up.
I’m going home now. Wish me luck.