April 27th 2015
N the Novel Chapter 1
Wednesday, February 8th, 2017
CHAPTER ONE: The Bell
It’s September, 1985.
In the morning, you don’t want to put your foot out of the shower, because you know the floor will be icy cold.
By lunch, though, the breeze coming in through the window screens is warm. The breeze smells like the ocean. It’s never far away.
You really need to get to work. The basement is a catastrophe waiting to happen. You should
- get to it.
- blow it off.
- surf the internet.
The basement can wait.
When the tourists leave at the end of August, this town is basically deserted. Even the movie theater shuts down.
Last winter you were so bored you couldn’t stand it. So you saved up all the money you made this summer and bought an Apple //e and a modem.
You put your phone in the cradle of the 300 baud modem and dial CompuServe. The line screeches and you’re in.
On a BBS you find a cracked version of a game called Karateka that’s supposed to be cool. It’ll only take a few hours to grab it.
First, though, there’s an MCI Mail message from your friend Clare. Pretty much your only friend, these days.
“Are you on the computer?” she asks. “I’ve been trying to call you. Come over to my place. I have something to show you.”
Clare lives just the other side of town. It won’t take long. You set up the game file to save to a floppy disk, and grab your bike.
There are two ways to get to Clare’s place. You decide to take the
- longer way, by the beach.
- shorter way, through town.
This time of year, it’s probably safe for you to head through town.
Just a month ago, this place was full of tourists in colorful clothes.
There were taffy shops, and t-shirt stores, and the boat rental place was always busy. Now only the library and the post office are open.
Mrs. Gunderson, the librarian, stares as you ride past. She never liked you, even before what happened last year. You hurry past, head down.
You’re near Clare’s. You think about her, about how she flips her hair and how she never wears nail polish. She’s been a good friend.
You’re not always sure why. Pretty much the only thing the two of you have in common is
- you’re both 12 years old.
- you were college friends.
- the birthmark you share
- you used to be married.
Clare and her Dad live in a little cottage just outside town. The porch railings are covered in sea shells and pieces of coral.
She’s waiting out front, wearing one of her Dad’s old sweaters. It’s huge on her, covering most of her hands. She waves when you get close.
“Come around back,” she says. You lock up your bike and head around the house to the back yard, where she’s laid out a plastic tarp.
“I found it this morning, on the beach,” she says. The thing on the tarp smells of iodine and salt. “Dad thinks it’s junk.” It looks like
- a rough stone cylinder.
- an old ship’s bell.
- a bundle of rags.
- a big crustacean shell.
Weird. The shell is about two feet long, and jointed. It doesn’t look like any kind of lobster you’ve seen. It’s covered in tiny spikes.
The bell is 3″ across, made of brass but badly corroded. A leg or claw of the shell is stuck through a metal loop at the top of the bell.
Clare watches you carefully as you study them. Does she think you’ll recognize this stuff? Weird stuff comes out of the sea, sometimes.
“It was half-buried in the sand,” she says. “I saw a glint off the bell and I dug it up. I felt like it was… well, it doesn’t matter.”
Now she won’t meet your eye. Clearly she thinks this is important, and you want to help. You could
- ask what she felt.
- try to clean the bell.
- pull the bell loose.
- study the shell more.
Clare doesn’t want to talk about it, but you ask enough times and eventually: “I went to the beach knowing I would find… something.”
“I had no idea what.” As she talks, you turn the shell over. It’s empty. Whatever used to live there molted its skin. It doesn’t even smell.
“It’s stupid, I mean, I go to the beach all the time. No reason today was any different. But I guess it felt like this wanted to be found.”
She pulls her sweater up over her mouth, her eyes. “Like I said. Stupid.”
You tug gently at the bell. The claw doesn’t want to let go.
It comes loose before you’re ready, and you fall backward. The bell knocks against the side of the house. The sound is clear and pure.
It lingers in the air. Clare pulls her sweater back down from her face. Her mouth is open, as if she wants to sing along. Her eyes…
It only lasts a second, but–she was somewhere else. Outside herself. You don’t want to ring the bell again. Instead you say “We should
- ask your dad about this.
- go to the library.
- go back to the beach.
- bury this stuff.
The two of you ride your bikes out to the beach. You can barely hear each other talk over the sound of the breakers. Clare leads the way.
“Here,” she shouts, and you follow her almost down to the water’s edge, to where she found the bell. You have it wrapped in your jacket.
At first there’s nothing to see. Just sand and pebbles and tiny shells. As you get closer, though, you see footprints. Lots of them.
Most are big and deep–a man wearing boots, you think. Some are smaller, the prints of a woman’s bare feet. Some aren’t from people.
There’re deep, round prints mixed in, like the footprints of a crab. Something with lots of legs. Nothing mysterious about crabs on a beach.
You can’t remember the last time you saw crab prints this big, though.
Clare chews on her lip as she walks around in a circle, maybe looking for something that isn’t there. It’s starting to get cold.
“We should get out of the wind,” you say, and grab for Clare’s sleeve. She pulls away. But then she nods. You could take shelter in the
- old WWII watchtower.
- boarded-up snack bar.
- under the rotting pier.
The two of you pull a board from a window and crawl inside the dark snack shack. The place has been emptied out, but–there! Treasure!
You find a whole, unopened box of Lick ’em Stix. Good thing, because you were getting hungry. You set the bell down between you and feast.
Clare seems embarrassed every time you ask about the bell. Is she hiding something? Or does she just feel weird talking to you about it?
Eventually, she gets tired of your asking. “Can’t I have secrets?” she asks. “You have a secret.”
You take a long time before you reply.
“I don’t know what you mean,” you say.
“Yes you do! Nobody knows what really happened last year.”
This is definitely not something you want to talk about. The bell is a cool mystery. What happened was… it was…
It was terrible.
You consider running away. You consider telling her lies, just like you lied to the police, your aunt. Everybody.
- tell the truth.
- tell the entire truth.
- tell her all the facts.
- ring the bell.
You can’t look at Clare. Your whole body itches and squirms. For so long, you’ve been telling people a half truth.
Clare deserves more.
“You know the basics,” you tell her. “My family moved here last summer, me and my Mom and Dad. We were going to open a bookstore in town.”
“There were problems. Dad couldn’t afford the rent on the store, and the bank wouldn’t give him a loan. We had a hard time making friends.”
“The people in town didn’t like us, because we were outsiders. But Mom was stubborn, and said we had to make it work, here. She was tough.”
By the end of summer the store was ready to open. You had a party, but nobody from town came. Your family had fun, anyway. Dad got drunk.
Mom put him to bed. You were tired–it was late. You fell asleep when your head hit the pillow.
Then you woke up.
You’d heard something.
“I don’t know what I heard. A scream? I thought my alarm clock had gone off, but it was dark out. About 3 AM. The front door was open.”
There was water and sand all through the front hall. You ran to your parents’ bedroom, because you were scared. You wanted to be with them.
Your Mom and Dad were both…
You stop. Clare waits, patiently. She knows what’s coming. Part of it.
“They were dead.”
You’ll never forget what you saw. How could you? It was… it was so bad.
The air smelled like iodine. Like the ocean, but stale and musty.
You called the police, and they came–the sheriff and his deputy. They took you away in a car. Your aunt came to town to take care of you.
Everyone in town thought you did it. There were no other suspects, and no motive. The locals thought you were crazy, an evil child.
There was no evidence, so you were never charged. But no one in town will talk to you. Except Clare.
“I didn’t do it.”
“I know,” she says.
“I don’t know who would want to do that!” you scream. “All I know is there were footprints outside.”
“Lots of different footprints.”
Even just thinking about this is messing you up. You want to run away.
So you do.
As you escape the snack shack, you only pause to
- grab the bell.
- grab the shell.
- hug Clare.
You just want out. You have to get out. Before you can escape, though, you grab Clare up in a tight embrace. She listened. Nobody else does.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispers in your ear. “I’m so sorry.” You remember she lost her Mom, a couple years ago. She understands, a little.
You leave without another word. You go back to your bike and ride home, fighting back tears the whole way. It’s almost dark, maybe 5:00.
Inside, your aunt is sleeping on the couch. There’s an empty bottle of wine next to her. You clean up after her and go to your room.
You take off your jacket and your backpack. You find that you brought the shell with you. When did you pick it up? You put it on your shelf.
You have school tomorrow, which is going to suck. Tonight, though, you’re on your own. You could
- go to bed and just sleep.
- check your computer.
- sneak out of the house.
You can’t sleep. You know you’ll pay for it tomorrow but you know you’ll just toss and turn. You switch on your computer and let it warm up.
You play Karateka for a while. It seems fun, but it’s super hard and eventually you get frustrated. So you switch over to Usenet instead.
There are some funny people on, and that’s cool. But then you think to start your own newsgroup. “Anyone know about ship’s bells?” you ask.
There are a lot of responses but none of them tell you anything new. You leave the newsgroup open. It’s 2:00 AM now. Maybe get some sleep?
Well, you try.
The lights of passing cars drag across your ceiling. You turn over and face the wall. Which is when you see it: the shadow.
The shadow of the shell of your shelf, when the light hits it from the right angle. It’s huge, crossing your whole wall. And…
The shadow doesn’t look like a lobster, or a crab. It looks like a jointed arm, with five claws like fingers that snatch at you in the dark.
Eventually you fall asleep.
In the morning, before school, you
- make toast for your aunt.
- do your homework.
- throw away the shell.
In the morning, everything seems so normal. You make toast and shake your aunt to wake her up. She stares at you over the butter. Normal.
You clean the kitchen and get the trash ready. Without even thinking about it, you stuff the shell in with the trash. It shreds the bag.
Trash everywhere! You scramble to clean it up. Your aunt sees the shell, though, and demands to know where it came from. She looks scared.
You really need to get to school–you’re going to be late. Things are hard enough there as it is. You tell her it’s nothing, but she
- grabs your arm. Hard.
- yells at you. A lot.
- blocks the door.
“Where did you get that?” your aunt demands. “Who gave that to you?”
She’s really hurting you, now. You’re too scared to speak.
“If I could afford it, I’d move you out of here today,” she says. There are tears in her eyes. “If I could, I’d just jump on a bus.”
She apologizes profusely. She always does. You forgive her. You always do.
You leave her staring at her toast, and head to school.
There are ways to make school okay, if you’re careful. Sit in the back and don’t raise your hand, don’t look at anybody. It works. Usually.
Mr. Peters, your algebra teacher, keeps glancing at you, though. Over his shoulder when he’s at the chalkboard. As if he expects something.
Then, in history class, Miss Grebbles sends you to the principal’s office with a note, before class even starts. It’s not fair. You should
- go the office.
- skip school. Just leave.
- go to your secret place.
You pretend to head to the office, but as soon as no one’s looking, you head down to the basement. The furnace room down there is safe.
You hide behind a stack of old textbooks and boxes of chalk that turned to dust long ago. You don’t know why you’re hiding.
Eventually you hear people poking around. Someone calls your name. You stay quiet.
“We have to find that bell,” they say.
“What about the girl?” someone else says.
“She didn’t come to school today.”
Then they move on. They didn’t find you. You’re safe.
They were talking about Clare. You’re sure of it.
You need to
- go home.
- go somewhere safe.
- get to Clare before they do.
You sneak out of the school without being seen. A year of avoiding bullies is paying off–you know how to be invisible.
Now to find Clare.
You take the long way round, behind the dunes. From a lifeguard’s tower, you can just see her house. Someone is out front. It’s not her Dad.
Looks like it might be Chuck Giffen. A high school dropout who runs a bait shop during tourist season. Not a nice guy–but what’s he doing?
He’s waving at someone. You look and see the Sheriff cruising by in his patrol car. He flashes his lights and siren, just for a second.
Is the whole town after Clare? Because of a rusty ship’s bell? This doesn’t make any sense! You think you might know where Clare is.
It’s risky, but you need to see her. You head into town, checking every corner. Luckily this time of year there are plenty of empty streets.
Her Dad has an office on Waite Street. It’s been closed for a month. Nobody will check there. You hide in an alleyway around the corner.
You peer around a brick wall, being careful. But just as you’re about to run out into the street–
A hand falls on your shoulder. It’s
- Mrs. Gunderson!
- your aunt!
- Jeff, the local punk kid.
- Clare’s Dad.
Jeff has a floppy Mohawk haircut and–gross!–an earring through his nose. He’s older than you and has a bad reputation.
“Take it easy, turdsack,” he says. “I’m not going to hurt you. In fact, I may be your best friend right now.” Jeff is an outsider, like you.
Whether you can trust him or not is another matter.
“They’re looking for you and your girlfriend everywhere.”
“She’s not my–”
He puts a hand over your mouth and drags you inside a salt water taffy shop. “Sorry, they were coming,” he says. He tells you to stay down.
You hide behind an empty display rack while he peers through the corner of a boarded-up window.
“They want that bell pretty bad,” he says.
“I bet they’d pay for it. Listen, I can help you two, if you help me. I can get you out of town unseen. Yeah? What’d’ya say?”
- nothing. Just wait.
- “Yeah, okay. I guess.”
- lie to him.
- no, and try to run away.
Maybe you’re too scared to speak. Maybe you distrust Jeff so much you won’t give him the satisfaction. Either way, your silence annoys him.
He kicks some boxes with his Converse sneakers, and they go flying. “You don’t like me? Yeah, we’ll I’m used to that, kid! I’m used to it!”
“I’m getting that bell one way or another,” he says. He grabs you by the arm and yanks you to your feet. He hauls you out of the store.
You can’t even scream. He drags you across the street, to Clare’s Dad’s office. “She’s in here, right?” he whispers. “Yeah. We’ll see.”
Inside it’s dark, and at first there’s no sign of Clare. Then he twists your arm until you gasp in pain.
She steps out of the shadows.
“Give me that bell,” he says, “or I turn you both over to the sheriff. You know what that jackboot thug will do to you? I think you do.”
He grins at you. It’s an ugly look. “I think you know real well, kid. After what he did to your parents.” He releases you. You’re stunned.
You can’t think. Can’t move.
Clare just nods. She reaches for a cloth-wrapped bundle. Hands it over.
“Just let us go,” she says. “Please.”
Jeff checks the bell, then his grin widens. “You got no chance, you know that? Screw this world, man. Kids ain’t even safe.”
“Don’t ask,” Clare says. You’re not sure what she means, but yeah, there’s no time for questions.
“Clare,” you say, “we need
- to get out of town!”
- to tell your dad!”
- to protect my aunt!”
Clare agrees. Neither of you are safe as long as you stay in this town.
“I have a… a kind of cousin, I guess, who lives up the coast.”
“I think she’ll take us in,” Clare says. “She won’t turn us in, anyway. It’s the best idea I can think of.”
“I have some money,” you say.
It isn’t much, but you saved some of the money from your summer job. Maybe you knew it would come to this. Running away from this town…
There is, of course, the age problem. You’re both twelve. You can’t rent a car, and people will be suspicious if they see you unsupervised.
The two of you debate your options. None of them are very good, unfortunately. You decide the best way to get out of town is to
- take the bus.
- steal a boat.
The bus station is two towns over. You only stop back at your house to grab your money and your bike. Your aunt is asleep on the couch.
You wish you could say something. She’s mean to you, sometimes, but she came here to take care of you when nobody else would. Still…
The less you tell her, the safer she probably is. You don’t even leave a note.
You ride up to the dunes, where Clare is waiting for you.
The wind is playing in the beach grass. Out at sea you watch a tanker go by. The two of you stick to the shore road, avoiding traffic.
At the bus station at Point Gibson, you lock up your bikes. For a second you just stare at your bike. You realize you’ll never see it again.
It hits you harder than you expected. You think you might start crying.
Then Clare takes your hand. “Come on,” she says.
You head inside.
The ticket seller doesn’t even look at you. You sit down on a bench and wait for the bus to come. Before it arrives, though, the
- sheriff pulls up outside.
- PA calls your name.
- station guard approaches.
The bus is pulling into the station when an announcement comes over the loudspeaker.
They’re calling you–by name. They want to see you.
“What should I do?” you ask Clare. She pushes your head down, and looks around to see if anyone is looking at the two of you.
An elderly security guard is walking toward you. Looking right at you.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Excuse me, you there!”
You can’t ignore him.
“If they ask too many questions, they’ll send us home,” Clare whispers. “This is our only chance to get away!”
She’s right. You jump up and
- knock him down.
- run for the bus.
- tell Clare to run.
She starts to protest, but there’s no time. You all but shove her toward the bus. Then you turn to face the guard. You gulp down your fear.
“Come with me, please,” he says. He takes you back to an office behind the ticket desk. It’s crowded with suitcases and boxes of clothes.
“What are you going to do with me?” you ask. Your voice sounds very quiet, even in the tiny room.
He stares at you in surprise. “Sorry?”
“This is the lost luggage room,” he says. “I didn’t want you to leave without this.” He hands you a box. It feels heavy. You’re confused.
“Better hurry,” the guard says. He smiles at you, and leads you to the waiting bus. “Not everyone in this town is like them,” he whispers.
As the bus pulls away from the station, you wonder what just happened.
“What’s in the box?” Clare asks.
You open it with shaking hands.
It’s the bell.
The bell you gave to Jeff, the punk kid.
How did the guard get it back? You may never know.
Clare closes the box again.
The bus heads up the coast road. The sun flickers through the windows, making you blink. It’s okay. You’re with Clare.