Adjusting his scarf around his face, Tim closed the shop door with a tinkle of the welcome bells and locked it, then shuffled down the snowy street making his way against the icy blast of winter wind.
The town square was a bustle of activity, this being Christmas Eve. People were doing their last minute shopping along the streets encompassing the square, and getting set to enjoy the Christmas show. However, everyone seemed to take great pains to avoid one of the side streets.
This street was the home to the old, Gothic-style church that had been home to many denominations over its hundred-and-fifty year history. Currently the Presbyterians were worshipping there, at least until recently. Jeffrey, the church’s official bell-ringer, a boy with more bravery than brains, came tearing down from the belfry two weeks after Hallowe’en, trembling like a wet cat, claiming that he had ‘seen a spook.’
The pastor, Reverend Herlinger, an old man with more contempt than cleverness, sent him straight back to his bell-ringing duties against threats of telling his father: a malicious man given to drink and brutality where his family was concerned, but who was nevertheless a charitable tither.
The boy fearfully discharged his duties, and did so prior to every service from that moment on with nary a complaint, but he was often seen muttering to himself afterward, and casting fearful jerky glances over his shoulder. He became pale and developed dark pouches under his eyes which made him look more like an old man than a mere boy of thirteen.
Then, on the first Sunday of the Christmas season, it happened.
The day started in its normal fashion. Cocks crowed, clocks chimed and people woke up. The first snow of the year had fallen and the ground was frozen hard and glittery-white. Close to 6 am, those who lived in the town awaited the ringing of the church bells to call them to 7 o’clock service.
No bells sounded.
Those townspeople who were awake chewed their eggs and sausages, and drank their juice and coffee, glancing at their wall clocks every three or four minutes.
6:10. . .6:15. . .6:25 came and went and still no din of bells broke the unearthly silence that enfolded the town like a fog.
“Wonder why the church bells haven’t rung?” Tim’s wife, Dorothy, asked.
“Dunno,” Tim replied. “We’ll find out soon enough, I reckon. Maybe Jeffrey’s ill. God only knows, old Herlinger can’t climb those steep stairs. He ‘aint no spring chicken anymore. All the cluck’s gone right out of the old bugger!” Tim laughed.
They finished breakfast and bundled up, leaving the house at 6:45. The church was less than a ten-minute walk from their house. As they arrived, they saw most of the other worshippers gathered outside of the church.
“Doors are locked,” said Fred Avery, the town’s barber. He looked grim. “Terrible shouting in there.”
Tim and Dorothy looked confused, but soon heard for themselves as a ruckus erupted inside the church.
“Get your lazy behind up those stairs and ring that bell, I said!” Herlinger shouted.
“NO!! And you can’t make me!” came Jeffrey’s voice. People in the crowd looked at one another in disbelief. They had never heard Jeffrey so much as raise his voice, let alone disobey the minister.
Several thumps could be heard and Jeffrey cried out. The preacher was beating the boy.
“Now, get up there!” the pastor yelled. The people waiting outside could hear the sound of Jeffrey’s footfalls on the stairs to the belfry.
“He’s got no right,” Fred’s wife spoke.
“Mind your business,” Fred admonished her.
“I think she’s right,” Tim said. His wife put her arm around him and squeezed him gently in silent solidarity.
Gladys Avery looked up and screamed. “AAAGGH! Look out!”
Everyone scrambled backwards as a dull thud sounded. They tried to shield themselves, but the impact of the body sent blood and fluids splattering in all directions.
Jeffrey had jumped from the tower.
Tim made his way across the park. Most of the townfolk were gathered there, as the theater troupe was putting on a Christmas show in the square that evening. Tim found Dorothy seated on a bench. She held out a delicious hot cocoa to him and he gratefully accepted it, giving her a peck on the lips in exchange.
“What’s the word, lovey?” he asked.
She smiled briefly, then her smile froze on her face in a grimace. “They say he’s not likely to live out the night.”
After Jeffrey’s suicide, the pastor went crazy. A few of the men tried to calm him down.
“The curse! Blast it! The curse! It must be time. I should’ve known!” he ranted. Although they tried, no one could get a sane word from him.
Later that night, the pastor attempted to take his own life. He’d dragged himself up the steep staircase to the belfry and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills at the top. The deacon, John Willis, found him there…along with the strange suicide note:
“Harm not another. I give you my life in sacrifice. Harm not the others, I beg. Let my life satisfy the bond…” It went on in that vein for some length, then ended abruptly, no doubt when the pills took hold.
“Anyone been able to determine what the “curse” might be? Did anyone talk to Dolores Gant?” Dolores Gant was the oldest living resident in the town, and she had been a member of the church when it was still St. Michael’s. She was in a nursing home now.
“Me n’ Gladys went over today,” Dorothy said, looking glum. “We asked her if she knew about a curse. Her eyes got big and she became agitated. She said ‘The bellringer! Sunset!” then clamped her hand over her mouth and refused to say another word.”
“That’s very odd,” Tim said, taking a drink of his cocoa.
They snuggled on the bench and watched the performers on the bandshell in the center of the park getting ready for their performance. The streetlights in the park twinkled on as dusk approached. Tim and Dorothy turned in the direction of the church to watch the sunset. Dorothy gasped.
“What is it, love?” Tim asked.
“Where did they go, Tim?” she cried, pointing at the top of the church.
A few miles away, Pastor Herlinger awoke from his coma and motioned for someone to write down his last words.
“Three….three it requires…from All Hallows Eve ’til Christmas Eve. If three it does not get…it will take us all. It will awaken the stone demons as the last of sunlight fades and…and…”
In the square, as the sun set, all who were gathered looked up in awe at the belfry as the bells began to peal. Their looks of shock turned to horror as black shapes flew out of the belfry and from the top of the flying buttresses.
The peace of the evening was disrupted by screams.
Another fifty years had come to pass: it was time for the gargoyles to feed.