Elvin heard it once and then again, sharp and echoing, like two metal pans banging together. When he heard it the second time he stood straight up, because in his whole life he’d never heard that sound before. In fourteen years he’d never heard that once, and there it was floating down the riverbank, and he thought there must be something happening and he had no idea what it could be.
He dropped his fishing rod in the sand and listened, but the sound was far off and the sky turning dark, the color of his grandma’s cinnamon tea. His dog Lamb came bursting out of the weeds and sprinted into the river shallows and sprinted out again, shaking himself dry. “Cut that out,” Elvin said.
Then Lamb stopped, hearing the same sound that Elvin was hearing, looking up the bank and through the trees. His tail and ears went hard and straight.
He started whining, and Elvin said: “No.” Then the sound came again and Elvin realized that it was a bell. And he thought about that old Baptist church up there by the road, but he hadn’t ever heard a bell ring before and he only lived a few minutes away.
Lamb sniffed the air and whined again, then he barked.
“No,” Elvin said again.
He was still hearing the bell as he gave chase through the tight spaces between the trees. For a few seconds he could see Lamb surging ahead of him, then he was gone. He kept on running, slipping on pine needles and rotting leaves, all the while thinking it sounded strange somehow, and knowing it involved him, like he was its echo. It didn’t make any sense really, but he wasn’t thinking sense, he was just running, finding the little path that snaked up to the road and following it without any trouble. He could have done it blindfolded. As he came out of the woods the bell rang once, twice more and then it went silent.
Across the road he saw the Baptist church. Tails of black smoke rose from the back end and twisted out from under the windows. Behind it the red sky looked pasted on, unreal, like something his brother would draw in his preschool class. There was just one car in the church lot. No sign of Lamb or anyone else. For a moment Elvin stood there watching the plumes twist and curl, until it hit him halfway across the road–that bell didn’t ring itself–and then he started running again, sprinting through the lot and around to the back of the church.
It was a white, wood-framed building from the ‘30s or ‘40s. He’d never been inside it before–he wasn’t religious, and it was a black congregation besides. But he’d been on the grounds because he lived so close by. Once for a Fourth of July cookout, and a few times to play football when the regular field was too muddy to use. He knew it had a little steeple on top–you could see the edge of the brass bell from the lawn–but he’d thought that was just for the look of it, or maybe he’d never thought about it at all, because nobody ever bothered to ring it.
When he came around the side he saw the back door was open, like someone had left it that way in a hurry. He climbed the step and looked inside. He hollered for Lamb, but there was no answer. He didn’t see him anywhere. The hall was filling with black smoke, spread a little thicker and darker toward the ceiling. He hollered again–”Lamb! Lamb!”–but the only sound was a steady scratching noise like there was a herd of mice scurrying inside the walls. He knew Lamb must have run in there, the ways dogs do sometimes when people are in trouble. And there had to be someone in trouble. He knew someone had rung that church bell and only stopped a minute ago. Now his dog was in there, too. He stepped back and looked down toward the road–nobody there–and then over his shoulder past the big mower shed and the trees even though he knew the nearest house was a good quarter mile in the other direction.
“Dang it, Lamb!” he said.
He had a vision of his grandma’s face wrenched in horror.
He stepped inside. The door opened on a tight, wood-paneled hall. Pictures hanging in frames. A large brown spider fled over them in panic, looking for a way out. The walls and ceiling crackled. He hollered again. No one answered. Once he’d seen it raining across the river while he stood in bright sunlight on the other side. He watched and waited, reeling in his line, and a long minute had passed before the cloud swept over. He had that same feeling now, like there was a space of time that he could work with, but he wouldn’t have any way to know when it was over. He walked on. The hallway opened on an empty office room. Then another. He saw flames snaking up the wall behind a desk, twisting loose like a rope. The air was so thick he could hardly breathe, and he started to feel the heat rolling in waves, pushing him back toward the door. He leaned into it like a gust of wind. Then the building gave a loud crack. It sounded like the roof timbers were splitting apart. He tried calling out again but his voice choked up and then he came to the end of the hall and practically ran into him.
An old man was sitting at the bottom of a little stairwell with his head in his hands.
“Mister,” Elvin said, breathing through his t-shirt. But the man didn’t seem to notice him.
“Come on, get up.”
The man raised his head a little and his left eye came open. He looked a few years past seventy, his arms still wiry and strong. His eye watched Elvin with indifference and then it rolled away. “I ain’t waiting on you,” he said.
Elvin coughed into his shirt. He didn’t understand what the old man had said, or the tired tone of it, like he was telling him to get lost.
“There’s a fire, mister.”
The man laughed, sudden and strange.
Elvin waited another moment. It started to dawn on him that he might have to drag the man out of there.
“When He comes He’ll come in fire–” the man said. Directly overhead something split with a sound like a tree snapping in two.
“Did you ring that bell?” Elvin said.
The man’s eye rolled up again and settled on Elvin.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Well, Elvin Tucker, I rung the bell all right.”
“Then you’re coming with me.”
Elvin reached and grabbed him under the shoulders and hauled him up from the stair. The old man stared at him and his mouth opened wide and wordless–it took a second to realize it was the sound of the fire drowning out his voice. Elvin dragged him forward a couple of steps, his knees trembling and his steps slow and wobbly. Then he doubled over and they stopped to rest. Elvin looked around. He could hardly believe how the smoke was building up, just pouring out the open doorway at the end of the hall. It seemed like it was right on top of them now, like it was going to bury them before they could reach it. Finally the old man straightened up again and leaned on Elvin and they went forward another four or five steps and then he stooped over and coughed up long strings of mucus onto the floor. When he stood again he said something, but Elvin couldn’t hear him at all. He had the sense now of the cloud sweeping over them, the way it had come dimpling the river’s surface and blowing dead leaves through the air, and he tried to see how far they were from the open door but the old man’s arm was laying across his neck and dragging him down to the floor. Then he heard a kind of rumbling noise way up in the rafters of the church, like some crazy people were up there dancing in the fire, and at the same time he knew it was just the boards buckling and popping–still he saw them prancing and turning circles, grinning and laughing in the flames. He hooked the old man’s waist and hauled him forward. He couldn’t see his face but he could tell the old man was cussing him blue. Like he wished Elvin had left him where he was.
Part of the ceiling came down behind them. For a second Elvin thought it was collapsing right on top of them and he tensed so hard he bit his tongue. Then his eyes blurred and he was blinded. He kept walking with his arm clutching the old man’s waist and pushing him on, and he suddenly thought What am I doing here? In this church? It seemed a crazy idea, like the time he’d snuck into an abandoned house on a dare and heard some vagrant moving around the upper floor. The sound of footsteps had sent him sprinting for the basement window while his friends scattered and fled to the woods. He wondered if that was why he’d done it–the chance to break a rule, nothing more. The old man croaked some part of a word into his ear, but he couldn’t understand him. It sounded like he was just choking on air. Then it hit Elvin that they might have blundered into one of those rooms off the hallway and if that was true then they would probably die there. No chance to get out. He could barely open his eyes. And when he did open them there was nothing to see but smoke, thick and dirty and tangled up, and the old man croaked like he was getting ready to vomit again, and Elvin yanked him and gave a final shove and they tripped and fell through the doorway out onto the lawn. Elvin pressed his face down into the grass. It was cool and damp; he sucked on a clump and chewed and spat it out.
Then he heard a familiar whine in his ear. He looked up. Lamb stood obediently by his side, watching him with innocent eyes.
“Stupid dog,” Elvin croaked.
A strange wheeze escaped the man’s throat, like he was trying to breathe through a tube. Suddenly Elvin realized what it was. He was laughing.
He’d have liked to kick out the old man’s teeth.