They say terrible things happen when the bells stop ringing. Growing up, we were warned to stay close and to be inside by the time they fell silent. But they never told us why, and even now that I’ve broken the rule I’m not sure.
I never intended to disobey, I didn’t go out into the night on purpose. I was following Peter.
I’m not sure when he first arrived in our community, which is strange, because most of us have been here our whole lives and new settlers are usually greeted with some kind of celebration. But with Peter, there was nothing. He was not here and then he was.
I first noticed him watching me from behind a tree. It was dusk, the first star was already out and the bells were ringing. I was on my way home, passing the woods near the houses. For some reason, he wasn’t seeking shelter like the rest of us.
“Where are you going?” he asked, still behind the tree.
“Home,” I replied, “before the bells stop ringing.”
“The bells? Why?” He cocked his head. “What happens when the bells stop ringing?”
“Terrible things, of course.”
“What terrible things?” he prodded.
I paused. “I don’t know. I’ve never thought it wise to find out.”
“Well, I’ve wandered the countryside plenty and I can assure you the dangers that lurk out here don’t follow any rules about bells.”
I watched him, considering this.
He looked around before continuing. “I think it’s safe enough tonight, though.” Then, a smile. “I’m Peter. Why don’t you join me for a walk in the woods? They’re lovely by moonlight.”
Was he just looking for someone to cavort with, or was his invitation more sinister? I didn’t know how to tell the difference. I declined, thanked him and bid him goodnight. Everyone else was already inside.
I saw him around the settlement over the following weeks. Though we never spoke, he always made a point of catching my eye.
A month after he had first appeared, I ran into him again by the forest. It was later in the evening and I was rushing. I tripped over my hem and stumbled in the almost-darkness. A hand reached out of nowhere to steady me.
“Come with me,” Peter whispered by my ear. His eyes glowed like a cat’s in the darkness. This time, half afraid and half excited, I allowed him to lead me through the trees.
My skin tingled, my face was flushed; I couldn’t believe I was breaking the most important rule. But I was curious and this was something even my parents hadn’t seen. Though I had always obeyed them, I longed to see the mysterious world of the night, a world bathed in the silver light that leaked through the house shutters.
And here I was alone with a stranger, a young man. That was against the rules, too.
We didn’t speak as we moved deeper into the woods. My breath came quickly and my heart thudded so that I forgot to listen for the bells. When I noticed the silence, I wondered if the bells had stopped or if the forest had absorbed their sound.
We halted in a clearing. Silver light shone overhead from the moon, a perfect orb glowing between the delicate lace of the treetops. And there were millions of stars! It wasn’t long before I forgot to be afraid. I listened as Peter explained the night sky and identified the sounds of the nocturnal creatures stirring.
Feeling both foolish and brave, I lay down beside him on the moss, thinking how lovely it would be to sleep under the stars. I must have slipped into a dream because Peter began to fade like the mist and, in his place, a large, white bird appeared.
“Thank you for trusting me enough to come with me,” it murmured. “You kept me company when I was lonely.”
Gently, it pulled the ribbon from my hair with its beak and bit it in half. “I will always carry this so that if ever we should meet again, you will recognize me.” And with that, it spread its broad, white wings and took flight.
I awoke to a pink sunrise. Gasping, I realized I was alone in the forest. “Peter?” I called into the emptiness. As I sat up and rubbed my eyes, I discovered I was gripping a piece of ribbon in my fist.