Terrance Bellamy had saved lives - that much was true. But he was certainly no hero. He had rescued people often enough, in fact, that one could say it was his day job, although, that would not be entirely accurate.
To clarify, he was no hero because he chose when, and when not, to save those lives. Sometimes the decision between saving a life, and letting it slip away depended on little more than the quality of his hand in a game of cards. As for his profession this was no day job because it was quite literally, the graveyard shift during which he worked at the Wilhelm Cemetery.
It was the year of our Lord, seventeen hundred and ninety-three, when the Yellow Fever landed at the docks of the Arch Street wharf in Philadelphia. Between August first, and September ninth, nearly five thousand souls had been claimed by this scourge upon the earth. Business, as Terrance Bellamy knew it, was good.
A most unusual phenomena came about as this epidemic ravaged the nation. Patients suffering from the advanced stages of the disease often fell into a comatose state. As a result, many were pronounced dead and interred prematurely. That is to say in the layman’s terms, they were buried alive.
It soon became common practice to mount a bell upon the headstone outfitted with a string that ran down through a pipe, and into the coffin. When - and during the course of this epidemic it was more a matter of when, than if – some unfortunate sap came out of their coma only to find themselves stuffed into a wooden box, Terrance would be stalking about the cemetery, listening for the ringing of a bell.
Sure, sometimes he wanted to let those people die, to assert that total control over someone else’s fate by choosing not to help them. Sometimes though, it was not what he wanted. There was something else within him - something sinister, something that grew ravenous, at times satiated only by death.
Why else would he choose to ignore the ringing bells, to ignore the pleas of help from a desperate fellow human being - trapped, and already buried halfway to hell.
Terrance did also manage to turn a profit from this. It was poor, old Mr. Archibald, who helped him open his eyes to the opportunity. Although, one could not really say, poor Mr. Archibald as he owned much of Arch street itself, but he certainly was old and sick.
Terrance watched a memorial service for the second burial of one particular Tuesday. Or was it the third? For all he knew, it may have been the fourth of the day. He had lost track. Terrance sat on the lip of his wheel barrow, holding the butt end of a shovel stuck upright in the soggy grass. He leaned his tired weight into it. Seagulls called in the distance and horseshoes clacked upon the cobblestone streets drowning out the words being offered by the nearby priest.
Daylight was fading as he watched the sun sink behind the tall masts of ships docked along Arch street. Terrance yawned, his shift had only just begun.
“Heaven save that soul, have it yet to truly depart from this earth.”
A solemn voice woke Terrance from his dozing with a start. He looked to see a man much older than himself, standing just beside him. Terrance knew the man to be Mr. Archibald, one of the most prominent figures in Philadelphia. Dressed in a black double-breasted suit and a top hat, he seemed not to mind the dots of mud speckled up his finely tailored trousers.
“Excuse me, Mr. Archibald, I didn’t see you just there.” Terrance said as he stood and pulled off his cap.
“No sorry at all, my good man. I was curious, though, how many will you have buried today, by sundown?” Mr. Archibald asked. His voice had an aristocratic flow, refined and eloquent, yet, humble.
“Three, sir, by last count.”
“By last count…” Archibald repeated listlessly, deep in thought.
The two watched as members of the service began to break away, consoling each other as they left the cemetery. It was nearly time for Terrance to get to work.
“I will pay you handsomely, sir, to guarantee my rescue if I am unfortunate enough to be buried in your lot, prematurely.” Archibald said.
“Well, yes of course, Mr. Archibald.” The words sputtered from Terrance’s mouth.
Terrance lifted a whistling kettle from the black iron stove set in a far back corner of his shack. Heating water to make a cup of black coffee and to warm his stew, was how he started each shift. Sometimes he would play a few rounds of cards while he ate. If he was ever in the middle of a really tricky game of Parsons when a bell began to jingle somewhere out in the dark, well, they would just have to wait their turn.
Terrance preferred being in his shack at the top of Wilhelm Cemetery, to anywhere else in the world. His actual home was only slightly larger than the shack, and it was nearer the fisherman’s docks than he cared to be. Worse yet, Tabitha, his wife, lived there. When she would bark orders at him, all he could ever do was hope another soul had succumbed to the illness, just so he would be needed to dig a new grave.
A bell sounded in the distance. Too bad for that trapped soul, Terrance had just heated his stew, only managed a few sips of coffee, and had yet to even shuffle his cards. It meant nothing to him that they would languish in the throes of their heinous panic and soul scraping fear. They would have to wait for a man who preferred to eat his stew while it was still hot.
Terrance was in no particular hurry lighting the wick of his lantern and venturing out into the graveyard. He listened for the bells as he walked the morbid obstacle course of granite stones. Terrance held the lantern at eye level, it’s rickety metal squeaking as it swayed, the flickering orange glow managing only to light the immediate area around him.
He came upon the Gilman headstone. A husband and wife, thought to have passed away together several months before – that was, until Jimmy Gilman woke next to his dead wife. When Terrance heard the Gilman’s bell ringing, he thought back to when he discovered the man laying with Tabitha. Terrance was elated to learn that the man was alive.
Buried alive and within the same coffin as his dead wife – who would soon begin to decompose. Terrance had run up to the gravesite, not with a shovel, however, but a pair of scissors. Without a moments hesitation, he approached the grave and snipped the string in two.
Terrance could have sworn the ringing he heard had come from right here, but that was impossible, Jimmy had long since passed - for real, this time. Not to mention, Terrance had clipped the string attached to the bell once he discovered Jimmy alive. He lifted the bell from it’s hook and placed it in his coat pocket.
Just then, another bell jingled from somewhere off in the distant dark.
“We’re feeling musical tonight, are we not?” Terrance teased his restless tenants.
It rang again, scolding the lethargic gravedigger. Terrance cocked an eyebrow and squinted beyond the limits of his lantern light.
“Hold on to your horses, you have no place to be.” He retorted, the irony of his own words prompting an unexpected chuckle to belt forth from the man’s ample belly
Terrance wandered the grounds for nearly an hour searching for the source of the ringing, which had now fallen silent. He grew tired and waddled back to his shack to warm himself with a cup of coffee. Back in the shack, and several hours later, the rhythmic flickering of shadows cast by the light from within the black stove, put Terrance into a deep slumber.
The muffled ringing of a bell roused Terrance from his nap at the round wooden table. He lifted his groggy eyes and they wandered about the dark interior of his shack, in search of the sound. Without stoking the fire in his stove, it had died down to little more than crumbles of debris pulsating with an orange glow. Another muffled ring, like someone ringing a bell they clasped tight in their hand.
Terrance struck a match and lit the lantern just beside him on the table. He stood, holding the lantern high and squinting into the inky black. It sounded so close.
He moved to the door and placed his ear against the wood, trying to listen for any sounds emanating from the hallowed grounds just outside. There were none. If not from outside, then where could this haunting jingle be coming from?
Then, it was clear. He turned to gaze upon his coat, which he always kept hung on a nail adjacent to the door. From within one of it’s pockets came another ring. It was the Gilman’s bell ringing out in a desperate, ghostly tune. His eyes nearly rolled from their sockets and his mouth fell agape in puzzled terror.
It rang again, and again, louder and louder. Terrance approached, ever so slowly. He reached out and slid one trembling hand into the pocket, retrieving the bell. It had gone silent and Terrance breathed a sigh of relief.
Suddenly, the bell burned white hot in his hand and Terrance heard his skin sizzle. He gasped and dropped it to the dirt floor. Then, bells began to chime all around him. Near, far, outside and within. He let go of the lantern, trying to cover his ears with his hands. It landed hard and exploded in a shower of sparks.
Then, total darkness.
Just as suddenly as the bells had begun to ring, they stopped. Now, the only sound was that of his own heavy breathing. A trickle of cold sweat ran down his back. Terrance went to his hands and knees, beginning to crawl towards the door.
Hard packed dirt lay under his every reach. Then, his fingers came across something. They quested over the object until, to his horror, he identified it’s shape. It was a plastic shoe, similar in composition to the ones with which a man was dressed for burial in the Wilhelm Cemetery.
A solid lump leapt up into his throat and he felt as though he may vomit black coffee and stew. Terrance scrambled towards the door. His hands and knees fell upon more and more shoes – men’s and women’s alike. Terrance stumbled and fell face first into the collection of musty shoes that smelled of defecation and rot.
Terrance was short of breath; the wind had been forced from his lungs when he fell. He had to get out of his shack, had to crawl out from the pile of shoes, which he understood, in some detached way, had been worn by the dead and the decaying. The ones whose fates he had sealed by not heeding their cries for help that came in the form of frantic ringing bells.
Terrance hurled himself at the door and it gave way. He burst out from his shack, stumbling and barely remaining on his feet. He gasped for clear air only to swallow the dank smell of the cemetery. When he whirled around to get a look at the clutter of shoes he just crawled through, he saw they had all disappeared, save for one pair, right next to the Gilman’s small brass bell.
Distant screams cried out from off to his left. Now, from his right – now behind! Terrance whipped his body around in circles as the screams came in at him from every conceivable direction. He caught sight of a cluster of silhouettes gathered near the glass lamp on the corner of Arch street. Terrance could not see the faces but he felt their malevolent presence.
Suddenly, the flame behind the figures went out and they darted toward Terrance – at Terrance – traveling at an impossible speed. He turned to run for his shack, only to find his path blocked. The ashen-skinned, hideously decomposed face of Jimmy Gilman was only inches from his. Milky, vacant eyes gazed right into Terrance with a searing intensity. They judged him with a maniacal prejudice for every life lost under his careless watch.
Jimmy's face suddenly twisted and wretched in a grotesque manner until his jaw dislocated. It dropped nearly to his chest, revealing an inky, black, nothing. His eye sockets dilated like pupils starved of light. They grew enormous, displaying the same bottomless black as his mouth. The creature released a shriek unlike that of any man or beast on earth.
The sight, alone, was enough to make Terrance void his bowels and cause his soul to recoil into the deepest recesses of existence.
A small crowd had gathered outside the gates of Wilhelm by morning. The sea of black umbrellas seemed to form a single shelter, under which, onlookers jostled about, fighting for a better view through the wrought iron bars. The half-crescent shape of a sign just above the spectators frowned with the lettering, “Wilhelm Sanctuary”. Rain had fallen steady all morning, which made the scene all the more peculiar.
Terrance, the gravedigger, stood motionless in the clearing just outside his shack. The man, just, stood there, as if asleep on his feet. He was soaked to the bone and it appeared as though he had been digging all through the night. Evidence of the undertaking was quite apparent; he was caked in dirt and mud from head to boot, and there were several dozen open graves throughout the cemetery lot. At the bottom of each one, lay a casket with its lid thrown wide open.
On the ground all around Terrance were dozens of pairs of black shoes.
He had been frightened beyond comprehension or understanding. The night had been too much for the mind to accept, and when it snapped, it sent him into catatonic shock, leaving him in a conscious, comatose state.
Although Terrance showed no outward alertness to the world, inside, he was screaming for help. He was trying to wave at the people, trying to tell them what had occurred, but found he was unable to Terrance was trapped within his own body, as though it was his coffin.
The only sound he could hear, was that of jingling bells. All the ringing he had ignored, was now sounding off in a haunting cacophony that existed only in his mind. Now, he would be forced to listen to them. Now, it was he, for whom the bells would toll, forever.