The peal of church bells, slow and heavy. On the ninth toll, she lifted her eyes from her scrawling script, hand cramped, eyes stinging, and turned towards the light-speckled night. There. The tell-tale outline of his silhouette, moving to and fro, bending down, fading out, then coming back again to lean against the window sill and take in the crisp autumn air. A shiver ran down her spine, and she bent back over her writing, scribbling with renewed vigour. After a while she sighed, got to her feet, and glanced backwards one last time as she turned to leave. His shadowed form remained, keeping vigil over the silent night.
She wasn't sure what had gotten them talking in the first place. Perhaps it had been the tentative smile he gave her when their eyes met. Perhaps she had simply needed release from the constant clamor of her own mind.
It had started after a cold, biting winter, the sort that numbed every thought, every action. Lethargy had settled into her bones, slowing and cooling her restless thoughts. She had been on her balcony, letting the ring of church bells wash over her, when he had stepped outside.
“Hi!” His voice echoed off the apartment blocks. “I don’t think we’ve met before; I’m Miles.”
She raised a hand in greeting. “Mona.”
“It’s a bit cold out isn’t it?”
“A beautiful night.”
She tilted her head up, gazing into the bottomless depths up above. Following her lead, he contemplated the black, barren sky, trying to find beauty in such a thing. Then, nodding, he acknowledged her comment and bade her goodbye. As he returned to the warmth of his home, he wondered whether that was wisdom: appreciating odd views and adding depth to simple phrases.
The tolling of the bells. Once. Twice. At nine they ended, and at the ninth, she was there once more, soaking up the cold, breathing in the last frigid remnants of winter. He stared at her, unsure whether to intrude on the peace that seemed to set her features aglow. Mona clung to the railing, swaying in the moonlight as if it were a stream and she a drifting leaf.
Miles closed his window with a clang; she froze, her eyes snapped to his, and she retreated into her apartment.
This time he was there early. As the first chime flooded the air, she came out. When she spotted him, she shot a furtive glance back the way she’d come. Then, taking a deep breath, she moved forward to stand by the railing, her measured movements akin to comical mimicking.
“Why do you always come out in the cold?”
She stared at him for a moment, her jaw moving back and forth as if to test out the words she would use. “Do you like stories?”
A grin spread across his features at the unexpected reply. “Sure.”
“There was once a girl who had yet to taste the joy in life. This fulfillment she had strived to find, talking to her parents, her siblings, her friends. Despite her efforts, it seemed to escape her, a concept that blossomed all around her and yet remained out of reach. She had once heard of the sweet warmth honey could spread in one’s heart, but also how hard it would be to obtain. And she decided it would be her only salvation.”
Miles’ brow furrowed at the weird turn the story had taken.
“One day she set out, all covered in cloths, to find a beehive. She had no trouble finding one, but as she approached, the distant buzzing filled her with dread. It was a gossiping crowd’s indistinct chatter, a frenzied army’s ruthless advance. And yet the lonesome girl did not back down, determined as she was to leave with joy in her heart.
“She reached out, fingers twitching at the fuzzy warmth that pressed against them. She felt a pinprick, and the warmth spread into her hand, tickling its way up her arm. And then her hand spasmed, as the searing, pounding heat tore through her. She held it to her chest, as would a wounded animal, her opal stare blazing with a thousand fires.
“The girl trudged off into the woods, and returned an hour later with a long stick. Squaring her shoulders, she dived it into the centre of the beehive. The frantic buzzing increased unbearably, and she tore out the stick, backing away. A quiver ran down her spine as she beheld the great blob of honey, and took a bite out of it. Its saccharine sweetness spread through her; the world suddenly seemed brighter, and the flurry of activity in the hive faded to the back of her mind, reduced to a mere hum. However, the feeling faded quickly, replaced by a pang of longing.”
After an awkward pause, she added: “The end.”
“That’s it?” he asked, bewildered. “What about a happy ending and her quest for joy?”
She gave him a wistful smile. “That’s not for everyone, I’m afraid. Goodnight.”
He stared after her moonlit shape as she left as abruptly as she had come. Perhaps there was a moral to the story? However hard he tried though, he could not make sense of it, and mulled over her words as he fell into his shifting dreams, Mona’s cryptic features fading into the girl’s fiery eyes.
As spring progressed, they started meeting everyday, each encounter longer than the last. The nine pealing bells marked the traditional beginning to their conversations. Miles never saw her out during the day, despite the fact that windows were the only place they could see the bright blue skies or feel the warmth of sunlight. Nevertheless, he was grateful for the distraction and opportunity to talk, even if it meant his confined afternoons remained monotonous as ever.
At first it had been difficult to exchange more than a few words — Mona was somewhat absent-minded, and it could take awhile for her to respond. As spring wore on, however, she grew increasingly animated, sharing stories each more fantastical than the last: she told tales of snakes who wished they could hop, flocks of seagulls caught up in tornadoes, and possessed grasshoppers plaguing travellers. She became so caught up in each narration, he was unsure whether the stories she shared were real or not. The new, flourishing worlds she created seemed to keep the one crumbling around them at bay.
“Are you writing a book? I always see you out the window, scribbling away in that notebook of yours.”
“Yes, I suppose I do write sometimes.”
“Is it anything like the stories you tell me?” a dimple formed in his cheek as his lips curled in delight.
“Sure… wait, that’s not right,” irritated, she shook her head, as if to get rid of a fly. “No.”
He wavered. Sometimes she became woefully distracted, her thoughts no doubt tangled up in the many universes of her mind. He had learned that patience was the only way around it, but dreaded those curt, confused exchanges that drew their conversations to a brusque end.
She remembered a bright, tinkling laughter. When her sister wasn’t away, she would tell her all about animals, natural disasters, voyages… Whenever Mona’s thoughts drifted off, her sister would pause mid-phrase, lips dragging down ever so slightly, an uneasy look in her eyes. And then she would take up where she had left off, recounting the events of her most recent travels. It was those vivid descriptions that later ignited Mona’s imagination, allowing her to share her own fantastic creatures and stories with Miles.
“Do you have any siblings?”
“I—” his smile faltered, “I did.”
“What do you mean? I mean, you either have some or you don’t.”
“My sister left about a year ago, I don’t really—”
“You too! What are the odds? My sister used to live here with me too, you know. Must’ve gotten tired of it though, because she decided she needed more time for her travels. Better off without her though, she fretted too much,” she said, laughter upon her lips.
Any other day, her spontaneousness would’ve been enough for his mouth to split into a wide smile; now, his face clouded over, her shrill voice like breaking glass in his ears. “No, I mean she left. She’s gone.”
“Well yeah, I got that, and I just told you, my sister left as well.” Her head tilted quizzically.
He stared at her through lowered brows. Absent-minded or not, there was no way she could be that thick. Stepping back, he slammed the window shut, not bothering to look back at Mona’s surprised expression.
The wind whirled about her, bringing with it the intimate touch of summer. Her toes curled, edging away from its hot breath, but she remained, awaiting his arrival. The bells chimed. She felt a faint trickle down her spine. Heat roiled around her, crashing closer and closer as the night wore on. And then, a flurry of movement from across the street; features concealed in darkness faced her, and she froze as she had those many months ago, a startled deer before a hunter’s hard gaze. Another flicker of movement and he was gone.
Mindlessly skipping from one thought to another, Mona wrote. As the sun touched the horizon, tendrils of fiery autumn light slithered towards where she sat. They whispered to her, voices overlapping, their muttering indistinct. Their hushed murmurs turned to shouts, each one struggling to be heard over the cacophony, and through it all she heard them call her name, their harsh cackling and chatter both too soft and too loud. Cringing, she stood up, dragged her chair a few feet back into the cool embrace of darkness, and resumed her writing.
The knelling bells, slow and heavy. She lifted her eyes from her feverish scribbling as they struck nine. He was there now, his outline no more than a shadow, a distant memory. Miles… the voices chortled around her, mocking the hope she had once harbored for a normal relationship—a friend.
Her hand resumed its frantic flitting across the paper, trying to push the voices out, out, out:
The great fire approaches, staying longer and longer. I can no longer go out, lest it finally consume—mona. If it does… no, I won’t let them drag me there. The mewling, the shouting, the never-ending noise will only be worse, so much worse. But I already feel them clawing at me, all too near, I—MONA. Here they come.