Keep Calm and Carillon
Turned out the courthouse elevators had been having problems for weeks, but of course they didn't tell anybody to lay off and use the stairs, and my sister's elevator was packed when it crashed.
(The cops' statement said something about the amazing elasticity of the human body and acts of God and relief, and they were going to look into the elevator system right away. They left out that if you felt like contesting that traffic ticket now you'd have to walk up four flights, so you might as well just pay it and shut up.)
When Shelly finally came out, she was at the head of a knot of people who would be nicknamed the "Elevator Nine," and they were all smiling and talking and really did not look like they had just free-fallen eight stories.
She hugged us (Dad, then me), and pulled back smiling.
"We're starting a handbell choir!" she said.
Shelly had gone in for a parking ticket; Dad had made her go alone to teach her a lesson about responsibility.
Catherine was the high school secretary and was there for a custody hearing with her ten-year-old Danny. I think she and Danny had a lot of problems before the elevator, but afterwards they just stood around smiling and hugging each other in front of the cameras like a laxative ad.
Jake was one year older than I was, and to celebrate his college acceptance, he'd wrapped his dad's Beemer around a tree. He probably should have wrapped himself around it while he was at it; he was a jerk before the elevator and he stayed one, shoulder-gripping Danny and saying things like, "Man, it's just, like, awesome!" every time the cameras turned on him.
Judge Thomas Warner had been on the bench for seventeen years, and when he announced his resignation to play handbells with a bunch of strangers everyone thought that was normal enough. The clerks threw him a big party; he'd been a decent judge.
Morgan was really thin and pulled her hair compulsively, blonde strands one by one. She never told anyone what she was there for, but because she was on TV for days staring at the camera and dazedly talking about how life is precious, people got curious. When whatdidmorgando.com launched, the top two most-voted guesses were "institutionalized" and "witness protection."
Eugene was in the courthouse to check on the status of his green card, and he joked to reporters that he'd better get one now, since elevators never broke in Belgium and he might go back. He had a green card in six days, and that got the county into more trouble than the elevator had, because if a green card only took six days, how come people had been waiting eight months?
Grace worked at a think tank and was on jury duty for a zoning thing. Grace never made it on TV because she wasn't as pretty as Morgan, and I figured she'd have something to say about that, but every time the cameras clicked off and they group-hugged, Grace was right in there with the rest of them.
Steve was a mechanic, and he never set foot in front of the cameras and never said a word to the papers. He just asked for access to the scene before the construction crew began, and he spent four days poking around the elevator shaft. When I asked Shelly what he could have been looking for, she shrugged and said, "He had his eyes closed."
Dad and I were beside Shelly nonstop during the little Elevator Nine tour, since Shelly was a minor and had to get Dad's signature for all the interviews. The first big flurry died out after a week or so, but then Eugene got his green card and it all came back up again, and then Danny's dad paid his deadbeat child care and tried to leverage it into an interview with People about the importance of being a good guy, but the Judge made a few phone calls and put the stopper on that story in about ten minutes, and that turned into a whole thing about judicial powers until Catherine pointed out that People magazine folded like a greeting card for any publicist in the world, and it took about three months for everything to settle down.
By then Dad had forgotten about the handbell thing—it sounded like the sort of thing you said when you were in shock, so I guess I don't blame him—and he was surprised all over again when Shelly reminded him that the first practice was on Thursday and she needed white gloves.
(I'd wanted to learn guitar since I was twelve, and that didn't really pan out, which—Eugene's nice and everything, but I understand how people got angry because they'd been waiting for a green card for eight months and Eugene got his in a week. I'm just saying.)
Shelly got assigned middle C and the B-flat above it, but switched to F-sharp from B-flat because Danny kept making jokes about her chest. By the time they got together for their first practice, there was already talk of adding another octave, but Grace was the only one who could line up five bells and remember where they were in time to ring them. Shelly insisted she could handle the G too, but when Grace handed it over Shelly got nervous and sounded the C during scales when it should have been the G.
They tried scales for three hours without getting it right—even Jake managed to mess up, and he only had the one huge bell that took two hands to gong—but after all that the Judge called to arrange the lease for the bells and everyone hugged and smiled and went home.
"I can't wait to start practicing," Shelly said on the way home, and Dad said, "That's great, honey," and he must not have been paying attention, because come on.
I took up theatre, not so much because I liked the theatre, but because it would keep me out of the house when she was practicing. I got to be in The Importance of Being Earnest as Lady Bracknell, which they said was because I looked "mature" for seventeen. They meant I looked old; living with Shelly gave me gray hair.
Every day when I came home she was standing in the dining room, frowning at the sheet music propped up on the dining table, ringing middle C and F-sharp at random intervals with big sweeping arm motions that looked like she was shoving the bells through molasses. Sometimes she clapped one bell against her chest to cut off the note, and I heard a quick thud, then nothing.
Shelly didn't have to go to school because of the trauma, and when her friends came over she would sit around and be nice for a while (nicer than she had been) and then say, "Hey, I play handbells now! Wanna hear?" They always said yes, because they thought she was just coping, and they'd wave to me on the way out like nothing was wrong, and it was comforting to know that Shelly's friends were as clueless as they had always been.
We ate dinner together since Dad had nearly lost one of us. I had to explain to the director, and he got angry and made Dad come in and explain it, but after Dad mentioned the elevator a few times they made an exception for me, since I wasn't in the middle of the play anyway. I would go onstage, run home, eat, and come back for the big finish.
Shelly would always ask, "How's it going?", and no matter what I said she'd say, "That's so cool! Like my handbells!"
"She's getting really good," Dad would put in, every time, and as soon as he said it, the phone would ring, every time, and it was one of the Elevator Nine. (Dad used to forbid phone calls during family dinner when we even had it, but now everyone was fine except Jake, who kept hitting on Shelly right in front of Dad, and even Dad noticed that, so, no calls from Jake.)
And Shelly would hop up and grab the phone and laugh without even asking who it was, and stand there grinning into the phone and saying, "I know, me too!" and "It's beautiful" and "I can't wait", and as I ran out the door she'd wave at me and sort of bounce on her heels like it was her sixth birthday again, an inhuman gleam in her eye.
I got more "mature" as the weeks went on, and by the time we were doing costumed rehearsals, the makeup girls didn't even need to draw wrinkles.
It wasn't all smiles and hugs among the Elevator Nine, though smiling and hugging constituted a frighteningly large percentage of the time they spent together. They fought over the music for their first concert: the Judge wanted "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"; Jake said it sounded gay. They fought about the group name: it ended up being "Resoun-Ding", though Grace's "Nine-in-Hand" was my favorite. It might have passed the vote if anyone else could handle more than three bells.
They fought over costumes: Catherine thought the "Ring it!" shirts sounded too much like a jewelry ad, "And besides, T-shirts are tacky." Danny refused to wear a button-down, Eugene vetoed short sleeves. They ended up in v-neck sweaters that made them look like escapees from a Mr. Rogers concert. I figured at least Morgan would complain, but she pulled out some hair and smiled and hugged Jake, and I sat in the back of the church hall where they practiced and watched them all dinging on cue under Judge Warner's direction.
Danny had three of the little bells. Grace had her five, Jake had the one bell he rang two-handed. Almost everyone else handled two notes except Steve, who rang his one bell evenly in time—he didn't even have one specific note; he had to be assigned whatever bell rang at the beginning of every measure, because he didn't like random timing.
When he practiced his part (he always came early to practice) the tones came out clear and steady, like a church bell. He never did as well when they were all there staring at the Judge and swinging their arms, with Steve standing awkwardly at one end, sounding the beat.
As soon as the play was over I lost the excuse of going to rehearsals and I had to go back to the church hall and sit through handbelling again, and if it wasn't for Steve and his one steady note I'd have been peeling pages out of the hymnal for tinder to torch myself with.
One Thursday Grace invited everyone over ("We should carpool," Catherine said, then "No, Jake, you can't drive, go with Eugene"), and on the way to the car, Steve and I ended up alone.
"Steve, why handbells?"
"It's what they need," he said, then bit his lip like he'd said something he shouldn't have, and I felt vindicated for guessing that the handbells were no good.
"I already knew that part, don't worry," I lied, "Shelly sort of blabs, I just don't get the bells."
"Me neither," he said, and we smiled at each other in front of the car until Shelly and Dad showed up.
Steve and Shelly insisted I sit in the front, and I could feel Steve getting in the car behind me, ready for a silent ride, and I felt his door close before he really shut it—a quick thud, then nothing.
We were all surprised the day the movie offer came.
"We want to do a documentary," said the guy who showed up at the hall, "it's such an amazing story, and now with the concert coming up—"
"We have to go," said Morgan, clutching the E to her chest, and behind her Grace said, "If you ask us again we're going to consider it harassment and have our attorneys involved," and when the door closed, somehow Dad and I were on the wrong side of it. For a second I was angry—I mean, I'd hated sitting through the rehearsals, but why were they treating us like we'd invited the producers?
The guys asked, "Is it true about the lawyers?"
"Yes," Dad said, and I nodded. It wasn't, but we were both angry at these guys for getting us thrown out of rehearsal.
We got ice cream while we waited for Shelly, and halfway through Dad said, "I'm really getting sick of her practicing."
"I'm glad we got kicked out," I said.
"Me too," he said.
I went back to the courthouse, even though everything had been fixed for a long time and there wasn't a chance of me finding anything. Steve was there, too, and the two of us stood side by side and watched people hopping in and out of the elevators.
"What really happened to you?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. My eyes were closed."
"But the bells," I said, and he shoved his hands in his pockets and shook his head, and he looked suddenly sixteen and not in his thirties.
So I didn't say anything else, because it wasn't like there was anything I could do, and we stood next to each other a little while longer, listening to the sound of people's shoes on the marble. I liked it; but by then I liked any sound that wasn't a brass bell.
Eventually he turned around and said without looking at me, "I can give you a ride," and I said yes, because it was better than the bus, and because it felt like a date, even though that was sort of weird.
He had a beat-up truck, and as I got into the passenger seat he yanked something out from under the windshield wipers.
When he was inside he handed me the thin stack of paper, and as he pulled out I sorted through it.
A note in lipstick—NEVER FORGET THE 9 WE LOVE YO, and whoever it was had run out of space. Nice one. A lottery ticket, already scratched off with a two-dollar win; I put it on the dash. A receipt with FUCK OFF scrawled on the back. The business card from those movie guys.
It felt strange to handle these things; Shelly's life for the last months had been the Nine's, not ours, so Dad and I didn't really know what was happening with her. I wondered what kind of notes she got; if people were nice to her, or if she had a stack of receipts in her room that read FUCK OFF on the back, and she wrapped the bells in them to keep them safe.
We weren't allowed into rehearsals after that.
I joined the next play, because Dad had gotten lucid for a moment without the bells in his head and said he totally supported both his kids. It was Oliver Twist, and I got to be Nancy's friend, so my job was mostly to sit around and look poor. Dad came to the first full run-through like he wanted to support us both equally, one daughter with a bit part in a play and one daughter who had survived an elevator crash and rang handbells ten hours a day.
I told Shelly about the play two nights before her concert, at the dinner table. (Morgan or Catherine dropped her off after rehearsals these days; we weren't even allowed to drive her around.)
She smiled and said, "That's so awesome!"
She didn't say, "Like my handbells," and that's when I really started to worry.
That night I pretended to be asleep until the ringing started; then I crept down the stairs and peered into the dining room. Shelly was looking out at the street; with her hair pulled back into a ponytail I could see her rapturous profile, and as she struck each note she kept her arm in front of her, holding the bell like a torch, like the sound was a signal, like she was using the bell to catch rain.
The sounds were irregular—melodic, not rhythmic like Steve, so it was a five-second pause and then suddenly two notes on top of each other, the most uneasy thing I'd ever heard—but I sat on the stairs and watched her for a long time, and after long enough I began to hear a weird reverb, like somehow the bells both rang together, mingled, and made the whole carillon, and whenever it happened Shelly closed her eyes, grinned even wider, until she looked like her ninth-grade Homecoming picture.
I went back up the stairs and sat in bed, shivering, until I heard Shelly's bedroom door close.
All that night I couldn't sleep, because I could hear her through the walls, and her breathing had taken on the weird, halting pattern of the bells—a small sound, a quick thud, then nothing.
Genevieve Valentine's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Journal of Mythic Arts, Fantasy, Farrago's Wainscot, Diet Soap, Sybil's Garage, and Shimmer. She is a columnist at Tor.com and Fantasy Magazine.
Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.