New Short Fiction By Diane Cook: "The Ringing Bell"
"I closed my eyes. I hoped this was the end of it. That tomorrow I would be left alone." A new short story for our "Dark Times" series.
You might think this began innocently enough, but nothing is ever innocent. There’s nothing innocent, for example, about your apartment door buzzer buzzing when you aren’t expecting someone or something. Especially when it comes before you’ve gotten out of bed, no matter what time that might be, when you are only in a T-shirt, no panties, because that’s how you sleep and you feel like whoever is outside must somehow know this. Especially when it is the thing that wakes you up from a dream, a dream where a stranger is buzzing your door buzzer and you don’t know why or what they want but you lie there paralyzed because whatever it is, it can’t be good, or safe, or nonviolent. Can it? You wake from that dream in which you are paralyzed, paralyzed. Every muscle tight. Not even a twitch. The only movement is the baby in your belly practicing at life. You want to comfort her but you can’t because you can’t move until the buzzing stops.
The buzzing stops. You comfort the baby. Wrap your arm around your middle, tip your chin down, and ask, Do you have the hiccups? Is that what’s going on? And try not to think that she heard the buzzer too and is as terrified as you are because she has already figured out that in the world she is about to enter, nothing is certain.
You get up. Make nice with the day by showering, etc. The baby seems to be choreographing a dance and this makes you laugh. A little. You have three more months of this. The windup felt so much longer than the countdown now seems.
You dry yourself and begin to dress. You put on something nicer than normal because since you woke up you’ve been feeling watched. And this makes you feel naked. In something nice, you feel clothed. You smile at the mirror. Your hair is good today. You shake off the bad feeling of the morning. The buzzer rings again.
What are you supposed to do now?
But this isn’t about you. It’s about me.
The buzzing continued. I crawled back into my bed and pulled the covers over my good hair. Five. Six. Seven well-spaced buzzes. Then it stopped. My apartment is on the ground floor. What if whoever buzzed could see me? I stayed in bed, only moving to breathe, until the sun began to set and the light in the apartment dimmed. I missed all my appointments and meetings. No one emailed me about them. When the sun set, I made sure to keep my lights off so no one would think me home and ring my buzzer. I kept my shades to the street drawn. But in the evening, the buzzer rang again. Ten insistent rings, then nothing. It’s really a bell but it sounds like the worst alarm. Eventually I fell asleep in my clothes, having eaten nothing, the baby angrily kicking at the walls of my uterus. I wrapped my arm around my stomach, tipped my chin down, and wearily asked, Are you hungry? Is that what’s going on? I closed my eyes. I hoped this was the end of it. That tomorrow I would be left alone.
When the sun set, I made sure to keep my lights off so no one would think me home and ring my buzzer.
That was how the first day went. And the second. And the third. Then I was counting weeks. Then into months. Each day. My buzzer would ring in the early morning or so late in the evening that it was morning again. In the middle of the day. In the middle of a shower. In the middle of lunch. Dinner. In the middle of a thought that had made me forget about the buzzer. Just when the baby did something that made me laugh. Just as I was falling asleep. Dreaming. I could not leave the apartment. I could not figure out a good time to leave. What if whoever was buzzing my apartment was there?
I went through the food in my fridge first. Then my freezer. Then I was left with the dry goods, which I rationed out. I had a lot of dry goods because I prefer them. I had many weeks of crackers stored in the top shelves of my kitchen because I like crackers, and because during early pregnancy they were all I could stomach. I saved those for the very end. I had boxes of them. But I knew they wouldn’t last.
Because I couldn’t leave, I also couldn’t work. Because I couldn’t work, I could no longer afford things. I stopped paying my bills because I couldn’t afford them. I got lucky in some ways. Nothing broke. I didn’t need to call a repairman. I could make do with what I had. My mortgage was paid off. My bills were on auto-pay. My internet worked. I paid that bill as long as I could.
This pregnancy, though. I could almost imagine it was immaculate conception except for that guy at my corner diner where I’d stopped for some french fries. I took him home. I liked the look of him so when he pulled out a rubber, I put the tip of it in my mouth and bit down, then tossed it into the corner of my room. He laughed, then we fucked. I didn’t think anything would come of it, but I guess somewhere inside I didn’t mind if something did. And something certainly did. I don’t really remember what he looks like now. When the baby grows up, I’m not sure I’ll recognize any part of it that isn’t me. But I’m okay with that. It’s a puzzle, is all. It’s puzzling.
The buzzing continued.
I got bigger and bigger until I couldn’t hold the baby in any longer and she came rushing out, with the same urgency as the buzzing of my door.
And I was just as terrified when I saw her, white and sticky on a pile of towels, towels saturated and pooling with sweat, urine, the baby’s water, iron-red blood. A puddle that had come from me. A mewling little thing that had come from me. I had done this. And here I was. Alone with it.
She cried even though I wanted her to hush. I didn’t know when the buzzing would begin again. What if the person, whoever it was, heard this baby and discovered I was in here?
I picked her up and put her to my breast. They were not very wonderful breasts. Nothing about them screamed nourishment, but she buried her face in one and soon I could feel her taking from me and she, thankfully, was quiet.
There were only crackers left by this point and once the crackers were gone, I ate the plants. Their greeniness in my mouth gave me hope. Then I ate the dirt they had been living in. I ate their plant food. I went through keepsakes and found my dried corsage from prom and ate that. I ate pages from books I’d read and hadn’t enjoyed. Then, I ate the plaster from the walls. Chipped it out from behind the paint and dissolved it in my mouth.
I ate these things for sustenance though I’m not sure there was much to be found. But I didn’t die and neither did my baby, so perhaps there was at least some.
After digging plaster from the wall long enough I broke through to wood framing, revealing a space between the plaster where mice and roaches seemed to live for some time but no longer. I wish I could have feasted on what I’d found, but I felt sure they’d been poisoned and I was frightened that to eat them would poison me as well. Poison me and my baby.
I began to chip away at the back plaster of my neighbor’s wall. I scraped away the outside layer of plaster and disposed of it, because I feared any residual poison. It’s not something you can measure. It’s just something you have a sense for. When I felt safe, I went back to eating it. I was pleased to find in that brief pause, I had missed the taste.
It was easier than ever to keep my baby quiet. Which worried me.
I could hear my neighbors on the other side of this relatively thin plaster. Could hear them talking: They believed a mouse was in the wall. But I am the mouse scratching away when I am hungry. They discussed poison, so I stopped for a few days. Then I started back up at night, when they were asleep. At some point, they dropped the poison idea. I listened to their other conversations, while hungrily eyeing the plaster in front of me. Salivating at the memory of the chalk turning to paste in my mouth.
It was easier than ever to keep my baby quiet. Which worried me. She was despondent. I guess, so was I. Holding her, rocking her, was a chore for me. I could only muster the energy for gathering plaster once a day. Then my baby and I would lie on the bed and watch each other silently, her arm occasionally reaching for my breast, her mouth sucking at the air once, twice, then sighing, turning her head away, and giving up like a teenager who thinks no one understands. Then I would do the work of moving toward her so she could nurse. I didn’t know how much longer we had, to be honest. I was worried about her life and mine. I worried I wasn’t giving her a good one. But, I thought, I’m keeping her safe. Which was my job, wasn’t it? Then I worried the life I was giving her would be short. And that mine would be short too.
That’s when, after a morning of buzzing, someone knocked on my door. They’d gained access to the building interior. Even though I hadn’t let them in.
I had been walking right by the door. Sleepily. Carelessly. My foot strung up in the midst of a step. It stayed there through the knocking. The baby was in the bedroom, feet from me, but I didn’t dare move. I hoped she would stay asleep through the knocking. I didn’t know what I would do if she woke screaming, fearful, alone. She wouldn’t be able to see me from where she was. See me trapped and suspended. Waiting out this trespasser. The knocking continued. As though the person knew I was on the other side of the door. If I uncovered the peephole I could finally see who it was. But if they looked, they could see me too. Was that rhythmic pulsing the sound of him breathing on the other side, or was it heat moving through the steam pipes? I waited for him to speak but he never did. Knock knock knock. Knuckles against the door. Bang bang bang. Side of fist. I thought I would lose my balance. I thought the baby would scream. But we didn’t. Another minute of knocking and I heard the person walk away. Click click click. Nice shoes on the chipped linoleum.
Recently, I’d been wondering if I should risk it, try to leave, to find some money, to find some food. Now I was back to my first terrified feelings when the buzzer first buzzed. Hiding under the covers.
Now each day, the buzzer rang as a warning, it seemed. Then the knocking began.
I kept away from the door except in the depths of night. I had to walk by the door to get to the other half of my apartment. The bathroom, the now-useless kitchen. I brought drinking water to the front rooms before dawn. I held in my waste until night. Then I washed diapers — really just hand towels and rags — in the tub. I pinned them to dry alongside my bed. Colored flags from the ceiling like at a street bazaar. In the day, the baby would wave up at her hanging diapers. She cooed at the colors. I laughed at her delight. The buzzer would ring, or the side of fist would pound, and I would cover both of our mouths until it stopped. I would watch the baby’s eyes narrow at me, accusingly. Our world was growing smaller.
I continued to scrape the wall for nourishment.
Eventually a tiny hole emerged through which I could see a small stream of light. It was the light from behind my neighbor’s wall. I hadn’t had real light since I stopped paying the bill. I only had batteries and a headlamp. I put my eye to the hole, careful not to disturb any plaster and accidentally catch their notice. The light burned my eye but I couldn’t stop looking. It scared me to see so much more of the world than I had lately.
I waited a few days to see if they noticed the hole. They didn’t. So, in the night, I continued to scrape away at it. As day broke or I heard their stirrings, I would stick a ball of tape into the hole, roughly the color of the plaster of their walls. So they wouldn’t notice the hole. When the hole got too big, I hung a beige sheet on my wall to match the plaster of their walls. Eventually I squeezed myself through.
Some streetlight glare came into their dark apartment from the surrounding city. The sky outside was always illuminated and gray. Nighttime never truly arrived in their apartment.
The first night I was too frightened to venture far. I draped the sheet on my side of the wall so I could see how well it blended. I flashed my headlamp onto the wall. It was surprisingly hard to notice. And I was looking for it. It would be especially hard to see for people who lived here and had ceased to notice things, as is common over time. But I didn’t want to risk it. A painting hung alongside the hole. I carefully and quietly moved the nail over so the picture hung over the hole. I continued to hang the sheet against it too. In case the neighbors thought they’d centered their painting differently. I looked around the apartment and decided they hadn’t put much thought into where to hang this painting and assumed they wouldn’t notice.
I left the baby on my side of the wall, but kept my monitor fastened to my hip in case she needed me. I heard her breathing and her occasional pathetic sucking crackle through the speaker as she drowsily rooted around for nourishment.
I had assumed their apartment was a mirror image of mine but the first door I opened, which should have led to a living room, was instead their bedroom.
Sometimes my neighbors stayed home during the day, so I waited until deep night to enter their apartment.
Seeing them sleeping there, so unaware, vulnerable and yet safe, made me feel less afraid of whoever was buzzing. Maybe someone harmless was at my door. Like me. It gave me some solace, some courage. I would return to my side of the wall, hang the painting, drape the sheet, my heart full. But when the first buzzer buzzed in the morning I would collapse into despair.
I wanted nothing to do with whoever wanted my attention. Why couldn’t they understand this?
Sometimes my neighbors stayed home during the day, so I waited until deep night to enter their apartment. But when they went out or to work, I would strap the baby to my chest and explore their apartment with a sense that it was my own. That I’d been away on a long trip and upon returning was becoming reacquainted with who I was. Careful not to disturb anything in a way they would notice, I went through their cabinets, drawers, closets. They were exceedingly messy and seemed to keep most things they’d ever touched. They had cockroaches in their kitchen and I felt a moment of pride in my housekeeping, because I didn’t.
During each visit I would pretend I was a small animal and raid their pantry and refrigerator. I had to eat small, unmissable bites. It was hard not to gorge. Their food was fresh. Sometimes they had leftovers, like lasagna or pot roast. They were good cooks. I would take two bites. No more. If there were no leftovers, I would eat a cracker. Maybe two. But if I found myself going for a third, I would close the box, and eat two spoonfuls of yogurt from the fridge. Or cottage cheese. I brought my own spoon. Sometimes I’d have a slice of cheese. They had the deli kind, sliced and stacked between wax paper in a plastic baggie with the Deli’s name on it. I missed the Deli. I missed the Swiss I used to get. I stood over their empty, rumpled bed and thought about that cheese, staring at the place where they slept, trying to will them to get my kind of cheese. But they never did. They just kept getting their cheese. I’m not complaining.
Occasionally, from their apartment, I could hear my buzzer buzzing through the wall, a softened version of the shrill sound I’d lived with so long. More like the tinkling bell it was supposed to be. I would laugh till I cried and dance with my baby through the different rooms of my neighbor’s apartment. I couldn’t remember when I’d felt so unfettered, unmolested, free.
When I had to cross back over the threshold to my apartment, I felt the weight of my dread strap itself back on.
One day I woke to a commotion from my neighbor’s apartment. I crept into my living room and saw my sheet limp on the floor. Light streamed in from my neighbor’s. Workmen were mending the wall. As a new wall board went up, I saw my neighbor. Her arms were crossed, her face was cross. Just as the board was being lifted into place, she saw me, we both startled, and she said, You fucking lunatic. Then the board closed the opening and that was the last I saw of my neighbor’s apartment.
I tried to take my mind off of their refrigerator full of food by telling myself I’d done them a favor. They’d be vigilant now. And who knows what could have happened to them if they’d kept living their lives as casually, as asleep, as they had been? I didn’t dare try for another hole into their apartment. And the other side of my apartment led to the outside wall. I moved to the interior walls of my own apartment, eventually opening large holes I could walk through.
We had started to get stronger, my baby and I. But now we fell back into lethargy. I could barely rouse myself out of bed to gather plaster. It was not just starvation, or nostalgia. We were depressed. And just when I thought we couldn’t go on, the buzzing ceased.
It felt like a dream. To exist for an whole day without hearing that insistent buzzer. In fact, I thought it was a dream at first. Perhaps a week went by before I got out of bed, peeked out the peephole into the hall, fully prepared to have him there ready to pounce. But the hall was empty. I went to the front window and after some calming breaths, looked around the curtain to the stoop and street. No one was there. No one was even on the street. The cars all looked different. Like everyone in the neighborhood had moved and been replaced with new neighbors.
I put real clothes on and wrapped my baby up in blankets. By sheer force of will, she’d outgrown her clothes and I had no bigger ones to dress her in. I searched for my keys forever. I hadn’t used them in so long I assumed they had become lost. I didn’t bother looking where I’d left them so many months ago, but that’s exactly where they were. The door was sticky from disuse. It lurched open. My baby and I stepped out of our apartment.
The hallway smelled like someone’s dinner. Those hexagonal cracks in the linoleum were like a dry lake bed. The red pattern was worn to pink. Hadn’t it been darker the last time I walked across it? I stood at the building door for a long time before I opened it. There was my buzzer. It looked like all the other buzzers. I had imagined it worn down to a nub after all this time. But it wasn’t even discolored.
It was too much to step onto the sidewalk, so my baby and I sat on the stoop and waited. It had never made sense that someone had rung my buzzer for months on end, but it made less sense that they’d stopped. What had they wanted from me? Why didn’t they want it any longer?
It had never made sense that someone had rung my buzzer for months on end, but it made less sense that they'd stopped.
As I sat there, people walked by. Neighbors, I suppose. They were unfamiliar though I’d lived in the neighborhood for a decade or more. They looked at me, eyes wet with pity. I guess I was skinny. And my baby was skinny too. Perhaps we were pale. Perhaps they were unused to seeing babies wrapped in stained towels. A woman in high heels paused to stare at me. She dropped a quarter at my feet.
Well, okay, I thought.
I wrapped my scarf into something resembling a bowl and set it in front of us.
When someone would drop money in, my baby would coo at the tinkle of meeting coins. It was a sound she’d never heard.
The stranger’s lips would twist into a smile while their eyes remained watery. Then I would ask, Do you live on this block? My baby and I were a team.
Have you noticed someone ringing my buzzer? I asked one man who paused to pat his pockets for loose change.
Which buzzer? he asked
This buzzer, I said, waving to the door behind me.
You live here?
Yes, I said.
He looked me over. Looked into the small scarf bowl he’d just dropped coins into and seemed confused. This was a nice neighborhood after all. Living here was not cheap. I’m sure I looked like I didn’t belong. But I did belong. Or, I had.
An older man dropped a five-dollar bill into my collection and when I asked him the same question, he replied, Oh, I’ll tell you who was ringing your bell if you give me that baby.
This baby? I asked.
I looked at the baby. My baby. The one I had made. Her eyes drooped and I felt like the worst mother. But she knew me. When she looked from me to the man back to me, something shifted. She sucked her mouth at me. I felt a surge at my breast.
No, that’s okay, I told the man. He shrugged and kept walking.
An older woman in a man’s blazer tried to assure me. I’m sure whoever it was just wanted to give you something.
I doubt it, I said.
Perhaps something you ordered.
I didn’t order anything.
Maybe someone was sending you a gift.
No one would do that.
Well, she pursed her lips. I’m sure it was innocent.
I laughed. Nothing is innocent, I said. My baby coughed then and I saw my same feeling of incredulity in her eyes. I tipped my chin down and said, Are you laughing? Is that what’s going on? She wriggled and reached for my face. I felt like a good mother. I was preparing her well and she would be ready for anything.
By the end of the day, I had a hat full of money. But no one I spoke with knew anything about my buzzer. And I wondered if I should broaden my scope. I stood up with my baby and wandered down the street. I bought a pint of milk and drank it as we walked, appreciating the way the milk fat coated my lips, my tongue, and wishing I could mix it with my plaster to create a rich paste in my mouth. But I had a feeling my plaster days were over. A lot was different now.
The sun began to set behind the buildings in front of me. I squinted into it. Unable to avert my eyes. The light was so brash, forceful, enchanting. I realized it was something I had missed. We walked toward that changing light. People kept clear of us.
When I turned around to head home, my baby began to wail. She freed her arms from her swaddling, and flailed them around. When I turned back toward where the sun had already set, she quieted. Looked up at me placidly. I walked to the end of the block and turned around again. Again, she screamed and flailed. I faced the set sun and she smiled.
I felt a painful wave of nostalgia for the months I spent inside with my baby. We’d survived together. Like pioneers, alone in a wilderness of our own creation. I knew that when we returned to the apartment it would all feel different. My baby knew a bigger world existed now. I couldn’t keep her from it, even though it was a precarious one. At times, a dangerous one. I thought of the buzzer, the knocking, the person who did it. And almost felt grateful. In a way, that time had been a gift. A little time before the world got in the way. Perhaps that had been my tormentor’s intention. ●
Diane Cook is the author of the story collection Man V. Nature, and was a producer for the radio show, This American Life. Man V. Nature was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, Believer Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Harper's, Zoetrope, Tin House and elsewhere, and in anthologies like Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She is the recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.