Sally cowered in the corner of what was once a room in a house. The other walls had long since fallen and burned. All that remained was the charred remains of the corner, part of a coffee table, and ashen mud. The cold made her shiver and she fought to keep her teeth from chattering.
She learned early that they could hear things like heavy breathing and chattering teeth. They could also hear the sound of the mud sucking at your feet. She needed desperately to keep quite. She also needed to move.
No one ever explained why she felt the urge to be elsewhere, but it drove her constantly. There seemed to be a light spot in the gloom of the sky and she felt the need to get there.
Something in the area made a soft sound.
Sally held her breath and closed her eyes. Even if it wasn't one of them, it would still draw them to the location.
"Hello?" someone called out. It sounded like a man's voice; probably a nice man. All the people were nice people, at least when they arrived.
Sally squeezed her eyes together even tighter. A new person was going through their first experience with this place, wherever it was. This poor, new person would soon learn some harsh lessons, and that would be Sally's chance to escape.
From a short distance away, she heard the cackling. It sounded like maybe three of the things.
"Who's there? Is there anybody here? I'm lost and don't know where I am. Can you help me?"
The cackling sounded from the other side of Sally's wall. The person shrieked.
Preparing herself for the worst, Sally leaned a little past the edge of the wall to look. The three things had the man pinned down. He wriggled and fought against them but he was theirs.
Two of the creatures, looking like scaly chimpanzees, held the man's arms behind him, pressing his chest into the mud. The third dug into his backpack.
Sally knew what they intended. She turned away and, as quietly as she could, made her way around the ruined home and started down the old street toward the brighter place.
There weren't many of the creatures. Some people called them lizard monkeys; others called them demons. The three in this area would be tied up for a while with the new guy. She could move with a little less care until she got close to another territory, or until they were done.
She felt bad for the poor new guy. Once, before all of this, she was a caring person. She helped out in the community. She provided food for the poor. That was a long time ago, probably.
It never rained but wet mud covered everything. There weren't even real clouds in the sky. There was gloom, but something else blocked out the light. The gloomy light turned everything grey and slightly blue and provided enough vision so you could see them when they came for you. There was no real day or night, but Sally awoke every morning to start running again.
She ducked behind the rusted hulk of what had been an early sixties sedan. It seemed like forever since she last ate anything or had anything to drink. Added with the pervasive cold that soaked into her bones, she felt miserable.
It was never like this in her old life. She remembered a bit from time to time. At one point, she lived in a warm house with a family. The dog lived with them. They shared holidays and festivities. She drove a vehicle.
The vehicle stood out quite a bit. She remembered driving the vehicle through snow. Someone rode with her. They were happy and satisfied with a job well done. It occurred to her that Jimmy was nine.
Something snapped nearby.
She froze again.
From the same direction, something sniffed loudly. They made that sort of sound when they were on the trail of someone. It was too much to hope that they were on the trail of someone else.
Sally knew they would be able to smell her from that close. They weren't going to leave without getting her first. She ran.
The lizard monkey took off after her.
She headed for the corner of an old, brick building. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you could find a place to hide that would cover your smell, but they couldn't see you do it if it was going to work.
She rounded the corner and her steps faltered.
Eight lizard monkeys pulled at a locked cabinet. They seemed intent to get it open. They stopped to look at her.
Her pace slowed first to a jog, then to a walk, and then stopped completely.
Three of the fiends leaped her direction, fangs bared.
She started her turn to leave when something slammed into her back and knocked her to the ground. All the air rushed from her lungs. Her head sank in the ashen mud.
She gasped for air as the demons grappled with her arms to get her pinned down. Mud covered her right eye, but she could still see from her left.
The cabinet door flew open and a boy rushed out. He was about nine or ten years old and covered with mud. He cried out, "Mom!"
With the breath she had recovered she called to him, "Run, Jimmy, run!" She watched in horror as the creatures jumped on his back and rode him to the ground. She screamed.
The lizard monkeys dragged him over to her so his face and hers where only feet apart. Then they put on the clamps.
It was always the same. First, the demons captured someone, then they put the clamps on the person's skull. The clamps were simple pieces of wood with two guide rails of iron between them. A large, iron screw drew the wood parts together, slowly crushing the skull.
The clamp on Sally's skull tightened until it hurt, then they stopped. They still didn't loosen the grip on her. Why did they stop?
Then she understood.
The clamp on Jimmy's head didn't stop. It tightened and tightened. He screamed with every breath. Tears eroded streams through the mud on his cheeks. The demon on the screw grinned with each turn. They were making her watch.
Jimmy's face showed red through the mud. His eyes bulged.
Sally heard the cracking of his skull. That horrific visage no longer came close to the smiling face he had when they were together before.
Before all this, he was a good kid and wanted to do his part to help out. She took him with her to stand in front of a store to ring bells for charity. He had been so polite, thanking each person who dropped a coin in the bucket. They were so full of happiness when they drove off in the snow that day.
Then it dawned on her. She didn't talk to many people in this place, but all of them had something in common. They had all been bell ringers. Could it be that simple? Did ringing a bell in front of a store justify the pain of getting your head crushed? Sure, there were people who seemed not to like the bells, but those were just cheap people who didn't want to be faced with their cheapness. It's not like the bells caused anybody pain.
She closed her eyes as best she could with the flood of tears coming from them. She heard the screaming change into a rasping. More cracking noises followed. Then there was nothing but the hissing of the demons.
She tried to open her eyes. Through the tears, she thought she saw the head of a nine-year-old boy, crushed to half its normal width. Her body shook with sobbing.
The faint sound of rusty metal sliding against rusty metal sifted through her ears. It was her turn. The clamp grew smaller.
Sally struggled to break free, but all the lizard monkeys held her down.
She stopped struggling then. She took a couple of deep breaths to gain some composure, though the pressure and pain increased. With all her will power, she inhaled deeply and called out, "I didn't know bell ringing was bad!"
The lizard monkeys howled. Several jumped wildly in the mud.
Sally kept repeating, as a whisper, "I didn't know it was bad."
The clamp crushed down.
Sally awoke, lying in the mud. She shivered in the cold. Her only protection came in the form of fallen brick walls and some old, scorched furniture.
She stretched to get her bearings and then an image came back to her. She remembered getting into the car with Jimmy after a wonderful day of helping the community. They stood in front of store, ringing a bell and asking for spare change donations. What could be better?
Then the vision changed.
She stood and called out, "I didn't know the bells were bad!"
The sound echoed off the buildings in the gloom.