Shapes rustled in the dark below. One of the voices rose while the other fell and the piano strummed its hidden harp strings.

“Don’t be afraid,” Zelda called

“That’s good. Go on.”

“Don’t be afraid,” Zelda called, braver now. “Don’t listen to those others yelling. We won’t hurt you. It’s just us. I’m Zelda, you wouldn’t remember, and this here is Bella, and we’ve known you forever, or since we were kids, and we love you. It’s late, but we thought you should know. We’ve loved you ever since you were in the desert or on that boat with ghosts or trying to sell Christmas trees door-to-door or in that traffic where you tore the headlights off cars, and we still love you, right, Bella?”

The night below was darkness, waiting.

Zelda punched Bella’s arm.

“Yes!” Bella cried, “what she said. We love you.”

“We can’t think of anything else to say.”

“But it’s enough, yes?” Bella leaned forward anxiously. “It’s enough?”

A night wind stirred the leaves and grass around the stairs and the shadows below that had stopped moving with the music box suspended between them as they looked up and up at the two women, who suddenly began to cry. First tears fell from Bella’s cheeks, and when Zelda sensed them, she let fall her own.

So now,” said Zelda, amazed that she could form words but managed to speak anyway, “we want you to know, you don t have to come back anymore. You don’t have to climb the hill every night, waiting. For what we said just now is it, isn’t it? I mean you wanted to hear it here on this hill, with those steps, and that piano, yes, that’s the whole thing, it had to be that, didn’t it? So now here we are and there you are and it’s said. So rest, dear friends.”

“Oh, there, Ollie,”,” added Bella in a sad, sad whisper. “Oh, Stan, Stanley.”

The piano, hidden in the dark, softly hummed its wires and creaked its ancient wood.

And then the most incredible thing happened. There was: a series of shouts and then a huge banging crash as the music box, in the dark, rocketed down the hill, skittering on the steps, playing chords where it hit, swerving, rushing, and ahead of it, running, the two shapes pursued by the musical beast, yelling, tripping, shouting, warning the Fates, crying out to the gods, down and down, forty, sixty, eighty, one hundred steps.

And half down the steps, hearing, feeling, shouting, crying themselves, and now laughing and holding to each other, the two women alone in the night wildly clutching, grasping, trying to see, almost sure that they did see, the three things ricocheting off and away, the two shadows rushing, one fat,, one thin, and the piano blundering after, discordant and mindless, until they reached the street, where, instantly, the one overhead streetlamp died as if struck, and the shadows floundered on, pursued by the musical beast.

And the two women, abandoned, looked down, exhausted with laughing until they wept and weeping until they laughed, until suddenly Zelda got a terrible look on her face as if shot.

“My God!” she shouted in panic, reaching out. “Wait. We didn’t mean, we don’t want-don’t go forever! Sure, go. so the neighbors here sleep. But once a year, you hear? Once

a year, one night a year from tonight, and every year after that, come back. It shouldn’t bother anyone so much. But we got to tell you all over again, huh? Come back and bring the box with you, and we’ll be here waiting, won’t we, Bella?”

“Waiting, yes.”

There was a long silence from the steps leading down into an old black-and-white, silent Los Angeles.

“You think they heard?”

They listened.

And from somewhere far off and down, there was the faintest explosion like the engine of an old jalopy knocking itself to life, and then the merest whisper of a lunatic music from a dark theater when they were very young. It faded.

After a long while they climbed back up the steps, dabbing at their eyes with wet Kleenex. Then they turned for a final time to stare down into the night.

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray