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This time, poor Nora, an education major working at the campus daycare center, becomes the prime suspect when her favorite child is kidnapped in a spooky tale of sisterhood gone stark-raving wrong. Original.
The second floor of Nightingale Hall smelled of lemon oil and lilac, and was very quiet. Nora Mulgrew could hear the slapping of her own, sneakered footsteps echoing behind her on the hardwood floor, as if someone were following her as she hurried along the dim, shadowed hallway.
No one was following her. There wasn't anyone in Nightingale Hall to follow her. Nora thought of this time period between the end of the summer sessions on campus and the beginning of the new fall term as "dead time" because nothing much was happening. The other residents of the huge, dark-red brick house high on a hill overlooking the highway between campus and the town of Twin Falls had returned to their hometowns or gone on vacation. Nora hadn't wanted to return to the cold, distant aunt who had raised her, and she couldn't afford a vacation. So she had stayed on at Nightingale Hall, alone in the huge three-story house except for the housemother, Isobel Coates, who came and went. On this sultry August morning, Mrs. Coates was in Twin Falls, running her Saturday errands.
Nora's coworkers at the campus day care center had stared at her when she told them where she was living, and had then been aghast when she'd added that she was temporarily the only resident of Nightingale Hall.
Mark Fitzhugh, "Fitz" to his friends, had stopped wiping the nose of a two-year-old to say, "You live where?"
Nora had only been on campus a week, enrolled in a summer class and working part-time in the center. She hadn't had time yet to hear any rumors about Nightingale Hall.
"They don't call that place Nightmare Hall for no reason," Fitz continued. He was tall and very thin, with curly, red hair and friendly blue eyes. Nora was impressed by how kind and patient he was with the children, even the older, brattier ones. "It's not just that it looks creepy. Some pretty scary things have gone on in there, including, rumor has it, a couple of deaths. I can't believe you're staying there alone. How come you didn't board on campus? The dorms are pretty deserted right now. No problem getting a room."
"Nightingale Hall is cheaper. Besides, I like old houses. And I like my privacy. The housemother leaves me alone. I can come and go as I please, and it's very quiet there."
"I've noticed that."
That confused Nora. "That it's quiet there?"
"No. That you like your privacy." Then a pair of four-year-old twins began squabbling over a piece of bubblegum, and Fitz ran to disentangle them.
What was wrong with liking your privacy? Didn't everyone?
Yes, of course they did, Nora told herself. They just don't carry it to extremes like you. That's what Fitz meant.
Although she liked the people she worked with and had gone to Vinnie's for pizza and Burgers, Etc., the long, silver diner up the road from campus, with them, had even gone to a party or two with Fitz and Sabra, Amy and Lucas, she had rebuffed efforts on their part to become more involved. She had to eat, after all. But she had no time for close friends or an active social life. She was busy with the summer class and her part-time work. If she became overstressed by adding a lot of social activities, she could find herself in bed with a migraine headache. Migraines were the worst kind of torture. She had to be careful not to overdo it, or she would have to pay.
"You don't know how to have fun," Amy Tarantino had accused, only half-joking.
But I do have fun, Nora had thought to herself. I have fun with the kids. They make me laugh. Especially Mindy.
Mindy Donner was an adorable three-year-old with blonde curls and huge brown eyes, the daughter of a history professor. Since her mother had been hospitalized with a serious illness, the child had become increasingly attached to Nora, and the feeling was definitely mutual.
"It isn't wise to become emotionally attached to the children," the center's director, Helen Kieffer had told Nora in a cool voice just before the summer session ended and Nora was about to go full-time at the center until fall classes began. "And certainly it isn't wise to favor one child. The other children have seen those stuffed, crocheted animals you've been giving her. She carries them around with her as if they're her lifeline. Giving her gifts could set her apart from the other children. You wouldn't want that, Nora. Mindy is especially vulnerable right now, with her mother ill, and you mustn't take advantage of that fact. Keep your distance, please."
Nora ignored the advice. Keep her distance? Ridiculous! Mindy, usually a bright, happy child, was suffering from her mother's absence, anyone could see that. She needed reassurance. If she chose to come to Nora for that, it would be cruel to reject her.
Still, she had made one concession to Helen's request. Now, whenever she unearthed from the still-unpacked trunk in her room another one of the crocheted animals her mother had made for her, she took it to Mindy's house and gave it to her there instead of at the center. Professor Donner didn't seem to mind. He seemed, in fact, grateful for the extra attention being given his small daughter.
The toy Nora had found this morning, when she was looking for a pair of khaki shorts, was a pink kangaroo, complete with a tiny, crocheted kangaroo baby in its pouch. Mindy would love it.
I loved it, Nora thought to herself as she hurried up Faculty Row. Taller than average and so thin she had trouble finding a watch that didn't slip and slide around on her wrist, Nora walked very fast even when she wasn't in a hurry, as if there were something waiting for her somewhere and if she dawdled, it would disappear before she got there. Her small, oval face was set in deep concentration, as it almost always was, and wispy tendrils of soft, pale hair escaped their neat, thick, French braid as she walked. Halfway up Faculty Row, she approached a white picket fence surrounding a small, pretty antique brick house. Her serious brown eyes scanned the well-groomed front yard for some sign of a little girl with blonde curls.
She wasn't there.
Nora opened the gate and hurried up the narrow walkway to the front stoop. Although it was only ten in the morning, the heat was already suffocating. She was glad she'd worn the khaki shorts and a white tank top instead of the jeans and T-shirt she'd planned on. But the heat and thick humidity worried her. She was more prone to migraines when the heat was intolerable. Should have taken an aspirin before I left the house, she scolded silently.
To take her mind off the headache worry, she focused her attention on the toy she was carrying in a plastic bag. The pink kangaroo had been her favorite when she was Mindy's age. Her mother had suggested she call it "Roo" in honor of one of Winnie-the-Pooh's friends. Nora had answered matter-of-factly, "No. Somebody already used that name. I don't want no used name. I want a brand-new one." She had named the baby kangaroo "Bounce."
It was time now for another child to enjoy it. She'd have to tell Mindy not to take this one to the center, though. Helen might notice and then she'd know that Nora had disobeyed her. Might even fire her. Nora needed the job. Besides, she loved it. She didn't want to lose it.
"Is Mindy here?" she asked the housekeeper who answered the door. "I have something for her."
The woman, almost as tall and wide as the doorway, her bulk belted at the middle by a flowered apron tied around her waist, shook her head. An elaborate upswept hairdo, stiff with hairspray, remained obediently in place. "She's out back. Playing nice and quiet. Threw a tantrum when I told her it was Saturday and the center wasn't open. She sure does like that place." Thick, dark brown brows came together in disapproval. "In my day, children stayed home with their mothers, where they belong. But I don't say anything, not my business." She opened the screen door then to take a closer look at Nora. "You're Nora, aren't you? The one Mindy's so crazy about."
"I'm crazy about her, too," Nora answered. Tiny little drums began pounding behind her ears. Oh, no. No. She hadn't had a headache since she'd arrived on campus. She'd been hoping they were gone forever. "Could I see her just for a minute? Maybe there's something you need to do. An errand or something? I could keep an eye on her for you."
Exactly the right thing to say. The woman's face brightened, and she gestured to Nora to step inside. "Well, now that you mention it, I just might run next door and talk to my friend Teresa for a minute or two. She's got a recipe I've been wanting to borrow. Chocolate soufflé. Might cheer the Professor up some. He's been pretty down in the dumps lately. I would never leave the child alone, not even for a second, but if you're with her, I guess it'd be all right."
"I won't leave until you come back, I promise," Nora assured her.
"Well, of course not. I'll only be a minute."
Mindy was delighted to see Nora, and thrilled with the new toy, which she promptly positioned on the white wicker porch swing, where the other animals were already gathered. "We're having breakfast," she told Nora, "but Maynard," pointing to an elephant with a large rip in his floppy left ear, "don't want to eat his muffin." There was, of course, no muffin. Mindy had a very active imagination, one of the many things Nora loved about her.
By the time Nora had persuaded Maynard to eat his "muffin," the stultifying heat had increased and Nora's head was pounding with what was unmistakably the birth of a migraine. Depressed, she told herself she should at least be grateful that it had attacked on a Saturday, when she didn't have to work. Helen didn't like absentee employees. There was too much work at the center for people to be calling in sick.
Where was Mary, the housekeeper? She had said she'd only be gone a few minutes. It was already close to half an hour.
If I don't get back to my room and lie down soon, Nora thought despairingly, I won't be able to get home at all. I'll have to ask someone to drive me. Humiliating. Utterly humiliating. But the migraines totally incapacitated her, to a point where the tiniest movement nauseated her. To find relief, she had to be lying flat on her back, completely still, in a totally quiet room. One of the major appeals of an empty, cemetery-silent off-campus dorm.
"Don't you feel good, Norrie?" Mindy asked her, peering up into Nora's face. "Your face looks like your tummy hurts. Are you sick?" The anxiety in her voice came, Nora guessed, from her mother's hospitalization. She didn't want Nora ending up there, too.
"No, I'm not sick, honey." Having a headache wasn't really being sick. "But I need to go home. As soon as Mary comes back."
When Mindy began to argue and tease Nora to stay longer, "for all the day, Norrie, please?" Nora's head felt as if it were going to explode. And when a suddenly petulant Mindy whined repeatedly, "Don't go, Norrie, I got nobody to play with," the nasal, high-pitched sound disintegrated the last of Nora's patience.
"Stop whining!" she commanded, her own voice high-pitched, just as Mary came around a corner of the house. The woman's eyes widened in shock, and she hurried over to Mindy's side.
"I'm ... I'm sorry," Nora stammered, putting a hand to her head. "It's just ... I have a headache, and it's so hot ..."
The woman's level gaze was unrelenting. She might become annoyed and snap at the little girl herself occasionally, but she wasn't about to tolerate anyone else doing so. "You can leave now," she said flatly, her freckled arms on the child's shoulders, as if protecting her.
"Mindy, I ..." Nora began, but the little girl, tears of hurt sparkling in her brown eyes, turned and buried her face in the housekeeper's apron. "I'll see you on Monday," Nora added helplessly. There was nothing left to do then but leave.
The ride back to Nightingale Hall on the small, yellow university shuttle bus was agonizing. Every bump sent shafts of pain throughout Nora's skull, as if very sharp knives were being driven into her eyes. Nausea overtook her and just when she thought she couldn't sit upright another second, the bus pulled to a stop at the bottom of the gravel driveway leading up to the house.
She walked gingerly, almost staggering as she made her way up the hill under the shadows of the huge, gnarled old oaks guarding the wide-porched structure. There was no breeze at all stirring the leaves to provide respite from the murderous heat.
Mrs. Coates hadn't returned home. Inside, the house was utterly quiet. It wasn't air-conditioned, but the thick brick walls and the heavy maroon draperies on the long, narrow windows kept the first floor cool.
The second floor was not so cool. The curtains were white lace, and provided no protection from the blazing sun outside. Nora's room was like an oven. She moved stiffly to the window to shut it, pulling down the shade in hopes of keeping the sun's heat as well as its light away. She needed unbroken darkness.
Then, still moving cautiously, one small step at a time so as not to jar her body unduly, she went across the hall to the bathroom, where she swallowed two aspirin and wet a washcloth at the sink.
Returning to her room, she closed the door and moved to the bed. Carefully, moving in slow motion, she lay down on top of the quilted spread and placed the cool washcloth over her eyes.
Then, she prayed for sleep.
When it finally came, she sank into it as if it were a cool, sparkling pool that would soothe her hot, dry skin and wash away the agonizing pain in her skull.
And was awakened sometime later by the sound of pounding. But ... the handyman was away. Who would be pounding?
It wasn't the sound of the handyman fixing a loose shutter or a porch step. It was the sound of feet. Footsteps. Too heavy to belong to Mrs. Coates. Someone else's feet were pounding ... up the stairs?
Nora raised herself up on one elbow. The room was dark, and cooler than it had been earlier. She blinked once, twice, checking ... the headache was gone. Sometimes they lasted for hours, occasionally even more than one day. She'd been lucky this time. She had tended to it early. One more battle won. There would be others, but this one, she'd won.
Pounding again, but this time, the sound was different. Not footsteps now. A fist, hammering on her door. And then a male voice, deep, authoritative. "Ms. Mulgrew? You in there?"
Knocking, more insistent this time. The voice louder. "Ms. Mulgrew? You there? It's campus security, miss. We need to talk to you."
Nora's eyes opened fully. Security?
Fitz's words about Nightingale Hall came back to her. "Some pretty scary things have gone on in there." Had something new and terrible happened while she was sleeping?
Nora slid off the bed, and cautiously opened the door.
Two campus security officers, a man and a woman, both in brown uniforms, were standing in the hall beside an anxious-looking Mrs. Coates. "Nora," the woman said nervously, "these officers need to talk to you about that little Donner girl."
Nora looked at the officers inquiringly. "Mindy? What about her?"
The two officers exchanged a glance, then one said, "You saw her this morning? The Donner girl?"
Nora nodded. "Yes. I took her a toy. But I had a headache, so I didn't stay. Why?" Had something happened to Mindy's father? Nora's heart sank. It was bad enough that her mother was in the hospital. She needed her father now, more than ever. "Why?" Nora repeated. "What's going on?"
"Maybe we should talk inside," the male officer said, glancing around the hall.
"There's no one else in the house," Nora said impatiently. "Just tell me what's going on! Has something happened? Where is Mindy?"
"Well, that's what we'd like to know, miss," the female officer said. "I'm Joyce Adelphi, and this is Jerry Blount. It seems the little girl is missing."
Nora's body, relaxed from her nap, went rigid with shock. A gasp of disbelief escaped her lips. "Missing? Mindy? No ..."
Then her shock was compounded as Officer Joyce Adelphi added, "The thing is, Miss, the housekeeper at the Donner place and some other people we've talked to seem to feel you might know where the little girl is."
Nora's mouth fell open. The words rang in her ears. She stared at the officer. "Excuse me?"
"Could we just come inside and discuss this, Miss?" Officer Blount asked, his voice impatient.
Excerpted from Nightmare Hall by Diane Hoh. Copyright © 1995 Diane Hoh. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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