Authors: Victoria Chancellor
A CRY AT MIDNIGHT
By Victoria Chancellor
Copyright 1999-2004 by Victoria Chancellor, all rights reserved. No part of this work may be copied, duplicated, or printed in any form except that the registered user may print a single copy for personal reading.
Cover copyright 2005 by Jane Graves, all rights reserved.
Galloway knew from experience that she wasn't good at waiting tables or flipping burgers. Resting her hand on the vacuum cleaner handle and looking around the silent, darkened museum, she really appreciated handling historic relics instead of pickle relish.
"Been there, done that," she murmured, recalling her disastrous two-week stint at Burger Rama. That memory of that recent but short-lived job made dusting old furniture, polishing antique silver, and vacuuming fading carpets a bit more appealing.
She pushed a strand of short-cropped, blond-streaked hair off her forehead and reminded herself that she needed the money. Cleaning the Black Willow Grove Historical Museum was honest labor. She also had the advantage of working by herself, something she truly appreciated after her day job in a busy office.
Just because she rather dust 'em up than dish 'em up didn't mean she was crazy about
her working conditions. The gift shop and library weren't bad, but this part of the museum gave her the creeps. Not only was the lighting poor--especially with the inky darkness outside--but the long, narrow hallway led to a half dozen small, unlit rooms. Each tall doorway appeared either a portal to another era, or a black void that hid all kinds of menacing creatures--depending on her mood that night.
And each of those rooms held personal items of the long-dead family--a creepy thought in itself. The smells of the past never changed, despite a hundred and fifty years. Stepping down the hall was like entering a large tomb to the ill-fated Durant family.
She placed her hand on her churning stomach. Something inside was giving her the willies, that was for sure. Something inside . . . but not in the empty place. Her palm drifted down, where she'd been round and full of life last winter. No longer. Now her stomach was as flat as ever.
With a shudder, she turned on the vacuum cleaner and attacked the threadbare carpet. No use thinking about what might have been. She'd just finish this one last section before getting into her car and driving home. If she kept herself really busy and dropped onto the mattress exhausted, she didn't have time to think about what she'd lost.
Burning the candle at both ends, that's what her mother called her schedule. Well, she'd only be working here for a short while. By this fall, her dreams would begin to come true and she'd pack all the bad memories away like artifacts in a dusty attic . . . or a museum.
The long carpet runner lead to the newly completed replica of Black Willow Grove, lighted by a single spotlight high overhead. She promised herself a quick look at the magnificent home before she left the building. She'd always wanted a fancy dollhouse, which is what the replica looked like to her. She'd made do with painted and decorated shoeboxes, which were hardly the same as a real dollhouse.
The loud whine of the engine drowned out her thoughts, and the dust temporarily blocked out the smell of aged linens, old books, and leather. No evil monsters lurked in the darkened doorways, and no ghosts of the past were going to jump out and frighten her.
With a last shove, Randi flipped off the heavy vacuum cleaner and paused, stretching her tired muscles. She sure wished the museum could buy one of those self-propelled, environmentally pure models. This old machine was killing her back. She felt twice as old as her twenty-five years.
Just as she grabbed the handle to push the vacuum back to the janitor's closet, she heard a faint, whimpering cry. She paused, listening, trying to locate the direction of the sound. Was there a kitten just outside the window? Or maybe in the attic? She cocked her head, stepping farther into the room, into the shaft of light that showed off the replica.
Randi jumped as the clock in the parlor began to chime. Twelve times the reverberating chords echoed through the museum. Even after the clock fell silent, she still heard the chimes inside her head. Bong! Bong, bong, . . .
Finally, the echoes faded away. She rubbed her temples, sure she'd imagined the sound of crying. Dead silence and the smells of the past surrounded her once more, reminding her it was time to go home. She took a step toward the waiting vacuum, then stopped.
There! The sound came again, this time stronger. Now it didn't sound like a kitten. No, this whimpering noise came from . . . a baby!
I'm hearing things
, she told herself. There was no baby inside this museum. Maybe the wind, maybe another kind of animal. Randi tiptoed around the room, hugging her arms, listening intently. No matter where she turned, circling the Black Willow Grove replica and the sphere of light, she couldn't tell where the sound came from.
But the cries continued. Frustrated, she spun around, certain this was no trick of the wind. "Where are you?" she whispered.
She stood perfectly still, her heart thudding wildly in her chest, a rush of adrenaline making her forget she was tired and sore. She listened over the pounding in her veins, focusing on nothing but the faint, mewling cries.
The noise originated
the light, not in some dark corner of the room, she realized in wonder. Inside the "dollhouse," not outside the high, narrow windows.
On shaky legs, she stepped around the house, looking in each of the tiny windows. Of course there was no baby inside, even though she heard the crying louder. She paused, studying the six white columns holding up the roof and second floor balcony. Three doors opened onto a wide porch on the first floor, with duplicates on the second floor verandah. Three dormer windows jutted out from the roof, with chimneys between the dormers at the apex of the roof. The house was absolutely beautiful, from the tiny red bricks to the white painted wood trim.
Then she noticed the hinges on the panel.
With trembling fingers she unlatched the replica's front. The crying sound grated on her nerves, pushing her on. As the beautifully detailed facade of the plantation home swung away, she gasped. Inside a fully decorated interior was protected by clear, rigid plastic.
Light slanted into the dollhouse, illuminating the mahogany dining room table and chairs, the miniature carpets, the tiny candelabras. Randi gazed in awe up the stairs, with the finely carved balustrade and landing, to the second floor. Rooms of beautiful detail, four-poster beds and ornate chests, more minute ornamentation than she'd ever seen before. Why, there was even a tiny riding crop and a pair of black boots resting against a cherry table on the second floor!
"Amazing," she whispered.
Finally, she looked into the top floor, with a large room on one side and a small, less elaborate bedroom and nursery on the other.
She pressed closer, her palms resting on the barrier, her breath feathering against the cool plastic. As with the rest of the house, the room was beautifully decorated with tiny sprigged wallpaper and white woodwork. A folded quilt rested on a narrow iron bed, and a vase of flowers stood on a chest of drawers.
Within a fancy bassinet lay a tiny baby, the kind she'd played with as a child, the kind baked inside king cakes during Mardi Gras. Nothing special. Just pink plastic with human features, outstretched arms and legs, a "diaper" barely visible on the torso.
Not a real baby. Not a child who could cry.
Randi eased away from the house, her hands trembling. She must have imagined the sound of a baby's tears. She was simply exhausted, thinking about her own recent past, thinking . . . too much. So she'd imagined the sound. No baby had really cried inside the Black Willow Grove Museum. Her mind played cruel tricks on her.
She took a deep breath, closing the replica with great care. She didn't want to damage the beautiful piece. She'd never seen anything so delicate, so accurate in every detail. If she hadn't reminded herself that she was looking into a dollhouse, she would have thought the place was real. She could almost imagine a finely dressed couple strolling down the stairs, holding that tiny baby in their arms.
Except they would have been real. The baby wouldn't have been pink plastic. A real house deserved living occupants, not just a single little toy in the third floor bassinet.
"Good grief," she mumbled, disgusted at herself for being so foolish. She was a cleaning lady, not a historian. What did she know about history, anyway? She hadn't learned much about Black Willow Grove in the three weeks she'd been working here. Maybe she should.
Her legs still shaky, Randi rolled the vacuum cleaner down the threadbare carpet to the janitor's closet. She heard no more crying, imagined no more ghouls lurking in the darkened rooms. With a last look at the plantation replica, she headed for the gift shop.
Before she locked up for the night, she visited the gift shop and selected a really nice book on the plantation. They sold for twenty-two dollars, but she didn't have the money to buy it. She'd be careful with her borrowed book and return it the next day or so. Beside, shouldn't employees know about the place where they worked?
"Sounds good to me," she said as she cradled the book in her arms. With a last look down the long, narrow hallway, she fastened her fanny pack around her waist and slipped into the night.
"Whatcha readin', Randi Mae?"
She looked up from the book she'd borrowed from the museum last night. "It's a history of Black Willow Grove plantation, Mom," she answered, ignoring the plate of pork chops and mashed potatoes her mother had placed beside her. Randi sure didn't want to mess up this book, because as interesting as it was, twenty-two dollars would dig a big hole in her wallet.
"Did you know the museum is built on land where the plantation once stood?" she continued, looking over her shoulder at her mother.
"What happened to the house?"
"Destroyed in the flood of 1849. It's a really sad story. The man and his daughter must have died in the flood too. At least, that's what they think. The slaves and servants told the neighbors that he and the little girl vanished when the house was flooded."
"That water can be powerful," her mother added, nodding her gray-streaked, light brown hair. "You remember that time--"
"Don't remind me," Randi cut in, shuddering. "I'd rather not think about it." She and her brother Russell had built a raft out of driftwood. They'd both thought navigating the Mississippi like Huck Finn would be great fun. They just hadn't realized how fast and strong the current could be during the spring rains, or how flimsy their raft was.
Without Russell's help, Randi would have drowned in that muddy water. He probably still had half-moon shaped indentations in his shoulders where she'd clung to him, frightened out of her mind by the churning water that threatened to suck her under. She never went in the river--wasn't real crazy about water of any kind. The thought of a father and daughter drowning in a flood made her shudder again.
"That's okay, Honey," her mother said with a pat on Randi's shoulder. "It was a long time ago."
She wasn't sure whether her mother meant the family's death or her near brush with drowning, but she wasn't about to talk about either subject. Thankful for the familiar smells of fried meat and fresh rolls, for the sound of her father in the living room, watching some sitcom on television, Randi pushed the memories out of her mind. Nothing was more comforting than the normalcy of home. Unlike a lot of twenty-somethings, she didn't mind moving back in with her parents to save money. They'd welcomed her with open arms, making her feel she'd never left the safety of childhood.
"I'm learning a lot from this book. Funny thing is, there's no mention of the wife." Randi watched her mother walk to the kitchen counter and pour a glass of iced tea. "You'd think they'd mention what happened to her."
"There aren't any pictures?"
Randi shook her head as her mother placed the glass beside the warm plate of food. "That was before cameras, Mom."
"Oh, well, that
a long time ago."