Authors: Diane Hoh
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Social Issues, #Death & Dying, #Violence
HE HOUSEMOTHER WHO FOUND
Giselle McKendrick hanging from the brass light fixture in her bedroom didn’t scream. When she entered the room on the second floor of Nightingale Hall, an off-campus dormitory at Salem University, and found Giselle suspended, swaying gently above the shiny hardwood floor, Isobel Coates’s mouth opened in horror, but she made no sound.
For several minutes, the only sound in the bright and sunny room came from the birds outside, screeching in the huge oak trees shadowing the tall, skinny, old brick house. Sheer white curtains at the narrow windows moved gently, ghostlike, stirred by a warm June breeze.
As Mrs. Coates’s wrinkled, brown-spotted hands rushed to cover her mouth, the neatly folded stack of white linens she was carrying hit the polished floor with a soft slap. “Oh,” she whispered, “oh, oh, oh …”
Young, pretty Giselle McKendrick’s body was a lazy pendulum swinging from the light fixture. She was wearing white shorts and a bright yellow halter top because of the rare, early June intense heat wave. But that heat was oddly absent in the small, square space. Giselle’s bedroom was icily cold.
The girl’s bare, tanned legs dangled lifelessly. Her head hung at a harsh angle. Her blue eyes stared blindly at the wall, and her mouth was frozen open in a voiceless scream. Her curly blonde hair brushed against her broken neck as she swayed back and forth, back and forth …
A length of rope, one end fastened firmly around the stem of the old-fashioned light fixture, encircled Giselle’s slender throat.
Mrs. Coates, her mouth still hidden behind her hands, began moving slowly backward, murmuring, “No, no, no …”
The other five students living in the rooming house came home that afternoon to find Giselle’s room unoccupied, the purple spread neatly pulled up over the bed, the white curtains still stirring gently. The news of their friend’s death shocked each of them into stupefied silence. They stumbled about the house, crying, glassy-eyed with disbelief.
Although the rest of the house shimmered with stultifying heat, that one small space on the second floor remained bone-chillingly cold, as if wrapped in an icy December wind.
Giselle’s housemates left for summer vacation in somber silence. According to a small, unobtrusive article in the local newspaper shortly before they left Nightingale Hall, the official verdict on Giselle’s death was “apparent suicide.” It seemed that Giselle McKendrick had chosen to stop living, and no one who knew her understood why.
It was beyond understanding.
The housemates vowed never to return to Nightingale Hall. How could they? They would live instead in one of the on-campus dorms, away from painful reminders of their friend.
They emptied closets and drawers and desks and then, loaded down with suitcases, trunks, and backpacks, left Nightingale Hall behind forever. There were no backward glances as they made their way down the gravel driveway that snaked up over the hill and curved along the front of the house. A glance over the shoulder might serve as an unpleasant reminder that six, not five, students had taken up residence in the three-storied brick dormitory nine months earlier. That seemed, now, like a lifetime ago.
When the last student had gone, Mrs. Coates draped the living room, dining room, and library furniture with heavy cloths and then packed her own suitcase. She was spending the summer at the beach. Perhaps, away from the dorm and its empty rooms, she could forget the terrible sight of that lovely young girl’s body swinging from the ceiling in the small, sunny bedroom.
As the housemother’s taxi pulled away on a warm June evening, the empty dorm seemed to settle further into its grassy knoll overlooking the campus. Huge, giant-limbed oak trees shading the house made its dark red brick look almost black. The floor-to-ceiling windows facing the wide front porch were completely shuttered, as if the house had closed its eyes to sleep. Even the birds had left, taking their songs with them. An eerie silence fell over the hill.
Lost in shadow and deepening twilight, the house settled into the hillside to wait.
All summer long, it waited …
ESSICA VOGT LEANED FORWARD,
her navy-blue eyes staring out the bus window. She wanted to take in every detail of the town of Twin Falls where she would be spending the next four years of her life. The main street, Pennsylvania Avenue, crowded with traffic now as other college students like herself arrived in town, was flanked on one side by a slowly meandering river, on the other side by shops and restaurants, a red brick post office, several bank buildings. Shoppers accustomed to the annual onslaught of young people ignored the long line of cars and buses snaking its way through the center of town and went about their business.
The bus passed slowly through the center of town, advancing past a stone bridge on the left spanning the river, and a beautiful row of lavish white and brick homes on the right, facing the water. A huge stone church took up one whole block, its spire rising some distance above the medium-sized community. Tall, full trees lined the avenue in front of the church. A larger section of more modest homes followed, and then, at the edge of town, a large, sprawling shopping mall.
Jess could already see the rooftops of the university buildings some distance ahead, just beyond the town. She settled back in her seat. It was a pretty town, not unlike her own hometown. Peaceful, quiet … and it had a mall. She smiled. What would life be like without a mall?
The bus let her off just a block from Nightingale Hall, the off-campus dorm where she would be living.
When it had gone, she walked up the block, and paused at the bottom of the curving gravelled driveway that led up the slope to the house. Hands in the pockets of her khaki shorts, a set of cheap brown luggage resting beside her sandalled feet, she grimaced in dismay as her eyes focused on the building destined to be her home from September to June. It wasn’t very inviting.
“Great place to film a horror movie,” she murmured, running a hand through her short, glossy black hair. Shifting slightly, she kept her gaze on the house.
It was tall and narrow, three stories of brick so deep a red and so shaded by massive oaks it looked charcoal. Two of the dark green shutters flanking the tall, skinny windows were hanging crookedly and the wide, wooden porch sagged just enough to make the house look a little drunk. A metal fire escape traveled from the ground up to the third story along the left-hand side.
In case we ever need an escape route, Jess thought.
The house stood, tired and worn, at the top of the slope, overlooking the hill and the highway with, Jess had to admit, a certain kind of dignity in spite of its shabbiness.
It’s seen better days, she thought with conviction. It must have been beautiful once.
The lawn had recently been mowed, filling the air with the smell of fresh-cut grass, and the squat green shrubbery flanking the wide front porch was thick with round, red berries.
“Pretty grim, huh?” a deep voice behind Jess asked. “Looks a little like Tara,
the Civil War.” A chuckle followed the comment. “Your name wouldn’t by any chance be Scarlett, would it?”
Jess turned around. The boy who stood behind her was taller than her own five feet six inches. His shoulder-length straight, dark hair was tied back in a careless ponytail. He was wearing faded denim cutoffs and a white T-shirt. A huge, worn black leather camera case was slung over one shoulder.
Gone With the Wind,
haven’t you?” he asked, smiling. “Or at least seen the movie?”
Jess nodded. If his nose hadn’t had a slight hook to it, he would have been
good-looking. Boys who were too good-looking seemed to think the world owed them something. “Of course I’ve read it. It happens to be one of my favorites. And you’re right about the house. It’s pretty grim. But,” shrugging her thin shoulders, “it’s cheaper than on-campus dorms, so I guess we shouldn’t expect too much.”
Extending a hand, he said, “Ian Banion.” He grinned as they shook hands. “Who cares what the place looks like? I came for the fishing. I checked this place out last spring. There’s a great stream out back.” Another sheepish grin. “But I’m also here because it’s cheaper.” Glancing up the hill, he added, “Anyway, you’ve got to admit this place looks more interesting than those boring stone dorms on campus.”
Jess cocked an eyebrow. Interesting? Maybe. “It’s probably a lot nicer on the inside.”
Ian looked dubious. “I wouldn’t count on it. C’mon, let’s check it out.”
They were halfway up the hill when someone shouting behind them brought them to a halt. Turning in tandem, they found another boy hurrying to catch up to them. “Wait up!” he called. “I’m not going into that mausoleum by myself. Could be dangerous.” He was carrying two very expensive-looking leather bags.
“Oh, come on,” Jess said. “I’ll bet it was gorgeous once upon a time. I think it’s those trees … they keep the sun from lighting up the place.”
The newcomer was not as tall as Ian, but he had broader shoulders and a deeper tan. His wheat-colored hair had been blow-dried and moussed perfectly in place. His white knit shirt looked expensive, as did the perfectly creased navy blue slacks he was wearing. His features were even, nearly perfect. The sort of face, Jess thought, that graces magazine covers. His arrogant smile told her he thought the same thing.
If he had money, and he certainly looked as if he did, what was he doing at Nightingale Hall?
He fixed warm brown eyes on Jess and answered her unspoken question. “I picked an off-campus place because I figured the rules would be a cinch to break, but now I see that fate sent me here. Hello,
! Jon Shea, here.”
Jess’s immediate reaction was, Spare me! Jon Shea was one of
good-looking. Probably couldn’t function for more than five minutes without a mirror handy. He most likely found the “chase” after a girl the most exciting part of any relationship. Once the “quarry” had been caught, he probably lost interest. She’d bet the streets of his hometown were paved with broken hearts.
“Jessica Vogt,” she said, her voice cool. “And this is Ian Banion.”
“So,” Jon said cheerfully, “we’re all going to be residents of Nightmare Hall?”
Jessica laughed. “Oh, quit exaggerating. It’s not
Two girls and another boy, surrounded by their baggage, were already seated on the floor of the porch when Jess arrived with Ian and Jon.
One girl jumped to her feet. She was tall and broad-shouldered, with tanned sturdy legs in bright green shorts. Her hair was short and yellow, with a slight greenish tinge to it.
A swimmer, Jess decided. That hair had been overdosed with chlorine.
“Hi,” the girl said with a friendly smile, “I’m Linda Carlyle. Is one of you, I hope, the new monitor? Because if you are, you might have a key, and I’m dying to get inside for a nice, cool drink of water. I’m so parched my throat feels like sandpaper, and the door seems to be locked.”
“I’m the monitor,” Jess answered, moving forward. She had taken the job in return for a break in her tuition. “And you’re in luck. Mrs. Coates mailed me a key. We can all go inside. Isn’t she here?”
Linda shook her head. “No one answered when I knocked. I tried the bell, too, but it doesn’t work.”
“Figures,” Jon remarked drily. “This place could use a live-in handyman.”
“Somebody call me?” a voice asked as a young man in white overalls and T-shirt came around the corner of the house. He was short and stocky, with thick, curly black hair. His well-muscled arms were sunburned, as were his cheeks and neck. “Am I needed here?”
“Are you kidding?” Jon asked. “Take a good look around. Those shutters are hanging at half-mast and the porch is listing to starboard and …”
The young man in overalls smiled coldly. “Go boating a lot, do you?” The smile told Jess he had already pegged Jon as a “rich boy.” “Relax. It’ll get done. I’ve been working inside, getting the rooms ready. I’m Trucker Swopes. And you are … ?”
“Jon Shea. This is Jessica Vogt and Ian … sorry, I forgot the last name.”
“Banion. I can’t introduce the others because we haven’t met yet. We just arrived.”