A Cry at Midnight by Victoria Chancellor


By Victoria Chancellor

Chapter One only

Copyright 1999-2004 by Victoria Chancellor, all rights reserved. This is Chapter One only. If you'd like to read the entire eNovel--for only $3.99, click the Buy Now button. (The eNovel is available in HTML, Microsoft Reader, Adobe Acrobat PDF, and Palm Reader formats.

Chapter One

Randi 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 all 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 inside 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 was a long time ago."

Randi smiled, knowing her mother had an even worse grasp of history than she did. She hadn't liked school, hadn't wanted to do anything but graduate and marry Curtis Galloway. Three babies had quickly followed, and her parents were happy with their lives.

Randi wanted more. She had goals she'd put off long enough.

"Food's gettin' cold, Honey."

"I know. Let me just show you one more thing," Randi said, turning the pages back to a section earlier in the book. "See here, Mom? The reproduction of the house that they've just built is based on these sketches that a former slave donated, years after the flood. I wish the pictures in the book were bigger so I could see the detail. They look so wonderful, though, Mom."

Her mother leaned over and peered at the book. "Those are awful small, but look like they've got lots of detail."

"Imagine making drawings of a place from memory," Randi said, running her fingertips across the glossy paper as if she could absorb the talent into her own body. If a former slave, probably without a formal education, could do that, surely she could too. After all, she had some training. Just not enough to get the job she wanted.

"You will, Honey. You've got talent."

"I hope so, Mom. I really hope so."

Her mother gave her another pat on the shoulder before heading back into the kitchen. "The Good Lord wouldn't have given you the will without givin' you the talent to go along with it."

Randi closed the book, then placed it across the table so she wouldn't splatter food or spill tea on it. With a sigh, thinking about drawings of a long-destroyed house and a long-dead family, she reached for her supper.


Later that night, after cleaning the restrooms and dusting the museum, she pulled the big, vacuum out of the janitor's closet. Darn, but the thing was heavy! She unwound the cord, plugged it into the hall wall outlet, and tackled the long, threadbare runner that led to the dollhouse.

She'd decided to call it a dollhouse. Somehow, that made the replica more friendly. After her overactive imagination last night, coupled with the haunting story of the family who had once lived right on this land, she needed all the normalcy she could get.

The loud whine of the engine drowned out her thoughts as she pushed and pulled her way toward the beam of light at the end of the hall. When she finished, she gratefully switched off the vacuum, resting her arm on the handle while she stared at the dollhouse.

"I didn't hear anything last night," she said aloud, trying to convince herself but not sounding too confident, either.

As though on cue, she heard the faint cries of a baby.

"Oh, no," Randi moaned. She put her hands over her ears, but couldn't block out the sound.

Unable to ignore the wailing, she opened the hinged front and looked inside. Quickly she took in the general layout, her gaze resting on the nursery upstairs.

The crying stopped.

"This is too weird," she mumbled.

The little pink plastic baby still lay inside her crib. The quilt was folded on the bed, the vase of flowers rested on top of the chest. Nothing had changed. Nothing was weird . . . except that darned crying. Was someone playing a trick on her? A sick trick to make her remember her loss? She didn't know anyone who could be that cruel.

Certainly not the only person who hadn't grieved over the loss, Cleve Sherwood. He hadn't wanted any responsibility, she reminded herself. She'd been such a fool, such a stupid, gullible, fool.

With a shake of her head, she reached for the panel to close the dollhouse until something caught her eye. She didn't know what for a moment. She scanned the rooms, the intricate detail and beautiful furniture. What was different? Then she realized . . . the riding boots and crop she'd noticed in the hall yesterday were gone. Her breath quick and hot against the plastic, she stared inside the depths of the house. Nothing. No boots, no crop.

With shaking hands and trembling legs, she looked all around the platform for extra wires, for signs of tampering, for anything that would explain why she was hearing a baby's cries and why things inside a sealed replica were moving. But she couldn't find any clues. No extra wires, no tape recorders, no broken seals on the clear plastic.


Something strange had happened in that dollhouse. Tomorrow, she was going to find out what was going on.


"Ms. Williams, may I have a word with you?"

"Of course. Come in, Randi."

Randi entered the small, tastefully decorated curator's office.

"What can I do for you?"

"I noticed something kind of . . . odd last night, and I wanted to ask you about it."

The middle-aged, friendly woman cocked her head and folded her hands on her desk. "What kind of odd thing did you notice?"

"Well, you know the new replica?" Of course she did, you ninny, Randi scolded herself. This wasn't going well. She was too nervous. "Anyway, when I was cleaning, I looked inside two nights ago, right after ya'll set it up."

"It's a wonderful reproduction. The artisan crafted it for years."

"Yes, it's a wonder. All that detail . . . But you see, I noticed a pair of black riding boots in the second floor hallway that first night. Oh, and there was a riding crop on the table."

The curator frowned. "I don't recall those on the inventory."

This was getting weirder by the minute. "That's just the thing, Ms. Williams. I looked again last night, and the riding boots were gone. Did someone rearrange things?" Or is someone trying to drive me crazy with the sound of a baby crying? she wanted to ask.

"No one has touched the model since it was set up. Are you sure of what you saw, Randi? You could have been tired."

She started to shake her head, tell the woman she knew what she'd seen, what she'd heard. But she wasn't ready to reveal the sounds. Seeing the riding boots one night and not the next was enough for now. "I'm pretty sure," she answered.

"Well, I'll check on the model later, before I go home." Ms. Williams glanced at her watch. "Which is just about now," she added, rising from her desk chair. "You came in early, didn't you?"

Randi shook her head. "I just stopped by on my way home from my day job to talk to you."

"You've been working awfully hard," the curator said, walking around the corner of her desk and smiling.

Randi knew the lady was being nice, but her words and actions seemed a bit patronizing. She knew she worked hard, but how else was she going to pay off her bills and save enough for this fall?

"Sure, Ms. Williams. Well, I'll be going. My mom is expecting me for dinner." She turned and stepped toward the door. "No one else has reported anything . . . odd about the replica, have they?"


"Oh, like maybe noises or something. I just thought I heard a sound the other night."

"No, no one has said anything. The model was sealed by the man who created it. There shouldn't be any wind passing through, or anything like that." Ms. Williams looked at her, a hopeful expression warring with the concern etched on her face. She no doubt wanted Randi to say that she was just kidding.

She couldn't tell that big a lie. "I'm sure the sound came from somewhere else," she finally said, hoping that was enough.

"You're probably right." Ms. Williams released a sigh of relief.

Even though the curator seemed appeased, Randi knew she'd nearly stepped over the line. Now the woman thought she was a little weird, hearing things from inside a sealed-up model. The best thing to do was leave before she said anything else to worry her employer.

"You're doing a great job, Randi. I hope you're not working too hard." Ms. Williams followed her across the carpeted floor.

"No, of course not." If you don't count that huge, heavy vacuum cleaner, she felt like adding. She'd save that for another day, though. No sense making the curator think she was delusional and whining at the same time. Randi paused and smiled weakly.

"Thanks for mentioning the . . . situation. I'll go right now to check on the model."

"Thank you, Ms. Williams. Good night." Randi turned and stepped onto the wide plank flooring of the hall.

"Good night, Randi," the curator called from her doorway.

Randi frowned as she strolled slowly down the familiar hall toward the front door. A few tourists wandered toward the gift shop. The sound of paper bags rustling and people talking came from that direction. Familiar noise, along with the same smells of old furniture, books, and linens. Nothing strange.

She should take a clue from Ms. Williams and chalk this up to a mild case of exhaustion. The only problem was, Randi didn't feel too tired. As a matter of fact, she couldn't wait to finish reading the book she'd borrowed two nights ago. Surely there was a mention of the baby's mother somewhere in the darn thing. How could they have a "family" without a mother for the little girl who drowned in the flood?


She varied her routine that night, hoping she wouldn't hear the sounds that haunted her. First, she vacuumed, then dusted the display rooms, cleaned the restrooms, and headed for the gift shop.

She straightened the trinkets, post card racks, and cleaned the glass counters. Then, with a regretful sigh, she placed the borrowed book back on the bottom of the stack. She'd enjoyed reading about Black Willow Grove, even if the book hadn't mentioned the baby's mother. It was almost as if she'd never existed, or if she'd simply vanished into thin air, erasing herself from everyone's memory.

Randi finished emptying the trashcan from Ms. Williams office, then returned to the janitor's closet for her fanny pack. Tonight, she wasn't going to be haunted by the sound of the baby's cries.

Nonsense. There were no cries. She'd imagined them. Plastic toy babies didn't cry.

Still, before she fished her keys out to lock up, she felt compelled to check. The end of the hallway beckoned, the light calling to her as surely as the sound of a baby's tears. She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and clenched her fist around the zipper. She should leave right now. Walk out the door. Lock up. Drive home. Forget the dollhouse and the lonely baby in the third floor nursery.

As she stood in the hall near the front door, the clock chimed midnight. The heavy tones reverberated through the museum, sending shivers down her spine.

Lonely? Here was some concrete evidence she really was exhausted and delusional. There was no reason to place such a human emotion on a dab of plastic with human features. No reason at all.

Still, she couldn't leave. Not without checking.

Her tennis shoes felt like lead boots as she walked down the hall toward the "model," as Ms. Williams called the replica of Black Willow Grove. To Randi, it was simply the dollhouse. And inside, the little pink doll.

She brushed her bangs back from her forehead and advanced, already knowing what she'd hear. Already sensing the faint cries as she neared the dollhouse. She didn't realize her eyes were full of tears until a drop ran down her cheek.

"What's going on?" she asked, resting her head against the wooden shingles of the roof. "Is someone playing a sick joke? Why is this happening to me?" She didn't know anyone who would want to make her think she was going crazy, or torment her with her loss. No one hated her that much. Which left other explanations . . .

Only she wasn't exhausted. She wasn't hallucinating.

She was angry.

With a moan, she dashed the tears on her cheeks, then flipped open the catch and looked inside the dollhouse. Her heart pounded so hard she couldn't tell if she still heard the baby's cries. All she knew was that she had to find out what was going on.

As usual, the interior looked . . . normal. No other figures inside the house, no boots in the hallway, a pink doll in the bassinet. The baby wasn't real, but she still heard the cries. This time, they seemed to come from inside her soul.

She couldn't stand this any longer. With an angry shriek, she pried the plastic away from the wooden frame, not caring that she might damage the valuable replica, not caring about anything but getting inside to discover why she kept hearing the baby cry. Why was she the only person who heard the sound?

The covering began to give. She managed to get two fingers between the plastic and the wood, then pulled harder. The dollhouse rocked despite its size and weight as the plastic pulled away from one side. Randi realized the miniature bassinet was tipping over. She couldn't let that happen! She had to catch that little plastic baby before it hit the floor of the nursery . . . just as though it were a real baby.

She reached inside the dollhouse, her hands cupped to catch the tiny infant before the bassinet pitched to its side. The first sensation she had was of warmth, as though the air inside the dollhouse was warmer than the rest of the museum. Along with the warmth came a burst of light. Then her fingers connected, and she felt lacy fabric against her outstretched fingertips.

The whole incident happened so fast she didn't know if she'd really kept the doll from falling for just a moment. Her mind spun blindly for a second. She closed her eyes, shook her head, and suddenly became aware of her surroundings once more.

Tiny sprigged wallpaper. An iron bedstead, a vase of flowers on a chest. A quilt draped across the bed. A fancy bassinet.

A real, crying baby lying in her outstretched arms.

For the third time in Randi Galloway's life, she screamed.

We hope you enjoyed Chapter One of A CRY AT MIDNIGHT by Victoria Chancellor.

Why not buy the entire eNovel now--for only $3.99. To purchase, click the 'Buy Now' button. (All payments are processed by PayPal for your security.

Please visitwww.BooksForABuck.com. We're always adding great new eNovels--at some of the lowest prices on the web.