The Hall Closet
The swaying tune of the orchestra and the tittering of guests floated up from the ballroom downstairs, their sounds muffled as though seeping through a veil to another world. Noddie lay on the floor of her dark prison, hands behind her head and feet propped up against the wall, not caring if her dress wrinkled or the position was unladylike.
She had disappointed her uncle Lazren again. Lazren had always found her manners abominable and her etiquette lacking. She had tried to overcome the culture shock and abrupt change in social status that came with living on the Lazren estate, but despite her constant efforts she could never meet his noble standards.
Martis Lazren had always been strict, and secretive, but within the past few weeks his behavior had become alarmingly odd. He had taken to shutting himself in his study for hours at a time, or sitting before the fire with the curtains drawn, eyes clouded in thought. He spoke little, sometimes forgetting to eat or call Noddie for evening inspection.
Not that she minded. They were always the same. Lazren would frown, his eyes measuring her up. He never greeted her, but instantly started lecturing about problems that needed fixing. Rarely did he shout, but his strong disapproving voice was enough to get his message across.
“Your hair bow is smashed. Fix it. How did your socks get ripped? I better not hear you’ve been climbing trees again. Look at the state of that dress, wrinkles everywhere. If you would sit like a lady it wouldn’t end up looking like a dishtowel.”
Noddie would stare at the floor as Lazren went on to ask her about what she did that day, whether she was studying and getting enough to eat before dismissing her. Noddie could never bring herself to speak to her uncle unless he acknowledged her first. She was intimidated by him yet admired his noble intelligence and bold confidence.
Lately, however, his usual impatience had developed into a boiling temper that had eventually caused one of the maids to break out in tears. For reasons unknown he had become tight as a mousetrap, ready to spring at the smallest nudge. When he caught Noddie sneaking desserts from the kitchen that evening his usual fierce scolding escalated to shouting. Then trapping her arm in a solid grip he dragged her upstairs to a hall closet and threw her in.
“I will not tolerate this behavior! Staying in here should keep you out of trouble during the gala. Take this time to think over your despicable actions!”
Once she had gotten over her shock Noddie curled up in the back corner, hugging her knees and trying not to think about how the cooks and servants would titter and gossip about Lazren’s niece, shut away like a wayward dog in a shed. Life had been simpler on her farm across the sea in Rosedust Valley. Tapping her foot in time to the resonating gongs from the grandfather clock, she counted off the strokes of midnight to alleviate her boredom.
A high scream rent the air. Noddie jolted, knocking over an empty wash basin and dented coal bucket. The music halted and voices buzzed like agitated bees in a nervous murmuring save for the occasional raised argument. More screams built upon each other like rising smoke until it was all a blind wailing of terror and pain drifting through the closet door like toxic fumes.
Noddie’s confusion and fear scorched her insides as the music of nightmares assaulted her from without.
Had there been a fight? Was there a fire? She couldn’t smell any smoke. She was about to call for help when another thought stole her voice.
Four months ago an associate of her uncle had been murdered in his home. Noddie had been putting together a puzzle on the parlor floor when her uncle Lazren had received the news. Never had she seen him so angry as he grabbed his coat and stormed out. He was frequently absent from the mansion afterward and the household bolted all the doors and windows and kept a watch while he was away. Noddie heard the cooks and maids whispering about the bandit Mordekah and his followers; cunning devils with a thirst for blood that operated in secrets and lies. They were impossible to apprehend.
What if the manor was under attack?
Her uncle could fight them off, she was sure of it. He was very skilled with a sword and had a collection of such weapons in his study. Was he fighting them now?
Noddie pressed her palms to her ears, but it did nothing to dampen the horrific noise that carried on for an extended time in invisible agony. Noddie prayed that any intruder wouldn’t think to find a fourteen-year-old girl locked away in a hall closet.
Then there was nothing.
A hush, even more frightening than the screams, fell over the house. Noddie waited, her breath unnervingly loud. But nothing happened. No one was coming for her.
After what seemed like hours she pounded on the door, calling for her uncle. Her plea fell unheeded.
Noddie returned to the corner. The stuffy air closing in around her. She rested her head on her knees, telling herself over and over that she wasn’t forgotten. Lazren would come.
She must have dozed off because she was awakened by the snap of the lock. The door squeaked open and a shadow fell across her. As her eyes adjusted to the appearance of light, Noddie felt a presence linger for a moment before shifting away.
Rubbing her eyes, Noddie stood, pushed the door open further, and stepped out into the carpeted hallway expecting to see her uncle standing with a deep frown and folded arms. Instead she found a young man.
“Mesha! What are you doing here?”
Mesha was the sole friend she had in Hesterway. They had spent many-a day playing and talking together on the edge of Lazren’s property. His skin was a rare pale, contrasting Noddie’s own brown tone, and he spoke with a smooth accent. His face held no emotion, but there was something in his dark eyes that unnerved her. Sadness? Or pity?
Noddie eyed him with confusion. Everyone knew her uncle did not like Mesha and never allowed him on the grounds. Yet here he was, standing in one of the uppemost hallways as though he owned the place.
The oil lamps on the wall had burned out and sunlight poured through the window at the end of the hallway, dust particles dancing in its spotlight. It wasn’t morning was it? Surely she hadn’t spent the whole night in that small closet?
The house was oddly quiet, almost dead. She couldn’t hear the servants going about their work. Only the drumming tick-tock of the grandfather clock at the top of the stairs.
“What’s happened? Where’s Uncle Lazren?”
“He is dead, Noddie May. They all are. Scorenza.”
Noddie’s mouth dried and her limbs grew cold. “The plague? But—how? Uncle Lazren said the plague couldn’t come to Hesterway!”
There was scoff in Mesha’s eyes, though his expression was as blank as ever. “This is no ordinary plague.”
“No. This is impossible! Mother and Father sent me to Grendar to get away from the plague. Only Milay and the northern countries are infested!”
Mesha brushed his auburn hair from his eyes. “I believe this is the first case of it here.”
Breathing became difficult. This was worse than robbers. Much worse. No wonder there had been screaming. “Everyone can’t be dead. Uncle Lazren—”
Mesha caught her by the shoulders as she started for the stairway. “No, Noddie May!”
She tried to throw off his hands, but Mesha pulled her back with a little shake. “Noddie May, please listen to me.”
It was the first time she had seen her friend so concerned. Despite only being a year or two older than Noddie, Mesha usually displayed a calm maturity.
“We need to leave. Now. Do not go downstairs, and take nothing with you.”
Noddie shuddered. She didn’t need to go downstairs. She knew what plagued victims looked like. She had seen it in her own country of Milay. Skin mutilated with morbid black stripes outlined in red as though the flesh had been burned away with a hot pole. Wide eyes that held an eerie glazed look. Once symptoms of the plague showed the infected never lasted long. In her mind’s eye she could already see the red cloth hanging in the window as a warning of the death found within. Her nose wrinkled in memory of the rancid, rotting smell.
This had all been in Copersville, the town east of Rosedust Valley, where her grandparents had lived. It was at her grandparents funeral three years ago that she had fist seen her uncle Lazren. As soon as he had become of age, Lazren earned enough money for passage across the Rovian Sea. He left his family and Milay to make a life for himself in Grendar, returning only to pay his respects. Noddie and her parents returned to Copersville a year later to visit their graves and were met with the start of the epidemic. Ben and Nancy Grace had been so unsettled by the experience that they sent their daughter away from the threat as soon as possible. It had torn Noddie apart to leave her beloved home and family. It was said that the plague could spread through a single touch and, as such, not even letters were permitted to leave the country. Noddie had no way of knowing how much of the plague had spread to Rosedust Valley or even if her parents were still alive.
She looked wistfully over Mesha’s shoulder, in the direction of her bedroom. Her most valued possession, and sole connection to her parents, the photo of her small family, was in the drawer of the bedside table.
Mesha’s warm hand squeezed her shoulder. “Trust me. You will not regret it. To take anything would risk the plague. You can get out through the window at the end of the hall.”
“We’re on the second story!”
“The garden wall is right below the window. You can follow it to the cherry tree and climb down.” For the first time his expression softened. “Don’t be scared, Noddie May. You can do it. I’ll help you.”
“This can’t be happening.” She rubbed her numb arms. “How did the plague get here? Could I have the plague?”
“No. This closet was far enough away that you are safe.”
“What about you? How did you get in here? Did you touch anything? If you get the plague trying to help me—”
“I’m fine. Please, Noddie May. We need to leave now. The townspeople are preparing to burn down the house.”
The empty hallway stretched in front of her, bleak and silent as a tomb. As if in a trance, her feet carried her to the window and her hands acted on their own, unlatching the frame and sliding it open.
A cool breeze seeped through like the burst of fresh air one cherishes after being stuck underwater. (Or in a dark, forgotten closet.) It filled her lungs and cleared her mind, awakened her senses and determination.
Mesha climbed out before her and paused to offer his hand.
“Don’t stare,” she warned. Then, feeling awkward in her billowing dress, Noddie climbed out and placed her foot on the garden wall, gripping the window ledge for balance. They walked across, placing one foot before the other akin to acrobats on a wire. Noddie gripped Mesha’s hand tighter as she wobbled. Curse Uncle Lazren and his esteemed privacy, no wall should be this high! Grasping the branches of the tree that grew on the outside of the wall she chanced a glance down. Prickly rosebushes lined the outside base, but the sturdy tree was surrounded by manicured grass.
Bunching up her dress, Noddie maneuvered into the tree after her friend. How comical would it be if Uncle Lazren or her nanny saw her doing this? She could just hear them ranting about how such behavior was an insult to the Lazren House. Her heart lurched as she recalled Mesha’s words. Were they really dead?
Mesha jumped to the ground, losing his balance and falling back on his rear. Noddie was about to do the same when her leg got twisted in the hem of her dress. Then her foot slipped, and her grip on the branch above was lost. With a small yelp she fell into one of the rosebushes below.
It was not a high fall, but it was, nonetheless, unpleasant.
“Noddie May! Are you alright?”
“Fine,” she grunted. Her face was burning. “I’m not clumsy. It’s this blasted dress. I climbed trees all the time on my farm.”
He pulled her dark braids free as she picked her way out of the clawing bush, tearing her dress and attaining an assortment of scratches on her arms and legs in the process. Once free, Mesha pulled her to the dirt road leading south into a grove.
Upon reaching the tree line, she stopped and looked back at the house one last time.
In that moment her hollow disbelief was replaced with the harsh reality of what direction her life had taken. The mansion stood in all its splendor. Just as it had upon her first arrival a year ago, clean, well kept, and newly painted. Yet now it seemed forbidding as if a shadow had been cast over it. And despite the bright sunlit day Noddie sensed a haunting chill in her soul.
Turning toward the cluster of trees she pursued her new path. For the second time in her life she let the death and destruction of the plague fall away behind her.