Lillie Scott was afraid of the dark. Even when there was no cause for alarm, even when she was safe, it made her uncomfortable, as though a hidden foe waited just beyond sight until the lights went out. Perhaps it stemmed from living in the mountains as a child, when her stomach clenched as she brought the stray calves in at night from grazing in the meadow and heard the mountain lions cry, sounding strangely like mournful infants calling out for help. Whatever the cause, her aversion to shadow made things harder because it was October, and dusk came earlier in autumn.
I shouldn’t have stayed so long, she thought. I lost track of time. How unlike me…
In the Western North Carolina hamlet of Hidden Oaks, population 427, Lillie was a regional hero. She was the brainy one, the plain, quiet girl who spent most of her time in the Carnegie library just off the town green in order to earn a scholarship to Blackhurst University.
The day her college acceptance papers came in, Lillie’s grandfather broke the old china bank, handing her the crumpled, dust-coated bills.
His $600 gift was her pocket money for the entire year of 1946. Lillie didn’t mind scrimping. She dreamed of earning a PhD in biology, of being a research scientist. Not many women in post-World War II America entered her field, but Lillie knew that such splendid ambitions as hers were worth a little sacrifice.
“It’s after six,” Edith said, jarring Lillie from her thoughts. “The sun’s gone down.”
Lillie went to the window. The streetlamps were lit, and the sidewalks gleamed black and wet from the rain.
The world is no different at night, she reassured herself. It’s the same, only harder to see. There’s really nothing to fear.
Edith patted her shoulder. “Why don’t you wait for Cal? He usually stops by at eight. He could walk you home.”
Lillie frowned and sat down on Edith’s bed, trying to decide which was worse: the darkness or her friend’s fiancé. Cal was a handsome football player with a muscular body and cool, grey eyes. Whenever he looked at her, he wore a puzzled expression, as though she were an irritating riddle. Lillie felt the diamond-patterned crocheted spread printing marks against the back of her knees.
“No. If I leave now, I’ll be home before Cal even gets here.”
Her decision made, Lillie kissed Edith on the cheek, and walked out the door. She established a fast pace, hoping to give the impression she was late for a crucial appointment. Lillie felt reassured by the large crowds of people standing near the fine arts building and the student union. Moving away from the campus epicenter toward its periphery, she eventually found herself alone. Her heart began to thud, outracing the muffled tapping of her heels.
It’s a normal reaction, Lillie told herself. Scientifically speaking, the brain senses possible danger and the body responds. Thus, my heart is beating faster than it would if I were sitting at home reading a book or listening to music on the radio.
The rain had turned the red leaves blanketing the sidewalk into a slimy hazard.
Acer rubrum. Common red maple, found throughout eastern North America. No cause for alarm. I’ll slow down a bit so I don’t fall.
Lillie hated to admit it, but there was more to fear in Blackhurst than the dark. Two local girls had gone missing over the last six months. Warnings had been posted liberally throughout the university, cautioning female students to beware. She stopped and looked behind her.
End of part 1..... Part 2 tomorrow!