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NIGHT OF THE NOVEMBER MOON

by Ann Carol Ulrich

 

 

CHAPTER 1
The Dream

 

"Winnie!" his voice called in the distance.

"Rob!"

Sobs choked me. I didn't know which way to turn. "Rob!" The wind carried my voice away. "Rob, I can't find you!" My breath rattled.

"Winnie, where are you?" His voice sounded farther away.

The wind whipped my skirt as I fought to find my way. Darkness had overtaken day. Branches and briars brushed my bare arms and cheeks. "Winnie!" he continued to call.

The wind storm raged around me and I stumbled through the woods in agony. Where was Rob? Why didn't he hear me calling? I had to reach him.

Suddenly through the trees I saw it. There it stood, silhouetted majestically against the lavender horizon, the huge old Victorian manor that towered above the sloping lawn. Thick shrubs and willows partially hid its three floors and four verandas. As I stepped from the woods, I gazed in awe. Why were there no lights? Where was Rob?

Lightning flashes illuminated the manor as the wind continued to sweep over me. I started up the lawn. I knew someone must be inside. I called for Rob, but my voice would not respond. Then my legs grew wobbly and I felt immobilized. "Rob... I know you're there." The wind smothered my sobs. I slumped onto the moist, cold ground, exhausted.

The next thing I knew Rob was holding me. I welcomed the security of his warm body and his voice whispered in my ear, "Don't cry, Winnie." It was the same soothing voice I remembered from long ago. "Didn't you hear me calling you?"

"Rob, I tried to find you. I came right away."

I was startled. The gentle brown eyes that I remembered suddenly appeared blue. And his hair, instead of reddish brown, was now blond.

"George... it's you!" I awoke then.

In my dream I had been at Pelton Manor. I had seen and heard Rob Pelton, even been held in his arms. It was rare that I dreamed of Rob Pelton anymore. Ten years had passed since we last saw each other. Yet every once in a while he would weave his way into my most intimate dreams.

Only this time he had transformed into George. I turned my face into my pillow to cry, but like the dream my tears were not real. The room was cold. I pulled the covers over myself and heard the whistle of a train in the distance. The Grand Trunk crossed town not far from Pelton Manor, where I had just been in my dream. I strained to remember more. It was important to cling to each thread as it unraveled in the presence of my waking memory. I tried to go back to sleep. I wanted to keep dreaming. But already I could feel it loosening. The words Rob had soothed me with were now jargon phrases without meaning, and his face had turned into George's.

It was disturbing to think about Rob Pelton after all of these years, yet a part of me derived a small degree of pleasure in dredging up the past. I couldn't help it. I had been so young then. Bits of the dream kept coming back to me during a hurried breakfast. I didn't want to be late for work. I hadn't had the job more than a couple of months, and if I didn't get there before the boss, the whole office would complain about the lousy coffee. Slipping into my coat, my eyes fell on the long-stemmed red roses in a glass on the sink. Now wilted, they reminded me of last night and George. The petals were brown because he had forgotten and left them in the car, where they had been exposed too long to the November night air.

Much to my relief, the car started right up. I climbed out to scrape the frost off the windows and saw someone hurrying toward me. I recognized my neighbor, JoAnn Gremel, bundled in a winter jacket and wool hat.

"Winnie, can you give me a lift?" JoAnn had short, dark hair and bangs. Her cheeks were rosy from the chill as she approached. "It's my car again. I think it's the battery, or the carburetor, or... oh, who knows?" JoAnn pulled out a handkerchief and blotted the end of her nose.

"Get in." I finished the windshield, then climbed behind the wheel.

"You know what we need, Winnie?" JoAnn asked as I backed down the driveway.

"What?"

"Two good-looking hunks who can fix cars."

I hissed in protest. "I'm no mechanic, that's for sure, but I can do everything Alan used to... change the oil, put in anti-freeze, change a tire..."

JoAnn would be the last person to admit it, but she was one of those women who are helpless without a man. I figured JoAnn, now divorced, wouldn't stay single for long. I had known her many years. The two of us had been best friends in high school.

As I drove into the morning rush hour traffic through downtown Spundale, JoAnn prattled about her car problems. My mind wandered back to my dream. We were heading nowhere near that part of town, yet I kept thinking about Pelton Manor and Rob. I remembered how beautiful the woods were surrounding Pelton Manor. One of Rob's and my favorite places to meet had been at the old abandoned mill in back of the Pelton property. Suddenly I longed to be there now.

"Winnie, aren't we going to work?" JoAnn's voice startled me back to reality. I sighed as I realized I had driven past the newspaper building. JoAnn laughed. "What were you thinking about? George?"

I swung into the other lane to turn the car around. "No, I was thinking about going out in the woods this weekend."

"This time of year?" scoffed JoAnn. "I always thought spring was the time of year for you bird nuts. Is George going with you?"

"Actually, I was thinking of going out by myself."

JoAnn sniffed. "Don't tell that to George."

I made no reply. JoAnn was responsible for introducing me to George Wyatt one of her many matchmaking efforts. It was through the local Audubon Society chapter, of which I had been a member for several years. JoAnn had arranged for me to take George to one of the meetings, and somehow we had ended up going together to every meeting since.

Both JoAnn and I worked at the Spundale Star, the local weekly newspaper. We rode the elevator and parted on our floor. JoAnn worked in advertising sales. She had been with the paper for three years.

I unlocked the door to the front office, where I worked, and turned on the lights. My desk was behind a big counter. The two reporters' offices were down the hall and the production department was one big room in back. I heard a noise and was startled when Ralph Pendergast, the editor and publisher, stepped out of his office to greet me. He was an easy-going, eccentric man of about sixty.

"Good morning, Winifred."

"Oh, Mr. Pendergast, you're already here."

"Once in a while I like to be early." He grinned at me. "Better get those snow tires on soon."

"I know what you mean," I said.

He hovered over the coffee maker, as if trying to find the switch. I hurried over.

"I was just going to brew a pot," said Mr. Pendergast.

"Oh, I'll do it," I told him.

"Well... if you insist." He stepped aside.

I dumped out yesterday's old grounds. Once when Mr. Pendergast had made coffee, he had forgotten and used the grounds from the day before. I rinsed and filled the pot with fresh water at the sink.

Assured that I had things under control, he sauntered back into his office. I liked Mr. Pendergast's congenial manner. He rarely got upset at anyone. I was comfortable working for him and the job had done me wonders, helping me adjust to a new kind of independence.

Keith Campbell walked in a few minutes later. By now the coffee machine was making noise and Mr. Pendergast poked his head out of his room. "Come in here, Keith," he called to the reporter.

Keith turned to me and made a face. "Please, Winnie, tell me you made the coffee this morning."

I merely smiled and let Keith sweat awhile.

The morning passed swiftly. It was publication day, so the telephone rang a lot and things were buzzing in the back room. I didn't remember I was hungry until JoAnn came in just before one.

"Aren't you going to take some time off for lunch?"

I shut the file drawer. "What do you have in mind?"

"I thought we'd try that new place on South Hayward. The owners placed an ad this week. It sounds quite good."

I turned to Marion, the other woman working in the front office with me.

"Go ahead," said Marion.

"Sara Bronson called this morning," I told JoAnn as I pulled on my coat. "She's having some minor surgery. It looks like she won't be able to do her column next week."

"The gossip column?"

"No, she said she already turned that in. I mean the Focus column. You know, the one that features different people around town."

"Oh, that."

"Unfortunately, I haven't told Mr. P. yet."

"Why not?"

"He's been down in the press room since eleven-thirty."

When we arrived at the restaurant, we found it packed with people. I suggested we leave and find a place where we didn't have to wait, but JoAnn insisted on staying.

"Look, there's Shirley Peterson." She pointed across the dining room.

"Who?" I followed JoAnn as she weaved past waitresses and a group of customers on their way out.

"Shirley used to work at the Star," JoAnn called back over her shoulder. "You'll like her."

A light-haired woman in business attire had seen JoAnn and motioned toward her. "Why, JoAnn, how nice to see you."

JoAnn introduced us.

"Nice to meet you, Winnie. Won't you two join me? It's ridiculous to have to wait."

We sat down. I noted that Shirley was attractive and carried an air of sophistication. She smiled, revealing perfect teeth. "JoAnn, I haven't talked to you in ages. How's Jack?"

JoAnn's face tightened. She hadn't expected the question. But she tossed her head and shook it off with a laugh. "He's fine. Along with his new wife and baby."

Shirley's mouth fell open. Obviously she had not been aware of JoAnn's divorce. Shirley apologized, but JoAnn made light of it.

"Really, Shirley, getting rid of that scum was the best thing that ever happened to me."

A young waitress appeared at the table with a bus tray and towel. She did not appear too experienced as she nervously gathered up the dirty dishes and fumbled with some change.

"How's Mr. Pendergast?" Shirley's eyes focused on me. "How do you like working for him?"

"Oh, I like him."

Shirley sighed. "Dear old Ralph. There are times I wish I still worked at the paper."

The waitress brought three menus. I ordered a pineapple and cottage cheese salad.

"Are you married, Winnie?" Shirley's gaze had fallen on my white gold solitaire wedding ring and diamond. I had not been able to get them off. I was so used to wearing them, I didn't think of the meaning.

"Well..."

"Hey, why are we discussing marriage?" interrupted JoAnn, always my defender when the subject came up.

"It's okay, Jo." I sipped my water.

"Oh, are you newly divorced?" Shirley continued to smile pleasantly.

"No, I'm a widow. Almost a year now."

JoAnn steered the conversation in another direction. "Shirley has three children. One of them is a carrier for the Star. What's his name again?"

"Greg," said Shirley, "and he's only had the route since school started a couple of months ago, but he's really stuck to it." Her cheeks sagged a little. "At least that's the way it used to be. Lately he's been... I don't know. I swear, he's ten years old and should know better than to believe everything he hears."

JoAnn shot me a puzzled look, then asked, "What's wrong? Is he tired of working?"

Shirley sighed. "No, I don't think it's that. Greg is serious when it comes to earning money. He seems to have developed a kind of paranoia the last couple of weeks when he has to deliver the paper. He's fine until Thursday comes around."

"So am I," I quipped.

Shirley looked around. "I wonder where our food is. Anyway, I found out just this morning what Greg's problem is."

The waitress appeared with napkins, silverware and drinks.

Shirley continued, "He will not go near the old manor on Pelton Drive unless someone goes with him. He's afraid of ghosts. Can you imagine?"

I was startled by the mention of Pelton Manor. I was suddenly reminded of my dream. JoAnn seemed reminded of something, too. I could feel the sudden stir in her.

Shirley went on. "Well, after all, a ten-year-old boy is very impressionable. Halloween was just a couple of weeks ago, and some of his friends must have planted the idea in his head. You know how kids are. And with such an old house in the area, especially one as spooky-looking as the Pelton estate..."

"It's a beautiful estate," I interrupted. I opened my napkin over my lap. "Much too nice for ghosts."

"Oh, then you're familiar with the place?"

"It's been many years," I replied. I couldn't help feeling that same warmth and excitement that had swept over me upon waking that morning. I recalled the sound of the train in the distance that had brought me out of my dream state. The railroad tracks ran not too far from Pelton Manor, and as a high school girl I had lain awake nights, listening to the distant train whistles and rumbling of freight cars, thinking about Rob.

"Then you already know about the family tragedy last spring."

I stared at Shirley. "What tragedy?" I felt my heart begin to race.

"Oh, you must have. It was in the papers." Shirley's eyes grew wide. "One of the Pelton sons died in that house."

For an instant I seemed to lose all sense of time. Then I felt JoAnn touch my arm. "Winnie, you're pale. Are you feeling all right?"

"Which one of the Pelton sons?" I heard myself whisper. But I already knew it couldn't be Rob, for I would have heard about it if anything had happened to Rob.

"The oldest. I can't remember his name."

"Benjamin."

"Yes," said Shirley.

My throat felt dry. "Benjamin's dead?"

"You didn't hear about it because you were in Hawaii last spring with your parents," JoAnn explained. "I remember reading about it."

"What happened?" I demanded.

"He was found dead at the bottom of the staircase," Shirley recalled. "It was said to be an accident, but a good friend of my mother works for the Peltons. Apparently she doesn't believe it was an accident."

I hung my head. "Oh my God..."

JoAnn said nothing. I wondered why on earth JoAnn had kept this information from me.

"Then, shortly after, his father died in a rest home," continued Shirley. "Mr. Pelton suffered a stroke right when it happened, so it was really a double tragedy for the family."

The food arrived, but my appetite had been destroyed. I tried to eat what I could of my salad, but memories kept flashing through my head. How could Rob's older brother and their father, Otto Pelton, be dead? What bothered me most was how it had been kept from me for so long. Why hadn't anyone told me?

 


 

CHAPTER 2
The Assignment

"You've been awful quiet since lunch." JoAnn sat in the front office after it closed. Winnie was putting the last of her work away.

"I have?"

"You didn't say a word after we left the restaurant. If it was Shirley... well, I know she can carry on once she gets going, but she doesn't mean any harm."

"Don't be silly, Jo. Shirley's very nice." She really wanted to tell JoAnn how upset she was with her for never telling her about the Pelton tragedy. How could she have withheld information like that from her best friend, particularly when she knew how involved Winnie had once been with Rob?

"Winifred," called Mr. Pendergast.

She turned and saw the boss standing outside his office. "Yes, Mr. Pendergast?"

"I need a word with you."

"It won't take long," she assured JoAnn.

"I'm in no hurry." JoAnn sat down at Winnie's desk and examined her nails and Winnie followed Mr. Pendergast into his office.

"Winifred, I've been giving some thought about Sara," he began.

She slapped her cheek. "Oh no! I forgot."

Mr. Pendergast leaned forward. "Excuse me?"

"Oh, Mr. P., I meant to tell you about her. She called this morning while you were down in the press room. I was going to tell you after lunch. I've just... had other things on my mind."

Mr. Pendergast settled back in his chair. "Marion gave me the message. Actually, I wanted to bounce some ideas off of you. What do you think about our using more human interest stories in this paper?"

Perplexed, she didn't know what to say. "Sure, but Sara's column..."

"Yes, I know. Sara's column has been featuring people from Spundale. Ordinary folks, so to speak. I want your opinion. What would you think about digging up some history?"

Winnie wasn't sure what he was getting at. "The history of Spundale, you mean?"

"I can see I'm not making this clear," he said. "As you know, Sara is not... er, uh... what's the word I want to say? She writes well, but she lacks something. What is it? Getting people to..."

"Appeal?"

"That's it." Mr. Pendergast sat up straight in his chair.

"Appeal. Sara lacks appeal. She's a sweet old lady, but stubborn at times. People sense that in her. Now let's take you. You're an attractive young woman, Winifred. You keep yourself looking nice, and those smiling green eyes of yours... You, Winifred Grant, have appeal."

"Thank you." She felt herself blushing.

"People are comfortable around you. I know I am." He smiled in a boyish way.

"What does this have to do with me?"

"I want you to take over Sara's column while she's gone. It shouldn't interfere with your normal duties, I don't think. If it does, let Marion or one of the other girls in back help you out a little."

Winnie felt flattered that he had asked her to write in Sara's place, but a little incompetent. "But, Mr. Pendergast, I really don't know anything about reporting."

"Oh, nonsense," he growled. "Reporting is nothing. Besides, the kind of writing you'll be doing will be fun. It will be like your little nature column, only more diverse."

How could she explain to him that writing her weekly little two-inch column on birds and wildlife was hardly even a chore as far as she was concerned? Taking over Sara's column would involve talking to people, researching in depth, writing professionally.

"Why are you asking me, Mr. P.?"

"Because I think you'll do the best job."

Her hands were sweating. "I'm sure a lot of other people on the staff could do better. What about Keith or Laura?"

"The reporters are working overtime as it is," said Mr. Pendergast. "Besides, Winifred, I've chosen you for the assignment. If all goes well, Sara will be back in a couple of weeks. Do you accept?"

She smiled helplessly. He was one man it was hard to turn down. "Just what do I have to do?"

When they walked down to the car in the parking lot, JoAnn asked Winnie what that had been all about.

"I think I have to write an article," she replied.

"So? Don't you write one every week?"

"That's different. He wants me to write a real story. Jo, I'm not sure I can do it. Oh, why did I let him talk me into it?"

"What are you going to write about?"

"I don't know yet. Something historical."

JoAnn pushed her dark hair back. "Well, you could do a piece on the high school. You've got George to help you out."

But Winnie didn't want to write about the high school. There was enough in the paper about the local schools, especially on the sports page. "I should be able to find something more challenging than that," she commented.

They rode in silence for a while, and then JoAnn spoke up, "Winnie?"

"What?"

"I know what's been on your mind. It's no wonder you've been quiet."

She said nothing. The car cruised into the residential area of Spundale.

"You've been thinking about Rob Pelton, haven't you?" JoAnn did at times seem able to read her mind. She remembered in high school it had been impossible to keep a secret from her. "Come on, I know you have," she prodded. "I saw how you looked at lunch when Shirley talked about the old manor."

Winnie suddenly felt like getting it all out in the open. "Jo, why didn't you tell me about the Pelton deaths?" she blurted.

"Well, Winnie, you were on vacation then. Was I supposed to remember everything I read? You were gone for two whole months."

Winnie tried to concentrate on the road. "You had to know I would be interested."

"Honestly, I forgot all about it."

Winnie looked at her in a flash of anger, but JoAnn's pleading face convinced her that perhaps her resentment was unfounded. Maybe she actually had thought nothing of it. After all, she never knew the Peltons. On the other hand, it bothered Winnie to have lived these past months not knowing.

"I wonder if Rob ever married," said JoAnn after a long silence.

Winnie didn't say anything right away. Then, as she turned the car down JoAnn's street, an inspiration hit her.

"Jo, you know what I think I'll do?"

"What?"

"An article on Pelton Manor."

"Huh?"

"Why not? It's one of the oldest estates in Spundale. I'll bet there's some good history in that place."

"Sounds like a good possibility," said JoAnn.

Winnie decided to call the Peltons tomorrow and find out if they would be interested in giving her an interview. "Anybody would be happy to be featured in the Star, don't you think?"

she commented. "Uh-huh." JoAnn had a knowing look on her face.

"Now what?"

"Hoping to find out something about Rob?"

She was quick to reply. "JoAnn, that was ten years ago." She dropped JoAnn off at her house, then drove the few short blocks home. She noticed how it was getting darker earlier each night.

Dusk was already settling in as she parked the Dodge in the driveway. She lingered a few moments before getting out. She caught a glimpse of her face in the rear-view mirror and began to think. Ten years -- had it really been that long ago?

Rob Pelton had entered her life during her second year of high school. He had been a senior then, two years older, and oblivious to the fact that she even existed. Winnie had idolized him the entire school year. JoAnn had never understood what it was she thought was so fantastic about Rob, who was quiet and studious. She claimed he was attractive enough, but dull. JoAnn used to tease her that it was his family's wealth that she was interested in. It hadn't been that at all.

Once, in the hall between classes, she had bumped into him and he had smiled at her. But the rest of the year he appeared not to notice her at all. Later she found out he was just as shy as she was. When he graduated, she thought her heart would break. She was sure she would never see him again.

Then the miracle happened. Rob had come to the first summer teen dance with a group of his friends. To Winnie's astonishment he sought her out of the crowd and asked her to dance. She had then found out her feelings for him had not been in vain. They continued to date throughout the summer. Their young love blossomed and grew in ways Winnie had only dreamed.

Before Rob left for college in the East that fall, he had tried to explain to her how important it was to him to receive a full education. He hoped to become a doctor. But at the time she had been too blind and too selfish to understand. Having a boyfriend was new to her. She didn't want to lose him. He promised to write and to see her during college breaks, but she was never to see him after that summer. Although she wrote to him several times, she only received one letter back.

Doomed to a lonely junior year at Spundale High, Winnie resented the fact that Rob never called her or came home on weekends. Of course it was too far to travel, but even during Christmas and Easter she heard nothing from him. She couldn't bear the thought of Rob having found another girl, so she continued to wait patiently and miserably.

When summer came and Rob didn't come home, she began to feel differently. JoAnn was having dates and encouraging Winnie to have fun, too. At first she was reluctant, but when her senior year began, she gave in and let a few boys take her out. Among these had been Alan Grant, a track athlete who made Winnie the envy of the other girls. It wasn't long before she and Alan had a steady relationship. By the time graduation rolled around, she realized she loved Alan. His companionship had helped absorb some of the hurt she still felt over Rob Pelton.

It was getting cold sitting in the car. Winnie got out and checked the mailbox. There was a postcard from Arizona, where her parents presently resided. She took it inside and read it. There was one piece of interesting news: "We are planning on driving up to Michigan for Thanksgiving. Will let you know more about this later."

Before she could reflect on this, the telephone rang. She answered it and a warm, masculine voice met her ears. "Hi, Fred."

"Oh, hello, George." She suddenly remembered he was coming over that evening. "What time should I expect you?"

"That's what I'm calling about," he said. "I have all these exams to correct tonight, and I thought I was going to get some help, but Meyers is in bed with the flu. It'll take me all night to get them done."

"Well, can't I help correct them?"

"How much chemistry did you have in college?" he asked.

She laughed. "Never mind."

"But I'll make it up to you tomorrow night, I promise. We'll go out for dinner and maybe a little dancing. It will be a night you won't forget."

Winnie pondered this a moment. "Hm, sounds like fun." She told George not to work too hard and hung up. Ever since the Audubon meeting in September they had been going out on a casual basis. Winnie insisted there wasn't anything serious between herself and George, although JoAnn and everyone else liked to think there was. She simply enjoyed George's company. He was a chemistry teacher at the high school. He had a certain personality that made her feel at ease. She was perfectly content just to remain his companion.

After a light supper, Winnie dug out the old high school annuals and went through them. There was still a lot on her mind from the day's events. She paged through track shots of Alan, which he had autographed, but mostly made a fool out of herself by finding pictures of Rob and remembering how she used to pine over him. It turned out to be a lonelier evening than if she had switched on the TV or spread out with a good book. An emptiness she had not felt in months began to eat at her.


You won't want to miss reading the rest of this suspenseful tale about a family in Michigan,
torn by a terrible secret, and a young woman blinded by the obsession of her past.

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NIGHT OF THE NOVEMBER MOON
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