“You’re crazy!” yelled Rachel. “What’s wrong with you?”
“You take that back about Mom and Dad.” Elsie reached up and grabbed a handful of her sister’s black hair and tugged, eliciting a yelping scream. Rachel was about to retaliate with a strong punch to Elsie’s shoulder when the speaker above the door whistled into life. A string of abstract barks preceded the only five words the two girls could make out:
“NO AGGRESSION IN THE DORMITORY!”
The sisters froze. Elsie let Rachel’s hair fall from her fingers. Rachel dropped her arm to her side. They both stared at the loudspeaker. It crackled a few times, ominously, before falling silent. Elsie edged over to her bed; she grabbed Intrepid Tina and pulled her to her chest. Rachel, in a clear spirit of defiance, walked over to the doors and stood beneath the loudspeaker, studying it. She looked around the room, marking the four corners where the walls met the ceiling.
“What are you doing?” whispered Elsie.
“Looking for cameras,” said Rachel. “How else can they know what we’re doing?” She tried the handle of the door and found it was unlocked. She peeked her head into the hallway beyond before turning and gesturing to Elsie. “Come on,” she said. “It’s clear. Let’s explore.”
As they toed quietly onto the linoleum checkerboard of the hallway, Elsie hissed to her sister, “Did you see any cameras?”
“Can’t tell. If there are, they’re super secret.”
The hallway was quiet and dimly lit by a line of grim fluorescent lights on the ceiling. To their left was the stairway down to the first floor; to their right, the hallway ended in a closed door. They listened intently for footsteps. When none came, Elsie followed her older sister as she walked toward the door to their right. She held Intrepid Tina pressed tightly to her chest. The door opened with a loud creak and revealed a set of wooden stairs leading up. Taking them, the sisters found themselves in a vast attic room decorated similarly to their dormitory: a matrix of perhaps thirty beds occupied the wooden floor. The ceiling of the room followed the contours of the building’s roof, all angles and low overhangs. Dangling lightbulbs, contained in small metal cages, hung from a central beam and provided what little light there was. A chill pervaded the room. The threshold of the entryway had a sign hanging down that read HERREN. Elsie pointed to it. “What does that mean?” she whispered.
“Boys,” responded Rachel, “I think. Or girls. One of the two. I get them mixed up.”
“It must mean boys,” Elsie puzzled out, “because we were put downstairs. And we’re girls. So this must be the boys’ dorm.”
“Way to go, Sherlock,” said Rachel.
“Thanks,” said Elsie, missing the sarcasm.
A noise startled them. It was a metallic clanking, coming from the far end of the room. They walked toward the sound, Rachel in the lead, Elsie following close behind. They arrived shortly at the noise’s source: a metal grate covering an air duct in the floor behind the farthest bed. The clanking, intermittent and distant, was being amplified through the vent from some other place in the building. Listening closer, Elsie could tell that it was actually many smaller metallic noises, sounding in chaotic syncopation. It creeped her out. She squeezed Intrepid Tina; she wished they’d never left the other dormitory. And so she was relieved to hear her sister whisper over her shoulder, “C’mon.”
They padded back down the stairs to the hallway they’d left, and Elsie, on seeing the door to their dorm, began walking more quickly. Rachel stopped her. “Where are you going?” she whispered.
“Back in here,” said Elsie, pointing to the girls’ dormitory. A sign reading DAMEN was affixed to the jamb.
“I thought we were exploring. What about that noise?”
“Rachel!” pleaded Elsie. “I don’t care about the noise. I just want to … I just want to…”
“To sit and wait for Mom and Dad to come home? You’ve got a long wait, Els.”
Elsie folded her arms across her chest.
“C’mon,” said her sister, smiling beneath her wiry hair. “What would Intrepid Tina do?”
The green commercial carpet of the staircase’s runner was deeply worn in the middle, and the wooden steps creaked at the girls’ every footfall. Rachel moved ahead of Elsie to the landing where the stairs took a 180-degree turn; arriving there, she directed her sister to freeze with an urgent wave of her hand. A woman was speaking on the floor below. Her tone was firm and castigating. Elsie joined her sister, pressed against the banister at the landing, and listened.
“Edward,” the woman said. This was undoubtedly Miss Mudrak. Her accent was as thick as a particularly chunky borscht. “You finishing just now? It is almost end bell.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” replied a boy’s voice. Elsie assumed it to be the boy she’d met mopping. “I’ll be quicker next time, promise.”
“You will, or back to the shop for you.”
The sound of a large door opening and swinging shut interrupted the conversation. Then: footsteps on the ancient boards of the downstairs hallway. Elsie and Rachel heard Desdemona usher the boy Edward away. She spoke now to the person who’d just arrived. “Darling, you seem to me exhausted.”
The man’s voice was weary; he needn’t have said a word to affirm Desdemona’s assessment. “Long day,” he said. “Don’t even ask me about it.”
“And you spoke to Mr. Vigman?”