All right! You actually clicked on the link for this story (as is evidenced by the fact you're reading this). So you're already farther than most people get. Obviously, something in my cliché-ridden summary back there appealed to you. Good. Now all you have to do is read this. All the way through. And the best part is, I can't even guarantee that it'll be worth it in the end. So just do what I do when I read other stories. Scroll to random parts (except the climax and resolution), scan a bit, and see if you like what you read. If so, start from the beginning. Careful, though. It's pretty long.
My story begins a lot earlier than when it first seemed to. This, of course, comes with the advantage of retrospect, which was something I didn't have when I first heard the voices. Before then there had been clues; small ones that didn't seem then to be of any importance. They were the sort of little things that you don't pay attention to but wish you had, because they might have made your life easier.
You see, it all started when my folks received a letter from Alexander Bess, apparently an old friend of Mom's, who was inviting us out to a good old-fashioned Christmas party at his mansion in the village of Muse, Michigan. If you haven't heard of the place, then I feel better: I hadn't, either. But Mom and Dad became excited, because Alexander Bess hadn't held a party in over sixty years.
The first thing that struck me as we wound our way through what must have been the downtown of the village that Saturday was how small it was. A few houses were scattered on the hills a ways back, but otherwise it took less than three minutes to drive from one end of Main Street to the other. And this was through two feet of snow.
The second thing was how depressing it was. The whole village looked worn out. The people on the street, although smiling or inclining their head to others they knew, had this sense of falsehood and loss about them, like it was only for show, and they were really only trying to give each other strength by appearing confident and cheerful themselves. Even their eyes reflected a feeling of someone long lost, and drifting farther away from where they wished to be. The buildings looked like it was only stubborn determination that kept them standing, and even then it wouldn't be for very longer. Even the weather; gray, cold, and bleak, spoke of a long suffering that couldn't be seen or felt, but resided in the conscious of everyone.
The entire village was alive, and had grown tired of it.
Then we saw the mansion, and if anything the weather grew drearier. Set atop the tallest hill, practically glaring down on poor Muse, stood a two-story building, wide, dark, and dreary. With an unusually frigid-looking sky as its backdrop, it loomed up in classic haunted-house style, refusing to let the sun brighten it in any way. The brickwork was dark, the trim darker, and (perhaps most disturbing) the windows darkest.
We pulled into the driveway and followed it as it ducked and dodged around trees on its winding path to our destination, and at the top found four other cars already there. One of them, a 2001 Ford Expedition, made my dad sigh.
"I see the Millers made it," he said, wincing.
"Now we really do have something to look forward to," muttered Mom. "Theodore and Margaret babbling about their accomplishments in insurance."
"I hope the insurance for that SUV screws them," Dad added. "If I ever see their sport ute with a "for sale" sign, I'll be the happiest person on earth."
They chuckled to themselves.
Dad pulled the car into a vacant space beside the Expedition, and we got out. From atop the vehicle Dad distributed the suitcases, and in the drab weather we trooped toward the large front doors. Suddenly they swung open, and the tall form of an older boy outlined the light radiating from inside.
"Hey, Uncle Rick!" the boy said. "You need any help?"
"Your dad should have forced you to check on us three minutes ago, Jeff." Dad answered. "That is what Allen did, didn't he?"
Jeff grinned. "Yeah." He helped my sister Lisa with her things, and led us inside to the lobby.
I can't imagine ever forgetting the first thing I felt when I walked into the mansion that day. And I thought outside was depressing. The mansion seemed saturated with it. The colors, from red to polished cream to dark-stained oak, might have at one point been beautiful, but now they were faded, and covered with at thick coating of dust. Of course, what immediately caught your eyes was the grand staircase that faced you as you walked in. It was one of those elegant ones where the handrails curve into spirals for no reason, other than it looks fancy, at the apex and nadir. The staircase didn't directly face the front door, but rather opened up to the left, and in the space left over on the right was a small lobby, almost, with what used to be comfortable, plush chairs and couches. Against the huge wall over this lobby area – the staircase connected to a balcony, so the wall reached all the way to the top floor of the mansion – were a pair of framed portraits. One contained a beautiful older girl, with a red dress and a startlingly beautiful diamond necklace with a jewel at its center. The other was younger; my age, I guessed, with a green dress and a similar necklace. The only thing that distinguished the necklaces, I soon realized, was the color of the jewel, which matched the color of their eyes; blue for the younger one and brown for the older one.
"Quite a pair, aren't they?" Jeff asked from behind, startling me.
"Yeah," I answered. "Who are they?"
Jeff shrugged. "I asked that to Mom, but she said to me, quote, 'later.' So she's hoping I'll forget." He grinned. "Boy, will I show her."
I laughed. My cousin was one of the greatest guys I knew. He had this wry, cynical attitude, but he managed to encourage everyone around him to be themselves. He would still tease them, however, but no one cared: he teased himself too.
In fifteen minutes Jeff and Uncle Allen had my sister and parent's luggage in their respective rooms. These were located on the second floor, down the hall from the staircase in the lobby, which divided the guest rooms in half.
"Who all's here?" I asked after he showed me my room. "I haven't seen anyone else except you and your dad."
Jeff unfastened my suitcase and helped me throw my clothes in a drawer. "My mom's downstairs getting dinner ready. But let's see…um, Mr. and Mrs. Miller and their son; Tobias, I think."
I snorted. "That's his real name? Tobias?"
Jeff grinned. "I know. I'd feel sorry for him, but he seemed like a real jerk the few seconds I talked to him."
"Well, you can't judge a person in only a few moments," I remarked. "Maybe he gives bad first impressions, but is a real decent guy once you get to know him."
Jeff thought about it, then shook his head. "Nope. He's an ass."
"Oh." I shrugged. "So who else?"
"Besides the Millers, the only other people are the Carters and McClintoks. Mr. Carter and his daughter Rachel, and Mr. and Mrs. McClintok and their son. Dan, I think it was."
I waited a moment. When he said nothing more, I asked, "That's it?"
He nodded. "Quite a turnout, isn't it?" By now I had finished putting my clothes away – I'm not much for finesse – and he was waiting for me by the door. "Dad told me he used to have the best parties every Christmas. Lots of people, lots of food, presents, dancing…you say it, he had it."
Suddenly he looked at me with daring eyes. "We've got about half an hour before dinner. Have you seen the ballroom?"
I stared at him. "This place has a ballroom?" He nodded. "How big is it?"
Jeff looked around for something to compare it to. "Not really big," he finally said. "Not like anything in the movies. But it's pretty big." He went to the back of my room and swept his hand along the wall, looking at me. "It takes up the entire back half of this place, see, and looks out over the lake. It even has one of those fancy grand staircases, just like the one in the lobby. Talk about an entrance! We should go see it."
I agreed, and he led me out. It turns out the second-story entrances to the ballroom were on either end of the hallway our rooms opened onto, and had staircases at each end that were just as fancy as the one in the lobby, curving down to the floor. There was a balcony between the stairs that overlooked the ballroom, and when we rounded the corner and walked out upon it, I saw one of the most remarkable views ever.
Before us hung a brilliant chandelier, which would have been astonishing had it not been for the dust; golden and intricately shaped, with eight golden chains that dangled down from the ceiling to eight lamps. Immediately behind the chandelier, taking up almost the entire rear wall of the ballroom, were six two-story windows, which captured perfectly the view of the Muse Lake in the distance, which stretched out like a vast white desert. Low on the pale horizon was the sun, which coated the room with its red light as it slowly sank to the ground.
We stood there, momentarily transfixed by the sight, before Jeff shook his head and nudged me. "Come on."
Down on the first floor, the most prominent thing (aside from the windows) was the dance floor, which lay in the middle of the room, surrounded by sofas, chairs, tables, lamps, and couches, where the staircase deposited us. The balcony, I saw, was supported by four pillars, two on either side of what might have been a sort of bar. On the side walls were two enormous stone fireplaces, coated in dust. There were a few sparse pictures; one that caught my interest was of a woman and her baby.
I became drawn to the windows, and stood looking at view beyond. Soon I felt someone come up behind me. "It sure would have been incredible," I stated solemnly, acting totally different from the person I had been not ten seconds ago. "It kind of makes you wonder what went on here, you know? All those years ago, back when this place was newer and taken care of. I wonder how many other people looked out these windows over the years?"
"Huh?" Jeff's voice came from across the room.
I came of my reverie, shocked. "How'd you get—" I started, then stopped myself. There was no one standing beside me, I now saw. But I had felt someone. I think. Now I wasn't so sure, because the only other one in here was Jeff.
"What were you saying?" Jeff called.
"I was, uh…talking to myself, apparently," I answered, smiling sheepishly. "I thought you were over here."
I started across the room to where he was standing, but was interrupted en route by my dad's voice. "You guys had better get washed," he said, poking his head through the doors on the main floor. "Dinner's almost ready."