The flame before them sputtered and Jean was uncomfortable by how much dimmer it seemed now. He looked around at the shadows around them and wondered if there were any of them encroaching now to lead him off to a place where they might entice him to something harmful. His grandmother looked him over sympathetically. He shrank in his seat, embarrassed to have been caught getting spooked by her story. Still, he couldn’t help casting a glance back at the doorway and thinking unhappily about the library that he would have to travel through to get to his room.
“Something you must understand, my darling, is that these men wandered into a beast that had wanted very badly to accept them,” his grandmother said, gently. “They were foolish and very greedy. Had they been listening, they might have noticed the many signs that had been put before them to avoid what they had come to do. You are young now but you are not so foolish as that. And I know, child, for I have been where you are now. I know you hear, though perhaps not as well as you could. I know that if you listen, you will hear and you will know these things as I know them. You need not be afraid, child. The things you hear might indeed be frightening sometimes but more often, if you listen, you will know why you are being told. These things you hear, the ones that tell you, they wish you to know so that you might learn and be able to do something about what comes your way.”
“Like now?” Jean said, curling up and bringing his feet up under him while he gazed at the fire. He frowned. “Like how you’re telling me now so that if the house calls, I will know what it wants?”
“Such a clever darling I have,” she smiled but then sighed. “It will call you, my poor darling. I have no doubt about this. It does already and this why you must know these things. The time has come and though your parents wish to protect you, I cannot see to it to keep these tales from you. Not now that I know you have already felt the pull and heard something, if not with your ears then you have in your heart. I know. You must know if you are to be protected. Forgive them for such things because they only want the same thing I do. Your safety.”
“But knowing will not make me safe,” Jean sighed, looking into the light of the fire. “If it calls, it could still be just as bad. It might still want to sing to me like it did to these men.”
“And if it does, you will know the song well enough to know not to blindly follow,” his grandmother replied, calmly. “And suffice it to say, child, I don’t think that I’ve convinced you to go treasure hunting on your own, have I? If I could live in that house with that haunting lullaby and never once succumb to its song, would that not be proof that perhaps there’s more to it than this? And after all these years, though I feel the call of the house in my bones to this day, should it not be some comfort to know that I am still able to listen to those voices and not be driven to madness by them?”
“I guess so,” Jean admitted.
“There you have it,” she said. “Alas, that was not the case for our three wicked men, now reduced down to one. And as luck would have it, he uncovered the most dangerous treasure he might have found in that east wing of the Gemini Mansion.”
Charlie Burton, the last of the three though he had not yet discovered this, had taken quite a similar path initially to Jacob Lord. Up he’d climbed to that darkened hallway in the east wing and he stood in that drafty corridor, making his way forward to the doors there. That said, Charlie was a wee bit craftier than his counterparts. He’d listened carefully to the steps of the other man and waited until he was further into the darkness of that hall before he made his way back down. You see, Charlie thought himself somewhat smarter than the other two and he felt that this entitled him to more of the gains the house had to offer. And just why not? When they had made these initial plans, Jacob had a thriving business that he owned and was driven to get more than his share simply because he felt this county was beneath him. And that George, well he had a well paying job too. Was it supposed to be Charlie’s fault the man couldn’t keep his head during his weekly poker games? No, that Charlie was utterly convinced that life had done him something sore and he was owed something more for it. He didn’t want just some of the riches to get him by, no. He wanted them all and felt a certain pang of annoyance at the idea of sharing. Just as Jacob had been banking on swindling him, he had designs on that fortune that did not include the likes of a one Mr. Lord who happened to be well on his way to his own nasty surprises. Of course, with an attitude like this, Mr. Charlie Burton found something buried all right but in the end, the fortune he found was of a much darker kind.
Clever child that you are, I know you’ve probably figured on who the culprit was that kept the party moving even when they had taken twice as long to get up the hill than he’d promised it would take. I’m sure that you know who’s voice it was spurring them onward when the winds howled their warnings and when the darkness had started to fall upon them as they reached the circle drive. They were not wise men for they allowed their greed to carry them forth but it was Charlie who had continued to flick the reigns when they faltered and it was Charlie now who was approaching a kind of maddened fever for what he looked for. He was here for the treasure, yes he was. That was what he believed, anyway. What he didn’t know was what manner of treasure he thought was looking to find. When they arrived to the disappointing image of those fluttering sheets covering weather worn furniture and a room full of broken glass and a hollow, feral atrium, he knew that there was more there than simply what was before them. He felt a driving urge to find something bigger. Something more important than trinkets and furniture. Trinkets, he knew, would be worth less than the trouble to get back down the drive to get them back to town. Likely whatever it was wouldn’t pay for the gas money that it would have taken to get there. And the furniture would not have been able to be moved easily in the height of summer, nevermind during a driving ice storm in the dark. No, these were not going to work but there was something else there. Something that called for him alone and he was determined to find it first.
Once he was certain that Jacob was preoccupied with what he assumed was a fool’s errand, Charlie made his way back down the steps and began to search around the great hall for any other entrances to other parts of the house. He did not know yet what he was looking for but he figured that it would be stored in a spot that was not used as often. Yes, that was a likely place to put important things. A storage space or a cellar. He had visions in his head of finding artwork that could be smuggled out before Jacob had finished fiddling around with the doors to what Charlie assumed were empty rooms. After all, why would anyone hide anything or gather any of their valuables in unused rooms? What was truly in those rooms is too long a tale for this evening but suffice it to say that it was for the best that those doors were locked. The men might have suffered worse fates should they have discovered what had taken residence in that space. Only Victor knew for certain but he never told and after I had seen it, I was grateful to never had to look again. But that was also not of any interest to our thief here. He would let Jacob take whatever useless item he thought he’d found up there but Charlie wanted the jackpot. He did not know why but he got the urge to find something below ground. Somewhere dark and somewhere that had not seen the light in many years. He was convinced that he would find his true treasure there.
While Jacob toiled above him trying to find his way through that dark hallway and the voices awaited his arrival, Charlie scrambled like a rat below. He was cautious to avoid the yawning mouth that was the doorway to the atrium. Glittering with frost, he could see the shards of broken glass and even some whole window panes remaining and reflected in their darkening faces, he saw the dead branches and the twisted remains of the vines Against the quickly darkening sky, he saw the vegetation seem to move. It seemed like a trick of the light mixed with the bitter wind that swept through the room with each gust but in the darkness, it seemed like those vines were twitching like hands. Like crooked fingers crawling up the space towards him. The wind might have made them do these things but Charlie also thought that neither of them had seen George fall to the bottom. Perhaps something had broken his fall? Maybe he’d survived after all. Maybe he was down there and he’d been able to find that treasure first. Maybe he was injured but he had that magnificent fortune in his hands. The idea drove Charlie mad with envy. He had wanted this house and its prize for himself!
In the gloom of the now fallen night, he found his way around the room before he finally found a doorway that would open for him. As I said before, Victor had believed in modernizing the house and he had all but done away with the hidden doors that the house staff had used in the past. That said, there were some minor indulgences that he’d allowed over the years to appease the adventurous spirits of his children. It was this little corridor that Charlie had found that led to a lower level of the house. How very perturbed Victor would have been to know that this charlatan had come to his house and infected something he’d cherished as a part of his sons’ childhood with his greedy desires. Such things, I assure you, he would have not allowed and might have been driven to take revenge under different circumstances. That said, even Victor’s anger over the desecration of his home was not enough to overshadow the source of Charlie’s vile obsession.
What even Victor had not understood while he was alive, there was something very rotten under that soil. It was something that had been born many years before there was a house or even a family there. It is the thing that draws all the shadows forward towards it, like a great magnet. Those who can still feel the light need not stay but those who are more shadow than light cannot resist its terrible call. Whether it is through song or through obsession, it will bring them out eventually. Such was the case for them all but Charlie, he thought he was more deserving than the others and so the house indeed agreed with him. It called him by name. The rotten ground that would have swallowed every bit of horror that has happened in this county lives beneath that house. Through that little door that had once been the playroom of the happy children in that family, Charlie crept. Down the call brought him, mindful to keep him focused on his goal as the path got darker and darker. He could no longer see and soon even the dim light that had been left of the day at the mouth of the door had been spent. He did not have to wait long, however, before he found exactly what he was looking for.
In the pitch black room at the basement of the house, Charlie was overwhelmed by the scent of roses. The heady, pungent perfume choked the air around him and stung his eyes as he continued forward. As he stumbled forward, he was still fixated on his prize. The treasure was here somewhere, he’d promised himself. He believed still and might have believed himself to death in that darkened basement if not for his feet finding themselves wrapped in something that had been left for him to find. Something that had never been a part of Victor’s house but had been a part of the transformation of the soil into something horrifying. Charlie Burton, greedy and eager to find anything of value in that dank, fetid room, found nothing but a rope. His fingers worked around it to act as his eyes in the darkness only to find what it truly was. A hangman’s noose. Someone had brought him here to find the only truth that had been hidden in this basement. Something even Victor himself never fully solved in his lifetime. The scent of the roses was overpowering him now and he struggled to get up but found that he was tripping more as he realized that he had been fooled into a deadly trap. His fingers found thorny vines everywhere as the scent was overwhelming his senses. Still he grappled his way to the steps, his will forcing him to ignore the pain he was in. Each step he climbed, her could hear the voice of someone nearby. A woman’s voice. A old woman’s cackle at his folly.
Charlie, still of the belief that he would find his way where the others had failed, he tackled each step like it was the last one he would be allowed. His great force of will had some strength to it and through his fumbling, he had found his way up the steps, the vines creeping along with him each step of the way. He found his way to the mouth of the steps that he had come down and he was determined to prove that he would come out better. He called insults to the house as he grappled faster, thinking all the way that he had won. He would come back and empty the whole house, he promised. He would make his way back to town and he would bring everyone here to burn it down. Oh such promises he made but all of them would remain unfulfilled. You see, the vines were thick and they moved so quickly. He didn’t feel them closing in on his leg and as he reached the threshold, ready to free himself from the darkness, instead he only made it half way when he realized that his foot was caught. Fool that he was, he would not allow himself to be slowed down and instead he pulled up and felt the surge of pain run through his leg. In his haste to escape and his boasting of his success, the house had thwarted him. She had thwarted him. His foot snarled in the tangle of vines that had come to claim him, he remained stuck in the growing darkness that Christmas Eve. Even if he were to try to free himself, his foot had been broken by his impatience and he knew that if he reached back into the darkness, it would swallow him the same as it had Jacob or George. Alone in the silent house, Charlie Burton died of the cold. When they found his body, it was pointed towards the open door way still, looking out at the darkness of the room towards the door.
Since that year, every Christmas Eve, Charlie Burton tries once more to flee the house and each year, he searches for salvation but finds none. Each year, Jacob Lord saw the gold of the lights and the sparkle of those trees and down from the house he would venture. Every year at twilight, George Canter emerges desperate to escape the atrium that claimed his life. Each house has a story of one of these three and eventually celebrations here were changed. The three men who had been so desperate to find their treasures are locked out and away from everything that was ever important.
“The people of town told you this, Grandmother?” Jean asked, shivering a bit as the fire began to sputter down into embers.
“No darling,” his grandmother sighed. “Charlie told me, of course.”
“He came here?” Jean said, wide eyed and anxious. “Why would he come to you, Grandmother.”
“Because I needed to know something important before it was my turn to follow the call,” she sighed, a certain sadness in her voice. Jean looked at her and frowned. She looked him over and smiled in response. “And because of this, I am still here now.”
“Are there more shadows that come here? Could the mean ones come here too?” Jean asked, nervously.
“There will always be shadows in that house, darling,” she said, getting up. She rubbed her shoulders as she motioned for him to follow her. “Not all of them mean any harm and sometimes, like Charlie, they might learn from their fate.”
“Grandmother?” Jean sighed as he helped her to drown the embers in the fireplace. “When it’s my turn and the house calls to me, do you think that I might go there with others? Will it call me and I won’t have to go alone?”
“You’re never truly alone, child,” she said with a smile. “When your time comes, you will be prepared. I will see to that no matter what. And remember, darling, there were happy days there too. Places where the shadows could only watch. If it was there once, it could happen there again.”
Once he was back in bed, Jean allowed the sound of his grandmother’s labored footfalls to get quiet before he reached over and turned on the lamp on his night table. He looked around the room at the shadows and shivered. About the only thing in this room that made him feel better was the same package that his grandmother had wrapped for him. The small gift felt like a little piece of her still there with him and he was grateful for the company. From his bed, he looked as well to see if he could see the house. He knew he wouldn’t be able to. He didn’t yet even know where it was but he knew it was out there somewhere. He knew that one day he would see it and he felt a pang of anxiety. He hoped that he was as ready as his grandmother seemed to think he would be. To distract himself from this thought, he picked at the tape on the package and slowly and carefully opened the gift. Inside was a small wooden box and when he opened the small latch on it, there was a key and a small note.
For my darling Jean: Remember always that doors that can be opened can be locked when need be too. When it comes time for you to find that door, you will have everything you need. I love you.
Jean wrapped his hand around the key and kept it hidden under his pillow as he curled up in his bed. He didn’t know if he was ever going to be ready to see that house but when the time came, he would like to think that maybe he could be. He was comforted by the cold metal in his hand of that key as he began to doze. Staring at the cold night sky outside, the storm feeling far away, he heard the soft sound of footsteps coming into his room. He didn’t have the energy to move as the person quickly approached and covered him with an extra blanket. With a sigh he allowed himself to be tucked in and the light softly went out. Before he fell asleep, Jean heard a voice as if in a dream. A deep voice of a man that he didn’t know yet drifted in the wind.
“We will have other Christmases to share, child. Sleep well this night and dream of those you love.”
And with that, Jean closed his eyes and Victor joined the shadows of the trees outside. The chorus of the wind called and the house was lonely. He would not keep his family waiting long.