With a look over my shoulder, I entered the mansion. I let the door close naturally behind me. The hall was empty when full of light, but as the light faded with the shutting door, Martha became visible. When the door was completely closed, she looked full and solid, the middle-aged version of Martha. She was wearing the party dress, I realized that Mike was right, that the dress custom tailored for the 15-year-old Martha fit the middle aged one very tightly, making her look both a little ridiculous, and slightly sexy at the same time. We walked towards each other and stopped a little more than an arm’s length apart. I pulled out my invitation.
“I’ve returned, but this time with invitation in hand,” I said.
“And you are just in time, Mr. Baxter,” she said. “The ball has begun.” I grew aware of the faint music from above us. “I need to say a few words so you truly understand what you are about to witness.”
“Sounds good to me.” She turned old for a flash, then returned to middle-aged.
“First, understand that you can see our world more than most of the living, so we can see you better than we can see most of the living.”
“That makes sense.”
“It goes the other way. I can see the living more than most, so more of the living can see me.”
“But it takes practice. You can see much, much more now than you could have only a month ago.”
“Well I have been seeing more, that’s for sure.”
“Some can see more than you, much more.”
“And it isn’t just spirits. There is more. Many things. For instance, the ball.”
“And if the ball isn’t a spirit or spirits, what is it?”
“It is a shadow of the past. It is an imprint on the fabric of space and time. It isn’t perfect. The more emotion there is, the more it is imprinted. In ways, it is like your… your… The thing where pictures move.”
“Movies? Cinema? Film?”
“It is like that, not like a play. But then again, it isn’t like the movies. It is not a perfect recording. Parts are missed. Parts fade over time and go away. Events erase some. As I said, the more important emotionally they are, they more visible. If there are 20 people in the room, but only a few have high emotions, perhaps only a half a dozen will be imprinted.”
“But I can trust it?”
“Yes. I just need you to know that this is not like me. You can’t interact with it. You watch it. But you can, and must act, once you understand.”
“Yes, but what I want to know…”
“No. Go up there now. It has started. Watch, understand and then act.”
She flashed to the young version of Martha, even prettier than I remembered, and looked over her shoulder, up the stairs to the music. She turned back to me. “Isn’t it exciting? This will be my first real ball. Now go up and watch.”
She blinked out of existence.
I walked up the stairs. I had thought it would be totally dark, but there were lamps lighting the way.
I could feel Martha behind me, whispering in my ear. “Most who can see me can feel the ball happening, but you’ve grown and can experience it. Also, know that the closer it is to April 27, the stronger it is. We are just days away, so it is rarely as visible.”
I turned, but she wasn’t there.
I continued to the top step and entered the ball room. The beauty took my breath away.
The modern ballroom was supposed to be an exact replica of the original 1821 room, but there was an aura missing in the modern version that filled the 1821 room. The golden lamp light created an ambiance, and the music heightened it. It was real, and yet it was like a dream.
At first I could only see three people. Abigail was at the far end of the room. She looked like a queen surveying her domain. In the room, I could see Martha dancing with a young man who I assumed was Samuel. Love radiated off of them, like the heat off of a stove.
Just as I wondered if they were alone, the room was filled with people. Some were dancing, some were watching, and others talking. I could see them as plain as if they were in the room, and could hear the noise. But as I watched, a person would fade away. Perhaps they’d show up again, perhaps not.
I watched the ball in fascination. The music was always loud and present, but the voices weren’t. Abigail, Martha and Samuel were always there, but the others faded in and out.
I walked to the door and could see a younger teen watching in fascination. I knew this must be Margret. For a moment, a small boy joined her, but then disappeared again.
Had Jessica watched this ball when she fell in love with the ball room? Does she dance along with the people from almost two hundred years ago? I could only guess that she did. And I could understand it. The kaleidoscope of people, the music the feeling. For although the ball was seen and heard, more than anything it was felt. This was a happy time. Although the people stayed “respectable”, there was a sexual tension in the air. When the teen lovers came by, I could almost taste the hormones. I could understand how the very sexual Jessica would fall in love with it.
I don’t know how long this idyllic ball lasted. I know it was over 45 minutes, but I doubt if it were two hours. But maybe it was. Time moved in a strange fashion, sometimes skipping, sometimes speeding up, and occasionally slowing down.
I had walked around the ball near the beginning, but after a while found a place to stand out of the way. It wasn’t that I was afraid anyone would notice, it was just that it felt very unsettling to walk through people. They looked so solid, so real. And then to pass through the solid person, I would feel the tingles go up my spine. Martha had told me that these were only shadows, memories, not spirits or ghosts, let alone living people, but they appeared so alive. So I stood out of the way, for a while close to Abigail, but I later moved to the entryway close to the stairs.
Martha and Samuel moved out to the head of the stairs. She shushed Margret and moved behind a stand, so her younger sister couldn’t see. I, on the other hand, followed.
The two lovers whispered sweet nothings for a few moments. He then reached down and gently kissed her. She threw her arms around him and they kissed more seriously, more passionately.
Suddenly embarrassed and wanting to give the kids their privacy, I spun around. I was face to face with Thomas. He looked exactly as I’d seen him in my dream about the mill, only he was standing still, not trying to hit me.
“Martha!” he said. “Stop that and come with me into the ballroom.” He turned. “Margret, go back to bed. Immediately.”
Martha left her lover’s arms and came to stand in front of her father. He leaned something against the wall next to the door as he entered the ballroom. I couldn’t see it well, but I thought it was a cane, though it appeared heavy. Martha followed her father into the ball room and I followed behind her.
As we walked through, everyone tried to talk to Thomas. He was very congenial, but made it obvious that he couldn’t stop to talk. He greeted Abigail with a formal kiss to her cheek. He turned and placed the two women of the family in front of him.
“May I have a word with you?” He asked. “Please.” The music stopped and voices reduced to a murmur, then silence. “Thank you. It has been a very nice evening, no doubt. The orchestra sounds just lovely. I want to thank you all for celebrating my beautiful, charming, and may I say, outgoing to the point of being bold, daughter tonight. Now that she has been officially introduced to society, I am sure there will be no stopping her. She has tasted the dancefloor in full bloom, instead of watching through a crack in the door, like her sister Margret is forced to do. Margret, I said go to bed. Now”
The room laughed.
“And in this garden of a room, filled with twirling butterflies and flowers of you dancers, Martha has entered her adulthood with grace. Someday she may even equal her lovely mother, my dearest wife, Abigail.”
I was amazed at his speech. He was so sincere and gracious as he talked about his wife and daughter. They all glowed and the people ate it up. No one seemed to think it was an act, they all took it at face value. He was the proud father of a pretty and talented daughter who was officially entering the world for the first time. He was the doting husband, his first love with his wife still fresh after all of the years and children.
Was this the man I had been hearing about?
And the ladies, Martha and Abigail, beamed with pleasure at his words. Was the hatred I had heard about an invention of a different age?
After talking about the ball and his family for a while, he said, “I am sure you are all wondering why I am late. I was unexpectedly detained with the demands of business. Unlike other unlooked for delays, this one was quite pleasant. I have exciting news about the mill and the town.”
The crowded started to talk at once. I could hear some individual voices saying things like, “Do tell, my good sir,” but for the most part, it was just a confusion of noise. Thomas held his hands up, commanding silence.
“You will all know in good time. For now, I must talk to some of the important players.” Thomas started to name names and point to people. With how the crowd reacted, there was a slight surprise in some of the people he called out. “All of you that I named, please meet me in the executive room of the mill in an hour. I will talk to you first, and then in the morning I will make sure that the rest of the town knows. I will start with those present here, of course.” He gave a slight bow of acknowledgement to the people present.
“The ball is now over.” He held up his hand for quiet once more. “yes, it is highly unfair of me. Since I did end this early, I will let Abigail plan another ball for mid-June. I know, I know, some of you think that it is easier to find the teeth of a laying hen than to get a ball out of Thomas Goode, but you have my word of honor as a gentleman. I will make sure that the ball in June is the best ball Amesbury has ever seen. We will call it ‘A Prelude to Summer’.”
I was shocked as I watched him talk to the town. He had more charisma than almost any other person I had ever seen. He was the type that could hold people enthralled by just reading a phonebook. Yet he did so much more. He made jokes, often obviously inside jokes with particular people. He brought up old memories. If he were a politician, he’d have every vote in the room. Perhaps including mine.
How could this handsome, outgoing man be a killer? It didn’t make sense. I found myself liking him even though I suspected that he had killed multiple people, including his own father. He was a monster. Or was he? Was it possible that he had been framed? Was he really the good man the other mill owners knew? Was history tainted by people out to get him?
I shook my head. I promised myself that I would not fall under his spell. I thought of my dream of him striking with an iron bar, of the bodies he dumped in the mill.
He finally ended his speech and told everyone to go home. He reminded the few he had chosen to meet him at the mill in about an hour. As if on cue, a clock could be heard chiming the hour, 10:00, from someplace inside of the mansion.
With Abigail and Martha in tow, he went to the head of the stairs and talked to the guests as they left. His charm continued to pour out. Abigail smiled and chatted, but now that I walked up closer to her, I could see the underlying tension. The façade she wore during his speeches was just that, a front put in place to hide her discomfort. Martha only half paid attention, focusing more on Samuel, who was standing opposite her. Some of the older people seemed to think her quite rude, but I could see that she was a teen in love.
After everyone was out, Thomas told Samuel to leave. If he wanted to, Samuel could meet him at the mill, but his presence wasn’t needed. Thomas waited until Samuel was on the second floor before he turned to Martha.
“Now, my dear daughter, please go to bed. Find Margret and make sure she is also sleeping. Peek in at George too. I need to talk to your mother in private before I go back into town.”
Martha curtsied, gave her mother a kiss on the cheek and headed to the second floor.
Thomas took Abigail by the elbow and pulled her into the ballroom. I could tell his grip hurt her arm.
“Finally alone,” he said. “Maybe we can clear this up once and for all.” Thomas’ face had transformed into a snarl.