"I could be sitting here on a cloud
Watching the sun as it starts to go down
The only thing missing
Is you by my side"
I ducked in the door, giving a cursory look around the grand mansion. The main room was more akin to that of a ballroom, complete with a chandelier and a marble staircase in the back of the room. The tile shimmered like the face of a lake, and arching empty doorways led to different wings on either side of the room. Diane seemed unfazed-why shouldn't she be?-and immediately made for the staircase. However, Blackie circled around her uncertainly, his fur fluffing up. He growled at something that was either me or directly behind me. I froze-I was no match for this dog, or any other dog for that matter. What if he wasn't completely rehabilitated?
Diane didn't look any more at ease. She looked behind herself off into the distance, eyes narrowed and face set grimly. By the look on her face, she looked like she was ready to pounce on something. But what?
"Easy, boy," she murmured finally, turning to keep walking. Grumbling unhappily, Blackie took to trotting by my side as I hiked up the stairs after Diane and Boris. I glanced uneasily at the big black mutt, but decided to trust him as long as Diane did.
"What do you suppose that was?" I inquired, following Diane up the left side when the staircase split. She shrugged, scowling a little.
"If I knew, I'd be acting on it," she replied. "Blackie doesn't just stop and growl for no reason. And he doesn't just freak out for anything, either. It must be something important."
"Knowing canines, whatever he sensed could be a mile away," I rationalized in an attempt to soothe her. In the back of my mind I knew that hers was a very real concern, especially considering me and my history of making enemies. I suddenly felt vulnerable without Butler shadowing me. I threw a glance over my shoulder, scanning for potential hazards that I knew I could never find. In my gut I felt an uneasy churning, a churning that plagued me among other things for the remainder of my day.
"Diane Sullivan, where could you be?" demanded a feminine voice from downstairs. Diane rolled her eyes, but I was feeling an unusual thirst for some form of supervision.
"Shouldn't I at least introduce myself?" I murmured, keeping my voice down for fear of discovery. Diane shrugged dismissively, not appearing to care.
"Just keep your head low, and she'll never know you were here," she instructed, continuing to hike up the stairs. "Half the time she doesn't even know what I'm doing. Deep down she doesn't even care."
"I can hear you, young lady!" called the voice again. Diane sighed and glared a hole into the ceiling with enough intensity to fool me into thinking molten plaster would begin to rain.
"I'll be back," she grumbled. I was almost scared for Diane's so-called mother. "in the meantime, my room's up the right side of the staircase, first room on the left. The main gain knob's on the left stereo, if I left it on."
Without another word to explain, Diane shuffled down the stairs, yelling back at her maternal parent with a shred of profanity. The sound-tech jargon wasn't reassuring. I followed her directions, gracelessly making my way back down to the intersection of the flights and proceeding up the right side of the wall. My legs burned as if I had just climbed a mountain rather than two flights of stairs. I suppose I can't say that my strengths are of the physical quality.
I ignored the doors further down along the hallway in front of me in favor of what was could only be Diane's. Even without the directions, I couldn't have missed it-there was caution tape spread across the door in an obnoxious X and a gritty band poster pasted over it. I put my ear against the door and heard muffled American-style rock. If the soundproofing was professional, which it undoubtedly was given the duchess's budget, then there was a good chance that the noise in there could shatter my eardrums. I braced myself as well as I could, then opened the door a peek.
Even there, the noise was as loud as I dared to push my ears. I waited a moment to desensitize myself, then took a deep breath. It was the same mentality as that of bracing oneself for jumping into a pool-it was better to jump right in and get it over with than waste time in painstaking increments.
In a frenzied moment, I swung the door open, thrust myself through, and slammed it shut again. That's when my eardrums did rupture. Each thud of the kickdrum rattled my skeleton. The bass was magnified thunder, the guitar a bolt of lightning ripping through a steel rod. The droning vocals were barely intelligible through the storm of noise and legendary volume. I could've sworn I felt blood trickling out of my ears. Despite my instinct to run for my life and the pounding of my heart's effort to outplay the music, I was rooted to the spot by the sheer power of the sound system. But my head was panging in agony from the overload, and it took something of no small magnitude to make my head pound. More like something with enough magnitude to make my head explode.
I forced myself to stand apart from the door, leaning into the blare of the music as if it were a 120-kph gale rather than a Western excuse for music. My pain only got worse as I got closer to the twin stereos on either side of Diane's twin-size bed. At the foot of her bed I paused, wasting precious seconds deciding which way I would go if I were to stop the noise. This decision could very well be life or death, for my sense of hearing if nothing else.
The main gain knob's on the left stereo, if I left it on.
I trudged to the left, exhausting the last shreds of my willpower to walk up to the belly of the beast. I stumbled behind the stereo, but found no relief from Diane's relentlessly flawless surround-sound. Tears steaming in my eyes and entire head throbbing, I fumbled at the back of the death machine, my vision swimming and making it nigh impossible for me to find the gain knob. If my brain hadn't been liquified, I probably would have reasoned that it was the giant dial smack in the middle, and been correct.
Desperately swishing it down the left side, I was relieved with silence. Well, it would have been silence, aside from the accursed ringing in my ears. As if viewing myself from above, I stood up, wobbled on my feet, and finally collapsed on Diane's bed. I lay there staring numbly at the ceiling, as senseless as a corpse. I vaguely sensed Diane enter the room and say something, but her speech sounded as if it came from underwater. I recognized her chuckling at me, and the shred of conscious thought I had left made me roll my head over and glare at her.
"You have absolutely no taste." I said blankly.
She laughed and took a flying leap onto the bed next to me, the recoil bouncing me over to the side. She grinned at me, her hair shimmering with an alien iridescence. Her eyes seemed to sparkle at me...no, for me. The world froze for a moment. I felt the edge of my mouth twitch involuntarily. She leaned closer to me, my heart nearing the intensity of the kickdrum.
"You do realize the music's still on, right?"
She ruffled my hair. I sneezed from the hair and dust on the comforter. She laughed at me, her voice harmonizing with distant chimes. I felt something stir within me. And then I laughed, too.