Marley didn’t believe in ghosts.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She believed in ghosts in the figurative sense, like mistakes that come back to haunt you or people from your past that hold you back. But literal ghosts like those that slam doors or possess cursed objects, well, those didn’t exist.
But there was something about the house that always drew her attention. Marley found some strange kinship with the house–both of them outcasts in this town in the middle of nowhere that was much too small for anyone who didn’t fit in. Matheson Manor was that house all the kids in the neighborhood avoided growing up. It was the house where they dared each other to set foot on the front step, or knock on the door, or touch the gate.
Those were just children’s games. The ghosts were children’s stories. What happened to the Mathesons was a tragedy. A house fire killed their baby daughter on Christmas Eve in 1967. Mrs. Matheson got sick and died not long after, and by the time the new year came around, Mr. Matheson had gone mad with grief and killed himself. It wasn’t the house’s fault that so much sadness hit one family in the span of a few months. It was just bad luck.
When Marley was a senior in high school, she used to sit on the steps of the Manor and write poems. Long, sad poems about the stillness of the house in the absence of the happy family that used to live there, or short, snarky verses about her careless peers who would try to break in and party there only to be run off by the sheriff of their small town.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise for Marley to come home from college and find herself in front of the house once again. She didn’t get into medical school. She’d broken up with her boyfriend and didn’t have a place to stay because his name was on their lease and he made it clear that he wasn’t going to leave. Having nowhere else to turn, she came home. And as soon as she told her best childhood friend Trina that she was coming, she got an invitation in her inbox.
“Seance at Matheson Manor. Newly renovated and ready for your paranormal investigations!” the event page read. Under it, Trina’s message: “I always wanted to see what this place looked like on the inside! Let’s go!”
Someone had purchased the old mansion, which stood abandoned and rotting on the outskirts of town since the Mathesons passed away. Whoever this out of towner was had gutted the place and completely renovated it from the ground up. It angered Marley to a degree. It felt like an invasion of her privacy to have a place that she felt so drawn to be raised and resurrected without her consent. But more than that, it piqued her curiosity.
This is how she found herself standing on the sidewalk outside the newly renovated Matheson Manor with Trina in the sticky summer evening, the kind that only Indiana can deliver, with lightning bugs aglow all around her and cicadas chirping in the trees. The house was nearly recognizable. The lawn was neatly trimmed, bushes cut in clean rows, windows lit against the dying light of day. This was a sight she had never seen in her lifetime. Usually, the house was dark, covered in weeds and trees, bushes out of control.
“Wow,” Trina whistled as she took in the Manor’s new look. “Somebody spent a hell of a lot on this place.”
Marley took in the grounds, the new garage, the flowers planted around the edge of the house. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Who did you say bought it?”
Trina shrugged. “Some guy from Indianapolis. Big time ghost hunter. He swears this will bring more tourists to Seymour and make us some money.” She shakes her head. “I just want to see what he did with the place.”
Marley didn’t respond. She didn’t know what to say. Instead, she took in the eager faces of those that stood on the sidewalk with them. The teenage girl and her friend. The young man and his wife, both about Marley’s age. The elderly woman in a black lace dress with long, flowing sleeves. It was much too hot to wear something so elaborate, which made Marley stare longer than she should’ve. The woman caught Marley looking, but instead of glancing away, the lady smiled and nodded, almost as if she knew who Marley was. Startled, Marley pretended to be listening to Trina, who had moved on to updates about her girlfriend and their new house in one of the housing editions nearby.
Just as Marley was about to ask Trina a question, the front door of the Manor opened and a well-dressed man stepped onto the porch. He strode toward them with confidence and showmanship, like he had done this a thousand times before. He was a handsome middle-aged man, with salt and pepper hair and tortoiseshell glasses that perched on his long, thin nose. Instead of hiding his face, they only accentuated the inquisitive intelligence behind his deep brown eyes.
“Good evening,” he said in a deep but soothing voice. “My name is John Reyes, and I want to welcome you to a Seance at Matheson Manner.” He bowed deeply so his guests could see the house silhouetted behind him. It would’ve been a good shot if Marley were a photographer. Trina already had her phone out and snapped enough photos for them both.
After everyone took turns introducing themselves, John smiled at the group. “You’re very lucky, you know. I only like to have a small group when I conduct seances, and you six were the first to purchase tickets. You will be the first to see the inside of the newly renovated manor, and perhaps you will be the first group to speak with the dead.”
The rest of the group laughed nervously, but Marley stayed silent. She had a bad feeling this was going to be some gimmick to capitalize on the pain of the Matheson family. She looked at Trina, whose eyes were sparkling with excitement. Trina had always been into anything paranormal. She was in her element. Marley didn’t want to ruin it, so she sighed and followed John Reyes and the others into the house.
“This is the foyer,” John announced when they were all inside. The floors were newly polished hardwood, the light fixtures were vintage crystal chandeliers of varying sizes, and the staircase wound in a wide spiral to the top. The walls were topped with crown moulding in earth tones of soft gray and white, and the long hallway leading to the back of the house was adorned with portraits in gilded frames.
“As you can see,” John continued, “we’ve done extensive work, but I tried to keep the original design and layout from when the house was first built in 1902. The portraits on the walls are of all the previous owners, including a family photo of the last Mathesons that owned the property.”
Marley trailed behind the others as John led the group down the hall and past the photos. They seemed to be arranged chronologically, with the oldest photographs looking like they were taken when the camera was first invented. Most of the photos were of men standing tall with serious expressions on their faces, and as she walked farther, the photos would include wives, and then children. There were at least seven families that occupied the Manor in its long life, and judging by the placards below each photo, they were all Mathesons.
Marley stopped at the last photo, the one of the Mathesons that died in 1967 and 1968. They were seated at a large couch in the living room decorated in the mod style of the time. Mr. Harold Matheson sat in the middle, a wide smile offsetting his bald head shining in the light of the photo and his right arm wrapped around the shoulders of his wife. Mrs. Delilah Matheson was a vision in her dress, a short, white floral fit and flare, that was elegantly spread around her as she leaned into her husband’s protective touch. Her smile showed contentment.
But what Marley saw next made her stomach fall to the floor in shock. In Delilah Matheson’s arms was not one baby, but two. Twins. Marley brought a finger up to the portrait to rest under the babies. “Mr. Reyes,” she said, her voice coming out louder than she meant it to.
He must’ve been mid-sentence because everything got quiet and Marley could feel all the eyes of the group on her. “Yes, miss?”
“The Mathesons only had one baby. Rachel. She was the one that died in the fire. Why are there two babies in this picture?” she asked without looking away from the photo.
“Ah, that’s a good question,” John replied. “The Mathesons actually had twins. Rachel and Renee. When Rachel died, Delilah Matheson was so sick with grief that Renee went to stay with a family member in the city. Then, she became ill, and Harold was too beside himself to care for baby Renee. After he committed suicide, his will and testament stated that custody of his children should go to his brother, but his brother passed not long after that of a stroke. No one knows precisely what became of baby Renee.” He moved from the front of the group to where Marley stood. “I tried to find her when I bought the house out of respect, but I couldn’t find records. I suspect she was adopted by another family and her old name was gone. Anywho, shall we move on?”
The tour continued, each room more beautifully decorated than the last. Marley moved through each part only half-listening. She couldn’t stop thinking about the other baby. She felt sad for Renee, who lost her entire family before she even knew them, but she couldn’t shake the sense that some knowledge was there, just beyond her reach, just past her awareness. Maybe the house was getting to her, or maybe she needed to sleep.
After the tour, the group gathered in the drawing room. A round table had been set with eight chairs, and in the center was a wooden ouija board circled with candles. “Now that it is dark,” John said, “let us begin the seance. Please have a seat.”
Marley took a place next to Trina while the others slid into their spots. The elderly woman sat near the top of the board, and John took a spot next to her. He lit the candles with a small lighter from his pocket and the elderly woman spoke. “I am Rose Richards,” she said, “and I am a psychic medium. Mr. Reyes asked me to lead us in this seance, and I want to ask you to follow all directions I give tonight.”
Marley suppressed the urge to scoff as the old lady spoke. This was a scam. Mediums, psychics, whatever. None of that was real. But she still found herself listening as Rose spoke about seances, why they work, and how to behave during them.
“This is a place where the veil is thin,” Rose said at the end of her instructions. “All of you were called here for a reason. Places like this draw those who are in what we call liminal space–a transition. Think of that transition now. Close your eyes. Are you in between jobs? Relationships? Homes? What about your family? What about your life is in between? Hold that in your mind as we begin the seance.”
Marley looked around at all the closed eyes, and Rose met her open ones. Marley didn’t like the look she found there. It was full of pity, like Rose knew Marley was going through a hard time. Marey closed her eyes just to avoid the old woman, and then found herself thinking of her problems in spite of her skepticism. Her failures in school, her failures in love, and even her falling out with her mother. She hadn’t spoken to her mother since last year, and all of it was over an ancestry test she took a year ago. The test said Marley was adopted, a secret her mother kept until confronted with the results.
Then she thought of baby Renee, and how Renee was probably adopted. It made her feel more connected to this house and the family that last lived there. They were so happy. Marley wondered if her birth family had a choice or if she was a victim of horrible circumstances, too. She hadn’t paid the extra fee to get the names of people who matched with her as family. She wasn’t ready to open that door yet.
“Now we will ask the spirits questions,” Rose said, her voice soft, almost a whisper. “We are here to learn. We come with respect for all who inhabit this home. We want to communicate with the honorable dead.”
Marley took a deep breath as the air thickened. Maybe it was her thinking about her liminal space, as Rose said, or maybe it was being in this house for the first time. She knew it was ridiculous. Ouija wasn’t real, and neither were ghosts. But something about this place made her focus on herself in a way that made her uncomfortable.
“You may open your eyes,” Rose said. “Now, everyone place one finger on the planchette. Remember to keep your touch light and focus your energy on the board. Envision light coming from your heart, through your arm, and out of your finger.”
Trina was practically buzzing with excitement as her finger was first on the planchette. Marley followed as the others in the room did the same. It was hard to have six people touching the same small object at once, but they managed it without bumping into each other too much.
“Are we speaking with any spirits in the house?” Rose asked. “If there is a spirit of the Matheson family present, would you please move the planchette to yes?”
Nothing happened for what seemed like forever, but when you’re sitting in a silent room with mostly strangers, seconds can seem like a long time. Just when Marley was about to pull her hand away, the planchette moved. Everyone in the room reacted with excitement, but no one took their finger away as the planchette rested on the word yes. “Oh my God!” Trina said, excitement and fear in her voice.
“Thank you,” Rose responded. “Could you tell us which Matheson we are talking to?”
Again, the planchette moved. This time spelling out H-A-R-O-L-D. Everyone exclaimed or cursed in surprise, but Marley thought that John Reyes might be controlling it. He was the only one who didn’t say anything.
“Thank you,” Rose said again. “Harold, is there anything you want to say to us?”
There was no delay this time. The planchette sped across the board, faster than before, spelling out a longer word. G-R-A-N-D-D-A-U-G-H-T-E-R. “Granddaughter?” Trina asked. “What does that mean?”
M-A-R-L-E-Y. Trina shouted, “Oh, shit!” and stared at her friend. Marley was sure someone was messing with her. They introduced themselves earlier before entering the house. Someone in here was trying to scare her.
“Please,” Marley said in what she hoped was an annoyed voice. “Someone is controlling the planchette.”
Everyone stared at her, but Rose was the only one who spoke. “Very well. Let’s all remove our fingers, place our hands on the table in clear view, and ask again. But this time, Marley, I think you should ask the question.”
Marley swallowed hard. “Fine. OK. Why did you spell out my name, Harold?”
The planchette still moved, this time with no one’s hands on it. Magnets had to be how John Reyes was doing this. Or maybe Rose. Marley checked everyone’s hands. They all rested on top of the table. She looked back at the board just in time to see it spell out MARLEY and GRANDDAUGHTER again.
“Marley,” Trina said in a whisper. “Didn’t you tell me you’re adopted?”
“Yeah, and?” Marley said, refusing to believe it.
“Have you checked your ancestry results for relations yet?” she asked. The entire tale focused on Marley, making her want to crawl out of her skin.
“No,” Marley said. “I don’t want to know.”
“I think you should check,” Trina insisted. “Or at least let me look.”
Marley huffed in frustration. “Look, this is all fake! If looking up my family matches will prove that this guy is using magnets to get our money, then sure. I’ll do it, I guess.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket and loaded the ancestry app. She found the tab that said, “Show my matches” and went through the process of paying the extra fifty dollars. She sensed eyes still on her, and when she glanced up, some were interested while others were clearly annoyed. Once the results were loaded, she handed the phone to Trina. “I guarantee there are no Mathesons on that list.”
Trina took the phone and scrolled. Then, her hands shook. They shook so much that she dropped the phone on the table. “Seriously?” Marley said as she picked up the phone. “You’re messing with me. It can’t be–” but she didn’t finish her thought. She scrolled and scrolled, name after name on the list flashing in her eyes. Matheson. Matheson. Matheson. And the last name at the bottom of the list, “Parent match: Renee Matheson Heart.” Marley couldn’t reconcile what she saw. Her own birth mother–a ghost.