The House of Many Rooms
by Geoffrey Marshall
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai Podcast.
Mantegna the Psychic dropped the phone. He fumbled blindly until his fingers brushed the smooth glass, but that nudged the buzzing device deeper beneath the car seat. Goddamn thing — he took his eyes off the road and made a grab. All he could think of was a caveman lunging for a trout but at least he did manage to snag the corner. He pulled it into the clear beside his feet and triumphantly seized the device.
At least the screen seemed ok. Lucky for him since he couldn’t afford to replace a cracked screen. He was on his last dime and living on faith and instant ramen bowls was no fun. None whatsoever. At last he nudged the device into the clear beside his feet and picked it up.
Returing to his unknown caller who had been on the phone when he dropped it, he said,
“Hello,” he said, “did you say your were a lawyer?”
“Sorry, just dropped my phone, I had to make a turn,” he said. There was a disapproving silence from the lawyer. “I’m not driving,” he blurted. “I pulled over,” he lied.
His hands tightened on the wheel. Not everyone can afford flashy German cars with their fancy handsfree phones. Didn’t she know that?
If she sensed his angst, she ignored it. If Mantegna was available he should come to her office. He had received an inheritance from her client.That got his attention — after all, why would a lawyer call him? he had wondered. Was he being sued? Then again, the venues that hired him paid so little that a small claims summons was more likely.
He quickly agreed to go to her office. He knew the place, nestled as it was along the two coffee shops on the main drag — the first, Starbucks, was usually jammed with clientele, and the other, a mostly deserted independent, he supposed perpetually tottering on the verge of bankruptcy. He could sympathize.
He hung up and continued driving, just this little bit happier that he was before. Seeing that ‘Unknown Number’ had made the hair stand up on the back of his neck but he felt better now. He flipped on the radio. There was only static so he turned the knob until he found some music and started bopping along — and as he bopped his recalled the last call he received from Unknown Number.
He was asleep or at least on the cusp. He felt something creepy crawling along his finger — something small. The tickle had jumpstarted the slow process of waking him up but the sting of two small bites jolted him awake. He reflexively pinched his thumb down and felt a gooey mash. His finger started to itch. What the hell? He turned on his night light to examine his finger. Whatever had bit him was now squished beyond recognition.
An itchy red lump was swelling up. Maybe he had some cream in the bathroom. He rolled over and planted his feet on the floor with a smack, just as his phone buzzed on the nightstand — Unknown Caller. Who called in the middle of the goddamn night? He stabbed his finger at the green button.
“Mr. Mantegna?” a faint, faraway voice — crackling static interfered with the connection, “The Psychic?”
He attempted to sound cheerful even as a quick glance at the digits on his clock made him wince. Two thirty. Damn. The witching hour. “Can I help you?”
He listened calmly as she explained her situation. He brother long passed. Tragic accident. She needed closure after all those years. Perhaps he could — after all, he was a true psychic — perhaps he could help her. A séance. She was sure he could do it. She had heard he was a real psychic. She was sure he could do it.
“Look — lady — ma’am,”, he mumbled with sleep-slurred speech, “Could you just call in the morning?”
“Can you do it?” she whispered, static rising and falling like waves on a beach.
“Of course, just call back in the —”
She didn’t wait for him to finish and instead rattled off a time, date and address in rapid succession. He had no chance to get a word in edgewise so he set the phone down and scrambled for a pen.
“Mr. Mantegna,” she asked after waiting a few moments, “are you still there?”
“I’m here, I’m here,” he shouted into the phone. No reply. He checked the display — the call was disconnected. What the hell? After giving him all that info? Not knowing what else to do, he flipped the lights back out and crashed back to bed. Maybe this as all just a bad dream.
Sleep wouldn’t come — his finger throbbed and his mind was worried. He tossed and turned for hours before the sweetness sleep finally came.
The next morning, he was surprised to find the bite gone as if it never happened — or maybe it really was just a dream? He found the scribbled note with the lady’s information. At least that happened. He balled up the note but stopped himself from tossing it in the wastebasket. She was a paying customer after all. He smoothed out the paper and stuck it behind a fridge magnet and promptly forgot the entire incident.
Over the next couple of weeks he would notice the note every so ofter. Was it legit? Did he dream the whole thing and just write some nonsense down? Should he go? He didn’t even get a deposit. She had agreed to his usual fee though. He felt sure he had brought that up.
When the date at last approached he was short for rent which helped firm his resolve. He waited until the appointed hour approached and suited up — black pants and shoes, a white shirt, and, of course, how could he go out without his cape? The one with the red lining. Just the right dramatic flair for a psychic of his stature.
He found himself sitting in his car as the last rays of sunlight trickled away and twilight gave way to night — still waffling. To go or not to go? He punched the address into his GPS and waited — and waited. No results. He tried his phone. Same thing. Other services. Identical. We’re sorry, the specified address could not be found. He tried again, only using the street name. He breathed a sigh of relief when it popped up so he keyed in a house number one down. It worked — well, at least that was something. He would get as close as he could, then walk along the street until he found the house — and he did. He shuddered when he saw the place. So creepy.
Creepy houses come in all sizes and shapes. Mantegna had seen his fair share — from drab suburban bungalows, windows opaque from nicotine with a hornet’s nest seething under the mailbox to dilapidated Psycho mansions. The very worst of the worst had a feeling on common — a malignant presence. The first thing you will notice when you come up a house such as this is that you will feel as if the house is watching you — and this house, Number Seven Edgar Lane, had that same feeling. Haunted. Had to be.
At first glance, the house was beautiful — with brightly painted wooden shingles, white as snow like rows of perfect teeth. The roof, clad with perfectly squared new-looking roof shingles. The shutters, a dark green, sashed like droopy eyelids. The carefully tended flower garden, enormous globular roses hanging, ready to drop on the freshly mowed lawn. Sprinklers going. Bees buzzing. Windows shining.
Yet this was merely veneer and beneath the superficial prettiness Mantegna sensed a darker undercurrent. The buzzing of bees could be the murmur of fevered whispers. Look away for even a second, and a lonely silhouette might peek from behind a curtain — an imprint of shadow in the corner of your retina. Mantegna felt the house watch him all too closely as he made his was up the painted concrete stones of the walkway.
He was about to knock when the door opened.
“Why, yes, I —” he started to say when she interrupted him.
She was beautiful (and far out of his league). He offered a small bow. “Madame, allow me to introduce myself,” he said in his stage voice. Yes, he was performing now. What the heck. It’s what she’s paying for after all.
“You’re Mr. Mantegna, the famous psychic,” she said, “I’m Ginger —”
“Let me guess,” Mantegna looked up from his bow, “Rogers?”
“Why yes,” she seemed impressed.
“While I do claim possess some meager psychic talents, madame,” he said, attempting in his New England way to channel a southern gentleman, “I must confess — it was my caller id.”
She looked blank for a second or two, “As you say Mr. Mantegna.” She then offered a polite chuckle, “Although I do recall giving you my name during our conversation.”
He felt like he was owed more than a chuckle (and a very slight chuckle at that) for his comedic effort. He straightened up from his bow as she stood aside. “Do come in,” she said, welcoming him into the haunted house at Seven Edgar Lane.
The hallway that greeted him was scarcely lit. Where the exterior was as fresh and bright as a megawatt tv smile, the walls were lined with meagre and dust-shrouded bulbs perched on the sconces that proceeded down the dim hallway. The light was hesitant, as if fearful of what it might reveal should it reach into the deepest of the cobweb laced corners.
A few photographs hung on the wall. They showed a family — two children, a girl and boy, posing with parents beaming at him across the decades, their joy all the more apparent for the flaws in the faded prints.
“I live alone, ” she said. “These are all of my family,” she gestured at the photographs as she led him down the hall, “My father, mother, younger brother.” She fell silent. He noticed, somewhat ominously, that the row of photographs ended abruptly when the children looked about ten years old.
Near the end of the hall, the walls were entirely bare, save for the intermittent sconces. Whoever designed this house, he figured, must have never heard of the whole “open concept” idea. The house seemed to consist of a maze of corridors periodically indented by the frames of closed doors.
“No one else will be joining us,” she said turning a rattling doorknob, “I hope that’s not going to be a problem.” She gestured for him to enter.
Ginger didn’t seem the type to need an audience. He shrugged, “All that matters is if the entity you wish to reach is willing.”
The room was a dark and windowless box. Did they really build houses like this? Ginger flipped the light switch and a gigantic chandelier sputtered to life, diffusing an orangey light around the room. There was a large oval table beneath and eight chairs. Two cabinets, crammed with glassware and porcelain, stood against the wall.
“Please take a seat Mr. Mantegna,” she offered a chair, “I confess, I have been trying to find someone such as yourself for an awfully long time.”
Ok, not creepy, he thought while taking his seat. “Someone such as myself?” he asked.
“A genuine psychic, of course,” she laughed and when she did her smile lit the room like bijou lights over a Broadway box office.
His hands were flat on the table and he could feel the underlay beneath the satiny green tablecloth. This room was perfect for a séance he realized — as perfect as a movie set. They sat down opposite each other. “Tell me Ms. Rogers,” he said, “who would you like to contact?”
She looked down at the table, “My brother,” she said. “His name was Freddy.”
“The boy in the photographs?”
“That’s right,” she replied, still staring at her hands. “There was a terrible accident when we were children and —” she had to pause as if to gather her thoughts. “When we were young — Mr. Mantegna, he died.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, his voice as gentle as he could make it.
“Thank you, but you see,” she looked up, “I just need to tell him that I’m sorry.”
He nodded. “We need to join hands Ms. Rogers,” he said. “We’re making a circuit — a spiritual circuit.”
As soon as their fingers touched, his vision flickered. Oh my god, he thought, there would be no need for tricks this time. This was a real as it got. The room flashed blue, as if someone was playing with a light switch and there was a humming in his ears that came and went with the strobe of blue light.
After several moments of back and forth, the light steadied — so bright he could see dust motes hanging in the air. Ginger hadn’t moved. She sat as still as a statue. Everything seemed to be on pause — but he felt the need to stand. He broke contact with her hands — nothing changed. The room remained blue but there was no source for the light — or maybe it was more accurate to say that it emanated from the walls, the floors, the ceiling — even himself and Ginger. He stood up — and stepped outside of his body.
He waved his hand in front of his own face — well, the face of the Mantegna that remained locked in a trance at the table. Well that’s pretty creepy. He was standing beside the table looking at Ginger and himself, still seated, facing each other, eyes locked and hands intertwined.
He walked to the door. Somehow the doorknob responded to his touch.
The same blue light illuminated the hallway, again, from no apparent source. He walked down a short ways towards the front of the house. As he passed the first doorway, he could hear voices. He opened the door a crack and peered inside.
The light in the room was not blue, but warm and dim — produced by a bare oblong lightbulb sitting in a small lamp. The bulb contained several large filaments glowing orange and arranged around the central core. A girl was tucked under the covers in the lower bunk of a bunk bed. A man was sitting beside her and a boy was sitting cross-legged on top of the covers, arms locked around a teddy bear.
“Give it back Freddy,” the little girl said.
“That’s my brother.”
Mantegna jumped, and even though he was apparently a disembodied spirit of some kind, at that moment he felt his heart lurch in his chest. Ginger was standing beside him now. When did she come in? he wondered as his pulse subsided.
“And our father,” she continued. She was smiling — and crying. The children squabbled until Freddy was forced to hand over the bear which young Ginger immediately hid under the covers. Freddy climbed the ladder to the upper bunk.
Their father selected a book and began to read as they slowly backed out of the room. Her father’s gentle drone continued as the door slowly swung shut of its own accord leaving Mantegna and Ginger once again in the blue lit hallway.
“That room was not in this house,” she told him, “that was our first house. Freddy and I shared a room in those days.”
They took a few more steps down the hall and a low murmur replaced her father’s voice — a murmur that slowly grew louder until the came to the next door, vibrating like a speaker cone from the tumult behind. He swung the door open to reveal a large room — impossibly large — even for a house the size of number 7 Edgar Lane.
The room was crowded with people — diners — seated at rows of long wooden tables. The tables were stained a dark walnut and the floors and walls seemed to match, although the lighting was sporadic and failed to reach the distant corners.
She leaned in, “My mother’s fortieth,” she said.
There was a large bar at the far end of the room and a gleaming row of grills where chefs in formal uniforms sported tall white toques, double-breasted cloth jackets and long aprons toiled. Occasional jets of flame reached up and cast a warm, short-lived glow on the spotless outfits. Large industrial looking sheet-metal vents hovered just over the tops of the tottering toques.
Guests seemed to be serving themselves, lining up cafeteria style for the cooks to serve. There were hundreds of guests. Ginger tugged on his sleeve, “People were crazy for cafeterias back then,” she indicated the lines, “they were everywhere.”
Two children rushed past them, somehow avoiding them. Ginger and her brother, their appearance much the same as in the first room but looking a few years older. They dashed through the crowd towards two adults standing near the grills. Mantegna recognized the man as their father and the woman, who had a such a strong resemblance to Ginger, was clearly their mother.
The grown ups hugged the children. One big happy family. He remembered his own family — father, cuffing in the back of his head. You’re gonna amount to beans, but I love you anyway, his old man had said.
The room quieted to a hush, like someone pressed the mute button, and he heard a deep sob from his side — Ginger in the midst of a total breakdown. He patted her should, feeling awkward, doing it awkwardly — but he was pleasantly surprised to learn that they were solid enough, at least to each other. “There, there,” he mumbled, feeling like an idiot, “What is it? What happened?”
She was just watching the younger version of herself and her brother in the embrace of their parents. He let his arm fall to his side and stood with her, observing the loving family.
“This was the last day I saw my brother alive,” she said.
“What is it you really want me here for?” he asked quietly. “I need to know.”
“This is the day he died,” she said in a flat voice, still the loudest sound in the now muted room. “It was my fault —” she sucked in a deep breath, “I tried to save him but I just couldn’t reach him in time.”
“How could it be your fault?” he asked, “You were only a child.”
She didn’t answer except to turn away and slowly walk back towards the door. As she did, the sound rushed back like a rogue wave — the commotion of guests encumbered by tottering trays, children running and a hundred conversations swept back over them. Mantegna watched for a handful of seconds. When a tray appeared in his chest, loaded with fried chicken and a tiny dish of coleslaw he started to run after her leaving the staggering guest behind. Ginger was opening the door when he caught up and together crossed the threshold.
Back in the hallway, the sounds of the party diminished and faded to silence as the door closed. Mantegna had a feeling that, if he opened the door again, it would be in a completely different place, and he might be lost in time like driftwood in a boundless sea. He didn’t know where it would open, just that it would be different. Who knows, maybe it would just be a plain old room.
“Follow me and I will show you what happened,” Ginger beckoned.
He kept himself glued to her side as she made her way to the door at the end of the hall. By rights this should open on the entrance to the street, where he first came in — but it did not, or at least not to the same street. They stepped through.
Different, yet not altogether unfamiliar. Mantegna stood swiveling his head, like a periscope, up and down the street. Maybe it was the same street. Same street, different era. The passing cars had rounded fenders and tires with white sidewalls. Edgar Lane, not his Edgar Lane, but the street as it was fifty years ago.
Young Ginger and Freddy opened the door and walked past them. They were squabbling, as they had in the first room, over a teddy bear. Freddy grabbed the bear and ran down the steps. Young Ginger gave chase. Beside him, her adult form gripped Mantegna’s hand.
“You see,” she whispered through gritted teeth.
Freddy stood on the curb, teasing the young Ginger and she yelled back, giving as good as she was getting. Give it back. Give it back. He laughed and she charged at him — he lurched into the road when they collided.
Mantegna felt Ginger’s hand clamping on his wrist like a steel clamp. There came the sound of a horn. The screeching of tires. A car fishtailed towards Freddy who stood, paralyzed — immobilized by the shock of seeing the vehicle barreling his way.
Young Ginger (and grown up Ginger simultaneously) called out his name. He turned to look. Her brother may have been frozen, but young Ginger was not. She hurled herself through the air at her brother. She tackled the boy as the car screeched sideways. Mantegna couldn’t see, the car had blocked his view. What happened?
He turned to ask Ginger. She wasn’t there. Now the car, the street, the house — everything — all gone. Except for the door. He pulled at the handle. A haze of white fog had rushed in, replacing the entire setting with a blank wall of emptiness — a vast nothingness that seemed almost alive, almost as if it was watching him. Closely. What if the door was locked? Panic gripped his heart. Then, the door was open. Meno male, he muttered in half-forgotten Italian from his parents.
He stepped inside and closed the door. Except. Except he found that he was not back in the hallway. Goddamnit. This house was getting on his nerves. Ginger was nowhere to be seen — but the boy was there, young Freddy. He sat cross-legged in yet another room, motionless and fixated on the ouija board laid out in front of him on the bare wooden floor. He held the small wooden planchette in his fingers and muttered so quietly Mantegna could not make out his words. His eyes were clamped shut and his face scrunched with effort.
Freddy looked older than he did at the time of the car crash. Like all the apparitions Mantegna had seen in the house on Edgar Lane, the boy seemed not to notice him. Mantegna approached the now teenage Freddy. He leaned in to hear what Freddy was whispering — heard him say, “Ginger, Ginger,” repeating her name like a mantra. He lifted the planchette to his lips, hot breath on the small wooden object.
He carefully placed the object on the board always repeating his sister’s name. Mantegna crouched and drew a circle around the boy and himself. He had no chalk or salt — indeed, no means of actually marking the circle, so instead he concentrated on visualizing the trail of energy left behind by his finger. To his astonishment, when he closed the circle, the invisible boundary flared up with a blueish luminescence.
Mantegna sat cross-legged and placed his hands on the planchette alongside Freddy’s living fingers. He felt a slight shock when Freddy’s eyes seemed to momentarily meet his own — and then it was over and Mantegna wasn’t sure if it was merely a random glance or something more. Like maybe Freddy knew he was there.
Freddy cleared his throat, “I wish to speak with Mantegna the Psychic.”
Mantegna was stunned and he suddenly felt hot, as if he might be sweating.
“Mantegna, are you there?” the boy asked.
Mantegna slowly moved his fingers, keeping contact with the planchette, and moved his hands towards YES. Freddy’s eyes really did open then, wide and dilated as he watched his own hands follow along with the planchette as it responded to Mantegna’s nudging.
“Have you met my sister?”
“How is she?”
“I know she blamed herself for what happened,” he choked, “tell her that it wasn’t her fault.”
Mantegna wished for ouija emojis. Where was the thumbs up? He spelled it out:
A few tears fell from Freddy’s eyes, rolled down his nose and splashed onto the board. “Tell her I survived will you? — that I’m ok.”
He survived? Not according to Ginger. A sharp pinch on his bicep interrupted his thoughts. No one was there — and yet, there it was again. Now a hand gripped his shoulder — shaking him.
Freddy continued to speak, “She pushed me clear of the car,” he said. Somehow he sensed Mantegna’s distress. “I can feel you fading,” he said, “Just promise me you’ll tell her.”
“Goodbye Mantegna,” Freddy said. He let go of the planchette.
Mantegna moved the device of his own accord, giving it a sharp blow that should have sent it flying across the room, but instead nudged it hardly an inch to the bottom of the board, where is came to rest on:
Freddy seemed to freeze in place and Mantegna felt the unknown force shaking his arm. He was gripped by an almost irresistible need to flee the room. He fought the urge and proceeded to the door in measured steps and it seemed to Mantegna that Freddy’s eyes shifted, tracking his progress as he broke the circle and reached for the doorknob.
In the hallway again and the lights were flickering — the blue softening to a warmer orange then back again. This invisible assailant was shaking him by both arms now. He careened down the hall like a pinball bouncing off the bumpers until at last he crashed through a door into the séance room — and there he was — sitting in his chair, as serene as the Happy Buddha, while Ginger was in the process of shaking the living daylights out of him.
“Wake up,” she cried anxiously, “wake up.”
He felt himself sucked across the room with a slurp like water down a drain. Now he was in his chair. He felt like he was being manhandled — in fact, he was being manhandled. He felt certain she was considering slapping him. The thought of a loud smack across his face made his eyes fly open.
“Ok, ok” he said, shielding his face, just in case she really did wind up a slap. “I’m awake.”
“Oh thank goodness Mr. Mantegna,” She flopped down in a chair next to him. “I thought you might be lost.”
“Lost in the house?”
“Yes, it is awfully big,” she said, “Don’t you find?”
A shiver travelled his spine when he recalled facing that terrible void on the steps — the feeling of the Abyss staring back. “After the car accident you vanished,” he said to change the subject.
“I woke up back here,” she said, “Where were you?”
“I met your brother.”
“Freddy?” her mouth trembled. “Was he —”
He told her about the incident — the ouija board, the circle, Freddy’s story — and the message.
“He said he survived the crash,” Mantegna said, watching her carefully. “He said you saved him.”
“You pushed him clear of the car.”
She broke down at the words, “Oh my god,” she said, her hands over her face, sobbing. “After all these years,” she hugged Mantegna. “At last I know.”
When she released him, Mantegna was glad he was still sitting. Young Ginger was back.
Seeing his look of confusion, Ginger smiled. “When I saw the car about to hit Freddy I pushed him as hard as I could,” she said. “I didn’t see if he was clear of the car or if it hit him — but, well, it did hit someone. It hit me. I died in the hospital — and this is how I appeared on that day.”
She nodded, “Then, I somehow found my way back here, back home. I needed to know if I saved him — before I could move on.”
Mantegna understood, he had met an obsessive ghost or two. She continued, “I was never able to find Freddy and instead I was lost in this house.”
“For more than sixty years?”
“I wandered these halls for all those years. I eventually realized I would need a real psychic to guide me to my brother. So I waited — and, one day it happened. I sensed your presence. Your light was like a beacon for me and I knew without doubt that I could find you. So I reached out through the phone. Then, when you came, I simply took on my adult appearance — as I would have looked had I survived.”
“Your brother survived the crash thanks to you,” he said, “but you were killed when you saved him.” He was starting to piece things together — and his father said he would have to get by on his looks alone. Take that dad. “I think you shared a link with Freddy and, even though you were never able to directly communicate, somehow you both found me. Somehow you both knew.”
By then she was already fading away. “Maybe you’re right Mr. Mantegna,” she said. She turned to walk towards the door. “However it happened, we are eternally grateful,” she said. She left the room and the door gently closed. He heard her footsteps dwindle as she walked down the hall. “Thank you again,” she said, her voice faint and distant. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye Ginger,” he said and as the words left his lips the illusion that had cloaked the house seemed to be lifted like a veil from his eyes.
He found himself seated. Same chair. Same room. No lights were on and the furniture was covered with large faded sheets. A haze of dust permeated the atmosphere and covered most everything like the faint layer of an early November snowfall.
He was still musing over these events some weeks later, as he sat waiting to meet the lawyer. Soon he was ushered into her office — she was perhaps sixty and wore a pair of those wireframe glasses that Mantegna always associated with smart people.
“Mr. Mantegna,” she began, glancing down at a stack of dog-earned papers on the table, “I have to admit, this is one of the stranger requests we have ever accommodated.” She peered at him through those glasses. “By the way, are you Mantegna — the Psychic?”
Mantegna smiled modestly and allowed that he was.
It turned out, she explained, that he had been named as a beneficiary in the will of one her clients — Freddy Rogers. He was very wealthy and had left a small property to Mr. Mantegna. The value of the property was insignificant next to the overall worth of the estate and the family hadn’t objected. The strange part was that the inheritance had been held in trust from Freddy’s passing until this very date — nearly forty years. For all those years her firm — she herself in fact — had maintained the property in accordance with Freddy’s wishes. She had been his last lawyer and he her first client. Together they had drawn up the will all those years ago
On her very last meeting with her long deceased client all those years ago, he had given her a simple message to pass on to Mantegna — just that he wanted to say thank you for everything, both from himself and from his sister. All these years the mystery had gnawed at her. Mantegna and Freddy had never met. In fact, he hadn’t even been born when Freddy passed. Now that he was here, in front of her, she just had to ask why? How?
He knew he could leave with a smile and a handshake — but that wasn’t his style. Reticence just wasn’t his thing. He told her the whole story. Every last detail. The phone call. The séance. The rooms. The ouija board. When he was done, he didn’t know if she believed a word of it.
She had a strange look in her eyes though, she really did — a strange look indeed as she handed him the keys to Number 7 Edgar Lane. He left his card, as always— because you just never know — today might be the day you need a psychic.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.