Written by Summer Xu
I should start by introducing myself, but I’m currently in the middle of my everyday panic attack. Right now, I’m all curled up in a corner of the grubby attic of our new house. This quiet room with a dim spot of light is the only safe space for me to get away from all the bizarre things that happened in the past few weeks. I find hiding here the only way to cope with my sister’s death and everything that has happened since.
It began with the voices.
I first started hearing them after my sister died. She had hanged herself in the basement, and by the time her body was discovered, she was already stiff-cold like a statue.
My sister and I never shared anything in common. Not to say that meant we weren’t close, but we never had those memories of sister-sister time that I can recollect now after her death for comfort. I never got a chance to tell her that I actually liked her prom dress in eighth grade, or that I miss hearing her singing in the shower like it was her private party… I never had the chance to tell her I loved her.
Now, I long to hear her giggling laugh one more time— though I doubt I’d be able to hear it among all the voices in my head.
They were subtle at first. After I found my sister, I could hear one small voice say: That’s what happened to me. Yet the sound soon upgraded, as if the death of my sister had turned off the mute button of this haunted house.
We live in a five thousand square foot mansion standing in solidarity among the vast wilderness of the Portland, Maine suburbs. Shadowed by an enclosed yard full of tall grass yet to be mowed, the outer-wall of the house with its fire-stained surface struck all of us with surprise. According to the realtor, the house had originally been owned by a merchant who traveled around the world collecting obscure antiques originating from ancient tribes. After he mysteriously died thirteen years after moving in, four other owners occupied the house consecutively, but the realtor did not mention why they had left.
“They were probably all murdered, right? Well, probably by the dead soul of the merchant guy–so it’s a haunted house. Mom, you are moving us into a haunted house?” Landon commented with a smirk on his face.
Mom had no patience for this sort of humor.
“I told you! Big house! And it’s on sale–70% off! Can you believe that?” She rolled her eyes and added with a satisfied smile on her face, “Now I can invite all my friends for tea and show them I now own a mansion as well. Ha!” She tapped her extra large sparkling nails on the red wood table and knocked it with her fake diamond ring, as if she were an expert checking out its quality. For some reason, I never liked mom when she acted this way.
Their small talk that day seems like ages ago, but it also feels like yesterday.
My girl, I feel your pain. 45 years ago. You are not alone.
The voices hit the strain of my memories like pebbles into the pond of my thoughts, rippling waves carrying bits and pieces away so that all I could hear were the voices in my head. Currently, it is the voice of a young woman, but with a slight British accent making her words sound sophisticated, reminding me of noble ladies from an aristocratic age dazzling with pink bubbly champagne and golden chandeliers back in the 1940s—she claims to have come from 45 years ago; I guess rich people just somehow age faster.
Never mind the interruptions of these bothersome off-screen sound effects. They have dwelled in my brain like parasites ever since that evening, commenting on all of my memories and contemplations. Now that my sister has died, you can only imagine their feedback about my grief.
Growing up, Mariana was the sibling that grandma would pat on the back first when we greeted her in her house. Both she and my brother Landon had a pretty face and a sweet personality, while I turned out to be that plain-old-girl in her plaid shirt hiding behind my thick round glasses and two piles of old books. And like I said, my sister Mariana and I were never the best sister duo. It was sixth grade when she chose to sit at a different lunch table with the girls wearing thick black mascara who held the newest i-phones, instead of with me in the far left corner of the dining hall. I remember rushing towards her after finishing my last bite of turkey sandwich, grabbing her hand with my tiny sweaty ones, ready to leave for science class together only to be cruelly rejected.
“Not today, Lia,” she glanced at me through her thick eyelashes that even now I still wonder how she managed to put on, “Not today, my sis.”
“Well then, maybe tomorrow she’ll come back,” I whispered to myself. Holding my backpack that was larger than the eleven-year-old me, I ran back to class, hoping that the next day my thirteen-year-old sister would be back sitting with me, discussing the newest chapter of our favorite writer with sparkles in our eyes.
That day never came. Instead, I received a string of declaratives that pushed me further and further away: “Not today Lia. I have a study session with my girls. Not today Lia, the party in Jack’s house is starting soon. Not today Lia, I have a date with my boyfriend. Can you just not follow me? Liana, you should really get a life.”
Thinking back now, it occurs to me – I have lost Mariana twice in my life.
“What are you doing up here?” Footsteps sound from the back of the attic pillar, thrusting my mind back into my hiding spot. I am somehow relieved to see it is Landon walking with his usual charming smile. We both know it is a camouflage of grief. We know parts of us are dead inside.
“You don’t hear them, do you?”
“Hear what?” He smiles again as he puts his strong arms around my shoulders, giving me a sensation of relief. “Are you ok, sis?”
“Nothing,” I shrug.
I am fine. Nevertheless, I still have my brother with me—my dumb, useless, yet lovable brother with his shining smile and fluffy long hair that irritates mom but charms the girls. What will he say knowing that I’m imagining weird noises in my head?
“Sis, what’s wrong. Are you alright?”
Tell him you need him.
Inhaling deeply, I decide to listen to the voice. “I’ve been hearing things since she… since she left. I… I took them down in this notebook, not to believe in pseudoscience or whatever, but there has to be something wrong with this house. Look, I have proof…” I hear myself stuttering in a squeaking noise and sigh. That’s it. He’ll probably think I’m being a complete lunatic. He’ll tell mom, and mom will send me to a psychiatrist and say in her usual pitch, “I knew something was wrong with this girl.”
Surprisingly, Landon simply shakes his head and rubs his hand on his face. He takes a deep breath. “Show me the notebook. I’m probably not the brightest in this house, but there’s always something I can do. Let’s first get out of this rusty old place. You can come to my room and we’ll check this notebook out together.”
Ever since he had turned twelve, Landon never allowed anyone in his room except his friends. I, who was classified as “uncool people” by his friend group, was banned from even stepping on his carpet. But I never asked for his permission either—I always thought of them as “those dumb boys”— I thought I was too sophisticated for their teenage games. When did we all drift apart?
Landon opens his door for me and we walk in together. “Just sit on my bed, and show me the notebook.” He smiles as I sit down on the edge of his bed, half standing.
Both of us somehow know that Mariana wouldn’t kill herself, and it’s that knowledge that has brought us together. Together we’ll find out what’s going on; he’ll be there with me, my brother.
“Ok, so long story short. I started hearing voices ever since… that night. So far I think they are voices of the previous house owners, whom I’m pretty sure are all dead and died in this house. The voices haven’t been completely useless. You see, after a couple of days, I think I have had the owners of the voices figured out. Just, just take a look.” I can feel my fingers trembling as I hand my notes over to Landon. He then examines the notes I jotted down.
“Second door on the left corridor of the third floor. Turn the clock hanging above the bed-side table to 12:45. There will be a secret cabinet emerging from the floor.” He reads, and then looks up at me. “Wow sis, the voices told you that? Have you checked this place out?”
I remember this one vividly. It was the voice of an old man, with some vicissitudes in his tones. It became clear that he had to be the first owner of the house, the treasure collecting merchant, the first victim of this house. “No. I don’t know if he’s reliable or not. He might lure us into another trap. Keep reading; we’ll make decisions later.”
“His treasures didn’t belong to him. They were plundered from the natives, and the natives were mad, really mad. Those he stole from believed in family and loyalty, while he believed in fame and vanity. We were all punished. Which of them said that?” Landon glimpsed at me and raised his eyebrows.
This was something frequently mentioned by the voices. “I don’t really know where the whole thing is pointing us to.” I sighed. “I’ve read through these notes more than a hundred times, yet nothing makes sense!”
“Have you tried recording these voices? I mean, you can probably find something new here? I’m not sure, up to you.” He slams himself into the comfortable pillows on his bed–I never realized before that boys like comfy pillows too.
“Nah, I tried recording it after the first time I heard it. Nothing!” At this point, I’m pretty sure Landon thinks that I’m hearing voices in my head again. For some reason, both of my siblings used to persuade our parents that I was somehow “mentally unwell”. Of course, I never expected any of them to understand why I prefer flipping through books in my own room over endless parties and dance music.
“Alright then,” Landon replies with a casual shrug, but I realize he stammers a bit before giving a pat on my back, saying, “Let’s take a moment away from these random voices or whatever. We’ve all been carrying more than we should on our backs the past few weeks. Though I’ve not heard anything myself, I’ve felt it to. Something is wrong with this house.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts before he looked back at me. “I know I should have said it to you way earlier, but I’ll always back you up. No matter what happens, I can’t lose one more person I love. We’ll figure this out” There is a sign of genuine sincerity in his tone. This is the first time my brother has ever implied that he loves me since he entered his teen-angst era. The weird thing is, for the first time since forever, I also feel a sense of family bond running in the blood between us. I leave him to his thoughts in his room and walk back towards mine.
Take your family away from here. The spirits, they have come back for revenge. Please, don’t try looking for the treasures… You’ll all be in grave danger! I warn you not to touch any of them, or you’ll end up the same as us…
The chill rises from my toes to my scalp. It takes me a while to realize that there is a knocking sound coming from downstairs.
“Mom, can we talk?” Before I rush down the stairs, Landon has already dashed in front of mom, but it becomes obvious that she is simply not in a mood for any form of conversation.
“Honey, can you just let me rest for a while? I have just come back from the pathologists to get the autopsy report. It’s clear now that your sister killed herself. End of story.” She rests her head on her wrist and gently rubs her forehead to ease her temper. Landon gives me the eye and I know there is only one last chance:
“Mom, something evil is here. We all know Marianna would never harm herself. This house is not safe; we must go.”
Mom continues rubbing her wrist between her eyebrows, using her free hand to gesture us away and shouts, “There is nothing wrong with the house! Whatever stories you’ve been hearing from others are not true! There is no such thing as a haunted hou-”
CLASH! CLASH! CLASH!
Before she finishes speaking, loud crashing sounds emerge from somewhere right above the hall. “Something probably fell to the ground upstairs, Landon. Go check and clean it up.” Mom acts as calm as always, but both Landon and I can feel the panicked atmosphere growing among the three of us.
There isn’t a room above the hall.
A strong tremble shocks us to the ground, “Watch out!” A large piece of wooden beam comes tumbling down as we try to dodge it in a clumsy pattern. Dust and ashes are flying everywhere. The broken beam has landed right in the middle of the front hall as if mocking our ignorance. There is an empty cabinet above us, and I take a deep breath–
Don’t go there.
Lia, don’t go there. I warn you–that’s what happened to me!
“Mariana?” I will recognize that voice anywhere—that bubbly sweet voice of my sister’s. It feels like a dream hearing from her again. Although I’ve already got used to hearing absurd voices coming from dead owners of this house, hearing Mariana among them is still surprising. I realize that I’ve been longing for this very moment since the first voice appeared, yet some part of me still can’t accept the fact that this is how I will be connecting with my sister from now on—through the empty void of this haunted house.
Destroy this beam! Now! All of ours and the dead ancestors’ angry souls are all trapped here!
“I’ll go up to that cabinet to look for those antiques. They’ll all be destroyed, and there won’t be one single damn dust of these evil pieces left!” Landon screams as he tries climbing up to the empty cabinet where the beam used to be.
Don’t let him go anywhere close to the treasures—the rope was cursed by the native Chief, irritated by the old merchant’s disrespectful actions. One touch, and Landon’s body will be found in that empty damp basement…
“Stop!” Pulling Landon by his cuffs, I shout, “I can hear Mariana! She said that’s how she… how she disappeared.”
Destroy the beam and we’ll all be gone. Everything. You will have a normal life back—otherwise, everything will clatter down like the-
She barely finishes the sentence as the entire house shakes like a person shivering in the cold. “Run kids! Run!” Mom staggers to the door, but a falling piece of ceiling blocks her path.
“If I break the beam, does it mean that I’ll never be able to hear you again?” I think I already know the answer to this question.
If you don’t do it as soon as possible, you’ll never be able to hear or see anyone ever again.
As if a flood gate has been suddenly opened, I pour out my love to Marianna. “I’m sorry I’ve never told you I love you; I’m sorry that I cut you off before…Is that good enough to break that conjured magic? Will true love’s power work?” I whisper through my tears, wiping my eyes as I walk closer to the beam. I hear her reply, Me too, sis. Me too.
The ceiling begins to shatter with bits and pieces falling. Suddenly, I see a large chunk of wood falling near my mom.
I take a deep breath. I break it.
As we stare blankly at each other among the empty dust and wooden pillars, we all know that part of us is now missing forever. We will reminisce about this for the rest of our lives. But yet, there will always be something within us in the deepest corner of our hearts: Marianna, and the love too strong for even a haunted house to set us apart.