Read Home Before Dark: A Novel Online

Authors: Riley Sager

Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary

Home Before Dark: A Novel (10 page)

BOOK: Home Before Dark: A Novel
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“I already heard about Walt Hibbets,” I say.

“And Janie June,” Chief Alcott adds. “Brian Prince is still around, though.”

I know that name. It’s hard to forget the man who wrote the article that changed the course of your family’s life.

“He still writes for the
Bartleby Gazette
?”

“He does. Only now he’s the owner, editor, and sole reporter. I have a feeling you’ll be hearing from him the moment he learns you’re back here.”

“Is there anything else you can remember from that night?” I say. “Anything you think I should know?”

“I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got.” Chief Alcott grabs her hat. “Sometimes, though, I think about that night. How your dad looked. How all of you looked. You know that phrase? ‘You look like you’ve just seen a ghost’? That applied to all three of you. And from time to time I wonder if there’s a kernel of truth to that book of his.”

My hands go numb with surprise, forcing me to set my mug on the table. “You think Baneberry Hall is really haunted?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” she says. “I don’t know what went on in this house that night. But whatever it was, it scared the shit out of you.”

With that, Chief Alcott takes her leave. I walk her to the door and lock it behind her. Between Elsa Ditmer’s surprise appearance and hearing that
House of Horrors
fanatics had actually gotten inside, it seems like a good idea.

Alone again, I resume the tour that had been so suddenly interrupted. I notice something strange as soon as I return to the parlor. The winglike doors in the top half of the secretary desk are closed, even though I’m almost certain I left them open.

But that’s not the only thing that’s weird.

The letter opener—the one with William Garson’s initials that I’d lain atop the desk—is now gone.

JUNE 27
Day 2

Our first full day at Baneberry Hall began bright and early, mostly because none of us slept well the night before. I chalked it up to being in a new place with its own set of night noises. The clicking of the ceiling fan. The eerie scratching of a tree branch against the bedroom window. An endless chorus of shifts and creaks as a summer storm rocked the house.

I even heard noises in my dreams. Strange ones that seemed to be coming from both above and below. I dreamed of doors slamming shut, drawers being yanked opened, cupboards closing and opening and closing again. I knew they were dreams because every time I woke up, certain there was an intruder in the house, the noises would end.

Maggie had them, too, although I suspect it was more her imagination than actual dreams. She entered our room a little past midnight, clutching her pillow as though it were a beloved teddy bear.

“I heard something,” she said.

“So did I, sweetie,” I said. “It’s just the house. Remember how I
told you the apartment sings a song at night? This house does, too. It’s just a different song than the one we’re used to.”

“I don’t like this song,” Maggie said. “Can I sleep here tonight?”

Jess and I had already discussed the likely possibility that Maggie wouldn’t want to sleep in her room. She was young and unaccustomed to change.

“We’ll allow one night in our bed,” Jess had said. “I know it sounds a little harsh, but she’ll need to learn to sleep in her own room.”

Since Jess was sound asleep—my wife could sleep through an earthquake and an alien invasion happening at the same time—the decision was mine. Tonight would be the night.

“Sure you can,” I said. “But just for tonight. Tomorrow you’ve got to stay in your own room.”

Maggie snuggled in next to me, and I tried once more to sleep. But the dreams returned. All those noises. I couldn’t tell where they were coming from. And they’d always be gone when I woke.

The only instance when the noise seemed to be more than a dream happened just as dawn was beginning to break. I was fast asleep when I heard it.

Thud.

It came from the floor above. So loud that the ceiling shook. And forceful. Like something heavy hitting the floor.

Jolted from sleep, I sat up, gasping. I cocked my head, my ear aimed at the ceiling, listening for any additional sounds. All was silent. It had been a dream after all, just like the others.

Just to make sure, I looked to Maggie and Jess, wondering if they, too, had heard it. Both were still fast asleep, Jess curled around our daughter, their hair intertwined.

I looked at the clock. It was 4:54 a.m.

I tried to go back to sleep, but the dreams had made me jittery and fearful that, as soon as I closed my eyes, the noises would begin again. By the time five a.m. rolled around, I gave up and went downstairs.

As I descended the staircase to the first floor, I saw that the chandelier had been left on overnight and was glowing oppressively bright in the faint grayness of early morning. So there
was
a wiring problem. I made a mental note to ask Hibbs if he could take a look.

Reaching the first floor, I went to the light switch just off the vestibule and flicked it off.

That was better.

I continued on my way to the kitchen, where I made coffee. Jess was up an hour later, groggily kissing me on the cheek before going straight for the pot of java.

“You wouldn’t believe the strange dreams I had last night,” she said.

“I would,” I said. “I had them, too.”

“And Maggie? I assume there’s a good reason she’s still in our bed.”

“She was scared.”

“We can’t let her make a habit of it,” Jess reminded me.

“I know, I know. But this is a huge change for her. Think about it—that cramped apartment is all she’s ever known. Now we bring her here, to a place with ten times the space. Think how intimidating that must be for her. Even I’m intimidated. All night, I dreamed that I was hearing things.”

Jess looked up from her mug, suddenly uneasy. “What kind of things?”

“Just random noises. Doors. Cupboards. Drawers.”

“That’s what I dreamed about, too,” Jess said. “Do you think—”

“Those sounds were real?”

She responded with a nervous little nod.

“They weren’t,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

“Then why did we both hear them? Maggie probably did, too. That’s why she was scared.” A stricken look crosses Jess’s face. “Shit. What if there was an intruder? Someone could have been inside our house, Ewan. Did you check to see if anything is missing?”

“Half our stuff is still in boxes. As for everything that came with the house, I wouldn’t know what’s missing and what’s not. Besides, the front gate was closed and the door was locked. No one could get in.”

“But those noises—”

I pulled Jess into a hug, her body rigid with tension and her coffee mug hot against my ribs. “It was nothing. We’re just not used to so much house, and it allowed our imaginations to go wild.”

It was a solid explanation. A logical one. Or so we thought. Although Jess’s fears would later come to be fully justified, at the time I believed what I was saying.

Yet another hint of wrongness, of something amiss about the place, occurred a few hours later, when Elsa Ditmer arrived for a second day of unpacking. This time, she brought her daughters.

“I thought Maggie might like to make some new friends,” she said.

Both girls were the spitting image of their mother. Same open, expressive face. Same friendly eyes. It was in personality where they differed.

The younger, Hannah, possessed none of her mother’s reticence. When Maggie came downstairs, Hannah sized her up in that way only the very young can get away with. Apparently finding my daughter acceptable, she said, “I’m Hannah. I’m six. Do you like
hide-and-seek? Because that’s what we’re going to play. There’s lot of good places to hide here, and I know them all. I’m just warning you now, so you won’t be surprised when I win.”

Petra, the older Ditmer girl, was quieter. Unlike with her mother, I didn’t detect any shyness about her. She was more aloof. Appraising everything—me, Jess, the house—with a cool detachment.

“I’ll keep an eye on them,” Petra said as Maggie and Hannah ambled off to play hide-and-seek. “To make sure they don’t fall down a well or something.”

At sixteen, she was already taller than her mother and as thin as a beanpole. Her clothes—a pink tank top and khaki shorts—made her limbs seem all the longer. She reminded me of a deer, gangly but fleet. Her hair had been pulled into a ponytail, revealing a gold crucifix similar to the one her mother wore.

“They’ll be fine with Petra,” Elsa said. “She’s a good babysitter.”

As I watched Petra hurry off to catch up with Maggie and Hannah, I couldn’t help but recall what Elsa had told me the day before about her daughter being strong and protective. In the wake of an uneasy first night in our new home, it made me feel better.

So, too, did the idea of Maggie hopefully finding a new friend in Hannah. In the past year, Jess and I had grown increasingly worried about our daughter’s lack of friends. She was, we suspected, lonelier than she let on. Maggie was a quiet girl. Not shy, exactly. Observant was more like it. Content to sit back and watch, just like Petra seemed to be.

With the girls off on their own, we adults split up. Jess and Elsa went to the Indigo Room, which after the day before was hopefully snake-free. I returned to the kitchen, where I sorted through all the plates, utensils, and gadgets the Carvers had left behind. Despite what happened here, it was still hard for me to fathom why
Mrs. Carver hadn’t wanted to keep anything. Maybe she was afraid that every single item in the house retained memories she’d rather forget. If that was the case, I was all too happy to sort through the chipped teacups and tarnished silverware, keeping some, packing away others.

Halfway through the task, one of the bells on the wall rang. A different one than yesterday. This time it was one of the numbered bells indicating former guest rooms from the bed-and-breakfast days. The ringing bell belonged to No. 4. Also known as Maggie’s bedroom.

At first, I ignored it, thinking it was just the girls playing. I braced myself for a chorus of rings as the girls explored various rooms, trying out the bellpulls in each. But Maggie’s room was the only one that rang.

And rang.

And rang.

They were frantic rings, too. Strong. This wasn’t a group of girls lightly pulling on a rope. This was a full-on tug.

Curious, I left the kitchen and made my way to the second floor. Up there, I no longer heard the bell itself. Just the ragged slide of the rope as it kept being yanked from the wall.

Maggie was the one doing the yanking, which I learned when I entered her room, catching her in mid-pull.

“There was a girl in here,” she said, her eyes shining with fear.

“Are you sure it wasn’t just Hannah?” I asked. “You’re supposed to be playing hide-and-seek, remember?”

Elsa Ditmer had joined us by then, drawn by the ruckus. She remained in the hallway, seemingly unwilling to enter the room.

“It could have been Petra,” she said.

“No,” Maggie told us. “They’re hiding.”

Hearing their names, Hannah and Petra emerged from their hiding places elsewhere on the second floor. Both stood with their mother in the doorway.

“We’re right here,” Hannah said.

Petra peeked into the room. “What’s going on?”

“Maggie said there was someone in her room,” I said.

“There
was
,” Maggie said, stomping her foot.

“Then where did she go?”

Maggie pointed to the armoire, that great wooden beast plunked down directly across from the bed. The doors were closed. I flung them open, revealing the armoire’s empty interior. Maggie, though clearly caught in a lie, doubled down.

“But I saw her!” she cried.

By this time, Jess had joined the scene. With the frazzled patience only a mother could possess, she steered Maggie out of the room. “Let’s get you some lunch and then a nap. After last night, you’re probably exhausted.”

I followed them out of the room, only to be stopped in the hallway by Elsa, who said, “Your daughter. She’s sensitive, yes?”

“Aren’t all girls that age?”

“Some more than others,” Elsa replied. “Katie was also sensitive.”

“The Carver girl?”

Elsa gave a quick nod. “Girls like that can sense things the rest of us miss. When that happens, it might be wise to believe them.”

She left then, retreating quietly down the hall.

At first, I dismissed what she told me. Maggie was my daughter, not hers. And I wasn’t about to pretend to believe made-up things just to appease her. But that night, I couldn’t stop replaying Elsa’s words in my head.

Especially when the noises returned.

Not just the usual sounds of a house settling in for a long summer night, but the dreams as well. The bumps and thumps of doors, cupboards, closets opening and closing. The cacophony filled my sleep, silencing itself only when I woke a few minutes before midnight.

Sitting up in bed, I looked to the bedroom door, listening for the slightest hint the noises were real. All I heard were sleep-heavy breaths from Jess and a chorus of crickets in the woods outside.

I immediately thought of Maggie and how Elsa Ditmer had—quite rightly—pegged her as sensitive. It dawned on me that her advice about believing Maggie in reality meant seeing things through my daughter’s eyes. To understand that, even though I knew these were the sounds of a house settling, they could seem quite menacing to someone so young. And if they were keeping me awake, then it was possible Maggie also couldn’t sleep. Which is why I decided it wouldn’t hurt to check on her.

Sliding out of bed, I crept out of the room and down the hallway to Maggie’s room. As I approached, I saw the door—which, at Maggie’s insistence, had been left open after we kissed her goodnight—suddenly close with a soft click.

So she
was
awake.

I opened the door a crack, expecting to see Maggie climbing back into bed, preparing to read one of her picture books by moonlight. Instead, I saw that she was already in bed, covered by her sheets from toe to shoulder. She was also, it seemed, fast asleep. By this point, both Jess and I could recognize when she was faking sleep. The shallow breaths. The flickering eyelids. The exaggerated, stone-heavy stillness of her limbs. This was the real deal, which prompted a single, worrisome question: Who had just closed her bedroom door?

The girl. The one Maggie said she saw.

That was my first thought. A crazy notion, immediately dismissed. There was no girl. As for the bedroom door, that had closed on its own, be it from a draft or from loose hinges or from the simple fact that it had been hung wrong when it was installed all those decades ago.

But then I looked to the armoire. The place where Maggie said this imaginary girl had disappeared.

Both of its doors were wide open.

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