Authors: Riley Sager
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary
After seeing that person outside, it took two hours and one Valium before I was calm enough to get back in bed, let alone fall asleep. Even then, a night terror invaded my slumber. Me, in bed, the figure in the forest now suddenly hovering over me, its back against the ceiling.
I woke up gasping, my skin covered in a thin sheen of sweat that glistened in the moonlight coming through the window. I took a second Valium. It did the trick.
Now it’s six in the morning, and even though all I’d like to do is stay in bed, I can’t. There’s work to be done.
Since there’s no coffee in the house, I use a cold shower as a poor substitute for caffeine. I emerge wide awake, but in a sore and sorry way. It feels as though I’ve just been slapped, my skin pink and pulsing. When I glance in the bathroom mirror, I see how it makes my scar stand out in in the faint light of dawn. A small slash of white on my otherwise rosy cheek. I touch it, the skin surrounding it puffy and tender from lack of sleep.
For breakfast, I have a protein bar—literally the only food I
thought to bring along—washed down with another mug of horrid tea and a vow to get to the grocery store by the end of the day.
I check my phone as I eat, seeing a text from my mother. Its tone and subject matter tell me she’s heard my voicemail.
So disappointed. Don’t stay there. Please
My response is a master class in maturity.
Try and stop me
I hit send and go upstairs to roam the Indigo Room and parlor, looking for the letter opener I’m certain I misplaced last night during the unexpected drama with Elsa Ditmer and her daughter. It is the only explanation. Letter openers don’t just vanish by themselves. But after several minutes of fruitless searching, I give up.
I tell myself it’s here somewhere, likely buried under years of junk mail. It’ll turn up at some point. And if it doesn’t, so be it.
By seven, I’m outside and unloading my pickup truck before Dane arrives, even though it’d be easier with his help. I do it myself because, one, I’m already here and don’t feel like wasting time and, two, I want him to see that I
do it myself. That he’s here to assist, not carry most of the load.
When Dane arrives promptly at eight, half the truck has been emptied and equipment litters the front lawn. He eyes the drill case sitting next to the ladder, which leans against the tile saw. I think he’s impressed.
He helps me finish unloading the truck as I go over the plan. Clear the house, keeping anything that might be worth saving and throwing out the rest. We’ll start at the top, in my father’s old study, and work our way down, room by room. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with it all. I need more time in the house before I can come up with a proper design. But already I’m leaning toward taking a cue from what’s already here. Rich woods, ornate patterns, jewel tones. If I had to put a label on it, I’d call it Victorian glamour.
With the truck unloaded, we grab some empty cardboard boxes
and head inside. The house feels larger in the morning light. Warmer and brighter. Most people, if they didn’t know its history, would describe the place as homey. But the past hangs heavy over Baneberry Hall. Enough for me to feel a chill when we pass a back window and I see the spot where last night’s trespasser had been standing.
“You have a key to the gate, right?” I ask Dane as we climb the steps to the third floor.
“I wouldn’t be a good caretaker if I didn’t.”
“You didn’t happen to be strolling around the grounds last night? Around eleven?”
“At that hour, I was asleep in front of the Red Sox game. Why?”
“I saw someone in the woods. A few feet from the backyard.”
Dane turns around on the steps to give me a concerned look. “Did they do anything?”
“As far as I know, they just stood there looking at the house before disappearing in the woods.”
“It was probably a ghoul,” Dane says.
“I guess that term isn’t just cop talk.”
“We all call them that. They’re mostly local kids. I’ve heard they like to dare each other to sneak onto the property and get close to the infamous House of Horrors. They’re harmless. But you might want to stop making it easy for them. The front gate was wide open this morning. That’s like sending them an invitation to trespass.”
Dane’s mansplaining aside, I know he’s right. I’d forgotten about the gate last night. My lesson learned, I don’t plan on doing it again.
“Duly noted,” I say as I open the door to the study. It’s hot inside, even though it’s not even nine and the sun is still rising behind the woods out back. It’s also dusty. Huge particles of it swirl around us as we enter, practically glowing in the light shining through the circular windows.
Dane looks around the room, impressed. “This is a great space. What do you plan on doing with it?”
“I was thinking guest bedroom,” I say. “Or maybe an in-law suite.”
“You’d need to put in a bathroom.”
I grimace, because he’s right. “Plumbing will be a bitch.”
“So will the cost,” Dane says. “I know this sounds crazy, but if you wanted to, you could get rid of the floor—”
“And make the room below a master suite with cathedral ceilings—”
“And a skylight!”
We stop talking, both of us slightly out of breath. We speak the same language. Good to know.
Dane zeroes in on the bookshelves along the wall. I go to my father’s desk, getting uncomfortable flashbacks to when Allie and I emptied my father’s apartment a week after his death. It was rough. The entire place smelled like him—a soothing combo of wool, aftershave, and old books. Every item dropped into a cardboard box felt as though a part of his existence was being locked away where no one could see it. Every tattered cardigan. Each worn-edged book. I was erasing my father piece by piece, and it gutted me.
Worse still was finding a box of manuscripts in his office closet, sitting with his old typewriter and a set of rarely used golf clubs. It turned out he had written five books after
House of Horrors
. All of them fiction. All unpublished. One included a letter from his longtime agent, saying no one wanted anything other than another ghost story.
Now I open the top drawer of my father’s desk slowly, steeling myself for similar signs of his failure. There’s nothing in it but pens, paper clips, and a magnifying glass.
The next drawer, though, holds a surprise.
A copy of the Book.
I pick it up and blow dust from the cover. It’s a hardcover. First edition. I can tell because it’s the only one not to feature the words all writers dream of having on their book jacket:
New York Times
bestseller. Every edition after this one wore them like a badge of honor.
The cover is a good one, which many say attributed to the Book’s
initial success. It’s an illustration of Baneberry Hall as seen from an angle not attainable in real life. A bird’s-eye view of a tall, crooked house on a hill. There’s a light on in the third floor—the very same floor in which Dane and I now stand—the greenish glow seeping through the round windows, making it look like Baneberry Hall is watching you. The forest encroaches on the house from all directions, the trees bending toward it, as if waiting to do its bidding.
This is the edition I read, back when I was nine. I knew my father had written a book. I knew it was a big deal. I remembered the interviews and TV crews and studio lights that hurt my eyes.
What I didn’t understand—not really—was what the book was about and why people treated my family differently from everyone else. I eventually found out from a classmate named Kelly, who told me she had to disinvite me from her upcoming birthday party. “My mom says your dad wrote an evil book and that I’m not supposed to be friends with you,” she said.
That weekend, I snuck into my dad’s office and took his first-edition copy down from the shelf. For the next month, I consumed it in secret, like it was a dirty magazine. By flashlight under the covers. After school, before my father got home from the writing class he taught just to stay busy. Once, when I’d brazenly shoved the book in my backpack and took it to school, I skipped third period to read it in the girls’ bathroom.
It was thrilling, reading something forbidden. I finally understood why my classmates had been so giddy about stealing their older sisters’ copies of
Flowers in the Attic
. But it was also deeply unsettling to see my parents’ names—to see
name—in a book about things I had no memory of.
Even more disconcerting was how my father had turned me into a character that in no way resembled the real me, even though only four years separated us. I saw nothing of myself in the Book’s Maggie. I thought I was smart and capable and fearless. I picked up spiders and
scrambled to the top of the jungle gym. The Maggie in the Book was shy and awkward. A weirdo loner. And it hurt knowing it was my own father who had portrayed me that way. Was that what he thought I was like? When he looked at me, did he see only a scared little girl? Did everyone?
Finishing the Book left me feeling slightly abused. I had been exploited, even though I didn’t quite understand that at the time. All I knew then was that I felt confused and humiliated and misrepresented.
Not to mention angry.
So fucking furious that my younger self didn’t know what to do with it. It took me weeks to finally confront my parents about it, during one of their custody exchanges in which I was handed off like a relay baton.
“You lied about me!” I shouted as I waved the Book in front of them. “Why would you do that?”
My mother told me the Book was something we didn’t discuss. My father gave me his scripted answer for the very first time.
“What happened, happened, Mags. I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”
“But you did!” I cried. “The girl in this book isn’t me.”
“Of course it’s you,” my mother said, trying hard to end the conversation.
“But I’m nothing like her!” I’d started to cry then, which made me all the more humiliated. I’d wanted to be stronger in the face of their resistance. “I’m either the girl in this book, or I’m me. So which one is it?”
My parents refused to provide an answer. My mother left me with a kiss on the cheek, and my father took me out for ice cream. Defeated, I swallowed my anger, gulping it down like a bitter pill, thus setting the course for the rest of my adolescence. Silence from my mother, denial from my father, and me starting a yearslong secret search for more information.
A little of that nine-year-old’s anger returns as I flip through the Book, scanning passages I’ve long committed to memory.
“I really hate this book,” I say.
Dane gives me a curious look. “I’ve heard it’s good.”
“It’s not. Not really.”
That’s another aspect of the Book I find so frustrating—its inexplicable success. Critics weren’t kind, calling the writing pedestrian and the plot derivative. With reviews like that, it shouldn’t have become as big as it did. But it was something different in a nonfiction landscape that, at the time, had been dominated by books about getting rich through prayer, murder in Savannah, and barely contained Ebola outbreaks. As a result, it became one of those things people read because everyone else was reading it.
I continue to page through the Book, stopping cold when a two-sentence passage catches my eye.
“Maggie, there’s no one here.”
“There is!” she cried. “They’re all here! I told you they’d be mad!”
I slam the Book shut and drop it on the desk.
“You can have this, if you want,” I tell Dane. “In fact, you can take pretty much anything in this room. Not that it’s worth anything. I’m not sure there’s a market for household junk found in bogus haunted houses.”
There are two closets, one on each side of the room, their doors slanted to accommodate the vaulted ceiling. We each take one, Dane’s opening with a rusty creak.
“Nothing in here but suitcases,” he says.
I cross the room and peer over his shoulder. Sitting on the closet floor are two square cases. We drag them out of the closet and each open one. Inside Dane’s is a record player. Inside mine is an album collection. The record on top is a familiar title:
The Sound of Music
Seeing them gives me the same creeping sense of unease I felt last night when I realized my father hadn’t lied about leaving everything
behind. I do an involuntary shimmy, trying to shake it away. Just because they exist doesn’t mean what my father wrote is true. I need to remember that. Baneberry Hall is likely filled with things mentioned in the Book.
Write what you know. My father’s favorite piece of advice.
“It’s junk,” I say as I stalk back to my closet. “We should toss it.”
Dane does the opposite and lifts the record player onto the desk. The case of records soon follows. “We should give it a spin,” he says while sorting through the albums. “Showtunes or, uh, showtunes?”
“I prefer silence,” I say, an edge to my voice.
Dane gets the hint and backs away from the desk, joining me at the second closet as I pull the door open.
Inside is a teddy bear.