Authors: Riley Sager
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary
It sits on the floor, back against the wall like a hostage, its once-brown fur turned ashen from years of dust. One of its black-button eyes has fallen off, leaving a squiggle of thread poking from its fur like an exposed optic nerve. Around the bear’s neck is a red bow tie, the ends squashed, as if it had been hugged too tightly for too long.
“Was this yours?” Dane says. He gives the bear a squeeze, and a puff of dust rises off its shoulders.
“No,” I say. “At least, I don’t think so. I have no memory of it.”
A thought occurs to me. A sad one. It’s possible this bear had once been Katie Carver’s and was left behind, like so many of the family’s belongings. My father, not knowing what to do with it, might have stuck it in the closet and forgotten about it.
I take the bear from Dane, set it on the desk next to the record player, and return to the closet. There’s something else inside, perched on a top shelf.
A blue shoebox.
Just like the one my father claimed to have found in the Book. Filled with strange pictures of Katie’s father.
My unease returns. Stronger now, and more insidious. With
trembling hands, I take the box to the desk and open it, already knowing what I’ll find inside: a Polaroid camera and a stack of photos.
I’m right on both counts.
The camera fills one end of the box, clunky and heavy. The photos—five of them in all—lie haphazardly beside it. But instead of Curtis Carver’s vacant stare, the first photo I see is, shockingly, of me. Like the one in the parlor, it bears only the faintest resemblance to me.
I’m wearing jeans and a Batman T-shirt in the photo, which was snapped in front of Baneberry Hall, the house lurking in the background like an eavesdropper. Its presence means I was five at the time. Because there’s no scar on my cheek, I also assume it was taken in the first three days of our stay. There’s not even a bandage.
It’s also missing in the next photo, which shows me standing with two other girls, one roughly my age and the other much older. We’re in my bedroom, lined up in front of the armoire, our eyes glowing red from the flash and giving us the look of demon children.
The younger girl I recognize. I saw the same features in the face of the woman I met last night. The only difference is a present-day hardness not evident in this younger version of herself.
Which means the older girl in the photo is Petra.
She’s so pretty it takes my breath away. Long limbs, creamy skin, blond hair that’s been piled atop her head. Unlike Hannah and me, who stand stiff-backed with our arms at our sides, Petra strikes a playful pose. Hand on her hip. One leg bent in a backward kick. Flash of bare feet, toenails painted red.
We’re dressed for sleep, Hannah and me in pajamas, Petra in a large white T-shirt and Umbro shorts. She also wears a necklace—a tiny crucifix hanging from a slender gold chain.
I remember that night. Or at least the Book’s version of it. The sleepover gone terribly wrong. It was one of the first things nine-year-old me obsessed about—how I had absolutely no memory of that
horrifying night. I spent nights awake, scared that what I’d read was true. Because it was indeed scary. A kind of nightmare-in-a-horror-movie scenario that no one would want to experience. But I had and couldn’t recall any of it, which meant that something must have been terribly wrong with me.
After several sleepless nights staring at the ceilings in both of my bedrooms in both of my parents’ separate homes, I began to realize that the reason I couldn’t remember the events in the Book was because they never happened.
I had assumed that included the sleepover.
But according to this Polaroid, I was wrong. There was, at some point in our twenty days at Baneberry Hall, a time when Hannah and Petra had spent the night.
At least part of it.
Petra’s in the next photo as well, standing in the kitchen with my mother. The two of them stare up at a giant hole in the ceiling in a pose of unintended synchronicity. Both in profile, their heads tilted back and their throats exposed, they could pass for mother and daughter. It makes me wonder if my mother ever saw this photograph and, if so, how it felt to see herself pictured with a younger woman of a similar nature. A girly girl. The kind of daughter she’d never have.
There are two other people in the photo, overlapping in the background. In front is an older man in flannel and jeans making his way up a ladder. Behind him is someone younger, barely visible. All I can make out is a crescent of face, a bent elbow, half of a black T-shirt, and a sliver of denim.
Walt Hibbets and my father. Two days after the kitchen incident.
Like the sleepover, it’s one of the most famous passages in the Book. And, if this photo is to be believed, also similarly rooted in truth.
I hold both Polaroids side by side, studying them, my stomach slowly filling with a queasiness that began the moment I found the
shoebox. It’s the sinking feeling that comes with bad news, dashed hopes, sudden heartbreak.
It’s the feeling of realizing what you thought was a lie might be true.
Part of me knows that’s completely ridiculous. The Book is fiction, despite having the words
A True Story
slapped on its cover, right below the title. My mother said as much. Yet a tiny voice in the back of my head whispers that maybe, just maybe, I could be wrong. It’s the same voice that last night, right before Elsa Ditmer made her presence known, suggested the person inside the Indigo Room could have been Mister Shadow.
I hear it now, hissing in my ear.
You know it’s true. You’ve always known.
What makes it so unnerving is that I recognize that insistent whisper.
It’s my father. Sounding just like he did right before he died.
I hear it again when I fish the last two photos out of the box. The first is a shot of my father performing a prototypical selfie. Arm extended. Chin lowered. Swatch of bare wall in the background over his left shoulder. He stares straight at the camera, which makes it seem as if he’s looking beyond it, into the future, his eyes locking on mine through a distance of twenty-five years.
Never go back there
, his voice says.
It’s not safe there. Not for you.
Hoping my father’s whisper will go away if I’m not longer looking at his face, I flip to the last Polaroid. It was taken at a vertiginous angle from one of the windows that overlook the backyard. On the ground are two people entering the woods.
One of them is my mother.
The other is me at age five.
It’s exactly like the photo my father described in the Book. The one he took when he found the Polaroid camera. My gaze drifts against my will, moving to the left of the frame, simultaneously knowing and fearing what I’ll find there.
Sure enough, hugging the edge of the frame is a dark shape hiding among the trees.
It could be a tree trunk, darkened by shadow.
It could also be a person.
I can’t quite tell because the picture quality is so poor. It’s grainy and slightly out of focus, giving everything a jittery blur. Despite that, the dark form bears a distinct human shape.
But the worst part about the figure is that it’s standing near the same spot as the person I saw last night. That could be a coincidence. But the churning unease in my stomach tells me it’s not.
My father’s imaginary whisper pipes up again.
It’s Mister Shadow. You know it’s him.
But Mister Shadow isn’t real. Just like the Book isn’t real.
I continue to stare at the photo, thinking about what happened moments after it was taken. My hand flutters to my cheek, my fingertips touching the slash of smooth skin under my eye. I realize the scar is yet another bit of proof that the Book—fantastical though it may be—contains strands of truth.
I drop the pictures on the desk, where they spill across its surface. The one on top is the selfie of my father, his eyes looking right into mine, as if he already knows what I’m about to do next.
Exit the office, leaving Dane alone.
Head outside, past the truck, weaving through the equipment on the lawn, and moving around to the back of the house.
Pass the exterior wall overtaken by ivy, their tendrils climbing all the way to a second-floor window.
Push into the shadow-shrouded woods in a one-woman re-creation of my father’s photograph and hurtle down the hillside, swishing through weeds, passing bright red swaths of baneberries, tripping over tree roots.
Finally, I come to a stop at a cluster of marble blocks jutting from the earth like rotten teeth.
Yet another thing my father wasn’t lying about.
Behind me, Dane calls my name. He’s in the woods now, too, catching up to me. He freezes when he sees the gravestones.
“Whoa,” he says.
“My thoughts exactly.”
I kneel in front of the nearest stone, wipe the dirt away, see a name carved into the marble.
Then I begin to laugh.
I can’t believe I thought—even for just a moment—that the Book was true. It shows how good of a liar my father was and how greatly I’d underestimated his talent. Of course he sprinkled
House of Horrors
with real-life events and places. If there’s an honest-to-God cemetery on your property, it’s only natural to mention it. When you throw enough facts into your fiction, tangling them together like a nest of snakes, some people are bound to believe it. Politicians do it all the time.
And for a second there, I did believe. It was hard not to after encountering so many things mentioned in the Book. The record player. The photograph of me and my mother. The sleepover and the kitchen ceiling and the graveyard. All of it made me think the Book was real.
But now I look at the name on the gravestone and realize I was right all along—the Book is bullshit.
He was a good dog
Dane, now at my side, stares at the stone and says, “This is a freaking pet cemetery?”
“Looks like it,” I say. “If not, the Garsons were one seriously messed-up family.”
We stroll through the rest of the cemetery. While certainly old and admittedly creepy, it’s nothing compared to the place my father
wrote about. There are stones for several dogs, too many cats to count, and even a pony named Windy.
Pointing to its grave, Dane says, “Maybe it was a ghost horse your family encountered.”
“Ghosts don’t exist,” I reply. “Equine or otherwise.”
“Hey, now. Don’t be so quick to dismiss ghosts.”
“You don’t believe all that stuff, do you?”
Dane’s expression grows contemplative. “Do I believe in ghosts? Not really. At least, not in what people think of as supernatural. But I do believe that things happen. Things we can’t explain away, no matter how much we try. The uncanny. That’s what my maternal grandmother called it.”
“She was a believer?”
“Oh, yes. She was old-school Irish. Grew up hearing stories of sprites and banshees. I always thought it was silly, how she believed in such things.” His voice goes quiet now. No more than a whisper. “But then I saw one when I was ten. Maybe not a ghost. But something.”
“Something uncanny?” I say.
He blushes a little and scratches the back of his neck. A boyish gesture that’s oddly endearing. Of the many versions of Dane Hibbets I’ve encountered in the past twenty-four hours—cockily handsome caretaker, eager employee, font of information—this is the one I like the best.
“We were living in an old house a few towns away,” he says. “It was tall and narrow. My bedroom was on the top floor, kind of isolated from the rest of the house. I didn’t mind it too much. I was ten. I wanted privacy. But then one night in October, I woke up to the sound of my bedroom door being opened. I sat up in bed and saw my grandmother poke her head into the room. ‘I just wanted to say goodnight, Boy-O,’ she said. That was her nickname for me. Boy-O. Then she left, closing the door behind her. Before going back to sleep, I checked the clock on the nightstand. It was one thirty-two a.m.
“In the morning, I went downstairs and found my parents sitting at the kitchen table. My mother was crying. My father just looked dazed. I asked them where Nana was and why no one had told me she was visiting. That’s when they told me. My grandmother had died during the night. At exactly one thirty-two a.m.”
We stand in silence after that. To speak would be to break the sudden, strange connection between us. It’s similar to our exchange in the office, although this time it feels more potent because it’s personal. In that silence, I think of Dane’s story and how it’s more sweet than scary. It makes me wish my father had said something similar before he died. Instead, I got a vague warning about Baneberry Hall and an apology for something he never got around to admitting, both of which led me here.
“I have a confession to make,” I eventually say.
“Let me guess,” Dane says, deadpan. “Your real name is Windy.”
“Close. I didn’t come back just to renovate Baneberry Hall. My real reason for returning is to try to figure out why we left this place the way we did.”
“You think there’s more to the story?”
“I know there is.”
I tell him everything. My checkered history with the Book. My father’s cryptic last words. My certainty that my parents have been withholding the truth from me for twenty-five years.
“I know my father was a liar,” I say, giving a nod toward Rover’s grave. “Now I want to know just how much he lied about. And why.”
“But you already know it wasn’t the truth,” Dane says. “Why go to all this trouble just to learn the specifics?”
“Because—” I pause, trying to find a way to articulate a gut feeling that can’t be expressed in words. “Because for most of my life, I’ve been defined by that book. Yet my parents refused to tell me anything about it. So I grew up lonely and confused and feeling like a freak because everyone thought I was the victim of something uncanny.”
Dane nods approvingly at my use of his grandmother’s term. “It’s a good word.”
“It really is,” I say, smiling even though tears are gathering in my eyes. I wipe them away with the back of my hand before one can escape. “But I never experienced it. It never happened. Now I just want to know the real story. There’s your rambling, embarrassingly personal answer.”