Read Home Before Dark: A Novel Online

Authors: Riley Sager

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

Home Before Dark: A Novel (14 page)

“Thank you for your honesty,” Dane tells me. “That couldn’t have been easy.”

“It wasn’t,” I say. “But Baneberry Hall has been the subject of so many lies, I figured it’s time someone started telling the truth.”

JUNE 29
Day 4

The next day, I was back in the woods, this time with Hibbs. Jess was inside with Maggie, attempting to ease our daughter’s pain with some child aspirin and cartoons. Our trip to the emergency room had ended up being better than I expected. It was still slow—more than three hours from arrival to departure—and still expensive. But Maggie hadn’t needed stitches, which was good news all around.

The bad news was that we had a graveyard on our property, which was why I’d asked Hibbs to tag along. I needed someone to help me count the headstones.

“I’d heard rumors they were out here, but never believed them myself,” Hibbs said as we scanned the ground, looking for more graves. So far, I’d found three. Two presumably for William Garson’s eldest son and grandson—William Jr. and William III, respectively—and one too weathered to read.

“No one knew about this place?” I said.

“Someone did, once upon a time,” Hibbs replied. “But time
passed, the place changed hands, and the forest kept on growing. It’s sad, when you think about it. The final resting place of a once-great family now sits in a forest, forgotten. Here’s another, by the way.”

He pointed to a fourth brick-like stone rising from the earth. Carved into its top was a name and a date.

INDIGO GARSON

Beloved daughter

1873–1889

“She was a beauty, that one,” Hibbs said. “That portrait of her up in the house? That’s true to life, or so I’ve been told.”

“Do you know a lot about the Garsons?”

“Oh, I’ve heard plenty over the years.”

“Do you know what happened to Indigo? She died so young.”

“I’ve heard her story,” Hibbs said. “My grandfather knew her. Back when he was just a boy. Told me she was the spitting image of that portrait. So it should come as no surprise that the artist who painted it fell madly in love with her.”

That had been my first impression upon seeing it. That the only reason an artist would have rendered Indigo Garson in such an angelic fashion was that he had been enamored of her.

“Did she love him in return?” I asked.

“She did,” Hibbs said. “The story goes that the two planned to run away and get married. William Garson was furious when he found out. He told Indigo she was far too young to get married, even though at that time being a bride at sixteen was quite common. He forbade Indigo from ever seeing the artist again. Despondent over her lost love, Indigo killed herself.”

I shuddered at the realization that another former resident of Baneberry Hall had committed suicide.

“How?”

“Poisoned herself.” Hibbs pointed farther down the hill, where a cluster of plants sat, their spindly branches covered with scarlet berries. “With those.”

“She ate baneberries?” I said.

Hibbs gave a solemn nod. “A true tragedy. Old Man Garson was heartbroken about it. The rumor is he hired that same artist to come back and paint his portrait on the other side of that fireplace. That way he and Indigo would always be together in Baneberry Hall. The painter didn’t want to, but he was flat broke and therefore had little choice.”

Now I understood why the portrait of William Garson in the great room was so sneakily unflattering. The painter had despised him, and it showed.

I walked to Mr. Garson’s gravestone, the smear of Maggie’s blood still there, now dried to a dark red.

“How widely known is that story?” I asked. “Does the rest of the town know it?”

“I suppose most do.” Hibbs gave me a gold-tooth-flashing grin. “At least all us old-timers do.”

“What else do you know about this place?”

“More than most, I’d say,” Hibbs said with noticeable pride.

“The day we met, you asked if Janie June had told us the whole story,” I said. “At the time, I thought she had. But now—”

“Now you suspect Janie June was holding out on you.”

“I do,” I admitted. “And I’d appreciate it if you filled in the blanks for me.”

“I’m not sure you want that, Ewan,” Hibbs said as he pretended to scour the ground for more graves. “You might think you do, but sometimes it’s best not knowing.”

Anger rose in my chest, hot and sudden and strong. It only got worse when I looked down and saw my daughter’s blood staining William Garson’s grave. I was so mad that I stalked across the wooded cemetery and grabbed Hibbs by his collar.

“You told me I needed to be prepared for this place,” I said. “But I’m not. And now my daughter’s hurt. She could have been killed, Hibbs. So if there’s something you’re not telling me, you need to spit it out right now.”

Hibbs didn’t push me off him, which I don’t doubt he could have done. Despite his age, he looked to be as strong as a bulldog. Instead, he gently pried my fingers from around his shirt collar and said, “You want the truth? I’ll give it to you. Things have happened in that house. Tragic things. Indigo Garson and the Carver family, yes. But other things, too. And all those things, well, they . . . linger.”

The word sent a chill down my back. Probably because of the way Hibbs said it—slowly, drawing out the word like it was a rubber band about to snap.

“Are you telling me Baneberry Hall is haunted?”

“I’m saying that Baneberry Hall
remembers
,” Hibbs said. “It remembers everything that’s happened since Indigo Garson gulped down those berries. And sometimes history has a way of repeating itself.”

It took a moment for that information to sink in. It was so utterly absurd that I had trouble comprehending it. When it all eventually settled in, I felt so dizzy I thought I, too, was going to fall and whack my head on William Garson’s grave.

“I’m not saying it’s going to happen to you,” Hibbs said. “I’m
just telling you it’s a possibility. Just like your house getting struck by lightning is a possibility. My advice? Be as happy as you can in that house. Love your family. Hug your daughter. Kiss your wife. From what I’ve heard, that house hasn’t witnessed a lot of love. It remembers that pain. What you need to do is make it forget.”

•   •   •

I returned from the woods to find Maggie on the sofa in the parlor, her head resting in Jess’s lap. Half her cheek was covered by a large bandage. The skin surrounding it was colored an angry red that I already knew would darken into a nasty bruise.

“How many are there?” Jess said.

“About a dozen. That we could find, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more graves out there, their stones either completely crumbled or buried by plant life.”

“I want to strangle that Janie June. She should have told us there was a goddamned cemetery in our backyard.”

“Maybe she didn’t know,” I said. “They’re pretty hidden.”

“She’s a Realtor,” Jess snapped. “It’s her job to know what’s on the property. I think she knew telling us about it would freak us out and then she’d have to find another gullible couple to swindle.”

“We weren’t swindled,” I said, even though I was starting to think we were. If not swindled, then at least misled. Because Jess was right—surely a Realtor would know about a cemetery on the property.

“What did Hibbs have to say about it?”

On the walk back to the house, I’d decided not to tell Jess about Indigo Garson’s tragic death. She was already on edge knowing about two deaths inside Baneberry Hall. A third would likely send her running from the house, never to return. And, to be brutally
honest, we couldn’t afford for that to happen. Buying the house had cost us almost everything we had. There was nothing left over for a down payment on a new home or a rental.

We were, for better or worse, stuck there.

Which meant I needed to follow Hibbs’s advice and make our time there as happy as possible. Even if it meant not being honest with my wife. In my mind, there was no other choice.

“Nothing much,” I said before scooping Maggie from the couch. “Now let’s go for some ice cream. Three scoops for everyone. I think we’ve all earned it.”

•   •   •

Considering everything Hibbs had told me that afternoon, I was surprised by how exhausted I felt when bedtime rolled around. I had assumed I’d be awake half the night, worrying about all I’d heard about the cemetery, Indigo Garson, the way Baneberry Hall
remembers
. Instead, I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

It didn’t last long.

At five minutes to midnight, I awoke to a strange sound.

Music.

Someone, somewhere, was singing.

A man. His voice soft and lilting. Drifting from a distant part of the house.

I looked to the other side of the bed to see if Jess had also been awakened by the music, but she remained fast asleep. Hoping she’d stay that way, I slid out of bed and crept out of the room.

The music was slightly louder in the hallway. Loud enough for me to recognize the song.

“You are sixteen, going on seventeen—”

The music was coming from upstairs, a fact I realized when I reached the other side of the hall. I could hear it echoing down the steps that led to my study. Accompanying the music was a chill strong enough to make me shiver.

“Baby, it’s time to think.”

I started up the stairs slowly, nervously. With each step, the song got louder and the chill got worse. At the top of the stairs, it had grown so cold that, had there been more light there, I’m certain I would have seen my breath.

“Better beware—”

When I opened the study door, the song practically boomed out of the room. Inside, it was pitch-black. The kind of darkness that gave one pause. And cold. So freezing that goose bumps formed on my bare skin.

“—be canny—”

I stepped into the study, hugging myself for warmth. I flicked the switch by the door, and light flooded the room.

“—and careful—”

Sitting on the desk, right where I had left it, was the record player. The album on top of it spun at full speed and at top volume.

“Baby, you’re on the—”

I plucked the needle from the record, and silence fell over the house like a wool blanket. The cold went away as well—an instant warming that swept through the room. Or so I thought. As I stood in that newfound silence and warmth, it occurred to me that it might have been my imagination.

Not the music.

That had been all too real.

The album still spun atop the turntable, its grooves catching light from the fixture overhead. I switched it off, not looking away
until the record came to a complete stop. I assumed it was Jess’s doing. That in a fit of insomnia she had made her way up here and listened to some music before getting tired.

The only excuse for the cold was that I’d somehow imagined it. Any other explanation—a draft, a gust of freezing air from the open window—seemed unlikely, if not downright impossible. Therefore it must have been my imagination, prompted by what Hibbs had told me earlier. Here was the irrational fear I’d been expecting, arriving a few hours late.

And that’s exactly what it was—irrational.

Houses didn’t remember things. The supernatural didn’t exist. I had no reason to fear this place.

By the time I returned to bed, I had convinced myself it was all in my head.

That everything was normal.

That nothing strange was going on at Baneberry Hall.

It turned out I was wrong.

So utterly wrong.

Seven

I send Dane home for the day after our talk in the cemetery. It feels like the right thing to do, despite the fact that we accomplished next to nothing. After revisiting our possibly haunted pasts, both of us deserve an afternoon off.

For me, that involves heading into town for much-needed groceries.

My drive to the store brings me onto Bartleby’s main thoroughfare. Maple Street, of course. I pass clapboard houses as sturdy and unbending as the people who surely live inside them, storefronts with large windows and signs hawking authentic maple syrup, the obligatory church with its ivory steeple stretching toward the sky. There’s even a town square—a small patch of green with a gazebo and flagpole.

Although quaint, there’s a slight dinginess to Bartleby not present in similar towns. A sense that time has passed it by. Still, I notice small attempts at modernization. A sushi restaurant. A vegetarian bistro. A consignment shop specializing in designer brands with a diaphanous Gucci dress prominently displayed in the window.

And I see a bakery, which makes me slam on the brakes in the
middle of Maple Street. In my experience, where there are baked goods, there’s also coffee. Usually good coffee. Considering my undercaffeinated state, that’s worth slamming the brakes.

I park on the street and step into a space decorated in a manner that’s both trendy and timeless. Copper fixtures. Tile-top tables with mismatched chairs. Midnight-blue walls filled with vintage illustrations of birds inside ornate frames. At the rear of the shop, an old-fashioned display case stretches from wall to wall, filled with gorgeously decorated cakes, delicate pastries, and pies with elaborate crusts worthy of Instagram. As far as visuals go, the owner certainly knows what she’s doing.

I walk to the display case, ready to tell the woman adjusting pastries inside it how much I like the design. The compliment dies on my lips when the woman rises from behind the counter and I see who she is.

Marta Carver.

I recognize her from the pictures I saw when I was a
House of
Horrors–
obsessed tween who hoped Google would help fill the gaps in my knowledge. She’s older and softer now. Fiftyish, brown hair graying at the roots, slightly matronly in her yellow blouse and white apron. Her glasses don’t help—the same unflattering spectacles she wore in all those photos.

I’m apparently not the only one who’s done some Googling, because it’s clear she knows who I am. Her eyes widen just enough to register her surprise, and her jaw tightens. She clears her throat, and I brace myself for an angry tirade about my father. It would be justified. Of the many people in Bartleby who hate the Book, Marta Carver has the biggest reason for doing so.

Instead, she forces her lips into a polite smile and says, “What can I get for you, Miss Holt?”

“I—”

I’m sorry.
That’s what I want to say.
I’m sorry my father exploited
your tragedy in his book. I’m sorry that because of him the whole world knows what your husband did.

“Coffee, please,” is what I end up saying, the words tight in my throat. “To go.”

Marta says nothing else as she pours my coffee and hands it to me. I muster a weak “Thank you” and pay with a ten-dollar bill. The change goes into a tip jar atop the counter, as if that seven dollars can make up for twenty-five years of pain.

I tell myself there’s no need to apologize. That it was my father, not me, who wronged her. That I’m just as much a victim as she is.

But as I leave that bakery, I know two things.

One, that I’m a coward.

And, two, that I hope to never see Marta Carver again as long as I live.


I return from the grocery store with a dozen paper bags in the back of my pickup. Because Baneberry Hall’s kitchen leaves a lot to be desired, I stocked up on food that’s easy to prepare. Canned soups, cold cereal, frozen dinners that can be zapped in the ancient microwave.

When I pull up to the house, I find a Toyota Camry also parked in the circular drive. Soon a man appears from the side of the house, as if he’s just been roaming the grounds. He’s in his early fifties, trim, with a tidy beard, a checked sport coat, and a matching bow tie. The outfit makes him look like an old-timey salesman. All that’s missing is a straw hat and a bottle of snake oil. As he approaches with one hand extended and another gripping a reporter’s notebook, I realize exactly who he is.

Brian Prince.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

“Good to see you, Maggie,” he says, as if we’re old friends.

I hop out of the truck, scowling. “You’re trespassing, Mr. Prince.”

“My apologies,” he says, doing a half bow of attrition. “I heard you were back in town, so I decided to drive out here and see for myself. When I saw the front gate open, I realized the rumors were true. Hope you don’t mind the intrusion.”

I grab a grocery bag from the truck and carry it to the porch. “Will you leave if I say yes?”

“Grudgingly,” he says. “But I do intend to come back, so you might as well get it over with now.”

“Get what over with?”

“Our interview, of course,” he says.

I return to the truck and grab two more bags. “I’m afraid I’m not very newsworthy, Mr. Prince.”

“Oh, I beg to differ. I think the community would be very interested to know that a member of the Holt family has moved back to Baneberry Hall.”

“I’m not moving in,” I say. “In fact, I’m moving out. There’s your article in two sentences.”

“What are your plans for the house?”

“Fix it up, sell it, hopefully walk away with a profit,” I say, nodding toward the equipment on the lawn as I make my way to the porch. First the table saw. Then the electric sander. Then the sledgehammer.

“The fact that Baneberry Hall will soon be back on the market is newsworthy in itself,” Brian says.

Deep down, I know Brian Prince is blameless. He heard a juicy story about a haunted house, interviewed my father, and wrote down what he said. He had simply done his job, just like Tess Alcott had done hers. The only two people responsible are my parents, and even they had no idea the story of Baneberry Hall would grow into the unruly phenomenon it became. That still doesn’t keep me from wanting to grab the sledgehammer and chase Brian Prince off my property.

“Newsworthy or not, I don’t
want
to talk to you,” I say.

“Your father did,” he says. “Sadly, he never got the chance.”

I lower the bags on the porch, my legs wobbly with surprise. “You communicated with my father?”

“Not often,” Brian says. “But we continued to correspond on and off over the years. And one of the things we discussed shortly before his illness took a turn for the worse was him coming back here to do an interview with me.”

“Your idea, I suppose.”

“Actually, it was your father who suggested it. He pitched it as an exclusive interview. Him and me talking inside this house, twenty-five years later.”

It’s yet another thing my father never mentioned, probably because he knew I would have tried to talk him out of it.

“Did he tell you what the gist of this conversation would have been?” I say, toying with the possibility it might have been an attempt to finally come clean after all these years. A confession, of sorts, taking place at the scene of the crime.

That idea is immediately shot down by Brian Prince.

“Your father said he wanted to reaffirm what he had written in his book.”

“And you were just going to go along with it?” I say, my opinion of Brian Prince swiftly changing. Maybe he’s not as blameless as I first thought. “Listen to my father tell a bunch of lies and write it down as fact?”

“I wasn’t planning on going easy on him,” Brian says as he fussily adjusts his bow tie. “I was going to ask some tough questions. Try to get at the truth of the matter.”

“The truth is that he made it all up,” I say. “Everyone knows that.”

“I don’t think it’s as simple as that,” he says.

Because Brian Prince shows no sign of leaving anytime soon, I take a seat on the porch steps. When Brian sits next to me, I’m too
tired to shoo him away. Not to mention a tad curious about what he thinks is the real reason we abandoned Baneberry Hall.

“Did you investigate his claims?” I ask.

“Not back then,” Brian admits. “I didn’t have access to this house, for one thing. Plus there was other news to deal with.”

I roll my eyes. “It must not have been too important. The
Gazette
put my father’s bullshit story on the front page.”

Which, I wanted to add, was the reason other news outlets paid so much attention to it. If Brian’s article had been buried inside the paper, no one would have even noticed it. But by splashing it across the front page, along with a particularly sinister photo of Baneberry Hall, the
Gazette
had provided validation for my father’s lies.

“If our deadline had been a day later, your family’s story probably wouldn’t have even made the paper. But I didn’t hear about the Ditmer girl’s disappearance until the morning after that issue had gone to press.”

My body goes rigid at the mention of Petra. “I thought she ran away.”

“I see you’ve already talked to Chief Alcott,” Brian says, flashing me an unctuous smile. “That’s the police’s official line, by the way. That Petra Ditmer ran away. I guess it sounds better than saying a sixteen-year-old girl vanished under mysterious circumstances and they were too inept to find out what really happened to her.”

“What do you think happened?”

“That’s one of the things I wanted to ask your father.”

An uneasy feeling floods my gut. Although I’m unsure where Brian is going with this, his tone of voice already suggests I’m not going to like it.

“Why ask him?” I say. “My father didn’t make Petra run away—”

“Vanish,” Brian interjects.

“Vanish. Disappear. Whatever.” I rise, heading back to the truck,
no longer wanting to hear what else Brian has to say. “My father wasn’t involved in any of that.”

“I thought that, too,” Brian says, still on the porch steps, still smiling, still acting like this is just a friendly visit when it’s clearly not. “It wasn’t until later—long after your father’s book came out—that I began to suspect they could be related.”

“How?”

“For starters, Petra Ditmer was last seen on July 15—the same night you and your family left this place. That’s a bit too strange to be a coincidence, don’t you think?”

The news hits me hard. There’s a dizzying moment in which I think I’m going to faint. It comes out of nowhere, forcing me to lean against the truck to keep from falling.

Petra Ditmer vanished the same night we fled Baneberry Hall.

Brian is right—that does feel like more than just a coincidence. But I don’t know what else it could be. Petra certainly didn’t run away with my family. That’s something I would have remembered. Besides, Chief Alcott was inside our hotel room at the Two Pines that night. Surely she would have noticed if a sixteen-year-old girl had also been there.

“I think you’re overreaching,” I say.

“Am I? I’ve read your father’s book many times. In it, he had lots to say about Petra Ditmer. Considering their age difference, they seemed quite
close
.”

He puts a lascivious spin on the word that makes my blood boil. Yes, Petra was mentioned frequently in the Book, often at key moments. That can’t be denied, especially when I now have the photos to prove it. But that doesn’t mean she and my father were, to use Brian’s euphemism, close.

I knew my father better than he did. Ewan Holt was a lot of things. A liar. A charmer. But he wasn’t a creep or a womanizer. I know that
as sure as I know that my mother, had she been cheated on, would have taken my father for every cent he was worth. Since she didn’t, I have to believe we left Baneberry Hall for other reasons.

“Most of what’s in my father’s book is verifiably false. You can’t trust a single thing he wrote. Including how much time he spent with Petra Ditmer. My father wasn’t a stupid man, Mr. Prince. He certainly wouldn’t have written so much about Petra—in a book that hundreds of thousands of people have read—if he was the one who caused her disappearance.”

“Now you’re the one who’s overreaching. I never said he caused her disappearance. What I’m
suggesting
is that they’re related. Your family fled Baneberry Hall at almost the exact same time Petra Ditmer vanished without a trace. That’s not normal, Maggie. Not here in Bartleby.” Brian stands and makes a show of wiping his pants, as if merely sitting on Baneberry Hall’s porch steps has somehow dirtied him. “Something strange happened the night your family left, and I fully intend to find out what it was. Now, you can help me or hinder me—”

“I’m sure as hell not going to help you,” I say.

Even though Brian Prince and I share the same goal, it’s clear we’re each looking for different results.

“Although that’s not the answer I wanted to hear, I respect it nonetheless,” Brian says. “But just so you know, I
will
uncover the truth about that night.”

“You’re going to have to do it off my property,” I say. “Which means you need to leave.
Now.

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