Authors: Riley Sager
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary
This prompted a sigh from Jess. “Are you sure this is what you really want?”
It was. We’d spent years cooped up in a small apartment. I couldn’t shake the notion that a fresh start in a house as big and eccentric as Baneberry Hall was exactly what we needed.
“Then I guess we’re doing this,” she said.
A smile spread across my face, wider than I thought possible. “I guess we are.”
A minute later, we were back at Janie June’s car, me giddy and breathless as I said, “We’ll take it!”
I leave Arthur Rosenfeld’s office in a daze, my legs unsteady as I move down the brick sidewalk to the restaurant where my mother is waiting. Despite it being a beautiful day in May, cold sweat sticks to my skin.
Although I had expected a swell of emotions during today’s meeting—grief, guilt, a heap of regret—anxiety wasn’t one of them. Yet a thick, heart-quickening fear about owning Baneberry Hall is my overriding emotion at the moment. If I possessed an ounce of superstition, I’d be worrying about ghosts and curses and what dangers might be lurking within those walls. Being the logical person that I am summons a different thought. One far more nerve-racking than the supernatural.
What, exactly, am I going to do with the place?
Outside of what’s in the Book, I know nothing about Baneberry Hall. Not its condition. Not if anyone has lived there in the past twenty-five years. I don’t even know how much it’s worth, which makes me want to kick myself for being too stunned to ask Arthur.
My phone chirps in my pocket as I round the corner onto Beacon Street. I check it, guiltily hoping it’s my mother canceling lunch at the
last minute. No such luck. Instead, I see a text from Allie giving me an update about the duplex in Telegraph Hill we’re remodeling. Two units means double the work, double the cost, and double the headaches. It also means double the profit, which is what drew us to the property.
Tile down in both master baths. Clawfoot tubs are next.
I can help
, I text back, fishing for a good reason for me to cancel.
Allie replies that all is well without me. Another disappointment.
How did it go?
, I write back, knowing the morning’s events are too much to discuss over text.
I’ll tell you all about it after lunch.
Tell Jessica I’m still available for adoption
, Allie adds with a wink emoji. One of the many running jokes between us is that my mother would be happier if Allie, with her BeDazzled toolbelt and HGTV-ready smile, were her daughter.
It would be funnier if it weren’t true.
I pocket my phone and continue to the restaurant, an upscale lunching spot with floor-to-ceiling windows offering a view of Boston Common. Through the glass, I can see my mother already tucked into a rear booth. Punctual as ever. I, on the other hand, am five minutes late. Since I know my mother will be sure to mention it, I wait to go inside, watching as she takes a sip of her martini, checks her watch, then sips again.
Although she was born and raised in Boston, living in Palm Springs for a decade now makes her look like an out-of-towner. When I was growing up, she had a more casual style. Earth tones, flowing dresses, cable-knit sweaters. Today, her ensemble can only be described as Late-Career Movie Star. White capris. A Lilly Pulitzer blouse. White-blond hair pulled into a severe ponytail. Completing the look are oversize sunglasses that cover a third of her face. She
rarely takes them off, forcing her coral-lipsticked mouth to do the emoting. Currently, it droops into a disapproving frown as I enter the restaurant and make my way to the table.
“I almost ordered without you,” she says, the words clipped, as if she’s rehearsed them.
I eye her half-empty martini glass. “Looks like you already have.”
“Don’t be fresh. I got you a gin and tonic.” She lowers her sunglasses to better study my outfit. “Is that what you wore to meet Arthur?”
“I was at a job site beforehand. I didn’t have time to change.”
My mother shrugs, unmoved by my excuse. “Dressing up would have been the respectful thing to do.”
“It was a meeting,” I say. “Not a memorial service.”
That had taken place a month earlier, at a funeral home mere blocks from where we now sit. Not many people attended. In his later years, my father had become a bit of a hermit, cutting himself off from almost everyone. Even though they’d been divorced for twenty-two years—and since my father never remarried—my mother dutifully sat with me in the front row. Behind us were Allie and my stepfather, a kind but boring real estate developer named Carl.
My mother has returned for the weekend to, in her words, offer emotional support. That means a gin and tonic, heavy on the former. When it arrives, the first sip leaves me dizzy. But it does the trick. The hit of the gin and the fizz of the tonic are a balm against today’s surprises.
“So, how did it go?” my mother asks. “The last time I talked to your father, he said he was leaving you everything.”
“And he did.” I lean forward, accusingly. “Including Baneberry Hall.”
“Oh?” my mother says, doing a terrible job of feigning surprise. She tries to cover it by lifting the martini to her lips and taking a loud sip.
“Why didn’t Dad tell me that he still owned it? For that matter, why didn’t you?”
“I didn’t think it was my place,” my mother says, as if that’s ever stopped her before. “It was your father’s house, not mine.”
“At one time it belonged to both of you. Why didn’t you sell it then?”
My mother avoids the question by asking one of her own.
“Are you sleeping?”
What she’s really asking is if I’m still having the night terrors that have plagued me since childhood. Horrific dreams of dark figures watching me sleep, sitting on the edge of my bed, touching the small of my back. My childhood was filled with nights when I’d wake up either gasping or screaming. It was another game those bitches-in-training liked to play during grade-school sleepovers: watch Maggie sleep and scream.
Although the night terrors weren’t as frequent after I hit my teens, they never fully went away. I still have them about once a week, which has earned me a lifetime prescription to Valium.
“Mostly,” I say, leaving out how I’d had one the night before. A long, dark arm reached up from under my bed to snag my ankle.
Dr. Harris, my former therapist, told me they’re caused by unresolved feelings about the Book. It’s the reason I stopped going to therapy. I didn’t need two sessions a month to be told the obvious.
My mother credits a different cause for the night terrors, which she states every time we see each other, including now.
“It’s stress,” she says. “You’re working yourself ragged.”
“I like it that way.”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
“I’m seeing the duplex we’re renovating,” I say. “Does that count?”
“You’re too young to be working so hard. I worry about you girls.”
I can’t help but notice the way my mother lumps Allie and me together, as if we’re sisters and not co-workers turned business partners. I
design. Allie builds. Together, we’ve flipped four houses and renovated three.
“We’re growing a business,” I tell my mother. “That doesn’t happen without—”
I stop myself, realizing I’ve done exactly what she planned and veered wildly offtrack. I take a hearty swig of the gin and tonic, partly out of annoyance—at my mother, at myself—and partly to prepare for what’s next.
Lots of them.
Ones my mother won’t want to hear and will try not to answer. I won’t let her get away with it. Not this time.
“Mom,” I say, “why did we really leave Baneberry Hall?”
“You know we don’t talk about that.”
Her voice contains a tone of warning. The last time I heard it, I was thirteen and going through a series of phases purposefully designed to test my mother’s patience. Inappropriate makeup phase. Sarcastic phase. Habitual liar phase, during which I spent three months telling a series of outrageous fabrications with the hope my parents would crack and finally admit that they, too, had lied.
On that day, my mother had just found out I skipped school to spend the day roaming the Museum of Fine Arts. I got out of class by telling the school secretary I had contracted E. coli from eating tainted romaine lettuce. My mother was, obviously, livid.
“You, young lady, are in serious trouble,” she said on the drive home from the principal’s office. “You’re grounded for a month.”
I turned in the passenger seat, stunned. “A
“And if you ever pull a stunt like this again, it’ll be six months. You can’t keep lying like this.”
“You and Dad lie all the time,” I said, angry at the unfairness of it all. “You made, like, a career out of it. Talking about that stupid book every chance you got.”
The mention of the Book made my mother flinch. “You know I don’t like to discuss that.”
“Because that was different.”
“How? How is the stuff you said different from what I’m doing? At least my lies aren’t hurting anyone.”
An angry flush leaped up my mother’s cheeks. “Because I didn’t say things just to get back at my parents. I didn’t say them with the sole intention of being a lying bitch.”
“It takes one to know one,” I said.
My mother’s right hand flew from the steering wheel and cracked against my left cheek—a blow so sudden and stinging it jolted the breath from my lungs.
“Never call me a liar again,” she said. “And never, under any circumstance, ask me about that book. Do you understand?”
I nodded, my hand pressed to my cheek, the skin there hotter than a sunburn. It was the only time I can remember one of my parents hitting me. Probably because it left a mark. For two days, the bruise from my mother’s slap eclipsed my scar. Until today, I have never mentioned the Book to her again.
Thinking about that day always brings a pulse of memory pain. I touch my gin and tonic to my cheek and say, “We need to start talking about it, Mom.”
“You read the book,” my mother says. “You know what happened.”
“I’m not talking about Dad’s fictionalized account. I’m talking about the truth.”
My mother downs the rest of her martini. “If you wanted that, then you should have asked your father when you had the chance.”
Oh, I did. Plenty of times. Since my father had never backhanded me, I continued to try to get him to admit the truth about Baneberry Hall. I liked to spring the question on him when he was distracted, hoping he’d slip up and give me an honest answer. At breakfast, right
before he dropped French toast onto my plate. At the movies, just as the lights dimmed. Once, I tried while we were at Game One of the World Series and Big Papi’s three-run homer was whizzing toward our corner of the outfield.
Each time, I got the same answer. “What happened, happened, Mags. I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”
But he did. In public. On national TV.
Although I loved my father unconditionally, I also thought he was the most dishonest man I’ve ever known. That was hard for adolescent me to wrap my head around. It’s still hard in adulthood.
Eventually, I stopped asking him about the Book. My late teens and twenties passed with nary a question. More than a decade of things left unspoken. It was easier that way. By then, I knew my family preferred tense silence over addressing the Book-shaped elephant in the room.
It wasn’t until I was a week away from my thirties that I tried again. And even then it was only because I knew it was my last, best chance to get answers.
The end for my father had been in sight for days—long enough for me to get the idea that his passing would be marked by weather befitting our stormy relationship. Dark clouds in the sky and cracks of lightning. Yet his final breath emerged on a bright April day with the sun rising high in a flawless sky, its yellow glow matched by the forsythia blooming outside the hospice window.
I didn’t talk much in the last hours of my father’s life. I didn’t know what to say and doubted my father would understand even if I did. He was barely conscious at the end, and certainly not lucid once the morphine drip had lowered him into a state of dreamlike befuddlement. His sole moment of clarity came less than an hour before he died—a shift so unexpected it made me wonder if I, too, was dreaming.
“Maggie,” he said, looking up at me with eyes suddenly clear of confusion and pain. “Promise me you’ll never go back there. Never ever.”
There was no need to ask what he was talking about. I already knew.
“It—it’s not safe there. Not for you.”
My father winced against a ripple of pain, making it clear he’d be slipping out of consciousness very soon, likely for good.
“I’ll never go back. I promise.”
I said it quickly, worried it was too late and that my father was already gone. But he was still with me. He even managed a pain-weakened smile and said, “That’s my good girl.”
I placed my hand on his, shocked by how small it was. When I was a girl, his hands had seemed so big, so strong. Now mine fit squarely atop his.
“It’s time, Dad,” I said. “You’ve been silent long enough. You can tell me why we really left. I know that none of it is true. I know you made up everything. About the house. About what happened there. It’s okay to admit it. I won’t blame you. I won’t judge you. I just need to know why you did it.”
I had started to cry, overcome with emotion. My father was slipping away, and I was already missing him even though he was still right there, and I was so close to learning the truth that my whole body buzzed.