Authors: Riley Sager
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary
“Tell me,” I whispered.
My father’s mouth dropped open, two words forming among his labored breaths. He pushed them out one by one, each sounding like a hiss in the otherwise silent room.
After that, all the light left my father. Even though he would technically remain alive for fifty more minutes, I consider that the moment of his death. He was in the shadowland, a realm from which I knew he’d never return.
In the days that followed, I didn’t dwell on that final conversation.
I was too numb with grief and too consumed with making funeral arrangements to think about it. Only after that draining ordeal had ended did it dawn on me that he never gave me a proper answer.
“Asking Dad is no longer an option,” I tell my mother. “You’re all I have left. And it’s time we talk about it.”
“I don’t see why.” My mother looks past my shoulder, desperately seeking out our waiter for another drink. “All that is ancient history.”
A bubble of frustration forms in my chest. One that’s been building since the night we left Baneberry Hall, inflated a little more each day. By their divorce, which I’m sure was caused by the Book’s success. By every question deflected by my father. By the relentless taunting from classmates. By each awkward encounter with someone like Wendy Davenport. For twenty-five years, it’s grown unabated, getting bigger and bigger, nearly bursting.
,” I say. “
life. I’ve been associated with that book since I was five. People read it and think they know me, but what they’ve read is a lie. Their
of me is a lie. And I never knew how to handle that because you and Dad never wanted to talk about the Book. But I’m begging you, please, talk about it.”
I down the rest of the gin and tonic, holding the glass with both hands because they’ve started to shake. When our waiter passes, I also order another.
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” my mother says.
“You can start with Dad’s last words. ‘So sorry.’ That’s what he said, Mom. And I need to know why.”
“How do you even know he was talking about the book?”
Because he was. I’m certain of it. That final conversation had the feel of a confession. Now the only person who knows what my father was confessing to sits directly across from me, anxiously awaiting another hit of vodka.
“Tell me what he meant,” I say.
My mother takes off her sunglasses, revealing a softness in her eyes
that I’ve rarely seen in adulthood. I think it’s because she feels sorry for me. I also think it means I’m on the verge of learning the truth.
“Your father was a very good writer,” she says. “But he had his struggles. With writer’s block. With self-doubt. He had many disappointments before we moved to Baneberry Hall. That was one of the reasons we bought it. To get a fresh start in a new place. He thought it would inspire him. And, for a time, it did. That house and all its problems and quirks—it was a treasure trove of new ideas for your father. He got the idea for a book about a haunted house. A novel.”
“But Dad wrote nonfiction,” I say, thinking about the magazine covers that had hung in his apartment, proudly framed.
Esquire. Rolling Stone. The New Yorker.
During his heyday, he had contributed to them all.
“That’s what he was known for, yes. And that’s the only thing his connections in the publishing world wanted from him. Facts, not fiction. Truth, not lies.”
I implicitly understand where this story is heading. Since my father couldn’t snag a book deal with a typical novel, he decided to go a different route. Make-believe masked as something true.
“Your father realized that in order for this to work, we’d need to make it look authentic. Which meant leaving Baneberry Hall and telling the police
we left.” My mother takes a shy pause. “I know it all sounds so ridiculous now. But it felt like something that could be pulled off if done carefully. I agreed to it because, well, I loved your father. I believed in him. And, since I’m being honest, I hated that house.”
“So, none of it was real?”
“There is some truth behind it. Baneberry’s history. The stuff about the Carver family. And the kitchen ceiling, unfortunately. Although that was caused by a burst pipe and not, well, you know. As for the ghosts your father said you saw, they were nothing but your bad dreams.”
“I had night terrors even back then?”
“It’s when they started,” my mother says. “Your father took inspiration from everything, even though the end result was mostly fiction.”
I was right—the Book is a lie. Not all of it. But the important parts. The ones that involve us.
And Mister Shadow.
I always thought that if I was ever told the truth, it would feel like a weight lifting off my shoulders. It doesn’t. Any relief I might have is tempered by frustration over all that useless secrecy. When I was a child, the Book made me an object of curiosity to some and an outcast to others. Being told the truth might not have changed that, but I sure as hell would have been able to handle it better. Realizing some of those growing pains could have been avoided fills my heart with an angry, gnawing ache.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“We wanted to,” my mother says with a sigh. “When the time was right. That’s what we always said. ‘When the time is right, we’ll tell Maggie the truth.’ But the right time never seemed to arrive. Especially when the book became more successful than we ever imagined.”
“You were worried I’d tell someone?”
“We were worried you’d be disappointed in us,” she says. “Your father especially.”
She’s assuming I wasn’t already disappointed by years of lies and all the things left unspoken. But I was. Few things in life are more disappointing than knowing your parents aren’t being honest with you.
“None of that matters.” My voice cracks, and I realize I’m holding back tears. “You should have told me.”
“Everything you have is because of that book,” my mother says. “It put food on the table and clothes on your back.
House of Horrors
paid for your entire education. Not to mention that inheritance you just received. We didn’t know how you’d react if you found out it was all because of a lie.”
“Is that why you and Dad got divorced?”
Something else we don’t talk about. When they separated, the only thing my parents told eight-year-old me was that I’d be living in two apartments instead of one. They failed to mention that my mother would be in one of the apartments and my father in the other, never again living under the same roof. It took me weeks to figure it out on my own. And it took me years to stop thinking that the divorce was somehow my fault. Yet another youthful trauma that could have easily been avoided.
“Mostly,” my mother says. “We had problems before that, of course. We weren’t a perfect couple by any means. But after the book was published, I got tired of constantly lying. And fearing the truth would get out. And feeling guilty about all of it.”
“That’s why you refused to take money from Dad,” I say.
“I just wanted to be free of it all. In exchange, I promised your father I’d never tell you the truth.” My mother sighs again. Sadder this time. A soft exhalation of defeat. “I guess some promises need to be broken.”
The sunglasses go back on, a sign I’ve heard all she’s prepared to say about the matter. Is it everything? Probably not. But it’s enough to finally bring that sense of relief I’d hoped for. The truth at last, which ended up being just what I suspected.
Lunch progresses normally after that. Our new drinks arrive. My mother judges me from behind her sunglasses when I order a burger with extra bacon. She gets a salad. I tell her about the duplex Allie and I are trying to flip. She tells me how she and Carl are spending the entire month of June in Capri. When lunch is over, my mother surprises me with one last mention of Baneberry Hall. It’s dropped casually as she pays the check. Like an afterthought.
“By the way, Carl and I talked it over, and we’d like to buy Baneberry Hall from you. At full value, of course.”
“If we weren’t serious, I wouldn’t have brought it up.”
“That’s very nice of you.” I pause, appreciative but also suddenly apprehensive. There’s something else going on here. “But I can’t just let you give me money.”
“We’re not,” my mother insists. “We’re buying a property. That’s what Carl does.”
“But none of us know what condition it’s in,” I say. “Or how much it’s worth.”
“Just get the house assessed while we’re away, and we’ll give you the full value when we return. Quick and simple. We’ll reimburse you for the assessment. You won’t even need to set foot inside Baneberry Hall.”
I freeze, my sense of relief gone in an instant. Because although their words differ, my parents’ message is the same.
Never go back there.
It’s not safe there.
Not for you.
Which means I still don’t know the truth about Baneberry Hall. Maybe some of what my mother just told me is real, but I doubt it. If that were the case, why would she and my father both be so adamant about my not returning? They are still, after all these years, hiding something. The ache in my heart returns, more acute this time, as if my mother has just jammed the fork she’s holding right through my chest.
“You have to admit it’s a very generous offer,” she says.
“It is,” I reply, my voice weak.
“Tell me you’ll at least consider it.”
I stare at the darkened lenses of her sunglasses, wishing I could see her eyes and therefore possibly read her thoughts. Can she tell that I know I’ve been lied to once again? Can she see the pain and disappointment I’m using all my willpower to hide?
“I will,” I say, although what I really want to do is continue to beg for the truth.
I don’t, because I already know she won’t provide it. Not after all the begging and pleading in the world. If my father refused to do it on his deathbed, I see no reason why my mother would do it now.
It makes me feel like a child again. Not the odd, spooked girl in the Book, a characterization I never related to. And not the shy, mute version of me in that
interview on YouTube. I feel like I did when I was nine and, having read the Book for the first time, thirsted for answers. The only difference between us is that I now have something nine-year-old me didn’t—access to Baneberry Hall.
I plunge a hand into my pocket, feeling for the keys I stuffed there after leaving Arthur Rosenfeld’s office.
There’s a line I like to say to potential buyers before they tour a renovated property.
Every house has a story to tell.
Baneberry Hall is no different. Its story—the real one—might still be there. Why we left. Why my father felt compelled to lie about it. What I actually experienced there. All of it might be hiding within its walls, waiting for me to find it.
“I’m glad,” my mother says. “You’re so busy. The last thing I want is for you to be burdened with some old house you don’t want.”
“I won’t even think about that place until you and Carl get back,” I tell her. “I promise.”
I sip my gin and tonic and flash my mother a fake smile, realizing she gave me at least one snippet of truth during lunch.
Some promises do indeed need to be broken.
“I need you to make a promise,” Jess said as we drove to Baneberry Hall immediately after closing on the place.
“I promise you the moon,” I replied.
“I need more than that. This promise has to do with the house.”
Of course it did. We had ended up using the bulk of Jess’s inheritance to buy Baneberry Hall outright. That seemed more sensible than being saddled with a mortgage that, between Jess’s teaching salary and my meager freelance earnings, we might one day not be able to pay. And even though we got the house for dirt cheap, my hands shook as I wrote out a certified check for the full amount.
They were still shaking as I turned off the main road, on the way to our new home. Although we wouldn’t be moving in until the next day, Jess and I wanted to stop by the place, mostly just to let it sink in that it was now really ours.
“What about it?” I said.
“Now that we’re doing this—actually, truly, no-turning-back
doing this—I need you to promise that you’ll let the past stay in the past.”
Jess paused, waiting for me to acknowledge that I understood what she meant. As a journalist, it was in my nature to poke around, searching for the stories that surrounded us. And it had certainly crossed my mind that moving into a massive estate where a man had murdered his daughter was one hell of a story. But I could tell from the stone-serious look on Jess’s face it was a subject she didn’t want me to touch.
“I promise,” I said.
“I mean it, Ewan. That man—and what he did—is one story you don’t need to investigate. When we move into that house tomorrow, I want us to pretend its past doesn’t exist.”
“Otherwise it will always be hanging over us,” I agreed.
“Exactly,” Jess said with a firm nod. “Plus, there’s Maggie to consider.”
We had already agreed not to tell our daughter about the fates of Baneberry Hall’s previous residents. Although we knew there’d come a day when Maggie would need to know what happened, that could wait a few years. Jess and I avoided talking about the subject until Maggie was either sound asleep or, as was the case that afternoon, staying with Jess’s mother.
“I swear to you I’ll never utter the name Curtis Carver in her presence,” I said. “Just as I swear that I have no intention of trying to figure out what made him snap like that. I agree with you—the past is in the past.”
At that point, we were pulling up to Baneberry Hall’s front gate, which was already wide open. Waiting for us there was the caretaker, a scarecrow of a man wearing the state uniform of Vermont—corduroy pants and a flannel shirt.
“You must be the Holts,” he said as we got out of the car. “Janie June said you’d be stopping by today. The name’s Hibbets. Walt Hibbets. But you can call me Hibbs. Everybody else does.”
He grinned, exposing an honest-to-God gold tooth. Fit and flinty and pushing seventy, he reminded me of a character out of a Stephen King novel. Still, I found myself charmed by his breezy manner and outsize personality.
“I got the grounds all cleaned up for you,” he said. “And Elsa Ditmer gave the house itself a good scrubbing. So you should be all set. We know what we’re doing, Elsa and me. We grew up here, the both of us. Our families have worked Baneberry Hall for decades. I just wanted to make you aware in case you find yourself in need of full-time help.”
Honestly, we were. Baneberry Hall was too big for us to properly take care of on our own. But the purchase of the house meant there wasn’t much money left for anything else. That included hired help.
“About that,” I said. “From time to time, we might need the services of you or Mrs. Ditmer. But for right now—”
“You’re a hearty young man who can do things on your own,” Hibbs said with unexpected graciousness. “I respect and admire that. I envy it, as well. As you can see, I’m no spring chicken.”
“But I’ll be sure to call you if something comes up,” I said.
“Please do.” He jerked his head in the direction of the two cottages we had passed when we turned off the main road. “I live just over yonder. Give me a shout if you need help with anything. Even in the middle of the night.”
“That’s very kind, but I don’t plan on disturbing you too much.”
“I’m just letting you know.” Hibbs paused in a way I can only describe as ominous. “You might need my help during the witching hour.”
I had been on my way back to the car, but hearing that stopped me cold.
“What do you mean by that?”
Hibbs put a thin arm around my shoulder and pulled me away until Jess was out of earshot. Then, in a low voice, he said, “I just want to make sure Janie June told you everything you need to know about that house.”
“She did,” I said.
“Good. That’s good that you know what you’re getting yourself into. The Carvers weren’t prepared for the place and, well, the less said about them the better, I s’pose.” Hibbs gave me a genial slap on the back. “I’ve kept you long enough. Go on up with the missus and take another gander at your new house.”
Then he was gone, turning his back to us as he strolled away to his cottage. It wasn’t until we were back in the car and navigating the corkscrew of a driveway that I was struck by the oddness of the conversation.
“Hibbs asked if we knew what we were getting into,” I told Jess as Baneberry Hall rose into view, just as grand as I remembered. “At first, I thought he was talking about the Carver family.”
“I’m sure he was,” Jess said. “What else could there be?”
“That’s what I thought. But then he told me the Carvers weren’t prepared for the place, and now I’m wondering what he meant by that.” I brought the car to a stop in front of the house and peered upward at the pair of eyelike windows on the third floor. They stared back. “Do you think something else happened here? Something before the Carvers moved in?”
Jess shot me a look that was unmistakably a warning to drop it.
“The past is in the past, remember?” she said. “Starting now, we only focus on the future.”
With that future in mind, I left the car, hopped onto the porch, and unlocked the front door. Then, with a flourish, I helped Jess out of the car, lifted her into my arms, and carried her across the threshold. A romantic gesture I never had the chance to do when we got married.
Our courtship had been a whirlwind. I was an adjunct professor teaching a class on New Journalism at the University of Vermont. Jess was there getting her master’s in elementary education. We met at a party hosted by a mutual friend and spent the night discussing Truman Capote’s
In Cold Blood
. I’d never met someone like her—so carefree and bright and
. Her face lit up when she smiled, which was often, and her eyes were like windows into her thoughts. By the end of that night, I knew Jess was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
We got married six months later. Six months after that, Maggie was born.
“You want to officially christen this place now or tomorrow?” I asked as I set her down in the vestibule.
“Now,” Jess said with a wink. “Definitely now.”
Hand in hand, we moved deeper into the house. I stopped a second later, caught short by the sight of the chandelier drooping from the ceiling.
It was on, glowing brightly.
Jess noticed it, too, and said, “Maybe Hibbs left it on for us.”
I hoped that was the case. Otherwise it meant that the wiring problem Janie June had promised to look into had gone unattended. I didn’t worry too much, because by then Jess was tugging me toward the curved staircase, her smile naughty and her eyes bright with mischief.
“So many rooms,” she said. “Perhaps we need to christen all of them.”
I willingly followed her up the steps, the chandelier suddenly forgotten. All I cared about was my wife, my daughter, and the wonderful new life we would have inside that house.
I had no idea what Baneberry Hall really had in store for us. How, despite our best efforts, its history would eventually threaten to smother us. How twenty days inside its walls would become a waking nightmare.
Had we known any of that, we would have turned around, left Baneberry Hall, and never come back.