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 alive. 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.
It’s almost dark when I bring my truck to a rattling stop in front of the wrought-iron gate. The sky has the same purple-black hue as a bruise. On the other side of the gate, I can faintly make out the rise of the gravel road as it begins its climb through the woods. Atop the hill, barely visible through the trees, is a patch of dark roof and a sliver of glass reflecting the wan light of the rising moon.
The house of horrors itself.
My father’s warning echoes through my thoughts.
It’s not safe there. Not for you.
I chase it away with a call to Allie, announcing that I’ve made it safe and sound.
“How does the place look?” she says.
“I don’t know. I still haven’t unlocked the gate.”
Allie hesitates a beat before replying. “It’s okay to have second thoughts.”
“And it’s not too late to change your mind.”
I know that, too. I could turn around, head back to Boston, and accept my mother’s offer to buy Baneberry Hall sight unseen. I could try to be okay with never knowing the real reason we left that long-ago July night. I could pretend my parents haven’t lied to me for most of my life and that those lies haven’t become part of who I am.
But I can’t.
It’s useless to even try.
“You know I need to do this,” I say.
“I know you think you need to do it,” Allie replies. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
The plan is for me to spend the summer getting Baneberry Hall in shape to be sold, hopefully for a profit. It won’t be a complete renovation. Certainly not as extensive as what Allie and I do on a regular basis. I think of it as a major freshening up. New paint and wallpaper. Polishing the hardwood and laying down fresh tile. Restore what’s usable, and replace what’s not. The most ambitious I’ll get is in the rooms that really sell a house. Bathrooms. Kitchen. Master suite.
“You make it sound like I’ve never fixed up an old house before.”
This prompts a sigh from Allie. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
She’s referring to the other part of my plan—searching for snippets of truth that might be hiding in every nook and cranny. It’s the main reason she’s not joining me for the renovation. This time, as they say in the movies, it’s personal.
“I’ll be fine,” I tell her.
“Says the woman who still hasn’t gotten out of her truck,” Allie replies, stating a fact I can’t deny. “Are you sure you’re ready for this? And not fabric-swatches-and-truck-full-of-equipment ready. Emotionally ready.”
“I think so.” It’s as honest an answer as I can give.
“What if the truth you’re looking for isn’t there?”
“Every house has a story,” I say.
“And Baneberry Hall already has one,” Allie replies.
“Which was written by my father. I had no absolutely no say in it, yet it affects me to this very day. And I need to at least try to learn the real one while I still have the chance.”