After that it’s on to the dining room and the subterranean kitchen, with its wall of bells that once must have gleamed but are now dull from tarnish. I touch one—the tag above it reads PARLOR—and it lets out a tinny, mirthless sound.
I cross to the other end of the kitchen, glancing at the ceiling as I go. Over the butcher-block table is a rectangular area not part of the original ceiling. The paint doesn’t quite match the rest of the kitchen, and there’s a visible seam surrounding the patch that had been replaced. In the center is a grayish oval where the ceiling has started to bulge.
A water stain.
Even though it looks to be decades old, the stain means something in the ceiling had been leaking at some point. Definitely not ideal.
At the kitchen’s far end, I don’t bother descending into the stone-walled cellar. The whisper of a chill and the strong smell of mold wafting from the doorway tell me that’s a place best explored in the daytime and with protective gear.
So it’s back to the first floor and into the circular parlor, which is smaller than I imagined. The whole house is. My father’s descriptions of Baneberry Hall made it seem bigger—a cavernous place usually only found in Gothic fiction. Manderley on steroids. The reality is less grand. Yes, it’s large, as houses go, but cramped in a way I hadn’t expected, made even more so by dark wood trim and fusty wallpaper.
The parlor is cluttered with furniture covered by drop cloths, making it look like a roomful of ghosts. I yank them away, creating plumes of dust that, when cleared, reveal pieces so finely made they belong in a museum.
Probably Garson family furniture. Items like this would have been well above what my parents could have afforded at the time. Especially the cherrywood secretary desk sitting near the curved wall of windows at the front of the room.
Taller than me and twice as wide, the desk’s lower half consists of a shelf that can be lowered to form a writing surface and several sets of drawers. The top half contains a pair of doors that, when spread open like wings, reveal apothecary drawers for ink jars and pens, a small oval mirror, and wooden slots for mail—a feature that went unused by my father. He simply stacked the mail atop the lowered writing surface. Scanning the dusty pile, I spot unopened bills, old flyers, and faded grocery store circulars, some dating back a decade.
Next to them is a gold picture frame. I pick it up and see a photograph of me and my parents. I assume it was from before we came to Baneberry Hall, because we all seem happy. My parents especially. They were a good-looking couple. My mother, willowy and pert, contrasted nicely with my father’s scruffy handsomeness. In the photo, my father has an arm snaked around my mother’s waist, pulling her close. She’s looking at him instead of the camera, flashing the kind of smile I haven’t seen from her in years.
One not-so-big, happy family.
Until we weren’t.
In the photo, I stand in front of my parents, sporting pigtails and a missing front tooth that mars my wide grin. I look so young and so carefree that I hardly recognize myself. I lift my gaze to the desk’s oval mirror and spend a moment comparing the woman I am with the girl I used to be. My hair, slightly darker now, hangs loosely around my shoulders. When I smile widely, copying my look in the photo, it feels forced and unnatural. My hazel eyes are mostly the same, although there’s now a hardness to them that wasn’t present in my youth.
I set down the frame, turning it so the picture’s no longer visible. I don’t like looking at this younger, happier version of myself. It reminds me of who I once was—and who I might be now if the Book hadn’t happened.
Maybe Allie was on to something. Maybe I’m not ready for this.
I shake off the thought. I’m here, and there’s a lot to do, including resuming my examination of the desk. Sitting among the stacks of mail is a silver letter opener that looks as old and ornate as the desk itself. That’s confirmed when I pick it up and see a set of initials floridly engraved on the handle.
Mr. William Garson, I presume.
I place the letter opener back on the desk, my hand moving to a sheet of paper beside it. Once folded in half, it now rests facedown on the desktop. Flipping it over, I see a single word written in ink, the letters wide, capitalized, emphatic.
Such a terse question, which raises several more. Where is what? Why is someone looking for it? And, above all, who wrote this? Because it’s certainly not my father’s handwriting.
I hold the page close to my face, as if that will help me better make sense of it. I’m still staring at those emphatic question marks when I hear a noise.
Coming from the room next door.
The Indigo Room.
I whirl around to the doorway that separates it from the parlor, and for a split second I expect to see Mister Shadow standing there. Stupid, I know. But growing up with the Book has trained me to think he’s real, even though he’s not. He can’t be.
Mister Shadow isn’t there, of course. Nothing is. Just beyond the doorway, the Indigo Room sits dark and silent and still.
It’s not until I turn back to the desk that I hear another creak.
Louder than the first.
I shoot a glance at the desk’s oval mirror. Reflected in the glass, just over my shoulder, is the doorway to the Indigo Room. Inside, it’s still dark, still silent.
Then something moves.
A pale blur passing the doorway.