Yet another hint of wrongness, of something amiss about the place, occurred a few hours later, when Elsa Ditmer arrived for a second day of unpacking. This time, she brought her daughters.
“I thought Maggie might like to make some new friends,” she said.
Both girls were the spitting image of their mother. Same open, expressive face. Same friendly eyes. It was in personality where they differed.
The younger, Hannah, possessed none of her mother’s reticence. When Maggie came downstairs, Hannah sized her up in that way only the very young can get away with. Apparently finding my daughter acceptable, she said, “I’m Hannah. I’m six. Do you like hide-and-seek? Because that’s what we’re going to play. There’s lot of good places to hide here, and I know them all. I’m just warning you now, so you won’t be surprised when I win.”
Petra, the older Ditmer girl, was quieter. Unlike with her mother, I didn’t detect any shyness about her. She was more aloof. Appraising everything—me, Jess, the house—with a cool detachment.
“I’ll keep an eye on them,” Petra said as Maggie and Hannah ambled off to play hide-and-seek. “To make sure they don’t fall down a well or something.”
At sixteen, she was already taller than her mother and as thin as a beanpole. Her clothes—a pink tank top and khaki shorts—made her limbs seem all the longer. She reminded me of a deer, gangly but fleet. Her hair had been pulled into a ponytail, revealing a gold crucifix similar to the one her mother wore.
“They’ll be fine with Petra,” Elsa said. “She’s a good babysitter.”
As I watched Petra hurry off to catch up with Maggie and Hannah, I couldn’t help but recall what Elsa had told me the day before about her daughter being strong and protective. In the wake of an uneasy first night in our new home, it made me feel better.
So, too, did the idea of Maggie hopefully finding a new friend in Hannah. In the past year, Jess and I had grown increasingly worried about our daughter’s lack of friends. She was, we suspected, lonelier than she let on. Maggie was a quiet girl. Not shy, exactly. Observant was more like it. Content to sit back and watch, just like Petra seemed to be.
With the girls off on their own, we adults split up. Jess and Elsa went to the Indigo Room, which after the day before was hopefully snake-free. I returned to the kitchen, where I sorted through all the plates, utensils, and gadgets the Carvers had left behind. Despite what happened here, it was still hard for me to fathom why Mrs. Carver hadn’t wanted to keep anything. Maybe she was afraid that every single item in the house retained memories she’d rather forget. If that was the case, I was all too happy to sort through the chipped teacups and tarnished silverware, keeping some, packing away others.
Halfway through the task, one of the bells on the wall rang. A different one than yesterday. This time it was one of the numbered bells indicating former guest rooms from the bed-and-breakfast days. The ringing bell belonged to No. 4. Also known as Maggie’s bedroom.
At first, I ignored it, thinking it was just the girls playing. I braced myself for a chorus of rings as the girls explored various rooms, trying out the bellpulls in each. But Maggie’s room was the only one that rang.
They were frantic rings, too. Strong. This wasn’t a group of girls lightly pulling on a rope. This was a full-on tug.
Curious, I left the kitchen and made my way to the second floor. Up there, I no longer heard the bell itself. Just the ragged slide of the rope as it kept being yanked from the wall.
Maggie was the one doing the yanking, which I learned when I entered her room, catching her in mid-pull.
“There was a girl in here,” she said, her eyes shining with fear.
“Are you sure it wasn’t just Hannah?” I asked. “You’re supposed to be playing hide-and-seek, remember?”
Elsa Ditmer had joined us by then, drawn by the ruckus. She remained in the hallway, seemingly unwilling to enter the room.
“It could have been Petra,” she said.
“No,” Maggie told us. “They’re hiding.”
Hearing their names, Hannah and Petra emerged from their hiding places elsewhere on the second floor. Both stood with their mother in the doorway.
“We’re right here,” Hannah said.
Petra peeked into the room. “What’s going on?”
“Maggie said there was someone in her room,” I said.
“There was,” Maggie said, stomping her foot.
“Then where did she go?”
Maggie pointed to the armoire, that great wooden beast plunked down directly across from the bed. The doors were closed. I flung them open, revealing the armoire’s empty interior. Maggie, though clearly caught in a lie, doubled down.
“But I saw her!” she cried.
By this time, Jess had joined the scene. With the frazzled patience only a mother could possess, she steered Maggie out of the room. “Let’s get you some lunch and then a nap. After last night, you’re probably exhausted.”
I followed them out of the room, only to be stopped in the hallway by Elsa, who said, “Your daughter. She’s sensitive, yes?”
“Aren’t all girls that age?”
“Some more than others,” Elsa replied. “Katie was also sensitive.”
“The Carver girl?”