“You lied about me!” I shouted as I waved the Book in front of them. “Why would you do that?”
My mother told me the Book was something we didn’t discuss. My father gave me his scripted answer for the very first time.
“What happened, happened, Mags. I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”
“But you did!” I cried. “The girl in this book isn’t me.”
“Of course it’s you,” my mother said, trying hard to end the conversation.
“But I’m nothing like her!” I’d started to cry then, which made me all the more humiliated. I’d wanted to be stronger in the face of their resistance. “I’m either the girl in this book, or I’m me. So which one is it?”
My parents refused to provide an answer. My mother left me with a kiss on the cheek, and my father took me out for ice cream. Defeated, I swallowed my anger, gulping it down like a bitter pill, thus setting the course for the rest of my adolescence. Silence from my mother, denial from my father, and me starting a yearslong secret search for more information.
A little of that nine-year-old’s anger returns as I flip through the Book, scanning passages I’ve long committed to memory.
“I really hate this book,” I say.
Dane gives me a curious look. “I’ve heard it’s good.”
“It’s not. Not really.”
That’s another aspect of the Book I find so frustrating—its inexplicable success. Critics weren’t kind, calling the writing pedestrian and the plot derivative. With reviews like that, it shouldn’t have become as big as it did. But it was something different in a nonfiction landscape that, at the time, had been dominated by books about getting rich through prayer, murder in Savannah, and barely contained Ebola outbreaks. As a result, it became one of those things people read because everyone else was reading it.
I continue to page through the Book, stopping cold when a two-sentence passage catches my eye.
“Maggie, there’s no one here.”
“There is!” she cried. “They’re all here! I told you they’d be mad!”
I slam the Book shut and drop it on the desk.
“You can have this, if you want,” I tell Dane. “In fact, you can take pretty much anything in this room. Not that it’s worth anything. I’m not sure there’s a market for household junk found in bogus haunted houses.”
There are two closets, one on each side of the room, their doors slanted to accommodate the vaulted ceiling. We each take one, Dane’s opening with a rusty creak.
“Nothing in here but suitcases,” he says.
I cross the room and peer over his shoulder. Sitting on the closet floor are two square cases. We drag them out of the closet and each open one. Inside Dane’s is a record player. Inside mine is an album collection. The record on top is a familiar title: The Sound of Music.
Seeing them gives me the same creeping sense of unease I felt last night when I realized my father hadn’t lied about leaving everything behind. I do an involuntary shimmy, trying to shake it away. Just because they exist doesn’t mean what my father wrote is true. I need to remember that. Baneberry Hall is likely filled with things mentioned in the Book.
Write what you know. My father’s favorite piece of advice.
“It’s junk,” I say as I stalk back to my closet. “We should toss it.”
Dane does the opposite and lifts the record player onto the desk. The case of records soon follows. “We should give it a spin,” he says while sorting through the albums. “Showtunes or, uh, showtunes?”
“I prefer silence,” I say, an edge to my voice.
Dane gets the hint and backs away from the desk, joining me at the second closet as I pull the door open.
Inside is a teddy bear.
It sits on the floor, back against the wall like a hostage, its once-brown fur turned ashen from years of dust. One of its black-button eyes has fallen off, leaving a squiggle of thread poking from its fur like an exposed optic nerve. Around the bear’s neck is a red bow tie, the ends squashed, as if it had been hugged too tightly for too long.
“Was this yours?” Dane says. He gives the bear a squeeze, and a puff of dust rises off its shoulders.
“No,” I say. “At least, I don’t think so. I have no memory of it.”
A thought occurs to me. A sad one. It’s possible this bear had once been Katie Carver’s and was left behind, like so many of the family’s belongings. My father, not knowing what to do with it, might have stuck it in the closet and forgotten about it.
I take the bear from Dane, set it on the desk next to the record player, and return to the closet. There’s something else inside, perched on a top shelf.
A blue shoebox.
Just like the one my father claimed to have found in the Book. Filled with strange pictures of Katie’s father.
My unease returns. Stronger now, and more insidious. With trembling hands, I take the box to the desk and open it, already knowing what I’ll find inside: a Polaroid camera and a stack of photos.
I’m right on both counts.
The camera fills one end of the box, clunky and heavy. The photos—five of them in all—lie haphazardly beside it. But instead of Curtis Carver’s vacant stare, the first photo I see is, shockingly, of me. Like the one in the parlor, it bears only the faintest resemblance to me.