A block holding six knives.
I grab the largest one—a carving knife with a seven-inch blade. My reflection quivers in the glinting steel.
I look scared.
I am scared.
Holding the knife in front of me, I creep out of the kitchen and up the steps to the main part of the house. It’s not until I’m in the great room that I hear the music. A crisp, almost dreamy tune I’d have recognized even without the lyrics floating from somewhere above.
“You are sixteen, going on seventeen—”
My heart, which was still beating wildly a mere second ago, stops cold, making the song sound even louder.
“Baby, it’s time to think.”
I move through the great room on legs so numb with fear it feels as though I’m floating. When I reach the front of the house, I notice the chandelier is jangling. Almost as if someone is pounding the floor directly above it.
I have two options here—run, or confront whoever’s inside the house. I want to run. My body begs me to, twitching insistently. I opt for confrontation, even though it’s not the wisest choice. Running only leads to more questions. Facing it head-on can only lead to answers.
Mind made up, I start to run, not giving my body a chance to protest. I rush up the stairs, across the second-floor hallway, up another set of steps. I’m still running when I reach the third floor, the study door shut and looming before me.
I hurtle toward the door with my grip tight around the knife, letting out a scream as I go. Part of it’s self-defense. Trying to catch whoever’s inside off guard. The rest is fear, bursting out of me the same way I’m bursting into the room.
“Baby, you’re on the brink.”
The study is empty, even though all the lights are on and the record player on the desk blares at full volume.
“You are sixteen—”
I flick the needle away from the turntable and, pulse still thrumming, survey the room, just to confirm it is indeed empty. Whoever had been up here must have left as soon as they started the record player, ringing the bell on the way out.
Which means it was a ghoul. Some punk-ass kid who’d read the Book, heard I was back here, and now wanted to reenact part of it.
The only wrinkle in my theory is that I’d closed and locked the gate after Brian Prince left. I also closed and locked the front door when I got back to the house. If it was a House of Horrors prankster, how did he get inside?
That question vanishes when I take another look at the desk and notice something off.
Just like the letter opener in the parlor, the teddy bear Dane and I had found in the closet is now gone.
“He says we’re going to die here.”
Until then, the day had been notable for not being notable. No ringing bells or rogue snakes or new, unnerving discovery. If there had been a thud at 4:54 in the morning, I slept right through it. It had simply been a normal day. Our first at Baneberry Hall.
Then my daughter uttered those words, and it all went to shit.
I immediately fetched Jess, knowing this was a job best handled by the both of us. Even then, I wasn’t sure what we should do. One of my daughter’s imaginary friends was telling her she was going to die. That wasn’t covered in any parenting handbook.
“Mister Shadow isn’t real,” Jess said as she climbed onto the bed and took Maggie into her arms. “And he’s not a ghost. He’s just a piece of your imagination with a mean voice telling you things that aren’t true.”
Maggie remained unconvinced.
“But he is real,” she said. “He comes out at night and says we’re going to die.”
“Do your other friends say stuff like that?”
“They’re not my friends,” Maggie said in a way that broke my heart a little. Basically, she was telling us that she had no friends. Not even imaginary ones. “They’re just people who come into my room.”
“Just how many people have you met?” Jess said.
“Three.” Maggie counted them off on her fingers. “There’s Mister Shadow. And the girl with no name. And Miss Pennyface.”
Jess and I exchanged concerned looks. Whatever this was, it wasn’t normal.
“Miss Pennyface?” I said. “Why do you call her that?”
“Because she has pennies over her eyes. But she can still see. She’s watching us right now.”
Maggie pointed to the corner by the closet with the slanted door. I saw nothing but an empty space where the angled ceiling began its sharp descent. Jess didn’t see anything, either, because she said, “There’s no one there, honey.”
“There is!” Maggie cried, once more on the verge of tears. “She’s looking right at us!”
She was so convincing in her certainty that I continued to stare at the corner, searching the shadows there, looking in vain for something I couldn’t see but that my daughter could, even if it was just in her mind’s eye.
Then I heard a noise.
It came from somewhere down the hallway. A single rap on the hardwood floor.
“What the hell was that?” Jess said.
“I don’t know.”