It’s a sack. Burlap, I think. Or maybe canvas. The dust covering it makes it hard to tell. I poke it with an index finger, and whatever’s inside shifts, creating a sound I can only equate to Scrabble tiles inside their fabric pouch.
“Maybe it’s hidden treasure,” Dane says, his voice dazed so that I can’t tell if he’s being silly or serious.
Saying nothing, I lift the sack and tilt it. What’s inside pours out in a dusty stream and lands on the table in a dull-gray heap.
I know because sliding out of the sack last is a skull, which rolls atop the pile. Leathery scraps of tissue cling to the bone, out of which sprout wiry strands of hair. Its eye sockets resemble twin black holes.
Transfixed and terrified, I stare into them, knowing deep down—in a place where only my darkest thoughts and fears reside—that this is why my family left Baneberry Hall.
“You tell us, right this goddamn instant, what other problems are hiding inside that house, or I swear to Christ I’ll make sure you lose your Realtor’s license.”
Jess’s voice, already loud whenever she got angry, grew in both rage and volume as she spoke on the phone to Janie June.
“You’re damn right, I’m serious!” Jess yelled in response to something Janie June said. “Just like I’m serious about suing you for everything you’re worth.”
All were empty threats. There was nothing we could legally do. When we agreed to buy Baneberry Hall as is, all of its problems became our problems. We also had the house inspected, which found nothing to indicate there was a family of snakes living in the ceiling. This was simply a case of Mother Nature being an utter bitch.
Yet Jess continued to shout at Janie June for another fifteen minutes, her voice ringing off the wood-paneled walls of our room.
Even for a cheap roadside motel, the Two Pines Motor Lodge had seen better days. The rooms were minuscule, the lighting was poor, and an unpleasant combination of cigarette smoke and industrial-strength cleaner clung to every surface. Had there been anywhere else in Bartleby to call home for a night, we would have gone there. But the Two Pines was the only game in town. And since our house was overrun with snakes, we couldn’t be picky.
Still, we tried to make the best of a bad situation. After checking in the day before, Jess left to raid the vending machines. She returned with an armful of stale crackers, candy bars, and lukewarm sodas. We ate them sitting on the floor, Maggie all too happy to be having candy for lunch. After dinner at a diner a half-mile down the road, we spent the night crowded onto one of the twin beds, watching a TV that flickered with static no matter what channel we landed on.
Now it was morning, and all attempts to make the best of things had completely gone out the window. Not that the windows in the Two Pines could be opened. They were sealed, making the room stuffy as well as loud as Jess continued her tirade.
I was relieved when Officer Alcott knocked on our door right before we were due to check out, telling us the snakes had all been cleared and that we could return home.
“What kind of snakes were they?” Jess asked after hanging up on Janie June.
“Just a bunch of red-bellies,” Officer Alcott said. “Completely harmless.”
“You didn’t have one swimming in your coffee,” I replied.
“Well, they’re gone now. Animal control rounded them all up. But I have to warn you—your kitchen now looks like a disaster area. Thought I should give you a heads-up before you return, just so you’re prepared.”
“I appreciate that,” I said.
After Officer Alcott left, we said goodbye to the Two Pines and wearily went back to a house we weren’t sure we wanted to return to. I drove us home in silence, feeling stupid for never considering how the reality of owning Baneberry Hall would be far different than the fantasy I’d created in my head. But now we were faced with nothing but reality. It had taken just over a week for the dream of Baneberry Hall to curdle into a nightmare.
And it did indeed feel like a nightmare when Jess and I descended the steps into the kitchen.
Officer Alcott had been wrong. The place didn’t look like a disaster area. It felt more like a war zone. London during the Blitz. The snakes were gone, but the debris remained. Chunks of ceiling. Splinters of wood. Cottony bits of insulation that probably contained asbestos. I covered my nose and mouth and told Jess to do the same before we stepped into the thick of the mess.
A good idea, it turned out, for a strong and nasty odor filled the air. It stank of dust and rot and something vaguely sulfurous that hadn’t been there the day before.
I walked through the rubble with a sinking feeling in my stomach. This would be a major cleanup. A costly one. I wanted to grab Jess by the arm, turn right around, and abandon Baneberry Hall for good. It was too big, with too many problems and far too much history.
But we couldn’t. We’d sunk pretty much all our money into this place. And even though we didn’t have the burden of a mortgage to deal with, I knew we wouldn’t be able to sell it. Not this quickly and certainly not in this condition.
We were stuck with Baneberry Hall.
Yet that didn’t mean we had to like it.
Jess summed up my feelings perfectly as she stared into the gaping hole that used to be our kitchen ceiling.
“Fuck this house,” she said.