Our plan was to use the money from her grandfather to buy a house. Then she’d go to work while I stayed home to take care of Maggie and focus on my writing. Freelance pieces, of course, but also short stories and, hopefully, my version of the Great American Novel.
A house like Baneberry Hall wasn’t exactly what we had in mind. Jess and I both agreed to seek out something nice but affordable. A house that would be easy to manage. A place we could grow into.
When Janie June had suggested Baneberry Hall, I had balked at the idea. Then she told us the asking price, which was half the estate’s assessed value.
“Why is the price so low?” I had asked.
“It’s a fixer-upper,” Janie June replied. “Not that there are any major problems. The place just needs a little TLC.”
In person, Baneberry Hall seemed less like a fixer-upper and more like the victim of neglect. The house itself looked to be in fine shape, albeit a little eccentric. Each level was slightly smaller than the one preceding it, giving the house the tiered look of a fancy wedding cake. The windows on the first floor were tall, narrow, and rounded at the tops. Because of the shrunken nature of the second floor, the windows there were less tall but no less majestic. The third story, with its sharply slanted roof, had windows reduced to the point where they resembled a pair of eyes looking down at us.
Two-thirds of the house were constructed as rigidly as a grid, with straight walls and clean lines. The other third was completely different, almost as if its architect had gotten bored halfway through construction. Instead of boxlike efficiency, that corner of Baneberry Hall bulged outward in a circular turret that made it look like a squat lighthouse had been transported from the Maine coast and attached to the house. The windows there were tidy squares that dotted the exterior at irregular intervals. Topping it was a peaked roof that resembled a witch’s hat.
Yet I could sense the house’s disquiet. Silence seemed to shroud the place, giving it the feel of a home suddenly vacated. An air of abandonment clung to the walls like ivy.
“Why did you say we’d be thankful for that gate?” said Jess, who by then had leaned between the two front seats to get a better view of the house. “Has there been a lot of crime here?”
“Not at all,” Janie June said, sounding not convincing in the least. “The house gets a lot of looky-loos, that’s all. Its history draws the curious like flies. Not townsfolk, mind you. They’re used to the place. But people from out of town. Teenagers, especially. They’ve been known to hop the wall from time to time.”
“And do what?” Jess asked.
“Typical kid stuff. Sneaking a few beers in the woods. Maybe some hanky-panky. Nothing criminal. And nothing to worry about, I swear. Now let’s get you inside. I guarantee you’ll like what you see.”
We gathered on the front porch while Janie June removed the keys from the lockbox hanging on the door handle. She then took a deep breath, her padded shoulders rising and falling. Just before she opened the door, she made the sign of the cross.
We followed her into the house. As I moved over the threshold, a shiver of air sliced through me, almost as if we had suddenly passed from one climate to another. At the time, I chalked it up to a draft. One of those strange, inexplicable things that always seem to occur in homes of a certain age.
The chill didn’t last long. Just a few steps, as we moved from the tidy vestibule into a great room of sorts that stretched from the front of the house to the back. With a ceiling that was at least twenty feet high and supported by exposed beams, it reminded me of a grand hotel lobby. An equally grand staircase swept upward to the second floor in a graceful curve.
Above us, a massive brass chandelier hung from the ceiling, its two decks of arms coiled like octopus tentacles and dripping crystals. At the end of each arm perched a globe of smoked glass. As we stood beneath it, I noticed the chandelier swinging ever so slightly, almost as if someone were stomping across the floor above it.
“Is someone else in the house?” I said.
“Of course not,” Janie June replied. “Why would you think that?”
I pointed to the ornate chandelier over our heads, still gently swaying.
Janie June shrugged in response. “It’s probably just a rush of air from when we opened the front door.”
With a hand firmly on both Jess’s and my backs, she guided us deeper into the great room. Dominating the wall on the right was a massive stone fireplace. A bonus during brutal Vermont winters.
“There’s a matching one on the other side of the wall,” Janie June said. “In the Indigo Room.”
I was more interested in the portrait above the fireplace—an image of a man in turn-of-the-century garb. His features were harsh. Narrow, pointy nose. Cheekbones as sharp as switchblades. Dark eyes peered out from beneath heavy lids and eyebrows as white and bushy as the man’s beard.
“William Garson,” Janie June said. “The man who built this place.”
I stared at the painting, fascinated by how the artist was able to render Mr. Garson in such vivid detail. I noticed the faint crinkles of amusement around his eyes, the fine hairs of his arched brow, the slight upturn at the corners of his mouth. Instead of something reverential, the portrait instead depicted someone haughty, almost scornful. As if Mr. Garson had been laughing at the artist while posing for him, which in turn made it seem like he was also laughing at me.