“I’m going to go,” Petra said. “I’m too riled up. I need to get ice cream. Or scream into a pillow. I haven’t decided. See you tomorrow.”
I looked at her, confused. “Tomorrow?”
“The sleepover. We’re still coming, right?”
After all the ceiling chaos and fighting with Jess, I’d forgotten about the plan to have Hannah and Petra spend the night at Baneberry Hall. It wasn’t a good time for a sleepover. It felt like the worst time, actually. But Maggie was in desperate need of friends. I couldn’t deny my daughter that.
“It’s still on,” I said as I tucked the articles under my arm, preparing to leave the reading room. “Maggie can’t wait.”
The reporters are still at the front gate.
I see them when I reach the end of the driveway, milling on the other side of the wrought iron, waiting for me to emerge. Now that I have, they surge forward, shoving their microphone-clutching hands through the gate’s bars like a horde of undead in a zombie movie.
Among them is Brian Prince, his bow tie askew as he elbows others out of the way, angling for prime position.
“Maggie!” he shouts. “Talk to me! What are your plans now for Baneberry Hall?”
Behind him, flashbulbs pop into firecracker brightness. Caught in their glare, I retreat, slowly at first, shuffling backward before turning my back to the crowd. Soon I’m running up the driveway, winding my way up the hillside toward Baneberry Hall.
In order to leave this place, I’m going to need a different escape route. Lucky for me, I know of one. Also lucky: Brian Prince and the other reporters haven’t found it yet.
Veering off the driveway, I plunge into the woods and start to descend the hill again, this time under the cover of the trees. I push through the forest until I reach the stone wall that surrounds the property. A walk alongside the wall leads me to the section that’s crumbled away. I pass through it and, five minutes later, find myself emerging from the woods behind Elsa Ditmer’s cottage.
Because there could also be reporters waiting out front, I stick to the backyard, crossing it quickly before hopping onto the rear porch. The back door swings open before I get a chance to knock. Hannah stands just inside, her jaw clenched.
“What do you want?” she says.
“To say I’m sorry. For your loss.”
“That’s not going to bring my sister back.”
“I know,” I say.
Hannah bites the inside of her cheek and asks, “You’ve got anything else to say?”
“Actually, yes.” I reach into my purse and pull out the notes, all twenty-four of them. “I was wondering if you could explain these.”
She steps out of the way, allowing me entry into the cottage. I follow her to the kitchen. On the way, we pass the living room, where a game show blares from a console television. I get a glimpse of Elsa Ditmer cocooned in a recliner, a knit blanket pulled to her chin.
I wonder if Hannah has told her that Petra’s been found. If so, I wonder if Elsa understands.
In the kitchen, I’m hit with the smell of cigarette smoke and cooking oil. We sit at a kitchen table with one leg that’s shorter than the others. The table tilts when Hannah grabs a cigarette and lights up. It tilts back when I place the notes in front of her.
Hannah doesn’t bother giving them a glance. It’s clear she’s seen them before.
“I started writing them a year after you guys left and Petra vanished,” she says. “That damn book your dad wrote had just come out, and I was mad.”
“That the three of you were in it?”
Hannah gives me an incredulous look. “That he did something to Petra and got away with it. When your dad showed up out of the blue—literally a year to the day after Petra disappeared—well, I couldn’t deal with it anymore.”
She reaches for the notes, sorting through them until she finds the one that led me to her door.
WHERE IS MY SISTER?
“I was so angry when I wrote this,” Hannah says, flattening the note against the tilting table. “I thought it would be therapeutic or something. To finally write down the question I’d been thinking about for an entire year. It didn’t help. It only made me angrier. So angry that I marched up to Baneberry Hall and left it on the front porch. It was gone after your father left the next day. That’s when I knew he had seen it.”
“And then it became an annual tradition,” I say.
Hannah exhales a stream of smoke. “I thought that if I did it enough times, I might finally get an answer. And after a few years, I think your father had come to expect it.”
“Did he ever confront you about it?”
“Nope,” Hannah says. “He never talked to us. I guess he was afraid of what I would say.”
“But he still paid your mother?” I asked.
“Every month.” Hannah taps her cigarette against a ceramic ashtray and takes another long puff. “He paid a little more every year, directly deposited into my mom’s account. Out of guilt, most likely. Not that I cared what his reason was. When you’ve got a sick mother to take care of, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from. Or why.”
“Even if it’s from a man you think killed your sister?”