Hannah leans back in her chair, her eyes narrowed to slits. “Especially then.”
“I was told most people thought Petra had run away. Why did you think my father had anything to do with her disappearance?”
“Because I saw him come back to Baneberry Hall,” Hannah says.
“About two weeks after Petra was gone.”
Shocked, I lean on the table, which does another jolting tilt. “Two weeks? Are you sure?”
“Positive. I had a lot of trouble sleeping in those first few weeks Petra was gone. I’d lie awake all night, waiting for her to come back. One morning, I got up at the crack of dawn and went walking in the woods, thinking that I could still find her if I kept looking hard enough.” Hannah lets out a sad, little laugh. “So, there I was, roaming the woods behind our house. When I reached the wall around your property, I followed it to the front gate. I had almost reached the road when I saw a car pull up.”
“My father,” I say.
“Yes. I saw him clear as day. He got out of the car, unlocked the gate, and drove on through.”
“Did he see you?”
“I don’t think so. I was still in the woods. Besides, he seemed pretty focused on getting inside as fast as possible.”
“How long was he there?”
“I don’t know. I had gone home by the time he left.”
“What do you think he was doing?”
Hannah stubs out her cigarette. “At the time, I had no idea. Now, though? I think he was dumping Petra’s body.”
Chief Alcott told me she went to Baneberry Hall the night we left, finding nothing out of the ordinary. If my father had killed Petra and stuffed her body in the floor, that means he either did it well before the chief searched the house or well after.
Maybe two weeks after.
In which case Petra’s body would had to have been kept somewhere else. Something I don’t want to think about.
“Did you tell anyone that you saw him back at the house?” I ask Hannah.
“No, because I didn’t think anyone would listen to me,” she says. “The police weren’t really interested. By then your dad’s story about Baneberry Hall being haunted was spreading. We’d already started to see looky-loos driving up to the front gate, trying to get a look at the place. As for Petra, they were convinced she’d run away and would return when she felt like it. She never did.”
“That’s what your mother thought as well, right?”
“She did,” Hannah says. “Because that’s what I told her had happened.”
She lights another cigarette and inhales. One long, hungry drag during which she decides to tell me everything she knows.
“Petra had a boyfriend. Or something.”
Hannah lets the word hang there, insinuating. It makes me wonder if Brian Prince had shared his theory about my father with her.
“I don’t know who it was or how long it had been going on,” she says. “But she snuck out at night. I know because we shared a bedroom. She’d wait until she thought I was asleep before climbing out the window. When I woke up in the morning, she’d be right back in bed, asleep. I asked her about it once, and she told me I had been dreaming.”
“Why the need to sneak out?”
“Because my mother didn’t allow dating. Or boys. Or anything that would displease God.” Hannah holds up her cigarette as an example and takes another devilish puff. “The thing you need to know about my mother is that she was strict. As was her mother. And her grandmother. The Ditmer women were hardworking, God-fearing people. There’s a reason they all became housekeepers. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
A bit of ash drops from Hannah’s cigarette onto the kitchen table. She doesn’t brush it away. A small act of rebellion.
“Growing up, Petra and I weren’t allowed to do anything. No school dances. No going to the movies with friends. It was school and work and prayer. It was only a matter of time before Petra was going to rebel.”
“How long had she been sneaking out?”
“Only a week or two, as far as I could tell. The beginning of July was when I first watched her do it.”
My heart sinks. I’d been hoping it had started weeks before my family moved into Baneberry Hall. But, no, we were there by the beginning of July.
“The night Petra disappeared, did you see her leave?”
Hannah gives a quick shake of her head. “But I assumed she did, because she was gone the next morning.”
“And that’s when you told your mother she had run away?”
“Because Buster was also gone.”
Hannah sees the confusion on my face and elaborates.
“He was Petra’s teddy bear. She got it years before I was born and still slept with it like she was my age. If she spent the night somewhere, Buster went with her. You don’t remember this, but she had him when we went to your house for that sleepover.”
Hannah gets up and leaves the kitchen. She returns a minute later with a photograph, staring at it as she resumes talking.
“She’d never leave home without him. Ever. When we realized Buster was also gone, we assumed she’d run away. Most likely with this boy she’d been seeing.”