“What if—” I try to stop myself, knowing it will sound absurd. But it’s too late. The words are already rolling off my tongue. “What if it’s not an intruder?”
Chief Alcott squints at me. “What else can it be?”
“What if the things my father wrote were true?”
This time I can’t even try to stop what I am saying. The words surprise even me. Chief Alcott appears less surprised than angry. I notice her nostrils flare.
“You’re telling me you now think Baneberry Hall is haunted?”
“I’m telling you that something deeply weird is happening here,” I say. “I’m not lying to you.”
At first, I think I sound just like my father did in the later chapters of House of Horrors. Confused and scared and borderline crazy from sleep deprivation. But then it hits me—a realization as disorienting as a sucker punch.
I sound like the me my father wrote about.
I’ve become the Maggie from the Book.
“I like you, Maggie,” Chief Alcott says. “You seem smart. Good head on your shoulders. That’s why I’m giving you the chance to stop this now and not take it any further.”
“Doing the same thing your father did,” the chief says. “He hurt this town. He hurt the Ditmers. And I’m certain he killed Petra Ditmer. He got away with it because he told that stupid ghost story of his and enough people were distracted by it. Including me. But I won’t let you do the same thing. Now that we’re on to what he did, I won’t have you muddying the waters again with stories about this house being haunted. I refuse to let you write a fucking sequel.”
She storms to her cruiser and is gone seconds later, the car’s taillights glowing an angry red as they disappear down the hill.
I follow her down the long, winding driveway and lock the gate, wondering if that alone is enough to keep whatever the hell is going on from continuing to happen. I hope so, even though I doubt it. Right now, the Book is more real than it’s ever been.
And I don’t want to relive it.
I don’t want to be that scared girl my father wrote about.
When I return to the house, the only other preventative measure I can think of is to march to the third floor, grab the record player, and carry it onto the front lawn. I then fetch the sledgehammer from the nearby pile of equipment. I lift it onto my shoulder, my triceps quivering from the strain.
Then, with a mighty swing, I bring the sledgehammer down and smash the record player into pieces.
Jess and I sat in the waiting room, not speaking. Something we’d done a lot of in the previous twelve hours. There wasn’t a whole lot to say. We both already knew that something was profoundly wrong with our daughter.
The only words I had said to my wife since the fiasco the night before were, “I found a child psychologist who can see Maggie today. The appointment’s at eleven.”
“Great,” Jess replied, the third of three words she’d spoken to me. The other two were after Elsa Ditmer had picked up her daughters amid a flurry of apologies from both of us. “They’re gone,” she had said, unintentionally repeating the same thing Maggie uttered after punching Hannah Ditmer.
Those words repeated themselves in my head long after both Maggie and Jess had spoken them. I still heard them—in both my wife’s and daughter’s voices—as I glumly looked around the waiting room of Dr. Lila Weber.
Because she was a child psychologist, I had expected Dr. Weber’s office to be more child-friendly than it was. Toys by the door and the Wiggles playing in the background. Instead, the waiting room was as beige and bland as a dentist’s office. A disappointment, seeing how I needed something to take my mind off the fact that Maggie had been speaking to Dr. Weber for almost an hour and that in mere minutes we’d find out just how messed up she truly was. A girl who behaved the way she did during the sleepover would have to be. And I wondered if Jess and I were to blame.
Maggie was an accident. A happy one, it turned out, but an accident nonetheless. One of the reasons Jess and I got married as quickly as we did was because she got pregnant. Since I loved Jess completely and we’d planned to wed eventually anyway, we saw no reason to delay the inevitable.
Yet the idea of being a father was terrifying to me. My own father was, by his own admission, a rotten cuss of a man. He drank too much and was quick to anger. Even though I knew he loved my mother and me, he rarely showed it. I worried I’d become exactly like him.
But then Maggie was born.
Jess’s final month of pregnancy had been hard on her, and the difficulty continued in the delivery room. When Maggie emerged, she announced her arrival with silence. There was no crying. No delighted looks from nurses. I knew then that something had gone wrong.
It turned out that the umbilical cord had been wrapped around Maggie’s neck, nearly strangling her to death at her moment of birth. That fraught moment of silence while the nurses worked to save Maggie was the most frightening moment of my life. Unable to do anything but wait—and hope—I gripped Jess’s hand and prayed to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in. I made a promise to him that if Maggie pulled through, I’d be the best father I possibly could.
Then at last Maggie began to cry—a full-throated wail that filled my heart with joy. My prayer had been answered. Right there and then, I vowed to do whatever it took to protect her.