“This was originally William Garson’s study,” Janie June said.
And it could now be mine. I pictured myself at the great oak desk in the center of the room. I loved the idea of playing the tortured writer, banging away at my typewriter into the wee hours of the night, fueled by coffee and inspiration and stress. Thinking about it caused a smile to creep across my face. I held it back, worried Janie June would notice and think she had the sale in the bag. Already I feared I had expressed too much excitement, hence the ever-quickening pace of the tour.
My wife’s feelings were harder to decipher. I had no idea what Jess thought of the place. Throughout the tour, she had seemed curious if cautious.
“It’s not bad,” Jess whispered on our way back down to the second floor.
“Not bad?” I said. “It’s perfect.”
“I admit there’s a lot to love about it,” Jess said, being her usual careful self. “But it’s old. And massive.”
“I’m less concerned about the size than the price.”
“You think it’s too high?”
“I think it’s too low,” I said. “A place like this? There’s got to be a reason its listed so low, plus the furniture.”
Indeed there was, which we didn’t learn about until the tour was over and Janie June was ushering us back onto the porch.
“Are there any questions?” she said.
“Is there something wrong with the house?”
I blurted it out with no preamble, leaving Janie June looking slightly stricken as she locked the door behind us.
Tensing her shoulders, she said, “What makes you think something’s wrong?”
“No house this big has an asking price that small unless it’s got major problems.”
“Problems? No. A reputation? That’s another story.” Janie June sighed and leaned against the porch railing. “I’m going to be up front with you, even though state law doesn’t require me to say anything. I’m telling you because, let’s face it, Bartleby is a small town and people talk. You’ll hear about it one way or another if you buy this place. It might as well come from me. This house is what we refer to as a stigmatized property.”
“What does that mean?” Jess asked.
“That something bad happened here,” I say.
Janie June nodded slowly. “To the previous owners, yes.”
“The ones in that photo?” Jess said. “What happened?”
“They died. Two of them did, anyway.”
“In the house?”
“Yes,” Janie June replied.
I made Maggie go play on the front lawn, within eyesight but out of earshot, before asking, “How?”
“Good God,” Jess said, her face blanching. “That’s horrible.”
This prompted another nod from Janie June. “It was indeed horrible, Mrs. Holt. Shocking, too. Curtis Carver, the man in that picture you found, killed his daughter and then himself. His poor wife found them both. She hasn’t returned since.”
I thought about the family in the photograph. How happy and innocent the little girl looked. Then I remembered the father standing at a distance with that scowl on his face.
“Was he mentally unstable?” I asked.
“Clearly,” Janie June said. “Though not in an outward way. Nobody saw it coming, if that’s what you’re asking. From the outside, the family looked happy as could be. Curtis was well-liked and respected. Same thing with Marta Carver, who owns the bakery downtown. And that little girl was just the cutest thing. Katie. That was her name. Little Katie Carver. We were all shocked when it happened.”
“Poor Mrs. Carver,” Jess said. “I can’t imagine what she must be going through.”
She meant every word, I’m sure. Jess was nothing but empathetic, especially to the plights of other women. But I also sensed relief in her voice. The kind that came from a bone-deep certainty that she’d never experience something as terrible as losing her husband and daughter in the same day.
What she didn’t know—what she couldn’t have known until much later—was how close she’d come to having that exact scenario happen to her. But on that May afternoon, the only thing on our minds was finding the perfect home for our family. When Janie June took Maggie for a walk around the grounds so Jess and I could confer on the porch, I immediately told her we should buy the place.
“Not funny,” she said with a derisive sniff.
“I’m being serious.”
“After learning that? People died here, Ewan.”
“People have died in lots of places.”
“I’m well aware of that fact. I’d just prefer it if our house wasn’t one of them.”
That wasn’t an option where Baneberry Hall was concerned. Its history was its history, and we had no control over it. That left one of two options—look elsewhere or try to make it a place so happy that all the bad times in its past no longer mattered.
“Let’s be rational about this,” I said. “I love the house. You love the house.”
Jess stopped me with a raised index finger. “I said there was a lot to love. Not that I felt that way.”
“At least admit it’s a great house.”