“No,” Jess said with a ferocity I didn’t think was possible.
I caught up to them at the bottom of the steps and pushed in front of Jess, briefly halting their escape.
“Look at me, Jess.” I stood before her, hoping she still recognized the real me. Hoping that some small traces of that man remained. “I would never intentionally hurt our daughter. You know that.”
Jess, who’d been keeping up a brave face for Maggie’s sake, let it crumble. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
“Know that I love you. And I love Maggie. And I’m going to fix this while you’re gone. I promise. This house won’t hurt Maggie anymore.”
Jess looked into my eyes, a thousand emotions shifting across her face. I glimpsed sadness and fear and confusion.
“It’s not the house I’m afraid of,” she said.
She stepped around me, weighed down with our daughter and two suitcases. All three were placed on the floor just long enough for her to open the front door. Jess picked up her suitcase. Maggie lifted hers. Then together the two of them, still in their nightclothes, left Baneberry Hall.
I watched their departure from the vestibule, not blinking as the car vanished from view. Under any other circumstances, I would have been devastated. My wife and child had left me. I didn’t know where they were going. I didn’t know when they’d return. Yet I felt nothing but relief after they were gone. It meant Maggie was far from Baneberry Hall.
It wasn’t safe there. Not for her.
And it would never be safe with the spirit of William Garson still present. Although I knew I needed to rid him from the place, I had no idea how. In fact, there was only one person I could turn to for advice.
And he wasn’t even alive.
Without any other options, I made my way to the kitchen and sat facing the bells on the wall.
Then I waited.
In my line of work, I’ve crossed paths with plenty of landscapers. Some are true artists, crafting elaborate groundscapes with attention paid to color, shape, and texture. Others are basic laborers, trained only to yank weeds and shovel mulch. But all of them have told me the same thing: plant ivy at your own peril. Gone unchecked, it spreads and climbs and persists more than any other vine.
The ivy behind Baneberry Hall has done all three for decades. It’s thick—jungle thick—and scales the back of the house in a verdant swath that climbs past the second-floor windows. If there is a door back there, the ivy hides it completely.
At first, I try swiping at some vines, hoping they’ll fall away from the wall. If only it were that easy. When that doesn’t work, I shove my hands into the thick of it and blindly feel around, my fingers brushing nothing but exterior wall.
But then I feel it.
I do more tugging and brushing until a door begins to take shape deep within the vines. Short and narrow, it’s less a door and more like a flat board where a proper door should be located. There’s not even a handle—just a rusted bolt that I slide to the side.
The door cracks open, and I give it a pull, widening it until there’s a gap big enough for me to fit through. Then, like a diver about to submerge, I take a deep breath and push through the curtain of ivy.
Once inside, I can barely see. There’s no overhead light that I can find, and the ivy outside allows only dapples of moonlight to pass through. Luckily, I anticipated this and came prepared with a flashlight.
I switch it on and am greeted by a brick wall slick with moisture. A millipede scurries across it, fleeing the light. To my left is more wall. To my right is inky darkness that stretches beyond the flashlight’s glow. I move through it, arriving shortly at a set of wooden steps.
The sight confounds me.
How did I never know this was here?
It makes me wonder if my parents knew about it. Probably not. I’d like to think that had my father been aware of a secret staircase in the back of Baneberry Hall, he would have put it in the Book. It would have been too appropriately Gothic to resist.
I climb the steps slowly, taking them one at a time. I have no idea where they lead, and that makes me nervous. So nervous that the flashlight I’m gripping trembles, casting a jittery glow on the stairwell walls.
After a dozen steps, I reach a landing that could be right out of a Hammer film. It’s small and creaky, with a skein of cobwebs in the corner. I pause there, disoriented, with no clue how far I’ve climbed or where I am inside the house.
I get a better idea once I ascend twelve more steps and a second landing, which would put me firmly on the second floor. There’s a door here as well—similar to the one hidden behind the ivy. Smooth and featureless, save for another bolt keeping it shut.
I slide the bolt.
I pull the door.
Beyond it is a closet of some sort.
The flashlight’s beam lands on several little white dresses hanging inside. Behind them is a thin slice of light.
Reaching past the dresses, I push them open and see a bedroom.
I stumble through the doors and rotate around the room, seeing my bed, my suitcases, the knife sitting atop my nightstand.
Then I see the armoire.
The doorway through which I’ve just emerged.
Shock overwhelms me. I stare at the armoire, uncomprehending, when in truth the situation is easy to understand.