Read Home Before Dark: A Novel Online
Authors: Riley Sager
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery, #Horror, #Adult, #Suspense, #Contemporary
The day of the sleepover began like any other at Baneberry Hall.
I got out of bed without looking at the clock—there was no need—and went downstairs, where the chandelier was aglow. I flicked it off with a heavy sigh and descended to the kitchen to brew a pot of extra-strong coffee. It had become my usual morning routine.
By then, exhaustion was a fact of life at Baneberry Hall. Almost as if the house was purposefully denying me a full night’s sleep. I counteracted it as best as I could with midafternoon catnaps and going to bed early.
But on this day, there would be no napping. The afternoon was spent preparing for two extra people in the house. Grocery shopping, cleaning, and making the place look like a happy home, which it definitely wasn’t.
The whole point of having the sleepover be supervised by Petra
was to give Jess and me some much-needed relaxation time alone. But when Hannah and Petra arrived bearing backpacks, sleeping bags, and a tray of cookies from their mother, I realized their presence only added to our stress. Especially when Maggie asked to speak to Jess and me alone in the middle of dinner.
“Can’t it wait?” I said. “You have guests.”
“It’s important,” Maggie told us.
The three of us went to the great room, leaving Hannah and Petra to eat their spaghetti and meatballs in awkward silence.
“This better be good,” Jess said. “It’s rude to leave your friends like that.”
Maggie’s expression was deadly serious. The cut on her cheek had healed enough that she no longer needed a bandage. Now exposed, it gave her a weathered, wizened look.
“They need to leave,” she said. “Miss Pennyface doesn’t want them here. She doesn’t like them. She’s been angry all night.” Maggie pointed to an empty corner. “See?”
“Now’s not the time for this,” Jess said. “Not with your friends here.”
“They’re not my friends.”
“But they could be,” I said in my most encouraging voice. “Just give it one night. Okay, kiddo?”
Maggie considered it, her lips a flat line as she weighed the pros and cons of friendship with Hannah.
“Okay,” she said. “But they’ll probably be mad.”
“Who’ll get mad?”
“All of the ghosts.”
She went back to the table, leaving Jess and me speechless. Maggie, however, was chattier than ever, and remained that way through the rest of dinner. And the ice-cream sundaes made for dessert. And
the board games played after that. When Maggie emerged victorious after a game of Mouse Trap, she ran around the dining room cheering like she’d just won the World Cup.
It was so nice to see her having fun with other girls. For the first time since we came to Baneberry Hall, Maggie looked happy, even when she shot occasional glances to the corners of the room.
Those fearful looks grew more pronounced when the girls got ready for bed. While Petra engaged in a half-hearted pillow fight instigated by her sister, Maggie merely sat there, her gaze flicking to the corner by her closet. And when I lined them up to take a picture with the Polaroid camera, she appeared more focused on the wall behind me than the camera’s lens.
“They’re down for the night,” I announced to Jess after I’d turned out the lights in Maggie’s room and retired to my own. “Whatever else they need, Petra can take it from here.”
I collapsed on the bed, an arm flung over my eyes. I would have plunged immediately into sleep if something hadn’t been weighing on my mind since dinner.
“I think we should take Maggie to see someone.”
Jess, who had been applying moisturizer at her vanity, gave me a look in the mirror. “As in a shrink?”
“A therapist, yes. Clearly, something’s going on with her. She’s struggling with this move. She has no friends and doesn’t seem to want to make any. And all this talk of imaginary friends—it’s not normal. And it’s not a plea for attention, either.”
In the mirror, Jess’s face took on a wounded look. “Do you plan on throwing that back at me every time we discuss our daughter?”
“That wasn’t my intention,” I said. “I was just making a case for why we should send her to someone who might be able to help.”
Jess said nothing.
“Either you have no opinion on the matter,” I said, “or you don’t agree with me and just don’t want to say it.”
“Therapy’s a big step,” she finally said.
“You don’t think Maggie has a problem?”
“She has imaginary friends and trouble making real ones. I don’t think we should punish her for that.”
“It’s not punishment. It’s getting her the help she needs.” I sat up and moved to the edge of the bed. “These aren’t typical imaginary friends, Jess. Miss Pennyface and Mister Shadow. Those are scary names, given to them by a scared little girl. You heard what she called them—ghosts. Imagine how terrified she must be.”
“It’s a phase,” Jess insisted. “Brought on by this move and all the things that have happened with this house. I worry that sending Maggie to a shrink will make her feel like an outcast. To me, that’s a far bigger concern than something she’s going to grow out of as soon as she gets used to this place.”
“And what if she doesn’t grow out of it? What if this is a legitimate mental disorder that—”
A scream cut me off.
It came from Maggie’s room, shooting down the hallway like a bullet. By the time the second scream arrived, Jess and I were already out of our bedroom and running down the hall.
I was first to reach Maggie’s room, colliding with Petra, who had burst into the hallway. She wrapped her thin arms around herself, as if trying to ward off a sudden chill.
“It’s Maggie,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Jess asked as she caught up to us.
“I don’t know, but she’s freaking out.”
Inside the bedroom, Maggie began to shout. “Go away!”
I ran into the room, confounded by what I saw.
The armoire doors were wide open, and all the dresses Jess had hung there were now scattered about the room. Hannah was up to her neck in her sleeping bag, mute with fear, scooching backward like an inchworm.
Maggie stood on her bed, shrieking at the open armoire.
“Go away! Go
In the hallway, I heard Petra telling Jess what had happened.
“I was asleep,” she said, the words tumbling out. “Hannah woke me up yelling, saying Maggie had just pulled her hair. But Maggie said she hadn’t. That it was someone else. And then I heard the wardrobe door open and things flying out of it and Maggie screaming.”
Maggie remained on the bed. Her shouts had devolved into an earsplitting wail that refused to die down. In the corner, Hannah’s hands shot out of the sleeping bag and clamped over her ears.
“Maggie, there’s no one here.”
“There is!” she cried. “They’re all here! I told you they’d be mad!”
“Sweetie, calm down. Everything’s okay.”
I reached for her, but she slapped my hand away.
“It’s not!” Maggie cried. “He’s under there!”
It wasn’t until her voice died down that I heard an unidentifiable noise coming from under the bed.
“There’s nothing down there,” I said, hoping to convince myself as well as Maggie.
“He’s there!” Maggie shrieked. “I saw him! And Miss Pennyface is right there!”
She pointed to the corner behind her closet door, which I saw had also been opened. I didn’t remember it being that way when I came into the room, even though it had to have been.
“And then there’s the little girl,” she said.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Right next to you.”
Even though I knew it was my mind playing tricks on me, I still felt a presence beside me. It was the same way you could tell someone was sneaking up behind you. A disturbance in the air gave them away. I longed to look at my side, but I feared doing so would make Maggie think I believed her.
So, I didn’t look, even when I felt—or thought I felt—someone brush my hand. Instead, I glanced across the room to Hannah, hoping her reaction would tell me if something was there. But Hannah’s eyes were shut tight as she continued to slide backward into the corner where Maggie said Miss Pennyface was standing.
She wasn’t, of course. There was no Miss Pennyface. But when Hannah reached the corner, she began to shout.
“Something touched me! Something touched me!”
In between her screams, I again heard the noise under the bed.
A muffled skittering.
Like a giant spider.
Without thinking, I dropped to my knees.
Above me, Maggie had resumed shrieking, matching Hannah in volume. More noise started up from the doorway. Jess asking me what the hell I was doing.
I ignored her.
I ignored everything.
I was focused solely on the bed. I needed to see what was under there.
With trembling hands, I touched the bed skirt, brushing it aside.
Then I peered into the dark under Maggie’s bed.
Nothing was there.
Then the bedsprings sank—a jarring sight that made me yelp and jump away from the bed. I looked up and saw it was Hannah, out of her sleeping bag and now standing on the bed. She tugged at Maggie’s arms, trying to snap her out of whatever spell she was under.
“Make it stop, Maggie!” she yelled. “Make it
Maggie stopped screaming.
Her head snapped in Hannah’s direction.
Then she punched her.
Blood sprayed from Hannah’s nose, flying across Maggie, the bed, the floor.
A stunned look crossed Hannah’s face as she tilted backward and dropped off the edge of the bed. She hit the floor hard, wailing the moment she landed. Jess and Petra ran to her.
I stayed where I was.
Also on the floor.
Staring up at my daughter, who seemed not to have realized what she’d just done. Instead, she looked to the corner by the closet. The door was now shut, although I had no idea how or when that could have happened.
It was the same with the armoire. Both doors were completely closed.
Maggie looked to me and, in a voice thick with relief, said, “They’re gone.”
I close my father’s copy of the Book, having just read the chapter about the sleepover. As I stare at the aerial view of Baneberry Hall on the cover, what Hannah said about that night plays on repeat in my head.
It’s all true.
But it isn’t. It can’t be. Because if the part about the sleepover is true, then so is the rest of the Book. And I refuse to believe that. The Book is bullshit.
I shake my head, disappointed by my own uncertainty. Of course it’s bullshit. I’ve known that since I was nine.
Then why am I still here at the dining room table with the Book in front of me? Why did I feel compelled to sit down and read the chapter about the sleepover in the first place? Why am I on the verge of reading it a second time?
I want to think it’s because doing a deep dive into
House of Horrors
is easier than facing the idea that my father might have killed Petra. It’s a much-needed distraction. Nothing more.
But I know better. I’ve seen too many similarities between real life
and the Book to dismiss it outright, and I can’t shake the feeling that something eerie is happening. Something strange enough to make my hands tremble as I open the Book.
Then close it.
Then open it again.
Then throw it across the dining room, where it hits the wall in an angry flutter of pages.
I grab my phone, checking to see if my mother returned my call while I was reading. She hasn’t. I call again. When it goes straight to her voicemail, I hang up without leaving a message. What am I going to say?
Hi, Mom, did you know about the body in the ceiling, and did Dad do it, and did I really see ghosts as a child?
I drop the phone onto the table and reach for my dinner—a bag of tortilla chips and a can of mixed nuts. Although there’s enough food in the house for several meals, cooking isn’t in the cards. After what happened in the kitchen, I want to spend as little time there as possible. So I stuff some chips into my mouth and wash them down with a beer. That’s followed by some nuts, which I chomp while eyeing the Book, now splayed on the floor. I’m tempted to pick it up. Instead, I grab the Polaroids I found in my father’s study.
The first one is the picture of my mother and me entering the woods. On the far side of the frame is that dark shape I thought might have been a person but is clearly a tree in shadow.
Next is the one from the sleepover, with me and Hannah as minor players in the Petra Show. I study her pose—the hand on her hip, the bent leg, the lips parted in a flirty smile. I can’t help but think she was putting herself on display for my father.
Petra had a boyfriend
, Hannah had said.
Could that have been my father? Was he capable of betraying my mother like that? Even though he once told me my mother was the only woman he’d ever loved, sometimes love has nothing to do with it.
I move to the next photo—the ceiling repairs in the kitchen, which
has a new, morbid significance after the events of the past few days. Now it’s a picture of a sixteen-year-old girl looking directly at the spot where her remains would be discovered twenty-five years later. Seeing it makes me quiver so hard the chair shakes.
I push that Polaroid away and look at the one of me standing in front of Baneberry Hall, struck by something interesting. I don’t have a bandage under my left eye, which led me to assume it had been taken immediately after we moved in. But when I take another look at the picture from the sleepover, there’s no bandage there, either. Nor is there a cut, bruise, or any other sign of damage, even though according to the Book, the sleepover happened
I’d hurt myself on the gravestone in the woods.
I gather all the Polaroids and slide them around the table like mahjong pieces, putting them in chronological order based on the events in the Book.
First is me outside Baneberry Hall, smiling and guileless. The girl I never thought I was but now worry I might truly have been.
Second is my mother and me stepping into the forest behind the house.
Third is the sleepover, and fourth is the shot taken in the kitchen.
The fifth, the selfie of my father, could have been taken at any time, although it strikes me as being toward the end of our stay. He looks haggard. Like something had been weighing on his thoughts.
I know there was a bandage at some point because Chief Alcott told me she noticed it when interviewing my father at the Two Pines. Also, I have the scar to prove it.
If it wasn’t on our third day here, which is what the Book claims, then when did it happen?
And how did I get it?
And why did my father fudge the facts?
A rhetorical question. I already know the answer. He did it because the Book is bull—
I’m stopped mid-thought by a voice from elsewhere in the house, singing a song that roils my stomach.
“You are sixteen, going on seventeen—”
I grip the table’s edge, buzzing with fear. Hannah’s words again streak into my thoughts:
It’s all true. Every damn word.
The song keeps playing, louder now, as if someone’s just cranked the volume.
“Baby, it’s time to think.”
Bullshit. That’s what I think.
There’s no ghost in this house.
“Better beware, be canny and careful—”
I bolt from the dining room and pass through the great room. The chandelier is on again, even though I’m certain I haven’t touched its switch in days.
When I reach the front door, I find it’s still locked. The slip of paper I stuck in the doorframe when I returned from the Ditmers’ remains in place.
“Baby, you’re on the brink.”
The windows are also locked. I checked them earlier. If this is a ghoul—and of course it is—how did they get inside?
There’s only one way to find out.
The song continues to play as I tiptoe up the stairs, trying hard not to make a sound. If I’m going to catch whoever’s doing this, I need surprise on my side.
The music gets louder when I reach the second floor, which actually works to my advantage. It covers the sound of my footsteps as I pad into my bedroom and take the knife from the nightstand.
I move down the hallway, gripping the knife so tight my knuckles turn white. They remain that way as I climb the steps to the third floor. On the other side of the closed study door, the song continues to pulse.
I throw open the door and burst inside, announcing my presence with a primal scream and a jabbing knife.
The study is empty.
On the desk, suddenly back again, is Buster.
I stand in the driveway, hugging myself against the evening chill as Chief Alcott finishes her sweep of Baneberry Hall. I called her immediately after finding Buster and met her at the front gate. All the reporters had disbursed for the night, thank God. Had they stayed, they would have seen me unlocking the gate with trembling hands, pale as a ghost.
Upon her arrival, Chief Alcott checked the outside of the house first, circling it with a flashlight swept back and forth across the exterior walls. Now she’s inside, checking the windows. I see her from the driveway—a dark figure framed in an eyelike window on the third floor.
When she’s done, she steps onto the porch and says, “There’s no sign of a break-in.”
It’s exactly what I don’t want to hear. Something that pointed to forced entry—say, a broken window—would be a much better alternative to the reality I now face. Which is that there’s no rational explanation for the record player turning on, or the sudden reappearance of Buster.
“Are you sure what you think happened actually, you know, happened?” she asks.
I hug myself tighter. “You think I’m making this up?”
“I didn’t say that,” the chief replies. “But I’m not discounting the possibility that your imagination is running a little wild right now. It wouldn’t surprise me, considering what you found in the kitchen the other day. That would make anyone jumpy.”
“I know what I saw,” I say. “And I know what I heard.”
“Maggie, I looked everywhere. There’s absolutely no way an intruder could have gotten inside this house.”
“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.