Home Before Dark: A Novel

Home Before Dark: A Novel

Riley Sager



PROLOGUE





JULY 1


“Daddy, you need to check for ghosts.”

I paused in the doorway of my daughter’s bedroom, startled in that way all parents get when their child says something truly confounding. Since Maggie was five, I suppose I should have been used to it. I wasn’t. Especially with a request so unexpectedly odd.

“I do?”

“Yes,” Maggie said, insistent. “I don’t want them in my room.”

Until that moment, I had no idea my daughter even knew what a ghost was, let alone feared one was occupying her bedroom. More than one, apparently. I noticed her word choice.

Them.

I blamed this new development on the house. We had been in Baneberry Hall almost a week by then—ample time to have noted its eccentricities but not long enough to have gotten used to them. The sudden shifting of the walls. The noises in the night. A ceiling fan that, when it spun at full speed, sounded like the clicking of teeth.

Maggie, as sensitive as any girl her age, was clearly having trouble adjusting to it all. At bedtime the night before, she’d asked me when we’d be returning to our old home, a sad and dim two-bedroom apartment in Burlington. Now there were ghosts to contend with.

“I suppose it can’t hurt,” I said, humoring her. “Where should I look first?”

“Under the bed.”

No surprise there. I had had the same fear when I was Maggie’s age, certain something awful hid in the darkness inches below where I slept. I dropped to my hands and knees and took a quick glance under the bed. All that lurked there was a thin coat of dust and a single pink sock.

“All clear,” I announced. “Where next?”

“The closet,” Maggie said.

I’d assumed as much and was already making my way to the bedroom closet. This section of the house—dubbed “Maggie’s wing” because it contained not just her bedroom but also an adjoining playroom—was located on the second floor, under the eaves of the sloped roof. Because of the room’s slanted ceiling, one half of the closet’s old oak door slanted as well. Opening it made me think of a storybook cottage, which was one of the reasons we decided the space should belong to Maggie.

“Nothing in the closet,” I said, making a show of yanking the chain dangling from the closet’s single lightbulb and peering between hangers draped with clothes. “Anywhere else?”

Maggie aimed a trembling index finger at the massive armoire that stood sentinel a few feet from the closet. It was a relic from the house’s past. An odd one. Over eight feet tall. Its narrow base gradually widened to a formidable midsection before suddenly tapering off again at the top. Crowning it were carvings of cherubs, birds, and strands of ivy that climbed the corners. I thought that, much like the closet door, it gave Maggie’s room a touch of literary magic. It brought to mind voyages to Narnia.

But when I cracked open the armoire’s double doors, Maggie sucked in a breath, steeling herself for whatever terror she thought waited inside.

“Are you sure you want me to open it?” I asked.

“No.” Maggie paused, and then changed her mind. “Yes.”

I pulled the armoire doors wide open, exposing a space occupied by only a few frilly dresses my wife had bought with the hopeful notion that our tomboy daughter might someday wear them.

“It’s empty,” I said. “See?”

From her spot in bed, Maggie peered into the armoire before letting out a relieved sigh.

“You know there’s no such thing as ghosts, right?” I said.

“You’re wrong.” Maggie slid deeper under the covers. “I’ve seen them.”

I looked at my daughter, trying not to appear startled, even though I was. I knew she had an active imagination, but I didn’t think it was that vivid. So vivid that she saw things that weren’t there and believed them to be real.

And she did believe. I could tell from the way she stared back at me, tears pooling in the corners of her wide eyes. She believed, and it terrified her.

I sat on the edge of her bed. “Ghosts aren’t real, Mags. If you don’t believe me, ask your mother. She’ll tell you the same thing.”

“But they are,” Maggie insisted. “I see them all the time. And one of them talks to me. Mister Shadow.”

A chill swept up my spine. “Mister Shadow?”

Maggie gave a single, fearful nod.

“What does Mister Shadow say?”

“He says—” Maggie gulped, trying hard to hold back her tears. “He says we’re going to die here.”





One





From the moment I enter the office, I know how things are going to go. It’s happened before. Too many times to count. And although each incident has its slight variations, the outcome is always the same. I expect nothing less this go-round, especially when the receptionist offers me a knowing smile as recognition flashes in her eyes. It’s clear she’s well-acquainted with the Book.

My family’s greatest blessing.

Also our biggest curse.

“I have an appointment with Arthur Rosenfeld,” I say. “The name is Maggie Holt.”

“Of course, Miss Holt.” The receptionist gives me a quick once-over, comparing and contrasting the little girl she’s read about with the woman standing before her in scuffed boots, green cargo pants, and a flannel shirt speckled with sawdust. “Mr. Rosenfeld is on a call right now. He’ll be with you in just a minute.”

The receptionist—identified as Wendy Davenport by the nameplate on her desk—gestures to a chair by the wall. I sit as she continues to glance my way. I assume she’s checking out the scar on my left cheek—a pale slash about an inch long. It’s fairly famous, as scars go.

“I read your book,” she says, stating the obvious.

I can’t help but correct her. “You mean my father’s book.”

It’s a common misconception. Even though my father is credited as the sole author, everyone assumes we all had something to do with it. And while that may be true of my mother, I played absolutely no part in the Book, despite being one of its main characters.

“I loved it,” Wendy continues. “When I wasn’t scared out of my mind, of course.”

She pauses, and I cringe internally, knowing what’s about to come next. It always does. Every damn time.

“What was it like?” Wendy leans forward until her ample bosom is squished against the desk. “Living in that house?”

The question that’s inevitably asked whenever someone connects me to the Book. By now, I have a stock answer at the ready. I learned early on that one is necessary, and so I always keep it handy, like something carried in my toolbox.

“I don’t really remember anything about that time.”

The receptionist arches an overplucked brow. “Nothing at all?”

“I was five,” I say. “How much do you remember from that age?”

In my experience, this ends the conversation about 50 percent of the time. The merely curious get the hint and move on. The morbidly interested don’t give up so easily. I thought Wendy Davenport, with her apple cheeks and Banana Republic outfit, would be the former. Turns out I’m wrong.

“But the experience was so terrifying for your family,” she says. “I’d surely remember at least something about it.”

There are several ways I can go with this, depending on my mood. If I was at a party, relaxed and generous after a few drinks, I’d probably indulge her and say, “I remember being afraid all the time but not knowing why.”

Or, “I suppose it was so scary I blocked it all out.”

Or, a perennial favorite, “Some things are too frightening to remember.”

But I’m not at a party. Nor am I relaxed and generous. I’m in a lawyer’s office, about to be handed the estate of my recently dead father. My only choice is to be blunt.

“None of it happened,” I tell Wendy. “My father made it all up. And when I say all of it, I mean all of it. Everything in that book is a lie.”

Wendy’s expression switches from wide-eyed curiosity to something harder and darker. I’ve disappointed her, even though she should feel grateful I’m being honest with her. It’s something my father never felt was necessary.

His version of the truth differed greatly from mine, although he, too, had a stock answer, the script of which never wavered no matter who he was talking to.

“I’ve lied about a great many things in my life,” he would have told Wendy Davenport, oozing charm. “But what happened at Baneberry Hall isn’t one of them. Every word of that book is true. I swear to the Great Almighty.”

That’s in line with the public version of events, which goes something like this: Twenty-five years ago, my family lived in a house named Baneberry Hall, situated just outside the village of Bartleby, Vermont.

We moved in on June 26.

We fled in the dead of night on July 15.

Twenty days.

That’s how long we lived in that house before we became too terrified to stay a minute longer.

It wasn’t safe, my father told police. Something was wrong with Baneberry Hall. Unaccountable things had happened there. Dangerous things.

The house was, he reluctantly admitted, haunted by a malevolent spirit.

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