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Page 102

“We’ll never go back,” I told her. “None of us will ever go back there.”

“But people will be looking for Petra,” your mother said. “Once they realize she’s missing, they’re going to ask why we’re here and not at Baneberry Hall. We need to give them a reason.”

I knew she was right. We needed to come up with an explanation for why we left. A solid one. An innocent-sounding one. But that wasn’t easy. Especially once people started looking for Petra. I knew that the police would search the house to back up our claim. All it would take was a half hour and a search warrant.

But inventing another calamity in the house was out of the question. There couldn’t be a burst pipe or another snake infestation. Our reason for leaving had to sound appropriately extreme while also being completely invisible.

It was you, ironically, who came up with the idea. Half-asleep in front of the muted motel TV, you said, “When are we going home?”

“We’re not,” your mother answered.

Your response prompted all that followed.

“Because Miss Pennyface scared us away?” you said.

At first, the thought of claiming we abandoned Baneberry Hall because it was haunted struck me as preposterous. No one would believe it. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. It would be impossible to prove that we were lying. Plus, by that point I knew enough of Baneberry Hall’s history to spin a decent tale. Then there was the fact that, because the idea of a haunting was so ridiculous, it might distract from the bigger secret hidden inside the house.

We went with it. We had no other choice.

Not that there was much time to think about it. I knew that, in order to deflect suspicion from us, we needed to be on record claiming Baneberry Hall was haunted before word got out that Petra had vanished.

I called the police to report a disturbance at the house. Officer Alcott came to the motel soon after. And for the next hour, I told her about Mister Shadow and Miss Pennyface and the horrors we’d endured. I knew the officer didn’t believe me, especially after she went to the house to check things out.

When she returned to say everything looked fine, I knew there was a chance that we would actually get away with it. We would move to another town. Settle in a place far away and pretend the incident at Baneberry Hall never happened.

What I didn’t expect was everything that came after. The newspaper interview, which I felt compelled to give, lest the police think we weren’t serious. That was the rub, Maggie. We didn’t care if people believed us. We just needed them to think that we believed it.

So we kept up the ruse, even when the story started making news across the state and beyond. Then came the book offer, which was so unexpected and so lucrative that we had to take it.

Your mother didn’t want me to write House of Horrors. Especially when I had to return to Baneberry Hall two weeks after the crime to fetch my typewriter. But I knew there was no way to avoid it. Your mother had stopped going to her teaching job, and I had no writing gigs lined up. We desperately needed money. I didn’t think anything would come of it. I considered it a temporary job that would hopefully lead to other writing assignments. I never for a second thought it would blow up into this unruly thing we could no longer control. When it did, the die had been cast. Your mother and I were forced to spend the rest of our lives pretending the fictions in that book were the truth. It was a lie that ultimately tore us apart.

Through it all, your mother and I debated how to help you going forward. You had killed someone, be it in anger or accidentally, and we worried about how that would affect you and what kind of person you would become. I wanted to send you to therapy, but your mother—rightfully—feared you’d reveal what we had done during one of your sessions. She wanted to tell you the truth—something I desperately wanted to shield you from. I never, ever wanted you to feel the guilt I carried.

Since you seemed to remember very little about our time at Baneberry Hall and had no recollection of the night we left, your mother and I decided the best thing to do was let you forget. We chose to stay silent, be watchful of your mood and mind-set, and try to raise you as best we could.

I know it was hard on you, Mags. I know you had questions neither of us could truthfully answer. All we wanted to do was shield you from the truth, even though we knew the falsehood we’d created in its place was inflicting its own damage. That book hurt you. We hurt you as well.

We could have done better. We should have done better. Even though every time you asked for the truth was a reminder of the guilt all of us carried.

I suppose that’s another reason I’m writing this, Maggie. To unburden myself of the guilt I’d felt for almost a quarter of a century. Consider it my confession as much as it is yours.

It’s now five a.m. and the sun will be up soon. I’ve spent the whole night writing this in my office in Baneberry Hall. You may or may not know this by now, but we never sold the house. We never even considered it. Knowing what was under the floor, selling it was too much of a risk.

Guilt brings me back here every year on the anniversary of the night it happened. I come to pay my respects to Petra. To apologize for what we did to her. My hope is that if I do it enough times, maybe she’ll forgive us.

Each time I’m here, I ask myself the same question: Did I make the right decision that night?

Yes, if you consider how you’ve grown up to be a smart, strong-willed young woman.

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