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Page 54

I can’t bring myself to be so adamant about my father’s innocence. There was a body in our ceiling, for God’s sake. Then there are his last words, which are so damning I’m glad I never mentioned them to Chief Alcott. I don’t want her mentally convicting my father before we know all the facts. Especially when the facts we do know make him look guilty as sin.

But then I think about my conversation with Brian Prince, when he all but accused my father of causing Petra’s disappearance. At that moment, I was more certain and quicker to defend. What I said then still holds up. We left Baneberry Hall together. That’s indisputable fact. My father couldn’t have killed Petra and hidden her body while my mother and I were inside the house with him, and he wouldn’t have had a chance to return once we were ensconced at the Two Pines.

But he did return. Not then, maybe, but later, coming back on the same day year after year.

July 15.

The night we left and Petra disappeared.

I have no idea what to make of that.

I’m on the verge of telling Chief Alcott about those visits, hoping she’ll have a theory about them, when the front door opens and state police investigators emerge with the body. Even though there’s nothing left of its human form, the skeleton is removed from the house like any other murder victim—in a body bag placed on a stretcher.

They’re carrying it down the porch steps when a commotion rises from the other side of the driveway. I turn to the noise and see Hannah Ditmer pushing her way through the crowd of cops.

“Is it true?” she asks everyone and no one. “Did you find my sister?”

She spies the stretcher with the body bag, and her face goes still.

“I want to see her,” she says, heading straight for the body bag.

One of the cops—a doe-eyed kid who’s probably working his first crime scene—puts both blue-gloved hands on her shoulders. “There’s nothing left to see,” he says.

“But I need to know if it’s her. Please.”

The tone of that word—ringing with both determination and sorrow—pulls Chief Alcott from the porch steps.

“Open it up,” she says. “It won’t hurt to let her take a look.”

Hannah makes her way to the side of the stretcher, one hand fluttering to her throat. When the doe-eyed cop gently unzips the body bag, the sound draws others like flies to honey.

Including me.

I stop a few yards away, aware of how unwelcome my presence might be. But, like Hannah, I need to see.

The young cop opens the bag, revealing the bones inside, arranged approximately the same way they’d be if the skeleton had been intact. Skull at the top. Ribs in the middle. Long arms resting beside them, the bones still connected by pieces of blackened tendon. The bones are cleaner than when I’d found them, some of their grime having been wiped away in the kitchen. It gives them a bronze-like sheen.

Hannah studies the remains with intense concentration.

She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t scream.

She simply looks and says, “Did you find anything else in there?”

Another cop steps forward, dressed in civilian clothes and a state police baseball cap.

“These were in the bag the body was found in,” he says as he holds up several clear evidence bags.

Inside them are pieces of clothing that time has turned to rags. A scrap of what appears to be plaid flannel. A T-shirt darkened by stains. A pair of panties, the strips of fabric barely clinging to yellowed elastic, and a bra that’s mostly now wire. Chunks of rubber in another bag indicate they had once been a pair of sneakers.

“It’s her,” Hannah says with a swallow of grief. “It’s Petra.”

“How can you tell?” Chief Alcott asks.

Hannah nods at the smallest of the evidence bags.

Inside, as clear as day, is a gold crucifix.

JULY 4

Day 9

Walt Hibbets’s gold tooth was on full display as he stared openmouthed at the hole in our kitchen ceiling.

“Snakes did all that?” he said.

“You should have seen it yesterday,” I replied. “It looked worse then.”

With the help of Elsa Ditmer, Jess and I had spent the previous afternoon cleaning the kitchen. As Petra babysat Maggie, we shoveled debris, swept floors, scrubbed the table and countertops. We were exhausted by the time we were finished, not to mention dirtier than I think we’d ever been in our lives.

Now it was time to patch the formidable hole in the ceiling. For that, I enlisted Hibbs, who brought a boy from town to help because the task was too big for just him alone. Together, they moved the kitchen table out of the way and placed a ladder under the hole. Hibbs climbed it until his head and shoulders vanished into the ceiling.

“Hand me that flashlight,” he said to his helper.

Light in hand, Hibbs swept the beam around the depths of our ceiling.

The rest of us watched, our faces raised. Me, Jess, Hibbs’s helper, and Petra Ditmer, who’d ostensibly dropped by to see if we again needed someone to watch Maggie during the cleanup. It was clear that morbid curiosity had drawn her. She hadn’t checked on Maggie once since her arrival.

I had taken the camera down from the study the day before, snapping a few pictures in case the insurance company needed proof of the damage. That morning, I picked it up and took a shot of Petra and Jess staring at Hibbs on his ladder. Hearing the click of the shutter, Jess looked my way, then at Petra, then back to me. She was about to say something, but Hibbs beat her to it.

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