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Page 5

“The property has quite the past, believe you me,” said our Realtor, a birdlike woman in a black power suit named Janie June Jones. “There’s a lot of history there.”

We were in Janie June’s silver Cadillac, which she drove with the aggressiveness of someone steering a tank. At the mercy of her driving, all Jess, Maggie, and I could do was hang on and hope for the best.

“Good or bad?” I said as I tugged my seat belt, making sure it was secure.

“A little of both. The land was owned by William Garson. A lumber man. Richest man in town. He’s the one who built Baneberry Hall in 1875.”

Jess piped up from the back seat, where she sat with her arms wrapped protectively around our daughter. “Baneberry Hall. That’s an unusual name.”

“I suppose it is,” Janie June said as she steered the car out of town in a herky-jerky manner that made the Cadillac constantly veer from one side of the lane to the other. “Mr. Garson named it after the plant. The story goes that when he bought the land, the hillside was covered in red berries. Townsfolk said it looked like the entire hill was awash in blood.”

I glanced at Janie June from my spot in the front passenger seat, checking to confirm that she could indeed see over the steering wheel. “Isn’t baneberry poisonous?”

“It is. Both the red and the white kind.”

“So, not an ideal place for a child,” I said, picturing Maggie, rabidly curious and ravenously hungry, popping handfuls of red berries into her mouth when we weren’t looking.

“Many children have lived quite happily there over the years,” Janie June said. “The entire Garson clan lived in that house until the Great Depression, when they lost their money just like everyone else. The estate was bought by some Hollywood producer who used it as a vacation home for him and his movie star friends. Clark Gable stayed there. Carole Lombard, too.”

Janie June swerved the car off the main road and onto a gravel drive cutting between two cottages perched on the edge of an imposing Vermont woods. Compact and tidy, both were of similar size and shape. The cottage on the left had yellow siding, red shutters, and blue curtains in the windows. The one on the right was deep brown and more rustic, its cedar siding making it blend in with the forest.

“Those were also built by Mr. Garson,” Janie June informed us. “He did it about a year after the construction of the main house. One cottage for Baneberry Hall’s housekeeper and another for the caretaker. That’s still the case today, although neither of them exclusively works for the property. But they’re available on an as-needed basis, if you ever get overwhelmed.”

She drove us deeper into the forest of pines, maples, and stately oaks, not slowing until a wrought-iron gate blocking the road appeared up ahead. Seeing it, Janie June pounded the brakes. The Cadillac fishtailed to a stop.

“Here we are,” she said.

The gate rose before us, tall and imposing. Flanking it was a ten-foot stone wall that stretched into the woods in both directions. Jess eyed it all from the back seat with barely concealed concern.

“That’s a bit much, don’t you think?” she said. “Does that wall go around the entire property?”

“It does,” Janie June said as she put the car in park. “Trust me, you’ll be thankful it’s there.”

“Why?”

Janie June ignored the question, choosing instead to fish through her purse, eventually finding a ring of keys. Turning to me, she said, “Mind helping an old lady out, Mr. Holt?”

Together, we left the car and opened the gate, Janie June taking care of the lock while I pulled the gate open with a loud, rusty groan. Soon we were in the car again, passing through the gate and starting up a long drive that wound like a corkscrew up an unexpectedly steep hill. As we twisted higher, I caught flashing glimpses of a building through the trees. A tall window here. A slice of ornate rooftop there.

Baneberry Hall.

“After the movie stars came and went, the place became a bed-and-breakfast,” Janie June said. “When that went belly-up after three decades, it changed hands quite a few times. The previous owners lived here less than a year.”

“Why such a short time?” I said.

Again, the question went ignored. I would have pressed Janie June for an answer had we not at that moment crested the hill, giving me my first full view of Baneberry Hall.

Three stories tall, it sat heavy and foreboding in the center of the hilltop. It was a beautiful structure. Stone-walled and majestic. The kind of house that made one gasp, which is exactly what I did as I peered through the bug-specked windshield of Janie June’s Cadillac.

It was a lot of house. Far bigger than what we really needed or, under normal circumstances, could afford. I’d spent the past ten years in magazines, first freelancing at a time when the pay was good, then as a contributing editor at a publication that folded after nineteen issues, which forced me to return to freelancing at a time when the pay was lousy. With each passing day, Maggie grew bigger while our apartment seemed to get smaller. Jess and I handled it by arguing a lot. About money, mostly.

And the future.

And which one of us was passing the most negative traits on to our daughter.

We needed space. We needed a change.

Change arrived at full gallop, with two life-altering incidents occurring in the span of weeks. First, Jess’s grandfather, a banker from the old school who smoked cigars at his desk and called his secretary “Honey,” died, leaving her $250,000. Then Jess secured a job teaching at a private school outside Bartleby.

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