Last fall, my aunt Alice moved from a Boston suburb to Bexhill, a small town in Vermont. For the first time she had enough space for me to spend my summers with her instead of going to camp. Mom was delighted. She knew how much I hated camp, but even though I was almost thirteen, she didn’t think I was old enough to spend my summers alone in Brooklyn while she worked. What could be better for me—and safer—than a summer in a small town?
When we pulled into her driveway, I thought my aunt’s house was like something out of an old-fashioned kid’s picture book, almost too pretty to be true, with flowers, blooming vines, and shade trees. There was even a front porch with a wooden swing at one end. All that was missing was a cat curled up on a mat by the front door. I hadn’t been allowed to bring my cat, Suki, but I hoped to convince my aunt she needed a cat. I couldn’t imagine living without one.
While we unloaded my luggage, I took a quick look at the neighbors on either side. On the right was a house similar to my aunt’s—what people call a Victorian cottage, with dormers and fancy wood trim. Aunt Alice’s house was yellow with blue trim, and the one beside it was blue with yellow trim. Sweet, I thought.
What really caught my attention, though, were the woods on the other side of my aunt’s yard. The trees grew so close to a sagging wood fence that their branches hung over Aunt Alice’s house. Some even brushed the roof.
Aunt Alice took one of my suitcases. “So, what do you think of my new home, Zoey?”
“It’s wonderful!” I hugged her. “This is going to be the best summer ever!”
She hugged me back. “I’ve looked forward to it all year.”
I followed her up the sidewalk. “Are those woods next door a park? Or a vacant lot?”
“Definitely not. Miss Dupree owns that land. No trespassers allowed.”
I gazed at the woods longingly. “How would she know if someone trespassed?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t see a house, so she must not live there.”
“Oh, she lives there, all right. I’ve never seen the house, but it’s hidden in there somewhere.” Aunt Alice frowned. “She’s very secretive and bad-tempered. She speaks to no one and no one speaks to her. I’m warning you, Zoey, don’t put one foot on her property.”
I followed my aunt inside, my thoughts on the mysterious Miss Dupree. I pictured a mean old lady wearing a baggy dress and dirty sneakers. But what was she really like? Maybe she wasn’t as bad as my aunt thought.
Even though I’d been warned not to, I decided that exploring the woods was my first priority. Yes, I’d lounge in that porch swing, I’d read, I’d write in my journal, I’d enjoy a summer without camp counselors bossing me around, but all that could wait until I’d seen Miss Dupree and her house for myself.
Aunt Alice showed me my bedroom and left me to unpack while she fixed dinner. I spun around in a circle, arms outspread, grinning like an idiot. All this space! The room was at least twice the size of my room in Brooklyn. The windows were large and let in plenty of light, at least from the front—no fire escapes, no brick walls, no neighbors’ windows, no rumble of traffic, no horns blowing, no sirens.
From the double windows, I saw my aunt’s yard and a shady street. A woman walked a dog, a boy rode by on a bike, two little girls played hopscotch on the sidewalk. Somewhere a lawn mower droned.
Nice, but not as interesting as the view from the other window. From the side, I looked straight into the woods. The trees were so close that leaves brushed against the screen. Miss Dupree’s property was deep and dark and endless, a forest in a fairy tale where nothing was what it seemed and danger lurked in the shadows. Witches, wicked fairies, enchantments good and bad—all the things I loved to read about.
What if I were a girl in such a forest, lost and afraid? Perhaps a witch lived there in a cottage. Perhaps she’d invite me in and cast a spell on me and keep me prisoner. Perhaps I’d be rescued. Perhaps I wouldn’t be. Perhaps I’d find my own way home.
Maybe I’d write a story about that girl, but now I wanted to explore the woods in real life. I might come face-to-face with animals I’d never seen outside of a zoo—deer, raccoons, possums, foxes. Nothing big and dangerous, like a bear or a wolf. They probably lived in the mountains I’d seen in the distance.
When Aunt Alice and I sat down for dinner, I asked her if she’d ever met Miss Dupree.
“Once,” Aunt Alice said. “It didn’t go well.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Not long after I moved here, I saw her walk past my house. I tried to introduce myself. You know, like people do. She looked me in the eye and said, ‘No need for introductions. I keep to myself. That’s why I have a fence. That’s why I’ve posted No Trespassing signs.’ I’ve never spoken to her again. Nor she to me.”
I leaned across the table, eager to hear more about our strange neighbor. “What does she look like?”
“It’s hard to say, Zoey. She’s not really old but certainly not young. Not pretty but not ugly either.” Aunt Alice sipped her iced tea. “She’s average height, I’d say, and thin. Her hair’s gray and she wears it in a knot at the nape of her neck.”
She paused a moment before adding, “There’s definitely something strange about her, maybe because she lives alone and hardly ever leaves her house. Maybe it’s her cats—she has at least a dozen, all black, totally wild. The skinniest, ugliest cats I’ve ever seen. They roam the neighborhood, killing birds and terrifying pets—both cats and dogs. Children too.”
Now I pictured Miss Dupree as a fierce old lady with her hair screwed tightly into a bun, still wearing a saggy dress and sneakers, but meaner than the grouchy old women in Brooklyn.
Aunt Alice surprised me by saying, “The few times I’ve seen her, she’s been well dressed—beautifully tailored clothing, long, flowing scarves, that sort of thing. Very expensive, I’d say.”
“Where does she go dressed up like that?”
“I have no idea, but sometimes she comes home in an old taxi. The dr...