The ravens swarmed around outside our house. There were hundreds of them perched on the front step and resting anywhere they could find an empty spot; they blanketed our front yard to the point where the green blades of summer grass were hidden from view.
As I stared out at them through our front window, a sense of unease washed over me. I’d never seen so much darkness and so much light at the same time.
“Amalia, what are you doing?” my mom asked, glancing over at me as she came into the room, buttoning her navy suit jacket. Her dark hair was pulled into a ballerina-like bun, the same way she always wore it to work.
“Watching all of those birds outside,” I murmured, pointing out the window. “I’ve never seen so many of them all at once before. What do you think they’re doing here?”
My mom rushed to my side and peered over my shoulder.
“W-we, uh, need to get r-ready,” she stammered, ignoring my question. Her body seemed to tense up as she quickly closed the blinds in her best attempt to hide the birds from my sight.
It was already too late for that, though. And even though I was young, I was old enough to know that my mother’s reaction wasn’t a normal one.
Meli, our neighbor, who had lived across the street, had always told me that black birds flew with purpose. They only landed in a person’s yard if they wanted to send them a message.
This flock in particular had come with a warning: someone was going to die. I wasn’t sure how I knew for sure; I could just feel it in my bones. And I knew then, at that very moment, that my fear of it inevitably happening would follow me around like a shadow.
Eight years later
It was the first time in sixteen years that I had ever truly been alone. That was the only thing I could seem to think about as the taxi pulled onto the long, winding road that led to my aunt Regina’s house.
Admittedly, being away from my mother was the one thing I’d always wanted, mostly because she’d never given me the chance to be away from her. There hadn’t been any sleepaway camp during my summers – or sleepovers in general (though I didn’t really have any friends to invite me, anyway) – and there had especially been no public school, all of which I’d begged to go to for years. And, of course, any act of rebellion I’d made had been quickly snuffed out before it even began.
It wasn’t my mom’s fault, I supposed; it was only natural for her to be so overprotective. My father had abandoned us before I was even born. She’d probably worried that if she let me out of her sight for longer than a few minutes, she’d end up losing me in some way, too.
In any case, I’d ended up spending most days reading books at the local library my mom had worked at for the past fifteen years. I loved reading, but it got to the point where I knew just about every book on the tiny library’s shelves inside and out – torn pages, markings, and all.
Now that my mom was gone, though, I didn’t want to know what it was like to be on my own. All I wanted was to be back in that tiny library with her, reading the entire Harry Potter series for the twelfth time.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” the cabbie asked, breaking the silence we’d been
in for almost the entire trip. He glanced at me with concern in the rearview mirror. “123 Winchester Way?”
“Yes, it’s the right address.”
“It’s really out in the middle of nowhere, huh?”
I nodded just as I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of gray darting out into the street.
“Look out!” I screamed, pointing toward the road and bracing myself for the impact.
Jumping to alertness, the driver slammed on the brakes and not a moment too soon.
A startled gray wolf stared at us from the road, its deep blue eyes penetrating through mine. It was covered in mud and its fur was mangled, as though it had just gotten into a fight and had won, judging from the size of it. I’d never seen a wolf in the wild before, but I’d always imagined they were about the size of a German Shepherd. This one was much larger than that.
The breath caught in the back of my throat as it stared past the cab driver and straight at me for a few seconds, its eyes full of hatred. It cocked its head to the side and took a few steps forward as though it were taunting me. A shiver crept down my spine.
Then it stopped in its tracks and glanced at the woods.
The wolf slowly crossed the road, glancing over its shoulder at me one last time before it sauntered off into the woods.
Once it disappeared from view, I began to breathe a little easier again. Well, as easy as I
could breathe, considering it felt like my heart was about to pound out of my chest.
“Well, that was a close one,” the driver said as he let out a deep sigh – a mixture of relief and shakiness over the near-collision – and crept the car forward again, craning his neck in hopes of catching another glimpse of the wolf.
I was looking for it, too, but it was nowhere in sight.
An uneasy feeling set in as I realized this street led to my new home. If there was one wolf out there, how many others were there within the confines of the forest? They usually ran in packs, didn’t they?
A few moments later, the driver pulled the taxi into my aunt’s long, narrow dirt driveway. I could see the house – a three story Victorian, which was nestled between trees, their leaves beautiful shades of gold, crimson, and sienna.
Dread washed over me when he slowed to a halt in front of the porch and it had nothing to do with my fear of wild animals this time. I didn’t want to leave the car. Getting out meant the last chapter of my life was officially over. I wasn’t ready to start a new one.
Knowing that there was nothing left for me to do but move forward, I pushed my car door open and climbed out, stretching my legs. The car ride from Pennsylvania had been
exhausting, both mentally and physically. Even though I’d tried to hide it from the cab driver, I’d spent most of the trip crying silently in the backseat.
As the driver hopped out of the car to retrieve my luggage from the trunk, I started to feel . . . weird. I knew that it wasn’t just anxiety, either. I mean, of course I was nervous. I was beyond nervous about making a good first impression. I’d worn my favorite purple dress and had pulled my long, blonde hair into a simple ponytail at the nape of my neck. I’d also made the effort to apply my eye makeup more intricately than I normally would, which was probably all in vain. I had a feeling most of my makeup had slid down my face with my tears, anyway.
I was as prepared as I could have been, given the circumstances.
As I stood there in the driveway, though, I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that there was something eerie about the house that stood in front of me. I wished that I could just turn around and back out of going inside, but I knew that wasn’t an option. Now that my mom was gone, Aunt Regina had become my legal guardian. It might not have been so bad if I’d actually known my aunt while I was growing up, but I’d never even met her or my cousin, Callie. I still couldn’t figure out why my mom had named my aunt as my next legal guardian in her will, but I supposed it was because there was no one else. My father was dead...or, at least, I liked to pretend that he was, because if he was alive, that meant he’d chosen not to come back to get to know me, which was something I wasn’t ready to own up to, even at sixteen years old. Aside from Aunt Regina and Callie, I had no other living relatives.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to meet Aunt Regina or Callie. I’d dreamt of this day so many times before, but never under these circumstances. I had always wondered what Callie would be like, if we had things in common, or if we would get along. I’d wondered what it would be like to have a cousin, period.
Well, I wouldn’t need to wonder anymore. I was about to find out.
“Here are your bags, Miss,” the cab driver said as he set them down on the ground in front of me.
“Thank you,” I replied as I fumbled through my wallet for the money that Meli had been kind enough to give me to pay for the cab fare. She’d wanted to drive me to Connecticut herself, but her daughters had their dance recital and I didn’t want her to miss out on it for my sake, even though I’d dreaded the idea of taking such a long car ride with a complete stranger.
“Thank you! Have a good day,” he said cheerfully as I handed the money to him. He turned and headed back for the car, slamming the door shut behind him. He backed out of the driveway a moment later, not even bothering to wait until I got inside, leaving me to wonder what I would have done if no one was home.
I lifted one my suitcases from the ground. It was heavy. I packed it with as much as I could stuff inside. Most of my belongings held memories of my mom, memories that I didn’t want to leave behind just because she was gone and I was forced to start a new life. Most of the weight in my luggage came from the photo albums I’d packed, which were filled with picture upon picture of the two of us.
Nervously, I climbed up the old, creaky porch steps. Just as I was about to extend my hand to knock on the front door, it slowly creaked open and a man silently stared back at me.
He looked like he was probably in his late thirties. He wore his copper hair short and donned a black suit.
Did I have the right house? As far as I knew, I didn’t have an uncle. Then again, would Mom have known? She and Regina hadn’t exactly kept in touch over the years.
“Amalia, how nice it is to see you. It’s been such a long time,” the man said, breaking into a broad grin that extended to his turquoise eyes.
I stared back at him blankly. He knew my name, so apparently I did have the right house...though I couldn’t remember ever meeting him.
“I don’t think we’ve ever met,” I replied politely.
“Of course we have. You were only just a baby, though. Since you don’t remember my name, it’s Martin.” He extended a hand.
I chose not to tell him that he must have been mistaken; there was no way I could have met him when I was a baby, considering I’d never been to Shadow Hill and, as far as I knew, my aunt had never visited us in Pennsylvania.
As I shook his hand, I noticed how cold and clammy it was. “Are you my uncle?”
Martin let out a light laugh. “No, your aunt isn’t married. I’m her butler.”
I felt my eyes widen. “She has a butler?”
It made me feel a twinge of bitterness. My mom had only been able to afford the basics, but my aunt had hired help? I couldn’t help but feel slightly envious of Callie and Regina’s lives. My mom could have used a break, too – more than just the gooey pancakes and every other disaster meal I’d made for her as breakfast in bed.
“Indeed. There’s a maid too.” As he stepped outside to retrieve my other bags, he added in a lowered voice, “She’s an annoying little thing.”
“Hey, I heard that,” a voice said from behind him. A petite woman who looked to be maybe twenty-one at the most came to stand in the doorway. She was pretty, with short dark hair, warm golden brown eyes, and olive skin.
“I’m Marie...the annoying little thing.” She shot dagger eyes at Martin, though there was the trace of a smile on her lips. I got the feeling that the two of them bickered a lot, but it seemed like it was mostly out of playfulness.
“I’m Amalia,” I told her.
She nodded. “I know who you are. We’ve been expecting you. Mrs. Greene is really excited about you coming to live with her.”
I shifted nervously in my boots. “Where is my aunt, anyway?”
“She’s not home right now,” Martin replied a little too quickly as he climbed back up the stairs, carrying my luggage. “It’s hard to say when she might return.”
“Oh.” I felt my own face fall. I couldn’t help but think that it didn’t sound like my aunt was all that excited to meet me. If she was, wouldn’t she have made the effort to be home when I arrived? It almost felt like she’d forgotten about me.
From the sympathetic look that filled Marie’s eyes, I was pretty sure that she could tell what thoughts were running through my mind. “Don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll be home later,” she said gently.
“And then you’ll wish she weren’t,” Martin muttered under his breath.
Marie shot him a look before turning back to me. “In the meantime, we can give you the grand tour if you want.”
“Okay.” I clutched my suitcase a little tighter and hesitantly followed them through the front door.
Marie and Martin led me through the house, giving me a simple tour of the spacious, carefully decorated rooms. Why did anyone need a house this huge? It was almost big enough to get lost in. My mother and I were lucky enough to even have a TV, whereas Regina’s spanned across a greater portion of the wall in not just one but both of her over-sized living rooms. I was willing to bet that their cable package included more than just the basic stations that we had.
“And this is the heart of the house,” Marie chirped as she led us into the kitchen. “It’s where we do most of our gossiping.”
As Martin reached inside the fridge and pulled a box out, he glanced over his shoulder at me. “Want some cheesecake?”
Before I even had the chance to respond, he had already placed a thick slice oozing with raspberry topping onto a plate and was setting it down on the silver counter in front of me.
“Your trip must have been so exhausting,” he said as he handed me a fork.
I nodded. “It was tiring, but only because I had to sit still for so long. I guess I should have brought a book or something to keep me entertained.” Pulling a bar stool out, I climbed onto it. “I’m wide awake now, though. We almost hit a wolf right before we pulled into the driveway.”
“You did?” Martin exchanged a glance with Marie.
“Yeah, it came really close.”
“Wow. That must have been scary,” he murmured. “I’m glad no one got hurt—the wolf included.”
“Are there a lot of wolves around here?” I asked, almost afraid to know the answer.
“I haven’t seen any,” Marie replied, pulling a seat up next to me. “I’ve heard people say they’re out there, but they seem to keep to themselves...most of the time.”
Martin stood across from us, leaning against the counter. “This cheesecake is even better than the one yesterday, Marie,” he said as he spooned a piece into his mouth.
“Don’t tell your aunt on us.” She shot me a mischievous grin as she took a bite of her own slice.
“My lips are sealed.” I giggled.
Marie turned to me. “So, your aunt told me you’ll be going to school for the first time ever tomorrow. Are you excited?”
“I will?” Of course, I hadn’t been expecting my aunt to homeschool me, but I also hadn’t thought I would have to start school right away. I’d sort of been hoping to have a few days off to adjust to my new living arrangements, but now that I knew that wasn’t the case, I couldn’t help but feel slightly nervous.
Going to school may have been what I’d always wanted, but now that it was finally happening, I felt panicked. I didn’t know the first thing about fitting in or making friends. As if moving to live in a brand new state with my, up until now, estranged family wasn’t hard enough, I also had to go to school for the very first time in less than twenty-four hours. It was all so overwhelming.
“Indeed. But on the bright side, you’ll have your own personal driver,” Martin offered, seeming to note my disappointment.
I frowned, wondering how that could be a bright side. I’d always kind of wondered what it would be like to ride on a school bus, getting the full high school experience. I also wasn’t sure if having my own driver could make things embarrassing by drawing unnecessary attention to me, but Aunt Regina’s house was so far away from town that I doubted there was a school bus that came to this neck of the
Then again, maybe there was a bright side. Would I have really wanted to stand outside waiting for a school bus knowing that there were wolves nearby?
After we finished eating our cheesecake, Marie led me to the one room that she and Martin hadn’t shown me during the grand tour of the rest of the house: my bedroom. It was on the second floor, right next door to Callie’s room.
When Marie opened the door, I held in my gasp. It was more than I ever could have hoped for. The room was large and spacious, decorated mostly in turquoise with brown and white accents.
Marie glanced over her shoulder at me. “Do you like it?”
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered.
“I thought so, too.” She sat down on the bed, running her hands over the paisley patterned comforter. “Do you need any help unpacking?”
I glanced down at my bags, suddenly feeling somewhat possessive over their contents. It wasn’t that I couldn’t have used the help. It was just that I needed to unpack – and deal with what unpacking really meant – on my own.
“I think I’ll be okay,” I told Marie. “But thank you for offering.”
“No problem. If you change your mind, just let me know.”
“I will,” I promised.
With a smile, she rose to her feet and headed for the door. She stepped out into the
hallway, leaving me alone in the room I would call home for the next two years.