Unnerved by the overgrown forest near her aunt's house and the wild black cats that live there, Danni encounters a mean old woman who claims to be their owner and makes a discovery that places her life in danger.
Mary Downing Hahn, a former children's librarian, is the award-winning author of many popular ghost stories. Her work has won more than fifty child-voted state awards. An avid reader, traveler, photographer, and all-around arts lover, Ms. Hahn lives in Columbia, Maryland, with a cat named Nixi.
Zoey is excited to spend her summer with her Aunt Alice in the quaint town of Bexhill, but her aunt's neighbor Miss Dupree is far from charming. Zoey is warned by her aunt to stay away from Miss Dupree and her house, which is surrounded by feral cats and "No Trespassing" signs. However, one of the cats-a weak, small one named Thirteen-comes to Zoey, and the girl keeps it, incurring Miss Dupree's wrath. Another neighbor, Lila, becomes Zoey's comrade in paranormal sleuthing, and once they share their spooky interactions with Miss Dupree, they conclude that she must be a witch! Then Miss Dupree's niece comes to visit, but it becomes apparent that there is also something strange about her. Mysteries and eerie happenings abound, and they seem to be wrapped up with Thirteen. It's up to the girls to discover the truth even if it means putting themselves in danger. Horror maven Hahn conjures up another heart-pumping read for the younger set that strikes the right balance between thrills and chills. Grades 3-6. Copyright 2021 Booklist Reviews.
Cats, friendship, magic, and mystery form the core of this eerie tale. Zoey is looking forward to a relaxing summer at her aunt's home, away from the city. She's intrigued by the woods and the house next door, but Aunt Alice tells Zoey to stay away from the mean Miss Dupree and her horde of wicked black cats. When Zoey encounters the cats, though, one of them is very friendly and seems to be in desperate need of love and care. Zoey and her new friend, Lila, may be scared of Miss Dupree and think she's a witch, but that won't stop them from rescuing the poor, sweet creature from the neighbor's apparently neglectful clutches. Miss Dupree is enraged, and her wrath comes down upon Zoey and Lila in evil, magical ways that put the friends in grave danger while revealing the horrifying truth about her cats. The straightforward narrative and simple yet spooky worldbuilding quickly draw in readers, and the story maintains a brisk pace. The friendship and family drama are fairly superficially developed but still nicely balanced within the paranormal mystery, and the magical elements provide enough intrigue to keep the story interesting. Readers who want everything explained and fleshed out should look elsewhere, but those seeking a quick, chilling tale will be satisfied. Main characters are assumed White. Easy, entertaining horror fluff with just enough sharp claws. (Horror. 8-12) Copyright Kirkus 2021 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
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 driver usually follows her in. He leaves with an armload of boxes. He must deliver them for her."
"What's in the boxes?"
"No idea." She laid down her fork. "It's odd, now that I think about it, but I've never seen that cab anywhere else in town." She helped herself to another piece of chicken and passed me the platter.
While I ate, I made a plan to follow Miss Dupree the first time I saw her. I'd keep an eye out for the cab too.
Aunt Alice tapped my wrist to get my attention, the exact same thing Mom did. "You seem very curious about Miss Dupree. Believe me, she's a very unpleasant woman. Please stay away from her and her woods. When she says no trespassing, she means no trespassing."
I busied myself with my chicken. Aunt Alice was right. I was actually more than curious about Miss Dupree. She was a book I couldn't wait to read.
After dinner, Aunt Alice and I played a game of Scrabble. During the other times I'd visited, we'd settled into our own special routines. Scrabble after dinner. Pizza on Fridays. Eating out on Saturdays.
At the same moment when Aunt Alice won the game, Mom called. I told her about the woman next door and the woods, and she told me about her day at the office and the meeting she'd chaired. "Mr. Chaney was very pleased with me. I think I'm on track for either a bonus or a promotion-maybe both."
"That's great, Mom. Congratulations."
"Thanks, Zoey. I miss you, kiddo! The apartment is empty without you."
"I miss you too, Mom."
"If I know my sister, she'll keep you entertained. You won't be bored."
I asked her to put my cat on the phone. Even though I knew Suki didn't understand anything I said, I hoped she'd recognize my voice.
"I miss you so much, Suki. I wish you were here!"
Suki meowed once or twice but I couldn't be sure she knew it was me.
After Suki got off the phone, Mom asked to talk to her sister. I told her I loved her and handed the phone to Aunt Alice.
By then, I was so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open, but once I got into bed, I had trouble falling asleep. Maybe I wasn't used to absolute darkness. At home, a streetlight shone in my bedroom window. Headlights made tracks across my ceiling. Neighbors' lamps kept their windows lit long after I fell asleep.
Finally, I gave up and perched at the foot of my bed, staring out into the night. In the dark, the woods were even more mysterious. Fireflies winked on and off in the trees, like thousands of tiny Christmas lights. I could almost believe they were magic lanterns carried by invisible creatures like will-o'-the-wisps in fairy tales, as dangerous as they were beautiful.
I searched for a light from Miss Dupree's house, but the trees hid even the smallest glimmer. Maybe in the winter, when the trees were bare, you could see it. Unfortunately, I wouldn't be here then, unless Mom and I came for Christmas, but usually she had too much work to take off more than Christmas Day and sometimes Christmas Eve.
Though I didn't see anything, I heard a strange whirring noise. It came and went as if the night breeze carried it to me and then took it back. The sound must have been coming from Miss Dupree's house, but I couldn't figure out what made it. Maybe she had visitors. But that wasn't very likely. As far as I could tell, she was very unfriendly. Why would she invite anyone to her house?
After a while, I lost interest in the noise. It just went on and on, never changing, never giving a clue as to what made it. Shivering in the cold night air, I closed the window and slid under my covers. Surely, I would sleep now.
But I was as tense as ever. Right side, left side, on my back, and on my stomach, I flipped and flopped. I couldn't get comfortable no matter what I did.
If only Mom had let me bring my cat. Suki slept beside me every night. She purred in my ear and put me to sleep.
Without Suki's warmth to comfort me, I gave up and did an exercise my gym teacher taught us. Beginning with my feet, I relaxed my whole body piece by piece-toes, ankles, shin bones, knees, and so on, until I finally fell asleep.