Thunder rocked across the skies, sending the three dogs into fits of howling.
Twelve-year-old Emily Fletcher tried to calm them. Its just a storm. But no matter what she did, they slunk low to the ground, growling and whimpering. Usually they were happy to play in the backyard with her a daily break from their kennels at the Pet Palace. But this afternoon they ignored the ball Emily rolled out to them, pointing their noses instead toward the forested slopes in the distance.
Emily followed their gaze. Her eyes fell on the expanse of forests that met the playing fields and parkland that bordered their property. She had been in Stonehill, Pennsylvania, for eight weeks, and although shed been an avid hiker back home in Colorado, shed not yet begun to explore these woods. For one thing, she had no friends for another, shed been way too busy. Helping her mom set up Stonehill Animal Hospital and the Pet Palace animal hotel had pretty much taken up all her time. Not that Emily really minded. She loved animals had a magic touch with them, her mom always said and being busy kept her from being lonely. Sometimes she barely remembered that her parents were now officially divorced and she was thousands of miles from everything and everyone she knew. Sometimes she remembered all too well.
She ran a hand through her long curly hair. Animals can sense drops in air pressure before people can, she reminded herself. That must be why the dogs are acting so strange.
Lightning flashed, splitting the sky with jagged forks. Jellybean, the Harrison familys Dalmatian, began to leap up and down, barking. Pumpkin, Mrs. Stallings little white poodle, cowered, and Emily tensed in spite of herself.
Okay, she said, giving up. Lets get inside.
The dogs barreled through the side door of the small barn that Emily and her mother had converted into the animal hotel. Emily herded the dogs into their kennels. Biscuit, Mr. Franklins golden retriever, walked forward, turned backward to growl, then circled, moving forward a few more steps before turning to growl again. Jellybean threw himself at Emily and yelped loudly.
Whats wrong, guys? Emily asked. She stroked Jellybeans shoulder and gently pushed him back into his kennel. Whats gotten into you?
Biscuit pointed her nose up to the ceiling and howled. In the back room, a cockatiel screamed.
Something else screamed.
Emily froze, stock still. What was that? She waited, her ears straining. Behind her, the dogs were near panic.
It came again, the sound ripping through her like broken glass. Emily cried out. An animal was in trouble!
Instinctively she zoomed into crisis mode. Shed been around animals ever since she turned five, the year her mom, Dr. Carolyn Fletcher, first went into veterinary practice. Emily had assisted in several emergencies: a dog thatd been shot by a hunter, a cat hit by a car. Shed seen the blood and the bones and the suffering in the animals eyes, and she hadnt flinched.
Emily ran out of the barn and into the main building that housed the clinic. Her mother would need her help! She raced into the foyer and slipped on the wet floor. She looked down and gasped. Blood. Lightning flashed, suddenly illuminating her reflection in the hallway mirror as if she were a ghost. She stood there, holding her breath.
Shouting from the emergency room made her turn.
She heard her mother yell, Put it down here! There were sounds of scuffling; men were shouting, and an animal roared in defiance. Each scream tore through Emily, making her flinch. Still, she pushed her way inside into pandemonium.
Hold it still! Carolyn ordered. Two policemen struggled to hold a wriggling tarp down on the operating table. A razor-clawed paw swept out from under the tarp, raking down a uniformed sleeve and breaking one mans grasp. The other man slammed the animal down hard.
Emily get the hypodermic! Carolyn shouted over the animals yowls.
Emily remained frozen and watched as her mother drew back the tarp. Carolyns gasp stuck in her throat. What . . . did this to you?
It was a cat. An enormous cat. And it was burned badly. Only small patches of its leopard-spotted fur remained; everywhere else, the skin was oozing blood. One of the cats eyes was swollen shut.
Oh, no, oh, no, Emily thought she heard herself saying over and over.
Emily! Move it! The animal twisted in Carolyns arms and took a mad swipe, ripping the sleeve of her tunic. Instinctively, she jerked back, grabbing her arm.
The cat struggled to stand, but its paws slipped in the pools of its own blood. Emily stared at the awful wounds. Burns everywhere and, on one flank, a set of deep claw marks. But what mesmerized her was the green glow that seemed to emanate shimmering, almost bubbling, from the burned flesh.
Didnt anyone else notice? Emily wondered.
Emily! her mom shouted. I need your help, do you hear me?
Emily looked up. Shaking, she fumbled around the supply cabinet for a hypodermic, trying to get it out of its wrapping. Somehow she managed to measure out the dose of tranquilizer her mother called out to her. The cat twisted hard, letting out an awful cry. The pain lanced into Emilys chest, making her scream. The needle fell to the floor and shattered.
The cat was up on its feet, snarling. It turned to face Emily. Glaring through its one good eye, it bared razor teeth and crouched to strike.
Keep away from it! one of the cops shouted.
Emily moved forward slowly, as if in a dream.
The cat looked straight at her. A hard glint of steel flashed from its gold-green eyes and Emily felt a rush of feelings wash over her: rage, hate, pain, fear, and . . . something else . . . something Emily recognized instantly. Loss.
Emily was overwhelmed by a sadness and emptiness unlike anything shed ever known. She stared at the cat. Its all right, youre with friends. We want to help you. . . . Had she spoken out loud?
The cats expression calmed, the feral glow fading from its eyes as its muscles relaxed. Emily looked up to see her mother pulling a needle from the cats side. The animal slid to the table, fighting to keep eye contact with Emily.
Leaning her head close, Emily heard a whisper, a single word . . . Home.
A hand was on her shoulder, pulling her back. It was her mom, her grip firm but gentle.
Thank you, officers. Weve got everything under control now.
Youre sure youll be okay, Doctor? one of them asked.
This is what we do, she replied, pulling on surgical gloves. Where did you find this animal?
The older of the two policemen shook his head. We didnt find it. She did. He jerked his thumb toward the far corner of the room. Out at the Ravenswood Preserve.
For the first time Emily noticed the dark-haired girl who stood watching, black eyes wide against tanned skin. Where had she come from?
Carolyn turned to the girl. Any sign of what might have done this to her?
No. The girls long dark hair fell over her face as she edged toward the door.
You did the right thing, calling for help, Carolyn assured her.
Yeah . . . The girl was out the door in a flash.
Emily, get scrubbed. Rachels gone for the day, so youre assisting. You know the burn drill: soak, clean, and cover. The officers had left, and her mom was all business now.
But Emily was frozen again. Home. She was sure shed heard it. But who had said it? She willed her legs to move. Her hip hit the side of the exam table, making it spin on its wheels. I . . . cant . . . I . . . she faltered.
Carolyn was already dousing sterile bandages with ice-cold alcohol and laying them over the worst of the burns. Emily looked from her mom to the cat, then stumbled out of the room in a daze.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she walked down the hallway and out onto the hospitals covered back porch. What had happened to her in there? She had wanted to help she really had! How could she have frozen up like that, at a critical moment, with an animals life on the line? Never before had she acted like that so clumsy and powerless. She hated it!
She walked into the backyard, trying to calm her breathing. She caught a glimpse of the black-haired girl running across the fields toward the forest. Something ran alongside her. It looked like a big gray dog. Emily shook her head, thinking about those awful burns. What could have hurt an animal like that? And what kind of animal was it, anyway? It looked like a leopard but leopards didnt live in the Pennsylvania woods! . . . out at the Ravenswood Preserve . . . Is that where it came from? Suddenly, Emily shivered as a strange feeling swept over her. It felt like something horrible was approaching . . . something evil. . . .
With a shriek, Emily wheeled around and found herself staring into the laughing face of Kevin Deacon, the fifteen-year-old who worked part-time at the hospital, cleaning out cages, feeding and caring for the animals. Kevin, you idiot! Dont ever do that again!
Kevin just laughed some more.
Im not joking! Emily turned away so he wouldnt see how upset she really was.
Kevins mischievous smile faded. I heard some awful noises a minute ago. Some animal hurt pretty bad, huh? He could be such a jerk sometimes, but Emily had to admit that he did care about animals.
Your moms a great vet.
I should have I mean, yeah. Just go away and leave me alone!
I saw that girl running away as I rode up. What was she doing here?
She found the animal, a cat. Emily sniffed, calming down a little.
That girls really weird.
What do you mean? Emily asked.
She lives in the woods! At the Ravenswood Preserve.
She lives there? Wow. Emily eyes widened.
Yeah, well, if the town council has anything to say about it, Ravenswood is going to be shut down.
Why? Emily was puzzled.
Its dangerous, Kevin said. A shock of sandy hair fell across his forehead, and his blue eyes sparkled as he edged closer to her. Its haunted!
Emily laughed. Haunted? That is so juvenile.
He shrugged. Hey, the place used to be amazing. Old man Gardener collected all kinds of animals. We used to go there as kids, feed koala bears, peacocks, even monkeys. Now no one goes there. They say a monster roams the woods. . . .
Emily snorted. Cmon, Kevin, get a grip.
Kevin glanced back at the clinic. Look, I dont know what happened to the cat in there but from the screams and the look on your face, its bad, right? It doesnt take a genius to figure out that it was probably attacked by the same . . . thing . . . thats already killed a couple of dogs.
In spite of herself, Emily shivered. Why dont they just talk to that Gardener guy who owns the place? she asked.
He disappeared, Kevin whispered. Just upped and went one day, vanished. Spooky, huh?
So who takes care of all the animals?
His caretaker, I guess. Some old woman. People say shes a witch!
Kevin, stop it, Emily shook her head. There are no such things as witches. She was getting goosebumps.
My friend Tyler saw a ghost about three weeks ago, right near the Rocking Stone.
The Rocking Stone, its been here forever. Its an Indian monument, like a lighthouse for ghosts.
Emily was trying not to let his ridiculous stories get to her.
Somethings in those woods, Kevin said slowly. That place should be condemned.
What would happen to the animals? Emily asked. But Kevin was already on his way into the clinic to begin his chores.
Emily was silent. She looked out to the west, where the dark clouds had broken. The sun was setting behind the forest, sending up a fiery glow.
I dont believe in witches, monsters, or ghosts! Im not afraid. But somehow she was.