Serena closed the suitcase on her bed, zipping up what was left of her life in New York City, and slipped the tote bag carrying her sketchpad over her shoulder. Little remained to be done—everything had already been sealed in brown boxes and moved to a cold storage unit on the edge of the city. A lifetime of memories of baby books, photo albums, old Christmas decorations, her father’s first guitar, her mother’s easel—all packed and sleeping in the dark. Just like her parents, who now lay in the ground, side by side for eternity. The little things that had once made their house a home were now buried in their own coffins, never to be resurrected and soon to be forgotten.
After the funeral, Serena had vowed she’d never visit her parents’ graves. There was no point. Rose and Edward Bancroft were now just two names written in stone atop a lonely hill at the back of a cold and isolated graveyard. Like her parents, she didn’t believe in an afterlife. Neither her mom nor her dad had been religious—if anything, they were like scientists, putting faith in what science could prove. It seemed gruesome and unfair to leave their bodies rotting in the cold, hard ground. Serena never wanted to remember her parents as muted, decayed and sealed in a box six feet under the earth. Whatever made them human—whatever the soul was, if there ever was one—had departed the day they died. What was left in those graves was nothing but corpses.
Rose and Edward Bancroft had been killed in a car accident during a rainy afternoon drive to the library to pick up her little brother, Jack. The police officer who worked the scene assured Serena that they likely never saw the semi-truck that had smashed into their car, killing them both instantly. No, for them it began and ended with a glimpse into each other’s eyes—a last look at this world in the face of their true love.
But for Serena and Jack, it was an end and a beginning. The end of a life as a happy family, and the beginning of something else—an eternity as orphans.
Suitcase in hand, Serena paused at the doorway, looking around her childhood bedroom for the last time. The walls echoed with memories, haunted by ghosts of sacred moments she’d never again share with her mother. Her first night home after the funeral had been unbearable. The absence of her parents had felt like a physical thing, a black void so large there was no room to breathe in their city apartment. It was as if their ghosts lingered in their belongings. Her father’s reading glasses still lay abandoned on the coffee table next to the weekly paper. Her mother’s apron hung forgotten by the oven.
A car honked outside, startling Serena from her reverie. A quick glance out of the window told her the cab had arrived to deliver them to their new life. Serena sighed as she dragged her heavy suitcase to the ground and rolled it down the empty hallway for the last time. “The taxi is here, Jack!” she called out to her brother. “We’ve got to get going if we are going to catch our train.” He didn’t answer, not that she expected him to.
Jack had always been quiet—more of an observer than a talker. Their dad had referred to him as “his little professor” because he always had his nose in a book. Most of his friends were the librarians who pulled aside books for him and brought him treats, usually delivered with a wink and a smile. Jack would glance up at them with a silent nod of appreciation, pressing all four of his fingers against the lenses of his glasses as he pushed them up his nose, leaving them eternally smudged with fingerprints. But after the accident Jack had stopped speaking completely. No one, not even his beloved wiener dog Tinker, could reach his island of grief.
From that terrible day and every day since, Serena had done all she could for her little brother. At age seven, Jack was far too young to be alone, so Serena had left her life behind at the University of California to be with her brother back in New York so he could finish the school year. Those first days had been hard. The thought of getting out of bed and making breakfast before their walk to Jack’s school had seemed insurmountable, but they had managed. Now the school year was finally over and summer had come.
Serena stood in the foyer, eyes closed as she imagined her parents’ laughter around the breakfast table, their kisses on their foreheads at bedtime. But nothing, certainly not wishes, could conjure them back.
Closing the front door, Serena sat beside her brother in the soft morning light on the sun-warmed front porch step, where Jack had his hand on Tinker’s back, a book open in his lap. The cabbie laid on his horn, eying them with impatience. Ignoring him, Serena held out her hand and Jack wordlessly passed her his smudged glasses, which she cleaned on her shirt and handed back. He pressed them back up his face, smudging them again. Serena sighed and put an arm around her brother. Their mom had always been the one to clean Jack’s lenses. Now there was only her.
“It’s about that time, little buddy,” she said softly. He nodded, his eyes still glued on his book, A Guide to Surviving the Wilderness. He closed the book with a sigh, then he and Tinker both looked up at Serena.
“I’m ready,” he whispered. Serena threaded her fingers through his and gave them a squeeze. The cabbie honked again. Jack squeezed hers back. “If you ever cross a brown bear, make your body look bigger. Yell loudly and don’t back down,” Jack instructed.
Serena bit back a chuckle and nodded. “Sure thing, Professor Bancroft.” She ruffled his hair and dropped a kiss on the top of his head. “Time to go,” she said.
Days after the funeral, an official-looking envelope had arrived from a fancy estate attorney stating Serena and Jack had inherited a lake house on Conjure Lake in upstate New York. With everything else in chaos, it had seemed the answer to Serena’s problems. She had vague recollections of her mother mentioning growing up in the mountains, but Rose never spoke about her parents, and the letter had been a surprise. Between the inheritance Rose and Edward left them and the money from their life insurance policies, Serena had enough funds to care for Jack and herself, but if they stayed in their city apartment, those funds would dwindle fast. Suddenly a new home—and a new life—had arrived, brimming with possibilities.
So Serena made the decision to move to the lake house with Jack once his school year was complete. According to the estate attorney, their mother had inherited the house when her parents passed away. The lake house was fully furnished and had been winterized for year-round living, and Wi-Fi ready with internet. There was even an old pickup truck available for sale—for the dubious price of five hundred dollars—by the groundskeeper who had overseen the property for thirty years. If Serena so desired, she could keep the man on for a small monthly fee. Even though pickups were not her first choice in automobiles, she understood how valuable a truck would be living in the country. For five hundred dollars she figured she’d be lucky if it ran at all, and she was especially thankful there was a groundskeeper on hand to do the mowing and tackle plowing the road during the harsh winter months.
Jack had taken the news surprisingly well. He was fascinated to be moving “to the wilderness,” which was what he called anything outside of New York City. Despite Corvin Grove having a population of nine hundred, compared to New York, that might as well be Timbuktu. Jack had read everything he could get his hands on about surviving the outdoors. Serena knew it was probably a coping mechanism, but figured the distraction was relatively harmless.
Jack was ready to be a boy again, ready to come out of his mourning. He didn’t have many friends to say goodbye to other than his librarians. There were too many ghosts haunting their home in the city, too many shadows of memories so sweet they now ached like a sore tooth. Jack didn’t want to be the tragic orphan who had lost his parents—he wanted to be like every other child his age. The change would be good for them, and Serena knew Jack needed normalcy in all its forms.
So they were headed to the Adirondack Mountains, an area neither Serena nor Jack had ever visited. All Serena really knew about her mother’s past or her estranged grandparents was that Rose had hated growing up in an isolated back-country town. On her eighteenth birthday, Rose had traded in her barn boots for city shoes and never looked back.
But now there was only one way forward. Serena held Jack’s hand and they walked down the front steps, suitcases bumping along behind them. At the curb Serena stared up at the picture window that once had been her mother’s studio as the irate cabbie loaded their suitcases into the back of the taxi, muttering under his breath. The art studio overlooking the city park had been Serena’s favorite place on earth. Her mother’s studio had always smelled of wet paint and charcoal pencils, and Serena would sit across from her mom on the chaise lounge, sketching out drawings of the things inside her head while her mother painted at her easel.
Jack stood beside her with his arms crossed, his thoughts impossible to read in his dark eyes as he stared back at the apartment.
“Mom would’ve hated moving to our grandparents’ lake house,” Serena said to Jack as she wrapped an arm around his thin shoulder. “She spent our entire lives keeping the grandparents from us, and now we will live in her old childhood house. You’ll probably even sleep in her old bed.”
The cabbie slammed the trunk shut. Now that it was time to leave, Serena stared at her shoes, at the ground, anywhere other than the home they were about to leave forever.
“I wonder why Mom didn’t like living on Conjure Lake. I guess it doesn’t matter,” Serena said as she kissed the top of Jack’s head. “What’s in the past will have to stay in the past. All that matters now is us and our future together.” Serena pulled her brother in for a hug, and he smiled up at her.
“We will have fun kayaking every day,” Jack said, his eyes bright. “You always wear your life jacket when you kayak. Lake water can suddenly become deep and before you know it you’re a mile away from shore and struggling to get back to land.” Jack rubbed his nose and pressed his smudged glasses up his face.
“And you will have an entire forest to explore.” Serena smiled as she held out her hand for his glasses. She polished them again and passed them back. “There’s over sixty acres on the property.”
Serena wished she could share Jack’s enthusiasm. He was excited to live on a private lake with no one around. Their nearest neighbor would be two miles away. Jack didn’t mind that it would be a ten-minute drive to town. After all the attention from his parents’ deaths, he welcomed the privacy, and really, so did Serena.
The past year had aged Serena, making her feel far older than her mere eighteen years. She had stopped going out on weekends, stopped using social media. She had grown annoyed by her vain friends who took endless selfies every hour and plastered them on the internet, and was turned off by her peers who made stupid videos of their classmates getting drunk at parties and making asses out of themselves. She no longer cared about staying involved in mindless activities or trying to get hot guys or girls to notice her.
It was as if the color had drained out of her world, and all the pointless things she’d cared about before no longer mattered. Even her sketchbook had been drained of color, and she now only drew in shades of black and gray. Serena had traded in a life of self-indulgence for a life of silent amity. Serena’s world had narrowed until all she saw, all she cared about, was Jack. In the span of one night, Serena had been transformed from a modern college student to a grieving daughter and sister of a fragile little brother who needed a mom.
Though Serena had always been an artist like her mother, her sketchbook became a tool for how she viewed and processed the world around her. Now sketching meant more to her than just scribbles on a page—it was her sanctuary, the last link to her mother, a way to leave the sorrows of this world behind and enter a realm of serenity. Gone were the lip gloss and mascara and other silly items that used to line the bottom of her purse. In its place she only had her sketchbook and pencil, and they accompanied her wherever she went. It was her new makeup routine, but instead of painting her face, she was painting her soul.
Their mother had been a natural beauty with long, straight hair the color of starlight. When Serena was a child she would play with her mom’s silken tresses, wrapping the shining locks around her tiny fingers as Rose read to her at night. Rose—even her mother’s name was a beautiful thing. Serena and Jack had both inherited their mother’s blonde hair, straight and soft like spun silk, though Serena kept hers perpetually in a bun, drawing pencils and pens stuffed in her hair for easy access. Their dark eyes, however, came from their father, deep and wide like dark pools full of secrets.
The train ride had been a long five hours and Serena was ready to exit the train and eagerly flagged down a taxi to take them to Korwin Cottage. She climbed in the backseat with her brother and wrapped an arm around Jack as she leaned her head against the window staring off into the beautiful scenery.
The cityscape was gone, replaced by picturesque hills and charming farmhouses. Serena poked her brother in the side and pointed out of the window. “Look, cows.”
He glanced up from his book where he was reading about filtering your own urine for drinking water—gross. “Cows can detect odors from up to five miles away,” he stated.
“Hmm. Good to know,” Serena replied.
“Five miles, you say?” the cabbie called over his shoulder, a soft Jamaican accent curling his words.
“Yes,” Jack answered, perking up to find he had an appreciative audience. “They have thirty-two teeth in their head, just like a human.”
“Good for all that chewing.” The driver nodded. He had been looking at the siblings with what Serena could only guess was curiosity. She knew it must look odd, seeing two kids traveling alone—permanently. He chatted with Jack about cows and trees, and what water was safe to drink in the wild, and what to do if they were bitten by a snake. Their chatter faded into the background as Serena stared out of the window, her sketchpad open in her lap, a pencil loose in her fingers. The drive upstate was beautiful, the landscape dotted with majestic rolling hills and the bright red barns of the country.
Before long, they saw a colorful highway sign welcoming them to the town of Corvin Grove, population nine hundred. Tinker squirmed with excitement in Jack’s lap as they drove through the small town. It looked untouched, as if time had somehow slipped by this sleeping village, allowing it to remain undisturbed. Grand Victorian houses lined the one-way road leading to town, each one lovelier than the next, and Serena’s fingers itched to sketch their imposing lines. Time enough for that later. Beautiful hanging baskets dripping with heavy blooms decorated their porches, and the silver waters of Conjure Lake glistened and sparkled in the waning sunlight as they drove down Main Street. Two humble restaurants sat alongside the village gift shop—an old-fashioned bakery and a rustic bar. There was a modest post office, a local hardware store and a Price Chopper for grocery shopping. The local school sat next to the village green.
“Look, Jack. That is where you will go to school next month.” Serena pointed to the small elementary with tiny windows that lined the brick walls. A simple playground sat in the back with tall elm trees shading the swings.
Jack nodded his head, eyes serious as he studied the building. “Do you think they have a library?” he asked, his tone dubious. His elementary school in the city was more like a high school campus, grand and state-of-the-art. Thousands of students occupied the classrooms and only the top teachers worked there.
“You know they will.” Serena smiled. She hoped the librarians here would love Jack as much as the ones back in New York. She put her arm around her little brother as the school disappeared into the distance.
Corvin Grove was perhaps the smallest town Serena had ever visited. With a population of nine hundred, the town was certainly small, but as she stared at the quaint buildings through the taxi window, she was comforted that it was large enough to feel like a community. Though she had never been there before, Serena felt a sense of familiarity as they exited the main street, passing the stone Catholic church that sat on the edge of town. A black gothic gate surrounded the church cemetery, protecting the dead that slept within its iron bars. Their new home on Conjure Lake was a ten-minute drive outside of town on a deserted country road. The cab turned onto Korwin Lane and rolled to a stop before the wrought-iron gate.
The cabbie turned around to Serena, his face apologetic. “Do you have the key for the gate, miss? If not, I’ll have to drop you off here, and it looks like it’s a hike to the house.”
“Yes, I do,” Serena said as she pulled an ornate skeleton key from her bag. “The estate attorney sent it, along with a key to the house.” She got out of the cab and walked up to the imposing iron gate, the words Korwin Cottage scrolled across the twisting metal of the elaborate double doors. As she turned the metal key in the lock and swung the heavy gates open, the birds in the trees went silent, and Serena was struck by the peculiar thought that they were watching her. She shook her head. Silly city girl.
The cab passed through the open gate and slowly wound through the tree-lined dirt road. Though the sun was shining, little light permeated the dark woods around them. The trees grew thick and wild, and Serena was surprised to see a large home loom over them as they twisted through the tree-lined drive. Her eyes widened as she took in the sight.
Her mother’s childhood home was nothing like the lake house she had imagined. The house sat back from the lake near the tree line of the forest, and a twisted, winding path of blood-red brick led up to the spiked iron fence that surrounded the cottage. Serena studied their new home. The house was ornate, more Victorian gothic in style, painted black with bargeboards that attached to the edge of the gabled maroon roof. The crooked chimney had the year 1666 carved in the center brick.
The cabbie whistled low as he slowed to a stop in the stone driveway alongside the cottage, making the sign of the cross as he whispered some quiet prayer under his breath. The moment he put the car in park, Jack jumped out of the back seat with Tinker following closely on his heels.
Jack spun a slow circle, and Serena’s heart swelled at the sight of the silly grin he wore on his face. “Serena, look at this place! There’s paths everywhere! And look at all the rocks along the shore!”
Serena was thankful that Jack wasn’t put off by the creepy look of the house. She was certain their new home was the stuff nightmares were made of. Serena cautiously stepped out of the cab, wishing she could share in his excitement. She half expected the house to be made of candy with a sinister witch waiting inside to eat her and Jack. It’s so isolated, not another house in sight. Serena scanned the dark tangle of woods behind them.
An old crab apple tree stood beside the cottage, blackened as if it had burned, but clearly alive. Serena placed a hand on its gnarled trunk. It looked rotten, as if it had died a hundred years ago, but still refused to fall. A cool breeze picked up from inside the woods. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, chilled to the bone from the sudden burst of cold air. And something else. Again, Serena had the sensation of being watched, and she looked up into the silent trees, wondering if leaving their home in the city was the right decision after all.
The cab driver handed Serena a suitcase, his eyes full of unease as he looked up at the house. “Looks like you two are in the sticks now,” he said as he looked around the property. A frown creased his face. He pointed to a circular window facing them. “You’ve got some big spiders in these parts.” A silky cone-shaped tunnel was anchored in the center of the window. The web looked more like armor than spider silk. Serena squinted her eyes. A black figure was trapped inside the tunnel.
“Sure hope you don’t run into any black widows.” The cabbie’s words hung thick with perturbation and he wasn’t doing a good job concealing his qualms about the cottage.
Jack ran over at the mention of spiders, adjusting the rim of his glasses. “Actually, black widows are not funnel weaving spiders. Funnel spiders are relatively harmless but they do venture inside houses looking for a mate.”
The cabbie shivered and craned his neck to Serena as Jack spun on his heels and ran over to the cottage. “You’ll be all right, though, won’t you? I don’t like the feel of this place.” He gestured to the dark house, his concern genuine.
Serena took the suitcase from him and reached into the trunk for the other. “We’ll be all right,” she assured him. “This property has been in my family for many years. It’s where my brother and I should be.”
The driver looked unconvinced as he stared at the gothic home, but he nodded and wished Serena the best of luck before he drove down the dirt road, leaving the orphaned siblings behind.
Serena took a deep breath as she dragged her black and white paisley suitcase behind her. A shadow slid over Serena, and she turned around, puzzled. Nothing was there. Serena resumed her trek up the path and paused as she heard a swooshing sound. Serena had only just turned back toward the cottage when something large and black swooped down, nearly crashing into her. She covered her head as she ducked, crying out. The mass came again—a bird, she realized, and it grazed her shoulder, plucking out strands of her hair from her loose bun with its talons, and swooped into the woods, where it perched on a nearby branch. “What the hell!” Serena yelled. She stared at the giant black bird—a crow, she thought, or no, a raven. Too big to be a crow. Serena could see her own reflection in the oily black eyes of the bird. It cawed at her. Was that…blood on its beak? Gross.
It cawed furiously at her, as though she had disturbed its nest or something. Its beak was stained crimson red. Blood, she decided with a shudder. Serena watched as it rose into the air as if through levitation rather than flight. Another gust of cold wind ruffled Serena’s hair as the raven stretched out its broad wings, and a chill stole over her body as its shadow passed over her once again. A small crab apple dropped from the raven’s open mouth to land at Serena’s feet.
Serena dropped the suitcases and picked up the apple and immediately hurled it at the raven, missing by inches. “Go away, you psychotic bird!” she shouted. “I’m not trying to hurt you. Just quit being weird and leave me alone! You are freaking me out! Go…fly up a tree or something.”
The raven cawed again, as if annoyed, and opened its large beak to spit another tiny crab apple at Serena. She picked up the second apple and aimed. “I said go away!” she shouted as she weighed the apple in her hand, but the raven vanished amongst the shadows just as quickly as it had appeared. In a blink of an eye, it was gone, taking the dark shadow it had cast along with it.
Serena spun an uneasy circle as she looked for the menacing bird but saw no trace of it. How’s that for a welcoming committee? Opening her hand, Serena inspected the tiny crab apple in her palm. So weird. How can there be crab apples in summer? She’d have to ask Jack—or Professor Bancroft—about it. She turned the fruit over in her hand. It was weighted, too heavy for an apple. When she gave it a shake, there was a faint rattling noise from inside.
“What the heck? How can this be hollow?” Serena asked out loud as she examined the small apple. She had the sudden and ridiculous urge to take a bite, and she chuckled uneasily at the odd thought.
“Serena, come on!” Jack called from the brick path. He bounced excitedly on the cottage steps and pressed his glasses up his face, a fistful of onyx bird feathers in hand. “Look what I found!” Jack pointed to a spot on the ground below the spider’s web. Serena’s eyes traveled from the scattered feathers below the casement window up to the black mass inside the web and shuddered.
“A raven caught in a spider web, how is that even possible?” she muttered. “This place could make a sane person turn crazy.” Serena threw the apple into the lake, dismissing the entire spectacle. Louder, she called out to her brother, “Be right there, Professor!” as she reached for the suitcases.