"I don't want to stay here. Please don't leave me here."
Evan Ross tugged his mother's hand, trying to pull her away from the front porch of the small grey-shingled house. Mrs Ross turned to him, an impatient frown on her face.
"Evan - you're twelve years old. Don't act like an infant," she said, freeing her hand from his grasp.
"I hate when you say that!" Evan exclaimed angrily, crossing his arms in front of his chest.
Softening her expression, she reached out and ran her hand tenderly through Evan's curly carrot-coloured hair. "And I hate when you do that!" he cried, backing away from her, nearly stumbling over a broken flagstone in the walk. "Don't touch my hair. I hate it!"
"OK, so you hate me," his mother said with a shrug. She climbed up the two steps and knocked on the front door. "You still have to stay her till I get back."
"Why can't I come with you?" Evan demanded, keeping his arms crossed. "Just give me one good reason."
"Your trainer is untied," his mother replied.
"So?" Evan replied unhappily. "I like 'em untied."
"You'll trip," she warned.
"Mom," Evan said, rolling his eyes in exasperation, "have you ever seen anyone trip over his trainers because they were untied?"
"Well,no," his mother admitted, a smile slowly forming on her pretty face.
"You just want to change the subject," Evan said, not smiling back. "You're going to leave me here for weeks with a horrible old woman and -"
"Evan - that's enough!" Mrs Ross snapped, tossing back her straight blonde hair. "Kathryn is not a horrible old woman. She's your father's aunt. Your great-aunt. And she's -"
"She's a total stranger," Evan cried. He knew he was losing control, but he didn't care. How could his mother do this to him? How could she leave him with some old lady he hadn't seen since he was two? What was he supposed to do here all by himself until his mother got back?
"Evan, we've discussed this a thousand times," his mother said impatiently, pounding on his aunt's front door again. "This is a family emergency. I really expect you to cooperate a little better."
Her next words were drowned out by Trigger, Evan's cocker spaniel, who stuck his tan head out of the back window of the rented car and began barking and howling.
"Now he's giving me a hard time, too!" Mrs Ross exclaimed.
"Can I let him out?" Evan asked eagerly.
"I guess you'd better," his mother replied. "Trigger's so old, we don't want him to have a heart attack in there. I just hope he doesn't terrify Kathryn."
"I'm coming, Trigger!" Evan called.
He jogged to the gravel driveway and pulled open the car door. With an excited yip, Trigger leaped out and began running in wide circles around Kathryn's small rectangular front garden.
"He doesn't look like he's twelve," Evan said, watching the dog run and smiling for the first time that day.
"See. You'll have Trigger for company," Mrs Ross said, turning back to the front door. "I'll be back from Atlanta in no time. A couple of weeks at the most. I'm sure your dad and I can find a house in that time. And then we'll be back before you even notice we're gone."
"Yeah. Sure," Evan said sarcastically.
The sun dipped behind a large cloud. A shadow fell over the small front garden.
Trigger wore himself out quickly and came panting up the walk, his tongue hanging nearly to the ground. Evan bent down and petted the dog's back.
He looked up at the grey house as his mother knocked on the front door again. It looked dark and uninviting There were curtains drawn over the upstairs windows. One of the shutters has come loose and was resting at an odd angle.
"Mom - why are you knocking?" he asked, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets. "You said Aunt Kathryn was totally deaf."
"Oh." His mother's face reddened. "You got me so upset, Evan, with all your complaining, I completely forgot. Of course she can't hear us."
How am I going to spend two weeks with a strange old lady who can't even hear me? Evan wondered glumly.
He remembered eavesdropping on his parents two weeks earlier when they had made the plan. They were seated across from each other at the kitchen table. They thought Evan was out in the garden. But he was in the hallway, his back pressed against the wall, listening.
His father, he learned was reluctant to leave Evan with Kathryn. "She's a very stubborn old woman," Mr Ross had said. "Look at her. Deaf for twenty years, and she's refused to learn sign language or to lip-read. How's she going to take care of Evan?"
"She took good care of you when you were a boy," Mrs Ross had argued.
"That was thirty years ago," Mr Ross protested.
"Well, we have no choice," Evan heard his mother say. "There's no one else to leave him with Everyone else is on holiday. You know, August is just the worst month for you to be transferred to Atlanta."
"Well, excuuuuse me!" Mr Ross said, sarcastically. "OK, OK. Discussion closed. You're absolutely right, dear. We have no choice. Kathryn it is. You'll drive Evan there and then fly down to Atlanta."
"It'll be a good experience for him," Evan heard his mother say. "He needs to learn how to get along under difficult circumstances. You know, moving to Atlanta, leaving all his friends behind - that isn't going to be easy on Evan either."
"OK. I said OK," Mr Ross said impatiently. "It's settled. Evan will be fine. Kathryn is a bit weird, but she's perfectly harmless."
Evan heard the kitchen chairs scraping across the linoleum, indicating that his parents were getting up, their discussion ended.
His fate was sealed. Silently, he had made his way out the front door and around to the garden to think about what he had just overheard.
He leaned against the trunk of the big maple tree, which hid him from the house. It was his favourite place to think.
Why didn't his parents ever include him in their discussions? he wondered. If they were going to discuss leaving him with some old aunt he'd never seen before, shouldn't he at least have a say? He learned all the big family news by eavesdropping from the hallway. It just wasn't right.
Evan pulled a small twig off the ground and tapped it against the broad tree trunk.
Aunt Kathryn was weird. That's what his dad had said. She was so weird, his father didn't want to leave Evan with her.
But they had no choice. No choice.
Maybe they'll change their minds and take me to Atlanta with them, Evan thought. Maybe they'll realise they can't do this to me.
But now, two weeks later, he was standing in front of Aunt Kathryn's grey house, feeling very nervous, staring at the brown suitcase filled with his belongings, which stood beside his mother on the porch.
There's nothing to be scared of, he assured himself.
It's only for two weeks. Maybe less.
But then words popped out before he'd even had a chance to think about them: "Mom - what if Aunt Kathryn is mean?"
"Huh?" The question caught his mother by surprise. "Mean? Why would she be mean, Evan?"
And as she said this, facing Evan with her back to the house, the front door was pulled open, and Aunt Kathryn, a large woman with startling black hair, filled the doorway.
Staring past his mother, Evan saw the knife in Kathryn's hand. And he saw that the blade of the knife was dripping with blood.