In Neverworld Wake, five teens must make an impossible choice—who among them should live? And who should die? Get ready to enter a realm where fears are physical and memories come alive! Start reading chapter 1!
I hadn’t spoken to Whitley Lansing—or any of them—in over a year.
When her text arrived after my last final, it felt inevitable, like a comet tearing through the night sky, hinting of fate.
Too long. WTF. #notcool. Sorry. My Tourette’s again. How was your freshman year? Amazing? Awful?
Seriously. We miss you.
Breaking the silence bc the gang is heading to Wincroft for my bday. The Linda will be in Mallorca & ESS Burt is getting married in St. Bart’s for the 3rd time. (Vegan yogi.) So it’s ours for the weekend. Like yesteryear.
Can you come? What do you say Bumblebee? Carpe noctem.
Seize the night.
She was the only girl I knew who surveyed everybody like a leather‑clad Dior model and rattled off Latin like it was her native language.
“How was your exam?” my mom asked when she picked me up. “I confused Socrates with Plato and ran out of time during the essay,” I said, pulling on my seat belt.
“I’m sure you did great.” She smiled, a careful look. “Any‑ thing else we need to do?”
I shook my head.
My dad and I had already cleared out my dorm room. I’d re‑ turned my textbooks to the student union to get the 30 percent off for next year. My roommate had been a girl from New Haven named Casey who’d gone home to see her boyfriend every week‑ end. I’d barely seen her since orientation.
The end of my freshman year at Emerson College had just come and gone with the indifferent silence usually reserved for a going‑out‑of‑business sale at a mini‑mall.
“Something dark’s a‑brewin’,” Jim would have told me.
I had no plans all summer, except to work alongside my parents at the Captain’s Crow.
The Captain’s Crow—the Crow, it’s called by locals—is the seaside café and ice cream parlor my family owns in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, the tiny coastal village where I grew up.
Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Population: You Know Everyone. My great‑grandfather Burn Hartley opened the parlor in 1885, when Watch Hill was little more than a craggy hamlet where whaling captains came to shake off their sea legs and hold their children for the first time before taking off again for the Atlantic’s Great Unknowns. Burn’s framed pencil portrait hangs over the entrance, revealing him to have the mad glare of some dead genius writer, or a world explorer who never came home from the Arctic. The truth is, though, he could barely read, preferred familiar faces to strange ones and dry land to the sea. All he ever did was run our little dockside restaurant his whole life, and perfect the recipe for the best clam chowder in the world.
All summer I scooped ice cream for tan teenagers in flip‑flops and pastel sweaters. They came and went in big skittish groups like schools of fish. I made cheeseburgers and tuna melts, coleslaw and milk shakes. I swept away sand dusting the black‑and‑white‑ checkered floor. I threw out napkins, ketchup packets, salt packets, over‑21 wristbands, Del’s Frozen Lemonade cups, deep‑sea fishing party boat brochures. I put lost cell phones beside the register so they could be easily found when the panic‑stricken owners came barging inside: “I lost my . . . Oh . . . thank you, you’re the best!” I cleaned up the torn blue tickets from the 1893 saltwater carousel, located just a few doors down by the beach, which featured faded faceless mermaids to ride, not horses. Watch Hill’s greatest claim to fame was that Eleanor Roosevelt had been photographed riding a redhead with a turquoise tail sidesaddle. (It was a town joke how put out she looked in the shot, how uncomfortable and buried alive under her plate‑tectonic layers of ruffled skirt.)
I cleaned the barbecue sauce off the garbage cans, the melted Wreck Rummage off the tables (Wreck Rummage was every kid’s favorite ice cream flavor, a mash‑up of cookie dough, walnuts, cake batter, and dark chocolate nuggets). I Cloroxed and Fantasticked and Mr. Cleaned the windows and counters and door‑ knobs. I dusted the brine off the mussels and the clams, polishing every one like a gemstone dealer obsessively inspecting emeralds. Most days I rose at five and went with my dad to pick out the day’s seafood when the fishing boats came in, inspecting crab legs and fluke, oysters and bass, running my hands over their tapping legs and claws, barnacles and iridescent bellies. I composed song lyrics for a soundtrack to a made‑up movie called Lola Anderson’s Highway Robbery, drawing words, rhymes, faces, and hands on napkins and take‑out menus, tossing them in the trash before anyone saw them. I attended grief support group for adolescents at the North Stonington Community Center. There was only one other kid in attendance, a silent boy named Turks whose dad had died from ALS. After two meetings he never returned, leaving me alone with the counselor, a jittery woman named Deb who wore pantsuits and wielded a three‑inch‑thick book called Grief Management for Young People.
“‘The purpose of this exercise is to construct a positive meaning around the lost relationship,’ ” she read from chapter seven, handing me a Goodbye Letter worksheet. “‘On this page, write a note to your lost loved one, detailing fond memories, hopes, and any final questions.’ ”
Slapping a chewed pen that read tabeego island resorts on my desk, she left. I could hear her on the phone out in the hall, arguing with someone named Barry, asking him why he didn’t come home last night.
I drew a screeching hawk on the Goodbye Letter, with lyrics to a made‑up Japanese animated film about a forgotten thought called Lost in a Head.
Then I slipped out the fire exit and never went back.
I taught Sleepy Sam (giant yawn of a teenager from England visiting his American dad) how to make clam cakes and the per‑ fect grilled cheese. Grill on medium, butter, four minutes a side, six slices of Vermont sharp cheddar, two of fontina. For July Fourth, he invited me to a party at a friend of a friend’s. To his shock, I actu‑ ally showed. I stood by a floor lamp with a warm beer, listening to talk about guitar lessons and Zach Galifianakis, trying to find the right moment to escape.
“That, by the way, is Bee,” said Sleepy Sam. “She does actu‑ ally speak, I swear.”
I didn’t mention Whitley’s text to anyone, though it was always in the back of my mind.
It was the brand‑new way‑too‑extravagant dress I’d bought but never taken out of the bag. I just left it there in the back of my closet, folded in tissue paper with the receipt, the tags still on, with intention of returning it.
Yet there was still the remote possibility I’d find the courage to put it on.
I knew the weekend of her birthday like I knew my own: August 30.
It was a Friday. The big event of the day had been the ap‑ pearance of a stray dog wandering Main Street. It had no tags and the haunted look of a prisoner of war. He was gray, shaggy, and startled with every attempt to pet him. A honk sent him skidding into the garbage cans behind the Captain’s Crow.
“See that yellow salt‑bed mud on his back paws? That’s from the west side of Nickybogg Creek,” announced Officer Locke, thrilled to have a mystery on his hands, his first of the year.
That stray dog had been the talk all that day—what to do with him, where he’d been—and it was only much later that I found my mind going back to that dog drifting into town out of the blue. I wondered if he was some kind of sign, a warning that something terrible was coming, that I should not take the much‑ exalted and mysterious Road Less Traveled, but the one well trod, wide‑open, and brightly lit, the road I knew.
By then it was too late. The sun had set. Sleepy Sam was gone. I’d overturned the café chairs and put them on the ta‑ bles. I’d hauled out the trash. And anyway, that flew in the face of human nature. No one ever heeded a warning sign when it came.
My mom and dad assumed I was joining them at the Dreamland Theater in Westerly for the screwball comedy classics marathon, like I did every Friday.
“Actually, I made plans tonight,” I said.
My dad was thrilled. “Really, Bumble? That’s great.” “I’m driving up to Wincroft.”
They fell silent. My mom had just flipped the Closed sign in the window, and she turned, wrapping her cardigan around herself, shivering even though it was seventy‑five degrees out.
“How long have you known about this?” she asked.
“Not long. I’ll be careful. I’ll be back by midnight. They’re up there for Whitley’s birthday. I think it’ll be good for me to see them.”
“That’s a long way to drive in the dark,” said my dad.
My mom looked like I’d been given a prognosis of six weeks left to live. Sometimes when she got really upset, she chewed an imaginary piece of gum. She was doing that now.
“Part of the grieving process is confronting the past,” I said. “That’s not the point. I—”
“It’s all right, Victoria.” My dad put a hand on her shoulder. “But Dr. Quentin said not to put yourself in stressful situa‑
“We’ve established that Dr. Quentin is an idiot,” I said.
“Dr. Quentin is indeed an idiot,” said my dad with a regretful nod. “The fact that his name is one‑half of a state prison should have been a red flag.”
“You know I don’t like it when you two gang up on me,” said my mom.
At that moment, someone—some red‑faced weekender in seersucker shorts who’d had too many stouts at O’Malligan’s— tried to open the door.
“We’re closed,” my mom snapped.
That was how I came to be driving my dad’s ancient green Dodge RAM with the emphysema muffler fifty miles up the Rhode Is‑ land coastline.
The name sounded like something out of a windswept novel filled with ghosts and madmen. The mansion was a sprawling collection of red brick, turrets, gardens, and crow gargoyles, built in the 1930s by a Great White Hunter who’d supposedly called Hemingway and Lawrence of Arabia his friends. He had traveled the world killing beautiful creatures, and thus Win‑ croft, his seaside estate, had never been lived in more than a few weeks in sixty years. When Whitley’s weird ex‑second‑stepdad, Burt—commonly called E.S.S. Burt—bought it in foreclosure in the 1980s, he gut renovated the interiors in an unfortunate style Whitley called “if Madonna threw up all over Cyndi Lauper.”
Still, it wasn’t unusual to open a chest of drawers in the attic, or a musty steamer trunk, and find photographs of strang‑ ers gripping rifles and wearing fox furs or some weird piece of taxidermy—a ferret, red frog, or rodent of unknown species. This gave every visit to Wincroft the mysterious feel of being on an archaeological expedition, as if all around us, inside the floors, walls, and ceiling, some lost civilization was waiting to be unearthed.
“We are our junk,” said Jim once, pulling a taxidermy lizard out of a shoe box.
Leaving the interstate, the road to get there turned cork‑ screwed and dizzying, as if trying to shake you. The coast of Rhode Island—not the infamously uptight Newport part, with the stiff cliffs and colossal mansions smugly staring down at the tiny sailboats salting the harbor, but the rest of it—was rough and tumbledown, laid‑back and sunburnt. It was an old home‑ less beachcomber in a washed‑out T‑shirt who couldn’t remem‑ ber where he’d slept the night before. The grasses were wiry and wasted, the roads salty and cracked, sprouting faded signs and faulty traffic lights. Bridges elbowed their way out of the marshes before collapsing, exhausted, on the other side of the road.
I still had their phone numbers, but I didn’t want to call. I didn’t even know if they’d be there. All these months later their plans could have changed. Maybe I’d knock and Whitley wouldn’t answer, but her ex‑second‑stepdad, Burt, would, E.S.S. Burt with his too‑long, curly gray hair; Burt, who a million years ago had written an Oscar‑nominated song for a tragic love story starring Ryan O’Neill. Or maybe they would all be there. Maybe I wanted to see the looks on their faces when they first saw me, looks they hadn’t rehearsed.
Then again, if they didn’t know I was coming, I could still turn around. I could still go join my parents at the Dreamland for His Girl Friday, afterward head to the Shakedown for crab cakes and oysters, saying hi to the owner, Artie, pretending I didn’t hear him whisper to my dad when I went to the bathroom, “Bee’s really come around,” like I was a wounded racehorse they’d decided not to euthanize. Not that it was Artie’s fault. It was the natural reaction when people found out what had happened: my boyfriend, Jim, had died senior year.
Sudden Death of the Love of Your Life wasn’t supposed to happen to you as a teenager. If it did, though, it was helpful if it was due to one of the Top Three Understandable Reasons for Dying as a Kid: A. Car accident. B. Cancer. C. Suicide. That way, after you selected the applicable choice, the nearest adult could promptly steer your attention to the range of movies (many star‑ ring Timothy Hutton) and self‑help books to help you Deal.
But when your boyfriend’s death remains unsolved, and you’re left staring into a black hole of guilt and the unknown?
There’s no movie or self‑help book in the world to help you with that.
Except maybe The Exorcist.
If I was a no‑show tonight, my old friends would come and go from Wincroft, and that would be that. Not showing up would be the final push of that old toy sailboat from my childhood, the one shove that would really send it drifting out toward the middle of the lake, far from the shoreline, forever out of reach.
Then I’d never find out what happened to Jim. I kept driving.
The twisting road seemed to urge me onward, yellowed beech trees streaking past; a bridge; the sudden, startling view of a harbor where tall white sailboats crowded like a herd of feasting unicorns before vanishing. I couldn’t believe how easily I remembered the way: left at the Exxon, right on Elm, right at the stop sign where you diced with Death, run‑down trailers with strung‑up laundry and flat tires in the yard. Then the trees fell away in deference to the most beautiful kiss of sky and sea, always streaked orange and pink at dusk.
And there it was. The wrought‑iron gate emblazoned with the W.
It was open. The lamps were lit.
I made the turn and floored it, oak branches flying past like ribbons come loose from a ponytail, wind howling through the open windows. Another curve and I saw the mansion, the windows golden and alive, all hulking red brick and slate, crow gargoyles perched forever on the roof.
As I pulled up I almost laughed aloud at the four cars parked there, side by side. I didn’t recognize any of them—except for Martha’s Honda Accord with the bumper sticker honk for gen‑ eral relativity. If pressed I could, with little trouble, match the other cars with their respective owners.
I had changed so much. From the look of these cars, they had not.
I checked my appearance in the rearview mirror, feeling im‑ mediate horror: messy ponytail, chapped lips, shiny forehead. I looked like I’d just run a marathon and come in last. I blotted my face on the roll of paper towels my dad kept in the door, pinched my cheeks, tucked the loose strands of dark brown hair behind my ears. Then I was sprinting up the stone steps and rapping the brass lion knocker.
I rang the doorbell, once, twice, three times, all in one crazy, deranged movement, because I knew if I hesitated at all I’d lose my nerve. I’d sink, like some lost boot caught inside a lobster trap, straight back to the bottom of the sea.
The door opened.
Kipling stood there. He was wearing a chin‑length pink wig, blue polo shirt, Bermuda shorts, flip‑flops. He was extremely tan and chewing a red drink stirrer, though it fell out of his mouth when he saw me.
“Good Lord, strike me down dead,” he said in his cotton-plantation drawl.