"Have you ever thought you saw something out of the corner of your eye, but when you looked properly, you didn't see anything? Or thought you heard something, but when you really listened, there was nothing there? Well, you are seeing and hearing things that are there. Things that are Unseen." All around us there exists a world just on the edges of what we call Real--a realm of underground forests beneath the sewers, goblin markets held in empty parking lots, and witches living just a few houses down the street. For siblings Thomas and Jayne, a walk through the woods behind their new house suddenly plunges them into this new world and sends them running for their lives.
Lost, afraid, and pursued by a group of shape-shifting children, Thomas and Jayne have no choice but to accept the help of the only one who comes to their aid: the sinister Locust Man. Their new guardian--the clueless, but well-meaning Desmond--follows his cousins into the same strange magical realm, and will stop at nothing until he rescues them from the Locust Man and brings them home again.
Read a review, and the first few chapters below:
some fan art!
Underwood cover by Gabriela.
Prologue - THE WITCH?S HOUSE
The three boys slowed as they neared the Witch?s House, and stopped talking. They paused on the sidewalk, at the very edge of the VanWyck?s property?not quite over the threshold to the Witch?s side.
The Witch lived in that Scary House At The End Of The Street. You know the one?the sprawling old Victorian with the dark purple paint peeling off its walls, the once-pink shutters that banged against the house even when it wasn?t windy. Gnarled old trees grew all around the house, leaving it in constant darkness. Even on the hottest, brightest summer day, the Witch?s garden path felt dark and chilly, overgrown with thorny bushes and ugly weeds. Children feared the house and the yard just as much as they feared the Witch herself.
?Why do I have to do it?? Desmond, the youngest and smallest of the three boys tried to make himself smaller; he leaned against an oak tree at the edge of the VanWyck?s yard and wished he could disappear into it.
?You?re the youngest, Des,? said the oldest, Des-mond?s next door neighbor. ?You have to do what we say.?
?You?re not scared, are you?? jeered the second old-est boy.
?No,? Desmond mumbled, looking down at the cracked sidewalk.
The concrete in front of the Witch?s House, for some reason, looked older and more cracked than the sidewalk in front of all the other houses.
?Come on,? said the oldest boy, and he and the other boy pushed Desmond forward.
A dilapidated picket fence surrounded the Witch?s property. The three boys ducked behind it so no one in the house could see them, and they crept to the open-ing. They peered through the gap in the fence?where the gate had once stood?to the dark, terrifying garden path that led to the darker and more terrifying front porch.
?She?ll never know it was you,? the second-oldest boy encouraged.
?Yeah, just ring the doorbell and make a run for it,? the oldest added.
Desmond didn?t feel too sure about the whole thing, but if he didn?t do it, they?d call him a baby. And they?d tell everyone. It was better to just swallow his fear and do it. Even if the Witch caught him and boiled him alive into some kind of potion, it would be much better than everyone in the neighborhood calling him a coward. They?d still be talking about it by autumn, when school started. Desmond did not want to start second grade with everyone calling him a scaredy-cat and a baby. He?d just have to ring the Witch?s doorbell and get it over with.
Desmond crossed the threshold into the Witch?s front yard. He felt like he was being watched, and he felt a cold breeze coming from somewhere. It was as if someone had just turned off the daylight.
* * *
?Well, ladies, the little one?s doing it,? Portia called from the window as she peeked out through the dark purple curtains.
?Humph,? said Mildred from the table.
?Ha! I told you!? Agnes cackled and crossed her arms triumphantly. ?Pay up, girls.?
Mildred and Bianca grudgingly pulled some silver coins from the depths of their dark layered dresses and tossed them onto the table in Agnes?s direction.
The four friends gathered every Friday afternoon for a few games of Blackdeath (it was like Blackjack, but played with Tarot cards).
?Quick, deal another round, Bianca.? Portia scurried back to the table, her tangled black wig slipping a little bit down her forehead as she sat down. ?We?ve a moment before he gets to the door.?
Bianca scratched her stubbly chin with long, dirty fingernails. She dealt two cards to each of her friends and two to herself, then considered her hand: the four of Pentacles and the Queen of Cups. Not bad. She drew another card for herself with a liver spot-covered hand. Ace of Pentacles.
?Mildred? Hit or stay?? she asked.
Mildred studied her hand with a frown that caused even more wrinkles to appear on her already-wrinkled forehead. She placed the cards back on the table, face down.
?I?ll stay,? she said.
?Portia?? Bianca asked.
Portia gave the others a sinister and somewhat toothless smile and said, ?Hit me.?
?Very well,? said Bianca, and placed a card face down in front of Portia.
?Excellent,? said Portia, looking at all three of her cards. ?I?ll stay.?
?Agnes?? Bianca turned to the oldest and most hag-gard of the four.
?Hit me,? said Agnes.
Bianca gave her a third card and Agnes examined her hand.
?Drat,? she rasped. ?I?m out.?
She threw her cards down on the table?the seven of Cups, the Devil, and the three of Swords.
?Hard luck, dearie,? Portia sneered. ?A nasty hand.?
The other three lay their cards down on the table, and Mildred let out a squeal.
?Ha!? she said, and scooped up all the gold and silver coins and assorted gemstones from the table.
?The World and the Star,? Bianca said. ?You win again.?
?I think she?s cheating.? Agnes brushed a strand of snow-white hair out of her face.
?The boy is at the porch,? said Portia, sniffing the air.
They all fell silent and listened, and sure enough they heard the first tentative footstep onto the creaky porch steps. Mildred blew out the two candles on their card table, leaving Bianca?s living room in darkness.
?So who gets to do it?? Agnes hissed.
?You got the last one,? Mildred whispered. ?I think it?s my turn.?
* * *
The porch stairs seemed to creak an awful lot. And really loudly, too. Desmond ascended the second and third stairs a bit faster, and then made the final journey to the door in two long strides, his finger outstretched towards the doorbell, his heart thumping faster and faster. He was nearly there. It was only a few inches away?
Suddenly, the Witch?s front door flew open and there, standing in the doorway, was a real, bona fide Witch. Her frizzy white hair looked almost as wild as her milky, pale green eyes, and her wide, sinister smile revealed long and jagged teeth. In her hand, she held a long and very sharp knife. Desmond stood frozen at the door.
?Nothing like a scared little boy for a delicious sup-per!? the Witch shrieked. ?Come here, so I can cut out your kidneys!?
She lunged at him with her crooked hand and Des-mond screamed, then turned and ran. He didn?t even notice that the other two boys had abandoned him; he just ran as fast as he could back down Deepdale Lane, and didn?t look back.
?Ha! That was a good one!? Mildred cackled as only a witch can cackle and returned to her friends, who had watched the whole scene from the living room window.
?Yes, I think the poor child nearly wet himself.? Bianca laughed and headed into the kitchen. ?Anyone for some crackers and cheese? I made some dip as well.?
?Not that awful stuff with the newt?s eyes that you made last time, I hope,? said Portia.
?No, it?s just onion dip from a can,? Bianca replied.
?What color were his eyes?? asked Agnes.
?The newt?s?? Bianca called from the kitchen. ?Green or brown, I think.?
?I was talking to Mildred, you ninny!?
?His eyes were dark brown,? Mildred told Agnes. ?A lover?s eyes. That boy?s going to be trouble, you mark my words. We haven?t seen the last of him.?
1. - THE AUNTIES
Jayne frowned all the way down the street, into the driveway, and for the short walk over the white pebbles to the front door of Auntie Celia?s house. Thomas didn?t frown quite as effectively as his sister, but he frowned all the same.
Auntie Celia lived on the Jersey Shore, in Ship Bot-tom. That would have been pretty nice were it June or July or August, or perhaps even May or September, but it was in fact February. A windy, bitter cold February. And you can bet that if it?s windy and cold out, it?s going to be windier and colder near the ocean.
Auntie Victoria bustled ahead of her great-niece and great-nephew, grey wool coat pulled tightly around her wide frame, rang the bell of Celia?s house, and waited. After about a minute, when no one had answered the door, Auntie Victoria pressed the doorbell again, this time pressing the button with a bit more force. No answer.
?That Celia,? Victoria grumbled. ?Never where she?s supposed to be.?
Jayne looked at Thomas, and Thomas shrugged. He put his black duffel bag down and lifted the welcome mat, where Celia kept the spare house keys.
?Here, Auntie.? He handed Victoria one of the five keys from under the mat.
Victoria unlocked the door and led the way into Celia?s small house. All the curtains were closed, leaving the house in darkness, and it smelled musty.
?Celia, dear!? Victoria called. ?We?re here! Are you at home?? She left her niece and nephew and headed down the hall, peeking into the kitchen and the living room, and then went past the guest room to Celia?s bedroom. ?Still abed this late in the day?? She knocked on the bedroom door, then walked in without waiting for a response.
?I hope she doesn?t make us clean the bathrooms again,? Jayne grumbled, throwing her bright orange duffel bag and her backpack onto the battered flower-patterned sofa.
Thomas put his bags down with Jayne?s and started to open the curtains when Victoria let out a shriek.
?Call an ambulance!? She came flying out of Celia?s bedroom. ?Poor Celia, she?s dead!?
* * *
Thomas and Jayne Wilson could not remember their parents. They had a few photos of the late Jeanne and Ronald Wilson, but the two siblings did not carry any of those photos around as a sentimental reminder; nor did they long for Mommy and Daddy, trying to recall Daddy?s smile or the way Mommy?s perfume smelled. They considered themselves sensible children, and never fell into such behavior. No, Thomas and Jayne longed for a place that they could call home for more than six months at a time. A place where old women did not turn the television up to maximum volume, or gather on Sunday afternoons to play complicated card games, or make their great-niece and great-nephew clean out their basements and attics, or make everything smell like a combination of moth balls, potpourri, and stale bread. They longed to stay with someone?anyone?who could remember which sibling was which (seriously, now, they might have been at that funny age where they sounded very much alike, but Thomas was clearly a boy and Jayne was clearly a girl; there was no reason to mix them up). They longed for something a bit more normal.
Thomas, eleven; and Jayne, ten, had been shuttled back and forth between their two great aunts for as long as they could remember. They had no other relatives, and the Aunties always liked to remind them of this?how lucky they were to have such kind and considerate Aunties who took them in without question instead of dumping them in some awful orphanage.
Now Auntie Celia was dead at age eighty-seven and Auntie Victoria decided that she could not cope with the two children on her own.
?So who is this uncle, again?? Thomas inquired of Victoria for the third time.
They had been in the car for what felt like a very long time, on the way to live with an uncle that they never knew existed. The first time Thomas asked, Victoria turned up Dean Martin as high as the Mercury?s speakers would allow. The second time, when he shouted the question in between songs, she simply ignored him.
?He?s not quite your uncle,? Victoria sighed. ?He?s your mother?s cousin. I think that makes him your second cousin.?
Thomas and Jayne exchanged a look.
?I?m too old to be looking after two young children,? Victoria added. ?And anyway, you could use someone closer to your parents? age.?
Jayne stared out the window, not really listening. They had driven over two hours from Victoria?s home, just outside Philadelphia. As they drove up through New Jersey, the landscape had changed from rolling yellow fields to long highways lined with shops and restaurants and offices, to towns with big houses, and finally, to forest with a few scattered houses nestled in the woods. Jayne liked watching the trees go past the window, midday sunlight shining down through the bare branches. It would look really pretty in spring and summer, she thought.
Thomas didn?t really like the look of the landscape outside the car, and he had a feeling that this was where they would soon be stopping. He could tell because Victoria had turned the radio off?something she only did when struggling with directions and looking for her destination. Long stretches of woods separated a lot of run down houses and seedy-looking shops.
Finally, Auntie Victoria turned her giant blue car down Deepdale Lane and pulled up outside number sixteen.
?Oh, my,? she said to the shining black motorcycle that sat in the driveway. ?Well I suppose beggars can?t be choosers.?
Auntie Victoria often told Thomas and Jayne that all motorcycle-riders were criminals, so the two children got out of the car with more than a little hesitation, and began to walk up the garden path towards the little stone house.
2. - THE NEW GUARDIAN
Desmond Kelley did not know anything about taking care of children. In many ways, he thought, he was still a child himself. Well, maybe not, but he was definitely not a full-blown adult; he was too young, wasn?t he? Twenty-eight was not old, he constantly reminded himself.
Never once in his (almost) adult years had Desmond considered parenting as something he might like to do. And yet there, on his doorstep, stood two children?a brown-haired boy and a blonde girl, both with wide, nervous blue eyes. Behind them, he saw with a shudder, stood the large, imposing form of his Aunt Victoria. She looked the same as she had looked twenty years ago.
?Well, don?t just stand there gawking. Let us in,? Victoria demanded, shoving her way past Thomas, Jayne, and Desmond. ?It?s freezing outside.?
Desmond gave his second cousins an awkward smile, couldn?t think of anything to say, and beckoned them inside.
He kept the house pretty clean, he thought, though Victoria gave everything a look of disapproval. He had cleaned just before they arrived?vacuumed the rugs and polished the hardwood floors and everything. He?d even done all his laundry, which included washing all the spare sheets and towels. He?d also made up the beds in the spare rooms.
?They?re no trouble at all,? Victoria said, collapsing into the living room sofa. ?They can more or less take care of themselves at this age. I?ve written the lawyer about the paperwork, with guardianship and whatnot, so that?s all taken care of.?
?Er?,? said Desmond.
?You?ll have to enroll them in school on your own,? Victoria rambled on. ?There?ll be all sorts of forms to fill out, and we?ll see about getting all their medical records transferred to a local doctor. I?m parched. Go and get your auntie a nice cup of tea.?
Desmond nodded and bolted for the kitchen.
* * *
Thomas and Jayne both thought the house looked pretty nice. Much nicer than either Auntie Celia?s beach shack or Victoria?s run down duplex. It looked old: the outside was all stone, and inside everything was dark wood. It looked well taken care of, despite the fact that Desmond had clearly just cleaned (they could smell the Pledge and Windex.)
They had entered the house through a hallway that led to a fancy living room on the left, a dining room on the right, and flight of stairs in the middle. The win-dows looked out into mostly woods.
They liked Desmond, too. Sure, he was awkward, and he was built like he could punch a hole through a concrete wall without much effort, but they liked him all the same. Right away they could tell he wasn?t strict, or grumpy, or half-deaf, so he?d definitely be an improvement on Celia and Victoria.
Auntie Victoria didn?t stay long after she gulped down her tea, and so after less than an hour, Thomas and Jayne were left with their new caretaker. An awkward silence followed Victoria?s departure.
?I made up the beds in all of the spare rooms,? Desmond said. ?I didn?t know if you guys wanted to share a room or not. There?s two rooms to choose from upstairs, and another one down here.?
Thomas and Jayne shrugged. In both Celia?s and Victoria?s houses, they?d shared pretty cramped bed-rooms. It might be nice for them to each have their own space, but at the same time they didn?t want to separate just yet; at least not until they got used to Desmond and the house. They carried their few belongings upstairs and Desmond showed them into the largest of the spare rooms.
Thomas and Jayne had only one day of freedom before Desmond successfully enrolled them in the town school system. On Monday morning, after he had already left for work, they walked the short way to the end of Deepdale Lane and boarded the bus.