The Sinister-Winterbottoms had a problem.
Well, they had several problems. Their parents had dropped them off with a previously unknown--and seriously weird--aunt in the middle of the night and then disappeared. Sixteen-year-old Wil, twelve-year-old Theo, and also twelve-year-old Alexander had not heard from their parents once since then, other than a frustratingly vague letter.
There was a man with small, mean eyes and a large, mean mustache who kept turning up where they didn’t want him. Which, to be fair, was a long list of places. Basically everywhere imaginable was a place they didn’t want to see Edgaren’t. The only places they might be happy to see him were: behind bars, in a pit with unclimbable walls, or at the DMV, a terrible place adults went to be tormented.
They had first met Edgaren’t and his large, mean mustache at Fathoms of Fun Waterpark, where he had tried to steal the whole park. Then again at the Sanguine Spa, where he succeeded in stealing a locked book with their name on it. And there was a chance Edgaren’t had been intending to steal them as well.
Currently, they were on their way to a camp where he might be lurking, which had seemed important when they left. Track him down, get their book back, and find out why their former friend Quincy was helping him. Somehow, especially to Alexander, going where they knew Edgaren’t might be didn’t feel like the best idea now that it was actually happening.
But, even with this abundance of problems, there was one problem that was quickly leaping to the top of their already-high problem pile: Aunt Saffronia’s car wasn’t working. More specifically, it seemed to be . . . disappearing.
“This car wasn’t a convertible when we got in, was it?” Theo stared upward in consternation, a word she liked because it was like confusion had populated an entire nation. There had definitely been a normal, solid car roof above them at the beginning of the drive. And now there was only sky.
“That’s weird,” Alexander said.
“Which part?” Theo answered, gesturing to everything around them.
He had a point. There was no breeze. It was like they were sealed in against the world. But the boundaries of that seal were dissolving. Even the windows seemed less solid than they had a few minutes before.
Theo was very brave--sometimes to the point of being reckless, though she was trying to be reckful whenever possible now--but she drew the line at speeding down a lonely, empty forest road in a car that wasn’t sure whether or not it wanted to keep existing.
“It was not a convertible when we got in.” Alexander was sure of it. He wouldn’t have gotten into a convertible, worrying that there was no roof above him if the car were to flip or if an aggressive hawk were to take a liking to his hair. He had nice hair, always neatly parted and combed, and he could imagine exactly what it would feel like for a hawk to sink its greedy talons in.
Unlike his twin, he was not very brave, and never reckless or even reckful, preferring tremendous caution in all things. He was thoughtful and careful and deeply, deeply worried. As a default, but particularly at the current moment.
It had been bad enough heading toward a camp where Edgaren’t might be waiting for them. Worse, too, that Alexander suspected it was the same camp he had seen a book about. A book entitled A History of Summer Camps and the Unexplained Disappearances of Various Campers in the Mountainous Lake Regions. Worst that they were doing it in a car that wasn’t dependable.
Their dad knew a lot about mechanics on account of building battle robots in their garage all the time. He would agree that a dependable car had a reliable engine in good working order and a body that didn’t disappear at random.
Alexander watched the mountainous landscape with dread, waiting for a lake to appear. He should have broken rules for once and aggressively borrowed that book from the Sanguine Spa library. At least then he’d know what they were getting into. Surely their friend Mina, who owned the spa now thanks to their help, wouldn’t have held it against him.
Sometimes reading was a necessary survival skill. And Alexander really wanted to survive.
Wil should have had an opinion about the state of the car, but she was too busy staring at Rodrigo. Rodrigo, its case covered in shiny stickers, was her constant companion. But it was the shine of its screen that held a magnetic grip on both Wil’s eyes and her brain.
“Here, twerp,” she said, holding her hand out. “Let me be in charge of the keys to the books until we find them.”
Alexander was more than happy to relinquish the ring of tiny keys he had gotten from Lucy’s nest. Holding on to the keys meant being responsible for them, and even though he was the most responsible twelve-year-old possibly in existence, he didn’t want to be responsible for something so important.
“About the car,” he said, hoping Aunt Saffronia would reassure them. But instead, as though triggered by their doubts, the car drifted to a stop.
“What’s wrong?” Alexander asked. They were surrounded by towering trees so green they were nearly black. The road beneath them was cracked with disuse. It didn’t look like anyone was around for miles and miles.
Aunt Saffronia stayed in the driver’s seat, gripping the steering wheel. “I can’t go any further,” she informed them.
“So the car is breaking.” Theo was glad to have it confirmed, even if she had never heard of a car breaking down by slowly evaporating. It didn’t seem like an overly car-ish thing to do. Then again, it was their father who was mechanically minded. So maybe he’d have an explanation, if he had bothered to stick with them this summer.
Theo glared out the window. But that wasn’t quite right. She lifted her hand and held it straight through where the window no longer was. Theo glared out the empty space that wasn’t a window anymore.
This was all their parents’ fault, and she was mad at them for being gone. Being mad was easier than being worried about where they were, why they had gone, why they hadn’t come back or even called. Why there had been a book with their family name on it at the Sanguine Spa’s secret hidden library, and why a mean mustachioed man would want that book and the six others like it.
Alexander found it easy to be worried enough for the both of them, though. His worry was always generous that way. He was sure his mom could have reassured him, would have laughed and declared this all an adventure while passing out cookies she miraculously produced from her depthless purse. But she wasn’t here, and unlike Theo, Alexander wasn’t mad at all. He was just scared.
And he really wanted a book to distract himself with. Two books, ideally. Both the Sinister family book and the book about camp disappearances.
Wil looked up, taking in their surroundings with a frown. If she noticed huge portions of the car were missing, she didn’t indicate it. “Come on, Aunt Saff, we have to get there. I need to get those books.”
But Aunt Saffronia didn’t move. “We should go back to my dwelling. It’s safe there. You’ll be safe there. We can go other places, too. There is still much to be found. You’ve done well so far. Better than I hoped. Your parents wanted me to keep you in my sanctum--”
“What’s a sanctum?” Theo asked.
Aunt Saffronia continued as though she hadn’t heard. “--but I needed you to find what I could not. I fear they may have been right, though. Now that I have set you on this path, I cannot keep you safe. Not from what lies at the end of it. And we still do not have what we need.”
She turned her head, much like an owl, pale eyes enormous as she looked at the antique timer on a brass chain around Theo’s neck, and the magnifying glass Alexander hadn’t realized he was clutching in his hand. Their friend Edgar at Fathoms of Fun had given Theo the stopwatch, and Alexander had found the magnifying glass attached to the locked Sinister family book.
They didn’t know why Aunt Saffronia wanted them to find things. Theo hoped it was a secret theft ring, with Aunt Saffronia the devious mastermind. But it was hard to think of their aunt as a mastermind. She hardly seemed the type, with her vague statements in place of elaborately detailed heist plans, not to mention lack of understanding of things like phones or whether or not children needed to eat.
A shudder seemed to pass through Aunt Saffronia. Literally pass through her, like she was gelatin and someone had shaken her. Her enormous eyes didn’t blink as she looked away from the children and down the road.
“Please,” she whispered. “There is no welcome for me ahead. The sanctum. The sanctum is safe, a place where no one can reach me unless I wish to be reached. I should have kept you there all along, as your parents wished. We can go there.” She pointed back where they had come from.
Alexander and Theo looked behind them, which was easy because now there wasn’t a back windshield to the car, either. And there, shimmering in the distance, was . . . Aunt Saffronia’s house? It was hard to tell what it looked like. It was more the idea of a house.
Alexander could almost imagine himself in the kitchen with the black-and-white tile and the orange walls. Or sitting on his bed next to Theo’s bed, the dark around them making the beds feel like little islands of safety in a cold, infinite void. He knew with absolute certainty that Edgaren’t wouldn’t find them there. That they would be safe. He had the opposite certainty about the camp they were headed to.
Wil wanted to go to steal back the books, but Theo had a different reason. Quincy--Quincy, who had taught her to lasso; Quincy, who had seemed so cool; Quincy, who had been her friend--had betrayed them. Theo wanted to know why. Maybe then it would hurt less. Or maybe she just wanted to yell at Quincy and make sure Quincy hurt, too. Either way, the camp brochure was the only clue they had about where Edgaren’t and Quincy had gone.
“Do you want to go back to Aunt Saffronia’s house?” Theo asked. She didn’t. But she wouldn’t force Alexander. She’d done that in the past, and it never turned out well. She had learned to trust his caution as much as she trusted her own bravery. Theo lived with an entire hive of bees in her chest. Not literal bees--that would be a big problem indeed, and a modern medical mystery--but figurative bees, meaning the bees weren’t real, but they were the best way to describe how Theo felt. How she had a hard time managing or even understanding her emotions a lot of the time.
When she was bored or agitated or angry or scared, the bees buzzed to life. And right now, they were swarming, demanding vengeance and buzzing for action. But Theo was working on controlling them. She could quiet them enough to let Alexander make the choice.
Alexander wasn’t angry with Quincy, and he wasn’t eager to do anything that would put them back on a path that would lead them to Edgaren’t, but he did love mysteries. And, while he didn’t love being in a mystery, he knew the only way out was to keep moving forward. Quitting in the middle of a mystery just meant he’d have those nagging questions forever, without any resolution.
He hoped--desperately--that at the end of this particular mystery, they’d find answers about where their parents had disappeared to. And he knew--sadly--that none of those answers were at Aunt Saffronia’s strange but safe house.
“No,” Alexander said. Just like that, the house he thought he could maybe see dissolved like a mirage, or the roof of their car. Of those three, only mirages ought to disappear, but this being the weirdest summer ever, who was he to say that roofs of cars or mysterious houses shouldn’t evaporate?
“You are determined, then,” Aunt Saffronia said with a sigh, and she sounded far away even though she was sitting right in front of them.
“Yes,” Wil answered.
“I can go no further.” Aunt Saffronia removed her hands from the steering wheel.
“Farther,” Alexander corrected her. Farther was the word for things that could be measured and quantified, like distances. Further was more for concepts or ideas that no ruler or yardstick could define. “The car is broken, so you can’t go farther.”
“No,” Aunt Saffronia said somberly. “There is no welcome for me ahead, no strangeness to slip into, so I can go no further into danger with you.”
Alexander really didn’t like the sound of that, but Wil didn’t seem to even hear it. She got out of the car, eyes still on her phone. “I can text Mina and Edgar, see if anyone can get us a ride the rest of the way.”
Alexander and Theo got out, too, wanting to be free of the mysteriously modifying car. Maybe Aunt Saffronia was a genius like their dad and had designed a car that could fold in on itself? That seemed . . . unlikely. Alexander couldn’t shake the nagging fear that if he stayed in the car, he’d be the next part to disappear.
He dragged his suitcase out and handed Theo hers. They stood, backs to the great aqua beast of a car, and looked out into the woods. The woods didn’t return their look, because they were woods and they didn’t care about the plight of the Sinister-Winterbottoms. Theo and Alexander felt as small as two average-sized twelve-year-olds could.
“Will you at least come to check us in at the--” Alexander started, but when he turned around, Aunt Saffronia was gone.
“Why didn’t she say goodbye?” Alexander said at the same time Theo said, “How did she get away that fast?”
One second the car was behind them, and the next, it was gone. Like it had poofed out of existence. They hadn’t heard the engine restarting, or the tires crunching on this old asphalt, or seen a giant aqua beast slowly turning around on a narrow road.
Wil wasn’t puzzled, but only because she was too engrossed in her phone to notice Aunt Saffronia was gone. “Mina says she’s busy. The spa is hopping now, like Fathoms of Fun.”
That was nice, at least. The Sinister-Winterbottoms might not be having ideal vacations, but they had
helped people worth helping. Theo wished she could go back to the water park now that no one was mysteriously missing in the Cold, Unknowable Sea, and especially now that their chef had added churros to the menu. And Alexander would have very much liked an actual relaxing week at the Sanguine Spa, instead of the stressful one they’d had, which included fears of vampires, mysterious tunnels and bat-filled caves, and more Marshmallow Fluff than he ever wanted to consume.
Copyright © 2023 by Kiersten White. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.