The Sinister-Winterbottom children had no problems.
Their summer was rolling along as merrily as a summer could, endless days and warm nights perfumed with sunscreen and bug spray, drenched in fun and relaxation.
Theo was well on her way to precisely calloused feet that allowed her to walk on hot pavement without feeling it. Alexander was well on his way to reading through an entire library’s worth of mystery novels. Wil was well on her way to doing whatever sixteen-year-old sisters do on their phones all day, but doing it while lying out on a patio lounge chair instead of holed up in her bedroom. And they were all fueled by a steady supply of perfectly baked cookies and the occasional robot-battle break supplied by their parents.
Yes, nothing had gone wrong. No one was scared or worried. Their parents were exactly how parents should be during the summertime: there when you needed them for a meal or scraped knee or library run or movie night, and otherwise minding their own business as you minded your own absolutely delicious lack of business.
“No.” Alexander sighed and opened his eyes. It was too absurd to imagine. If he was going to fantasize a different summer for them, he should have given Theo wings. She’d always wanted wings, while Alexander was happy to stay on the ground. There were more than enough things for him to worry about down here; he didn’t want to have to start thinking of all the bad things that could happen if he added soaring through the skies to his daily activities. Territorial birds, flying through swarms of bees, collisions with drones, air sickness. See, there he was, already afraid of what could happen in a scenario he would literally never be in.
“No, what?” Theo asked. She was hunched over the pile of locked books. Seven books, to be exact, with seven family names on them. Each with a tiny, perfect, unpickable lock. But she would defeat these locks. When Theo set her mind to something, her focus and determination were fearsome to behold.
“I was trying to imagine us into a normal summer.”
While Alexander was worried, Theo was mad. Along with Wil, they were crammed into a van with five new friends: Edgar Widow from Fathoms of Fun, Lucy and Mina Blood from the Sanguine Spa, Quincy Graves from Texas, and Henry Hyde from Camp Creek (who was only sort of their friend since he wasn’t very friendly). The aggressively borrowed vehicle bumped and squeaked and grumbled down dark roads as they left Dr. Jay and her terrible braindyeing, and Edgaren’t and his terrible Edgaren’tness behind.
They had also left the keys to these books behind, in the clutches of Edgaren’t. It was all aggravating, which was a type of annoying that was so annoying it made you angry.
Theo imagined wings for herself, pictured soaring above the van, looping through the skies. Looking for threats and handily defeating them. She couldn’t hold on to the fantasy, though, any more than Alexander could hold on to a dream of a normal summer.
“Yeah, no,” she sighed, and went back to scratching at the locks with her tools from the ceramic building at Camp Creek. There were two long, hooky metal things for scraping pots, and one narrow wooden stick thing for, well, she wasn’t sure. The tools had worked great for picking door locks, and even drawer locks, but these book locks were itty bitty. There was no way her current tools would work, but Theo hated sitting still with nothing to do with her hands.
“Is it weird that I miss Aunt Saffronia’s car?” Alexander asked. “When it wasn’t disappearing around us, at least.”
“I miss her house. When it actually had food for us, at least.”
“I know we didn’t know her well, and she’s--” Alexander was about to say a ghost, but the words caught in his throat. The word ghost felt like he had swallowed a pancake with no butter or syrup on it, and it was stuck, sponged onto his insides, refusing to budge. Which was a terrible mental image. Both something being stuck in his throat, and a pancake without butter or syrup or whipped cream or jam or honey butter or apple butter or--
Alexander’s stomach grumbled. “I miss the food, too,” he said. He couldn’t believe his last meal had been served buffet style. He missed Aunt Saffronia’s clean kitchen, with its black-and-white tiles and marigold walls, where he could observe all the food-safety protocols.
He also missed the blissful innocence of not realizing their aunt Saffronia, who had been charged with taking care of them for the summer, was (a) dead, (b) had been dead the entire time, and (c) was somehow banished now, which meant she was . . . deader? Or still just as dead, but unable to reach them anymore? He wasn’t certain of the logistics.
But he was certain that she had been the only grown-up person--well, person-ish--on their side. Now they didn’t have anyone in charge of them, and Alexander really, really liked people being in charge. It made him feel safe and taken care of.
Theo didn’t really like people being in charge of her, but she did really like knowing when she was going to have her next meal. And she liked weird Aunt Saffronia. It made her sad that someone had taken their aunt away from them, when their parents had very purposefully chosen Aunt Saffronia to take care of them.
Leaving Aunt Saffronia in charge seemed like a bizarre choice, made even bizarrier (Theo knew that wasn’t a word, but felt like it should be: a combination of more bizarre and scarier) knowing that Aunt Saffronia was on the wrong side of the grave to be a good babysitter. But their parents had to have summoned Aunt Saffronia for a reason. They could have left Theo and Alexander with a neighbor. Or even with Wil, though to be fair even an occasionally incorporeal ghostly babysitter still paid more attention than Wil did.
Theo’s aggressively borrowed wooden tool snapped in half. She set everything aside with a huff. She had to be careful or she’d jam the locks.
Mmm, jam. Without realizing it, her mind fell into the same hungry thought spiral as Alexander’s as it snagged on jam, then peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches, then peanut butter cookies. Though the Sinister-Winterbottom twins were very different, they still managed to land on the same thoughts frequently.
Meanwhile, Quincy was filling in Mina and Lucy on what they had missed. The Blood sisters had only joined their van a couple of hours ago, and so they didn’t know anything about what had happened at Camp Creek. Quincy knew all about it, since she had been braindyed, alongside Alexander. Theo had saved them, and then together they had saved the rest of the campers and counselors and escaped just in time to snag Mina and Lucy, who had been on their way to the terrible camp.
Quincy toyed with her beloved lassos while narrating the events. “. . . And that’s how we discovered that all our parents went to Camp Creek together one summer, and several of them mysteriously disappeared from the camp. And they were there with Dr. Jay, Henry’s aunt--”
Henry made an impolite noise from where he sat facing backward, glaring out the rear windshield. His aunt wasn’t a nice person, so no one blamed him for that outburst.
“--who took over Camp Creek,” Quincy continued without stopping, “and was using it to brainwash--”
“Braindye,” Theo corrected her.
“--braindye children into being the same, all the while working with my uncle, who y’all knew as Van Helsing and who Edgar knew as Heathcliff and who the Sinister-Winterbottoms confusingly know as Edgaren’t, and who I’m very, very, very sorry to have helped, but he was in charge of me and I really thought I was doing the right thing, and--”
Mina put a hand on Quincy’s shoulder. “I understand.” Mina’s voice was soft and kind. “I helped the Count change the spa and take advantage of people, because my parents were gone and I didn’t know what else to do. Without Theo, Alexander, and Wil, I might still be helping him try to trick guests into participating in his health-shakes scheme.”
“And I didn’t stand up to the woman pretending to be my aunt Widow at the water park,” Edgar added from the driver’s seat, where he steered the aggressively borrowed van through the night. “I couldn’t understand why she was doing what she was doing, but I didn’t feel like I had enough power to disagree with her. Without Theo, Alexander, and Wil, I might still be under the Cold, Unknowable Sea, trying to convince my uncle to come out, with the imposter Mrs. Widow destroying everything above us.”
“And I hid under cabins and stole food from trash cans,” Henry said, his pug nose wrinkled up like he wanted to growl at them, “none of which I regret because I wanted to do it! And I always knew my aunt was full of baloney, and not the fresh kind off the top of the trash can, but the rotten, moldy kind at the bottom, and I didn’t need any of you to tell me that!” He took a deep breath. “Sorry. I get mad when I think about her. And I guess it is because of Theo, Alexander, and Wil that I was able to stand up to her and get away from the camp.” That last part came out in a grumbled rush, as though he couldn’t quite stop being angry long enough to be grateful. Sometimes, people got so used to feeling one way, even when they didn’t have to feel that way anymore, it was their default reaction. Like when your glass of water is on one side of your bed, and you reach for it automatically, even if it’s been moved by the ghost that occasionally haunts your room and rearranges your toys.
“Theo still hasn’t guessed my sixth-favorite animal,” tiny Lucy whispered, wanting to be part of the conversation.
Theo ran her hands through her always-wild hair. “Don’t remind me!” It would bother her for the rest of her life that she hadn’t won that game with Lucy, and yet, somehow, the braindyed counselors and campers of Camp Creek had managed to guess her own sixth-favorite animal.
“Anyway,” Quincy said, her comforting Texan drawl back in place now that her brain had been freed of dye, “that’s what happened. Plus, we found all these books with our family names on them. We had the keys but no books, and now we have the books, but no keys.”
“But now that we have the Blood sisters with us,” Edgar said, “we have almost all the families whose names are on the books.”
“Sinister, Blood, Widow, Graves, Hyde, Stein, and Siren,” Theo listed off, tracing the names on the covers of the books. “So we’re going to find the last two families, the Steins and the Sirens, to see if they also have missing parents. Then we can figure out how we’re connected, where our parents are, and what happened during their summer at Camp Creek all those years ago.”
“Also, we found out Aunt Saffronia is a ghost,” Alexander added.
“Oh my,” Mina said, aghast. “I suppose that was a surprise!”
Wil shrugged. “Not if you were paying attention.” Rodrigo’s screen glowed blue, illuminating her with its cool light. “We should be at Stein Manor soon. And then the real work begins.”
Through the windows, Alexander saw the first flash of dawn. Then he realized it was actually lightning raging along the distant horizon. They were, of course, heading straight toward it.
“Here we go again,” Alexander whispered.
“We’ve got this. And each other.” Theo meant it. She’d had to navigate Camp Creek without Alexander, and she never wanted to face something without him again. As different as they were, Theo knew now that she depended on Alexander’s insight and caution as much as he depended on her gumption and bravery.
“Always each other,” Wil added from the front seat, surprising them both that she was listening. The three Sinister-Winterbottoms watched together as they barreled through the long, dark night, surrounded by friends, ready to be swallowed by a storm.
“It’s a sign!” Quincy shouted.
Alexander agreed that the storm raging around them, with flashes of lightning, crashes of thunder, lashes of rain, and clouds so dark it barely seemed like morning, was most definitely a sign. An ominous one, telling them that they were not fleeing the storm but rather driving straight into it.
But then he realized Quincy meant a literal sign. Edgar braked, squealing to a stop in front of a green-and-black sign with stately letters. It read:
Frank and Stein Bed-and-Breakfast
“Breakfast!” Theo pumped a triumphant fist in the air.
“Keep reading,” Alexander said, his own hopes washed away like the torrents of water pouring down the sign, taking flecks of paint with them. “Coming soon.”
Theo’s stomach echoed her grumbling tone.
“There’s another sign.” Edgar eased the van forward. This sign was less stately and imposing. It was carved with stars and lightning bolts, and read:
Stein Manor Science Camp: Join us for an electrifying experience!
“Well, that’s something, at least. The science summer camp is open.” Alexander was trying to be hopeful, though it was difficult in their current circumstances. The windshield wipers were wiping so fast they blurred. It was like driving through a waterfall.
“And we need a Stein, so we ought to be able to find one there.” Theo pointed to the Stein book.
“Camp doesn’t start until ten a.m.,” Wil said, scrolling through the website on her phone. “And it’s not an overnight camp; it’s a weeklong day camp.”
“That’s good.” Alexander had had enough of sleeping over in strange places. First the Sanguine Spa, where his dreams had been haunted by Lucy--who was sitting in the middle of the van, lest any stray rays of sunshine managed to pierce the heavy clouds and hit her, triggering her allergy to light--and then Camp Creek, where he couldn’t remember his dreams because he hadn’t been himself.
“It’s not good,” Theo said. “Where will we sleep? We can’t live in this van for a week.”
“Maybe we’ll go in and immediately find all the answers we need and be on our way to finding our parents by lunchtime?” Alexander tried to sound confident, but it came out as a desperate question. The silence that greeted him was enough answer that no one thought such an outcome was likely.
Edgar continued creeping forward, the road more of a river at this point. “There’s the turnoff for the manor. I suppose we could go park and wait for it to open, though it’ll be a few hours.”
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.