Chapter 1: Rae 1. RAE
Rae looked at the barbed-wire fence and the security cameras and knew she had made a huge mistake. This was exactly the kind of place she needed to avoid. The kind of place her dad used to work at, all concrete walls and secrecy. A place that would be easy to enter but almost impossible to escape.
A large sign out front proclaimed, GREEN ON! BECAUSE IT’S NEVER TOO SOON TO THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE.
Rae eyed the steel-reinforced doors, and the guard standing just outside them. He looked back, his face as impassive as the wall next to him. He reminded her of the men who had stormed her old house and taken all of her dad’s things. He had that same air of efficient indifference; he would do his job and do it well, and anyone who got in the way would be squashed without a second’s thought.
Her dad was the reason she was here now, she reminded herself. All of this was for him. A year ago, he’d gone into work and never come out again. He’d been an engineer doing some kind of secret contract work on a project called Operation Gray Bird. And he’d discovered something unusual. Something he hadn’t been supposed to see. Proof of extraterrestrial life.
Rae was sure that was the reason her dad was missing—he’d been abducted by the government and was being held somewhere now against his will. She had sworn that she would find him, but until recently, she hadn’t had any leads. Especially since her mom had moved her and her older sister across the country from their home in northern California to this strange little Connecticut town.
But everything changed last week when Patrick, the senior consultant at Green On!, had told her who assigned her dad’s contract. He was working on a new energy source. Who do you think would be interested in something like that? Patrick had claimed he didn’t have all the details yet, but he promised that if she took part in his company’s internship program, he’d find them out.
Rae didn’t trust Patrick, with his too-handsome face and his too-fancy suits and his tendency to show up at exactly the most convenient time. But she believed him when he said he could get her information about her dad’s involvement with Green On!. Which meant she needed to follow through on her end of the bargain, even if every instinct told her not to go into this place.
The six other kids from her school all trotted obediently through the doors. Only the last one hesitated, a short girl with dark hair and a humongous backpack—Rae’s best friend, Vivienne. “Rae-Rae, you coming?” she called.
Rae glanced at the camera lurking just above the open doors. The light on top of it blinked like a single bloody eye, and she imagined Patrick watching her. It was too late to back out now.
She pasted on a shaky smile. “I’m just admiring the view.”
Vivienne laughed. “This”—she waved her hand at the building—“looks like an ugly brick, I know. But it’s nice inside.”
Which obviously meant Vivienne had been here before, either to visit her mom, who was the head of the nuclear division at Green On!, or…
Or when she had started secretly working with Patrick.
Rae didn’t like to remember that. Still, the truth stared out at her, as large and uncomfortable as Vivienne’s ever-present backpack. Her friend had been the first person in Patrick’s internship program, doing who-knew-what, and she hadn’t said a word about it to Rae until after Rae almost got herself killed by a monster from an alternate dimension. And still she was keeping most of it secret.
But then, Rae was keeping secrets too.
The only person she’d been completely honest with was her neighbor, Caden Price. With his dark eyes, messy black hair, and heavy silver jewelry, he was the kind of boy who stood out, even in a weird place like Whispering Pines. And just like her, he’d understood how isolating it was to know a truth that no one else was willing to accept. She’d been able to tell him her secrets, like what really happened to her dad.
But Caden thought this internship was a terrible idea. He wanted no part of it, or anyone in it. And after Rae decided to join anyway, he had stopped talking to her.
Rae angrily shoved thoughts of Caden away and followed Vivienne inside, the doors closing behind them with a heavy thump like a cage door slamming shut. She paused just inside the lobby. Vivienne was right; it was nice in here, all bright lights and fancy decorations.
To her left, the entire wall was floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the Watchful Woods, while to her right sat a long, sleek desk made of black swirling marble. Hung on the wall over it were a series of awards, framed newspaper articles, and large photographs. The floor had white and gold tiles, with several small tables and chairs set up in little clusters across it. As Rae walked farther into the lobby, she realized the shape of each of the tables was meant to represent a different element: a sun, a water droplet, swirly lines that were probably supposed to be wind, and an atom.
A man wearing a bright green polo shirt with the Green On! logo on the front popped up from behind the desk like a clown out of a jack-in-the-box.
Rae leaped back, almost falling over Vivienne.
“Hello, children.” The man gave all of them a condescending smile. “Welcome to Green On! We’re all so glad you get to join us here. Not only are we a cutting-edge energy research facility, but now, also, a daycare. How fun.” He emphasized certain words, drawing them out the same way a person might draw their nails down a chalkboard.
Rae gritted her teeth, and Vivienne shifted her weight like she wanted to tackle the guy, while the other kids muttered behind them.
“Doctor Nguyen is in the middle of a major scientific breakthrough, but she’ll still take time out of her very busy schedule to show you around. Because nothing is more important than our little interns.” Another broad, insincere smile. “She’ll be here any minute. Until then, please, make yourselves at home.” He waved a hand at the tables and chairs, and then disappeared again beneath his desk as abruptly as he’d appeared. Rae wondered if there was a door under there or if he was just sitting on the floor, waiting for them to leave.
“Wow,” Vivienne said. “That was the most passive-aggressive welcome I’ve ever heard.”
“It was actually kind of impressive.” Rae rolled her shoulders back and forth, then glanced around at the others to see what they thought.
Besides her and Vivienne, there were two other seventh graders. One of them Rae knew pretty well: Alyssa Lockett, Vivienne’s other best friend. She stood near the desk, idly reading the awards above it and playing with a lock of her blond hair. Rae hadn’t liked Alyssa at first, but now… now she wasn’t sure how she felt about her. It was hard to dislike someone so sad. Alyssa’s on-again off-again boyfriend, Jeremy, had been found with his eyes missing and his mind zombified, and Alyssa had taken it really hard. Not that Rae could blame her for that. It was horrible and frightening.
Jeremy had been one of the victims of the Unseeing, a monster that had escaped from an alternate dimension. It had targeted kids, killing one and claiming the eyes of eight others before Rae and Caden sent it back to the place it belonged. Now those kids were being treated by the medical staff of Green On!. For all Rae knew, they might be somewhere in this very building.
Rae swallowed and turned away from Alyssa. The Unseeing had targeted Rae, too. It had chased her through an empty cabin and cornered her in the basement, and only luck and Caden’s timely arrival had saved her. She dreamed about the Unseeing almost every night and woke up sweating and shaking, huddled in a nest of blankets, and waited until the first hint of dawn filtered through her window so she could relax again. Until the next night.
Before the Unseeing, she’d believed that supernatural things existed in this world. But it was one thing to believe that and quite another to experience it directly.
Rae studied the other seventh grader, a tall, lanky boy who stood by the window, staring out at the woods. Even from here she could see the deep half circles under his eyes, like he hadn’t slept in days, and his red hair was almost as messy as Caden’s. He looked… scared. Like he could see something out there beneath the trees, something no one else had noticed.
Vivienne caught her looking. “That’s Blake Crowley,” she whispered.
“Are you sure he’s in our grade?” Rae asked. “I’ve never seen him before.” Even though Rae had only started attending Dana S. Middle School earlier this month, she was positive she would have remembered a boy with hair that color and a face that haunted.
“I’m sure. He dropped out of school a couple of weeks ago to study mushrooms in the woods or something.” Vivienne shrugged. “He must have decided he was done with that. Honestly, I’m a little surprised Patrick picked him for the internship, but I guess he has his reasons.”
“He just dropped out of school to live in the woods? Is that even legal?”
“It’s not encouraged. But we’ve learned it’s best to just let people go when they feel the call of the Watchful Woods. They always come back eventually.” Vivienne hesitated. “Well, usually,” she amended. “There was a girl a few years ago who decided she wanted to be a bird. She built a giant nest and refused to touch the ground for months. Then one day she just vanished. Most people think she joined a flock and went south for the winter, then stayed out there.”
Rae couldn’t tell if Vivienne was joking and decided not to ask. She’d learned that Whispering Pines usually lost a student or two every year, and that the people of this town accepted that as perfectly normal. Even Vivienne didn’t seem to think there was a problem with it.
Rae glanced outside at the Watchful Woods. There was a clear patch of grass a good ten feet thick around Green On! before the line of trees began, their branches extending hungrily into it as if they longed to cross that space. It was too easy to imagine a girl lost among those tangled limbs, swallowed forever.
Rae turned her back on the woods and studied the remaining three kids. They were all eighth graders. One of them sat alone at the small sun table, his elbows resting on two of the pointed rays as he scrolled through his phone, ignoring everyone else. He had curly brown hair and glasses, and wore a T-shirt that was just a little too big for him. Rae had seen him in the halls occasionally and knew his name was Nathaniel Cliff, that he’d skipped a grade, and that he’d won some sort of chemistry competition.
The other two eighth graders, a boy and a girl, sat together at the water droplet table talking quietly. Rae thought the boy’s name was Matt. Or Mike? He was one of the largest kids in the school, with broad shoulders and very little neck. He looked kind of intimidating until he glanced up at Rae and smiled, a goofy, full-faced expression that made him look less like a linebacker and more like an overgrown eight-year-old. She couldn’t help smiling back.
The girl looked up too. Her eyes were a deep brown several shades darker than her skin and framed by thick lashes, and she wore crimson lipstick that made her look older than eighth grade. She didn’t smile at Rae. Instead she leaned closer to Matt, dropped her voice, and said something else. Rae thought she heard her name and felt her face going pink.
“What is it?” Vivienne asked, turning and following Rae’s gaze.
“I think they’re talking about me.” As soon as the words were out of Rae’s mouth, she regretted it. They made her sound insecure.
“Probably wondering if the rumors are true,” Vivienne said.
“Rumors?” Rae tried to keep her face neutral, but she couldn’t stop herself from thinking of her last school and the way rumors had plagued her like rats in a dumpster, constantly nipping at her heels, shredding all of her friendships.
“About you fighting that eye-snatching creature?” Vivienne said.
“Yes, that.” Vivienne grinned. “No one is supposed to know about it, so naturally the whole school has heard.” She waved at the girl, who ignored her. “Rude.” Vivienne frowned. Raising her voice, she added, “That’s Becka Wilson. She thinks she’s a famous actress just because she starred in a hemorrhoid commercial six years ago.”
“It was not a hemorrhoid commercial!” Becka snapped.
“It’s not funny,” Becka said.
Vivienne adjusted her large backpack. “I don’t actually remember what she was advertising,” she admitted to Rae in a low voice. “So I just make up the most embarrassing things I can think of. It’s a pretty fun game.”
“How do you know her?”
“We were in chorus together last year.”
“Chorus?” Rae raised her eyebrows. “You?”
Vivienne grinned. “I was lead alto. Ahead of Becka, I might add.”
“Why aren’t you doing it this year?”
Vivienne’s grin fell away. “Not enough time. You know, with this internship, and, um, everything.”
And there it was, the shadow of a secret across her face. Rae hesitated, not sure if she should ask. But before she could decide, the glass doors at the far end of the room opened with a soft gasp, and a short woman in a long white lab coat stepped through. She waved a hand and gave them all a quick, harried smile. “So sorry I’m late. I’m Doctor Nguyen. If you’ll follow me?” And she turned and went right back through the doors without waiting for a response.
“Guess this is it, huh?” Alyssa said, joining Rae and Vivienne. She managed a weak smile. “Maybe they’ll let us visit Jeremy and the others while we’re here.”
“I… don’t think they will,” Vivienne said carefully. “I’m sorry, Alyssa. I asked my mom about it the other day, and she told me they weren’t allowing any visitors yet.”
“Why not?” Rae asked.
“She didn’t say.”
“Are you coming?” Becka asked them from the doorway.
“It’s not fair,” Alyssa said. “Patrick promised—” She stopped abruptly, her lips pressing together.
“Promised what?” Rae asked, thinking of her own promise from him.
“Nothing. Let’s just catch up.” Alyssa strode away after Becka, leaving Rae and Vivienne to hurry after her.
They caught up with everyone else partway down a long, tiled hallway that led past a series of ordinary-looking offices. Patrick had made it sound like the whole company was behind this internship program—a chance for the kids of the future to help save that future. But so far no one here seemed enthusiastic about the idea. So why was he doing it? He’d said in his school presentation that the kids he picked would need to help save the world, but if that were really true, then Rae was pretty sure the world was in big trouble.
“Why isn’t there anyone else here?” Nate asked.
Rae blinked, realizing he was right; all of the offices they had passed had been empty.
“Because it’s Sunday?” Alyssa suggested. The seven of them had been dropped off at school, where they’d caught a bus out to the lab as a special “interns only” weekend field trip.
“Green On! is productive seven days a week,” Doctor Nguyen said with a hint of pride. “Science doesn’t stop for the weekends. This is where our admin team works, but they were given the afternoon off today.”
“All of them?” Vivienne asked.
“It appears so.”
“That’s strange.” Vivienne glanced at Rae. “They aren’t very generous with their time off around here. Especially lately. My mom has been working twelve to sixteen hours a day for the past week.”
“Wow, brutal,” Rae said. “Doing what?”
Vivienne shrugged. “She doesn’t like to talk about her work much. It’s all very ‘need to know’ stuff, apparently.”
“And you don’t need to know,” Rae said. “I get it.” Her dad’s work had been the same. Of course, that hadn’t stopped him from telling her about some of it anyhow.
“It was your mom who actually gave the team here time off,” Doctor Nguyen told Vivienne.
Vivienne’s eyes widened. “That’s even stranger.”
They kept going, the hallway eventually turning right, then right again. The offices they passed grew less impressive, and soon they were just small rooms full of boxes, as if the kids were moving into the less-used storage area. There were still almost no other people around. Moments later and the hall dead-ended at an elevator.
“Where are we going?” Rae asked, her voice shaking.
“Yeah, this doesn’t exactly look like a highly trafficked area,” Blake said. He seemed extra twitchy, even more nervous than Rae.
“We had a new lab built recently that Patrick wants you to use.” Doctor Nguyen pressed the elevator button. “It’s a little deeper underground than most of our other labs, and this elevator is the only easily accessible entrance.”
“That doesn’t sound ominous at all,” Rae muttered.
The elevator door slid open. There was barely enough space for all of them inside, and Rae found herself crammed in the back. As the door closed, a strange panicky feeling gripped her stomach. She remembered the stench of mold, the feeling of bugs crawling through her hair and down her shirt, the splintery wood of the bed frame scraping against her back. And the feeling that she couldn’t move an inch. That only a rotting mattress and a few lumpy pillows stood between her and a monster. Rae, I know you’re in here…
Rae clenched her hands, resisting the sudden urge to flail her arms and leap over everyone’s heads. She reminded herself for the hundredth time that the Unseeing was gone, banished forever. She wasn’t trapped. She was safe.
But she didn’t feel safe. She felt like she were seconds from something horrible.
“Breathe in through your nose,” Vivienne whispered next to her, “and out through your mouth. Count four in, four out. It helps. Trust me.”
The elevator lurched downward, and Rae slowly breathed in while a little screen in the corner tallied the floor level. She watched it for a few seconds and realized the numbers were negative. It was bizarre, but then, so many things in Whispering Pines were. So Rae tried not to notice and just concentrated on her breathing as they crept downward.
Each level they passed seemed hotter, like they were traveling to the center of the earth. Rae could feel the sweat sliding down her back and beading along her hairline. And was the elevator getting smaller? The light overhead flickered, plunging them into darkness for an eyeblink before coming back on. A soft, ominous grinding noise echoed down the chute, and Rae forgot about counting her breaths as the elevator wobbled and slowed. What if they were trapped here?
Vivienne took her hand and gently squeezed it. “We’re almost there,” she whispered.
Rae smiled at her gratefully.
The elevator finally creaked to a halt at floor minus-twelve. As soon as the doors opened, Rae almost knocked Blake over in her rush to get out. She sucked in a long, deep breath, enjoying the feeling of space all around her. It helped, until she realized they were deep underground, and suddenly she could feel the weight of all that earth pressing down on her.
“Your lockers are right here,” Doctor Nguyen was saying, pointing at a small alcove just down the hall. Rae did her best to ignore her growing panic and joined the others, even as the pressure inside her built up like a shaken soda bottle. There were eight floor-to-ceiling lockers, each one wider than Rae was. Seven of them had labels with each of their names.
“Are we expecting anyone else?” Nate asked, standing in front of the blank locker.
“Only Patrick knows,” Doctor Nguyen said. “Well, have a look inside. They’re not locked yet.”
Rae opened her locker. On one side hung a white lab coat, the other a bulky green hazmat suit. What would they be doing that would require a hazmat suit? Had her mom read the fine print before agreeing to send her here?
“What are you thinking about?” Vivienne asked.
Wordlessly, Rae pointed at the suit.
“Oh. Yeah. That.” Vivienne grinned. “Patrick has some sort of secret mission for us. He hasn’t told me any of the details yet, so don’t ask. But I’m guessing that’s what the suits are for.”
“Strangely not reassuring.” Rae closed her locker. But for the first time since she’d arrived at Green On!, she was starting to feel something other than that awful, crushing dread. The first whisper of excitement had caught hold of her. Hazmat suits and secret missions? Even if part of her was afraid of ending up the same way as her dad, the rest of her was eager to experience whatever Patrick had planned for them.
“Okay.” Doctor Nguyen rubbed her hands together. “That’s done. So next on the agenda is—”
Beep! Beep! Beep!
The bright overhead light faded to an angry pulsing red, turning the small locker room into a sea of bloody shadows.
“Report immediately to your designated safe room,” a robotic voice said. “We are experiencing a nuclear meltdown. This is not a drill.”
Rae’s mouth fell open. She stared at Vivienne, and then at Doctor Nguyen. “A what?”
Doctor Nguyen didn’t answer, her own eyes wide and terrified, while behind her Nate had his arms wrapped over his head like he was afraid of the ceiling falling down on him.
Vivienne made a soft little whimpering noise. “Mom,” she choked.
“Is she working today?” Alyssa asked.
“She works every day.” Vivienne clutched at Doctor Nguyen’s sleeve. “What does this mean? Is everyone in the nuclear division safe?”
Doctor Nguyen shook her off. “Of course not. But it’s not worth worrying about.”
“How can you say that?” Becka demanded. “It’s her mother!”
“Because we won’t be able to reach the safe room in time, not from all the way down here,” Doctor Nguyen said grimly. She looked around the room, the red lights gleaming in her dark eyes. “So none of us will be safe either.”
The robot voice boomed again, “We are experiencing a nuclear meltdown. I repeat, we are experiencing a nuclear meltdown. You must be in your designated safe room now. Green On! will be sealed in five… four… three…”