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About The Book

In this thrilling addition to the Whispering Pines middle grade series that’s Stranger Things meets The X-Files, Rae and Caden venture into the monstrous Other Place to rescue their captured friends and save their town.

Eyeless horrors. Giant, flesh-eating bugs. Despite everything Whispering Pines has thrown at her, Rae has never given up searching for her missing father. But when she discovers a surprising connection between his disappearance and Green On!, the shady alternative energy company that runs her town, she’ll be forced to confront a monster more dangerous than anything she’s ever faced before.

Meanwhile, now that Caden’s vindictive older brother is gone, it’s up to him to uphold the family business and ensure that the evil in the Other Place never breaks free. But when a mangled body is discovered in his backyard, he realizes that he can’t protect Whispering Pines from the monstrous creatures of the Other Place—because they’re already here.

The only way for both Caden and Rae to save the people of Whispering Pines is to embark on a mission deep into the heart of the Other Place. There, Caden will have to come to terms with the truth of his family’s legacy and learn how to harness his full power.

If he fails, all the horrors of the Other Place will descend on Whispering Pines, and that’s a threat that the town—and the world—cannot survive.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: Rae 1. RAE
{ THE NEXT DAY }

A cool breeze gushed through the open living room window. Outside, Rae could hear bare branches clacking against one another like skeletal bones. Normally she would have rushed to close all the windows her sister had left open, but not today. This weekend she felt like she could defeat whatever monsters came at her, solve any mysteries that Whispering Pines threw her way.

She remembered the feeling of Caden’s fingers linking with hers as the two of them sat in his kitchen Friday night. They were officially a team now. One that would get to the bottom of all the oddities in their town. Vivienne had promised to be a part of it too. And she hoped Nate and Alyssa would join as well.

She knew which mystery she wanted to start with.

She sipped her hot chocolate from one of her favorite mugs, a large pale blue one with dinosaurs dancing across it celebrating a “shooting star.” It used to belong to her dad; he’d always had a dark sense of humor. He might want it back when he returned.

When she found him.

She took another sip, carefully studying the photo she had brought downstairs with her. An alien stared back at her, its dark eyes strangely mesmerizing. It almost felt as if it could really see her, even though she knew this was just a picture. Still, there was something about the way those eyes gleamed, how they seemed to follow her movements. They took up most of its face, barely leaving room for a slit of a nose and the hint of a mouth. The bulk of its body was hidden by its cell, its fingers wrapped around the thick iron bar in front of it.

Her dad had hidden this picture in his office. This was the alien he had seen imprisoned near his lab out in Northern California when he was part of Operation Gray Bird: a top-secret work project that involved reverse engineering the fuel source of a spaceship. Rae was pretty sure her dad had taken this picture the day before he vanished, using the old Polaroid camera he’d inherited from his own dad. Probably didn’t want to use a cell phone and have it end up on the cloud.

She was also pretty sure this was the reason he had vanished. Why else would all those men in their identical suits have ransacked their house? They’d been looking for any proof he might have left behind. But Rae had gotten to it first. She’d snuck into his office and stolen back the calendar she’d made him with all her potential future running meets listed and a photograph of the two of them. It was only after she’d gotten back to her room that she’d discovered this second photo hidden in the back of the frame.

She peered closer, trying to ignore the alien’s eyes, instead focusing on the tiny green tag barely visible in the folds of its neck. She needed to get a microscope.

She heard footsteps and froze, then relaxed when it was just Ava finally coming downstairs.

“Hot chocolate for breakfast?” Ava shook her head in mock disapproval.

“Welcome to the land of the living, Count Dracula, but it’s almost lunchtime.” Rae studied her older sister. Ava’s long brown hair had been shoved up into a messy bun. Not artfully messy, either, but like she’d just wanted it out of her face and couldn’t be bothered to brush it. Her clothing, too, had the wrinkled look of something she had grabbed from her floor. Still, it was a step up from yesterday, when she’d stayed in her pajamas all day and had hardly come out of her room at all.

Ava was normally much more put together, but after Friday’s ordeal, maybe she just wasn’t feeling like exerting any extra effort. Rae could hardly blame her for that.

“I had a rough time sleeping last night.” Ava flopped onto the couch next to her. She snatched the mug from Rae’s hand and took a large swallow, then grimaced. “Coffee is so much better than this sugar water.”

“Then stop stealing it and go make yourself some.” Rae grabbed her cup back. “And I noticed you decided we needed all the windows open. In October.”

Ava shrugged.

“I woke up at, like, five this morning half frozen to death.”

“Well, at least you didn’t wake up dead.”

“Ha ha.” Rae took another long sip of cocoa. It was starting to lose its warmth, and cold cocoa just didn’t have the same comforting effect. It was still better than coffee, though. She watched Ava over its rim, trying to be inconspicuous about it. In addition to the messy hair and clothes, her sister had deep shadows under her wide brown eyes that, combined with her overly pale skin, added to the Dracula effect and made her appear… haunted. The look of someone who had faced off with the monsters and barely lived to talk about it.

Rae was just starting to get used to that same look on her own face. It was worse, somehow, to see it on her sister’s. Especially since it had been her friend’s brother who had caused it.

Aiden Price. Rae’s fingers tightened on the handle of her mug, barely noticing how the ceramic dug into her skin as anger filled her with more warmth than any cocoa ever could. Aiden had kidnapped her sister and then used her in some freaky ritual that had sent her spirit into the Other Place. What had that done to her? Would she be changed forever?

“Would you stop doing that?” Ava said.

“Doing what?” Rae asked innocently, pushing all thoughts of Aiden to the side.

“The whole ‘staring at me like I’m some kind of alien’ thing. Just stop it already.”

“If the shoe fits…”

“Then I’ll take that shoe and beat you with it.” Ava glanced down at the photo in Rae’s hand. “And speaking of aliens, why are you looking at that now?”

“You know this tag you pointed out to me?” Rae tapped the tiny green square. She had shown the photo to her sister mere days ago, after they had promised to share any information that had to do with their dad, and Ava had noticed that little detail immediately. “The queen bug had the same exact one clipped to its neck.”

Rae realized her mistake the moment the words were out of her mouth.

“The queen bug,” Ava said flatly. “And how do you know about her tag?”

Uh-oh. Rae had promised her sister she wouldn’t go after monsters and that she’d stay out of the tunnels snaking below Whispering Pines. Both promises she had broken on Friday.

“Well… that’s kind of a funny story.” Rae fiddled with her cup, trying to think of the best way to explain. A way that wouldn’t get her murdered by her sister. “Patrick assigned me and Vivienne a special task. You know, for that internship at Green On!? All very educational and important.”

“Uh-huh.” Ava crossed her arms. “If you think dropping Patrick’s name into this story will get you off the hook for any reckless actions you took, you’re dead wrong.”

Rae’s shoulders sagged. She had kind of hoped the magic of his name would be enough to distract Ava. Rae might no longer trust the young senior consultant, but she knew her sister was still affected by his movie-star good looks.

“What was this special task?” Ava pressed.

“Oh, nothing too strenuous or anything. A little hiking, some cardio, a bit of observation.”

“Rae.” Ava’s tone was sharp and impatient.

“Okay, okay. Patrick sent us into the tunnels to wipe out the queen and her nest.” Rae said it fast, the verbal equivalent of ripping off a Band-Aid.

“You did what?” Ava practically leaped to her feet.

“Now, before you totally overreact, we had to go in or our classmate Blake would have died, and anyhow, Green On! promised us full backup.”

“Backup? What kind of backup?”

Rae hesitated. Patrick had promised to wait just above the mouth of the tunnel, monitoring hers and Vivienne’s progress through the readings on their fancy new Green On! suits and jumping in if they seemed to be in trouble. But the truth was that he had flat-out left them behind to fend for themselves; when they’d finally climbed out of the tunnel, he’d been gone.

She forced a casual shrug. “I don’t really know. Turned out those bugs weren’t tough enough for us to need it.” A flash of memories: the hordes of crawling bugs illuminated in slices from her headlamp, all those legs, and the look on the queen’s face as she charged. How it had felt to stand in the middle of a mountain of their corpses and know she was responsible for so much death. She deliberately shut those memories down. She knew she’d have to tell Ava the whole story eventually, but right now her sister had enough worries without adding Rae’s most recent near-death experience to the list.

“Did you save Blake?” Ava sounded resigned, not mad. A good sign.

“I hope so. We cut him out of the egg sac, but you remember the exploding goat?”

Ava shuddered. “How could I forget?”

They had rescued a goat from the tunnels earlier in the week and brought it to Green On!, only to have two giant bugs burst from its stomach. Poor animal. Rae hated thinking about it and how it had been so close to safety only to die like that. Blake had been groaning and clutching his stomach as Vivienne carried him from the tunnel, and she was terrified the same thing might happen to him. “He’s at Green On! now, but I haven’t heard how he’s doing. I’m hoping Vivienne will know more.”

“I’m starting to wonder if Vivienne might be a bad influence on you,” Ava said.

“It’s not her fault. If you’re going to blame anything, blame the internship.”

“Oh, I’m blaming that, too.”

“Let’s get back to the point,” Rae said quickly. “The tags match. Dad’s alien and my alien bug.”

“Meaning?”

Rae stared at her sister. How could Ava not see it? “Obviously, it means Green On! must be connected to Dad’s disappearance. They knew about the infestation. And they must have known about his alien. Maybe they are the ones who took him.” Patrick had promised to tell her where her dad was after she won the internship contest. If he’d been involved in her dad’s disappearance in the first place, then of course he’d have that information.

But would he really give it to her?

She blinked, noticing the odd look on Ava’s face. Her sister’s mouth was pressed tight, her lips almost white, like she was fighting to keep a whole wave of words locked inside. “What?” Rae asked.

Ava shook her head. “Nothing.”

Rae frowned. “Are you keeping secrets from me? You promised you’d tell me everything you’ve found out.”

“A bit rich coming from you, bug girl,” Ava shot back. Then she sighed. “Fine. Did you ever think it was strange that I was able to get an early acceptance letter into WestConn University even though I was only a junior in high school?”

Rae shrugged. “You’re a genius. Whatever.”

Ava smiled. “Thanks. But genius or no, that sort of thing never happens. I mean, it probably happens if your parents are rich or famous, but otherwise no. Especially since I didn’t even apply first.”

Rae blinked. “What?”

“I just requested information from them, and I got this letter back saying I had a spot if I wanted it. I told Mom, and the next thing I knew—bam!—moving trucks. And here we are.” Ava fiddled with the edge of her wrinkled T-shirt, rolling it up and down, her expression troubled. “I would like to go there, but I also can’t shake the feeling that someone important wanted us to move here, and that makes me nervous.”

“Is Green On! connected to the university?”

Ava shot her a look.

“Okay, silly question,” Rae muttered. They’d been in Whispering Pines long enough to see that Green On! was connected to everything. “Maybe—”

Ding-dong!

Ava jumped, throwing her hands up defensively.

“It’s okay. It’s just Vivi,” Rae said quickly. “I’ve been waiting for her.”

Ava nodded, but she still looked anxious, her face all twitchy like a cornered rabbit, and Rae wondered if Aiden had rung the doorbell when he’d come too. If he’d stood on their doorstep, smiling and relaxed and oh so friendly until the moment he’d grabbed her sister and dragged her away. If Rae ever saw his smug face again…

Ding-dong! Ding-dong!

“Coming!” Rae yelled, setting her half-empty mug on the coffee table and slipping the photo inside a small manila envelope. She paused and looked at her sister. “Keep this safe for me?” She held up the envelope.

Ava nodded, taking it from her solemnly.

Everything inside Rae screamed at her to snatch the envelope back. That photo was the last real tie she had to her dad. Without it, she suddenly felt vulnerable, like she’d been climbing up a wall and someone had just cut her rope. But she’d decided to trust Ava. The best way to find him was to work together, and this, handing over her evidence, was a good start in that direction.

The bell rang again, this time long and loud, like whoever was on the other side was just leaning on it and would keep doing so until the end of time. Rae rushed to the front door, unlocking it and throwing it open.

Vivienne stood on the other side, her long black hair draping over the top of her ever-present backpack. “Oh good,” she said. “For a minute there I thought you and Nate had formed some kind of Ignore Vivienne club or something.” She grinned, cheerful as ever.

“So you haven’t heard from Nate yet, either?” Nate had been the other teammate on their Green On! internship project, but Patrick had kept him behind when he sent her and Vivienne into the tunnels to take down the bugs, and she hadn’t heard from him since.

“Nope. I tried calling him twice now, and both times, straight to voicemail.”

“Huh. Seems unlike him.” Rae had once called Nate at midnight, and he’d still answered his phone. And since he’d last seen them heading into potential death, she was honestly surprised he hadn’t checked in. Surprised, and a little hurt. She’d thought they were friends.

Friends…

Rae frowned. Nate didn’t have many of those. Would he really ignore the ones he did have? For the first time, his silence made her feel less upset and more… uneasy. “Do you think something might have happened to him?”

“Like what? We took care of the bugs, remember?”

“Yeah, but this is Whispering Pines,” Rae said.

Vivienne gave her a blank look.

“Random sinkholes? Murderous squirrels? Occasional eye-snatching monsters?” Rae still couldn’t get over the way the other residents never seemed to notice how strange their town was.

“I guess you have a point. But I think he’s just avoiding us out of guilt. We went into the nest while he stayed nice and safe aboveground.”

“Patrick made him stay. He wanted to come with us.”

“I know,” Vivienne said. “He turned out to be braver than I’d thought.” She lapsed into silence, then sighed. “We should probably check on him. Want to bike over there after we see Caden?”

It wasn’t a bad idea. “Sure.” Rae slipped on her sneakers, then called out to Ava, “We’re heading to Caden’s now. And then biking to Nate’s.”

“Yeah, I know.” Ava had settled back onto the couch and looked like she was going to take a nap. “I’m ten feet away; I could hear you.” She yawned. “No monsters and no caving.”

“We make no promises,” Vivienne said.

Ava glared at her.

“I was joking!”

“Uh-huh. I’m watching you, Vivienne,” Ava said sternly.

Rae shook her head. “Let’s go.” She headed outside, waiting until Vivienne followed her out before closing and locking the door. “Sorry about that. She’s a little cranky on account of our last adventure. Thinks you’re a bad influence.”

“Me?” Vivienne looked highly offended.

“To be fair, I never went alien bug hunting before you.”

“Hey, that was a first for me, too,” Vivienne said as they walked across the deck, careful not to slip on the damp leaves littering the wood.

The sky was overcast, the clouds dark with the promise of rain. As Rae crossed the street with Vivienne, she could smell the moisture in the air, along with the scent of damp soil and plant decay from the nearby woods. They were far richer autumn smells than what she’d been used to in Northern California, but she barely noticed the strangeness anymore. It was hard to believe she’d been in her new home for only a month now. Already it had begun to feel like all she’d ever known.

They’d made it almost all the way up Caden’s driveway when Vivienne stopped and grabbed Rae’s arm.

“What?” Rae asked.

Vivienne lifted her head and sniffed, her nostrils flaring, and a deep chill went through Rae. For a second she was back in the tunnels, watching as something inhuman stared out at her from her friend’s face. Something cold and hungry. At that moment Rae had been certain Vivienne was about to kill her.

Vivienne had told her that last year she’d been exploring a tunnel with her mom when she’d touched some sort of cursed pillar. Ever since, she’d begun changing, developing superspeed and superstrength. Oh yes, and a hunger for blood. Caden’s mom had given her a powerful amulet to help freeze the curse, which she’d kept hidden inside the enormous backpack she always wore. At first it seemed to work. But slowly it had become less and less effective, until eventually her mom turned to Patrick for a better cure.

For a while the elixir Patrick created had helped Vivienne. But several days ago, he’d stopped giving it to her.

“Vivi?” Rae said, her voice quavering. She was very aware of Vivienne’s grip on her arm, of their closeness.

Vivienne glanced at her. Her eyes had gone flat and hard. They reminded Rae of the alien in the photo. “Blood,” Vivienne whispered. “Fresh, and lots of it.”

Rae shivered. “Where?”

“Behind the house.” Vivienne let go of Rae and took a step back. She squeezed her eyes shut, and when she opened them again, she looked like herself, except for the miserable twist to her mouth and the hunched shoulders. “I don’t think I should go any closer.”

Rae didn’t want to go closer either. Ava wasn’t the only one in their house plagued by nightmares. But it was always better to face things directly.

Just ahead she could see the thin line of salt that Caden traced around his house as part of his protective warding rituals. Beyond it, the rest of the house looked innocent enough. There was only one car at the top of the driveway, which meant either one or both of Caden’s parents were gone, and the lights inside were all off despite the gloom out here, but there was nothing all that sinister about any of it. Still, Rae hesitated.

“Will you be okay here?” she asked Vivienne.

Vivienne pressed her lips together and nodded once. It did not fill Rae with confidence, but she took a deep breath and stepped over the salt line.

Nothing happened.

Rae wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but after Friday night’s ritual inside the Price house, she believed anything was possible. She didn’t let herself think too hard about what that had been like, watching Caden sit in the middle of his carefully drawn pentagram, his legs crossed and hands loose in his lap, his face…

She didn’t like to think of his face, because at that moment when the spell began, he’d looked… wrong. Like all the lines of his skull had shifted. No, that wasn’t quite it. It was as if the skin over those bones had changed, draping itself differently like he were wearing the skin as a mask. And beneath that mask…

Rae shivered and made herself walk farther up. She thought again of how it had felt to hold hands with Caden after it was all over and know they were a team. That was the Caden she needed to focus on. The one who listened to her patiently and made jokes about team uniforms. The one who was her friend. She didn’t need to dwell on the way he had somehow magically lit candles with his mind, the flames crackling so high that it felt like the entire room was on fire. Or that strange, twisted little smile he’d worn as she’d cringed in terror, his eyes reflecting back the red of the fires around him.

Rae glanced over her shoulder at Vivienne standing so still and quiet in the middle of the driveway. Back at Rae’s old school, after her former best friend told everyone that Rae was a conspiracy nut, the other students had all been a little scared of her. Kind of ironic that now her friends were the scary ones.

Immediately Rae felt bad about that thought. It wasn’t Vivienne’s fault that she’d been cursed. And Caden had been trying to save Ava when he’d gone all dark magician on her. Neither of them was a monster, and it wasn’t fair to think of them that way.

“Do you see anything?” Vivienne called.

“Not yet.” Rae turned back toward Caden’s house, scanning the wide porch with its empty swing, then took in the carefully mowed yard tucked inside the thick ring of trees. She half expected Aiden to leap out at her, but all was quiet.

And then she noticed it. A large bundle of rags nestled against the roots of the closest trees.

Heart quickening, Rae walked toward it, her feet sinking into the wet grass, her steps slow. When she was a few feet away, she stopped and clapped a hand over her nose and mouth. Because now she could smell it too. The metallic scent of blood. In fact, it was all she could smell.

She didn’t want to look closer at that bundle of rags, but she’d promised herself long ago that she would never look away from the truth. Even if it was awful.

It took a second for her mind to understand what her eyes were seeing. The body was so mangled it didn’t even look human, but then she saw the details: the long brown hair; the splay of one bloody hand, palm up; a single, perfect, untouched eye in the ruins of the face.

Rae staggered back, then turned and fell to her knees, retching. She stayed there for several long minutes, her stomach roiling, and she swore she could feel that eye watching her the whole time. Blue as a late-summer sky.

About The Authors

Photograph © Devi Pride

Heidi Lang managed to stumble upon the two best jobs in the world: writing for kids and walking dogs. If she’s not out on the trails surrounded by wagging tails and puppy kisses, she’s probably hunched over her laptop working on her next book. She lives in northern California with her husband and two adventure-loving dogs, and she is the coauthor of the Mystic Cooking Chronicles and Whispering Pines series, and author of Out of Range. Find her on Twitter @HidLang or visit the website she shares with her writing partner at HeidiandKatiBooks.com.

Photograph © Portia Shao

Kati Bartkowski was originally drawn to illustration before she got swept up in the world of words. Nowadays she’s a fan of creating fantastical creatures and feisty heroines in both mediums. If she’s not reading, writing, or drawing, she’s probably chasing after her high energy little girl. She lives in northern California and is the coauthor of the Mystic Cooking Chronicles and Whispering Pines series. Find her on Twitter @KTBartkowski or visit the website she shares with her writing partner at HeidiandKatiBooks.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (September 6, 2022)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665908085
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12

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