Wellhall is an immersive online fantasy world full of giants, sorcerers, and elves—and it’s junior-high-schooler Nick’s only escape from real life. Nick and his mom used to play the online video game together before her early-onset Alzheimer’s forced her to enter an assisted-living facility. At first, Nick seeks distraction in the game, but he soon becomes convinced that his mom is playing the game as a character named Reunne, and dropping him hints about her diagnosis and how he can help her return home.
Even as Nick becomes more and more certain that Reunne is actually his mother, Nick’s father and his new friend encourage Nick to confront the possibility that the game is just a game, and that he needs to be prepared to say goodbye to his mother as he knows her. . . .
“Readers—gamers and nongamers alike—will cheer the resolution of Nick’s transformative journey. Thoughtful, earnest, and gratifying.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A lovely, heartwarming story of a young man negotiating personal crises with the help of games, friends, and family, perfect for readers who appreciate a blend of fantasy and realism.” —The Bulletin
“A complex, emotional story about grief and acceptance. . . . A strong, thought-provoking novel.” —Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The game comes out the day we’re taking Mom to the home.
Nick had laughed when he realized that a few weeks ago, when they’d picked a “check-in date” for the home, like it was some sort of hotel. He didn’t know why he laughed—he was just sitting at the table, reading one of his game magazines, and he’d noticed the release date in an ad, and that was the first time he’d realized it, and he’d laughed. Mom and Dad had looked at him, confused, but hadn’t asked anything. Mom had even smiled. She didn’t know it wasn’t a happy laugh.
Nick thinks now he probably shouldn’t have ordered the game with release-day shipping, but they hadn’t known then—or at least he hadn’t known—that Mom would be going to a home. And he hadn’t known it would be today. He sees the yellow padded envelope on top of the pile of mail in the hall and he knows he should walk by it, that today is Serious and Dad is going to get upset, but then he thinks, Screw it. He kneels down and grabs the envelope and tears it open on the floor. He hates everything about today. He doesn’t want today to happen. He doesn’t think it needs to happen. He may as well do something to try to make himself happy.
He takes the game out. It’s wrapped in that insect-wing-thin plastic, and he immediately starts trying to pick it off, but then he stops and looks at the front of the box. He already knew what the cover looked like—he’d seen it on all the spoiler-free websites, in the spoiler-free reviews—but to be holding it is something else. Knowing he could be playing it in a matter of hours—once the mistake of today is done—makes him feel a lot better about everything. It frees him, for just a moment, from the sad, angry, weak, too-heavy-to-move way he’s been feeling for months. All of it lifts, then crashes back down again like a tidal wave.
The cover shows the mountain city of Wellhall, capital of Erenia, homeland of the gray elves. This game is the fifth in the series. Each installment happens in a different homeland, hundreds of years apart, so each new game is familiar but still fresh. This one has all sorts of new tech, too: next-gen graphics, AIs so real you can’t tell them from people, and online capabilities—he doesn’t know yet if that last feature is a good thing. But it’s the gray elf homeland, and that’s exciting, because he always plays as a gray elf—a treasure hunter/-explorer named Severkin (his own name, Nick Reeves, spelled backward but with some letters taken out, because when he first made him four years ago he thought that was cool; he still thinks it’s sort of cool). The mountain city on the cover looks like a spiral into the clouds. Carved staircases wind up the city, and stained-glass windows shine like embedded jewels. Above it is the title of the game in carved letters:
THE FOREVER QUEST WELLHALL
“What are you doing?” Dad sticks his head into the hall from the kitchen. They live in one of those suburban houses where the ground floor has archways, not actual doors, so Dad can do that without Nick’s noticing. Dad’s ’fro bobs like a sea creature: his head is tilted a little, and it’s the only part of him showing, like he’s playing a spy on a kids’ show. Nick would laugh, but seeing Dad makes him remember how angry he is at him for letting this happen.
“Just getting the mail,” Nick says, and picks up all the letters and brings them into the kitchen. Mom is sitting at the table, looking out the window. Mom is white—like, really white. She’s from Germany, and she’s so blond that you don’t notice where she’s going gray unless you look really closely. In the light, her face is like the carved ivory cameo she used to wear when Nick was little. She has a bowl of soggy cereal in front of her, half eaten. Not a great last meal.
“You should eat, Mom,” Nick says. She turns to him and smiles, then winks, which is a thing she does, and then takes a spoonful. Once, the winks were supposed to be reassuring, like a shared secret, but now Nick doesn’t know what they mean. He looks down at his hands and realizes he’s still holding the game, and for a moment he forgets what’s happening and he wants to sit across from Mom and open it and look at the instruction booklet with her. Mom plays the game, too—well, she played the last one. She won’t be playing this one with him.
“You should eat, too,” Dad says. He’s drinking coffee by the stove.
“I’m not really hungry,” Nick says, and he wants the words to sound cold and mean, but Dad just nods, unaffected, as usual.
“I get that,” Dad says. “Me neither.” He pauses and takes off his glasses to polish them and then looks at Mom. Nick looks at Mom, too. Mom looks out the window. The light on her face makes her phantom-pale.
“You want to get going, Sophie?”
In the game, there’s this poison—ragebrew. You prick someone with it and they get crazy angry, start attacking everyone in sight. Severkin uses it to cause distractions when he needs to get into well-guarded ruins or private collections, like when he’d liberated the Shield of Chalaak from the hidden crypt in the Royal Jungles of Aneer. One dose and the guards patrolling the jungle—open only to the royal family—were distracted by one of their colleagues as Severkin leapt from tree to tree, following the directions on an ancient map.
When Dad asks that question, it’s like Nick has been pricked with the poison. He can feel anger as a bright white liquid pouring into his blood and making it fizz. He can’t explain it, but he hates the way Dad asks it like a question. Like there’s a chance of backing out now.
“We’re going to Sunrise House today,” Dad says after Mom doesn’t look at him right away.
“I know,” Mom says. She’s still got this faint German accent that makes her words sound like heartbeats. “Gehen wir. Bevor ich komplett zerfalle.”
Nick realizes he’s holding his breath and clutching the game so tightly it’s sticking to his skin. For a split second he had thought maybe she’d say, “No we’re not, I’ve changed my mind.” But that’s not happening.
So Nick says it: “You don’t have to.”
He knows the moment it leaves his mouth that it’s a mistake. It’s the same old argument they’ve been having for months, since his parents said Mom would be going to the home. For two years, really, since they sat him down and said, “Mom has early-onset Alzheimer’s.”
“Nick,” Dad says, his drawing out of the i like a warning bell.
Nick’s not blind. He knows Mom has been a little off for the past few years, and she’s had some bad days. But they told him Alzheimer’s meant forgetting things, and he said okay and went upstairs and googled it. Forgetting things apparently meant forgetting everything—also, changes in personality, weird fits, needing to be bathed, cleaned. Mom wasn’t like that. She still isn’t.
“Nicky,” Mom says before Dad can start telling him he’s being immature and needs to accept things. “I love you. I will see you. And I’m doing this for you. I promise, one day, when you’re ready, you’ll understand why. But right now you just need to trust us. You’re still young. I want you to enjoy your youth, not worry.” The same clichés she’s been spouting for months. Hearing them again should make him angrier, but instead of a fire inside, he feels hollowed out and wet.
“I’m going to worry anyway,” Nick says. Mom stares him in the face, her eyes bright blue and a little sad.
After he’d googled “Alzheimer’s,” he googled “Alzheimer’s misdiagnoses,” and after Google had corrected his spelling, he found a lot more. He found articles by doctors saying that half of all Alzheimer’s cases are misdiagnosed. Or at least one in five, which is a lot. And that usually whatever the problem really is is curable. The big one, a condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus, is curable. It’s just some pressure on the brain because something isn’t draining right, so someone sticks a big needle in and drains it. Well, not anyone—a doctor. And that’s just the most common possibility—there are so many others: Wilson’s disease (symptoms go away with regular treatment), uremia (curable with dialysis), hypothyroidism (symptoms fade with regular treatment), and more.
There are even people called “the worried well”—people who think they’re sick because a relative has been, but who are fine, it turns out, and are just getting older. Nick had brought all this back to his parents, but they’d shaken their heads. Mom definitely had Alzheimer’s. They knew because her dad had had it.
As if these other conditions—and he’d brought them dozens—couldn’t be what had actually been wrong with her dad. As if doctors couldn’t have misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s thirty years ago in Germany. As if it weren’t more likely a misdiagnosis than a correct one. They hadn’t had the best doctors or tests back then. Nick argued with them for months. Mom was a little weird sometimes, but she was fine otherwise. She didn’t have any of the ten key symptoms of Alzheimer’s. His parents said he was in denial, and had to accept his mom’s condition. They offered to send him to a shrink. He told them no.
Nick found those ten symptoms on the Alzheimer’s Association website. He included the “normal behavior” (not Alzheimer’s) descriptions, then made the symptoms into an interactive desktop for his computer—a little program with check boxes. Every time Mom showed a symptom, he checked it. If she didn’t show it again the next day, he unchecked it.