Twelve-year-old Alistair Cleary has washed up on shore. But where? It seems to be Aquavania, the magical realm where children create entire worlds from their imagination. There's something wrong, though. The creators have disappeared and the worlds are falling apart. All Alistair wants is to find his friend Fiona Loomis and go home. Easier said than done. Animals made of starlight, a megalomaniacal boy king, and astronauts who peddle riddles are hard enough to outwit, but they're only the beginning. To find Fiona, Alistair must travel from world to world. He must confront the mistakes of his past. And he must face countless monsters, including the soul-stealing stalker that some people call the Riverman, the merciless but misunderstood servant of Aquavania who refers to himself as the Whisper.
About the Author
Aaron Starmer was born in northern California, raised in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, and educated at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His novels for young readers include The Riverman, Dweeb, and The Only Ones. He lives with his wife and daughter in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
By Aaron Starmer
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Aaron Starmer
All rights reserved.
Water, luminous and gaudy, slapped against land, and the boy named Alistair Cleary lay on the edge of the liquid and the dirt where a river had coughed him out. He ached—head and body. An oaky film of ash coated the roof of his mouth. The sun pummeled his bare skin.
Alistair was twelve years old, a slight, bony kid with a round nose and a birthmark on his chin and a curiosity that sometimes lapsed into foolishness. Groaning, he stood, and water licked his calves. He rolled his head, and his neck crackled like a campfire. Behind him, a river churned with color—it was sherbet and gumballs, sunlight on an oil slick, and it cut across a lifeless landscape of black and gray. Yet in front of him it met an abrupt end. Weird.
There was no lake or ocean for the water to empty into, but the river was disappearing, merging into the land like wet paint becoming dry paint. It was transforming into a wide field where waves of yellow grass billowed and flattened in conversation with the wind. Someone had even flipped a switch on the sky. Behind him, it was putrid and smoky. In front of him, it was bright, tinged with a healthy green. Water becoming earth, a sharp border between death and life—Alistair had never seen anything like it.
What is this place?
It was part of Aquavania, he knew at least that much. In fact, he knew more than he cared to know. He knew that he had touched some kind of liquid portal in his friend's basement and he had ended up in a windstorm of ash. He knew that to escape the storm, he had jumped into a brightly colored river and the river had carried him to this place. He knew there was no clear path home from here.
Send me home. Bring me home. There's no place like ...
He wished over and over again to be transported back to his friend's basement. That's how it worked in Aquavania. At least that's how he thought it worked. You wished and your wish was granted. But it wasn't working, and the more he wished, the more he began to wonder if that was a blessing, if home was actually the best place for him to be at the moment. Because he also knew that back home they might call him something terrible.
He started to cry. He took two steps into the field, but that was all his body could manage. He collapsed to his knees and surrendered to the tears. The guilt, the terror—they were invading his body, pirates looting his blood and oxygen. His hands were sore, bruised by the recoil of a gun, and he brought them to his face, drove their heels into the bony upper rims of his eye sockets.
This isn't real. I didn't do those things. I didn't shoot Kyle. Fiona isn't gone. Aquavania doesn't exist. I've been dreaming since that snowy night on the road two weeks ago, when I last saw Fiona. Two weeks of dreaming. Two weeks of fiction.
He slapped himself in the face. Hard. That's what people do in dreams to rouse reality. But he didn't wake up, because this was his reality now.
In the distance, movement. A band of men cut through the waves of grass. As they got closer, Alistair could make out their numbers. Six, walking shoulder to shoulder, spears held tight to the chests of the inner four, leather slings dangling from the hands of the outer two. Straggly-looking guys. They appeared to wear animal fur, but it was darker than any fur Alistair was aware of and it was flecked with sparkling white dots. Their hair was tied in long ponytails, and their skin was covered in streaks of mud and clay. War paint? They stopped about twenty yards from where the river ended, but they didn't poise their weapons. Water dripped off of Alistair's body. He was smart enough to stay quiet and still.
They're here to punish me for what I've done.
The tallest of the men took one step forward and leaned on his spear as if it were a staff. His bright blue eyes were ambiguous beacons. They were alive with curiosity. Or was it rage?
"Stand," the tall man said.
Alistair was in no position to object. He did as ordered.
"You swim?" the tall man asked.
Alistair was astounded that such an odd-looking person would speak English, or what seemed like English. Alistair could understand it, in any case.
"I ... can swim," Alistair replied cautiously.
The tall man nodded. The other five remained stoic.
"This is your quest?" he asked. "Or you come to take our land?"
"I ... I ... am ... not taking anything," Alistair stuttered. "I'm lost. I'm looking for someone. A girl."
The tall man nodded again and said, "She is here." Then he pounded his spear on the ground twice.
One of the others, a wrinkly and oafish character with scars on his cheeks, stepped forward and took a deep breath. His throat ballooned, all supple and bullfrogish. It was beyond strange. It was impossible.
"I don't know what—" Alistair started to say, but he shut his mouth as soon as the frog-throated man opened his. Because what filled that throat wasn't air. It was dragonflies.
Elegant insects, with wings veined in neon, streamed out from the man's gullet and toward Alistair's face. He struggled with two conflicting instincts. Swat? Or swoon? He couldn't choose either, though. Because once the dragonflies had swarmed around his head, his free will was gone.
Alistair was their captive.
* * *
To lose control of your body seems a horrible fate, but to Alistair it felt like a relief. His anxiety wafted away, and whatever fear he had of the men was replaced by a deep reverence. He stepped forward, marched, in fact—one, two, three—right into the band of strangers. They clustered around him, their weapons held casually but confidently. They showed no signs of fear, but they kept their distance as they ushered him in the direction of the high-hanging sun.
All logic told Alistair he should try to escape, but his brain was not beholden to logic. He walked with the men. He didn't question them. He didn't fight. The dragonflies, which orbited his head, had rendered him a lamb.
"We will not harm you, swimmer," the tall man said with a grave but respectful tone.
Perhaps it was the influence of the dragonflies, but Alistair believed this. Or perhaps it was something else that inspired his trust. Alistair wanted—or more accurately, he needed—to believe the other thing the man had said.
She is here.
They hiked at a steady pace, the sun wicking the moisture from Alistair's damp clothes. The field went on for at least a mile. No change. The yellow grass sashayed back and forth and tickled Alistair's bare arms. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and white socks with red stripes, his standard uniform from home. He wore no shoes, because he came here with no shoes. He was beginning to regret the fact. Luckily the earth was soft and free of stabby things.
Finally, a patch of trees appeared in the distance, the first sign that this world was not all pastures and tribesmen, and right before the trees, a perfectly round rock came into view. The rock was about twice Alistair's height and it rested in the field like a marble dropped from the heavens. The men approached the rock cautiously, keeping a buffer around it as they circled, but the dragonflies led Alistair straight to it.
There were images on the rock's surface. Bears, bulls, lions, and horses. Cave paintings—Alistair had seen similar ones in books. Only these didn't seem ancient. They looked fresh.
"We honor you and bid that you release the night," the tall man said. "Then we will feast."
A feast where I will see her? Alistair wanted to ask, but it was as if the dragonflies were speaking for him. "Yes, sir," he whispered instead.
The tall man pointed with his spear at the rock. The others followed suit, pointing if not with their spears, then with their fingers. Alistair waited for more instructions, but none arrived. So the dragonflies took the reins, guided him ever closer to the rock. The men let out deep, satisfied grunts. Alistair leaned in and examined the animal paintings.
They were shimmering. They were trembling. It was more than a symptom of the sunlight; it was as if tiny creatures lived in the pigment and were wiggling their way to the surface. Alistair looked back at his companions and saw that their weapons were poised. A bad omen. And yet it was irresistible. The paintings begged to be touched, like feathery scarves hanging in a costume store, like a freshly shaved head. Alistair reached out and placed his fingers on the rock and, as if startled from their sleep, the images jumped to attention and scampered from his hand.
Running, leaping, galloping, the silhouetted creatures circled the surface of the stone. They were more than paintings. These things were suddenly alive, and Alistair stood there transfixed. A lion tackled a horse and tore into its throat as the other horses scattered, only to be confronted by the bears. The bears stood on their hind legs, defending their corner of the stone with drawn claws and teeth. The bulls, swept up in the commotion, scuffed their hooves and prepared to charge, and when their charge began, there was no stopping it.
Alistair felt them before he saw them and tumbled to his back as the bulls leapt off the stone and emerged in the field, three-dimensional and fully grown. They weren't made of flesh, though. Their bodies had a solid black sheen, and their joints, horns, and eyes consisted of twinkling stars. It was as if they were carved from chunks of the cosmos. As the bulls plowed through the field, the dragonflies scattered. Finally in control of his movements, Alistair bolted, worried about what might leap out next.
The horses leapt next, followed by the lions, and finally the bears. Their bodies were also black and speckled with stars. None of the animals seemed particularly interested in Alistair as they fled the rock. Alistair's touch had lit a fire in them, and they seemed determined to burn, burn away.
The men were far more prepared than Alistair. They had spread their ranks and were now running among the bulls at speeds that didn't seem humanly possible. The two men with slings were twirling them so fast that blurry halos appeared over their heads, and when they snapped their wrists to deploy their weapons, disc-shaped stones rocketed out and struck a bull on the head with a one-two punch. Thwack! Thwack! The bull collapsed to the ground.
Before the lions or bears could reach the wounded prey, the four men with spears had it surrounded. The tall man lanced the bull's neck, and its body jerked for a second, then deflated. Blood, red and true, spilled out. It was a stunningly fast kill.
Ahead of them, the other bulls lifted their hooves. The confines of the rock couldn't hold them and neither could the confines of the ground. They dug those hooves into the air and took to the sky, where they charged right at the sun. The other animals streamed past the band of men and took to the sky as well, their dark and sparkling bodies amassing above like a murder of hulking crows. They roared and growled their way upward, speeding and then spreading, blacking out the green tinge until the sky was their bodies and their bodies were the sky. The sun faded and dimpled and transformed into a moon.
It was no longer daytime. Alistair had set free the night.
* * *
Nighttime back home meant damp, cool air. It meant solitary sets of headlights slicing through the black and illuminating the red reflectors on spinning bike wheels. It was almost endless in the winter, sixteen hours of darkness sometimes. Home for Alistair was Thessaly, a small town in northern New York, the sort of place where secrets mattered, where you held on to them because they defined you, or at least gave you something that you could call your own. The only time you shared your secrets was when you told them to the person you trusted the most. Or when you told them to the stars.
On a clear night back home, layers of stars trembled in the cold air, but it was nothing like what Alistair saw now. The sky in Aquavania pulsed and undulated. It had a heartbeat.
The men carried the dead bull by tying its legs to their spears and propping their spears on their shoulders. It didn't slow them. If anything, they moved faster now, and Alistair had to jog to keep up. Those dragonflies, those tiny shepherds, had flown away, yet he continued to follow the men anyway. If the men had intended to harm him, then they could have easily done it already. Alistair wasn't as strong or as fearsome as a bull. Even for a twelve-year-old boy—which is what he was, after all—he was considered timid.
At the edge of the forest, the group passed by an enormous blackened tree stump. It was even thicker than the sequoias Alistair had seen during a family trip out west, and though he wanted to examine it closer, the tall man advised against it.
"When that tree was mighty, evil lived up there," he said. "Do not put evil in your head."
Alistair nodded as the group moved into the forest, where the trees weren't nearly as big, but they were dense and dark. The twinkling of the bull's fur lit their way, and the moss that clung to nearly every stone and fallen trunk absorbed the light and glowed in earthy oranges and yellows. If this were a place on Earth, it would have qualified as one of the great natural wonders. It would have been swarming with shutterbugs and scout troops. And yet Alistair and the small pack of men had it all to themselves, which perhaps wasn't a treat for them, but it was for Alistair. Sure, it was terrifying, but it was also unimaginably beautiful. He began to understand at least some of the appeal of Aquavania, the reason kids would keep coming back here, why they would stay rather than go home.
When they reached the bottom of a small hill, the sound of chattering voices greeted them.
"Is that her?" Alistair asked the tall man.
"You do not know the girl you seek?" the man replied.
"I do," Alistair said. "I ... I'm confused. This is all new to me."
"You do not swim between realms?" the man said.
"I don't know what that means."
The men snickered. Such naïveté.
"What is your name?" the tall man asked.
"I am Roha," the tall man said with a rumble in his voice. He pointed to the others, one by one, starting with the dragonfly breather. "Dorgo, Haji, Mee, Utor, Koren."
The men bowed their heads slightly, and Roha spat on the ground, which Alistair read as So there you have it. Then Roha turned his attention to the hill and led the charge up a surface so powdery and soft that it was a wonder the men didn't sink in it. It spilled out behind them like sand, cascading with each footfall, and yet they climbed as if they were moving across flat and solid land. Alistair struggled and fumbled over the swells of dirt. It took him more than twice as long, but the group waited to greet him at the top.
"Mahaloo," Roha announced with his arms outstretched. The hill had been hiding a small valley. Caves nested in cliff walls below, and a group of villagers gathered outside the caves around a glowing hearth in the nook of the valley. Except for a solitary person seated on a stump, the villagers wore the same attire as the men: mud and cosmic fur. The stump-sitter was wearing something completely incongruous: a spacesuit.
"Fiona!" Alistair screamed. "Fiona Loomis!"CHAPTER 2
Visions of Fiona—memories and imaginings—sizzled and popped in Alistair's head like water in hot oil. His throat still vibrated from yelling her name as all eyes turned to him. The astronaut stood. Alistair took a step down the hill, then felt his feet slipping, his body being taken by a slow avalanche of silty earth. Members of the tribe rushed to intercept him.
"Do not attack!" Roha hollered. "He is a swimmer!"
Faces, both curious and apprehensive, looked down on him once he reached the bottom. One of those faces was his own, reflected in the dark glass mask of the astronaut's helmet.
A gloved hand rose. It pressed a button on the side of the helmet. The mask snapped back, and now there was a new face, young and wild and dimpled. "Who the hell is this Fiona?"
Devastating. There was indeed a girl inside the spacesuit, but it was not the girl he had come to find. "She's ... she's ..." Alistair stuttered.
"A daydreamer?" the astronaut asked as she presented a gloved hand.
The tribe kept their distance, their hands at their sides or on their spears. The only person who spoke was the girl. Alistair let her help him up. "She's a friend," he said as he rose to his feet. "And I'm here to bring her home."
The girl smiled. "That's cute."
"You think you're going home."
Tribe members laughed as if it was the most spectacular joke, but Alistair didn't understand. "Of course I am," he said. "We're in Aquavania, right?"
Excerpted from The Whisper by Aaron Starmer. Copyright © 2015 Aaron Starmer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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