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CHAPTER 1

goodbye

It would make a tragic story. Benji Marino, fourteen, kills himself on a venture to paradise. A catchy title for the announcements on Wishville News before the morning weather report. On the other hand, he might survive.

Benji emerged around the corner of Wishville Junior High, eyes locked on a hill in the distance. All he had to do was make it to Candy Road and his escape would be a sweet success. He held his breath as he passed the school baseball field.

“Nice one. Back in line.” Benji could recognize the man’s voice from a mile away. Coach Hendrick was notorious for never using a microphone at school events. After fifteen years of coaching baseball and softball teams he’d reached the conclusion that screaming was the only way to gain respect from middle schoolers.

“Mortimer, you’re up next.” There was a pause, and his mustache twitched as if going through a seizure. “Mortimer!”

A clang came from the fence. Benji refused to look.

“Hey.” Chloe Mortimer ran her fingers along the wires, walking at a matched pace. “Where you headed?”

Chloe was the youngest student in his eighth-grade class with a birthday at the end of November, but she didn’t act the part. She was more mature than most kids their age, gave the best advice, and could have a serious conversation despite her energetic, fidgety nature. Chloe was the type of friend Benji could trust with anything, and although he hated lying to her, he would if he had to. Especially today.

He watched the ground as they walked, his shoes tapping the concrete in rhythm with her cleats clicking the dirt. She had outgrown her cleats months ago, and although they were originally white, they were now yellowed from use. She held a strange attachment to them, and he wondered how long it would take her to buy new ones.

Benji tucked his hands into his sweatshirt pocket and held his head straight, knowing that looking at her would be too painful. “Thought I’d take a walk.”

“Oh yeah?” Chloe paused, scooping a softball from the ground. She ran back to his side and tossed it into the sky. “Come on, I know something’s up.” She held her arm out, and the ball dropped into her palm. “You’re planning something crazy, aren’t you?”

“Why would you think—”

“Benji, a seagull could lie better than you.”

He made the mistake of facing her. Their eyes met through the wire fence, and he froze.

“I get that you’re curious, but we’re not gonna let you run off into the wild.” Her smile was gone now. “I mean—come on—you may as well throw your own dead body in a gutter.”

Coach Hendrick shouted for Chloe through cupped palms, but she didn’t turn away. Benji folded his fingers inside his pocket, waiting for the right moment. When a few girls from the team shouted Chloe in unison, she looked over her shoulder, and he ran.

She dropped the softball and shot after him. The gate slammed shut, followed by the hollow steps of her cleats against the sidewalk. It took three weeks of self-preparation for this day, and although Chloe wouldn’t let him get away, he wouldn’t let her stop him either.

“Listen!” Her breathing staggered, barely allowing the words to escape her lips. “You think no one would care? How would your mom react?” She gasped and sprinted with her last bit of energy, a final attempt to catch him.

He saw the tilted sign of Candy Road ahead, and by the time he reached it, Chloe was far behind, hands on her knees, panting.

With a forced grin, he hiked up the hill.

Chloe had been one of his best friends since first grade, and it was unfortunate that the last memory she’d have of him was the moment he disappeared into the trees. Sweat formed at the creases of his floppy hair. He rubbed the mess out of his face with a tense hand. It’s okay, he thought. It’ll be worth it.

Candy Road was close enough to the edge of Wishville that no one dared to breathe its air. Since the bridge was never maintained, neither was the road. Roots of surrounding evergreen trees grew into it, forming cracks for moss to grow and bumps designed to trip. But to Benji it was better this way. The road was steep, so he used the roots to push his feet forward. Candy Road had grown a set of natural stairs.

When he reached the top, he paused at the base of the bridge in nostalgia. The water gently flowing at the horizon, the sour scent of damp dirt, the gray sky looming over him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been here, yet the atmosphere was familiar. Comforting.

He took his first step onto the wide platform of concrete and shut his eyes. Living in Wishville his whole life, he had grown deaf to the ocean, but today the waves thrashed beneath him violently. He opened his eyes to reveal a rusty sign across bridge, surrounded by a sea of redwood trees. LEAVING WISHVILLE, it read. This marked the end of his journey.

His grip on the straps of his backpack tightened as he peeked over the bridge railing. His school by the shore, the town park a few blocks to the east, everything was there. Further north were the brick buildings of the town square, Main Street running past it. He lifted his head until his nose leveled with a hill on the opposite end of town, of which yielded a single secluded home. Everything he knew, and he was ready to leave it all behind.

“Goodbye, Wishville.” Benji waved at the view. Facing the mission before him, he engaged in a staring contest with the sign. After a long blink, a new spark brewed in his eyes.

He took long and speedy strides across the bridge, reaching closer to the end than ever before. The tree branches by the sign reached forward, calling for him to continue. To finally break through Wishville into a new world. His right foot stretched for the border, and the other side of the bridge illuminated with extravagant colors. The vomit green trees, the musty blue sky, the overpowering browns. He could hear the chirping of distant birds suppressing the screaming seagulls that flew over his head. The colors and sounds were so immersing that he couldn’t hear the rustling of bushes behind him, the hammering footsteps.

It wasn’t until his foot retracted against its will that Benji broke from his daze. He stumbled backwards, the sky fading gray, the trees losing their animation, the dirt as bland and cold as ever. The only colors available were the few familiar wisps of brick-red hair that flashed his vision. “Boo!”

A hand released his backpack with a sturdy throw, and Benji crashed into the railing by the waist. The hungry waves jumped beneath the bridge, trying to reach him. He turned around, head spinning.

To his left was James Koi. He wore a white collared shirt underneath his sweater vest and the latest designer shoes. James had always been a natural at fashion, which was odd since no one could imagine him standing in front of a mirror. Perhaps his elegant style was simply an accident every morning. He completed the outfit with an expressionless mask, not a single fold on his forehead or a tilt of his lips either up or down. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

To Benji’s right was Samantha Perkins, who went exclusively by Sam. Benji almost smiled at the sight of her wearing last year’s school jogathon shirt, which she didn’t participate in. She tucked her hands into the pockets of her fluffy jacket, and a few chuckles escaped her lips. “You should’ve seen the look on your face.” She paused her laughter to imitate the exact moment. “Boo!” Leaning over, she broke into hysteria until her cheeks were as red as her knotted hair.

Benji could never understand her. Sometimes everything was funny and other times everything was somehow meant to insult her. Sam’s emotions were as predictable as flipping a coin.

When Sam extinguished her humor, James repositioned himself next to Benji. “It’s illogical to leave.” He gave Benji’s head a shove from above, taking advantage of his height. “You’re smarter than this.”

The idea of staying in Wishville sickened him. “I know it doesn’t make sense.” He pointed to the end of the bridge. “But don’t you guys ever wonder what’s out there?”

“Couldn’t care less.” Sam crossed her arms, and her raspy voice smoothened. “Although I guess it’s different when your dad goes missing.”

James glared at her, and she pursed her lips with raised brows.

Benji spun around and set his arms on the bridge railing. “There’s a lot I wish I knew.” He watched the seagulls zoom across the horizon. Left and right. Up and down. Wherever they wanted to.

“By the way, we were Plan B.” Sam chuckled. “I can’t believe Chloe couldn’t talk you out of it. You’re such a pain.”

Benji shot for the end of the bridge, but James formed a wall in front of him.

Sam stepped away, and a twig snapped beneath her sneaker. “Let’s go back.”

Knowing James wouldn’t move, Benji tucked his frozen hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt and walked back the way he came. As he took his first step down Candy Road, he peeked over his shoulder to spot the LEAVING WISHVILLE sign one last time. He held his head low, the glow in his eyes gone.

“You know, we’re only doing this because we care,” Sam said.

He scanned the ground for the next root to step on. “How did you know?”

She looked to James, asking permission to tell. He nodded.

“Well you were acting all suspicious. Took way more notes during class than usual.”

“You searched my binder, didn’t you?”

“You weren’t taking notes on prepositional phrases, that’s the thing.” Sam’s sneaker chipped against a root, but she caught her balance and recovered. “You literally wrote your entire escape plan. Date, time, everything.”

James ran a hand through his hair. “Not smart.”

“Well,” Benji said. “I guess I’ll have to be smarter next time.” He smiled, and Sam jabbed him in the side.



“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay for dinner?” Mr. Koi asked.

“I’ve got a violin lesson, and my dad has another meeting tonight.” Sam zipped her jacket with a stiff arm. “I can’t.”

Mr. Koi nodded as she turned away. “Next time,” he said, but they all knew it wouldn’t happen. Sam was one of the busiest kids in school, always attending fancy dinners, meetings, important events. She despised her tight schedule, yet Benji considered it a bargain for a family like hers.

Mr. Koi waited until Sam was out of sight before shutting the door. That’s when the investigation began. He straightened his tie and glanced between them. “You three were out late today.”

Benji was too focused on the room to notice him. The Koi household was located on Main Street, which ran along the town square. The houses on Main ranged from all different sizes, each designed with its own unique architecture. James’s home was one of the larger ones. His parents owned and managed Sequoia Bank and the town’s department store, Wishville Depot. Benji knew such a wealthy family deserved a fitting home, but he couldn’t keep the jealousy from pouring in. Every time he’d come home with James he’d always stop to admire the raised ceilings, floors of soft wood, and sunlight showering from windows that were only covered at dark.

“Rebecca phoned me. She’s been worried sick.” Mr. Koi added. This time, Benji heard him.

“Sorry.”

The man smiled, and his teeth glimmered in the light. “I’ll let her know you’ve made it back.” Before Mr. Koi could proceed to the rest of his questioning, the two boys hid upstairs to get some peace before the meal.

Benji appreciated James's room simply because it was the opposite of his. There wasn’t one speck of dust, and everything was placed elegantly where it belonged. Shelves along the wall were trickled with strange puzzles, all of which Benji gave up on solving years ago. Even the wooden trinkets James called beginner level were enough to braid his mind into twists.

Then there were the books. Those were the main attraction of James's room. Benji tried placing his head in a position where he couldn’t see a book and found that the only place possible was the ceiling. He respected his friend’s love for literature, as much as a non-reader possibly could.

“Hey.” Benji sat on James’s bed and watched his feet dangle over the floor. If only he had been a few inches taller. “Sorry about—you know—trying to leave town and all.”

James opened his favorite book, Sharpner’s Peak. He read it so often that if someone were to spout a random page number, he could recite the first paragraph from memory. He leaned back in his desk chair and brought the pages closer to his eyes, his lips glued together.

“I guess part of me wants to know what happened to my dad.” Benji folded his fingers together, watching them turn red. “And the other half is just dreading the spring festival.”

“Shh...” James looked up from the pages and smiled. “You’ve wasted enough of my reading time already.” That was his way of saying, “I forgive you.”

Benji’s fingers relaxed. He hauled his backpack off the floor and slipped out his sketchbook and a charcoal pencil. Of all things to pack for his escape, he chose to bring his drawings. A stupid choice, considering he didn't know what might be out there. A knife, spare clothes, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would have been a smarter move. But when Benji had stood in the center of his room, searching for something that mattered, his sketchbook was all that caught his eye.

It was a silent moment. Benji appreciated that about his friendship with James. They didn’t need to talk all the time. His friendship wasn’t like Sam’s, where he’d have to constantly tune out her complaining, or Chloe, where they spoke a lot about nothing. James and he would often sit in silence. Reading, drawing. Flipping, erasing. Silence was all they had in common, and that was enough.

Benji continued a drawing from last week. A stretch of land without trees, sprinkled with buildings resembling diamonds more than homes. Something about drawing landscapes and strange buildings had always caught his attention.

Mr. Koi knocked on the door half an hour later before peeking his head inside. “You should get seated,” he said. “I’ll wake Nina.”

The two nodded, sliding downstairs and into the dining room. Although Benji had stuffed his sketchbook into his backpack, James didn’t have the strength to leave his book upstairs. While he sat at the table reading, Benji watched the steam billow from the serving plates. The fresh broccoli coupled with the sour aroma of lemony shrimp made his mouth water. On the far end of the table was a giant bowl from Chowdies. That was the best place in town to buy clam chowder. It was also the only place.

“Mom’s not here?” James spoke behind the pages. Even without a book Benji hadn’t noticed Mr. Koi enter the room. Some would argue the Kois’ intuition was strong enough to call a superpower.

“Visiting some friends.” Mr. Koi sat and scooped a generous helping of shrimp onto his plate. He paused and gave his son a stern look in the eye. “Put the book down.”

James frowned and stuck a penny between the pages to hold his place.

Nina hovered into the room after her father. She sat, flung her thick, chocolate braids behind her shoulders, and waited for Mr. Koi to serve her. She blinked slowly, and Benji could tell by the way she stared into space that she had been sleeping all day. She took a lot of naps for an eleven-year-old. She took a bite of broccoli, coughing as she choked it down.

Mr. Koi set his hand on the table. “Don’t force yourself.”

Nina glanced at Benji for a moment, then nodded at her plate.

Although Nina and James were only two years apart, they may as well have been six. For starters, James was tall for his age, and his doctor expected him to exceed six feet and surpass his father. Nina, on the other hand, hardly looked older than eight. She had a strange gravitation to dresses, even though most kids her age made the quick transition to jeans and plaid shirts. Benji wasn’t sure if Nina was short because she was sick, or if it had to do with genetics. It seemed the one thing they did have in common, however, was their perfect skin. Their tone was stuck somewhere between Mr. Koi’s smooth cocoa skin, and Mrs. Koi’s pale tan. A creamy butterscotch tone, complimented with their honey brown eyes. Every time Benji noticed their skin he was instantly ashamed of his freckles. He tilted his head downward, hoping they might be less prominent that way.

“It’s been awhile since you’ve joined us for dinner,” Mr. Koi straightened the collar of his shirt. “How are you?”

“I’m doing great, actually.” Benji smiled, keeping his head low.

“And your mother? Everything going well with her?”

“You know,” Benji said, “everything’s always the same.”

“Good.” Mr. Koi pushed his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. “That’s good.”

A silence fell over the table. Benji was plating his food when Mr. Koi continued his investigation. “I hate to pry,” he said, shoveling a spoonful of chowder into his mouth, “but what were you three doing today?”

Benji’s hands fumbled, and the serving spoon splattered on the table, spilling broccoli across the wood. “Sorry.” He grimaced and transferred the pieces to his plate one at a time.

James cleared his throat. “Sam suggested we see the ocean.”

Mr. Koi nodded, although they both knew he wasn’t convinced. Out of all the parents in Wishville, most considered him the least easygoing. Like James and Nina, Mr. Koi was an expert at puzzles, but not the wooden kind in particular. He set down his spoon, humored eyes staring through his rectangular glasses. “You all must really like waves.”

James stopped chewing, stuck in thought.

Benji was always mesmerized by the Kois’ conversations. The family wasn’t known for talking much, but they always got their point across. It was almost a competition for who could talk the least.

While James picked his words carefully, Benji’s brain went into a state of panic. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “We were—you know—” Benji gulped. “Counting the seagulls.”

Counting the seagulls,” Mr. Koi repeated. He chuckled and took another bite. “And how many did you count?”

James’s answer was instantaneous. “One-hundred-and-seventeen.” He shot Benji a disappointed look.

“How did you make sure you didn’t count one twice?”

Mr. Koi was nothing more than a rock on a smooth path, waiting for James to trip as he ran. The pattern would continue until either James messed up, or Mr. Koi gave in and nodded at his persuasive son with pride. Benji switched focus between the two as questions were spouted and logically answered. He folded his fingers in anticipation of who would win the game.

That’s when Nina pushed her plate of food in front of her and gulped a monstrous sip of water, forcing another bite. She stared at Benji deep in the eyes, and at that moment they were two pits of black fire. He found himself lost in them, and his hands began to shake.

“Benji,” Mr. Koi said. “Is something wrong?”

“Oh—uh, no.” He peeled his eyes from Nina and prepared another bite with his spoon. “I’m fine.”

“What did you do today?” It was Nina asking the question this time.

Benji hesitated, not sure why she’d ask. When he opened his mouth to spout the same lie they repeated throughout the meal, the words clotted in his throat. “I—well—”

“What did you do today?” she repeated. Her tone of voice reminded Benji of a teacher during a verbal quiz, testing with the answer in mind.

Benji’s hands went stiff. “Like I said, we were counting seagulls.” He tried to sound as natural as possible, but his voice was a tad higher than normal, and he could tell by the way her fingers tightened around her fork that she wasn’t convinced.

“I’m not hungry.” She slammed her fork onto her plate and stood so fast that the chair legs squealed against the bamboo floor.

“Are you okay?” Mr. Koi was by her side immediately. “Feeling dizzy?”

Nina looked back at Benji. Something in her eyes was different this time, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m feeling sick.”

CHAPTER 2

blueberry

They called the place Blueberry.

It was an ostracized building in the forest. Not so far from civilization that it was difficult to access, but far enough that most people curious to see it avoided the trouble. Hiding in plain sight, the rotting shed reserved itself for those capable of recognizing its value. And so it became a safe place for the four kids. Their second home. A jar of sparkling memories.

Chloe collapsed onto the tattered rug in the center of the room. “I can’t believe it’s been six years since we found this place.” She flopped onto her back, and her hazelnut hair spread around her like a lion’s mane. “Life wouldn’t be worth living without Blueberry.”

Benji shut the door behind him and leaned against it. What started as a childish game of hide-and-seek resulted in one of his favorite places in Wishville. He had found it tucked within a circle of thick redwood trees, moss crusted over the open door and layering the deck in a fuzzy green tarpaulin. It wasn’t until a few years later that they heard it was some dead lady’s storage shed for her moss gardening equipment, which explained the unnatural growth. They had already thought so dearly of Blueberry that they didn’t let such a fact intimidate them, so instead they convinced themselves it was hilarious.

“Think we should rename it?” Benji observed the second door on the other side of the room, the wood all cracked and splintery. The molding was covered in literal mold, some dark specks that he would rather not consider the safety of, and the floor had gaps so big between the boards that it seemed the only place safe enough to avoid an amputation was the rug. “More like Rotting Blueberry.”

Chloe shot up, pointing a firm finger at the ceiling. “He didn’t mean that!”

Benji joined her on the floor with a chuckle. Chloe had brought the rug to Blueberry a few years ago from her attic, where her older sister hid a lot of her parents’ old things.

“We can’t rename Blueberry. She doesn’t deserve that. Come on, you’re practically the founder.” After untangling both of her shoelaces, she tied them again in perfect bows. Chloe had always found strange ways to occupy her short attention span. “And it’s all because you wanted to play in the forest, of all places. I remember searching for you guys and out of nowhere, I hear you screaming my name from inside of some random shack.”

“Yeah, and you were scared to death.” He ran his hands along the softened wool until his fingers met the frills along the edges. Although old, the carpet’s red and gold designs were vibrant, its geometrical shapes and twists mesmerizing.

“Well you can’t blame me. It looks like the kind of place you go to get stabbed and ground into patties.”

For a moment Benji forgot that the shed lacked windows. He observed the two wooden entrances, and when he finally remembered, went back to playing with the rug. “Sam said five, didn’t she?”

“Oh, she’s coming. Might be late, though. Heard her family was meeting with the Zhaos tonight.” She raised her head from the floor with a mischievous grin. “Speaking of the Zhaos…”

“No.”

“Why?”

Benji’s face went hot. “I can’t.”

“Ah, so you’re brave enough to leave town, but too scared to tell a girl how you feel?” Chloe reached to untie her shoelace again, but kicked her foot away to stop herself. “At least give Audrey a letter or something.”

“You kidding me?” Benji rubbed his forehead, feeling dizzy. “That’s even worse! Not in a million years.”

“Aw,” Chloe said, pinching her cheeks, “the Benji is blushing.”

“Plus,” Benji said softly, “she likes James.”

The room fell silent. Her eyes lingered on him for a while, but he didn’t dare look. The floorboards squealed below them, and the ceiling crackled like a fire.

“Hey.” Her voice was softer this time. “I think we should talk about yesterday.”

Benji didn’t look at her.

“I know how you feel. It was hard enough that my mom died giving birth to me. Then my dad got sick. It felt like the end of the world.” A strand of hair fell from her bun, and she tucked it behind her ear. “My dad used to say that when something bad happens, you either keep living, you live dead, or you die. I chose to live, but if you disappeared too, what would I do then?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He smiled at the floor. “Maybe you wouldn’t have to run out of your softball practices anymore.”

“Really?” She reached for that same strand of hair and twisted it between her fingers. “You’re more important than my stupid softball practices.”

Sam stormed in. She was wearing a dress for the first time since Wishville Elementary’s third-grade picnic. The fabric was a faded red, and her hair nearly blended right into it. She huffed away their stares and leaned against the wall. “Don’t ask.”

“We didn’t,” Benji said.

She kicked off her dirty sneakers and explained anyway. “My dad had a meeting with the Zhao family about job opportunities or something. My brothers didn’t have to go, but guess who did?” Her eyes narrowed until Benji could no longer see them. “My mom wanted me to keep Audrey entertained.”

Chloe took down her bun, bored of messing with one strand. “Complaining about Audrey again?”

“My dad asked her if she could play a song for us on the violin? And guess what? She plays the exact song I’ve been working on.” Sam felt the callouses on her left fingers. “Something about her is just—it’s off.”

Benji couldn’t stop himself from smiling. If there was nothing for Sam to complain about she’d always create something. Complaining was her favorite hobby. And for some reason, her favorite person to complain about was Audrey Zhao, the most perfect girl in school. No, in town. The most perfect girl in Wishville.

“Well,” Chloe said, “your dress is nice.”

Sam pushed herself off the wall and sat next to Chloe. “Stop.”

“Oh, come on.” She leaned into her shoulder playfully. “The dinner couldn’t have been that bad.”

Benji sighed. Sam probably liked Chloe more than anyone simply because she fed her flames of complaints. A lifetime as friends and Chloe still hadn’t learned to ignore them. James would say it was ignorant, but Benji assumed it was a girl thing. The love for complaints.

“It was awful.” Sam licked her lips and cringed. “Audrey’s family literally only eats fish. You know how much I hate fish.”

James still hadn’t shown. After a few glances at the door, Sam shrugged and slipped over to the crooked cabinets, scavenging for some snacks she had set aside. She found a bag of potato chips, unraveled it, and plopped it in the center of the carpet for them to share. Chloe snatched one. It was stale.

“Gross.”

“Would you rather have no potato chips?” Sam asked.

“Yes.” Chloe nodded her head as she slipped the chip back into the bag. “Definitely. Yes.”

“Don’t put it back in!” Sam yanked the bag from her and passed it to Benji.

He laughed, his hair hopping on his head. “I think I’ll pass.”

Chloe reached to put her hair back into a ponytail, tired of playing with it. They were all acting normal, ignoring the fact that James was still missing. But unlike them, Benji had a limit for how long he could contain his curiosity.

“Does anyone know where James is?”

He hadn’t been acting strange throughout the day. Only read books in class and started worksheets before their teachers finished instructions. The usual James. But this was the first time he had ever been late to a meeting at Blueberry.

Sam stuffed a few chips down her throat. “He probably forgot.”

“Suspicious.” Chloe squinted. “Very suspicious.”

But James never forgets. He hadn’t forgotten anything since the day he left his essay on his desk at home, distracted by a new book. It was a rainy day. He had walked out in the middle of class, fetched his essay, and came back dripping wet with the ruined papers in hand. Not one emotion crossed his face, but Benji could tell the boy had never undergone such shame.

“We still need to figure out how to punish you for trying to leave us.” Chloe hummed to herself. “How about five dollars apiece?”

Sam elbowed her in the side. “That’s way too little!”

“Whoa there.” Benji raised a hand. “How about nothing?”

“Twenty bucks or I tell your mom.” Sam crossed her arms and raised her chin, staring him down.

Benji’s soul slipped. The image of adults discovering his attempted escape left him petrified. One word about him trying to leave and the whole town would be in a frenzy, but he pushed the fear aside. Sam might not have been the quietest person at school, but they’d been close friends for as long as he could remember.

“Don’t you find it fishy that no one ever comes here?”

They stared, waiting for more.

“That book we’re reading in class. The Mysticals. Each chapter someone new moves into town, and the kids meet them and learn about where they’re from.” He frowned. “I asked Mr. Trenton why we never have strangers move to Wishville. And he responded by saying, ‘Benji, The Mysticals is fiction.’”

“I remember that,” Chloe said.

“But it wasn’t just The Mysticals.” He shook his head. “It’s happened in so many books we’ve been forced to read. There’d be a new neighbor next door. Or someone would move to the other side of the world. People came and went from all over the place and it…I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Sam laughed into her hand, shaking her head. “There’s lots of books with supernatural stuff in them, too. Doesn’t mean that’s real.”



Their meeting at Blueberry lasted longer than expected, and he had spent the majority of his walk home under a blanket of stars. Expecting a lecture, he took his time opening the door.
But there was no lecture. Only a girl.

Nina stood in the dining room, her creamy eyes bloodshot and dry. Mr. Koi wrapped an arm around her. She observed her shoes and pulled tenderly at her braids.

James was the only one seated. He sat at the opposite head of the table, as far away from everyone as possible. His world of isolation broke for a moment as Benji caught his attention. He waved without a smile, pulled the pages closer to his face, and disappeared. Rebecca, on the other hand, was fully engaged. Her forehead was smeared in wrinkles, her lips pursed. She wanted to speak, but something was holding her back.

“Go on.” Mr Koi’s grip tightened on Nina’s shoulder. “Tell him.” His voice was sharp, cloaked in a layer of butter, neither sweet nor bitter.

The realization hit Benji in a storm. The way Nina had questioned him last night was suspicious. He wasn’t sure how, but she knew. She knew all about his plan to leave town, and she told the adults everything. All of it. His secret was loose. It was over.

But when Nina spoke, Benji’s arms relaxed.

“I’m sorry.” She clung to the fabric of her black dress as she raised her chin. Inside her eyes was an ocean of raging darkness.

Nina’s nervousness made him uneasy. She had always been like the rest of the Kois, dictator of her emotions, reserving energy for chosen recreation rather than pointless worries. Yet there was something about her facial expression today—something about the way her lips drooped and her skin lightened a shade—that made Benji think she was about to cry.

Mr. Koi must have sensed it too. He pulled her closer to his side, and she grabbed her wrist tightly, the color in her fingers fading.

The dining room, usually filled with a thick layer of gray air, now had a menacing red film. As much as Benji wanted to believe it was real, he knew it was all in his mind. The curiosity seeped through his sight. Red. A color of interesting change.

There was an odd hue to her eyes now. A dash of rose in a freshly burned forest.

“Sorry about what?”

She hadn’t done anything to hurt him. Their past interactions were nothing more than a quick nod of the head when passing each other in the Koi house, and maybe the occasional exchange of words at dinner. Nina had always been a recluse, confined to her room to sleep or read aloud to the wall. Even Sam and Chloe hardly spoke to her. Nina was never shy around them. She was simply disinterested, and as a result, they returned the disinterest, acknowledging her not as Nina, a clever eleven-year-old genius, but as James’s little sister. The sick one.

Nina’s fingers loosened on her wrist until she let go, her hands dangling by her sides. “I don’t feel well.”

Mr. Koi’s pushed Nina away, resting a gentle palm on her forehead. He raised his chin in Rebecca’s direction. “Fever.”

“What can I do?” Rebecca asked.

“Don’t worry yourself.” Mr. Koi was already guiding Nina to the door. He turned to James, his voice hardening. “Put the book away.”

Then the Kois left. It was only Benji and Rebecca now, as it always was. Rebecca made her rounds through the house, shutting off the bright lights. The red tint vanished, replaced by the usual gray fog of normality. “Did something happen between you two? You can tell me the truth.”

“I don’t know anything about Nina,” he said, and that was all it took for Rebecca to believe him. She poured herself a glass of water. “Why were you home so late again?”

There it was, the lecture he was waiting for.

“I was with Sam and Chloe.”

She wrapped her hands around the cold glass. “You need to tell me these things ahead of time. How do I know if something happened to you?” She took a sip of water. “I want you heading straight home as soon as that bell rings, alright?”

“You know, I could get home faster if I had a bike.”

“You could get hurt.”

“Everyone at school has one except me.”

“You don’t get it, Benji.” Rebecca smiled gently. “What do you wanna eat? Are you cold? I’ll make some—”

“I’ll have cereal.”

“The sugar content is—”

“Look, the festival’s tomorrow.” Benji stood on his toes and selected his favorite bowl from the cabinet. “If you’re gonna make me go, just give me a break tonight.” He was about to slam it onto the countertop, but stopped himself. His fingers loosening, he set the bowl delicately onto the granite.

“You should be proud to go. It’s in honor of Scott this year.”

“Yeah, another reminder that he’s gone.” Benji retrieved a box of chocolate flakes from the cabinet. “Sounds fun.”

“That’s not what it’s—”

“You know you can say it.” Benji faced her. “Hiding pictures in the back cabinet doesn’t magically make me think he never existed.”

“I want what’s best for you.”

“And that’s why I could never join the soccer team? Because you want what’s best for me?”

“Soccer is dangerous. You could get hurt.”

“No, Mom. I know he loved soccer.” The picture flashed through his mind. His father standing in front of Wishville Elementary’s field with a goofy grin and a soccer ball under his arm. He saw it a million times. Not when Rebecca was home, of course. It was in a chipped frame, tossed in a cabinet beneath their living room radio.

“Benji, you’re all I have left of him.”

“Well I’m not Dad!” He grabbed the cereal box, pausing as his fingers wrapped around the edge. “I’m just…me.”

Rebecca sipped her water, watching him through the bottom of the glass. She gulped and set the cup on the counter. “I think we both need some rest. It’s been a long day.” She gave Benji a soft tap on the shoulder before entering the hall. “You’ll have fun tomorrow. Promise.”

Benji shut his eyes, hoping to cleanse the stress from his mind. He’d deal with the festival tomorrow, but for now, all that mattered was the bowl of cereal. Chocolate flakes had been his favorite for as long as he could remember. When Rebecca allowed him to eat these empty calories, he always made it count. There was a specific way he prepared it. A recipe he’d been perfecting for years.

First, the flakes. He’d fill them nearly to the brim, then seep the milk halfway. The milk was the secret. Too little and the flakes were too dry. Too much and it become soggy too fast.

After his perfect bowl was poured, he stuck a spoon inside and headed to his room, shutting off the last kitchen light.

As Benji sat at his desk that night, eating his dinner, he couldn’t help but think of Nina.

He set his spoon in the bowl and leaned back, gazing at the ceiling. “Sorry for what?”

Eventually, the question vanished from Benji’s mind, and he resumed his meal in silence.

CHAPTER 3

festival

About a month ago, Mayor Perkins had knocked on their door, requesting to speak with Rebecca. He wore a charming smile as he entered their home, announcing that this year’s end-of-spring festival would be dedicated to Scott Marino. Each year it was dedicated to someone new, usually a person who contributed to the town. Last year’s was for a man named Greg Shirley, whom most people had never heard of, but apparently led the project of building the town square generations ago.

“If it weren’t for Scott’s ten-day experiment, we wouldn’t know the truth about how dangerous it is to leave,” the mayor said.

Hearing about this special dedication had only encouraged Benji to follow through with his plan. He had decided to leave town before the festival, on May 4th, but now it was May 6th, and he was still here. He had grown so used to the idea of being gone by the festival that the thought of attending after his failed escape made him nauseous. He did everything to resist. Faked being sick. Claimed he had homework. Pretended he was too exhausted in the morning in hopes that Rebecca would let him sleep in. Unfortunately, Benji had no skills in lying, and Rebecca dragged him into the crowded town square without hesitation.

It was the heart of Wishville. A giant block of concrete with a fountain in the middle and a wooden platform at the end, all backed by a wall of redwood trees protecting them from the icy ocean. The entirety of the courtyard was sandwiched between two rows of brick buildings. Clumps of restaurants, book stores, and tiny boutiques. They were spaced only a couple of feet apart, making the area interesting for a game of tag. As long as one could fit between building without getting stuck.

Seaside Cafe was busier than usual. Many had decided to get a hot cup of coffee before the festival began. Next to the cafe was Ms. Camille’s flower shop, deserted, with a closed sign hung on the window. She would never choose work over such a special occasion. And across from the cafe was Chowdies. Slightly less populated, but perhaps some people were more in the mood for Wishville’s famous clam chowder than a warm drink.

Musicians stood on the raised platform in the courtyard, legs spread wide and chins held high. The employees at Chowdies filled the room, excited for their double payday. Attending the festival wasn’t mandatory, but everyone went by choice. That is, everyone except the man on Eudora Hill. Oliver Stricket, they called him. His lack of presence went largely unnoticed, perhaps even appreciated by the few who thought of him.

This year’s festival was the same as Benji had always remembered it. Parents raided the discounted shops. Kids played tag, zipping between brick buildings and hiding behind strangers’ backs. One boy even managed to get onto the roof of Chowdies, which was a mystery for everyone. “We love the festival!” he shouted into the air, and his friends at the bottom giggled until their parents came to the scene and ordered him down immediately.

The musicians were playing some kind of ugly noise undeserving of being called a song. The lead singer hollered weird notes into the microphone, while the others strummed guitars or banged on the drums in a failed attempt at syncopation. Benji covered his ears. “We really have to be here?” The only thing he liked about the town festival was that the smell of hot dogs overpowered the stench of clams and salty wind.

Rebecca waved at everyone as they passed by. Even complimented one lady’s dress. Benji tried to slip away, but she grabbed his arm. “Stay close, okay? Stick with Sam and Chloe, but don’t let them drag you anywhere. And if the mayor talks to you, don’t say anything reckless. The last thing you want is—”

“Yeah Mom, I got it.” He ripped himself from her grip. “Where’s James?”

“The Kois aren’t coming this year.”

“What?” Benji stopped. “Why not?”

“Nina hasn’t been feeling well lately. She was transferred to the hospital this morning.”

“Hospital? It’s that serious?”

Rebecca spotted a friendly face in the crowd and finally left Benji on his own.

He assumed Sam was probably off with Chloe somewhere, so he headed to the edge of the square, avoiding as many people as possible. Instead, he found Chloe. She was wearing a dress with a fuzzy jacket and had a mitt in her left hand. Across from her was their classmate, Jett Griffin, the last person Benji wanted to see at the festival. He was wearing his baseball uniform, most likely as a way to show off, except his cleats were subbed with sandals. A strange look for a strange kid.

“Benji! Sam was looking for you earlier.” Chloe raised her hand, and the ball went straight into it.

“Damn, you’re not too shabby, Mortimer.” Jett crossed his arms with a crooked smirk.

Benji tuned him out. “Where is she?”

“No clue, but if I had to guess, probably as far away from Audrey as possible.” Chloe chuckled. “Where’s James?”

He looked away. “He’s not coming.”

Jett shouted through cupped hands. “You gonna throw in the next few years?”

Chloe peeled her arm back, preparing to throw, but her focus was still glued to Benji. “Why not?”

“Nina’s in the hospital.”

Chloe threw the ball. In only a blink, Benji flinched from the shattering of glass and pottery against the concrete walkway. “The hospital? It’s that serious?” She saw the broken window and froze.

Jett lowered his empty mitt from the air, realizing he had missed the ball. He peeked through the gash in Ms. Camille’s flower shop and saw it lying on the floor, surrounded by dirt and toppled orchids. He ran a hand through his raven black hair and muttered a few words under his breath.

Benji paused at Chloe’s side, watching the scene. He had to work his hardest to keep from laughing at Jett’s frustration. He knew he should probably be concerned over the incident, but he couldn’t help it. Jett was always the cause of broken windows. A couple of years ago he had swung a baseball bat so hard it flew out of his hand and shattered the hallway window at school. The next day he was sweeping the classroom as punishment when he accidentally waved the metal dustpan right into the sky. And that was only the beginning of his career.

Benji leaned over Chloe’s shoulder and lowered his voice. “Why were you passing with Jett?”

“Come on, he’s really not a bad guy.” Her eyes traced the damage, and the crowd’s murmurs increased as news of the broken window spread. “It was my fault, not his. I was shocked, and my throw paid for it. Just kill me now and end my suffering.”

As much as Benji had tried to convince Chloe that Jett was an awful person, she never believed him. Of course she didn’t. Jett had a soft spot for everyone on the baseball and softball teams. What seemed like a threat to Benji could be perceived as a silly joke to Chloe.

It was only a matter of time before Ms. Camille came running through the square. Her curly white hair bounced around her hips, her heels clicking with obnoxious snaps. When her eyes met the flower shop, there wasn’t a dash of surprise in them. She crossed her arms and stared at Jett, waiting for an explanation.

“It wasn’t me this time.” He held his hands in the air. “I swear, it was Marino over there.”

Ms. Camille looked at Benji, and at that point, he couldn’t hold it back anymore. He burst into laughter, and had to take a few steps away. It was normal for Ms. Camille to wear more makeup than even the youthful women in town, but today it was especially heavy. She always took measures to act younger than her age, spreading rumors over which men in town were buying flowers, theorizing all kinds of complex love stories to fill the void of her unmarried soul. Benji wasn’t sure what was more comical—the fact that she considered he might be capable of throwing a baseball into her window, or that a bit of lipstick was smeared on her teeth.

“Sorry.” Chloe combed her hair with her fingers. “It was me.”

Ms. Camille studied her three suspects, weighing the evidence. “I don’t care which one of you threw it. Be lucky the festival put me in a good mood.” She reached into her purse and tossed Jett a ring of keys. “There’s a dustpan in the back closet. Sweep this up, will you?” She slipped back into the crowd, leaving Jett with a red face.

“What are you laughing at, Marino?”

Benji managed to suppress most of his hysteria. “Don’t you have some glass to sweep?”

“She should’ve given the keys to you. I’m not the one who distracted Chloe.”

“And I’m not the one who missed the ball.”

Jett stepped toward him, yanking his mitt off his hand. “You’ve sure got a big mouth for the height of a fifth grader.”

“Do you guys really have to argue?” Chloe tossed Jett his second mitt, stopping him in his tracks. “It was my fault, okay? Let it go.”

She wasn’t taking either of their sides, and for Jett, that was win. He shot Benji a crooked smile.

“Greetings!” Mayor Perkin’s booming voice blasted through the square.

“Look.” Chloe hopped a few times, pointing to the stage. “He’s starting his speech.” She flew into the busy crowd and disappeared. Soon everyone from school was licking ice cream and crowding below the mayor’s stage. Adults came next. Nearly two thousand people crammed into the courtyard, fighting for a decent spot in the crowd. While Jett struggled opening the door to the flower shop, Benji avoided the rush. He planted himself along the outskirts of the crowd, peeking through gaps between towering adults.

“Today is a special day because it marks the ten-year anniversary of Wishville’s safety.” The crowd cheered, and Benji grew smaller. “One decade ago this town made a group decision to stay safe together, united. Since then we have not lost a soul to the border.”

More cheering. Benji watched the glowing faces in disgust.

“Exactly ten years and ten days ago, I lost my best friend to that very border.” His voice sent chills through Benji’s arms. Everyone listened carefully, and the silence among the masses was perhaps the most frightening part. “Wishville is a family. We stick together. We protect each other.” He smiled and made eye contact with as many people as possible. “Because a decade has passed, we are dedicating this year’s festival to Scott Marino. He will forever be remembered as the last to leave. Without him, Wishville might have never changed. Without him, our town would not be united.”

Benji’s stomach churned.

“This will be a great year.” The mayor gestured to the crowd. “My daughter, Samantha, is now in the eighth grade. We also have an amazing high school graduating class who will grow to do great things for Wishville. My three sons look up to them, and it will only be a matter of time before they too stand on that stage.”

Benji couldn’t take any more of it. He slipped out of the crowd and left the square.



Standing on the rocky sand, he watched the waves spring about in front of him. Each breath smelled like Wishville, and he was sick of it. He was sick of being stuck. He was sick of the festival. He was sick of thinking about his father. He tossed himself onto the sand and groaned at the sky. I’m sick of gray. A seagull zipped above him. I’m sick of seagulls.

Sam loomed over him before tossing a can onto his stomach. “What’s with the gloom?”

Benji flinched from the impact of the can. The condensation dripped over his lap as he sat, proving it was pulled right out of a cooler. “Why are you here?”

Sam sat next to him. “I wanna hear his speech as much as you do.” Her hair bubbled in the wind, frizzy as always. He could tell by her face that she was equally frustrated. “He thinks he’s so great, and everyone believes it.

It was another one of her rants about Mayor Perkins being her father. If anything, she should consider it a privilege. He was the most likable man in town.

Not wanting to make her frustration any worse by commenting, Benji wiped his hands on his sweater and opened the soda. “Thanks.” He took a tiny sip before his reflexes yanked it away from him. Cherry. He winced. She knew he hated that flavor.

“Aw, leave me alone. It’s all they had.” She leaned back, propping herself up by extending her arms behind her. They smelled the salt in the air, the soft support of sand beneath them. A seagull landed, pecking at a package of peanuts that the wind had blown to the shore. “You haven’t been thinking about leaving again, have you?”

“I always am.” He watched the seagull carefully. It pecked until there were no more specks of peanuts on the sand, flapped its wings, and kicked off the ground into the sky. Benji could only see a hovering speck before he lost sight of it. “Can I ask you something?”

Sam opened her own soda, also cherry. “You can try.”

“Is James okay?” Benji drew shapes in the sand with his fingers. “Nina was taken to the hospital this morning. Sounds like she’ll be there awhile, but he hasn’t even mentioned her lately.”

“So that’s why he wasn’t at Blueberry.” She frowned. “What’s with the weird face?”

“Well…something weird happened last night.”

She sipped her soda. “Are you gonna tell me or what?”

“When I got home from Blueberry last night, James and Nina were there. She kept apologizing to me, and I have no idea why.”

“The Koi’s are weird. I gave up trying to understand them years ago.” She tapped her fingers against the can in sync with the latest song she’d been practicing. “She’s probably being overdramatic about something stupid.”

The two sat in silence for a while, an unnatural occurrence for Sam. They sipped their sodas and winced at the taste of artificial cherry. Benji could hear the musicians starting their ugly music back at the square, marking the end of the mayor’s speech. He was trying to decipher the lyrics when Sam spoke again. “You wanna talk about it?”

“About what?”

“Your dad.” Another sip. “Leaving Wishville. All that.”

Benji stood, kicked off his shoes, and removed his socks.

“Benji, it’s dangerous.”

Ignoring her, he ran to the shore and traced his toes along the freezing waterline. The damp sand and wind brushing against his face sent goosebumps to his arms. He took another step.
Sam had caught up to him by now. “You’re such an idiot.” Her shoes were still on.

“Oh, have some fun.” He rolled his jeans and let the water run to his calves.

“Alright, that’s enough.” Sam rushed toward him as the waves receded, backing away when they came back stronger. “Seriously, Benji. It’s not like humans can swim.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Invisibility, swimming, telepathy. You know, things called superpowers.” She crossed her arms. “We don’t live in a fairy tale. If the current takes you, there’s no coming back.”

“And what do you think is out there?” He pointed to the horizon. “What’s past that weird line in the sky?”

“I used to wonder that too.” Sam took another step away. “Listen, my dad says a lot of stupid stuff, but there’s one thing he’s right about.”

Benji turned around to face her, feet still submersed.

“Whatever’s past that bridge is dangerous. Any idiot could figure that out. How come everyone who left never came back? Your dad left to answer that question, promising to return in ten days. And still, poof! Ten years later, and he’s still gone.”

He heard the story of Scott’s experiment a million times, but something about Sam telling him now caused a bundle of despair to burrow its way into his stomach.

“I won’t let you leave.” Her hair jumped in the wind like embers from a flame. “Wishville sucks, but it’s all we have.”

“Sure.” Benji nodded, but he felt nothing. “I guess.” He stepped out of the water, sand accumulating on his feet as an unreliable sock.

Sam’s frown lightened as they walked away from the shore. When they reached their original spot, they sat and balanced their sodas on the sand.

“Plus,” she said, “how do you plan on leaving town when your mom hardly lets you leave the house?”

“Oh, shut up.” He put his socks and shoes back on, not even bothering to get rid of the sand on his feet. He wanted to remember the feeling.

“She doesn’t know you came here, does she?”

“Nope, and she won’t know, because you aren’t gonna tell her.” He swiped her soda from the sand and held it in front of him.

“What, you think I’m a snitch?” She reached for the can, but he pulled it away. “Seriously, Benji, I’m the one who bought it.”

He laughed and returned it to her with a fading grin. Today was another awful spring festival to add to the list of memories. Another day in Wishville. Another day the same. Benji was surrounded by everyone he knew. He was sitting next to a girl who claimed to understand him. Yet for some strange reason, he had never felt less understood.