“Now wake up, mate. I’m comin’.”
I awoke slowly, the dream lingering like an afterimage. I clung to it, trying to pull myself back in, but it slipped away into the darkness of reality…
Another few seconds and I was wide awake. The dream already seemed like a distant memory. It had been a good dream, I remembered that much. Something about the Island…
The clock on my nightstand read 11:38 p.m. I stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, trying to remember more of the dream, but as always, the details drifted tantalizingly just beyond my conscious reach. Finally I gave up and, yawning, rolled onto my side and closed my eyes.
It came from outside, behind me—a faint crunch of dry leaves.
My eyes snapped open. Automatically I drew my covers tighter around my shoulders, hairs prickling all over my body. I listened intently but didn’t dare roll over to look out the window behind me.
It was your imagination, I told myself. You were practically asleep, so—
It wasn’t my imagination.
Panic and adrenaline shot through me like electricity, and I frantically scrambled out of bed and lunged for the stairs—then saw the closed door. The memory of slamming it flashed behind my eyes, and I froze while reaching for the doorknob. What the hell was I going to do, run scared to my mommy? I couldn’t do that, especially not now.
Another crunch—leaves being stepped on, I was almost certain.
Suddenly feeling courageous—or perhaps just reckless—I spun around and peered out the window.
From across the room, in the darkness, I couldn’t see much of anything. Still, I let out a breath of relief. I listened another five or ten seconds, but heard nothing more.
It was probably just an animal. A raccoon, maybe a squirrel.
But what if it wasn’t? What if it was a robber? Or worse…?
Hell, maybe it’s Santa Claus getting a head start.
I snorted, smiling, and my anxiety abated a bit. I decided I was being ridiculous. Scaring myself. Totally overreacting.
Nevertheless, I knew I probably wouldn’t sleep again tonight unless I investigated a bit.
I slowly tiptoed up to the window and scanned the roof of the garage, which my room sat on top of. Nothing. From inside the window, though, I could see little to either side. Trying to pretend to myself that I wasn’t afraid in the slightest, I unlocked the window, slid it open, and—
The cheerful voice of a boy, seemingly right in my ear: “Boo.”
I yelped, leapt back, and tumbled backward over my bed, crashing to the carpet behind it. I quickly peeked over the mattress, my heart going crazy, just as a dark, humanlike figure swung down from the roof of my room and perched on the windowsill.
After some careful consideration, I decided I’d seen enough. I scrambled to my feet and lunged for the door—but never reached it. Something grabbed my collar (How the hell’d it move so fast?!) and yanked me backward. I landed on the bed on my back, and before I could move, the figure was standing astride my waist. A boy’s shadowy face loomed over me, eerily backlit by the moonlight, and for one heart-stopping moment, I was certain I was about to die.
Then the boy grinned broadly and said in a cheerful, Australian accent, “G’day, Ricky.”
Hearing my name in his voice, I realized instantly:
This boy seemed somehow…familiar…
The boy backflipped off the bed—yeah, backflipped—and landed lightly on the floor in front of me. “No worries, mate,” he said. “I’m na here to hurt ya.”
I sat up slowly, my heart still freaking out, and glanced at the door. Common sense was advising me, DON’T JUST SIT THERE, YOU DUMBASS, RUUUUNNNN!!! But the boy’s casual friendliness and distinct familiarity won me over.
I eyed him up and down. Seeing my inspection, the boy did a dainty pirouette, like a girl showing off a dress. He looked about my age, sixteen. He was lean and deeply tanned, and had a friendly face, twinkling blue eyes, and scruffy blonde hair. He wore only a pair of dirty, tan shorts that looked like something an American Indian might have worn.
And for just an instant, I thought it looked like his right hand and wrist were glowing very faintly—as if his skin had absorbed a mist of pale light. It was just barely perceptible, though, and the next instant my mind had dismissed it as a trick of the moonlight.
“Who are you?” I asked, my voice slightly shaky.
“My name is Peter,” the boy said, and he bowed theatrically—“…and I’m from the Island.”
My breath caught.
After a moment, I said, “Which island?”
Peter grinned. “The Island.” “There’s a lot of islands in the world.”
His grin widened. “In this world, yeah.”
That sentence seemed to whirl around the inside of my skull for a good five seconds, gathering momentum, before it slammed into my brain.
Then I said, “Holy shit.”
Alex clapped Hooke on the shoulder and said, “This here’s the Captain. We call him Cap.”
Hooke was staring at me rather coldly, his eyes narrowed slightly. A tiny chill tickled the back of my neck, but I held his gaze.
“Ye got guts, lad,” Hooke growled. “I ain’t sure ‘bout brains, but ye sure as bloody hell got guts.” Then his face broke into a wide, jolly smile. “You’re a foine addition to this crew.”
He stuck out his hand; I couldn’t help smiling back as I shook it.
“When we started calling him Captain, it kinda got to his head,” Alex said to me, a bit quietly, as if then Hooke wouldn’t hear. “Now he thinks he’s the captain of an old sailing ship or something.”
“Aye,” Hooke said loftily, “and a damn foine cap’n I am, ay lads?”
Alex said to me matter-of-factly, “Cap’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal.”
“And some nuggets, too, if ya ask me,” Nigel said.
Hooke’s eyes narrowed. “Ye best mind what ye be sayin’, lads, or I’ll throw both your arses overboard.”
Alex smiled at me. “See what I mean?” Before Hooke could retort, Alex pointed to Nigel and said, “And that’s Dread.”
Nigel rolled his eyes.
“‘Cause of his dreadlocks?” I said.
“No,” Alex said, “‘cause he eats like a pregnant American whale. He’s the dread of buffet owners worldwide.” Alex grinned, clearly proud of himself. “I think it’s an awesome nickname.”
“I think it’s a juvenile and offensive nickname,” Nigel said.
“I think it’s an awesome nickname,” Alex repeated importantly.
“I rest my case,” Nigel said.
“Ahh,” Alex waved him off, “Dread just likes to argue with me about everything.”
“I don’t argue with you about anything, you argue with me.”
Alex smiled at me. “See what I mean?”
“I don’t argue with you, Alex,” Nigel said patiently. “I just occasionally express my disbelief at your never-ending displays of dumbassity.”
“What does ‘dumbassity’ mean?” Alex said.
Nigel rolled his eyes and looked at me. “See what I mean?”
Alex leaned toward me, feigning confidentiality. “Dread likes to show off the size of his vocabulary. I think he’s compensating for something.”
“Alex likes to show off the size of his brain,” Nigel said. “It makes his balls look bigger by comparison.”
Alex opened his mouth to retort, but Oscar interrupted: “I can’t tell whether you two are comparing how big your packages are or how big your mouths are. But I can think of a way for you to measure both at the same time.”
“That,” Alex said to me, rolling his eyes, “is Mariah Bell. I call her Oscar, ‘cause she is a royal grouch.”
“And look,” Mariah said, spreading her hands and looking around, “I even live in a trash can.”
Alex smiled at me. “See what I mean?”