Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
The problem with living inside the belly of a magical whale for eighty-eight days is the boredom. My best friend, Germ, and I are making the best of it by playing War.
“You got all the aces,” Germ says. She is lounging on a La-Z-Boy, eating Doritos. “You always get aces.”
“You’re exaggerating,” I say. But she’s right, I do get all the aces.
I look at my hand, the wrinkled cards we’ve played a thousand times since boarding. My pile is huge and Germ’s is dwindling. This happens all the time, and yet… and yet… somehow, even though it’s purely a game of chance, Germ always wins. I’m so close to victory, I can taste it, but I’m pretty sure it will slip away.
I know this is not typically what anyone would expect to find in here, two twelve-year-old girls playing cards and stuffing their faces. To look around, you wouldn’t even know we’re inside an ageless, time-traveling creature at all. If anything, it looks like Germ’s grammie’s house, which I visited once when we were little.
Off to the right is our bedroom, with an orange rug and two beds where we sleep. Here in the center there’s a TV and two beat-up La-Z-Boys, with bowls full of our favorite snacks on a table in between. There’s also a dining table and a shag rug, and a treadmill and mini trampoline for Germ, who can never sit still for long.
Still, there are some indicators that we’re not in Kansas anymore. For one thing, there’s a giant glass “moonroof” above that affords us a view of the blue ocean water above. There are travel brochures littering the room that offer guidance on trips to the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, specific eras like the Han dynasty, the Gupta empire, and so on. There’s also a full-color coffee-table book called Welcome to the Sea of Always that includes a primer on the magical creatures of the ocean of time, and a terrifying who’s who profile on someone called the pirate king and his army of bones. Plus a rundown on the rules of time travel, which includes things like:
No crossing paths with your former or future self unless you want to create a troublesome wormhole.
People of the past can’t see you unless they have the sight.
No returning to your starting place until your journey is at an end.
The book and brochures came in a gift basket that was waiting for us when we boarded—the kind you get from nice hotels, full of colorful tissue paper and apples and pears and a pineapple and some chocolate bars, plus spare toothpaste and some welcome papers. Germ and I long ago devoured the chocolate, tossed the fruit, and made tiny spitballs out of the tissue paper to shoot through straws at each other.
Anyway, we basically have everything two twelve-year-old girls could need while traveling through time—except our moms, and school, and humans besides each other.
Germ’s theory is that the whale (whom she’s named Chompy… since her favorite name, Chauncey, didn’t fit right) provides everything you need for whatever kind of passenger you are, hence the Doritos and the Pop-Tarts. (The first three days, I ate Pop-Tarts until I barfed.) It also explains why there are photos of her boyfriend, D’quan Daniels, and Olympic women athletes magically pasted on the wall beside her bed, while on my side there are favorite books of mine like The Secret Garden and One Crazy Summer and Because of Winn-Dixie, and some of my favorites from when I was little, like The Snowy Day. It explains why Germ’s favorite show, LA Pet Psychic, is on permanent loop on the TV and why we have several copies of Pet Psychic magazine on the coffee table. There are also cinnamon-scented candles (Germ loves cinnamon-scented candles) and matchbooks everywhere to light them.
We have everything we need. But the truth is, time feels endless inside the whale, and I guess that’s because it is. I think it’s safe to say that in the outside world (the one we left behind), time is passing… but within our whale, time stands still. I know this because I have a tiny hourglass necklace given to me by a witch, and not a grain of sand has dropped through it… and yet, according to Germ’s watch, eighty-eight days have passed. We keep track of that time (home time) by marking the wall with a Sharpie (thanks, Chompy!) every time Germ’s watch circles noon. So somehow time is moving, and also it’s not.
Either way, we’re excruciatingly bored—and so we’ve passed the days by trying at least fifty ways to wear eyeliner, played at least a thousand games of War, painted our toenails every color of the rainbow, had hour-long burping contests, ranked all the boys at our school back home in terms of cuteness. (Germ is devoted to D’quan but says you can’t blame a girl for looking. And anyway, D’quan doesn’t know the real reason why we disappeared and might think we’re dead.)
We’ve discussed what seventh grade is going to be like if we live to see some of it, and I have promised to let Germ drag me to more parties, and promised to at least try to like her other bestie, Bibi West (who now prefers to be called by her full name, Bibiana, though we can’t get used to it and always forget). We’ve read all the travel guides Chompy has provided. We’ve read and reread our most important book of all, The Witch Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, backward and forward a thousand times. Germ has made me a special friendship bracelet to hold my whale whistle to my wrist. And now… we’re back to War.
“Aw! Isn’t Chompy sweet?” Germ squeals, looking over at a small bowl of M&M’s that has appeared beside me. Staring at my M&M’s, I bite my tongue. Chompy does seem to anticipate all our needs. (He’s very subtle about it. You look away for a moment, or blink your eyes, or start to daydream, and that’s when he changes things on you.) BUT Chompy also used to serve a witch (granted, the witch is dead) whose whistle now belongs to us.
“He’d probably be just as eager to provide witches whatever they needed,” I say. “Like, we get M&M’s…. They get cauldrons for cooking children in.”
“Shh. You’ll hurt his feelings,” Germ hisses, glancing at the domed ceiling above us.
Chompy gives a shudder. Which makes me, for a moment, panicked. I’m always nervous that at any moment something on Chompy could go haywire. In the grand scheme of things, we’re a very tiny vessel surrounded by seawater that could drown us, after all.
“See?” Germ says with accusing eyes.
“He was avoiding that octopus,” I say, pointing out the moonroof at an enormous red creature floating above and past us.
Germ softens again, and she grins. “Every time I think of octopuses, I think about that time in first grade.”
I lay my ace down and swipe Germ’s jack, flustered. Here we go.
It’s one of the infamous moments of my childhood. At school we were playing the Farmer in the Dell, where everyone picks partners until someone is a supposedly lonely, solitary piece of cheese. (Don’t ask me, I didn’t invent the special brand of torture that is the Farmer in the Dell.)
Someone had already picked Germ, so I knew I would be the cheese at the end, which would be horribly embarrassing. And so when the game was whittled down to about three people, I pointed out the window and yelled that purple eight-armed aliens were invading from outer space and we all needed to run for our lives. Somehow, I was so convincing that I got everyone to look out the window at the sky.
“That was the best,” Germ says, ignoring the fact that being the girl who pretended we were being attacked by aliens turned out to be way more embarrassing than being the cheese. She lays down an ace, her only one, and we go to war. She wins with a seven to my five, and gains a bunch of cards. The next round is a war too; Germ wins again. My pile dwindles.
I feel a reluctant smile creep onto my face. Germ seems to think that all sorts of things about me are charming, things I wish I could change—like how I scowl at people I don’t know and spend most of our schooltime looking out the window imagining how nice it would be to walk through a door into the clouds, away from everyone but my best friend.
She lays down a nine that brings us to war. While I’ve been ruminating on my shortcomings, she’s managed to get the last two of my aces. Ugh.
The rest of the game follows suit. Germ’s hands move quickly as she confiscates my best cards. Soon they’re all gone. She looks at me apologetically.
“Sorry, Rosie, I really wanted you to win.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “I wanted you to win too.”
She yawns. “I’m gonna turn in.”
Germ goes to our room and shimmies into a hot-pink pajama ensemble, provided by Chompy of course, that sets off her pale pinkish freckled cheeks and strawberry-blond hair and fits her ample frame perfectly. I change into an oversize T-shirt and sloppy flannel pants. Germ brushes her teeth and washes her face with this new cream she’s been using. I run a brush over my teeth but skip the washing. Germ says “I look gorgeous” to the mirror and crawls into bed—a waterbed she’s always dreamt of having. I glance at my own reflection—unbrushed brown hair, teeth too big for my mouth, shoulders too high for my neck. I’ve been waiting for a growth spurt all my life, and now that I’m having one, it seems like all my body parts are growing at different rates.
Germ kneels by her bed and does her nightly ritual: a Hail Mary and an Our Father. Then a prayer to the Moon Goddess for good measure. It’s not all that conventional for a Catholic to believe in a goddess who lives on the moon, but Germ is her own person.
“Moon Goddess,” she says to the ceiling, “please look after Ebb, wherever he is… even if he’s nothing.”
I wince; an ache flares in my chest. The last time we saw our ghost friend Ebb was the night the Time Witch came and did something terrible to him. (We’ll probably never know what.) He was already dead when I knew him, but he’s probably worse than dead now.
“And please,” Germ adds, “send someone, preferably an adult, to help us kill the witches.” She pops an eye open to glance at me for a second, then closes it again. “Rosie’s great and all, and I’m sure she’ll nail it,” she says unconvincingly, “but come on, some help would be nice. Thank you.”
Then she lies down. She lies with her eyes closed, but keeps talking.
“What do you think my mom’s doing right now?” she says.
I’m quiet for a moment. “Missing you.”
Germ sighs and pauses briefly before continuing.
“Do you think people are sleeping over at Bibi’s right now? It might be Friday night. Friday nights are party nights when you get to seventh grade.”
“I think party nights are more like when you’re in high school,” I say, though Bibi does have a lot of sleepovers.
Germ nods, her eyes still closed, a slight frown playing on her lips.
“I don’t want to miss seventh grade,” she says.
“I know, Germ,” I say back.
“But I want to be here too.”
And despite what we are here for, and where we are going and why we are on this whale at all, Germ falls asleep quickly. She sleeps the sleep of the untroubled and the brave.
I stay awake; I am neither untroubled nor brave. My courage has yet to show up.
You’ll have to go through them to get to me. That’s what the Time Witch said, the night she came to me. Eleven witches left. And to save Wolf, I am to kill them all. Some how, beyond all laws of reason, I—homework-forgetting, cloud-watching, non-friend-making Rosie Oaks, the girl who hides in the corner at school dances, the one who has to be the cheese—am the world’s last and only witch hunter.
I would never tell Germ this, but I know—know for certain—I can’t do it.
Restless, I walk on soft feet to the front of our ship and tread up the three carpeted steps to the soothing space nestled like a large berth above Chompy’s mouth and a few feet above the level of the living room, where his brain would probably be if he weren’t a magical creature. This is the strangest and most magical section of our vessel. We call it “the Grand View.”
There are two velvet curtains parted to either side, framing a dark, open space with two comfy leather seats facing a concave black wall. Just in front of the wall, on the floor, is a circle glowing with silvery light—like the kind you might see in a pool at night. But unlike pool lights, this light is magical, and projects a beam upward and all around us in a kind of sphere that holds luminous, three-dimensional images.
They float and fly around me, representing a 360-degree view of the ocean that surrounds us—blue 3D images of underwater volcanoes, dark sea-floor caves, giant fish, and so on. Right now, aside from the odd giant jellyfish or squid, the glowing space is bluish and blank, showing the ocean around us as mostly empty.
In the very center of the room is the map, which floats blue and translucent and flat, as if laid out on an invisible table.
The map itself is really two things overlaid: a flat view of the seven continents of the real world laid out along lines of latitude and longitude, and a tightly coiled spiral line stretching and swirling on top of it. In other words, it’s a spiral within a grid. The grid, we’ve figured out, represents the real and concrete space of Earth. The spiral represents time, and spirals inward from the moment we left home (where it’s cut off by the map’s edges) to a beginning point right in the center, which we can only suppose marks the beginning of history. The spiral circles inward above the map of continents, coiling too many times to count. (I suppose magic makes this possible; it seems there are an almost infinite number of coils. Germ says she doesn’t really “get” the map, but I think it’s kind of beautiful and symbolic.) And there is always a tiny blue glowing whale marking the location of Chompy somewhere along it.
Swimming the Sea of Always—for a time whale, at least—works like this: if you want to get to South Africa 1890, you follow the spiral around and around past that general location on the map over and over until you get to the coil of spiral that also represents the time you want to reach. Of course, to travel the entire spiral, or to pass every moment in history, would take too long to contemplate, but Chompy takes shortcuts—veering right across from one section of the spiral to another, though what his plan is when he’s taking these twists and turns, we don’t honestly know.
Floating words to the left of the map spell out where we are in time, to be helpful. Right now, apparently, we’re swimming past Yugoslavia, 1990. In the upper right corner of the map, our destination is also spelled out in floating letters: San Francisco, 1855. Beneath that is our days until arrival: six. Six days, whale time… and Germ still sleeps like a log, while I go hot and cold every time I see that number get lower! Six days until my chance to steal back the precious person the Time Witch stole from me.
On the concave wall at the edge of this space, I have taped two photos: one of my mom and dad before I was born (and before my dad died), provided by Chompy. The other is one I brought aboard myself, an old-timey photo of my brother (the only one I have of him) standing in front of an old building, looking beyond the camera. I think he was looking at the witch who keeps him prisoner, because he looks petrified.
My mom told me a few months ago, when the memory came back to her, that I cried for a month straight after he was taken. She said most newborns cry but that I was inconsolable, and looking back, she believes it was the loss of my twin that broke my heart.
The photo is all I have to go on, because it’s the one clue the Time Witch gave me the night she set me her gamble: thirty days to save him. Thirty days that begin once we are off this timeless whale, days that will be tracked by the small hourglass hanging around my neck.
I turn and make my way back downstairs, to our room and my soft bed. I take my Harry Potter Lumos flashlight out from under my covers and shine it onto my bedspread, making a tiny, luminous bluebird appear. She is a witch weapon of my own making, and she is our only chance.
I snuggle into my covers and watch Little One waddle around over my feet. I flick her across the room to tidy up my bookshelf. Ever since we boarded, I’ve been teaching her silly tricks, having her fetch me snacks, or pencils, or anything else I’m too lazy to get myself. Now she looks at me—small, and shivery, and uncertain. “You look like I feel,” I say to her.
I turn the flashlight off and roll onto my side and try to drift off. I watch Germ’s back as she sleeps.
Sometimes I’m able to forget we are ten thousand leagues under the sea. Other times, I can’t forget the ocean and its dark deep water beyond these walls. I listen to Chompy’s groans, soft calls, and whale song that echo all around us. Germ often says he’s singing us to sleep, but I don’t believe it.
I start to drift off.
And then, something changes. I’m shaken awake.
As I blink in the dim light, I realize it’s Chompy that’s shaking. This time violently.
Germ tumbles out of bed, hair sticking straight up.
The vessel around us is shuddering, changing course. Chompy tilts backward with a sudden jolt, and I slide off my bed too.
We are rising. Fast.
“DESTINATION APPROACHING,” comes a loud, detached computer voice from the Grand View.
“What’s happening?” Germ gasps.
“I don’t know.” I untangle from my covers and pull myself toward the front of the ship and up the steps. On the monitor, the ocean is still and empty. The destination still says San Francisco, 1855, six days.
“ARRIVING AT DESTINATION,” the voice says.
“We gotta get ready!” I gasp.
I run, slide, stumble back to my bed as we feel Chompy level out. I snatch my flashlight, stuff it into my pocket, and wrap my fingers around my hourglass necklace nervously.
Chompy rocks to a violent stop, and my heart drops to my stomach.
It’s about to begin. Our war against the witches. Too soon.
There is a sound like a creaky door as Chompy begins to open his enormous mouth.
“Act normal,” I say quickly to Germ, though we’ve been over this before. “This is gonna be a busy, hot city, full of people from 1855. Some of them may have the sight. If we run into anyone who takes notice of us, never, never tell them who we are.”
Germ nods, and then points to the hand I hold at my collarbone. My hourglass has leapt into motion. Sand has begun to trickle into the lower half. As it enters the bottom half, the sand transforms into a deep red liquid that floats within the glass, and slowly spells out the number thirty. I swallow. The blood-red thirty spins slowly, so that I can see it from all sides. It’s like a tiny version of the holograms of the Grand View, only creepy instead of magical.
Normally fearless, Germ has gone ghostly pale with nerves as she sees it too. We are just at the surface of the sea, and water begins to trickle in at our feet. It is so frigid, it takes my breath.
And then I realize that maybe I’m supposed to give a pep talk. I am the last witch hunter, after all.
“We’re ready for them,” I say. “We know where we’re going, and we know what we’re looking for, and we know Little One can do this.”
Germ nods, trying to look convinced.
I stand poised, with my weapon ready.
And I find I am, altogether, wrong.
We are not ready for this at all.