When children start to go missing in the local woods, a teen girl must face her fears and a past she can’t remember to rescue them…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Lost in the Never Woods, an atmospheric reimagining of Peter Pan from author Aiden Thomas—publishing March 23rd with Swoon Reads.
It’s been five years since Wendy and her two brothers went missing in the woods, but when the town’s children start to disappear, the questions surrounding her brothers’ mysterious circumstances are brought back into the light. Attempting to flee her past, Wendy almost runs over an unconscious boy lying in the middle of the road…
Peter, a boy she thought lived only in her stories, asks for Wendy’s help to rescue the missing kids. But, in order to find them, Wendy must confront what’s waiting for her in the woods.
A child’s scream cut through the air. She jumped and swung around toward the wail. It sounded like it had come from her backyard.
The stranger laughed again, but when Wendy turned back to face him, he was gone.
Another cry rang out, and this time it continued without stopping. It was a child.
And it was definitely coming from behind the backyard.
Without another thought, Wendy dropped her bag and ran for the gate. She raced along the side of the house, feet pounding on the cement. She tripped over the handle of a rake and sprinted into the backyard. It stretched out before her. The old swings waved in the breeze, and standing just past that on the other side of the small fence was a little boy. He continued to cry, and Wendy slowed her pace, taking cautious steps.
Closer now, she recognized the back of the little boy’s head, and his oversized blue hoodie.
“Alex?” Wendy said. The crying cut off abruptly. He remained still, facing the woods with his back to her. Wendy’s own breaths roared in her ears. “Alex, what are you doing here?” She slowly stepped closer to him.
Alex finally turned.
Small twigs and leaves were stuck in his mess of brown hair. His eyes were huge. Black pupils devoured any trace of his brown irises. Tears rolled down his dirt-stained cheeks.
“Alex, what happened?” she asked gently, extending a hand out for him to take. It quivered.
Something was very wrong. Not just the fact that he shouldn’t be here, in her backyard, but the stricken look on his face, the earthy smell in the breeze, even the deadly quiet that hung in the air.
Wendy’s eyes kept darting to the woods behind him. The dark trees loomed over Alex’s tiny form. She couldn’t see into them, but the feeling of something waiting there in the dark made her skin crawl.
“Alex.” Urgency leapt in her throat. “Take my hand—”
Wendy lunged forward to grab him, hips slamming into the short fence, but before she could reach, Alex’s mouth opened wide.
He screamed with his whole body.
Wendy cringed as the sound’s sharpness split through her. She stumbled forward, nearly toppling over the fence as she tried to reach him. With a violent gust of cold wind, something like large, crooked fingers made of tar lashed out from the trees and ensnared Alex’s legs, knocking him to the ground. He scrabbled at the dirt, trying to claw his way toward Wendy, but the fingers dragged him to the trees.
“Alex! ” Wendy screamed.
His eyes found hers. For a moment, she could clearly see his face—terrified and chalky, his fingers digging into the dirt—before the woods swallowed him whole.
Without pause, Wendy jumped the fence and ran straight into the forest.
The woods were alive.
It was hard to see a path through the brambles and gnarled roots. Wendy kept tripping, her forward momentum the only thing keeping her upright. The tree branches reached out at her like thorny arms, trying to pull her into a painful embrace. They slapped her cheeks, tangled in her hair, and bit her legs, but Wendy urged herself forward. Each footfall on the uneven ground jarred, ankle to knee, ankle to knee. She had to get to Alex. She wouldn’t let him be taken by the woods or whatever that thing was.
Wendy ran as fast as she could after Alex, straining her ears to guide her to his voice. She couldn’t see him, but she could hear his cries up ahead.
She threw herself forward, forcing herself to go faster, to keep up, not to lose him in the woods. “ALEX!” she tried to call out to him, but her lungs burned.
Wendy didn’t notice the voices at first.
They were quiet, just whispers coming from the woods around her. They could’ve been the hiss of passing branches. Then came the sound of light footfalls, like people—or things—ran in the woods around her. All she could make out were low-hanging branches and dark figures darting between the endless rows of trees. Voices snaked through the ivy-covered giants. They whispered against her neck, but Wendy couldn’t understand what they were saying. Each breath brought a new swell of fear.
It was disorienting. Everything was off-kilter. Wendy was lost. Was she running to Alex, or was she being chased?
“Wendy, help!” Alex’s wail broke through the murmuring.
A choked cry forced its way into her throat. Wendy threw herself forward with even greater abandon.
She latched on to his voice like a lifeline and ran after it. Her brain screamed at her to turn around and go back, but she couldn’t abandon Alex. She wouldn’t.
Suddenly, something caught around her ankle and she tumbled forward. Wendy pitched head over heels before slamming to the ground. The force sent her skidding onto her side. Leaves and rocks scraped against her shoulder.
Wendy groaned. Dirt and the coppery taste of blood were on her tongue. With effort, she pushed herself up onto her knees. Her body protested, but she couldn’t stop. She had to get up, she had to keep running, she had to find Alex.
Wendy staggered to her feet.
She had collapsed in a clearing. Tall trees stood around her in a circle. Their bodies towered over her, their branches reaching high above their heads. Thick leaves blotted out any view of the night sky. Sucking down air, Wendy tried to regain her bearings. She was completely turned around.
Which way had she come from? And where was Alex? She couldn’t hear his voice anymore. In fact, she couldn’t hear anything—no crickets, no wind, no owls. The silence pressed in around her, broken only by her labored breaths.
Then Wendy heard a faint noise, something she couldn’t quite make out, but it was growing steadily louder. Fingernails dug into her palms as she clenched her fists.
The sounds of breathing filled the air around her. It was like standing in a room packed with people she couldn’t see. She could only hear their breathing, could only feel it exhaled against her skin. Some breathed slowly, others erratically, all toppling over one another and only getting louder.
Wendy’s head jerked from side to side, desperately looking for where the noise was coming from, but no one was there. The breathing turned into indecipherable whispers.
Wendy grimaced against the sound. What was happening to her?
“ALEX!” Wendy shouted, trying to find his voice among the murmurs. Maybe if he heard her, he would call back. “ALEX, WHERE ARE YOU?!”
Something cold and wet slid across Wendy’s ankle.
When she looked down, something pitch black had seeped out of the ring of trees. Wendy stumbled back, but her feet sank into the muck, nearly knocking her off-balance. The whispers grew urgent and called out to her. Wendy tried to run, but her feet were stuck. Tendrils reached out and wrapped around her legs, ice cold as they traveled up. She was slowly sinking, being pulled down into the earth.
“No, no, no!” Panic seized Wendy. She tried to pull her leg free, but the shadows snatched her wrists. Sticky claws wound up her arms to her neck. Wendy thrashed as she sank to her waist. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks as she tried to pull it off her face, but it just stretched and oozed over her hands as it continued to make its way to her mouth.
As it started to curl over her lips, Wendy jerked her head back, sucked in a deep breath, and screamed for the only person she could think of.
Excerpted from Lost in the Never Woods, copyright © 2021 by Aiden Thomas.