“Kieren, what is DW?” I asked, the pieces of the puzzle all floating before me - my first trip down; the stolen egg timer; Piper McMahon, who got on Robbie’s train at the station; the train with its ghastly conductor, his eyes piercing through mine, seeing through me. My mother’s eyes in the hotel. She didn’t know me. Or did she?
“I don’t know,” he answered. “It’s like a shadow, I guess. Like the echo of somebody screaming. But there’s no way to stop hearing it.”
I shook my head. “There must be a way.”
The planes intersected like a network, like a web. We had taken a wrong turn on our way home, and we had ended up on the wrong string. That was all. It was like a computer. Like a motherboard, the circuits wired together just so.
“And if we rewire it?” I asked of nobody, although Kieren was still there listening. “If we break down the pieces, put them back together?”
“What are you talking about, M?”
Robbie and Piper had come up next to us, with Scott trailing behind, but I wasn’t looking at them.
“Yesterday, Kieren,” I said, feeling a flood of adrenaline overtake me. The great high of solving a mystery, of being so close to a goal that you can smell it. “We go into Yesterday. We change the past.”
“You can’t go into Yesterday,” he reminded me. “It’s bricked up.”
Something John had said was stuck in my mind. It was about the coin made on the tracks, the one that I used to pay the conductor. He had already known about it. They all had. Which means my mother knew about it too.
And she was on the tracks the night she disappeared.
“She made a key,” I realized. “That’s why she was on the tracks that night.” I turned back to the others. “We assumed she was trying to go through the train portal - to find you, Robbie. But if she did that, she would have been trapped on that train with you. No, she wasn’t there for the train portal. She was there to make a key.”
“You mean like the coin I made you?” asked Kieren.
“Yes. You made it on the tracks where the portal is. And somehow, for some reason, maybe some of that energy got trapped in that coin. Because it has a special power. You can use it to control DW - to go wherever you want to go. That’s how we got here.” I explained, nodding to Robbie and Piper.
“Marina handed the coin to the conductor,” Piper explained. “And he took us home. Or wherever we are.”
“And you think that coin could also open the Yesterday door?” Kieren asked, following my reasoning.
“I do,” I explained, my thoughts returning to those doors under the school, the brick walls, the little peepholes with nothing but blackness inside. “They aren’t peepholes,” I realized. “They’re coin slots.”
Kieren exhaled and cradled his head in his hands. We all fell silent for a moment, letting the ideas settle over us. The more I thought about it, the surer I was that I was right. All the pieces seemed to fit - why Mom was on the tracks that night, why she then went into the high school.
She must have realized it was too late to get Robbie off the train, too late to prevent what was inevitably going to happen as a result of him being there -namely, that the world she had built under the lake and ours would cross.
But what if the world under the lake had never existed in the first place?
What if Robbie had never been hit by the train?
A guard walked by then, wearing the same uniform that the man driving the fire truck and the one at the jail had been wearing. He eyed us unevenly for a moment, making me realize how suspicious we must have seemed, standing in a cluster, wearing shoes, which no one who wasn’t part of the town’s elite was still allowed to do.
We bowed our heads and started walking, pretending to take an interest in a carnival game where you shoot water pistols into a clown’s mouth, trying to blow up the balloon on top. We all picked up a water gun, and Kieren handed the barker some money.
The guard finally moved on, convinced, I suppose, that we were the teenage children of some important colonel or general, and that we were enjoying the carnival like everyone else.
“She went into Yesterday,” I concluded, knowing now that it must have been true. “But whatever she tried to do didn’t work. If it had, the world wouldn't be like this now. We have to follow her...and find out what went wrong.”
Piper took aim at a clown’s mouth, waiting for the game to start. “How do you know you’ll go to the same place as her, though?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“I mean,” she began, “the door to Today leads to all sorts of places. I usually end up in town, by the drugstore.”
It was Kieren who spoke up this time. “And I used to land in my bedroom, holding the wrench I use to fix my skateboard wheels when they come loose.”
I looked down at my hand, gripping the water gun. I was wearing the ruby ring my parents had given me for my tenth birthday. They’d handed it to me in the kitchen, while we were eating breakfast.
“Where did you get those earrings?” I asked, turning to Piper.
She touched the fake diamond studs in her ears, smiling at me. “Groussman’s, I think. Years ago.”
The man behind the counter rang a small bell, and the water guns began to vibrate. We shot the water into the clowns’ mouths, and Piper’s balloon popped first.
“I win,” she squealed.
Kieren turned to me. “I had my skateboard in my backpack the first time I went through.”
I smiled. We had solved another part of the mystery: whatever token you had on you at the time you crossed determined where you ended up.
I thought of my mother’s little dangling blue earrings from the night I’d last seen her. They were the same ones she was wearing in the old photos in her closet, from the beach in Portland.
The night she built the portal under the lake.
“None of that matters if we don’t have the coins,” Robbie said, coming back to the conversation after being distracted by the carnival game.
He was right, of course.
“I’ll go to the track and make another coin,” Kieren offered, as Piper gleefully collected her stuffed bear. “I’ll meet you back at my house tonight.”
“Make two,” I said. “In case we need it to come back after.”
“I’ll help you, man,” Scott offered, and the two of them ran off.
I watched them go for a minute, until they disappeared into the crowd, and then Robbie and Piper and I left in the other direction.
Marina O’Connell is starting her first year of high school at East Township High. She has experienced a lot of changes including the unexpected death of her brother, Robbie, three years ago, and this year will be no exception change-wise. Robbie had gone to East Township High, and Marina’s father had mentioned how the school had been an old military base and that was why the students have always talked secretly about things they saw, might have seen, might have heard. For Marina, however, these stories mean nothing compared to having to manage her first day at the school alone and confused. Further, she is going to the same school as Kieren, Robbie’s old friend, who apparently had pushed Robbie in front of a moving train! Wandering the halls on the first day armed only with a map of the strangely shaped ex-military building, Marina cannot find her first period math class. If this first day wasn’t strange enough, when she meets Brady Picelli, things only get more complicated.
Marina has an instant crush on Brady Picelli, and she can’t help but look for him all day. Throughout the day, she keeps seeing “DW” carved in different places - a desk, the cafeteria table, and a chilling phrase on the bus seat, “DW I’ll never tell”. These markings do seem strange to her, but everything seems strange at this point. Marina finally gets a glimpse of Brady as he’s helping a girl into his car, and, by the direction Brady’s driving, she knows that they’re headed to the train station – the same station where Robbie died. Marina’s curiosity makes her follow them, and she watches the girl, Piper McMahon, buy a ticket and get on the train. What seems odd is that the girl doesn’t have any luggage. Over the next several weeks, Marina begins a strange journey that includes the disappearance of her mother and more knowledge about DW, the “Down World”, than she ever bargained for.
Marina discovers that there is a group of people, including Brady and Kieren, that know about DW, and, from them, Marina learns about the workings of the Down World. It is a series of alternate realities that can be accessed through portholes, three of which are in the basement of the high school through a science lab. Another porthole is on the train tracks by the train station, and there is another one inside a box at the bottom of a lake. Entering these portholes brings the person to another version of reality that has the same people, but they are living in a different world. Brady and Kieren tell her that things can’t be taken from the other side and brought back as it creates rifts between the realities, changing things for the worse. Brady tells Marina that Piper’s parents died in a car crash and, instead of accepting their death, Piper went to DW and convinced her parents there to come back. This caused several strange events and Piper knew she had to return her parents, but instead she decided to travel to Oregon to visit the Mystics, a special DW group, that might be able to help her keep her DW parents without causing rifts between the realities.
With all of this information, Marina starts to wonder if her mother is in DW looking for Robbie. Witnesses saw her mother on the train tracks in the same place Robbie was killed, and when the train came through, she didn’t move. When the train left, however, there wasn’t a trace of her body – the same outcome as Robbie. As questions build in Marina’s mind, she decides to trek to Oregon, as Piper did, to see if the Mystics can give her any information about how to get her mother and brother out of DW. Hatching a plan with one of her friends to say that they’re going to summer camp together, Marina lies to her dad and gets on the train with Brady.
After arriving in Oregon, Brady and Marina stay overnight in a hostel and then start making plans about how to find the Mystics. Brady shares a journal with Marina that Piper found in the science lab at school, and it was written by one of the Mystics stating that they were going to live in an old hotel just outside of Portland. Eventually, Brady and Marina find the hotel and meet Sage and John, Marina’s mom’s old friends. Sage and John fill in information about DW and now Brady and Marina decide to try to find their people by going through the portal in the lake behind the hotel.
Brady and Marina make it through the lake portal and find themselves in a different world. Here, children are confined to live in a different part of town. Marina does see her mother, but here, her mother’s with a man named John running an exclusive hotel, and her mother doesn’t even recognize her! Brady learns from a DW group on this side that Piper was there, but she took the train to their town to check it out. Marina and Brady have to make a decision because they can’t stay in the DW very long or it will create rifts in their own reality. Brady catches the train to find Piper, and Marina returns to reality through the lake portal.
Marina returns only to discover that rifts are happening in her world, including the point that the school has turned back to the military base and there’s a curfew on the town. Marina meets up with Kieran, and they discuss what’s been happening. Kieran feels like he owes Marina and wants to try and get her brother back from the DW. He heads to the train station when Marina’s asleep, but she wakes and sees him leaving. She rushes to the station and sees Kieran on the tracks. Just as the train is approaching Kieran, Mirana runs and pushes him off the tracks. Then things go black.
Marina comes to and realizes she’s on the train! She’s been transported through this train portal maybe, just as her brother had, just as her mother had. The train is moving, and it looks like it’s from another time and place. Moving through the cars, Marina is surprised to find her brother, Robbie, and Piper together in one of the cars. Through conversation, Marina learns that the train moves through various dimensions, stopping briefly at each station-dimension, and then moves along. Without knowing which dimension the train’s at or how long it will stay at the station, Robbie and Piper are afraid to leave the train. At one point, the train’s conductor comes to ask for their tickets. Robbie explained to Marina earlier that the conductor always asks, but even though they don’t have tickets, they’re still allowed to ride the train. Marina thinks to do something different and gives the conductor a penny that Kieran had given her that he flattened out on the train tracks, saying that she wants to go home. With the ‘price paid’, the train eventually stops at their reality and all three of them get off. Although they are, indeed, back in their reality, rifts have been happening, and some of the bad things from the DW are starting to take hold.
Marina discovers that her dad’s been taken to a detention center after being charged with her mother’s death after her disappearance. She and Robbie visit their dad, and, although that’s a happy meeting, Marina and Robbie are both set back when they realize that there are dimension replacements for both Robbie and their mom. It’s been too long! Robbie can’t stay in his original reality and has to go back. What are they going to do?
Meeting with the DW group, Marina devises a plan to go to DW – the past – in order to change their present and future. What she must do is to ensure that the lake portal is never built by stealing the key. Marina goes to the DW of yesterday, finds Sage who is with John, and her mother with a young Robbie in tow. She doesn’t let anyone know she’s there, sneaks into Sage’s room and steals a radioactive liquid that is the key that creates portals. She rushes back to the lake, and there she buries the liquid with help from George, one of the DW group that travels back and forth between the worlds to protect the lake portal. Then, Marina returns to the present and finds that, although some things have changed, like Kieran’s not knowing her, her mother’s still being gone, and her father’s having been re-married for five years, Robbie is alive and well. Now, for Marina, as it was for her mother, she must live with the choices she made and her new reality.
Rebecca Phelps’ Down World, a twisting and changing novel, would be a fun and riveting read for those who like sci-fi and multi-thread stories. Phelps does well in organizing the many changes through various time portals and realities to ensure that readers don’t get lost. The characters are diverse and well-rounded and include the self-conscious and questioning nature of adolescence, especially with Marina. Although Marina is young, her character is able to be the strong protagonist throughout the novel.
There are several issues presented throughout the story including loss of family members, friends, and what it takes to persist with one’s ideas as well as accept what can’t be changed. Though there are some instances where the reader is asked to suspend believe (i.e., when Marina finds Robbie and Piper living happily together on the train; Marina’s acceptance that her mother’s not coming back from DW and that she has a step-mom), they do not detract from the storyline and almost present as something that might be acceptable in the topsy turvy world of DW.
The epilogue ties up the loose ends about how Brady and Piper end up, how some things in the final reality are the same and some different, and what happens with Robbie. Perhaps a few more details about Marina’s mother would provide a more complete catharsis for the novel. With that aside, I would recommend Down World to readers who like to read about possibilities and consider how the choices we make can affect not only our own lives but everyone around us.
Penta Ledger is a teacher-librarian at Gravenhurst High School in Gravenhurst, Ontario.