Journee Blake hates everything. She can’t stand the way she looks. She despises her brother. And she’s so tired of constantly having to move because her father can’t keep a job.
With no friends, no allies at home, and no hope of things getting better soon, the last thing she needs is one more problem. Unfortunately, a much bigger problem is right under her nose.
She’s convinced strange beings live under her house.
Between struggling to fit in at school, a father who blames her for mysterious messes in the house, and all the other things wrong in her life, she now has to figure out how a house she knows she cleaned ends up in such disarray.
A brief investigation proves her hunch is right. Strange, white glowing beings known as the Underers are to blame. When she discovers their magical world 101 steps beneath her bed, she’s elated at the prospect of having the perfect secret family… until they make an unreasonable request.
Now she must choose between meeting their demands or losing them forever.
The Underers is a wonderfully odd and highly original story about an off-kilter young girl who secretly befriends a clan of supernatural beings who help her navigate the outside world. Note for readers: this story contains man-eating crocodiles, snakes, spiders, and funny jokes.
As soon as you meet Journee you feel sorry for her. She’s so relatable as the girl going through the world with added pressures of constantly moving around. But then she hears something and then she sees something and then she almost becomes someone… almost. It’s spooky, it’s funny, it’s relatable, it’s sad and yet really happy at the same time. I wish when I was her age I’d found a secret door. Highly recommended read, for youngish and old. Well written and engaging. Can’t wait for the next step for Journee.
Justin Christopher is the modern day, Kiwi version of Roald Dahl. We used his books to bond at bed time while we were separated during lockdown. Whether it was My Best Worst Year, Freakout Island, or now The Underers, he has fast become a staple at bedtime at the Ward whare.
Every night we hear the chorus of ‘one more chapter Dad?’. Thanks Justin and keep them coming – we’re sharing them around the extended whanau and can’t wait to see what’s next!
C. Hayward, New Zealand
Christopher never cease to amaze with this cleaver, thrilling, funny, and suspiciously spooky story telling.
A young girl finds courage and strength 101 steps below her family home. The beast of bullying is defeated one adventurous step at a time. The Underers delivers a fine message for ALL ages; “Often in life the things we [fear] or worry about never come true.”
The Underers is a relatable and inspirational story for kids who feel bullied. In particular, the scenes with the ‘eye shiner’ and the filthy rat in Journee’s classroom are great metaphors for confronting her bigger challenges and fears. I sincerely enjoyed reading The Underers.
I know what Journee feels like because I just started a new school, and I’m always getting blamed for my brothers mess too.’
We love Justin’s books! This was awesome and a bit spookier than Freakout Island. I want some alien friends like Journee!
Read Chapter One Below
If you asked Journee Blake what she most wanted in this world, the answer would be to have her very own bedroom. Oh, to have her own space, one she could decorate with her favourite posters and artwork, where she could play her ukulele as loud as she wanted. Or try on new clothes without her brother farting in her face. Oh, to have her own mirror, her very own desk on which to do her homework, and no stinky Power Rangers undies lying on the floor.
But that was the problem. Journee and her younger brother Miles had shared the same room since they were both toddlers.
In her mind, Miles was without doubt, the most annoying brother in the world. Apart from his obvious gas problems, and his love of hiding Journee’s belongings, and saying things like ‘I hate you,’ and ‘I wish you’d die,’ and ‘Nobody loves you,’ he also thought it was hilarious to place spiders beneath his sister’s pillow just before lights-out.
Journee wasn’t a scaredy cat, not by any means, but one thing she could not tolerate was the sight of spiders. Even when Miles couldn’t find one, he would creep up to Journee and pretend he had one in his clenched fist. Aren’t brothers just hilarious?
Journee Blake would be the first to admit that she had a less than normal childhood. Most normal children aren’t made to attend seven different schools before their tenth birthday.
Just imagine that for a minute. Seven NEW schools! That’s seven times you had to make new friends. Seven different school uniforms. Seven new teachers. Can you imagine!
Now don’t go thinking Journee Blake was a bad student, because she was actually very bright. The problem was her father, Bill Blake. More to the point, the problem was Bill Blake’s job. He was a policeman. A very bad one.
How bad? Well, once he locked himself in jail while eleven blind robbers escaped. Another time he broke into City Hall at midnight because he needed to pee. And who could ever forget Constable Blake’s infamous school talk where he put handcuffs on the teacher as a joke and forgot where he put the keys?
Bill Blake lost seven jobs in seven years and each time he did Journee was forced to leave what friends she had, and drive hundreds of miles across the country.
Each time the Blake family moved into a new house Journee spent the first few months feeling very sad, and very sorry for herself. Mostly because everything was different. The house smelt different. It felt different. Nothing was where it was supposed to be. She could no longer walk down the hallway with her eyes closed. Her new bedroom had once belonged to someone else. We’re talking someone else’s germs. Someone else’s breath. Their arguments. Their toenails. Their worries, and their dirty old socks behind the heater.
But after six months, and Journee always found it to be exactly six months, her house became a home. Gone were the worries and the toenails and the bad breath. Such nasty things were replaced with Journee’s favourites – the smell of jasmine and honey, Nutella in the kitchen, and Bob Marley’s reggae music playing loudly in her headphones.
Then Bill Blake would get fired again and Journee’s world flipped upside down.
On a murky morning in the middle of June, the Blake family moved into their run-down house at number 88 Cabbage Tree Avenue in the town of Millwater. This particular day, Journee and her brother Miles stood in the hallway as their father, an incredibly tall man with a chest that stuck out like a bathroom sink, muttered the words no child wants to hear.
‘You two are sharing,’ said Mr Blake.
‘Huh? I don’t want to share with her!’ Miles snapped.
‘But, Dad,’ Journee pleaded. ‘There are three rooms, remember? One for you and Mum. One for me and one for Miles. You promised when we moved again we’d have our own rooms! You promised!’
Her father winked at Journee. ‘I know I did, honey,’ he said. ‘But where will Ringo and Moses sleep?’
Ringo and Moses were unfriendly old dogs, big snarly beasts with shark-like teeth. And even though these ugly mutts loved nothing better than biting holes in the trousers of unsuspecting children, Bill Blake treated them like princes. They always got the last scrap of food. They always got the front seat in the car. And now these slobbering brats had their own room.
Journee already hated this house. For a start, it was old and every single door jammed, or stuck, or creaked. It was a one-level bungalow with a cramped lounge, an even smaller kitchen, and a backyard only just big enough to house the family’s four chickens.
There was also a very old house alarm on the wall by the front door. So old and so strange that Journee would never have guessed it was a house alarm at all. It looked more like someone from a hundred years ago had glued a rusty old shoebox to a wall. Unlike modern alarms, there were no flashing lights or electronic numbers on its interface. Instead, there was a single handle attached to the box, which pointed to ON or OFF.
Right now Mr Blake was explaining in great detail how to use it, but even her father, who professed to knowing everything about everything, was struggling to speak.
He pulled Journee and Miles closer together as his chubby fingers hovered over the prehistoric piece of junk.
‘Now, this,’ he said, ‘is quite a find. I have never in all my time in the police force seen one quite like it.’ Journee could tell her father was impressed because as he talked he stroked the ancient alarm as if it were a baby panda.
Journee and Miles moved even closer to get a better look, trying their very best to appear impressed.
‘Once we’ve settled in, I’ll get us a new one,’ said Mr Blake. ‘I’ll no doubt get a free one from the police station. I might even sell this one to the local museum. I bet it’s worth a fortune. But for now, remember to switch it to ON when we leave the house, and switch it…’
‘-OFF!’ said Miles.
‘…when we come home. Correct, son!’
Miles poked his tongue out at his sister.
Journee’s favourite time of day was breakfast, mostly because if she and her mum got up early enough, it was just the girls. Just her and her mama, Betty Blake, talking about the world over hot tea. As usual, Betty started making the meal, but Journee had to finish it, despite her cooking abilities being limited to one dish. Chocolate brownies were her speciality; she’d found a fool-proof recipe which required both white and dark chocolate, and came out of the oven warm, chewy and squidgy. This morning’s menu, however, was scrambled eggs with cream, with buttery toast on the side.
‘Sorry about the new uniform,’ said her mother, smiling. ‘Not exactly fashionable.’
Journee sighed. ‘It’s not your fault, Mum. Um, I was wondering if maybe we could talk about my room? Because Dad said that when we moved I could have-’
‘-Eggs! Coffee! Let’s go! Ringo, get that out of your mouth! Moses, do that again and I’ll rub your nose in it!’ Mr Bill Blake, fresh from his cold shower, entered the kitchen with his trousers pulled all the way up to his armpits. He looked at his plate and nodded approvingly. ‘Where’s my knife and fork?’ he asked. ‘What, no tomato SAUCE?’
As usual there was no ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’
As Journee closed the cutlery drawer she heard a noise coming from the cupboard next to the stove. It was a scratching noise, a scuttling, scurrying, scampering noise.
She leapt back in a wild panic, the knife and fork landing inches from her bare feet.
‘Did anyone else hear that!’ she yelped. ‘There’s…what’s in there?’
Mr Blake stood abruptly. ‘Fine!’ he said. ‘I’ll get my own sauce.’
Journee stared at the cupboard. The noises continued. They were slightly fainter now. What were they exactly? Rats? Insects? Ghosts?
She very quietly got a new knife and fork from the drawer. Miles slouched at the table, his long fingers dipped in his scrambled eggs.
Betty tidied her copious papers. ‘Can I tell anyone about my new business idea?’ she asked.
Journee’s eyes hadn’t left the cupboard. ‘Um, yeah, of course, Mum.’
‘You always say that,’ she replied, smiling. ‘Thank you.’
‘Well, one of these businesses has to work, doesn’t it?’ Journee replied.
‘What are you saying?’ Betty teased, scrolling to the correct page on her iPad. ‘Okay, okay, here we go. And promise me you won’t laugh.’
‘We won’t,’ said Mr Blake, who was feeding the dogs scrambled eggs from his fork.
Betty looked up from her iPad. ‘Karaoke, but it’s waterproof! Waterproof karaoke!’
‘Betty, seriously, outta all of your ideas-’ Mr Blake started.
‘-No, listen!’ said Betty. ‘Who doesn’t love to sing in the shower? We all do, but who can ever remember the words? Waterproof karaoke! I need to register the domain name before anyone steals it, then I’ll make some calls. This is going to make us rich. Someone feed the chickens!’
Mr Blake pulled his wife’s plate over and put it onto the floor. Slurp went the dogs. ‘So,’ he said to the children. ‘Know how to get to school?’
‘Not really,’ Journee replied.
‘Down Millwater Ave,’ Mr Blake replied. ‘Left at the lights. Straight ahead. Turn right. Past the roundabout. Gas station on right. School’s straight ahead.’
‘But, Dad, it’s our first day,’ Journee said. ‘Do you think maybe you could drop us off?’
‘It’s raining,’ said Miles.
Mr Blake gulped down his coffee and grabbed the dogs by their collars. ‘Can’t, sorry! Late, very late!’ he said. ‘It’s my first day too, you know. I need to make a good impression!’
Journee always worried about the same things the day she started a new school. In no particular order, these worries were:
People talking behind her back.
Forgetting people’s names as soon as she heard them.
People saying her name wrong.
People spelling her name wrong.
But there were two worries which worried Journee more than all of those worries combined. They were:
The way she breathed.
Journee knew she was bigger than most other kids, but it never stopped anyone telling her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she also had a habit of breathing loudly. Very loudly. A mean-spirited girl once told her the noise she made was like a waste disposal clogged with egg shells.
Her mother always told her the way she breathed wasn’t her fault. A constant chest infection and a twisted bone in her nose were to blame. The doctor said there was nothing she could do.
Journee’s new teacher was named Miss Carboni. Unlike other teachers at Millwater School, who chose to wear sensible clothes like track pants and cardigans, Miss Carboni wore eight-inch high-heeled shoes and tight leopard-skin pants.
Journee walked gingerly into Room 5 and found a spare desk. Other children seemed to ignore her. This was a small miracle. No one called her fat, or said she breathed like Darth Vader.
Everything was going well. Too well. Miss Carboni clip-clopped her way about the classroom, her bangles and bracelets jingling and jangling. She dropped assignments on desks as she went. Children held their noses, her perfume almost singeing their nostrils.
‘We start the year as we mean to go on!’ said Miss Carboni. ‘We work hard! No time for sleep! Or dreams! Or acting the clown!’ She slapped a piece of paper in front of Journee. ‘Understand?’
Journee flipped her assignment over. It was English. She froze. She despised English. All those nouns, pronouns and adjectives! Who knew the difference?
More to the point, who cared?
Journee read the first question: Explain in one paragraph the difference between a noun and a pronoun, giving an example of each. She found herself chewing on a red pen. A few minutes later it exploded. Her hand was covered in red ink. The whole class ran outside.
‘She’s bitten her tongue off!’ the children yelled.
‘Ew, get away from me, FATTY VAMPIRE!’
Journee tried her best to tell everyone what had happened, that the so-called blood was actually ink, but all she could think of was trying not to swallow the bitter liquid.
The screams continued. Journee attempted to run to the bathroom, but the school nurse placed her into a wheelchair.
‘Call an ambulance!’ yelled the nurse.
It took Journee ages to explain to the nurse, Miss Carboni, and the school principal that the so-called blood was nothing more than red pen ink.
‘Stay in sick bay regardless,’ said the nurse. ‘You’re breathing funny.’
Journee Blake jumped into the back seat of her mum’s car, hid beneath her hoodie and listened to Bob Marley.
Along with being the worst policeman in the world, Mr Blake was also the World’s Worst Cook. You might disagree, of course. Maybe your father’s egg fried rice once caught on fire, or your mother’s watery lasagne was so bad even stray dogs wouldn’t have touched it. But rest assured, as bad as those meals sound, compared to Mr Blake, your parents would be gourmet chefs. Tonight’s menu was burnt lamb chops and cold Brussels sprouts.
Miles looked at his plate as if it were an overflowing toilet. Journee had to agree, as her own plate offered very few edible options. And boy, did Mr Blake notice.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
Miles could think of thousands of things. However, if he named any of them he would have become dinner himself, so it was lucky for him that a familiar voice sounded seconds later.
‘Hi, everyone!’ said Betty, bursting through the front door with a handbag full of papers. ‘Been working on waterproof karaoke. Soon this will be in showers all over the world!’
Journee smiled at her mum, who sat beside her and offered a loving squeeze. Journee sifted through her mum’s notes, her mind on other things.
Seconds later, there was another scratching noise from the cupboard. The same scratching noise she had heard at breakfast. And – was that a voice?
Journee shuffled closer to her mum, who looked to Mr Blake. ‘How was your first day at work, dear?’
‘Buncha losers!’ Mr Blake replied. ‘Just like the last police department’.
Betty moved on just as Mr Blake shovelled a large spoonful of chops and sprouts into his mouth. ‘What about you, Miles?’ she asked.
‘I didn’t go to work,’ Miles replied.
His mother sighed, punching her son lightly on the arm.
Miles put his fork down and cleared his throat. ‘You want to know how my day was? Okay, then. My teacher Miss Moyle is SO dumb. She said I had FUR BALL diarrhoea! And I was like, what? How would she know I had FUR BALL diarrhoea? I don’t even have diarrhoea! And if I did have diarrhoea, but I don’t, it wouldn’t have FUR BALLS in it! She is soooooooo dumb.’
‘Were you talking too much?’ Journee asked.
‘What’s that gotta do with it?’ Miles asked.
‘She probably said you had verbal diarrhoea,’ Journee replied. ‘Which means you don’t know when to keep your trap shut. I would say your teacher knows you pretty well already.’
‘Shut up, Miss Know Everything!’ said Miles. ‘Tell us about your day.’
All eyes were on Journee, who folded her arms and chewed. ‘It was okay, I guess,’ Journee said, quietly.
‘Ask her about her new nickname,’ cried Miles.
‘Shut up,’ Journee replied.
‘You shut up, Fatty Vampire!’
‘Shut! Up!’ Journee repeated, and politely left the table. It took all of her energy to open her bedroom door, which seemed to be forever jammed shut.
Miles came in next, playing his video game at full volume. Journee put her headphones on and wondered if she would ever find a school where she wasn’t teased.
Ringo and Moses weren’t the only pets in the Blake household. Miles also had a little friend who lived in an old glass fish tank in a small room off the kitchen, which, as it happens, was the perfect home for a Chilean Rose Tarantula.
There were two reasons Miles loved Webster.
The boy absolutely loved spiders.
His sister absolutely hated them.
Most people would think such a creature would kill you in seconds, but Webster was actually very tame. He loved nothing more than walking across someone’s bare feet. Miles longed for the day Journee brought a friend home so he could scare the living daylights out of them. But that never happened, so the boy would stare at his eight-legged friend and watch him eat live crickets and rummage about his home made of leaves and soil. Sometimes, just to get a reaction, he would prod him with a stick to see the spider rear up and expose his fangs.
Tonight there were no spiders, which didn’t mean Miles wasn’t living up to his title as World’s Most Annoying Brother. As Journee lay on her bed she watched in disgust as the crazy boy taped red string between his bed and the desk in the middle of the room. He had divided the room in half and even had a sign which read ‘STEP OVER THIS YOU DIIIIIEEEEEE!’
‘So childish,’ Journee muttered.
‘You are,’ replied Miles.
Journee put on her headphones and began writing a list in her diary. She called it ‘Five ways I can get my own bedroom.’ But apart from locking out Miles altogether, she couldn’t think of a single idea. She threw the diary on the bed and turned the music up.
After their second day at school Journee and Miles trudged home in the driving rain. Puddles transformed into small lakes and gutters raged like streams. The children tried to use their bags as umbrellas, but the rain was too heavy. They shivered and shook like puppies in a drain. Half a block from home, Mr Blake pulled up beside them.
‘Good timing!’ said Mr Blake, speaking through a tiny gap in the window so as not to get wet.
Once home, Mr Blake unlocked the front door. He yanked the arm of the old alarm into the OFF position, the force of which caused his forefinger and thumb to sting.
‘Stupid old machine!’ he cursed, and watched as Miles dragged his school bags down the hallway, leaving a soaked trail behind them. Journee’s dripping sweater stuck to her body and her wet socks seemed to be glued to her legs.
Seconds later Mr Blake stood before them, his face the colour of beetroot. He marched the children into the lounge as if they were going to prison. Pens, paper and pillows covered the floor. It was an almighty mess. There were leftover cookie crumbs, empty chip packets, plastic bottles and dozens of books scattered across the couch.
‘How many times have I told you to pick things up after yourselves?’ asked Mr Blake.
‘Don’t look at me,’ said Journee. ‘They’re not mine.’
‘They’re not mine either,’ said Miles.
‘So we have a messy ghost living here, then?’ Mr Blake asked.
‘I didn’t do this!’ said Journee. ‘It was probably Miles.’
Miles said, ‘She’s just saying that so I get into trouble!’
Soon the doorbell rang. Mr Blake nursed his hand and opened the door in a huff.
‘Hello, sir,’ said the boy on the doorstep, who was wearing a dirty apron and an oversized cap. ‘Four pepperoni pizzas?’
‘Wrong house!’ said Mr Blake, about to shut the door in the poor boy’s face.
The delivery boy wedged the pizza boxes into the closing gap. ‘Ah, sir,’ he stammered. ‘88 Cabbage Tree Avenue?’
‘Yes,’ replied Mr Blake. ‘But we didn’t order any pizzas.’
Mr Blake slammed the door and turned around to find Betty standing millimetres from his face.
‘You made the bed this morning! Thank you,’ she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
‘I…did I? Ah, okay, then,’ Mr Blake said, and walked down the hallway shaking his head.
That night as she tossed and turned, Journee was surprised to see Miles was also awake.
‘By the way,’ she said, ‘I never said you could use my pens.’
‘I never used your pens!’ replied Miles.
‘You used my pens and you made a mess in the lounge.’
‘I told you a trillion times,’ Miles replied. ‘It wasn’t me.’
‘Who made the mess, then?’ Journee asked.
Miles sighed and rolled over. ‘Mum must have done some colouring-in.’
‘Very funny,’ Journee sighed. ‘I don’t like this house.’
‘Journee, you don’t like any house.’
‘This one’s creepy,’ she replied. ‘I can feel things.’
There was a rustle of sheets. A gust of wind slapped the window.
‘What…sort of things?’ Miles asked a few minutes later. ‘And please don’t say ghosts.’
‘Weird things,’ Journee mumbled. ‘There is something alive in this house. I can feel it. I know you don’t believe me, but something is living here.’
There was silence.
‘With us,’ said Journee.
Early the next morning Journee opened the camera on her phone. A plan was brewing. An experiment. A way to prove to her father she wasn’t lying about the mess. She took photos of the lounge, the bathroom and the kitchen. All three rooms were absolutely spotless, not so much as a cushion out of place. Her experiment was under way.