The book begins with an account of a 16-year-old boy, Seth Wearing, drowning.
Afterwards, he finds himself in what he assumes to be a hell made for him.
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Seth sees a black van driving through the town but is dragged by a girl and a boy to a cave.
They tell him that they must hide from what they call the Driver, the being that drives the van. Regine tells Seth her theory that this place is the real world, but people liked being "online" (the Lethe, as they called it) so much that they decided to stay online permanently.
Seth remembers that when he was eight, he was left alone in a house with his four-year-old brother, Owen.
An escaped convict from a nearby prison kidnapped Owen for three days, leaving him with psychological damage and prompting the family to move to America.
If they can choose what time to enter their online life, Seth could get in before his death.
That way, he could travel between both worlds and tell people the truth.