Everlost, p.12
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       Everlost, p.12

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 12


  There was no telling what caused the old Pac-Man game to cross over all those years ago. Mary had bought it from a Finder who specialized in tracking down electronics that had crossed. Electronics did not cross very often. True, over the years people loved their gramophones, or Victrolas, or 8-track players, or iPods, but in the end, no one “loved” those things with the kind of soulful devotion that would cause the device to cross into Everlost. No love was ever lost on a CD player that broke. It was simply replaced and the old one forgotten. For that reason, Everlost electronics were mostly the result of sunspot activity.

  Mary prided herself on keeping current on technology, so that arriving Greensouls would feel somewhat at home. It had taken patience, and work, but over the years, Mary had gotten herself quite a collection of video games, and had turned the sixty-fourth floor into an arcade. There were also countless black vinyl record albums that had crossed, because people did truly love their music, but she had yet to track down a record player on which to play them.

  Up. Left. Eat the big white ball. The hairy things turn blue. Eat the hairy things until they start to blink. Run away.

  Over and over. The repetition wasn’t so much soothing to Lief as it was compulsive. He couldn’t stop. He didn’t want to stop. Ever.

  In the forest he had surely been a creature of habit. He had swung from the trees, playing his games alone—the same games day after day—but that was somehow different. There was no urgency to it. But the endless stimulation from this new-fangled machine demanded his focus in a way the forest never did. Other kids told him it was an old machine—but he didn’t care. The games were all new to him.

  Up. Down. Left. Right. Eat. Run.

  “Lief, what are you doing? How long have you been here?”

  He was barely aware of Allie s voice. He didn’t even turn to look at her. “A while,” he told her. Up. Left. Down.

  “I think you’ve been at that machine for five days straight. ”


  “This is wrong. I’ve got to get you out of here! We’ve all got to get out of here!”

  But Lief wasn’t listening anymore, because the funny little hairy things had turned blue.

  It had been a long time since Greensouls had had such an effect on Mary. Lief was not a problem. He simply brought out in Mary the maternal feelings she had for all the children in her care, but Allie, with her incessant questions and her neurosis of hope, brought up feelings in Mary she would much rather have forgotten, and thought she had. Feelings of doubt, frustration, and a sense of remorse as deep as her towers were tall.

  And then there was Nick. The feelings he brought out in her were of a different nature, but just as troubling. He was so very much alive. Everything from his anxieties to the flush of his face in her presence. His bodily memory of life was so charming, so enticing, Mary could spend every minute with him. That was dangerous. It was almost as dangerous as being envious of the living. There were whispered tales of Afterlights whose envy of the living had turned them into incubuses —souls helplessly, hopelessly attached to a living host. This was different, but still, it was a weakness, and she was not in a position to be weak. Too many Afterlights relied on her for strength. With all this on her mind, she found herself distracted, and uncharacteristically moody. And so, when no one was watching, not even Vari, she descended to the fifty-eighth floor, the place she went when she needed silence and solitude.

  The fifty-eighth floor had no tenants on the day the towers crossed into eternity. For that reason there were no walls or partitions subdividing it, and so, with the exception of the elevator core, the entire floor was nearly an acre of hollow space.

  And still Nick found her.

  “One of the little kids said you might be here,” he said as he approached.

  It surprised her that anyone knew where she went. But then, perhaps everyone did, but respected her enough not to disturb her. She watched as he drew nearer, his gentle glow visible in the daylight because the floor was so vast it was mostly in shadows, even with windows on all sides. He was clearly not comfortable with the space. “Why would you come here? It’s so … empty. ”

  “You see emptiness,” she said. “I see possibility. ”

  “Do you think you’ll ever need all these floors?”

  “There are more Afterlights out there, and more crossing everyday,” she told him. “It may take a thousand years until we need the space, but it’s nice to know I have it. ”

  Mary looked out at the faded world of the living, hoping Nick would go away, hoping he would stay, and cursing herself for not being able to keep her distance.

  “Is something wrong?”

  Mary considered how she’d answer, then decided that she wouldn’t. “Allies leaving, isn’t she?”

  “That doesn’t mean I’m leaving. ”

  “She’s a danger to herself,” Mary said. “Which means she’s also a danger to you. ”

  Nick wasn’t concerned. “She just wants to go home and see if her father survived the accident. Why is that so bad?”

  “I know something about going home,” Mary told him, and she found that just saying it brought the memory closer, along with all the pain it held.

  Nick must have read her emotions, because he said, “If you don’t want to talk about it you don’t have to. ” And because he was kind enough not to ask, Mary found herself telling him everything, with the honesty she would have had before a priest. It was a memory Mary had tried desperately to forget, but like the chocolate stains on Nick’s face, the harder she tried to forget, the more indelible the memory became.

  “I died on a Wednesday, but I didn’t die alone,” Mary told him. “Like you, I had a companion. ”

  “We weren’t exactly companions,” Nick told her. “Allie and I were total strangers—until the car accident. ”

  “I had an accident, too, but my companion wasn’t a stranger. He was my brother.

  The accident was entirely our fault. Mikey and I were walking home from school.

  It was a cool spring day, but sunny. The hills were already turning green. I can still remember the smell of the wild-flowers that filled the fields—it’s one of the only smells I can still remember from the living world. Isn’t that odd?”

  “So it happened in a field?” Nick asked.

  “No. There were two train tracks side by side that crossed the dirt path that led home. Those tracks were mostly for freight trains. Every once in a while, for no good reason, a freight train would stop on the tracks and sit there for hours on end. It was a terrible nuisance—going around the train sometimes meant a half-mile walk in either direction. ”

  “Oh no,” said Nick. “You went under the train?”

  “No, we weren’t stupid enough to do that, but quite often there was an empty boxcar open on both sides, so we could climb through the train. There was one on that day. Mikey and I had been fighting, I don’t remember what about, but it must have seemed important at the time because I was just furious and was chasing him. He was laughing and running ahead of me, and there was that boxcar, right in the middle of the dirt path, the doors on both sides pulled open, like a doorway to the other side. Mikey climbed up and into the boxcar. I climbed up right behind him, reaching for the back of his shirt as he ran across. I just missed him. He was still laughing and it just made me even more angry. He leaped out of the boxcar on the opposite side, and turned back to me. ”

  Mary closed her eyes, the image so strong she could just about see it playing on the inside of her eyelids like a cinema show. A movie, as the living now called it.

  “You don’t have to tell me,” Nick said gently, but Mary had come too far to stop.

  “If I hadn’t been so angry, I might have seen the sudden terror in Mikey’s eyes, but I didn’t see that; I was too dead set on catching him. I jumped down from the box car and slugged him in the arm—but instead of fighting back, he grabbed me and that’s when I realized som
ething I had forgotten. There were two railroad tracks side by side. One track held the freight car that hadn’t moved for hours, and on the second track was another train traveling at full speed. We had both just jumped right into the path of a speeding train that we hadn’t been able to see from the other side of the boxcar. When I finally saw it, it was too late. I never felt it hit me. Instead there was the sudden darkness of a tunnel and a light far, far away but moving closer. I was flying down that tunnel, but I wasn’t flying alone. ”

  “I remember that tunnel,” Nick said.

  “Before I got to the light I felt Mikey tugging on me. ‘No, no!’ he was yelling, and he pulled me and spun me around and I was still so mad at him I started fighting. I hit him and he hit me, he tugged my hair, I pushed him, and before I knew it, I felt myself crashing through the walls of that tunnel and losing consciousness even before I hit the ground. ”

  “That’s just like what happened with Allie and me!” Nick said. “We slept for nine months!”

  “Nine months,” Mary repeated. “Mikey and I woke up in the middle of winter. The trees were bare, the tracks were covered with snow, and of course like so many Greensouls, we couldn’t understand what happened. We didn’t realize that we were dead, but we knew something was terribly wrong. Not knowing what else to do, we did the worst thing that an Afterlight can do. We went home. ”

  “But didn’t you notice yourselves sinking into the ground as you walked?”

  “The ground was covered with snow,” Mary said. “We simply thought our feet were sinking into the snow. I suppose if we turned around we would have noticed that we left no footprints, but I didn’t think to look. It wasn’t until we got home that I realized how wrong things were. First of all, the house had been painted, not the light blue it had always been, but a dark shade of green. All our lives, we had lived with our father and our housekeeper since our mom had died giving birth to Mikey. Father never found himself another bride, but all that had changed. Father was there, yes, but with some woman I didn’t know and her two kids. They were in my house, sitting at my table, with my father. Mikey and I just stood there, and that’s when we first noticed our feet sinking into the ground, and it hit us both at once what had happened. Dad was talking to this woman, she gave him a kiss on the cheek, and Mikey started yelling at them.

  ‘Father, what are you doing? Can’t you hear me? I’m right here!’ But he heard nothing—saw nothing. And then gravity—the gravity of the Earth, the gravity of the situation—it all wrapped up into one single force pulling us down. You see, Nick, when you go home, the very weight of your own absence is so unbearably heavy that you start to sink like a stone in water. Nothing can stop you then.

  Mikey went first. One second he was there, the next second he was up to his neck, and then, the next, he was gone. Gone completely. He sank right through the floor. ”

  “But you didn’t?”

  “I would have,” said Mary, “but I got to the bed. You see, when I started to sink, my reflex was just like anyone else’s; to grab on to something. I was already at the doorway to my parents’ room. I stumbled in, already up to my waist. Everything I tried to reach for, my hand just passed through and then I grabbed the post of my parents’ bed. Solid brass. Everlost solid. I held on to it and pulled myself up until I climbed onto the bed and tumbled into it, curled up and began to cry. ”

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