Everlost, p.13
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       Everlost, p.13

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 13

 

  “But how — “

  “My mother,” Mary answered without even letting Nick finish the question.

  “Remember, she had died giving birth. She died in that bed. ”

  “A dead-spot!”

  Mary nodded. “I stayed there for a long time until my father, not even knowing I was there, climbed into the bed with his new wife. I couldn’t bear to see them together, so I left. By then I had recovered enough so that the weight of being home wasn’t so overwhelming anymore. I raced out of the house and although I sank quickly, I didn’t sink entirely, and the farther away from home I got the easier it was to walk. ”

  “What about your brother?” Nick gently asked.

  “I never saw him again,” Mary answered. “He sank to the center of the Earth. ”

  Mary didn’t say anything for a very long time. There was an unpleasant heaviness where her stomach had once been, but everywhere else there was a strange, ethereal sense of weightlessness. Everlost spirits did not float through the air as the living imagined, but right then, she felt like she might. “I’ve never told anyone that before, not even Vari. ”

  Nick put his hand gently on her shoulder. “I know it must be horrible to lose your brother like that,” he said, “but maybe, maybe, I could be like a brother to you. ” Then he moved a little closer. “Or…well…what I mean to say is, maybe not like a brother but something else. ” Then he leaned toward her, and he kissed her.

  Mary did not know how to deal with this. In the many years that she had been in Everlost there were boys who would try to force kisses on her. She wasn’t interested in those boys, and she always had more than enough strength to fight them off. But here was a boy whose kiss she didn’t want to fight off. On the other hand, neither did she want to have her judgment clouded by unfamiliar emotions. So she didn’t respond to him at all.

  “I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly, taking her lack of response as disinterest.

  “Don’t be,” was all Mary said, but kept all of her feelings wrapped up tightly inside, just as she was wrapped up inside her lacy velvet dress.

  Rejection was every bit as humiliating in death as it was in life.

  It’s because of the chocolate, Nick thought. No, it’s because I’m a year younger than her. No, I’m a hundred years younger than her. Nick didn’t wait for an elevator, he climbed up the stairs two steps at a time, and returned to his apartment, closing the door. Sure, Nick had been lovesick before. There was that girl in science—or was it history—he wasn’t sure anymore—but the point was it had passed. Here in Everlost, though, it would never pass, and he wondered if he tried hard enough if he would be able to simply disappear, because how could he ever face Mary again, much less face her for eternity.

  Mary, Mary, Mary. Her face and name were locked in his mind…And suddenly he realized that there was no room for the name that truly should have been in his mind. The name that that brat Vari was so sure he would forget. Hershey is what the other kids called him now, but that wasn’t his name, was it? His name started with an N. Nate. Noel. Norman. He was certain that it started with an N!

  Mary found her moods were always soothed by Vari’s masterful playing. He could coax the sweetest sounds from the Stradivarius violin — the same violin from which Vari had taken his Everlost name. Today he played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, one of Mary’s favorites. It was supposed to be played by a string quartet, but Vari was the only string player among the 320 kids in her care. They had plenty of instruments though. People loved their instruments, so quite a few crossed over. A trumpet that had been run over by a bus, a piano that had fallen sixteen stories. Once in a while Mary tried to put together an orchestra, but not enough kids arrived in Everlost with the talent, or the desire to play.

  “What would you like me to play next?”

  Mary’s mind had been drifting, so she hadn’t even realized Vari had stopped playing.

  “Whatever pleases you, Vari. ”

  He began to play something mournful and pleading. Mary couldn’t identify the composer. She preferred happier music.

  “I should bring Nick up,” Mary said. “I’m sure he’d enjoy hearing you play, too. ”

  The passion of Vari’s playing seemed to fade. “Hershey’s a toad. ”

  “You should learn to like him,” Mary said.

  “He’s got a dirty face, and I don’t like his eyes. ”

  “He’s half-Japanese. You mustn’t be prejudiced just because he has an Asian look about his eyes. ”

  Vari said nothing to that. He played a few more brooding stanzas of music, then said, “Why do you always want him around? He can’t really do anything. Not like some other kids. Not like me. ”

  Mary had to admit that it was true—Nick was not a standout spirit. But then, why did it matter what he could do? Why couldn’t he just be?

  She stood, and went to one of the western windows. It was a clear afternoon, and she could see across the Hudson River to New Jersey, but a faint haze hid the horizon from her.

  The world had become so small for the living. Airplanes took people across the country in a matter of hours. You could talk with people around the world just by pressing buttons on a telephone, and now those phones weren’t even connected to wires. Everlost wasn’t like that. It was still an unexplored wilderness of wild children, and gaping unknowns. Mary knew very little of children beyond her sphere of influence. Even after all her years here, her explorations were limited, because safety and security required digging in, and traveling as little as possible. Moving from the Everlost apartment building she had occupied for so many years to the towers had expanded her realm, and drawn many more children to her than she had sheltered before —yet even still, the only information she got from the world beyond her towers came from Finders passing through. Mostly they spoke of rumors. Sometimes she liked what she heard, and sometimes she didn’t.

  Then a thought occurred to her; a marvelous thought that would give Nick a purpose and a reason to be something more than just one among many in her world.

  “Finders have told me they’re reading my books as far west as Chicago now,” Mary told Vari. “Which means there must be children in other cities in need of care and guidance, don’t you think?”

  Vari stopped playing. “You’re thinking of leaving here?”

  Mary shook her head. “No. But that doesn’t mean I can’t send someone out there.

  Someone I can train, and teach everything I know. That person can set up an outpost in an unexplored city. Chicago, perhaps. ”

  “Who would you send?”

  “I was thinking about Nick. Of course it will take years to train him properly—ten, maybe twenty—but there’s no great hurry. ”

  Vari came up beside her, looked toward the hazy horizon, then turned to her.

  “I can do it,” he said. “And it won’t take years to train me, either. ”

  She turned to him and smiled. “That’s sweet of you to offer. ”

  “But I can do it,” he insisted. “I might be little, but the kids respect me, don’t they? Even the older ones. ”

  Again she smiled warmly. “Vari, what would this place be without you and your violin? I’d always want you here, playing for us. ”

  “‘Us,’” Vari echoed. “I see. ”

  She kissed him on top of the head. “Now, why don’t you play something else.

  Something cheerful. ”

  Vari began to play an upbeat tune, but somehow there seemed to be an edge to the music that was dark and undefinable.

  There was no question in Allie’s mind that she was getting out. She had no desire to spend eternity caught in an endless loop, no matter how pleasant it might be. But she was also smart enough to know not to leave until she got what she had come for in the first place.

  Information.

  Not “Miss Mary” information, but the real deal.

  “I want to know about all the things Mary won’t talk a
bout!”

  Allie said it loudly and fearlessly on what was commonly called the “teen floor,” since that’s where the older kids in Mary’s domain liked to congregate.

  No one seemed to react, but a kid playing Ping-Pong lost his concentration, and sent the ball flying across the room.

  “Don’t act like you didn’t hear me, and don’t think that by ignoring me you can make me go away. ”

  Like the younger kids, these kids were also caught in repetition, but it didn’t take as much to jostle them out of their stupor. There seemed to be a few fourteen-year-olds here, some thirteen, maybe some twelve-year-olds who eternally wanted to be older. All told, there were maybe thirty of these older kids in Mary’s domain — which was only about one-tenth of the population. She wondered if there were simply fewer older kids who got lost on their way to the light, or if most older kids simply didn’t stay here with Mary for very long.

  Nick had said Mary was writing a book on the subject. Allie wondered if there was a subject Mary wasn’t writing a book on.

  “If Mary doesn’t talk about something, there’s a reason,” said the Ping-Pong boy.

  But Allie already had her argument well rehearsed. “Mary says there are things we shouldn’t think about, and shouldn’t do—but she doesn’t flatly forbid anything, does she?”

  “Because we always have a choice. ”

  “That’s right. And Mary respects our choices, right?”

  No one said anything.

  “Right?” insisted Allie.

  The kids halfheartedly agreed.

  “Well, I choose to talk about those things we shouldn’t. And by her own rules, Mary has to respect my choice. ”

  Several of the kids were suitably confused. That was okay. Shake them up a little, get them to see things in a new way. This was a good thing.

  One girl stepped forward. It was Meadow— the girl they had met on their very first day here. “So, like, what do you want to know?”

  “I want to know about haunting—and how we can communicate with the living world.

  I want to know if there’s a way back to life—because no matter what Mary says, we’re not entirely dead, or we wouldn’t be here. I want to know about the McGill. Is it real, or is it just something made up to scare little kids?”

  By now all action had stopped in the room. The routine had been broken. She knew the moment she left, everyone would get right back to it, but for now she had their attention. One kid left a game of pool and approached her—but he still held on to his cue, as if worried he’d need to use it to defend himself.

  “No one knows if the McGill is real,” he said. “But I think it is, because Mary won’t talk about it. If it wasn’t real, she’d just tell us so, right?”

  A few of the other kids mumbled in agreement.

  “How about leaving Everlost? Is it possible to live again?”

  Meadow spoke up, blunt, and unsympathetic. “Your body is in a grave, or worse, it’s in ashes. I don’t think you want it back. ”

 
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