Everlost, p.14
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       Everlost, p.14

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 14

 

  “Yeah, but there are other ways to be alive …,” said a kid quietly from the corner. When Allie turned to him, he looked away.

  “What do you mean, other ways?” asked Allie.

  When he didn’t answer, Meadow spoke up. “He doesn’t know what he means. ”

  “But you do. ”

  Meadow crossed her arms. “There are…talents…that some people have, and some people don’t. They’re not nice talents—and they will bring you a world of bad karma. Mary calls them ‘The Criminal Arts. ’”

  By now everyone had begun to gravitate around Allie and Meadow. By the looks on their faces, some kids seemed to know what she was talking about, but most seemed clueless.

  “What kind of talents?” asked Allie. “How would I know if I have them?”

  “You’d be luckier not to know. ”

  “Excuse me,” said a voice from the back. Everyone turned to see Vari standing there. There was no way to know how much he had heard. Meadow instantly put distance between herself and Allie, going back to the game she had been playing.

  The rest of the kids moved away from Allie as well, as if she was poison.

  “Good news,” Vari said. “Miss Mary just traded with a Finder for a bucket of fried chicken. She says everyone can have a single bite. ”

  The rush to the elevators nearly swept Allie off her feet. As much as Allie wanted a bite of that chicken as well, she resisted. The fact wasn’t lost on Vari, who patiently waited for the last elevator with her.

  “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Were you a vegetarian when you were alive?”

  Allie couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or sincere.

  In her book, You’re Dead—So Now What?, Mary Hightower offers the following warning for the restless soul: “Wanderlust is a dangerous thing. In Everlost there’s safety in staying put. Afterlights who are cursed with a desire to travel don’t last for long. They either succumb to Gravity Fatigue, or they are captured by feral packs of unsavory children. The few that escape these fates become Finders, but the existence of a Finder is full of peril. Better to seek a safe haven, and stay there. And if you haven’t found a safe haven, by all means, come see me. ”

  Chapter 10

  An Elevator Down Allie was alone in an elevator the following morning, when a human skeleton got in on the ninety-eighth floor.

  Allie gasped at the sight of him.

  “Get over it,” the skeleton-boy said as the elevator doors closed.

  Allie quickly realized who it was. He wasn’t a skeleton at all. He simply had white makeup all over his face, with black around the eyes, and wore a cheap Halloween skeleton costume. His Afterlight glow merely added to the overall effect.

  “Sorry,” said Allie. “You just caught me off guard. ”

  There were two kids here who had the supreme misfortune of crossing on Halloween: this kid, and another with green face-paint and fake peeling skin.

  Everyone called them Skully and Molder.

  “So,” said Skully, after the elevator doors had closed. “I hear you’ve been asking about the Criminal Arts. ”

  “Yeah,” said Allie, “but asking is useless if nobody answers. ”

  “I can tell you stuff, but you can’t tell anyone you heard it from me. ”

  The elevator door opened. “Your floor?” asked Skully.

  Allie had been going down to the arcade to try to wrestle Lief away from his Pac-Man game, but that could wait. She didn’t get out, and the elevator door closed again.

  “Tell me what you know. I promise I won’t tell anyone you told me. ”

  Skully hit the button for the lobby, and the elevator began its long fall.

  “There’s this place a couple of miles away from here. A building that crossed a long time ago. A pickle factory, I think. There’s this kid who lives there. They call him ‘The Haunter. ’ He teaches people how to do things. ”

  “How to do what, exactly?”

  “Paranorming, ecto-ripping, skinjacking —you name it. ”

  “I don’t know what those things are. ”

  Skully sighed impatiently. “He can show you how to move things in the living world, make yourself heard to the living—and maybe even seen. They even say he can reach into the living world, and pull things out of it. He can actually make things cross into Everlost. ”

  “And he can teach this?”

  “That’s what I hear. ”

  “Have you ever met him?” Allie asked.

  The kid backed away a little. “I know kids who went there. But they didn’t come back. ”

  Allie just shrugged it off. “Maybe after visiting the Haunter, they found something better than this. Maybe they didn’t come back because they didn’t want to. ”

  “Maybe,” said Skully. “If you want, I’ll get you the address. ”

  Allie was going to ask him more, but the doors whooshed open, he stepped out, and a gaggle of little kids swept in from the lobby, on their way to higher places.

  Nick. Nicky. Nicholas.

  It had taken him hours to remember his name, and now that he had captured it, he wasn’t letting go. His name was Nick. Nick something-or-other. It was a Japanese last name, because his father was Japanese. His mother was Caucasian, although he couldn’t quite remember the details of either of their faces, but that was a battle for another time. Right now, holding on to his first name took all his attention.

  Nick. Nicky. Nicholas.

  He would remember his last name, too. He would. He had to. Even if he had to track down his own grave and read it there, he would know his last name again.

  He would keep them both, and no one would call him Hershey, or Cadbury, or Ghirardelli, or anything other than Nick, Nicky, Nicholas.

  He took scraps of paper from his room, and wrote it over and over again, shoving a tiny slip into each of his pockets, in every drawer, under his mattress, and even under the cushions of the sofa that Lief slept on. Lief wouldn’t care—he hadn’t been back to the room for days, anyway.

  Nick, Nicky, Nicholas. Maybe even Nic-o.

  He was interrupted by Allie pounding on the door. He knew it was Allie, because she was the only one who ever pounded. Mary’s knock was gentle and refined.

  Allie knocked like she wanted the door to fall down.

  “I’m busy!” Nick said. “Go away. ”

  But she just kept on pounding, so he had to let her in.

  When Allie stepped in, she looked around, as if something was wrong. “Nick, what are you doing in here?”

  Nick turned around to look at his room, and for the first time he saw what he had done. There were little scraps of paper everywhere—not just in and under things, but all over the room. It looked like the place was covered in a dusting of snow. He hadn’t just used the paper in the drawers, he had torn out all the pages of all the books on the shelves. Mary’s books. He had torn them to shreds and had written “Nick” on every little shred, both front and back.

  Only now did he notice it was daylight. Hadn’t he started this at dusk? Had he been doing this all night? Nick was speechless. He had no idea how this had happened. It was as if he were in a trance, broken only by Allies arrival. The weird thing about it was that a part of him wanted to throw her out, and get back to his work. His important work. Nick, Nicky, Nicholas.

  Just like the kids playing kickball, or the kids watching The Love Boat every day until the end of time, he had found his “niche,” and hadn’t even realized it.

  He looked at Allie, pleadingly, opening his mouth, but unable to say anything.

  He felt a certain shame about it that he couldn’t explain.

  “It’s all right,” Allie said. “We’re getting out of here. ”

  “What?”

  “You heard me—we’re leaving. ”

  Nick resisted. Leave here? Leave Mary? “No! I don’t want to leave. ”

  Allie stared at him like he was a mental case. M
aybe he was. “What do you want to do? Stay here writing your name forever?”

  “I told Mary I wouldn’t leave. ” But then, thought Nick, that was before she so thoroughly rejected his sorry butt.

  Allie scowled, and Nick thought she might start ranting about what a terrible person Mary was, and blah blah blah—but she didn’t. Instead she said: “If you really want to impress Mary…if you really want to be useful to her, then you need to learn a skill. ”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “How would you like to be able to talk to the living—or better yet, how would you like to reach into the living world and actually pull things out of it?”

  Nick shook his head. “But that’s Ecto-ripping! Mary hates it!”

  “She only hates it because no one here can do it —and just because Mary calls them ‘The Criminal Arts,’ doesn’t mean they really are. They’re only criminal if you use them in criminal ways. Think about it, Nick. If you come with me and learn all there is to know, you can come back with food and toys for all her little kids. You can bring her a dozen roses that will never wilt or fade. You can actually mean something to her. ”

  Nick found this irresistibly tempting. The more he considered it, the harder it was to refuse. “Who’s gonna teach us that?”

  “I know a kid who knows a kid,” said Allie.

  Nick looked at his room, covered in little bits of paper. If an eternity of that was the alternative, maybe it was time he trusted Allie, and took a leap of faith.

  “Tell me more. ”

  “C’mon,” said Allie. “We’ll talk on the way to the arcade. ”

  One down, one to go. Allie found Lief exactly where she expected to: practically glued to the Pac-Man machine.

  “Lief?”

  “Leave me alone, I’ve got to beat this level. ”

  “Lief, this game is so old, living people don’t even play it anymore. ‘Retro’ is one thing, but this is prehistoric!”

  “Stop bothering me!”

  Nick leaned his back against the side of the game, with his arms crossed. “He’s found his niche,” Nick said. “Like I almost did. ”

  “It’s not a niche,” said Allie, “it’s a rut. Mary might think it’s a good thing, but it’s not. ” Allie knew now that in the same way water always seeks its lowest point, so do the souls of Everlost — carving a rut that becomes a ditch, that becomes a canyon—and the deeper it gets, the harder it is to escape from. Allie knew it, just as she knew that Lief, if left alone, would play this game until the end of time.

  “This is wrong, Lief!”

  “Just go. ”

  She went to the back of the machine to pull the plug, only to find out that it wasn’t even plugged in, and she cursed the fact that the normal laws of science didn’t apply in Everlost. Machines worked not because they had a power source, but because in some strange way, they remembered working.

  Allie thought for a moment, then said, “We’re going to a place that has even better games!”

  “Don’t lie to him,” said Nick—but she had already caught Lief’s attention. He was looking at her instead of at the machine. His eyes were glassy, and his expression vague, like he was surfacing from a deep, deep sleep.

 
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