Everlost, p.15
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       Everlost, p.15

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 15

 

  “Better games?”

  “Listen,” said Allie, “you saved my life before we got here. Now it’s my turn to save yours. Don’t lose your soul to a Pac-Man machine. ”

  On the screen, his Pac-Man was caught by one of the fuzzy creatures, and died.

  Game over. But, like everything else in Mary’s world, it wasn’t over, because it started again. No quarter needed. Lief turned to gaze longingly at the game, but Allie touched his cheek, and turned his head to face her again.

  “Nick and I are going to learn about haunting. I want you to come with us.

  Please. ”

  She could see the moment he pulled himself out of the quicksand of his own mind.

  “I didn’t save your life,” he said. “Too late for that. But I did save you from a fate worse than death. ”

  Allie couldn’t help but think she had done the same for him.

  Deep down, Nick knew that a trip to the Haunter was a betrayal of Mary, but if Allie was right, the skills he’d come back with would be worth it. Mary would forgive him; forgiveness and acceptance were part of who she was. Nick felt a sense of anticipation, like butterflies in his stomach, and he had to admit it was a good feeling. It felt almost like being alive.

  Allie had gotten directions from Skully. It wasn’t too far away, but there was no safe time to leave. As Everlost was a world of insomniacs, there was always someone there to see every move they made. They decided to leave late at night, during a storm. That way, no kids would be playing outside, and no one on the higher floors would be able to see them, or their Afterlight glow through the sheets of rain when they crossed the plaza. If they timed it right, they wouldn’t be seen by the lookouts either…As their elevator descended, Nick turned to Allie. “I oughta have my head examined for agreeing to this. ”

  “It’ll be fun,” Allie said. “Right, Lief?”

  “Yeah. ” Lief didn’t sound too convinced.

  While the rain didn’t even get the marble plaza wet, lightning and thunder were as real to Everlost as they were to the living. After a bright flash of lightning, they waited for the thunder crash before stepping out, and then they headed uptown, without looking back.

  Had they looked back, however, they would have seen Vari peering out from the second floor, watching them as they left. Next to him stood Skully. Once Allie, Nick, and Lief were out of sight, Vari gave Skully a single cherry jelly bean.

  His reward for a job well done.

  “Do not speak of the Criminal Arts,” writes Mary Hightower in her pamphlet The Evils of Paranorming. “Do not speak of them, do not think of them, and most of all, do not seek to learn them. Attempting to influence the living world can only lead to misery. ”

  Chapter 11

  The Haunter Nick and Allie had not been out in the rain since they crossed into Everlost.

  “Drenched to the bone” took on a “whole new meaning when the rain passed through you on its way to the ground.

  “Sleet is worse,” Lief said.

  The old pickle factory was just where Skully said it would be. A white brick building on Washington Street, that, at some point in its life, crossed over into Everlost. A heavy steel door was ominously ajar. Nick didn’t like the looks of it.

  “Why do I get the feeling this is a really, really bad idea?”

  “Because,” said Allie, “you’re a certified wimp. ”

  And so to prove that he wasn’t, Nick was the first to push the door open. Bad idea or not, no more complaining. He had made his decision, and he was going for it.

  The instant he stepped in, the aroma snagged him. There was a rich smell in the air of roast meat and garlic, hitting him with more ferocity than the pelting storm—the aromas were so wonderful they made Nick weak at the knees.

  The building had been gutted, leaving nothing but clouded windows, a concrete floor, and black girders holding up the floor above. Hanging from the ceiling was the source of the wonderful smell. Roast chickens, turkeys, and smoked fish hung from meat hooks. Entire salamis hung from strings.

  “It’s true then,” said Allie in a charged whisper. “The Haunter can rip whatever he wants right out of the living world!”

  “I’ll never doubt you again,” said Nick.

  “Wow!” was all Lief could say.

  They were so awed by the hanging feast, it took them a few moments to notice the small Afterlight sitting cross-legged in the center of the concrete floor. He looked frozen there, as if he hadn’t moved for many years. His glow had a yellow tinge to it, and shimmered faintly against the gray walls.

  “I’ve been waiting for you,” said the Haunter.

  Nick found his feet not wanting to move forward, until Allie whispered in his ear, “He probably says that to anyone who shows up. ”

  “He’s just a little kid!” said Lief, but Allie “shushed” him.

  The three kids approached the seated figure. The light was dim, but as they got closer, they could see that even though he had died young, the Haunter was a very, very old spirit. Physically, he couldn’t be any older than six, and yet there was such a sense of age in him, he might as well have been a withered old wizard. The clothes he wore barely looked like clothes at all. They were furs, stitched together—perhaps to protect him from an ice age that had passed twenty-thousand years ago.

  “Tell me why you have come,” the Haunter said in his high-pitched voice. He had only one visible tooth. Perhaps it was because most of his front baby teeth had come out shortly before he died.

  “We…we heard you can teach people to haunt the living world,” Allie said.

  “I teach nothing,” he said. “Either you have the skill, or you don’t. ”

  Then he reached into his lap, and produced a smooth stone the size of an egg.

  The Haunter looked at the stone for a moment, as if it held the wisdom of the world, then in one smooth motion, he hurled it at Nick. “Catch it!” he said.

  Nick held up his hands, but the stone passed right through his chest, and hit the floor behind him! This wasn’t an Everlost stone, it was an artifact of the living world!

  The Haunter laughed in his very-old-little-kid voice. “Pick it up. Bring it to me,” he said.

  “How am I supposed to pick that up?”

  “The same way I did,” said the Haunter.

  Nick went to the stone, leaned down, and reached for it. His fingers closed on it, but passed right through it, just as he knew they would. He tried again, concentrating this time. Nothing. The stone didn’t even wobble. Fine, thought Nick. He’ll point out how completely useless we are, then he’ll start teaching us.

  Nick stood up and turned to the Haunter, anxious to just get on with it. “I can’t,” said Nick. “I can’t pick up the stone. ”

  “In that case,” said the Haunter, “your lesson is over. ” Then he snapped his fingers, and there came a thundering that had nothing to do with the weather.

  The steel door behind them slammed itself shut. Then, down a flight of old wooden stairs came a dozen figures wrapped from head to toe in black robes, and they headed straight for Nick. Before he knew what was happening, dark gloved hands lifted him off the ground.

  “Stop! What are you doing!”

  “The price of failure,” the Haunter said calmly, “is an eternity to think about it. ”

  And then they turned Nick upside down, and plunged him headfirst into a pickle barrel that had crossed over into Everlost along with the building. It was still full of slimy saltwater brine. Then they slammed the cover back on, and Nick found himself submerged in salty, liquid darkness. For a horrible instant, he thought he might drown there, but realized he couldn’t. The brine was in him and around him. It sloshed through the place where his insides should be, it filled his mouth and nose, yet still he did not drown, and never would.

  Allie stared at the barrel paralyzed with disbelief, listening to Nick’s angry, muffled screams from within as the dark-robed
figures nailed the lid on tight.

  So this was why no one ever returned from the Haunter. How could she have been so stupid to take this risk? To make her friends take the risk? I did this to Nick, was all Allie could think. I made him come here.

  Allie looked at all the other barrels. Were those barrels full of others who failed the test, unable to die, yet unable to escape, left to pickle in their own thoughts for all time?

  “The other boy next,” the Haunter said.

  Lief shook his head. “No. No, I don’t want to! I just want to go. ”

  “Bring me the stone and you can go. ”

  He looked at the faces of the kids around him, but they didn’t seem to have faces beneath the dark wrappings.

  “I don’t like this game,” Lief cried. “I don’t want to play. ”

  “Let him go!” Allie demanded. “What kind of monster are you?”

  The Haunter only gave her a single-toothed smile, then turned to Lief again.

  “The stone. ”

  With no choice, Lief went to the stone, and tried to lift it. He grunted in frustration with each grasp, and Allie suddenly found herself thinking of that stupid arcade game, where a claw tried to scoop up a stuffed animal. The claw almost always came up empty-handed. And so did Lief.

  “Nooooo!”

  The Haunter’s goons were on him, and although Lief and Allie tried to fight them, there were just too many of them. Lief was plunged into another barrel, kicking and screaming and sloshing brine across the floor, until they nailed on the lid. Allie could hear his sobs from within the awful brine.

  Then the dark figures pulled open the lid of a third barrel, and waited.

  “Bring me the stone,” the Haunter said to Allie.

  Allie always prided herself on being cool in a crisis, and coming through when it really mattered. She had to figure the angle here. She had to think them all out of this.

  “I’ll bring you the stone, if you release my friends. ”

  The Haunter did not move. Did not bat an eyelash. Allie knew she was in no bargaining position, yet still the Haunter said “Agreed. Your friends for the stone. ”

  So this was it, then. She had brought them here, and only she could get them out.

  A stone on the ground. It seemed such a simple thing, but she reached for it with the same terror with which she would have reached for a burning coal.

  Grabbing the stone was like trying to grab a shadow. Her fingers passed through it again and again, and she found herself angry at the stone: a stubborn piece of the living world, refusing to admit that she existed. “I Am!” She wanted to shout at it. “I exist, and I WILL move you!”

  Still her fingers passed through it again, and again.

  “Enough!” said the Haunter, and his goons advanced on her.

  Move you stupid stone, move!

  Allie forced every ounce of her will to the tips of her fingers and closed them again over the smooth rock, and again, her fingertips failed her.

  But this time the stone wobbled.

  Suddenly the goons stopped moving, and the Haunter stood up. The entire world seemed perched on the tips of Allies fingers.

  “Go on,” the Haunter said.

  Allie reached for the stone one more time. She had made it wobble. She had moved it. The knowledge that she had done it gave her an inkling of faith that she might do it again. This time she reached for it with not just her fingertips but with both hands, and she tried to scoop it up in her palms.

 
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