Everlost, p.16
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       Everlost, p.16

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 16

 

  I will not leave my friends in those barrels, she told the stone. I will not be a victim of this monsterchild. YOU WILL RISE OFF THE FLOOR!

  And it did! Although the stone sank deep into her ghostly hands, it came off the ground! Allie did not let her excitement break her concentration. She held her will in the palms of her hands along with that stone. It was heavy. It was perhaps the heaviest thing she had ever lifted, but she did not feel its weight in her muscles. This was a weight she could feel on her soul, and the strain was so great she felt her spirit would tear apart. Slowly she moved toward the Haunter, and his goons backed away.

  “Here’s your stone,” she said. He held out his hand and she brought her hands over his. The stone lingered in her hands only an instant longer, then it fell right through, and into the Haunter’s open palm. He closed his palm around it.

  “Very good. A skill is best revealed when one has no choice but to show it. ”

  “Free my friends. ”

  “Five years of study,” the Haunter said.

  “What?”

  “You have shown your skill. Now you must develop it, and discover what other skills you have—because where there is one skill, there are more. Study with me for five years, and then I shall free your friends from their barrels. ”

  Allie took a step back. “That wasn’t our agreement. ”

  The Haunter showed no expression. “I said I would free them. I never said when. ”

  This time, instead of coming up with a clever, well-thought-out approach to the situation, she found herself lunging for the Haunter, which of course did no good, because his goons were there to hold her back. Their strength seemed unnatural, even for Everlost spirits—and in a moment she found out why. In her struggle, she grabbed at the scarf covering one of their faces, and what she saw terrified her. She should have known something was wrong from the beginning. If Afterlights all wore the clothes they died in, what were the chances of finding a team of goons, all shrouded in black? These weren’t Afterlights at all. They were shells—and when Allie peeled back the scarf from the face, she saw nothing behind it—just cloth curving around the back of a head that didn’t exist.

  Allie screamed, reached for the other faces, and one after another, she revealed them as empty, soulless soldiers. This trick was part of the Haunter’s skill;

  wrapping clothes around empty air, creating soldiers out of nothing. The more Allie screamed, the louder the Haunter laughed.

  Handless gloves gripped her tightly, and carried her to the door. “Come back when you are ready to learn,” the Haunter said.

  Then they pulled open the heavy iron door, and hurled her out into the street, slamming the door behind her.

  She tried to push herself up on her elbows but found she couldn’t, and realized she was sinking into the middle of the living-world street. She struggled to free herself, but only became more deeply embedded in the asphalt, which seemed more like tar trying to take her down. A garbage truck rolled over her, its wheels rolling straight through her head like it wasn’t there, and it only made her angrier. Angry enough that one of the rear tires blew as it crossed through her.

  The truck slammed on its breaks, and pulled over to the side of the street up ahead.

  Did I blow out that tire?

  But if she did, she didn’t care. Not now. With a heavy force of will, she pulled herself upright. Now standing waist-deep in the asphalt, she worked her legs, and pressed with her hands until she had pulled herself out of the street.

  She ran to the door of the Haunter’s lair. For a quick moment she forgot that it was not a living-world door, and slammed into it with full force, as if she could pass through it. She bounced off the solid steel, almost landing back in the street.

  She pounded on the door over and over, ramming her shoulder against it. She tried to climb in through windows, but they were eternally blocked with security bars that had crossed into Everlost along with the rest of the building. For hours she tried to find a way in, and by dawn she was no closer to freeing her friends than she had been when she started.

  As the jet-dark sky became the motley gray of a stormy morning, the rain turned to sleet, and the pinpricks of rain passing through her became sharp darts of ice. Discomfort, but not pain. Never pain, which just fed her rage. This dead/not-dead state robbed her of her right to feel with her body, and that made the anguish of her soul all the more severe.

  Come back when you are ready to learn, the Haunter had said, but Allie already knew she would never be his student. She was no monster, and neither would she study under a monster. She would be back, though. She would come with a force of three hundred kids. Mary’s kids. They would tear the place down brick by brick if they had to, until there was not even a ghost of a ghost of a building.

  Allie ran all the way back to the great marble plaza that marked the boundaries of Mary’s towering domain, and hurtled straight through a revolving door, ignoring the surprised looks of the kids on lookout. She raced into the elevator with such speed that she hit the back wall. The entire elevator shook, the doors closed, and in an instant she was surging upward.

  She and Mary might have had their little differences, but Allie had enough faith in Mary to know she would sacrifice herself for the safety of the kids in her care. Together they would take on the Haunter, and who knows, perhaps it would forge some sort of bond between Allie and Mary.

  She began at the top floor, but Mary wasn’t there. There were kids in the foodless food court, playing their morning games. “Mary! Where’s Mary? I have to find her!”

  Allie went to the arcade floor, the publishing room, the TV room, and everywhere she went kids followed, her commotion actually drawing kids right out of their routines, like a speeding train pulling a swarm of leaves behind it, caught in its draft.

  Mary was nowhere.

  Vari, however, seemed to be everywhere. Everywhere she went, Vari seemed to find a way to get there first.

  “Mary knows where you went last night,” Vari announced. “Everyone knows. ”

  Allie looked around at the other kids, and Allie knew from the way they looked at her, and from the distance they kept, that she had suddenly become an outsider. Someone to be feared. Someone who could not be trusted.

  “Mary doesn’t want to talk to you,” Vari said. “Ever. ”

  “Listen, you little weasel, you tell me where Mary is, or I swear I’ll take you straight out into the living world, and stomp you down so hard, you’ll sink clear to China!”

  When Vari didn’t talk, Allie took things into her own hands. Allie had heard that Mary liked to wander the unused floors when something was troubling her. A quick trip to the elevator control room found all the elevators on the usual floors, except for one. There was a single elevator waiting on the fifty-eighth floor.

  It was the emptiness that hit Allie first. She knew the unused floors of the great towers were empty, but some were more empty than others. When you stood in the concrete expanse of floor fifty-eight, you felt like the only person in the universe.

  Mary was there all right, in a far corner looking out of the windows at the world below. When she turned to see Allie her expression hardened. Other elevators began to arrive, and kids piled out of stairwells to watch the situation unfold.

  Mary strode toward her with such sternness about her, Allie felt sure Mary would slap her…but she didn’t. Instead Mary stopped a distance away. Dueling distance, Allie thought. The distance from which Aaron Burr must have shot Alexander Hamilton.

  “I want to know where Nick is,” Mary asked. Allie could see she had been crying, although Mary tried not to show it.

  “I need your help,” Allie said.

  “First tell me where Nick is!”

  Allie hesitated. This wasn’t going to be easy. “Lief and Nick have been captured by the Haunter. ” At the word “Haunter,” many of the little kids gasped, and clung to older children.

  “
See, didn’t I tell you?” Vari said. “They brought this on themselves!”

  “Shut up, Vari!” It was the first time Allie had heard Mary yell at him. It was the first time she heard her yell at anyone. Now she turned her anger toward Allie. “You deliberately went against my wishes, and my warnings!”

  Allie was not about to deny it. “I know. I’m sorry, and you can punish me any way you like, but right now we have to rescue Lief and Nick. ”

  “Your actions put them in harm’s way. ”

  “Yes,” admitted Allie. “Yes, they did. I was wrong, but right now—”

  Then Mary turned to all those gathered. “Let this be a lesson to everyone that nothing good can ever come from leaving this place. ”

  Now Allie was getting frustrated. “Yes, fine. I am the poster child for bad choices. Now can we just get on with what has to be done!”

  Mary looked at her with the same sadness her eyes held when she looked out from her high window. A single tear came, and she wiped it away.

  “There is nothing to be done. ”

  Allie heard what Mary said, but was convinced she hadn’t heard her right.

  “What?”

  “Nick and Lief are lost,” Mary said. “You’ve lost them. ” And Mary turned to walk away.

  Allie shook her head, and felt like lunging at Mary just as she had lunged at the Haunter, but she held herself back. “No! No—you can’t just leave them. ”

  Then Mary turned on her with a powerful vengeance. “Don’t you think I want to save them? Do you think I want Nick spending an eternity imprisoned by that evil spirit?”

  “Then do something about it. ”

  “That would risk every child here, and I won’t put them in danger. I protect them! I don’t send them out to fight a war! The Haunter leaves us alone. We leave him alone. That’s the way it is with all the monsters. Even the McGill. ”

  Again, nervous whispers at the mention of the McGill.

  “The world out there is not a kind one, if you haven’t figured that out,” Mary said. “Sometimes we sink, and never come back. Sometimes we are captured and are never seen again. Losing Nick and Lief is tragic, and I will not make it more tragic by sending other defenseless children for the Haunter to enslave. ”

  As breathless as someone who did not breathe could be, Allie said, “You’re a monster. You’re no better than the Haunter! You’re telling me that you’re going to do NOTHING? That Nick and Lief are ‘acceptable losses. ’”

  “No loss is acceptable,” Mary said. “But sometimes we have to accept it anyway. ”

  “I won’t!”

  “If I can accept it, then so can you,” she said. “If you want to stay here with us, you’ll learn to live with it. ”

  And all at once Allie knew what was going on here.

  Mary was getting rid of her. She was hurling Allie out of the fold, but doing it in such a way that she could remain blameless. If Allie wanted to stay, then she had to accept the loss of her friends, and not even try to rescue Nick and Lief. Allie would never stay under those conditions, and Mary knew it. Maybe that’s why Mary became calm, and in control again.

 
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