Everlost, p.18
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       Everlost, p.18

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 18


  Nick, on the other hand, was miserable.

  Chapter 14

  The Alter Boys WELCOME TO ROCKLAND COUNTY! It was a road sign Allie was sure she’d never see again. The last time she had seen it, she was pushed into the Earth, and if it hadn’t been for Lief and Nick, she wouldn’t have made it out. I intuit be crazy coming back here. Well, crazy or not, here she was.

  “Johnnie-O!” she called out at the top of her lungs. “I want to talk to you, Johnnie-O!”

  Allie knew it wasn’t just bad luck that had brought Johnnie-O and his little team of morons to them that night. The way Allie figured it, any new arrivals in Everlost in this area would follow the main highway, and would pass this way. If Johnnie-O wasn’t here himself, chances are he had a lookout keeping an eye on this very spot, waiting for some poor unsuspecting Greensoul to rest beneath the WELCOME TO ROCKLAND COUNTY! sign.

  She figured right. It took a few hours of calling, and making noise, but finally word had been relayed back to Johnnie-O, and he showed up at around noon. This time he came with a dozen kids to back him up, instead of just four. Nothing was going to scare them away this time. The cigarette was still hanging out of the corner of his mouth, smoldering away, and Allie realized that cigarette was going to be stuck there until the end of time.

  “Hey—it’s that girl who tricked you!” said the kid with the purple lips, and the lump in his throat.

  Johnnie-O hit him. “She didn’t trick me,” he said, and nobody contradicted him.

  He assumed a kind of gunslinger posture, like this was a showdown. He looked more comical than anything else, with his huge hands.

  “I thought I sent you down,” he said.

  “You thought wrong. ”

  “So what? Did ya come back so’s I could send you down right this time?”

  “I’m back with a proposition. ”

  Johnnie-O looked at her, his expression stony. At first Allie thought he was doing it for effect. Then she realized he didn’t know what “proposition” meant.

  “I want your help,” Allie explained.

  Raggedy Andy tossed his weird red hair out of his eyes and laughed. “Why would we wanna help you!”

  Johnnie-O smacked him, then crossed his heavy arms and said, “Why would we wanna help you!”

  “Because I can get you what you want. ”

  By now even more kids had arrived. Some were real little, others her age, maybe a bit older. They all had menacing scowls—even the little ones.

  “We don’t want nothin’ from you!” Johnnie-O said, and his chorus of bullies grumbled their agreement. This was all posturing, Allie knew. He had to be curious—if he wasn’t, he’d already have pushed her down.

  “You attack Greensouls for the crumbs in their pockets, and pre-chewed gum. ”

  Johnnie-O shrugged. “Yeah, so?”

  “What if I told you I knew where you could get real food. Not just pocket crumbs, but whole loaves of bread. ”

  Johnnie-O kept his arms crossed. “And what if I sewed your lying mouth shut?”

  “It’s no lie. I know a place where salamis and chickens hang from the ceiling, a place where you can eat all you want, and wash it down with root beer!”

  “Root beer,” echoed one of the little kids.

  Johnnie-O threw him a warning glance, and the kid looked at his toes.

  “There ain’t no such place. Whadaya think I am, stupid?”

  Well yes, Allie wanted to say, but that’s beside the point. Instead she said, “Have you ever heard of ‘The Haunter’?”

  If the rest of the kids were any indication, they all knew about the Haunter.

  There were whispers, a few kids backed away from her, and the lump in Purple-puss’s throat bobbed up and down like a fishing float. For a second Allie even thought she could see fear in Johnnie-O’s eyes, but he covered it with a wide grin that tilted the tip of his nasty little Marlboro to the sky.

  “First you tell me the McGill is your friend, and now the Haunter?” His smile turned into a frown, and the cigarette tipped downward. “I’ve had enough a you—you’re going down!”

  “Send her down!” the other kids started yelling. “Down! Down!”

  They advanced on her. She knew she only had a split second before mob mentality took over, and then nothing she could say would save her.

  “I lied!” she shouted. “I lied about the McGill to stop you from sending me down —but this time I’m telling the truth. ” Johnnie-O put up his hand, and the kids hesitated, waiting for his signal.

  “The Haunter captured my friends, and I can’t rescue them alone! I need somebody strong,” Allie said, looking right into Johnnie-O’s eyes. “I need somebody smart. ”

  Allie watched the tip of his cigarette. Would it tip up, or would it tilt down?

  It wavered for the longest time, and finally it tilted upward. “You came to the right guy. ”

  They took Allie to the nearest town, the place Johnnie-O and his band of juvenile hoods called home. Johnnie-O made a point of crossing the main street several times, for no sensible reason.

  “It’s because of the Chinese restaurants,” Raggedy Andy explained. “They’re supposed to be bad luck or something—at least that’s what Johnnie-O heard. ’ And so they wove a serpentine path down the street, crossing to avoid all four Chinese restaurants in town, proving that superstition was not limited to the living.

  They brought Allie to their hideout. Stupid that they called it a hideout, because they didn’t have to hide from the living, who couldn’t see them anyway.

  Like Mary, Johnnie-O had found a building that had crossed over, and had made it home. His was a white clapboard church—which struck Allie as funny. This kid probably never went to a church in his life, and now he was stuck living in one.

  At least there was some justice in the universe. There were about thirty kids total, all disciples of Johnnie-O, like he was running a tough-guy school. They called themselves “The Altar Boys,” because they lived in a church, but the way Allie saw it, they were also “alter” boys—that is, every single one of them had something about him slightly altered from his living self; like Johnnie-O’s hands, or Raggedy Andy’s hair.

  “How come there are no girls?” Allie asked.

  “Girls come by once in a while, wantin’ to join,” Johnnie-O said. “We send ‘em packing. ” And then he added, “I don’t like girls much. ”

  Allie couldn’t help but grin. “I think you died about a year too young. ”

  “Yeah,” Johnnie-O admitted. “And it really ticks me off. ”

  Now that she was accepted by their leader, the other kids kept stealing glimpses at her, like she was some sort of exotic creature. Great, she thought, I’m playing Wendy to a delinquent Peter Pan and the Lost Boys of Juvie Hall.

  She told them all about the pickle factory, and the Haunter’s air-soldiers.

  “His magic ain’t no match for us,” Johnnie-O said proudly. Allie wasn’t entirely convinced, but beggars can’t be choosers.

  “The hard part will be getting in. There’s a big steel door—not living-world steel, but steel that crossed over with the building. I pounded on it for hours and couldn’t make a dent. ”

  Johnnie-O wasn’t bothered. “That ain’t a problem. We’ll use explosives. ”

  “You’ve got explosives!?”

  He called to a kid on the other side of the church. “Hey, Stubs, get your fat butt over here!”

  The kid came running.

  “A few years back,” Johnnie explained, “Stubs here was sellin’ illegal fireworks out of his garage. They caught on fire, and Stubs won himself a one-way trip to Everlost. Anyways, it turns out part of his fireworks stash came over with him. ”

  And then Johnnie added, “Which is more than I can say for most of his fingers. ”

  “Yeah,” said Raggedy Andy, laughing. “That’s how come Stubs can only count to three. ”

  Allie and
the “Alter” Boys left at dawn, the members of the gang all carrying baseball bats, chains, and various other makeshift weapons that had somehow crossed over. They would have been terrifying in the living world, but with the threat of pain and death not applicable in Everlost, it was all pretty much for show; fashion accessories for bad boys who didn’t get where they were going.

  All the while as they marched south toward the city, Purple-puss kept giving Allie dirty looks. Not too long into their journey, he broke his silence. “I don’t like this, Johnnie-O,” he said, the bulge in his neck ping-ponging up and down. “She’s not one of us, we shouldn’t oughta be trusting her. ”

  Johnnie-O smirked. “Heimlich here don’t trust nobody. ”

  “For all we know,” Heimlich said, “she could be leading us straight to the Sky Witch. ”

  “Shut up,” said Johnny-O, “there ain’t no such thing. ”

  “Sky Witch?” asked Allie.

  Johnnie-O waved it off. “Just a stupid story they tell to scare little kids about some witch who lives in the skies over Manhattan. ”

  “She devours kids’ souls,” said another kid.

  “Yeah,” said Raggedy Andy, baring his teeth and hooking his hands like claws.

  “She grabs you and takes a deep breath sucking your soul right up her nose.

  That’s why they also call her the ‘Queen of Snot. ’”

  Johnnie-O gave them a Three Stooges—like slap that got all three of them. “What, were you born stupid or did you just die that way?” He turned to Allie. “Some kids will believe anything. ”

  Allie,wisely, said nothing.

  “We should make her skim,” said Raggedy Andy. “That way we’ll know whether she’s worthy. ”

  Johnnie-O explained that all prospective members of the Altar Boys had to take a coin and skim it on the Hudson River. If it skimmed at least twice like a stone, then you were worthy of joining the Altar Boys. You had to use a coin you crossed with, and you only got one chance because once your coin sank, it was gone for good.

  Allie was confused. “But…how can you skim an Everlost coin on living-world water? It wouldn’t work — it would just fall straight through. ”

  “Well,” said Johnnie-O with a wink, “I’m the one who decides whether or not I saw it skim. ”

  The next morning, they came to the George Washington Bridge, which crossed the Hudson into the northern tip of Manhattan. There they halted. Allie looked back to see them all milling around near the on-ramp.

  “We don’t do bridges,” Johnnie-O said and Allie smirked.

  “Oh, are you scared?”

  Johnnie-O narrowed his eyes into a glare. “If you ever tried to cross a bridge you’d know how easy it is to sink right through it, and fall into the river. But I guess you ain’t bright enough to figure that out. ”

  Allie was about to fire right back at him, about how she had already crossed this bridge, and maybe his name should be Johnnie-Zero, instead of Johnnie-O, because he had zero guts—but then Raggedy Andy said, “We lost more than twenty kids once trying to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was awful. ”

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