Everlost, p.2
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       Everlost, p.2

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 2

 

  Nick began to pace, losing himself in morbid thoughts of doom. “This is bad.

  This is really, really bad. ”

  “I’m sure they’re all okay,” Allie said, and repeated it, as if that would make it so. “I’m sure they are. ”

  And the freckled boy laughed at them. “The only survivors!” he said. “That’s a good one!” This was no laughing matter. It made both Nick and Allie furious.

  “Who are you?” Allie demanded. “Why are you here?”

  “Did you see the accident?” Nick added.

  “No,” he said, choosing to answer Nick’s question only. “But I heard it. I went up to look. ”

  “What did you see?”

  The kid shrugged. “Lots of stuff. ”

  “Were the other people in the cars all right?”

  The kid turned and kicked a stone, angrily. “Why does it matter? Either they got better, or they got where they were going, and anyway there’s nothing you can do about it, so just forget about it, okay?”

  Nick threw his hands up. “This is nuts! Why are we even talking to this kid? We have to get up there and find out what happened!”

  “Can you just calm down for a second?”

  “I am calm!” Nick screamed.

  Allie knew there was something…off…about the whole situation. Whatever it was, it all seemed centered on this oddly dressed, freckle-faced boy.

  “Can you take us to your home? We can call the police from there. ”

  “I don’t got a telly-phone. ”

  “Oh, that’s just great!” said Nick.

  Allie turned on him. “Will you just shut up — you’re not helping. ” Allie took a good long look at the freckled boy again. His clothes. The way he held himself.

  She thought about the things he had said—not so much what he said, but the way he had said it. This is my place… now it’s your place, too. If her suspicions were correct, this situation was even weirder than she had thought.

  “Where do you live?” Allie asked him.

  “Here,” was all he said.

  “How long have you been ‘here’?”

  The Freckle-boy’s ears went red. “I don’t remember. ”

  By now Nick had come over, his frustration defused by what he was hearing.

  “And your name?” Allie asked.

  He couldn’t even look her in the eye. He looked down, shaking his head. “I haven’t needed one for a long time. So I lost it. ”

  “Whoa …” said Nick.

  “Yeah,” said Allie. “Major whoa. ”

  “It’s okay,” said the boy. “I got used to it. You will, too. You’ll see. It’s not so bad. ”

  There were so many emotions for Allie to grapple with now—from fear to anger to misery— but for this boy, Allie could only feel pity. What must it have been like to be lost alone in the woods for years, afraid to leave?

  “Do you remember how old you were when you got here?” she asked.

  “Eleven,” he told them.

  “Hmm,” said Nick. “You still look eleven to me. ”

  “I am,” said the boy.

  Allie decided to call him Lief, since they had found him in the forest, and he blushed at the name as if she had kissed him. Then Lief led them up the steep stone slope to the road, climbing with a recklessness that not even the most skilled rock climbers would dare show. Allie refused to admit how terrified she was by the climb, but Nick complained enough for both of them.

  “I can’t even climb a jungle gym without getting hurt!” he complained. “What’s the point of surviving an accident, if you’re going to fall off a mountain and die?”

  They reached the road, but found very little evidence of the accident. Just a few tiny bits of glass and metal. Was that a good sign or bad? Neither Allie nor Nick was sure.

  “Things are different up here,” Lief said. “Different from the forest, I mean.

  You better come back down with me. ”

  Allie ignored him and stepped onto the shoulder of the road. It felt funny beneath her feet. Kind of soft and spongy. She had seen road signs before that said SOFT SHOULDER, so she figured that’s what it meant.

  “Better not stand in one place too long,” Lief said. “Bad things happen when you do. ”

  Cars and trucks flew by, one every five or six seconds. Nick was the first one to put up his hands and start waving to flag down help, and Allie joined him a second later.

  Not a single car stopped. They didn’t even slow down. A wake of wind followed each passing car. It tickled Allie’s skin, and her insides as well. Lief waited just by the edge of the cliff, pacing back and forth. “You’re not gonna like it up here! You’ll see!”

  They tried to get the attention of passing drivers, but nobody stopped for hitchhikers nowadays. Standing at the edge of the road simply wasn’t enough.

  When there was a lull in the traffic, Allie stepped over the line separating the shoulder from the road.

  “Don’t!” warned Nick.

  “I know what I’m doing. ”

  Lief said nothing.

  Allie ventured out into the middle of the northbound lane. Anyone heading north would have to swerve around her. They couldn’t possibly miss seeing her now.

  Nick was looking more and more nervous. “Allie …”

  “Don’t worry. If they don’t stop, I’ll have plenty of time to jump out of the way. ” After all, she was in gymnastics, and pretty good at it, too. Jumping was not a problem.

  A harmonica hum that could only be a bus engine began to grow louder, and in a few seconds a northbound Greyhound ripped around the bend. She tried to lock eyes with the driver, but he was looking straight ahead. In a second he’ll see me, she thought. Just one second more. But if he saw her, he was ignoring her.

  “Allie!” shouted Nick.

  “Okay, okay. ” With plenty of time to spare, Allie tried to hop out of the way…only she couldn’t hop. She lost her balance, but didn’t fall. Her feet wouldn’t let her. She looked down, and at first it looked like she had no feet.

  It was a moment before she realized that she had sunk six inches into the asphalt, clear past her ankles, like the road was made of mud.

  Now she was scared. She pulled one foot out, then the other, but when she looked up, she knew it was too late; the bus was bearing down on her, and she was about to become roadkill. She screamed as the grill of the bus hit— — Then she was moving past the driver, through seats and legs and luggage, and finally through a loud grinding engine in the back, and then she was in the open air again. The bus was gone, and her feet were still sinking into the roadway. A trail of leaves and dust swept past her, dragged in the bus’s wake.

  Did I…Did I just pass through a bus?

  “Surprise,” said Lief with a funny little smile. “You should see the look on your face!”

  Mary Hightower, also known as Mary Queen of Snots, writes in her book Sorta Dead that there’s no easy way to tell new arrivals to Everlost that, technically, they are no longer alive. “If you come across a ‘Greensoul,’” as new arrivals are called, it’s best to just be honest and hit them with the truth quickly,”

  Mary writes. “If necessary, you have to confront them with something they can’t deny, otherwise they just keep on refusing to believe it, and they make themselves miserable. Waking up in Everlost is like jumping into a cold pool.

  It’s a shock at first, but once you’re in, the water is fine. ”

  Chapter 3

  Dreamless Lief, having been so long in his special forest, never had the chance to read any of Mary Hightower’s brilliantly instructional books. Most everything he knew about Everlost, he had learned from experience. For instance, he had quickly learned that dead-spots—that is, places that only the dead can see—are the only places that feel solid to the touch. He could swing from the branches of his dead forest, but once he got past its borders to where the living trees were, he would pass thr
ough them as if they weren’t there—or, more accurately—like he wasn’t there.

  He didn’t need to read Mary Hightower’s Tips for Taps to know that you only need to breathe when you’re talking, or that the only pain you can still feel is pain of the heart, or that memories you don’t hold tightly on to are soon lost. He knew all too well about the memory part. The worst part about it was that no matter how much time passed, you always remembered how many things you’d forgotten.

  Today, however, he had learned something new. Today, Lief learned how long Greensouls slept before awaking to their new afterlife. He had started a count on the day they arrived, and as of this morning, it “was 272 days. Nine months.

  “Nine months!” Allie yelled. “Are you kidding „,.

  “I don’t think he’s the kidding type,” said Nick, who appeared to be actually shivering from the chilliness of the news.

  “I was surprised, too,” Lief told them. “I thought you’d never wake up. ” He didn’t tell them how every day for nine months he kicked and prodded them, and hit them with sticks hoping it would jar them awake. That was best kept to himself. “Think of it this way,” he said. “It took nine months to get you born, so doesn’t it figure it would take nine months to get you dead?”

  “I don’t even remember dreaming,” Nick said, trying hopelessly to loosen his tie.

  Now Allie was shaking a bit, too, at this news of her own death.

  “We don’t dream,” Lief informed them. “So you never have to worry about nightmares. ”

  “Why have nightmares,” said Allie, “when you’re in one?” Could all this be true?

  Could she really be dead? No. She wasn’t. If she was dead she would have made it to the light at the end of the tunnel. Both of them would have. They were only half-dead.

  Nick kept rubbing his face. “This chocolate — I can’t get it off my face. It’s like it’s tattooed there. ”

  “It is,” Lief said. “It’s how you died. ”

  “What?”

  “It’s just like your clothes,” Lief explained. “It’s a part of you now. ”

  Nick looked at him like he had just pronounced a life sentence. “You mean to tell me that I’m stuck with a chocolate face, and my father’s ugly necktie until the end of time?”

  Lief nodded, but Nick wasn’t ready to believe him. He reached for his tie, and tried to undo it with all his strength. Of course, the knot didn’t give at all.

  Then he tried to undo the buttons on his shirt. No luck there, either. Lief laughed, and Nick threw him an unamused gaze.

  The more frustrated Nick and Allie became, the harder Lief worked to please them. He brought them to his tree house, hoping it might bring them out their sour mood. Lief had built it himself out of the ghost branches that littered the ground of the dead forest. He showed them how to climb up to the highest platform, and when they got there, he pushed them both off, laughing as they bounced off tree limbs and hit the ground. Then he jumped and did the same, thinking they’d both be laughing hysterically when he got there, but they were not.

 
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