Everlost, p.20
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       Everlost, p.20

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 20


  Since no soul had crossed over with it, the ghost of the Sulphur Queen drifted for years; no crew, no passengers. It drifted, that is, until the McGill found it, and turned it into the greatest pirate ship ever to sail the waters of eternity—and, except for one nasty run-in with the Flying Dutchman, its supremacy on the seas had never been challenged.

  Since the evil smell of brimstone still surrounded the vessel, the McGill found it useful for inspiring fear, because the McGill knew that when it came to being a monster, image was everything. One only needed to sniff the brimstone to be convinced that the Sulphur Queen was a ship from hell, rather than a ship from Texas.

  The McGill had remodeled the tanker into as proper a pirate ship as possible. It wasn’t too hard to make it menacing, for the ship was already rusted and rancid when it crossed into Everlost. That, the smell, and the McGill’s fearsome reputation were ail it took to make the Sulphur Queen the floating terror of Everlost.

  On the open deck, the McGill had fashioned himself a throne made from pieces of this and that: pipes torn from the ship, fancy portrait frames, curtains from old buildings that had crossed over. The throne was studded with jewels that were glued on with old bubble gum. It was, in short, a monstrosity—just like the McGill himself—and it suited him just fine.

  The McGill’s most recent adventure had been a raid in New York. He had long heard rumors of the Haunter, and his mystical little dojo where he taught kids to haunt, with weird discipline, like it was some sort of martial art. The McGill had no patience for legends that didn’t involve him. As far as he was concerned, such legends were competition, and needed to be silenced.

  The Haunter was silenced well. Oh, he had put up a fight, levitating, and summoning up wraiths in black robes that walked like human beings—as if any of this could impress the McGill. He had learned early on that one’s physical strength in Everlost had nothing to do with muscle mass. It had all to do with the strength of one’s will—and the McGill was surely the most willful creature that ever lived. After he had shredded the wraith-warriors with his claws, the McGill took on the Haunter himself. The little Neanderthal had put up a fight — but in the end he was no match for the McGill.

  “If you ever get out of there,” he had shouted at the barrel where the Haunter had been sealed, “you had better NEVER cross my path again. Or I’ll find something worse for you. ”

  He wasn’t sure if the Haunter had even heard him, because he never stopped cursing from within the barrel.

  The McGill had dined royally on the spread of food that this Haunter had somehow pulled from the living world. He feasted for hours, and threw his scraps to his associates, who were happy to have them. That’s what he called his crew:

  “associates. ”

  Now, still full from the feast, they had returned to the ship with a dozen barrels, leaving behind only the one that contained the Haunter.

  “So what do we do with them?” asked Pinhead, as the McGill sat in his throne, looking at the barrels now arranged haphazardly on the deck. Pinhead was the McGill’s chief associate. Somewhere along the line, Pinhead had forgotten the correct proportion of a human head to its body, and so the size of his head had receded like an apple left on a windowsill. The difference was not so profound that he looked like a complete freak. It was subtle. When you looked at Pinhead, you knew something was wrong, but you weren’t quite sure what it was.

  “Sir? The barrels—what should we do with them?”

  “I heard you,” the McGill snapped.

  He rose from his throne, and loped in his awful crooked stride toward the barrels.

  “According to the Haunter, there’s someone inside every single one of them,”

  Pinhead told him, with a certain excitement in his voice. In life, Pinhead must have been the kind of kid who would rip through a cereal box to get to the prize at the bottom.

  “We’ll see,” the McGill snapped.

  “And I’ll bet these kids have been pickling for so long,” Pinhead said, “that they’ll worship whoever sets them free. ”

  This gave the McGill pause for thought. He stroked his chin, a bulbous thing as rough and unshapely as a potato. It was an interesting idea. Others feared him, but never was he the subject of worship and complete adoration. “You think so?”

  “Only one way to find out. ” And then Pinhead added, “If they’re ingrates, we’ll put ‘em back in the barrels and dump them into the sea. ”

  “All right, then,” said the McGill, and he gestured to his associates lurking in the shadows. “Open them up. ”

  Although not even the Haunter knew this, Afterlights were very much like wine when sealed in a barrel. The longer a wine is left to age, the better it gets…unless of course something goes wrong, and it turns to vinegar.

  Neither Nick nor Lief had turned to vinegar, however. Both had adapted in his own unique way to their situation. While Lief became like a baby in a womb, and lost any sense of time and space, Nick did the opposite. He was aware of every passing moment, never forgot exactly where he was—and didn’t even forget WHO he was, so those stupid little pieces of paper he had written his name on weren’t an entire waste of time.

  Nick found he could pass the time by taking an inventory of everything he remembered from his life, and his afterlife. Even though some key memories had already been lost, he was still close enough to his earthly existence to remember quite a lot. He tried to list alphabetically every single song he knew, and sang each one. He cataloged every movie he remembered ever seeing, and tried to watch them in his head. With nothing to reflect on but himself, he came to realize that he had spent far too much time complaining and worrying. If he ever managed to get out of that barrel, he knew he’d be a different person, because nothing—not even sinking into the Earth—could be worse than this. And so, both Nick and Lief had been profoundly changed by their pickling experience: Lief had found a bizarre state of spiritual bliss, and Nick became strong and fearless.

  Nick felt the commotion of his barrel being removed from the Haunter’s lair. He had no idea where he was being hauled off to, but the very fact that there was activity around him was a hopeful sign. Counting out the seconds in his mind, he waited for something momentous to happen.

  Nick had counted 61,259 seconds from the time his barrel had first begun to move until the top was pried off. The tops were pried off of three barrels simultaneously. Nick stood up right away, ready to thank his rescuer. Having had nothing but darkness and pickle brine in his eyes for many weeks, he couldn’t really see much of anything at first. There were other kids around him. To his left was an open barrel with someone still submerged beneath the surface. To his right standing up in another barrel was a kid Nick did not recognize, who began screaming and never stopped. Nick stood there in amazement, wondering how his lungs could hold out—he sounded like a human air-raid siren. Then he realized that since the kid didn’t actually have lungs anymore, being a spirit and all, he never had to stop for breath. He could just scream until the universe ended, which might have actually been his plan. This kid had clearly turned to vinegar in his barrel.

  “Get the screamer out of here!” said a slobbery voice. “Take him and chime him!”

  Several kids nearby took the screamer out of his barrel, and carried him away.

  All the while he never stopped screaming. Poor kid, thought Nick. That could have been me.

  But it wasn’t. And itwas a great consolation to know that he had survived his time in pickle purgatory. Nick blinked, and blinked again, forcing his eyes into focus, ready to face whatever situation he would now find himself in. He was on the deck of a ship that was sprinkled with crumbs of some sort. There were crewmen around him, all of them kids, and standing in front of an ugly throne was what could only be described as a monster.

  Lief did not know the top of his barrel had been pried off. He didn’t know much of anything. He heard a kid screaming, but it sounded far away. Not in
his universe. Not his concern. Lief now existed without time or space. He was everything and nothing. It was wonderful. Then when someone grabbed his hair and hauled him upright, he found that the place of infinite peace he had discovered within himself did not leave him. Whether he had lost his mind, or had become “one with the universe” was a matter of opinion.

  “Who are you?” a wet, distorted voice asked. “What can you do? What use will you be to me?”

  Lief was still on the first question.

  “His name is Lief,” said a familiar voice. He remembered the voice belonged to someone named Nick. All at once Lief’s memories came back to him. He remembered his journey from the forest, his time in front of the video game, the fact that he had been in a barrel.

  Someone approached him. No, not someone, some “thing. ” It had one eye the size of a grapefruit, filled with squiggly veins. The other eye was normal-size, but dangled from its socket.

  “I don’t like the look of him!” the monster said. “He looks like someone made him out of clay, and forgot to finish him. ”

  “I think he’s forgotten what he looks like,” said a boy with an unusually small head.

  The monster raised a three-fingered claw and pointed it at Lief. “I order you to remember what you look like!”

  “Leave him alone!” shouted Nick.

  “I order you to remember!”

  Lief suspected he knew what this creature was, and he knew he should have been terrified of it, but he was not.

  The creature moved closer to Lief. When it opened its mouth, a tongue lashed out that forked into three octopus tentacles. “I order you to remember what you look like, or you’re going overboard. ”

  Lief smiled happily. “Okay. ” Then he closed his eyes, and rummaged around through his mind until he found a memory of his face. The moment he did, he could actually feel his features changing. When he opened his eyes, he knew he was himself again—or at least something close.

  The creature studied him with his huge eye, and grunted. “Good enough,” he said.

  Nick, still waist-deep in his barrel, watched the creature closely, ready to fight it if necessary. Then something occurred to Nick that almost crushed his newfound courage. “Are you…Are you … the McGill?”

  The creature laughed, and limped across the deck over to Nick, crumbs crunching beneath his fungus-ridden feet as he walked.

  “Yes, I am,” the creature said. “You’ve heard about me! Tell me what you heard. ”

  Nick grimaced from the creature’s awful stench. “I heard that you were the devil’s pet dog, and you chewed through your leash. ”

  That was the wrong thing to say. The McGill roared, and kicked Nick’s barrel so hard it shattered, spilling brine all over the deck. “Pet dog? Who said I was a dog? I’ll put them on a leash!”

  “Just some kid,” Nick said, trying not to look at Lief. “If you’re not a dog, then what are you?”

  The McGill poked a sharp claw against Nick’s chest. “I’m your king and commander. I own you now. ”

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