Everlost, p.24
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       Everlost, p.24

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 24


  Allie knew her welcome on board the Sulphur Queen would last only until the McGill got tired of her or got what it wanted. What he wanted, because Allie was reasonably certain this beast was male. Either way, her time was limited.

  Besides, she didn’t have the patience to wait; she simply had to find out if Nick and Lief were here. Once in the “guest cabin,” Allie waited until the sound of Pinhead’s footsteps faded, then she quietly opened the door and snuck out.

  The ship was large and the McGill’s crew was small, so she was able to slip through the hatchways and corridors unseen. On the occasions that she did encounter the McGill’s ugly young minions, they made so much noise that Allie had plenty of time to hide.

  A ship has many places to stow prisoners, so she methodically explored every dark corner, ignoring the hideous rotten-egg smell, which grew as she went deeper into the bowels of the ship. Finally she found the ship’s massive holds.

  By the stench and the yellow residue on the ground, Allie suspected the holds once carried sulphur, but now they held the spoils of the McGill’s pillaging raids. She marveled at what she saw in each of the chambers, wondering how these things had crossed over. Had someone died in this leather recliner? Was this stained-glass window so lovingly made that it crossed over when the church burned down? And what about this armoire, complete with wedding dress and tuxedo hanging inside? Did the bride and groom “get where they were going” on an ill-fated wedding night? Was their love, like Romeo and Juliet’s, not meant for the living world?

  Each object held a story that no one would ever know, and the fact that the McGill treated these things with such thoughtless disrespect made Allie hate the creature even more.

  She opened the door to the fourth and final hold, expecting to find more piles of the McGill’s treasure. This room was different, however.

  As she peered in, her mind did not entirely comprehend what she saw. Her first impression was that of a giant hanging mobile, like something she once saw in the Museum of Modern Art. Large, lumpy objects hung from chains, all at different heights, all glowing dimly like low-wattage lightbulbs.

  Then one of the objects spoke.

  “What time is it?” the glowing lump said.

  Allie let out a yelp, stepped back, and hit the steel bulkhead behind her. The wall rang out with a dull, hollow thud.

  “What time is it?” the lump said again. It was a boy, maybe a year or two younger than her, wearing gray flannel pajamas, hanging upside down from his ankles around five feet from the ground. His pjs had a dorsal fin on the back, and a cartoon of a shark on the front.

  “I … I don’t know…,” Allie answered.

  “Oh. Okay. ” The boy didn’t seem disappointed. He just seemed resigned.

  “Careful,” said a girl hanging next to him. “He’s a biter. ”

  The pajama-boy smiled, showing a set of razor-sharp, sharklike teeth, like the picture on his pajamas. “It’s in a sea predator’s nature,” he said.

  Only now did the truth begin to dawn on her as she took in the larger scene around her. The hanging lumps were Afterlights. Every single one of them. There had to be hundreds of kids, all hanging upside down.

  The act of churning was invented by the McGill and he was proud to claim responsibility for the idea. Since it was impossible to hurt someone in Everlost, and since the McGill so wanted to inflict distress, he came up with a whole new form of torture, functional in several different ways: first, because it provided an efficient way of storing those Afterlights he had no immediate use for, and second, because he created a hopeless sense of abject boredom in his victims.

  Simply stated, the act of chiming was to hang someone upside down from their ankles by a long chain, or rope. It didn’t actually hurt the spirit being chimed, but it was a pretty dull way to spend one’s days, and if boredom was the closest thing to suffering that the McGill could inflict, he would have to live with that. In any case it was entertaining for him, because he would often go down to the hold and begin swinging people. They would collide into one another, grunting and oofing as they bumped, like human wind chimes, and hence it became known as “being chimed. ”

  When Nick was first chimed, he wasn’t sure whether it was better or worse than being in the pickle barrel. The rotten-egg smell was certainly worse than the garlic and dill of the pickle brine, but then, at least here, he did not feel so alone. Lief, who had reached a state of nirvana in his barrel, took it in stride, smiling all the while, and Nick eventually decided being alone would be better than hanging upside down next to a happy camper—but then, it was better than being next to the screamer, or that kid who was trying to turn himself into a shark.

  As soon as the Ugloids had finished stringing them up, they painted numbers on their chests in black. For reasons Nick could not figure out, he was number 966, and Lief was number 266, although the kid had drawn the two backward.

  “Your hair looks funny,” Lief said, as soon as the Ugloids had left. “It stands straight up. ”

  “No,” said Nick, intensely irritated, “it’s hanging straight down. ”

  Lief just gave him an upside-down shrug. “Up is down in China and you’re part-Chinese. ”

  “Japanese, dweeb!” Nick reached out and slugged him on the shoulder, but that just started them both swinging into the others who were around them.

  “Hey watch it,” some kid said. “It’s bad enough when the McGill comes down here to swing us. We don’t need a couple of idiots making us chime, too. ”

  His dangling comrades also complained each time Nick tried to climb his own rope, to get to the grate high up above. Through that grate he could see the sky, and he knew if he could get out on the open deck, he’d figure out a way to escape. Unfortunately, the ropes had all been greased, and he never got more than ten feet up his rope before falling down again and swinging into the kids around him, setting off a chain reaction of whining, which in turn reminded the screamer to start screaming, and everyone blamed Nick.

  So aside from the occasional fight, and group sing-along, there was nothing to do but wait until the McGill found a use for them. Nick had this fantasy that Mary would come with a hundred of her kids to rescue him. He never dreamed that his rescuer would be Allie.

  “Oh my God!”

  Allie stood there on the sulphur-dusted floor of the chiming chamber, still unable to believe what she saw. She tried to count how many of them there were, but there were simply too many to count. There were numbers scrawled on their chests, and some of those numbers were up in the high hundreds.

  “Are you here to free us?” girl 342 asked.

  Since Allie didn’t know if a rescue of this many Afterlights would ever be possible, Allie didn’t answer her. Instead she asked, “I’m looking for two boys.

  They wouldn’t have been here long. One is named Nick, the other Lief. ”

  Then a voice from high above called down to her.

  “They’re on the other side. ” It was an older boy in a Boy Scout uniform, with rust-colored hair sticking straight down like an upside-down flame. His was the shortest rope; he hung about fifteen feet above the floor, making him the highest one, and the one with the best view of the chamber. “All they do is talk talk talk,” he said. “Tell them to shut up, it’s annoying. ”

  Allie pushed her way forward into the mass of “chimed” kids. They swung like pendulums as she pushed through them, all of them grumbling and griping at having been disturbed. She tried to be gentle, but the forest of dangling spirits clearly did not appreciate her intrusion.

  “Shut up, you idiots,” the high-chimed Boy Scout said. Allie wondered if being strung the highest made the kid the automatic leader of the group, or did it merely make him high-strung?

  “I said shut up!” he yelled more loudly. “Keep making noise, and you’ll set off the screamer. ”

  And next to Allie, the screamer, once more reminded of his job, began to wail in Allies ea
r. Reflexively Allie clapped her hand over his mouth. “That,” she said, “is totally uncalled for. Don’t do that again. Ever. ” The screamer looked at her with worried eyes. “Are we clear on this subject?” said Allie. The screamer nodded, and she removed her hand.

  “Can I scream a little?” he asked.

  “No,” said Allie. “Your screaming days are over. ”

  “Darn. ” And he was quiet thereafter.

  “Hey,” someone called out. “She shut down the screamer!” The chamber rang out with upside-down applause.

  “Allie, is that you?” It was Nick. She pushed her way past a few more danglers, and found both of them. Nick hung about five feet from the ground, his head at about eye level. Lief hung about a foot higher.

  “How did you get here?” Nick asked. “I thought for sure the Haunter put you in a barrel, too!”

  “I got away before he could,” Allie explained.

  “And you just left us there?!”

  Allie sighed. They had no idea what she had gone through to get here, and now was not the time to tell them. She looked at Lief, who smiled and gave her an upside-down wave with his dangling arms. “Hi. ”

  Lief’s calm acceptance of his plight just made Allie feel all the more miserable. “This is horrible! How could the McGill do this!?”

  “He’s a monster,” Nick reminded her. “It’s what monsters do. ”

  “Are you going to hang here with us?” Lief asked, happily. “There’s room next to me!”

  “Ignore him,” Nick told Allie. “He’s completely lost it. ” Nick squirmed, and bent his knees until his hands could get a grip on his ankles. “Can you cut us down?”

  Then the kid up top called down to them. “If you free them, the McGill will throw all three of you overboard. He may get so mad, he’ll throw us all overboard. ”

  Allie knew he was right. The McGill was both mean-spirited and unpredictable—and besides, if she cut them down, where would they go? Even if they got out of the hold, they were still trapped on the ship.

  “I can’t free you now,” she told them, “but I will soon. Hang tight. ” She grimaced at her poor choice of words.

  “So you’re just going to leave us here?” Nick said.

  “Don’t be a stranger!” Lief said, merrily.

  “I’ll be back soon. I promise. ”

  “You promise? You also promised the visit to the Haunter wouldn’t be dangerous,”

  Nick reminded her. “And look how that turned out. ”

  Allie made no excuses because he was right. This was all her fault. Allie rarely apologized for anything, but when she said “I’m sorry,” this time, it carried the weight of all the apologies she had never given when she was alive. Then she hugged them awkwardly, setting them both slightly swinging, and left before her emotions could get the better of her.

  Chapter 18

  Skinjacking for Dummies The Sulphur Queen hugged the shore of the East Coast, stopping now and again to send out a landing party in a lifeboat to see if any of the McGill’s Greensoul traps had snagged any new Afterlights. They were simple devices really;

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