Everlost, p.26
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       Everlost, p.26

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 26

 

  BEWARE THE MCGILL Then she hopped out of the woman, not wanting to spend a second more there than she had to. The living world faded into the muted colors of Everlost, her hearing returned, and there was the McGill smiling through sharp, rotten teeth.

  “Very good!” he said. “Very, very good. ”

  “Now tell me about the Afterlights in your ship. ”

  “No. ”

  “You promised. ”

  “I lied. ”

  “Then I won’t teach you what I know. ”

  “Then I’ll throw your friends over the side. ”

  “Get… Owwwwwwt!!!!”

  Allie clenched her fists and let off an angry growl that only made the McGill laugh. She might have held some of the cards, but the McGill would not let her forget that he held all the aces.

  “We will come back each morning,” the McGill said, “until we have a bright sunrise. Then we will go on to step two. ”

  Allie had no choice but to agree. She rode the lifeboat in furious silence back to the Sulphur Queen, even more determined than ever to outsmart the McGill.

  As for the woman Allie had possessed, once she regained control of her body, she took one look at the words scrawled on the wall, and concluded that all the stories about this house were true. She immediately contacted her Realtor, and put the house up for sale, determined that she and her husband would move as far away from Amityville as possible.

  “Beware of fortune cookies that cross into Everlost,” Mary Hightower writes in her book Caution, This Means You! “They are instruments of evil, and the proper way to deal with them is to stay far away. AVOID TEMPTATION! Don’t even go near Chinese restaurants! Those wicked cookies will rot off the hand of anyone who touches them. ”

  Chapter 19

  Evil Chinese Pastry of Death The McGill followed Allies lead, letting her direct him through the first three steps of human possession. He supposedly now had “soulsight,” allowing him to see which humans were possessible and which were not, however when he looked at the living, he saw no difference between them. He wouldn’t tell Allie this, though. Soulsight would come, he convinced himself. Once he worked his way through the remaining steps it would come. It had better.

  The second step was to follow the actions of a living person for twenty-four hours. “The point,” Allie explained, “is to become in tune with the things living people do. ” It was a deceptively difficult chore, because the living could travel through the world in ways that the McGill could not. Every single time the McGill chose someone to follow, they would eventually get into a car, or a train, or, in one strange instance, a helicopter, and be carried away too quickly for the McGill to follow on foot.

  It took several days until he finally settled on someone who wasn’t going anywhere; an inmate at a local jail. He spent twenty-four hours observing the prisoner’s various limited activities, and the McGill returned to the Sulphur Queen triumphant.

  The third step, however, was much more difficult. According to Allie, he was required to commit an act of selflessness. The McGill didn’t think it was possible.

  “You could release one or two kids from the chiming chamber,” Allie suggested.

  But the McGill flatly refused. “It wouldn’t be selfless,” he told her, “because I’d be doing it to gain something. ”

  No—if selflessness was what was required then it would be a difficult task indeed. This required consulting with the cookies. After Allie had gone to her quarters, the McGill once more pushed his hand into the spittoon and withdrew a fortune cookie, crushed it, and pulled out the slip of paper. This time it read:

  The answer comes when the question is forgotten.

  Annoyed, the McGill threw the cookie crumbs over the side, rather than giving them to his crew.

  The McGill wasn’t the only one annoyed by this turn of events. Allie silently cursed herself for not being more clever. Did she actually think the McGill would be tricked into releasing her friends? True, the challenge of this “third step” bought her time, but if the McGill was truly incapable of selflessness, it would only serve to make him angrier and angrier.

  She now had freedom on the ship—more than any of the McGill’s actual crew—but something was happening to her. Each time she looked in a mirror, her reflection looked a little off. Did one ear look larger than the other? Was this bottom tooth always crooked? She wondered how long it would be until she became no better than the rest of his crew. Allie pondered all this as she stood on deck one afternoon, looking toward shore—only she couldn’t find it. The sky was clear, but all she could see was ocean. It seemed to her that the Sulphur Queen always hugged the coastline, but now they were out in the open sea. It was unsettling, for although she knew she could no longer be a part of the living world, seeing it gave her some connection to the life she once had. By her calculation, they should have been off” the coast of New Jersey—the southern part of the state, where her family lived —but the shore was nowhere in sight.

  As she stared out at the horizon, the McGill approached her, lumbering in that awful way of his.

  “Why are we all the way out here,” Allie asked him, “if you’re supposed to be checking your traps?”

  “I have no traps in New Jersey,” was his only answer.

  “But what’s the point of coming all the way out to sea?”

  “I didn’t come here to answer stupid questions,” he said.

  “Then why did you come?”

  “I was on the bridge,” the McGill said, “and I saw you staring over the side. I came down to see if you were all right. ”

  Allie found this show of concern even more disturbing than the slime that so freely oozed from the McGill’s various bodily openings. The McGill brought his flaking three-fingered claw to her face and lifted her chin. Allie took one look at that swollen, turgid finger, purple and pale like a dead fish three days in the sun, and she pulled away from him, revolted.

  “I disgust you,” the McGill said.

  “Isn’t that what you want?” Allie answered. From the start she knew he took great pride in his high gross-out factor. He never passed up an opportunity to be repulsive, and was skilled at thinking up new disgusting things to do. At that moment, however, he didn’t seem pleased with himself at all.

  “Perhaps my hand could use a softer, gentler touch,” he said. “I’ll work on it. ”

  Allie resisted the urge to look at him. Please don’t tell me the monster is falling in love with me, she thought. She was simply not the compassionate kind of girl who could handle it. “Don’t try to charm me,” she told him. “The ‘Beauty and the Beast’ thing doesn’t work with me, okay? “

  “I’m not trying to charm you. I just came down here to make sure you weren’t planning to jump. ”

  “Why would I jump?”

  “Sometimes people do,” the McGill told her. “Crew members who think sinking would be better than serving me. ’ “Maybe they have the right idea,” Allie told him. “You won’t release my friends, you won’t answer my questions — maybe I’d be better off down there. ”

  The McGill shook his head. “You’re just saying that because you don’t know—but I know what happens when you sink. ” And then the McGill became quiet. His dangling eyes, which never seemed to be looking in the same direction, now seemed to be looking off somewhere else entirely. Somewhere no one else could see.

  “It may begin with water,” he said, “but it always ends with dirt. Dirt, then stone. When you first pass into the Earth, it’s stifling dark, and cold. You feel the stone in your body. ”

  Allie thought back to the time Johnnie-O had almost pushed her down. She remembered that feeling of the earth in her body. It was not something she ever wanted to experience again.

  “You feel the pressure growing greater all around you as gravity pulls you down,” the McGill said. “And then it begins to get hot. It gets hotter than a living body could stand. The stone glows red. It t
urns liquid. You feel the heat. It should burn you into nothing but it doesn’t. It doesn’t even hurt, because you can’t feel hurt, but you do feel the intensity of the heat… it’s maddening. All you see is the bright molten red, then molten white the hotter it gets. And that’s all there is for you. The light, and the heat, and the steady drop down and down. ”

  Allie wanted to make him stop, but found she couldn’t, for as much as she didn’t want to know, she felt she had to know.

  “You sink for years, and from time to time, you come across others,” the McGill said. “You feel their presence around you. Their voices are muffled by the molten rock. They tell you their names, if they remember them. And then in twenty years tame, you reach a place where the world is so thick around you with sunken spirits, you stop. Once you’re there, once you’ve stopped falling and realize you’re not going anywhere anymore, that’s when you begin waiting. ”

  “Waiting for what? ‘ “Isn’t it obvious?”

  Allie didn’t dare guess what he was talking about.

  “Waiting for the end of the world,” the McGill said.

  “The world … is going to end?”

  “Of course it’s going to end,” the McGill told her. “Probably not for a hundred billion years, but eventually the sun will die, the Earth will blow up, and every kid who’s ever sunk to the core will be free to zoom around the universe, or do whatever it is Afterlights do when there’s no gravity to deal with anymore. ”

  Allie tried to imagine waiting for a billion years, but couldn’t. “It’s horrible. ”

  “No, it’s not horrible,” the McGill said, “and that’s what makes it worse than horrible. ”

  “I don’t understand. ”

  “You see, when you’re at the center of the Earth, you forget you have arms and legs, because you don’t need them. You can’t use them. You become nothing but spirit. Pretty soon you can’t tell where you end, and where the Earth begins…and you suddenly find that you don’t care. You suddenly find that you have endless patience. Enough patience to wait until the end of the world. ”

  “‘Rest in peace,’” Allie said. “Maybe that’s what they mean. ” It was perhaps a great mercy of the universe, that lost souls who could do nothing but wait were blessed with everlasting peace. It was kind of like the weird bliss Lief had found in his barrel.

  “I could never imagine being that patient,” Allie said.

  “Neither could I,” said the McGill. “So I clawed my way back to the surface. ”

  Allie snapped her eyes back to the McGill, whose eyes were no longer far away—they were both looking right at her.

  “You mean …”

  The McGill nodded. “It took me more than fifty years, but I wanted to be back on the surface again, and when you want something badly enough, you can do anything. No one has ever wanted it as much as me; I’m the only one who’s ever come back from the center of the Earth. ” Then the McGill looked at his gnarled claws. “It helped to imagine myself as a monster clawing my way up from the depths, and so when I finally reached the surface that’s exactly what I was. A monster. And it’s exactly what I want to be. ”

 
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