Everlost, p.27
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       Everlost, p.27

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 27

 

  Although nothing about the McGill’s horrible face had changed since he began his tale, Allie could swear he somehow looked different. “Why did you tell me this?”

  Allie asked.

  The McGill shrugged. “I thought you should know. I thought you deserved a little bit of truth in return for all your help. ”

  And although the picture the McGill painted was not a pretty one, it somehow made Allie feel a bit better. A bit less in the dark. “Thank you,” she said.

  “That was very thoughtful. ”

  The McGill lifted his head. “Thoughtful…Do you think maybe it was selfless?”

  Allie nodded. “Yes, I think it was. ”

  The McGill smiled wide enough to show his rotten gums. “The answer was found when the question was forgotten, just as the fortune cookie said. ”

  “Fortune cookie?” asked Allie. “What do you mean?”

  But the McGill ignored her. “I’ve achieved the selfless act,” the McGill said.

  “I’m ready for step four. ”

  Allie dug through what writings of Mary’s she could find, until she discovered the entry on fortune cookies — how they were evil, flesh-rotting little pastries, and should be avoided like nuclear waste. If Mary was frightened enough of fortune cookies to ban them, Allie knew there must be something important about them.

  Allie sought out Pinhead. He was down in the mess hall with the rest of the crew, who were all entertaining themselves with the same games they played over and over again. They flipped and traded old baseball cards from long-dead players. They argued over who was cheating in checkers. As in Mary’s world, these crew members, if not rousted from their games by the McGill, would sit in their eternal ruts, and get into the same fights over and over again. Remember that, Allie told herself. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t let yourself fall into routine again.

  When the crew saw her enter the mess hall, either they ignored her, or they scowled at her. She was not well loved among the crew. Mostly they resented the fact that she had found the McGill’s favor, where they had not. Still, they had to grudgingly admit that since she had been on board, their situation had improved. The McGill was distracted and was far less demanding of them now.

  Pinhead, more than any of the others, understood the value of having Allie aboard. At first she had thought he’d be resentful the way Vari had been resentful of Nick, but since Pinhead was often the scapegoat for the McGill’s anger when things didn’t go his way, Allie was a bit of a savior to Pinhead. She could hardly call him a friend, but neither was he an enemy. One thing Allie was certain of: He had more brains than his small head would suggest, and was pretty much the glue that held things together around the Sulphur Queen.

  Pinhead stood in a corner acting as referee for two other young crewmembers who were playing the flinching game—the one where you slap each others hands, and get a free slap if your opponent flinches.

  “Tell me about fortune cookies,” she said. He immediately left the two flinchers to their game, and took Allie aside, sitting down with her at a table where they could talk without being overheard.

  “What do you want to know?” Pinhead asked.

  “Mary Hightower says they’re evil. Is that true?”

  Pinhead laughed. “Mary must have had a bad fortune. ”

  “So tell me the truth. ”

  Pinhead looked around as if it was some big secret, then said quietly, “Fortune cookies all cross over. ”

  Allie took a moment to process that. “What do you mean all?”

  “I mean all. Every single fortune cookie that was ever made anywhere in the world crosses into Everlost. Living people might break them open, but the ghosts of all those cookies cross over, unbroken, just waiting for some Afterlight to find them. ”

  “Interesting,” Allie said, “but why is that such a big deal?”

  Pinhead grinned. “It’s a very big deal,” he said, and then he leaned in close.

  “Because in Everlost, all fortunes are true. ”

  Allie wasn’t sure whether to believe Pinhead. Just as Mary’s information had been wrong, it was possible Pinhead’s was wrong as well. It was just rumor. It was just myth. There was, however, one way to find out: She had to open one up.

  Since the McGill had talked about the cookies, she reasoned that he must have a stash somewhere, so while the McGill was off inspecting a trap on the coast of Maine, Allie went up to his throne deck, and began the search.

  They weren’t too hard to find. In fact, she would have found them sooner, if she didn’t have a certain disgust at getting anywhere near the McGill’s spittoon. It was only after a pause for thought that she realized the McGill had no reason to actually have a spittoon. Since he prided himself on his repulsiveness, he never actually used it. Instead, he spat everywhere else. That being the case, the spittoon was probably the most mucous-free object on the entire ship.

  It turned out that she was right. She reached into the spittoon and found the McGill’s collection of fortune cookies.

  She held one in her hand, grit her teeth, and watched what happened, hoping that Mary was wrong about her hand rotting off. Her hand didn’t rot. It didn’t wither. Allie was not at all surprised.

  Now there was a sense of anticipation in her as she held the little pastry. She had never believed in fortune-tellers, but then, she had never believed in ghosts either. She closed her eyes, made a fist around the cookie and squeezed.

  It crumbled with a satisfying crunch, then she pulled the little slip of paper out from the remains.

  Selfish ambition leaves friends in a pickle.

  Allie wasn’t sure whether she was more amazed or annoyed. It was like the universe wagging an accusing finger at her for having brought Nick and Lief to the Haunter. She tried another one, because the first only spoke of what had been, not what will be. Perhaps this second one would be more helpful. She broke another cookie, and read the fortune.

  You shall be the last. You shall be the first.

  Since it made no sense to her, she went for a third.

  Linger or light; the choice will be yours.

  It was like eating pistachios, and she found herself getting into a rhythm of cracking open one after another…until she reached for the fourth one, broke it open, and the fortune said:

  Look behind you.

  CHAPTER20

  The Day the McGill Got Chimed The McGill held his temper as he stood behind Allie in the throne room, watching her steal his fortunes. Never before had anyone pilfered his fortune cookies, and his fury at her was deep, but for once he resisted the urge to lash out. He had successfully completed the first four steps. Only eight remained. If his temper caused him to be rash and hurl the girl over the side, he would never know the secret of possessing the living. But since anger was the only way the McGill knew how to react, he just stood there, not reacting at all.

  The girl, her back still to him, suddenly stiffened as she read her fourth fortune, and slowly turned around to see him there. The moment she saw him, he recognized the look of fear in her eyes. It was the first time he had seen her show fear since arriving on the ship. At first it had troubled the McGill that she seemed unafraid of him, but now, he found himself troubled by the fact that she was. He didn’t want her to be afraid of him. This new sensitivity in himself was deeply disturbing.

  “Explain yourself!” The McGill s voice came out in deep guttural tones, like the growl of a tiger at the moment it pounces.

  Allie stood straight and opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated. The McGill knew what that hesitation meant. She’d going to lie, he thought—and he knew if she did lie, there would be no containing his temper. He would hurl her with such force, she would reach the mainland like a cannonball.

  Then, after a moment, she relaxed her shoulders, and said, “I just learned about fortune cookies, and wanted to see for myself if it was true. I guess I got carried away. ”

  It sm
elled of honesty—enough honesty for the McGill to keep his temper in check.

  He lumbered toward her, keeping one eye trained on her face, and the other on the spittoon. “Give me your hand,” he demanded, and when Allie didn’t do it, he grabbed her hand, holding it out.

  “What are you going to do?” she asked.

  He didn’t answer. Instead he reached into the spittoon with his free claw, grabbed a fortune cookie and placed it in her palm, then closed his hand around hers. “Let’s find out what our fortune is,” he said. The McGill squeezed Allie’s hand so hard, not only did the cookie shatter, but her knuckles cracked as well.

  Then the McGill released her hand, and pulled out the fortune slip with his sharp nails.

  Forgiveness keeps destiny on track.

  The McGill found his anger slipping away. The cookies never lied. “Very well,”

  he said. “I forgive you. ” He sat down on his throne, satisfied. “Now get out of my sight. ”

  Allie turned to leave, but stopped at the threshold. “Forgiveness is the fifth step,” she said, and then she left.

  Allie’s brain — or her memory of a brain — or whatever you called the thought processes of an Afterlight—was working overtime. Granting the McGill the fifth step had been an impulsive thing to do, but at the moment it had felt like the right thing to do. But what was she thinking? There was no right thing, because there was no fifth step! All this stalling was buying her nothing, and in all her time here, she was no closer to freeing her friends. If they were to have any hope, she would have to find the McGill’s weakness—and Allie suspected if he had one, it would lie in the questions he refused to answer.

  “Why does the McGill stay away from New Jersey?” Allie asked Pinhead, the next time she caught him alone.

  “It’s something he doesn’t like to talk about,” Pinhead told her.

  “That’s why I’m asking you, not him. ”

  Pinhead held his silence as a few crew members passed by. When they were gone, Pinhead began to whisper.

  “It’s not all of New Jersey he stays away from,” Pinhead said. “It’s just Atlantic City. ”

  Allie knew all about Atlantic City. It was the Las Vegas of the East Coast:

  dozens of hotels and casinos, a boardwalk full of fudge and saltwater taffy shops. “Why would the McGill be afraid of a place like that?”

  “He was defeated there,” Pinhead told her. “It happened at the Steel Pier. See, there are two amusement piers in Atlantic City that burned down years ago, and crossed over into Everlost. The Steel Pier, and the Steeplechase Pier. They became a hangout for ‘The Twin Pier Marauders,’ a gang of really rough Afterlights—probably the nastiest gang there is. Anyway, the McGill raided them twenty years ago, and they fought back. It was a terrible battle, and in the end, they had hurled the McGill’s entire crew into the sea, and captured the McGill. ”

  “Captured him?”

  Pinhead nodded. “They took him to the Steeplechase Pier, and chained him upside down from his feet to the parachute-drop ride, and up and down he went every thirty seconds for four years…until one of the Marauders turned traitor, and set him free. ”

 
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