Everlost, p.3
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       Everlost, p.3

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 3

 

  For Allie the fall was the most terrifying moment she ever had to endure. It was worse than the crash, for that had been over so quickly, she had no time to react. It was worse than the Greyhound bus passing through her, because that, too, had come and gone in a flash. The fall from the tree, however, seemed to last forever. Each branch she hit jarred her to the core. Jarred her, but didn’t hurt her. Still, the lack of pain made it no less terrifying. She screamed all the way down, and when at last she smashed upon the hard earth of the dead forest with a hearty thump, she felt the wind knocked out of her, only to realize there was never actually any wind in her to knock out. Nick landed beside her, disoriented, with eyes spinning like he just came off a carnival ride. Lief landed beside them, whooping and laughing.

  “What’s wrong with you?” Allie shouted at Lief, and the fact that he still laughed when she grabbed him and shook him made her even angrier.

  Allie put her hand to her forehead as if all this was giving her a killer headache, but she couldn’t have a headache now, could she, and that just made her all the more aggravated. The rational part of her mind kept wanting to lash out, telling her that this was all a dream, or a misunderstanding, or an elaborate practical joke. Unfortunately her rational mind had no supporting evidence. She had fallen from a treetop and had not been hurt. She had passed through a Greyhound bus. No, her rational mind had to accept the irrational truth.

  There are rules here, she thought. Rules, just like the physical world. She would just have to learn them. After all, the rules of the living world must have seemed strange when she was very little. Heavy airplanes flew; the sky turned red at sunset; clouds could hold an ocean full of water, then rain it down on the ground below. Absurd! The living world was no less bizarre than this afterworld. She tried to take some comfort in that, but instead found herself bursting into tears.

  Lief saw her tears and backed away. He had little experience with girls crying—or if he did, his experience was, at best, a hundred years old. He found it highly unexpected and disturbing. “What are you crying for?” he asked her.

  “It’s not like you got hurt when you fell from the tree! That’s why I pushed you—to show you it wouldn’t hurt. ”

  “I want my parents,” Allie said. Lief could see that Nick was fighting his own tears, too. This was not at all how Lief had imagined their first waking day would be, but maybe he should have. Maybe he should have realized that leaving one’s life behind is not an easy thing to do. Lief supposed he would have missed his parents, too, if he could still remember them. He did remember that he used to miss them, though. It wasn’t a good feeling. He watched Nick and Allie, waiting for their tears to subside, and that’s when the unthinkable occurred to him.

  “You’re not going to stay here, are you?”

  Nick and Allie didn’t answer right away, but that silence was enough of an answer.

  “You’re just like the others!” he shouted out, before he even realized what he was going to say.

  Allie took a step closer to him. “The others?”

  Lief silently cursed himself for having said it. He hadn’t meant to tell them.

  He wanted them to think it was just the three of them. That way maybe they would have stayed. Now all his plans were ruined.

  “What do you mean others?” Allie said again.

  “Fine, leave!” Lief shouted. “I don’t care anyway. Go out there and sink to the center of the Earth for all I care. That’s what happens, you know. If you’re not careful, you sink and sink and sink all the way to the center of the Earth!”

  Nick wiped away the last of his tears. “How would you know? All you know is how to swing from trees. You haven’t been anywhere. You don’t know anything. ”

  Lief bolted away from them. He climbed his tree to the highest perch, up in the slimmest branches.

  They won’t leave, he told himself. They won’t leave because they need me. They need me to teach them to climb, and to swing. They need me to show them how to live without being alive.

  Here on his high perch, Lief kept his special things: the handful of precious items that had made the journey with him, crossing from the living world into Everlost. These were the things he had found when he woke up after the flood that had taken his life—ghost things that he could touch and feel. They kept him connected to his fading memories. There was a shoe that had been his father’s.

  He often put his own foot in it, wishing that someday he would grow into it, but knowing that he never would. There was a water-damaged tin picture of himself— the only thing he had to remember what he looked like. It was pocked with so many spots, he couldn’t tell which spots were dirt, and which were freckles. In the end, he just assumed they were all freckles. Finally there was a rabbit’s foot that was apparently no more lucky for him than it had been for the rabbit.

  There had once been a nickel, but it had been stolen by the first kid he came across in Everlost—as if money had any value to them anymore. He had found all these items marooned on the small dead-spot he had awoken on, and when he had stepped off the little spot of dried mud, onto living-land, his feet had begun to sink in. The sinking was the first lesson he had learned. You had to keep moving or down you went. He had kept moving, afraid to stop, afraid to sleep.

  Crossing from towns to woods, and back to towns, he had come to understand his ghostly nature, and although it terrified him, he endured it, for what else could he do? Why was he a ghost and not an angel? Why did he not go to heaven?

  That’s what the preacher always said: Heaven or hell — those were the only choices. So then why was he still here on Earth?

  He had asked himself these questions over and over until he tired of asking, and just accepted. Then he had found the forest; a huge dead-spot large enough to make his home. It was a place where he could actually feel the trees—a place where he did not sink—and he knew in his heart that the good lord had provided him with this forest. It was his personal share of eternity.

  As for these new kids, they would spend forever with him. It was the design of things. They might leave now, but once they saw what the rest of the world was like, they would come back to him, and he would build them their own platforms in the tree, and they would laugh together, and they would talk and talk and talk to make up for all the years Lief had existed in silence.

  Down below, Nick had watched Lief climb up the tree until he disappeared into the lush canopy. Nick found himself trying to balance his feelings of sympathy for the boy with his own confused feelings about being dead. He felt queasy, and wondered how that could be if, technically, he didn’t actually have a stomach anymore. The thought just made him even more queasy.

  “Well,” said Allie. “This sucks. ”

  Nick let loose an unexpected guffaw, which made Allie giggle. How could they be laughing at a time like this?

  “We have some decisions to make,” said Allie.

  Nick didn’t exactly feel in a decision-making frame of mind. “You think it’s possible to have post-traumatic stress disorder if you’re dead?” he asked. Allie had no answer.

  Nick looked at his hands, which were smudged with everlasting chocolate, like his face. He rubbed his arm. If he had no fleshly body, why could he still feel his skin? Or maybe it was just a memory of skin. And what about all the things people told him in life, about what happened to you when you died? Not that he was certain about any of it. His father had been an alcoholic who found God, and it changed his life. His mother was into new age stuff, and believed in reincarnation and crystals. Nick always found himself caught in some uncomfortable in-between. He had faith in faith, though—that is to say, he deeply believed that someday he’d find something to deeply believe. That “someday” never came for Nick. Instead, he wound up here—and this place didn’t fit with either of his parents’ versions of the afterlife. And then, of course, there was his friend, Ralphy Sherman, who claimed to have had a near-death experience. (According t
o Ralphy, we’re all briefly reincarnated as insects, and the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a bug-zapper. ) Well, this place was not purgatory, Nirvana, or any sort of rebirth, and it occurred to Nick that regardless of what people believed, the universe had its own ideas.

  “At least now we know there’s an afterlife,” Allie said, but Nick shook his head.

  “This isn’t the afterlife,” he said. “We never made it to the afterlife. This is kind of an interlife. A space between life and death. ” Nick thought back to that light he had seen at the end of the tunnel, before he had crashed into Allie on the way. That light had been his destination. He still didn’t know what was in that light—Jesus, or Buddha, or the light of a hospital delivery room where he would be reborn. Would he ever know?

  “What if we’re lost here forever?” he asked.

  Allie scowled at him. “Are you always so full of gloom and doom?”

  “Usually. ”

  Nick looked at the forest around them. Was this such a bad place to spend eternity? It wasn’t exactly paradise, but it was kind of pretty. The trees were full and lush. They’d never lose their leaves. He wondered if the weather of the living world could still affect him. If not, then it wouldn’t be so bad staying here. Certainly the boy they called Lief had adjusted, so couldn’t they? But then, that wasn’t the real question. The question was, did they want to?

  Lief waited in his tree house, and soon they climbed up to him, as he knew they would. He quickly hid his special things as Nick and Allie reached the platform, both of them huffing and puffing, as if they were out of breath.

  “Stop that,” he told them. “You’re not out of breath, you just think you are, so stop it. ”

  “Lief, please, this is important,” Allie said. “We need you to tell us about the ‘others’ you were talking about before. ”

  There was no sense trying to hide it now, so he told them what he knew. “They come through my forest every once in a while. Other kids on their way places.

  They never stay long—and none have come through here for years. ”

  “Where do they go?”

  “Anywhere. They’re always running. They’re always running from the McGill. ”

  “The what?”

  “The McGill. ”

  “Is that a grown-up?”

  Lief shook his head. “No grown-ups here. Only kids. Kids and monsters. ”

  “Monsters!” said Nick. “That’s great. That’s wonderful. I’m so glad I asked. ”

  But Allie wasn’t shaken. “There are no such things as monsters,” she told Lief.

  He looked to Allie, then to Nick, then back to Allie again.

  “There are here. ”

  On the absence of adults in Everlost, Alary Hightower writes: “To date no grown-up has ever been documented to cross into Everlost. The reason is quite obvious when you stop to think about it. You see, adults, being the way they are, never get lost on the way to the light no matter how hard they get bumped, simply because adults always think they know exactly where they’re going, even if they don’t, and so they all wind up going somewhere. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself this: Have you ever seen a grown-up get into a car so they could go ‘nowhere in particular’?”

 
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