Everlost, p.31
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       Everlost, p.31

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 31

 

  Then he painted the number 0001 on her blouse, and said:

  “Chime her. ”

  The McGill had not felt his temper rage this powerfully for a very long time. He had forgotten how good it felt.

  Anger!

  Let it fill him. Let it rage like a dance of flames. Anger at her for her lies, anger at himself for allowing his feelings to cloud his judgment. Anger enough to cauterize any vulnerability, burning closed the wound she had left in his twisted heart by her deception. This girl had played him for a fool, but that was over.

  With the addition of Allie to the chiming chamber, his collection was now complete. He went down below to watch. The crew had untangled them, and now they all swung free again. He watched as they turned Allie upside down, so that the 0001 on her shirt read 1000.

  A brave man’s life is worth a thousand cowardly souls.

  From the first time he read that fortune years ago, he knew what it meant. He could have his life back, in exchange for a thousand Afterlights. Souls were the currency with which he could buy back his life. Imagine it! Flesh and bone, blood and breath. For a short while, he had thought skinjacking would be better, but that option had never really existed, had it? No, there was only one way to return to the world of the living. This bargain: his life for a thousand souls.

  Whether the bargain was with deity or demon, it didn’t matter to the McGill. All that mattered were the terms. Well, he had satisfied the terms. He had a thousand souls for payment. Now all he needed was a location to make the exchange.

  So he returned to his throne room, and went straight to the spittoon. He reached in, pulled out a cookie, and smashed it against the arm of the throne, extracting the piece of paper. He held the fortune with anticipation for a moment, before gazing upon its words. The instant he saw the message, he knew what it meant, and for the first time in many years, the McGill was afraid … because the fortune said:

  Your victory waits at the Piers of Defeat.

  Ignoring all the warnings in his mind that told him it was a bad idea, the mighty McGill set the Sulphur Queen on a course toward Atlantic City.

  PART FOUR A Thousand Souls Everlost CHAPTER 24

  Nick’s Journey Over a treacherous bridge, and across the entire breadth of Brooklyn, Nick marched from Rockaway Point to Manhattan. He had no way of knowing that even as he crossed that first bridge, Allie was being chimed by the McGill.

  His mission was clear, but by no means simple: Get help. More specifically, get help from Mary. That was the hard part, because Allie had already told him how Mary had refused to put her children at risk before. As much as it hurt Nick that Mary chose to leave him in a barrel, he admired the selflessness it implied. Her motto wasn’t “Leave no child behind,” it was “Put no child in danger. ” It made getting help from her tricky.

  Nick encountered no Afterlights on his trek toward Mary’s domain. Certainly there were many dead-spots on the way, and perhaps there were Afterlights hiding here and there, but he wasn’t looking for them. He was single-minded.

  He marched down the center of Flatbush Avenue, cars and pedestrians passing through him. Unlike Allie he had no skill for connecting with the living world, and he found that the more he ignored that world, the more it slipped into shadow. The living world was as insubstantial to him as beams of light from a movie projector, and the living themselves were like the movie on the screen;

  only important if he chose to watch. He could see how Mary had come to see Everlost as the real world. The true world. It would be easy to trick himself into believing the same thing—but did he want to do that?

  For a moment he chose to focus on the “movie” of the living; a child and mother crossing the street to catch a bus; an old woman taking her time, and a cabbie who honked at her, only to get a rap on the hood from her cane. It made Nick laugh. Even if he was not a part of it, that world was charged with a vibrant spark that Everlost didn’t have. No, the living world could not be dismissed or ignored, and for the first time he began to wonder if perhaps Mary’s disregard for the living world was nothing more than envy.

  As he neared Manhattan, his memory of a heart began to pound in anticipation.

  What would Mary do when she saw him? Would she be reserved and dignified? Would she scold him for having left in the first place? He knew he still had feelings for her that could not be destroyed by barrel or beast, but did she have any real feelings toward him? He had thought to learn a skill from the Haunter—a skill Mary could use. Well, Nick had no new skills to offer her, but he had been changed. He was fearless — or if not truly fearless, then at least no longer fearful. By the time he got to Manhattan he was running and he didn’t stop until he reached her towers.

  Mary knew something must be horribly wrong. She knew because of the look of anguish on Vari’s face. She’d never seen him look so bleak.

  “Vari, what is it? What’s happened?”

  “He’s back,” was all Vari said. Then he shuffled away, hanging his head low in a dejected defeat she didn’t quite understand. Before she could ask him anything else, she saw someone she thought she’d never see again, standing in her doorway.

  “Nick?”

  “Hi, Mary. ”

  There was more chocolate on his face now than before. As with many Afterlights, changes weren’t always the desired ones, but Mary didn’t care, because he was here, and beneath the chocolate there was a smile just for her.

  It was rare that Mary lost herself, but this was one occasion where the control and poise she prided herself on flew out the window. She ran to Nick and hugged him tightly, not wanting to let him go. It was only now in this moment that Mary realized the fondness she had felt for him was more than that. It was love—something she had not felt in all her years in Everlost. It had been easier to suppress it when she thought he was lost, but now the emotion came in a wellspring, and she kissed him, giving herself over to the heady smell and rich taste of milk chocolate.

  Nick was not quite expecting this. Maybe in his wildest dreams, but his wildest dreams had a tendency not to come true. For a moment he found himself going limp like an opossum playing dead, before finally putting his arms around her waist and returning the embrace. It occurred to Nick that since they didn’t actually have to breathe, they could stay like this forever. If it was inevitable for Afterlights to lock themselves in ruts, this was a rut he could handle.

  But the moment ended, as such moments do, and Mary took a step back, regaining her composure.

  “Wow,” said Nick. “I guess you missed me. ”

  “I thought I lost you,” Mary said. “Can you ever forgive me for not coming after you? Do you understand why I couldn’t?”

  Nick found himself slow to answer. He understood, but that didn’t mean he could completely forgive it. “I won’t talk about it if you won’t,” Nick said, and left it at that.

  “How did you escape?” Mary asked.

  “It’s a long story, but that’s not important. I need your help. ”

  Nick sat her down and told her about the McGill, his ghost ship, and his cargo of captured Afterlights. “I know you never really believed in the McGill…”

  “No,” said Mary. “I’ve always known he existed— but like the Haunter he kept away. ”

  “Allies figured out a way to defeat him. ”

  “Allie!” Nick could hear the disdain in her voice. “Allies a very foolish girl.

  She’s learned nothing from what happened with the Haunter, has she?”

  “I believe her,” Nick said. “No matter what you think of her, she’s smart. When I left, she practically had the McGill eating out of her hand. ”

  Mary sighed. “So then, what does she want me to do? “

  This “was the hard part. Nick knew he had to sell this, and sell it right. “She wants you to bring your kids to Atlantic City. It’ll take all of them to fight the McGill. ”

  Mary shook her head. “No! I can’t do that.
I won’t put my children in danger. ”

  “Allie says there’s a powerful gang there—a gang that defeated him before, so we won’t be alone. ”

  “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about!”

  “Then all the more reason to help her, if you know things she doesn’t. ” And when Mary didn’t say anything more, Nick put his cards on the table. “If you don’t help then I’ll go there without you. ”

  “That,” said Vari, slumped in a chair in the corner, “is the best idea I’ve heard yet. ”

  They both ignored him. “The McGill will destroy you,” Mary said. “You can’t fight him. ”

  “You’re probably right, but if you won’t help, I’ll have no choice but to go alone. ”

  Mary turned away, and pounded a fist against a window. Nick couldn’t tell if she was angry at him or herself. “I… I … can’t…”

  Nick was not bluffing, and soon Mary would realize that. He knew his feelings for her were strong, but he also knew that some things were stronger. “I love you, Mary,” he said, “but there are things I have to do, even if you won’t. ” And he turned to leave.

  She called to him before he reached the door. Nick had truly thought she wouldn’t, because, in his experience, when Mary made up her mind, the case was closed. But maybe she was changing, too.

  “I won’t put my children in danger,” she said again, fiddling nervously with the locket around her neck. “But I can’t leave a thousand children in the McGill’s hands either. So I’ll go with you. ”

  “What!” said Vari.

  Nick wasn’t expecting that either. “But… but that won’t help. We need an army to fight the McGill. ”

  But apparently Mary knew better, as Mary always did.

  Mary had a secret cache of clout that ran deeper than anyone knew. In other words, she could get her hands on things that most Afterlights could only dream about, were they able to dream. Today, she had arranged luxury transportation: a ghost train out of old Penn Station.

  She did not say good-bye to the children, because she didn’t want to worry them.

  She left Meadow in charge, and Vari, who refused to be left behind, became the third member of their traveling party. “Do you think I’m going to let you take all the glory?” Vari told Nick as the three of them trudged uptown. “One way or another I’m going to end up on top. Just see if I don’t!”

  “Personally,” said Nick, “I think you’d look best hanging upside down by your ankles. ”

  Vari sneered at him. “You’ve got more chocolate on your mouth than ever. Pretty soon it’ll cover your whole stupid face. ”

  Nick shrugged. “Mary doesn’t seem to mind. ”

  Nick suspected that if Vari had had his violin he would have kabonged him over the head.

  “Will you two stop,” chided Mary. “We’re supposed to fight the McGill, not each other. ”

  Actually, Nick found himself enjoying his bickering with Vari—maybe because he finally had the upper hand.

 
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