Everlost, p.32
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       Everlost, p.32

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 32

  It was dusk by the time they reached old Penn Station—a glorious stone-faced, glass-domed building that had been torn down half a century ago, in the questionable name of progress, and replaced with a miserable underground rat warren beneath Madison Square Garden. The new Penn Station was generally considered the ugliest train station in Western civilization, but luckily, the old Penn persisted in Everlost, if only out of its own indignation.

  Nick was duly impressed—and also impressed that Mary was willing to ride a train, considering the nature of her death. As for the conductor, he was an old friend of Mary’s: a nine-year-old Afterlight who called himself Choo-Choo Charlie. In life he was obsessed with model trains, and so to him, old Penn Station, with its many ghost trains, was as good as making it to heaven.

  “I can’t take you to Atlantic City,” he told them. “On account a’ there’s no dead tracks down there. I can get you halfway, though, is that okay?”

  “Can you get us as far as Lakehurst?” Mary asked. “I have a friend there who can take us the rest of the way. ”

  Then, with Charlie in the engine, the ghost train lit out on the memory of tracks, heading for New Jersey.

  They arrived in Lakehurst a few hours later, but it took the rest of the night to seek out Mary’s friend there: a Finder named Speedo. After meeting him, Nick decided he preferred a chocolate eternity to an eternity in a wet bathing suit.

  Nick figured Speedo must have been a pretty good Finder though, because he had himself a late-model Jaguar.

  “It’s a sweet ride,” he told them, as he drove them around the dead-roads of an old naval air station, showing the car off, “but it can only go on roads that don’t exist anymore — do you know how hard those are to find?” Then he threw an accusing look at Mary. “You never told me about that when you gave me the car!”

  Mary smirked. “You never asked. ”

  Speedo told them it would take weeks to navigate a dead-road course all the way to Atlantic City, but Mary didn’t seem concerned.

  “Actually,” she said, “it’s your other ’sweet ride’ that I’m interested in. ”

  “Yeah, I thought you’d say that,” said Speedo, as they pulled, onto a huge airfield tarmac. “But I drive. ”

  When Nick saw the ride they were talking about, even in his amazement he had to smile. Miss Mary Hightower didn’t travel often, but when she did, she sure knew how to travel in style!

  Chapter 25

  The Piers of Defeat As the Sulphur Queen pulled into Atlantic City, a dense morning fog blanketed the shore, hiding the many beachfront hotels from view—but the two dead piers sliced through the fog, jutting out like two arms reaching to grasp the approaching ghost ship.

  The Steeplechase Pier stood on the left, with its dozens of rides, all still whirring and spinning like a great gear work churning out time. The Steel Pier was on the right, a grand showplace of the rich and famous. Its signs still advertised in giant letters its golden days before fire burned it into the sea:

  “Tonight Frank Sinatra,” “Dancing till Dawn in the Marine Ballroom,” and, of course, “Come See Shiloh, the World Famous High-Diving Horse. ”

  The living world could no longer see the piers, of course. All the living saw were the casinos that sucked their money away like a riptide, and the garish new Steel Pier, built near the ruins of the original—but like the old and new Penn Stations, there was no comparison. When Everlost eyes looked upon Atlantic City’s sandy shore, the two dead piers stood apart, just as the two lost towers stood apart from the skyline of New York, like grand beacons of eternity.

  The crew of the Sulphur Queen gathered on deck to watch as they neared the piers.

  “We’re going to crash into them!” Pinhead said.

  “No we won’t,” said the McGill, with the confidence of a monster certain of his own destiny. The two piers were only twenty yards apart from one another, leaving a space between them that was just the right size for the Sulphur Queen to dock. It was the perfect berth, as if it was an intentional part of some greater design. It was another indication to the McGill that the universe and he were in perfect alignment—and just as the McGill predicted, the Sulphur Queen slid smoothly between the two piers with just a few feet to spare on either side. A perfect fit.

  “Kill the engine,” he told his bridge crew, and they waited until the Sulphur Queen’s forward momentum grounded it in the sandy bottom of this huge dead-spot, bringing them to a halt.

  “What now?” asked Pinhead. His apprehension rolled off him like sweat from the living. After all, Pinhead had abandoned the cutthroat gang that called themselves the Twin Pier Marauders. They would not take kindly to a traitor if they got their hands on him.

  The McGill knew that the battle today would be the greatest of his death, but he would be triumphant. The fortunes didn’t lie.

  “Prepare to lower the gangway to the Steel Pier,” he told Pinhead. “The rest of you come with me. ” Then the McGill led his entire crew down to the chiming chamber.

  All this time. Lief hung by his ankles, patiently waiting for something to happen. Very little ever happened in the chiming chamber—and even less since Nick left. It was nice that Allie had joined them, although she didn’t seem too happy about it.

  Lief did not share her frustration. Things made sense to Lief now. It was like his whole existence was a jigsaw puzzle that finally had every single piece in place. No matter what image the puzzle showed, be it the darkness of a pickle barrel, or the image of a thousand kids hanging upside down, it didn’t matter because the puzzle was complete. He was complete, and that mattered more than his circumstance. No amount of unpleasantness could take away that sense of absolute completion. He couldn’t explain this to Allie—any more than he was able to explain it to Nick. All he knew was that he felt no real desire to leave the chiming chamber, or to stay for that matter. He was content to simply…be.

  He knew there were others here like him. Many of the chimed kids had also found their peace.

  Through the forest of souls, Lief caught sight of Allie watching him with sadness in her eyes. Lief pulled up a dangling hand to wave to her. He felt sorry for Allie. She had not found her peace. Neither had Nick. They fought so hard against everything: so full of fear, loneliness, resentment, anger. Lief remembered feeling those same things, but the memory was fading, as so many other memories had. He didn’t fear the McGill, because there was only one feeling left to him. Patience. Patience to wait for whatever came next.

  “We should have stayed with you in your forest,” Allie said.

  Lief smiled gently. “It would have been a fun forever. ” Then he looked at the kids all around him. “But that’s okay. I don’t mind. I’m ready. ”

  “Ready for what?” Allie asked.

  Lief found himself perplexed by the question. “I don’t know,” he said.

  “Just…ready. ”

  That’s when the drone of the Sulphur Queen’s. engines died. A few moments later the entire chimed mob swung forward, then back as the ship ran aground.

  “We’ve stopped,” said the high-chimed Boy Scout.

  “We always stop,” said another.

  “No, this is different. ”

  “Quiet,” shouted Allie. “Listen!”

  There came the sound of far off footsteps on metal that quickly grew louder. It wasn’t just one person descending into the bowels of the ship, but dozens.

  Allie was the last. Allie was the first, just as the fortune had said: She was the last to be chimed, and the first cut down.

  The McGill burst into the chiming chamber with the full complement of his crew behind him. He came straight to Allie.

  Allie found the McGill even more hideous when looking at him upside down. She could see into his massive misshapen nostrils full of metaphysical nastiness.

  Fortunately she didn’t have to look for long, because with a single slash of his razor-sharp claws, he cut Allies rope, and she fell headfirst to
the sulphur-dusted floor. She got up quickly, determined to stand eye to eye with the beast.

  “Where are we?” she asked. “Why did we stop?”

  The McGill never took his eyes off her, but he didn’t answer her either. Instead he spoke to his crew. “Cut them all down,” he said, “and use the ropes to tie their hands behind their backs. ”

  “You’re setting us free?” asked the high-strung Boy Scout, to which the McGill answered, “I’m sending you to your reward. ”

  “Yay!” cried Lief.

  “It’s not that kind of reward,” Allie told him.

  Lief gave her an upside-down shrug. “Yay, anyway. ”

  The McGill grabbed Allie’s arm, and although she tried to shake him off, he held tight. “You will come with me, and you will do exactly as I say. ” Then he brought her up on deck.

  Allie had lived in South Jersey before her fateful car crash —Cape May to be exact, the state’s southernmost tip. Yet even though it was only an hour from Atlantic City, Allie had never been. Her parents despised the crowds and general vulgarity, and so they avoided Atlantic City as if they were making a political statement.

  Still, Allie knew where she was the moment she came onto the deck of the Sulphur Queen. She had to hide her excitement or the McGill might be suspicious. Her plan had worked! Or at least it had worked so far. There was a long way to go — a dozen things that could go wrong—but there was one thing she knew she could count on: the McGill’s arrogance, and his blind faith in her false fortune.

  Perhaps that would give the Twin Pier Marauders the edge they needed to defeat him again. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, thought Allie. No matter how savage the Marauders were, if they brought down the McGill, they would be good friends to have.

  The McGill led her to the gangway. The ramp sloped down sharply from the Sulphur Queen’s deck to the boardwalk surface of the Steel Pier. “You first,” he said, and prodded her along. So she was the bait. “Go!” he demanded, and so Allie stepped down the gangway and onto the vast boardwalk of the pier.

  “Keep walking,” the McGill said. He waited with his crew just off the gangway—perhaps ready to make a quick escape if the situation called for it.

  Allie strode forward, past shops and signs: Schmidt’s Beer, Planter’s Peanuts, Saltwater Taffy, Chicken in a Basket. They were all empty. If any food had crossed over when the pier had burned down, that food was long gone.

  At first the only sounds were seagulls and eerie calliope music coming from the Steeplechase Pier. The utter soullessness of the place reminded her of the feeling she got when she had walked the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Then she spun at the sudden clatter of hoofbeats on wood, and saw the strangest thing. Toward the end of the pier, a horse leapt from a platform that had to be fifty feet high, into a tank of water with a great splash. Then the horse climbed a ramp out of the tank and wended its way up the ramp toward the high dive again. This diving horse was part of the pier’s memory, and was the only animal Allie had seen that had crossed into Everlost. She felt an intense pity for the creature and its peculiar eternity.

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