Everlost, p.35
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       Everlost, p.35

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 35


  “What time is it?” asked a boy who looked curiously like a shark.

  “Time to go home,” she told him, then she called out to the crowd. “Listen to me, everyone. We have much to do. I know some of you have been imprisoned for a very long time, but now you’re free—and I have a wonderful place for you!

  There’s room for everyone, and you’ll never have to suffer again!”

  “Are you the Sky Witch?” asked a small girl, no older than five.

  Mary smiled, and knelt down to her. “Of course not,” she said. “There’s no such thing. ”

  “All right,” said Nick, “let’s form a single line right here—and line up by the numbers on your chest, so we know we’re not missing anyone!” The kids began to rearrange themselves, like it was a game. “No pushing—there’s room for everyone!”

  Mary smiled. She and Nick were a team now. She could get used to this.

  “Hey!” someone called. “Look what I got!”

  They both turned to see Lief struggling with a heavy bucket. While the others went off chasing Mikey, Lief had gone back on board the Sulphur Queen. “The McGill left his safe open! I got the McGill’s treasure!”

  Mary took the bucket from Lief. It was full of old, faceless coins.

  “Some treasure,” mumbled Nick.

  “It’s a wonderful treasure,” Mary said, and gave Nick a wink. “There’s enough here for everyone to get a wish at the fountain. ” A few kids tried to look inside, but Mary held the bucket away from them.

  They returned to the job at hand. The kids were still rearranging themselves into a line, trying to read their numbers, which were all written upside down.

  Some kids stood back, not getting in line, not certain if they should—and so those were the kids Mary went to.

  She handed Nick the bucket. “Hold this,” she said. “Make sure you keep it away from them until we’re at the fountain. ” Then she went off to talk to the kids who were reluctant to get in line. In the end, with Mary’s kindness and charm, there wasn’t a single Afterlight who didn’t want to come.

  So concerned was Mary with making sure that every Afterlight was accounted for, that there was one she forgot. It wasn’t until they were airborne and gently gliding north, thousands of feet above the shoreline, that Mary realized it.

  “Where’s Vari?”

  She turned to Nick, who just shrugged. “I haven’t seen him at all. ”

  Mary searched the airship—the cabins, corridors, and the catwalks up in the ship’s infrastructure. Vari was nowhere on board. Somehow they had left him behind.

  In spite of 146 years in Everlost, some things about a small boy never change. A penchant toward moodiness. A limited attention span. And, of course, curiosity.

  While Mary had loaded the thousand souls aboard the airship, Vari had boarded the deserted Sulphur Queen, along with Lief. While Lief might have been satisfied with a bucket of coins, Vari explored deeper until he found the treasure holds. The moment he saw them, Vari was in heaven, and he lost himself in the search and discovery of it all. Toys and jewels, and things he couldn’t identify. It was a wonderland of riches and mysteries.

  By the time he emerged back on the deck with as much booty as his small arms could carry, the great zeppelin was gone, and his worst nightmare had finally come true. Mary had forgotten him. He dropped his plunder to the deck with a clatter.

  “Who are you!”

  Vari spun at the sound of the voice.

  “Who are you, and why didn’t you leave with the others?”

  It was a tall boy with a crooked smile, and a head that was just a little too small for his body. Although Vari was on the verge of tears, he sucked in his emotions, determined to show no weakness to this single straggler from the monster’s crew.

  “Maybe I didn’t want to go,” said Vari. Although Vari couldn’t be sure, the small-headed boy seemed somewhat abandoned himself. “This is a good ship,” Vari said. “I like all the stuff below. ”

  “It served us for twenty years,” the boy said, and then he introduced himself as Pinhead. Vari could have laughed, but he didn’t. The name fit, as did all names in Everlost. Pinhead was waiting for the crew to return, but no one had. Vari suspected no one would.

  Vari looked out to the Steel Pier to the right and the Steeplechase Pier to the left. He supposed he could make a home for himself on these piers — but then he spotted a huge jewel-covered chair sitting on a platform on the open deck of the Sulphur Queen. The chair was both beautiful and ugly. Vari found himself drawn to it.

  “What is that?”

  “The McGill’s throne,” Pinhead answered. Vari got closer. It was, in its own strange and horrible way, very impressive. Vari climbed into it and sat down. He was so small, he practically disappeared into it, and yet it made him feel big. It made him feel larger than life. Larger than death. Larger than anything.

  Pinhead looked at him for a long time, as if preparing to snap a picture with his eyes. “You never told me your name,” Pinhead said.

  “My name is Va—” but he cut himself short. Mary had left him. Which meant he no longer had to be her obedient servant. He could be anyone he wanted—anything he wanted.

  Vari leaned back in the throne and stretched out his hands, caressing the jewels on the armrests. “I am the McGill,” Vari said. “Hear my name and tremble. ”

  Pinhead gave him a great slanted mudslide of a smile. “Very good, sir,” he said.

  Then, with an understanding that required no words, Pinhead went to the bridge, started the engine, and manned the tiller. Together they headed east out of Atlantic City and across the ocean in search of a new crew. And a violin.

  Chapter 28

  Skinjacker This jogger girl was a pain. At first Allie thought it was going to be okay, but as soon as the girl realized what was happening to her, she started fighting back. She was much harder to control than the ferry pilot had been.

  “Can’t you just take it easy?” Allie yelled to her, in her mind. “It’s not like I’m going to hurt you. I just need to borrow you a little. ”

  —Steal me, you mean. — “Stealing,” said Allie, “means that I’m not giving it back. ”

  —No, stealing is taking something that doesn’t belong to you without permission, and you don’t have my permission!— Their body limped and jerked along the Atlantic City boardwalk as the two willful spirits fought for dominance. Allie really didn’t have the time or patience for this.

  “We could do this the easy way,” said Allie, “or we could do this the hard way. ”

  But, like Allie, this girl was a fighter. “All right then, you asked for it!”

  Allie forced her eyes closed, and concentrated all her will on the task of usurping … possessing… controlling. Allie imagined her spirit like a hammer pounding, pounding, pounding until the jogger girl was no more than a tremor in the tips of her fingers.

  When she opened her eyes, her body was no longer jerking around. It was Allie’s to use as she pleased — and although she didn’t particularly like the idea of being a skinjacker, it was a means to an end. Allie had to admit that being in this girl’s body was tempting. She was attractive, and in good shape, even if she was a few years older. It would be easy to stay here, and make this body home. Were Allie a different kind of person, she might have done it, but Allie’s strength of will also gave her plenty of resistence to temptation. This girl was merely a vessel to transport her home, nothing more. The jogger girl was wrong—Allie was not stealing her body, she wasn’t even borrowing it—she was renting it—because the girl would get paid for her trouble. Her payment would be the absolute knowledge that there was more to the universe than living eyes could see.

  Allie found a set of keys in her pocket, and the key chain said “Porsche. ”

  “Where’s your car?” Allie asked the girl, but she was still being uncooperative, responding in a whole slew of foul thoughts. “Fine,” said Allie
. “I’ll find it myself. ” Allie began searching one hotel parking structure after another, hitting the alarm button every few seconds. It took a while, but finally she heard the car alarm going off.

  The biggest problem now was that Allie did not know how to drive.

  Had she lived, she most certainly would have had her learner’s permit by now, but things being what they were, when she started the Porsche, it was the first time she had ever turned a key in a car ignition. It was also a stick shift, and although Allie knew something about gears and the working of a clutch, she had no practical experience. Just pulling out of the parking lot became a nerve-racking experience of sudden starts, stops, and loudly grinding gears.

  —My car! My car!— cried the jogger girl from deep inside. — What are you doing to my car!— Allie ignored her, determined to tool around side streets until she got a hang of it.

  Driving, however, was not as easy as she thought, and “getting a hang of it,”

  was going to take much longer than Allie realized. It was past noon now, and Allie felt no closer to being capable of driving the Porsche than when she started. Allie supposed she could ditch the car, and find other transportation—a bus maybe, but then, all the buses from Atlantic City went to New York or Philly. None went down to Cape May.

  —Please — said the jogger girl, much calmer now. —I’ve heard your thoughts and I know where you want to go. Let me have control of my arms and legs so I can drive — Distracted, Allie ran a red light, and slammed on the brakes, coming to a stop right in the middle of the intersection. Angry horns blared, and cars swerved around her.

  —Please— said the jogger girl again. —Before you get us both killed— Since Allie had no desire to experience death again, she relented, and backed off—not entirely, but enough to let the girl control her arms and legs, so she could drive. To Allie’s relief the girl didn’t fight. She simply pulled the car out of the intersection, and headed back to the main road that would take them out of Atlantic City.

  Allie relaxed, like the captain of a ship letting the first mate navigate.

  “Thank you,” she told the jogger girl. The jogger girl said nothing.

  All was fine until they reached the bridge that connected Atlantic City with the mainland. Halfway across the bridge, the first mate mutinied. The jogger girl launched a sudden mental offensive that caught Allie completely off guard.

  —Steal my body, will you? Invade my space? I DON’T THINK SO!— Then the jogger girl began to push—but she wasn’t pushing down, she was pushing out! Allie felt herself being hurled out of the girl’s body like a bad buffet lunch. She couldn’t feel a heartbeat anymore, or air moving in and out of her lungs. She was disconnected, and losing her grip.

  Allie fought back, hoping it wasn’t too late, trying to dig her spirit in like a grappling hook, refusing to be cast off. She pulled herself back inside, and as they fought for control, the car began to swerve wildly on the bridge.

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