Everlost, p.4
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       Everlost, p.4

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 4


  On the presence of monsters, Mary Hightower is curiously silent.

  Chapter 4

  A Coin on its Edge Night had fallen over the woods, and the three dead kids sat on the highest platform of the tree house bathed in an unnaturally bright moonlight that truly made them look like ghosts. It took a while for Nick and Allie to realize that the moon wasn’t out that night.

  “Great,” said Nick, not thinking it was great at all. “Just what I always wanted—to be a glow-in-the-dark ghost. ”

  “Don’t call us ghosts,” Allie said.

  Nick simply didn’t have the patience for Allies issues with word choice. “Face it, that’s what we are. ”

  “‘Ghost’ implies a whole lot of things that I am NOT. Do I look like Casper to you?”

  “Fine,” said Nick. “We’re not ghosts, we’re Undefined Spectral Doohickies. USDs.

  Are you happy now?”

  “Well that’s just stupid. ”

  “We’re Afterlights,” said Lief. They both turned to him. “The others who pass through — that’s what they call us, on account of how we glow in the dark — in the daytime, too, if you look close enough. ”

  “Afterlights,” repeated Allie. “See, I told you we weren’t ghosts. ”

  Allie and Lief began to talk about monsters again, and, as far as Nick was concerned, this was a conversation he would just as well stay out of. Instead, Nick decided to hold his breath, to see if it were true that oxygen was no longer a requirement. Still, he listened.

  “If nothing can hurt you here,” asked Allie, “why be afraid of the McGill?”

  “The McGill knows how to hurt you in other ways. It knows how to make you suffer till the end of time, and it’ll do it too, if it gets the chance. ” Lief’s eyes were wide, and he made sweeping gestures with his hands like he was telling a campfire story. “The McGill hates kids that get stuck here — hates the sounds we make. It’ll tear out your tongue if it hears you talk, and rip out your lungs if it hears you pretending to breathe. They say the McGill is the devil’s own pet hound that chewed through its leash, and escaped. It couldn’t make it all the way to the living world, but it made it to here. That’s why we have to stay in the forest. It doesn’t know about the forest. We’re safe here. ”

  Nick could tell that Allie wasn’t convinced. He wasn’t convinced himself, but in light of their current predicament, suddenly anything seemed possible.

  “How do you know all this?” Allie asked.

  “The other kids who come through the forest. They tell stories. ”

  “Did these kids actually see the McGill?” Allie asked.

  “No one who’s ever seen it has escaped. ”

  “How convenient. ”

  Nick released his breath, having held it for ten minutes with no ill effects.

  “Technically speaking,” Nick said, “there have always been monsters, or at least they were called that until people knew something better to call them. The giant squid. The megamouth shark. The anaconda. ”

  “See!” said Lief.

  Allie threw Nick a withering look. “Thank you Mr. Google. The next time I need some crucial information, I’ll type in some choice keywords. ”

  “Yeah,” said Nick. “I’m sure your keywords will all have four letters. ”

  Allie turned back to Lief. “So, is this McGill a giant squid?”

  “I don’t know,” said Lief, “but whatever it is, it’s terrible. ”

  “It’s made-up,” insisted Allie.

  “You don’t know everything!”

  “No,” said Allie, “but now I’ve got all the time in the world, so I eventually will. ”

  Nick had to admit that both Lief and Allie had their points. Lief’s stories reeked of exaggeration, but every story had some basis in truth. On the other hand, Allie had a practical view of things.

  “Lief,” Nick asked, “has anyone who’s passed through here ever come back?”

  “No,” Lief said. “They were all eaten by the McGill. ”

  “Or they found a better place to be,” suggested Nick.

  “Either we stay here, or we get eaten by the McGill,” said Lief. “That’s why I’m staying here. ”

  “What if there’s another choice?” said Nick. “If we’re not alive, but we’re not quite dead, then maybe …” He pulled a coin out of his pocket— one of the few things that had come with him, along with those overly formal clothes he wore.

  “Maybe we’re like coins standing on their edge?”

  Allie considered this. “Meaning?”

  “Meaning, we might be able to shake things up a little, and find a way to come up heads. ”

  “Or tails,” suggested Allie.

  “What are you talking about?” said Lief.

  “Life and death. ” Nick flipped the coin, and slapped it down on the back of his palm, keeping it covered with his other hand, so none of them could see how it had landed. “Maybe—just maybe —we can find a way out of here. A way into the light at the end of the tunnel… or maybe even a path back to life. ”

  It seemed the trees themselves held the thought, sifting it through their boughs, giving it resonance.

  “Could that be possible?” Allie asked, and looked to Lief.

  “I don’t know,” he told them.

  “So the question is,” said Nick, “where do we go to find out?”

  “There’s only one place I want to go,” said Allie. “Home. ”

  Nick instinctively sensed that going home wouldn’t be a good idea—but just like Allie, he wanted to go home. He had to find out if his family had survived, or if they “got where they were going. ” They were in Upstate New York, though; it was far from home.

  “I’m from Baltimore,” Nick said. “How about you?”

  “New Jersey,” Allie said. “The southern tip. ”

  “Okay. Then we head south from here, and keep an eye out for others who can help us. Someone has got to know how to get out of this place…one way, or another. ”

  Nick put his coin away, and they all began to talk about life, death, and a way out of this place in-between. None of them had noticed on which side the coin had landed.

  Allie had always been a goal-oriented girl. It was both her strength and her weakness. She had a drive to completion that always got things done, but it also made her inflexible, and stubborn. Even though she adamantly denied being stubborn, she knew deep down it was true.

  The coin-on-its-edge business might have been fine for Nick, but Allie was not at ease with all this metaphysical talk. Going home, however—that was a goal she could buy into. Whether she was dead or half-dead, whether she was spirit or wraith, didn’t matter. It was too unpleasant to think about. Better to put on the blinders, and keep her thoughts fully focused on the house where she had spent her life. She would go back there. And once she was there, all things would sort themselves out. She had to believe that, or she would lose her mind.

  Lief had his own unique way of seeing things, too — and his vision began and ended with the forest. He wouldn’t be going with them, because for Lief, being alone in his safe haven was better than having company in the big bad world of the living.

  As for the snowshoes, they were Nick’s idea, although Allie was the one who figured out how to make them, and Lief was the one with the practical know-how to actually do it with twigs and strips of bark. Allie thought they looked kind of goofy, but after all it wasn’t like they’d be posing for a fashion show any time soon.

  “What’s the point,” Lief had said when Nick first mentioned the idea of snowshoes. “It’s not going to snow for months, and we move right through snow anyway. ”

  “They’re not for snow,” Nick had told him. “It’s so we can walk on living-world roads without sinking in. We’ll be able to move faster if we don’t have to pluck our feet out of the asphalt after every step. ”

  “So then they’re road-shoes, not snowshoes,” Lief said,
then went about tying twigs together with strips of bark. When he had finished the shoes, he handed them to Nick and Allie. “Aren’t you afraid at all?” he asked. “Aren’t you afraid of what’s out there? All the things you couldn’t see when you were alive? Evil spirits? Monsters? I’ve been waiting forever for you to come. I prayed for you, did you know that? God hears our prayers here. Maybe even better than before, because we’re closer to him here. ” Lief looked at them with big, mournful eyes.

  “Please don’t go. ”

  It tugged at Allie’s heart, and brought a tear to her eyes, but she couldn’t let her emotions influence this decision. She had to remind herself that Lief wasn’t really a little kid. He was an Afterlight who was more than a hundred years old.

  He had done fine in his forest alone, and there was no reason to think he wouldn’t be fine once they left.

  “I’m sorry,” Allie told him. “But we can’t stay. Maybe once we learn more, we’ll come back for you. ”

  Lief put his hands in his pockets and sullenly looked at the ground. “Good luck, then,” he said. “And watch out for the McGill. ”

  “We will. ”

  He stood there for a moment more, then said, “Thank you for giving me a name.

  I’ll try to remember it. ” Then he climbed away, disappearing high in his tree house again.

  “South,” said Nick.

  “Home,” said Allie, and they climbed out of the forest to face the treacherous unknowns of the living world.

  Whether or not careless children actually sink down to the center of the Earth, no one can say for sure. Certainly many do disappear, but as it always seems to happen when no one else is looking, it confounds all attempts to discover where they actually go. The official term for sinking, coined by none other than Mary Hightower herself, is “Gravity Fatigue. ”

  In her groundbreaking book The Gravity of Gravity, Mary writes: “Do not believe rumors that children leave Everlost. We are here to stay. Those who can no longer be seen have simply fallen victim to Gravity Fatigue, and are either at, or on their way to the center of the Earth. I imagine the center of the Earth must be a crowded place by now, but perhaps it is the spirits of those of us residing there that keep the Earth alive and green. ”

  Chapter 5

  Friends in High Places Mary Hightower was not born with that name. She could no longer remember what her true name was, although she was relatively certain her first name started with an M. She took the name Mary because it seemed a proper, motherly name.

  True, she was only fifteen, but had she lived, she would most certainly have become a mother. And anyway, she was a mother to those who needed one—and there were many.

  The name Hightower came because she was the very first who dared to ascend.

  That singular bold act of climbing the stairs and staking a claim had earned her a level of respect from others she could not have imagined. They were in awe of her, and many other Everlost children followed her lead. Realizing her position was now high in more ways than one, she decided it was time to share what she knew about Everlost with all Afterlights. Although she had been writing for more than a hundred years, she had only shared it with the small group of younger children she had taken under her wing. But the moment she became Mary Hightower, all that changed. Now her writings were read by everyone—and what had once been a small group of children in her care had grown into hundreds. She had no doubt she would eventually be a mother to thousands.

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