Everlost, p.5
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       Everlost, p.5

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 5


  Some people thought of her as a god. She had no desire to be a god, but she did like the respect and honor with which she was now treated. Of course, she did have her enemies, and they called her less flattering things, but always from a safe distance.

  Today her view from the top floor was magnificent, and sometimes she swore she could see the whole world from here. Yet she knew it was a world that had gone on without her. Far below the traffic of the living world passed, dots of buses and taxis in constant congestion. Let them go about their business, she thought.

  It means nothing to me. My concern is this world, not theirs.

  A knock at the door drew her attention away from the view. In a moment Stradivarius stepped in, a mousy boy with tufts of tightly curled blond hair.

  “What is it, Vari?”

  “A Finder’s here to see you, Miss Mary. He says he’s got something really good. ”

  Mary sighed. Everyone called themselves “Finders” these days. Usually they had never actually found anything of importance. A scrap of paper, a piece of driftwood, maybe. The true Finders had far better goods. They were masters at what they did, and knew all the circumstances that could cause an object to cross over into Everlost. The true Finders were few.

  “Is this someone we’ve seen before?”

  “I think so,” said Stradivarius. “And I think he’s got real food!”

  This news caught Mary’s attention, although she tried not to show Vari how much.

  She was good at keeping her emotions to herself, but if the Finder truly had food that had crossed over from the living world, it would be hard to contain herself.

  “Show him in. ”

  Vari slipped out, and returned with a young man, about thirteen years old, wearing nothing but a bathing suit, its waistband hidden by a pasty root-beer belly. Well, thought Mary, we can’t choose the moment and manner of our crowding. Just as this boy was condemned to travel eternity in a wet bathing suit, she was consigned to the most uncomfortable school dress she owned. The only good thing about it was that it was green and matched her eyes.

  “Hi, Miss Mary,” the Finder said, respectfully. “You remember me, right?” He smiled, but his mouth stretched much too wide, and he had far too many teeth, giving the impression that she could tip back the top of his head like a boy-shaped cookie jar.

  “Yes, I remember you. You’re Speedo, from New Jersey. The last time you came, you brought an orange, wasn’t it?”

  “Grapefruit!” he said, thrilled to be remembered.

  It had been a long time since she had last seen this particular Finder, but how could she forget that bathing suit? “What did you bring today?”

  His smile stretched even wider. Now he was teeth all the way to his ears. “I brought something fantastic!…How would you like a little…dessert?”

  “Dessert?” said Mary. “Please don’t tell me you’ve brought some of those horrid fortune cookies!”

  Clearly Speedo was offended by the suggestion. “I’m a Finder, Miss Mary. I know better than to waste your time with fortune cookies. I won’t even touch them. ”

  “That’s very wise,” Mary told him. “And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you.

  Please — show me what you’ve got. ”

  He hurried out, and returned with a box that he set on the table. “You may want to sit down,” he told her. When she didn’t, he removed the lid to reveal something Mary thought she’d never have the good fortune to see again.

  “A birthday cake!” There was no sense trying to hide her astonishment—and yes, perhaps she should have sat down, because the sight of it made her feel faint.

  This wasn’t just a slice of bread, or a gnawed chicken bone, as many of the Food-Finders brought; this was an entire birthday cake, round and white, completely unmarred. It said “Happy 5th Birthday Suzie. ” She had no idea who Suzie was, and she didn’t care, because if she was having a birthday, she was one of the living, and the living were not her concern. Mary lifted her finger, then turned to the Finder. “May I?”

  “Of course!”

  Slowly, carefully she dipped her finger down and touched it to the cake, dragging it over the tiniest edge, feeling the frosting stick to her fingertip.

  She pulled her finger back and put it to her mouth to taste. The explosion of flavor was almost too much to bear. It took over all her senses, and she had to close her eyes. Vanilla buttercream! So perfectly sweet!

  “It’s good stuff, huh?” said Speedo. “I was gonna eat it myself, but then I thought my favorite customer might want it. ” And he added, “That’s you,” just in case there was any doubt.

  Mary grinned and clapped her hands together, as she realized how the Finder had come across the cake. “You wait at birthday parties! How very clever!” Everyone knew the only food that ever crossed over was food lovingly prepared—and it only happened when that lovingly prepared food met an untimely, unlikely end. Where better to find such food than a birthday party, where mothers baked their love right into the batter? “That’s brilliant!” Mary said. “Absolutely brilliant. ”

  Speedo looked nervous, and hitched up his bathing suit—a nervous habit, since it was in no danger of falling down. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you? I mean, it’s a trade secret. If people knew where I go to find food, everyone else’ll do the same, and I’ll be out of business. ”

  “I won’t tell a soul,” Mary said, “but you have to tell me one thing. How many birthday parties did you have to sit through until a cake crossed over?”

  He puffed up proudly. “Three hundred and seventy-eight!”

  Mary shook her head. “You must be sick of birthdays!”

  “Hey, you do what you’ve gotta do, right?” Then he walked around, talking about the cake like it was a used car he was trying to sell. “It was something to watch, though. That little kid reached up and pulled the whole cake right off the table before they could even put the candles in! It smashed in a heap on the floor, but as you can see, it left a lasting impression on the table where it sat: The ghost of a birthday cake, just waiting for me to take. ”

  Mary looked at the cake and thought about dipping her finger in again, but stopped herself. It would be too easy to keep on eating it and not stop until the last crumb was gone.

  “So,” said Speedo, “what do you think it’s worth?”

  “What are you asking?”

  “How am I supposed to know what I want, when I don’t know what ya got to give?”

  Mary considered this. The cake was worth ten times anything she had ever traded for. This, she knew, was this Finders gold mine, and he might never find another one. He deserved a fair and honest trade.

  Mary crossed the large room to a chest of drawers, and pulled out a set of keys.

  She tossed them to Speedo, and he caught it.

  “Keys?” he said. “I’ve found lots of keys. They ain’t no good unless the thing they unlock also crossed into Everlost—and that never happens. ”

  “Something very strange happened in the living world a few weeks ago,” Mary told him. “A man sent his car into one end of a carwash, and it never came out the other end. No one has any idea what happened to it. ”

  He looked at her, his face a mix of hope and distrust. “And what did happen to it?”

  “Sunspots. ”


  Mary sighed. “If you had read my book, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Vortexes but Were Afraid to Ask, then you would know that sunspot activity tends to create vortexes from the living world to ours, through which living-world objects sometimes fall. ”

  “Oh,” said Speedo. “Sunspots, yeah. ”

  Mary grinned. “In a parking stall at the north side of old Penn Station, you’ll find a silver Jaguar. I don’t travel much, so I doubt I’d have much use for it.

  It’s yours, if you promise to bring me all of your best food finds. ”

  She could tell that the Fi
nder was excited about the car, tut he was a good negotiator. “Well,” he said, “I already do have a pretty sweet ride…. ”

  “Yes,” said Mary, “you talked about it last time you were here. As I recall, it’s more trouble than it’s worth, because you can never find a place to park it. ”

  “Yeah,” he said, “I guess I could do with something smaller. Okay—it’s a deal!”

  He shook her hand a little too forcefully, finally letting his true excitement show. “A Jag. Wow!” His smile stretched right into the middle of his ears, and Mary simply had to say something about it. Someone had to.

  “You should try to remember that the living only have thirty-two teeth. ”

  He looked at her, stunned by her directness.

  “Eight incisors,” Mary continued, “four canine, eight bicuspids, and twelve molars, if you’ve got wisdom teeth. ”

  “Oh,” he said, getting red in the face.

  “It’s clear you put a lot of importance on your smile, but when you think about it too much, it starts to take over. ”

  Even before he turned to leave, Mary could see the information taking effect;

  his mouth was shrinking back to sensible proportions.

  In her book Spectral Visions: An Afterlight’s Guide to Looking One’s Best, Mary Hightower writes, “If, at times, you find others looking at you strangely, and you don’t know why, chances are you’re losing touch with your own self-image.

  That is to say, your body, or your face, is beginning to distort. Remember, we look the way we look only because we remember looking like that. If you forget that your eyes are blue, they may just turn purple. If you forget that human beings have ten fingers, you may suddenly end up with twelve.

  A simple remedy to image-loss is to find a picture that you think resembles you — and if you happened to have crossed over with an actual picture of yourself, all the better. Study the picture. Take in as much detail as you can. Once the image is firmly in your mind, you’ll start looking like your old self in no time. Never underestimate the importance of remembering how you looked in life.

  Unless, of course, you’d rather forget. ”

  Chapter 6

  Scavengers Nick remembered everything about his life in perfect detail. How he looked, how his parents looked, what he had for lunch before the miserable accident that landed him here. It troubled him, though, that Lief had become such a blank slate over the years he had been in his forest. If memories aged badly, fading like an old newspaper, how long until Nick suffered the same loss? He didn’t want to forget anything.

  Having been used to travel at sixty-five miles per hour, Nick’s southbound trek with Allie was a slow one. Hiking was not one of Nick’s favorite activities. In life it would make his joints ache, and he would invariably stumble on some rude protrusion of nature, and skin a knee. This hike-after-death was no more pleasant. True, the bruises and body aches were gone, but he could not deny how thirsty it made him. Thirsty and hungry. Lief had told them that they no longer needed to eat or drink, anymore than they needed to breathe, but it still didn’t stop the craving. “You get used to it,” Lief had told them, back in the forest.

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