Everlost, p.7
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       Everlost, p.7

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
 
Page 7

 

  You didn’t say no to a palm that big. Purple-puss gingerly put the small, round wad into Johnnie-O’s hand.

  “Next time I have to ask you twice,” Johnnie-O said, “you’re going down. ”

  Purple-puss’s Adam’s apple bobbed nervously, like a walnut in his throat. Or a jawbreaker.

  Then Allie and Nick watched in utter disbelief as Johnnie-O peeled the paper from the sticky piece of gum and popped it in his mouth.

  “Oh, gross,” said Nick.

  In response, Raggedy Andy punched him in the stomach. Nick doubled over out of reflex, only realizing a second later that it didn’t hurt. How annoying it must be for bullies, he thought, to not be able to inflict pain. This place must be a bully’s version of hell.

  Johnnie-O worked the gum until it was soft again. He closed his eyes for a moment as he chewed. “A lot of flavor still left in this one,” he said.

  “Cinnamon. ” Then he looked at Nick. “You always waste your gum like that?” he said. “I mean, when you were living?”

  Nick only shrugged. “I chew until I can’t taste it anymore. ”

  Johnnie-O just kept on chewing. “You ain’t got no tastebuds. ”

  “Can I have it next?” said Purple-puss.

  “Don’t be gross,” Johnme-O said.

  Allie laughed at that, and Johnnie-O threw her a sharp gaze, followed by a second gaze that was more calculated.

  “You’re not the prettiest thing, are you?” he said.

  Her lips pulled tightly together in anger, and she knew that made her less attractive, which only made her angrier. “I’m pretty enough,” she said. “I’m pretty in my own way. ” Which was true. No one had ever called Allie a ravishing beauty, but she knew very well that she wasn’t unattractive, either. What made her madder still was that she had to justify herself and the way she looked to this big-handed creep, who chewed other people’s used gum. “On a scale of one to ten,” Allie said, “I suppose I’m a seven. But you, on the other hand, I estimate you to be about a three. ” She could tell that it stung, mainly because it was true.

  “Seven’s not worth lookin’ at,” he said. “And the way I see it, we’re not going to have to look at each other much longer, are we?”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” said Nick, who did not like the sound of it any more than Allie did.

  Johnnie-O crossed his arms, making his oversized hands seem even larger compared to his small chest. “A single piece of gum don’t buy you passage over my territory,” he said. He turned to Nick. “Which means you gots to be my servant now. ”

  “We’ll do no such thing,” said Allie.

  “I wasn’t talkin’ to you. We don’t need the likes of you around here. ”

  “Well,” said Allie, “I’m not going without him. ”

  And the others laughed.

  “Oh,” said Raggedy Andy, “I don’t think he’ll want to go where you’re going. ”

  Allie didn’t quite know what that meant, but even so, she started to panic.

  “Grab her,” Johnnie-O ordered his comrades.

  Allie knew she had to think of something quick, and so she said the first thing that came to mind. “Stay away from me or I’ll call the McGill!”

  That stopped them dead in their tracks.

  “What are you talkin’ about?” said Johnnie-O, not as sure of himself as he was a second ago.

  “You heard me!” Allie yelled. “The McGill and I have a special arrangement. It comes when I call it. And I feed it bad little thieves whose hands are bigger than their brains. ”

  “She’s lying,” said another kid, who hadn’t spoken until now, probably because he had such a nasty, squeaky voice.

  Johnnie-O looked all irritated. “Of course she’s lying. ” He looked at Allie and then back at the quiet kid. “So how do you know she’s lying?”

  “She’s a Greensoul—probably just crossed over,” the squeaky kid said, “which means she hasn’t even seen the McGill. ”

  “Besides,” said Purple-puss, “no one sees the McGill and lives. ”

  “Except for her,” said Nick, figuring out his own angle on the situation.

  “That’s why I stay with her. As long as I’m with her, the McGill protects me, too. ”

  “So, what’s it look like?” Johnnie-O said, looking closely at Allie, trying to read the bluff in her face.

  “Well, I could tell you,” she said, using one of her father’s favorite lines.

  “But then I’d have to kill you. ”

  The others laughed at that, and so Johnnie-O curled his heavy hand into a fist and smashed the closest kid for laughing. He flew back about five feet. Then Johnnie-O got closer to Allie again.

  “I think you’re lying,” he said.

  “Guess you’ll just have to find out,” Allie taunted back. “Touch me and I call the McGill. ”

  Johnnie-O hesitated. He looked at Allie, looked at Nick, then looked at the boys around him. His authority had been challenged, and Allie realized too late that she should have figured another bluff— one that would allow this little creep to keep his dignity, because a kid like this would rather risk getting eaten by a monster than be disrespected by a girl.

  He looked her square in the eye and said, “You’re going down. ” With that, he snapped his fingers, a dry, brittle sound, like a cracking plate. Then three kids grabbed her, pulled her off the dead-spot, put her down on the living-world roadway, and began to lean heavily on her shoulders.

  In an instant she had sunk into the asphalt up to her knees, and an instant later up to her waist.

  “No!” she screamed. “McGill, McGill!” she called.

  It only gave them a brief moment’s pause, and when the beast did not materialize out of thin air, they kept on pushing. Now it was easier for them, with Allie in up to her waist.

  Nick struggled and kicked against the hands holding him, but it was no use. All he could do was watch as the others leaned and pressed on Allie’s shoulders, pushing her deeper and deeper into the ground. Soon her shoulders disappeared and she was up to her neck and still she was screaming, hysterically now, and Johnnie-O just laughed.

  “Let me do the honors,” he said. And with that, he came over, grabbed her on the top of the head and began to push down. “Enjoy the trip,” he said. “Don’t bother writing. ”

  And then another voice entered the fray. A high-pitched scream came out of nowhere, and a figure burst onto the scene, arms flailing wildly.

  “The McGill!” shouted one of the other boys, “the McGill!”

  Again that squealing war cry, and then Allie heard no more of it, for her ears and her eyes and the top of her head had sunk into the asphalt. Johnnie-O had stopped pushing, but gravity was doing the rest. The Earth had her like quicksand and she was going down. She tried to scream, but no sound came out, it was completely muffled by the earth filling it. The Earth had swallowed her, and the feeling of it in her chest—in that place where her lungs should have been —was more awful than anything she could remember, and it dawned on her that this could very well be her eternity. She was on her way to the center of the Earth.

  How deep was she beneath the surface of the road now? Six inches? Six feet? She forced her arms to move, using every ounce of strength she had. It was like swimming in molasses. She forced one hand up high, and tried to haul herself upward, but it did no good. Then, just before all hope left her, someone reached down out of nowhere, grabbed her hand, and pulled. She felt herself sliding upward inch by inch. She forced her other hand up through the asphalt until her fingertips brushed the cool air, and someone grasped on to that hand as well.

  She moved up, and could feel the top of her head and her eyes and ears clearing, and finally her mouth, and she released the scream that had been held back by the dirt and the rocks, like a gag in her mouth.

  Had Johnnie-O and his gang changed their minds? Or was this the monster that she had summoned out of
the woods, pulling her out of the Earth, only to devour her?

  But with her eyes clear, she could now see into the face of her savior.

  “Lief?”

  “Are you okay?” Lief said. “I thought you were lost for sure. ”

  Nick was there too, and together the both of them pulled until Allie came out and landed on the solid ground of the dead-spot. She collapsed in a heap, breathing heavily, and Lief looked at her strangely.

  “I know, I know,” said Allie. “I don’t have to be out of breath, but I want to be. It feels right to be. ”

  “It’s okay,” said Lief. “Maybe someday you can teach me to feel that way again. ”

  “Where’s Johnnie-O and his cast of morons?” Allie asked.

  “Gone,” Nick told her. “They were so freaked when Lief came charging out at them, they took off. ”

  Lief laughed. “They really thought I was the McGill. Ain’t that a hoot and a half?”

  Lief began to pull ghost weeds from beneath the WELCOME TO ROCKLAND COUNTY!

  sign, and used their stalks to repair his road-shoes, which must have broken when he charged Johnnie-O. “Have you been following us all this time?” Allie asked.

  Lief shrugged. “Well, yeah. I had to make sure you didn’t get eaten by no monsters, didn’t I?”

  “Great,” said Nick. “We’ve got our own guardian angel. ”

  “If I were an angel, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

  Allie smiled. After all these years Lief had left his forest for them. It could not have been a choice he made lightly, and so she vowed to herself that from this moment on, she would look out for him in any way she could.

  They didn’t wait until dawn, figuring Johnnie-O and his gang might come back.

  Rather than being troubled by the encounter, Allie found herself heartened by it. Nick was his usual gloom and doom, talking about Lord of the Flies and the dangers of rogue bands of parentless kids—but even in his worry, there was a new energy—because running into Johnnie-O proved that there were lots of Afterlights around. Not all of them would be as unpleasant as Johnnie-O’s gang.

  They came to the Hudson River, and stayed on the highway that ran along the Palisades: sheer cliffs, carved by the relentless glaciers of the last Ice Age, which lined the western shore of the river. Traffic became denser, but they bore it no mind, not caring if the occasional car passed through them. In fact, for a while they tried to make a game of it, trying to figure out what song was playing on the radio during the brief instant each car sped through.

  “The things we dead folk do to amuse ourselves,” Allie said, heaving a heavy sigh. The game didn’t last long, mainly because Lief, who had never heard a car radio, much less rock ‘n’ roll, felt increasingly left out.

  By sunset of the next day, the cheese-grater grid-work of the George Washington Bridge appeared downriver, heralding their arrival in New York City.

  Lief was overwhelmed by the sight of the great city looming before him. It was a clear day, and the whole skyline could be seen from across the river. Lief had been to New York before. Twice. Once for the Fourth of July, and once for Mr. P.

 
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