Everlost, p.8
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       Everlost, p.8

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 8


  T. Barnum s circus. There were tall buildings to be sure, but none like these.

  Nick and Allie stared as well. Lief assumed they were also in awe of the spectacular view. In truth, they were awed, but for an entirely different reason.

  “I think I know where we should go,” Nick said, a strange hollowness to his voice. Allie didn’t answer him for a while.

  “Manhattan is out of our way,” Allie finally said. “We should stay on this side of the river, and keep heading south. ”

  Nick looked to the city again. “I don’t care what you say. I’m taking a detour. ”

  This time Allie didn’t argue.

  Night had fallen by the time they reached the Manhattan side of the bridge. It took the whole night without rest to make it to the heart of the city.

  The towers of midtown Manhattan would have taken Lief s breath away, if he indeed had breath to be stolen. But the most wondrous sights of all were the two silver towers he saw glimmering in the light of dawn as they neared the southern tip of the city. The two towers were identical monoliths, steel and glass twins reflecting a silvery light of daybreak.

  “I never knew buildings like that existed,” Lief said.

  Allie sighed. “They don’t exist,” she said. “At least…not anymore. ”

  Lief could tell the sadness in her voice went straight down to the center of the Earth.

  PART TWO Mary, Queen of Snots Everlost CHAPTER 7

  The Forever Places In the course of time and history there are certain places that can never truly be lost. The living world by its very nature moves on, but some places are forever. The boy now called Lief had the good fortune to stumble upon such a place many years before: a lush mountain forest that had once been the inspiration for poets. The place brimmed with such warmth and good feeling, it inspired countless young men to propose marriage beneath its canopy, and countless young women to accept. The woods caused stiff-collared people to lose their inhibitions and dance among the leaves, wild with joy, even though they knew such dancing could have them condemned as witches.

  The forest was a fulcrum of life, and so when it grew old, and a beetle infestation routed bark and bough, the forest did not die. Instead it crossed.

  Its life persisted — not in the living world, but in Everlost. Here it would be eternally green, and on the verge of turning, just as the poets themselves would have liked to see it, had they not gotten where they were going.

  It can be said, then, that Everlost is heaven. Perhaps not for people, but for the places that deserve a share of forever.

  Such places are few and far between, these grand islands of eternity in the soupy, ever-changing world of the living. New York had its share of forever-places. The greatest of these stood near Manhattan’s southern-most tip:

  the two gray brothers to the green statue in the bay. The towers had found their heaven. They were a part of Everlost now, held fast, and held forever by the memories of a mourning world, and by the dignity of the souls who got where they were going on that dark September day.

  The three kids approached the great twin towers in silence. What they saw as they neared them was not at all what they expected.

  There were children there. Dozens of Afterlight kids playing on the grand marble plaza: hopscotch, tag, hide-and-seek. Some were dressed like Allie, in jeans and a T-shirt. Others were more formal. Still more had clothes that seemed more from Lief’s time, all coarse and heavy. A few kids wore the gaudy bright colors of the seventies, with big hair to match.

  They hadn’t been noticed yet, as they stood just beyond the edge of the plaza.

  Allie and Nick were almost afraid to step onto it, as if doing so would cross them into yet another world. They stood there so long they sank to their ankles, even with their road-shoes on.

  As Lief’s sense of awe did not have history nor context for this place, he had no problem moving forward. “C’mon,” he said, “what are you waiting for?”

  Nick and Allie looked at one another, then took that first step forward, onto the very solid marble of the plaza that no longer existed. After the first step it became easier. It felt strange beneath their feet, so much solid ground. A team of girls playing double-dutch jump rope noticed them first.

  “Hi!” said an African-American girl in drab clothes and tight cornrowed hair.

  “You’re Greensouls, aren’t you?” All the time, she never stopped spinning her two ropes. Neither did the girl on the other end, who seemed entirely out of place there in the plaza, dressed in teddy-bear pajamas. Other girls skillfully jumped in and out of the arc of their spinning ropes. One girl took enough time away from the game, though, to size them up. She wore a sparkling silver halter top, and jeans that were so tight, she looked like a sausage bursting out of its skin. She looked Allie over, clearly unimpressed by Allie’s non-glittering wardrobe. “Is that what they wear now?”

  “Yeah, pretty much. ”

  Then the girl in tight jeans looked at Lief, examining his clothes as well.

  “You’re not a Greensoul. ”

  “Says who?” said Lief, insulted.

  “He’s new to the city,” Allie said. “He might have crossed a long time ago, but he’s still kind of like a ‘Greensoul. ’”

  A big red handball came flying past, chased by a group of younger kids. The ball flew out of the plaza and into the street, crowded with the living. “Hurry,” one little boy yelled, “before it sinks!”

  Another boy raced out into traffic, grabbed the ball that was already beginning to sink into the pavement, and disappeared beneath a city bus and two taxis. He paid them no mind, passing through the trunk of the last taxi as he stood up with the ball, and happily ran back to the plaza.

  “You remember all those things your momma told you not to do?” said the girl with the corn-rows. “Like not running out into traffic? Well, you can do them here. ”

  “Who’s in charge?” asked Nick.

  “Mary,” she said. “You oughta go and see her. She loves Greensouls. ” Then she added, “We were all Greensouls once. ”

  Nick tapped Allie on the shoulder. “Look,” he said.

  By now their presence had been noticed by most of the kids around the plaza.

  Many of the games had stopped, and the kids stared, not sure what to do. Out of the crowd a girl stepped forward. She had long blond hair that nearly touched the floor, wore a tie-dyed shirt, and bell-bottoms so big, the cuffs practically trailed behind her like a bridal train. A ’60s hippie girl, if ever there was one.

  “Don’t tell me,” said Allie, “your name is Summer, and you want to know if we’re groovy. ”

  “My name’s Meadow, and I don’t say groovy anymore, because I got tired of people making fun of me. ”

  “Do you have to insult everybody you meet?” Nick whispered to Allie, then turned back to Meadow. “I’m Nick, and this is Lief. The rude one is Allie. ”

  “I wasn’t being rude,” Allie insisted. “I was being facetious. There’s a difference. ”

  “No sweat,” said Meadow, which was almost as bad as groovy. “C’mon, I’ll take you to Mary. ” Then she looked down. “What are those on your feet?”

  They looked down to the bundles of sticks extending from the soles of their shoes. “Road-shoes,” said Nick. “Kind of like snowshoes, so we don’t sink, you know?”

  “Hmm. Clever,” said Meadow. “But you won’t need them anymore. ”

  They took off their road-shoes, and followed Meadow across the plaza toward Tower One. Behind them, the rest of the kids returned to their games.

  They passed a fountain in the center of the plaza, and Meadow turned to them.

  “Would you like to make a wish?” Meadow asked. A closer look revealed the fountain to be full of coins beneath the shimmering water.

  “Not really,” Allie said.

  “Mary says every Greensoul who comes here has to make a wish. ”

  Nick was alre
ady reaching into his pocket.

  “I don’t have a coin,” Allie said.

  Meadow just smiled. “Sure you do. ”

  And so to prove it Allie reached into her pockets, and turned them out. “See?”

  “What about your back pockets?”

  Allie sighed and checked her back pockets, knowing full well they were empty—she never used her back pockets. So it surprised her when she found the coin. Not even Johnnie-O’s goons had found it. But then, she had given them such a nasty look when they had reached for her rear, they never actually checked her back pockets.

  “Weird,” Allie said, as she looked at the coin.

  “Not really. ” Meadow gave her a hippie love-fest smile. “With all the money living people spend, everyone has at least one coin in their pocket when they cross. ”

  “I once had a coin,” Lief said, dejectedly, “but it got stolen. ”

  “Make a wish anyway,” said Meadow. “Mary says all wishes have a chance of coming true, except one. ”

  Nick threw his coin in, then Allie threw hers. She made the wish every Greensoul made. The wish to be alive again. The one wish that didn’t come true.

  Once their wishes had joined the others in the fountain, Meadow led them toward Tower One. Lief was the ultimate tourist, staring heavenward to where the towers touched the sky. He bumped into other kids again and again, for he refused to look down. “How do they stay up?” Lief asked. “Wouldn’t something so tall fall down?”

  Allie was not a girl quickly given to tears, but she had found herself crying at least once a day since her arrival. Sometimes it was the revelation of just how drastically her existence had changed that would draw tears to her eyes. Other times it was the depth of how much she missed her family. Today the tears were sudden and unexpected.

  “What’s the matter?” Lief asked. But there really was no way to explain to him.

  She wasn’t even sure of the reason. Was she crying with joy that this place had left a permanent impression on the world, and that it was still here in Everlost? Or was being here a reminder of how much was truly lost on that awful day when the towers crossed so violently from the world of the living? So many souls got where they were going that day, when they shouldn’t have been going at all.

  “This is wrong,” Allie said. “Children shouldn’t be playing here. It’s…it’s like dancing on a grave. ”

  “No,” said Meadow, “it’s like putting flowers on a grave. Mary says the more happiness we bring back to this place, the more we honor it. ”

  “So, exactly who is this Mary?” Nick asked.

  Meadow scrunched up her lips, trying to think of how to explain. “Mary’s kind of like, a shaman, you know? A spiritual leader. Anyway, she knows lots of stuff, and so she pretty much runs things around here. ”

  The elevator stopped abruptly and the door slid open, to reveal that they had come all the way up to the observation level. They could tell because of all of the coin-operated binocular machines lined up by the narrow windows that stretched from ceiling to floor. But everything else here had changed. It must have been remodeled into a makeshift orphanage. Just as in the square below, young Afterlights from various time periods lingered, playing games or just sitting, waiting for something to happen to them. Allie still wasn’t sure whether this was like some desecration of hallowed ground, or if having children here was somehow healing.

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