Everlost, p.9
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       Everlost, p.9

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 9


  As they walked around the floor to the north side, they passed a food court with a pizza place and a hot dog stand. The counters were closed. It looked like they hadn’t served any food in a long time—but at each table sat kids, eating what appeared to be very, very small pieces of cake.

  “That can’t be,” said Lief. “They’re eating. How can they be eating?”

  Meadow smiled. “Mary traded something for a birthday cake. She shared it with all of the younger children. ”

  “But, we don’t eat,” said Lief, confused.

  “Just because we don’t, doesn’t mean we can’t when there’s ghost food around. ”

  “Ghost food?” said Lief. “There’s ghost food?”

  Nick looked at him and shook his head. “You’ve been around a hundred years, and you didn’t know there was ghost food?”

  Lief looked like a kid who had missed the bus to Disneyland. “No one ever told me. ”

  Seeing the smaller children eating the birthday cake reminded Allie how hungry she was. Just like her craving for sleep, she knew her hunger would eventually pass, but there was no telling when. If it had been she who had gotten the birthday cake, she would not have been so generous as to share it with anyone.

  Maybe with Nick and Lief, but certainly not a hoard of little kids.

  “You’ll really dig Mary,” said Meadow. Allie had to admit there was something comforting when Meadow’s lingo matched her clothes.

  A makeshift wall had been built, blocking off the north half of the floor.

  Mary’s personal residence. A scrawny little kid with curly blond hair stood at the door like a pint-size guard.

  “Some Greensouls to see Mary,” Meadow announced.

  “Greensouls!” said the curly-haired boy excitedly. “I’m sure Miss Mary will want to see them right away. ”

  “Okay then. Ciao,” Meadow waved a quick good-bye, and sauntered away.

  “She’s funny, isn’t she?” said the curly-headed boy. “Meadows always good for a laugh. ” He put out his hand to shake. “I’m Stradivarius,” he said, “but everyone just calls me Vari. Come on, I’ll introduce you to Miss Mary. ”

  Miss Mary’s private residence was full of mismatched furniture. Just like the kids here, everything seemed to come from different times and different places.

  It was all furniture that had crossed into Everlost: bright to the eye and hard to the touch. Apparently Alary was good at collecting things that had crossed over.

  When Mary saw them, she came gliding toward them, graceful on her feet. Allie wasn’t one to judge a person by her wardrobe —after all, the snobs from her school judged her often enough—but you couldn’t help but notice Mary’s dress:

  rich emerald velvet, with white lace cuffs and a lace collar so tight it seemed about ready to strangle her.

  “It looks like you must have died on the way to a wedding,” Allie said. Nick didn’t settle for rolling his eyes this time. Instead he elbowed Allie in the ribs. “No,” Nick said. “That was me. ”

  Alary never broke eye contact with Allie. “It’s impolite to comment on how someone crosses. ”

  Allie felt heat rise to her cheeks, surprised to know that she could still blush from embarrassment, but Alary took her hand warmly. “Don’t feel bad,” she said.

  “I was just pointing it out. You couldn’t possibly be expected to know—you’re new to all of this. ” She turned to Lief and Nick. “There are many things you’ll be learning about your new lives and until you do, you mustn’t feel bad if you make mistakes. ”

  “I’m not new,” said Lief, unable to meet her eye.

  “You’re new here,” Mary said with a warm smile, “and so you have permission to feet just as new as you want. ”

  Nick couldn’t look away from Alary. He was captivated from the moment he saw her. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful—she was also elegant, and her manner was as velvety smooth as her dress. Everyone introduced themselves, and when Nick took Mary’s hand, she smiled at him. He was convinced that her smile was just for him, and although his rational mind told him otherwise, he refused to believe she smiled at everyone that way.

  “You must be tired from your journey,” Mary said, turning and leading them deeper into her apartment.

  “We can’t get tired,” Allie said.

  “Actually,” said Mary, “that’s a common misconception. We do get tired, exhausted even —but it isn’t sleep that refreshes us. We’re refreshed by the company of others. ”

  Allie crossed her arms. “Oh, please. ”

  “No,” said Vari, “it’s true. We gain strength from each other. ”

  “So what about Lief? ” Allie asked. By now, Lief had gravitated to the window, more interested in the view than anything else. “He’s been alone for a hundred years, and he’s got plenty of energy. ”

  Mary didn’t miss a beat. “Then he must have found a marvelous place, full of love and life. ”

  She was, of course, right. Lief’s forest had been a sustaining place for him.

  Allie didn’t know how to feel about this “Miss Mary. ” Allie hated know-it-alls, but in this case, Mary actually did appear to know it all.

  “We’ve turned the top floors of this tower into living quarters—but most of them are still empty. You’re free to choose where you’d like to stay. ”

  “Who said we were staying?” said Allie.

  Nick nudged her with his elbow, harder this time. “Allie…” he said between his teeth, “it’s impolite to turn down an invitation in this world. Or in any world for that matter. ”

  But if Mary was offended, she didn’t show it. “Consider this a rest stop, if you like,” Mary said cordially. “A way station on to wherever it is you’re going. ”

  “We weren’t going anywhere,” Nick said with a smile. He was trying to sound charming, but instead wound up sounding heavily sedated.

  Allie was fully prepared to smack that starry gaze clear out of Nick’s eyes, but she restrained herself. “We were going home,” she reminded him.

  “Of course that would be your first instinct,” Mary said with supreme patience.

  “You couldn’t be expected to know the consequences. ”

  “Please stop talking to me like I’m ignorant,” said Allie.

  “You are ignorant,” said Van. “All Greensouls are. ”

  It infuriated Allie that it was true. She, Nick, and even Lief were at a disadvantage.

  Vari went over to a cabinet, and pulled out three books. “Here; a crash course in Everlost. ” He handed them each a book. “You have to forget what you know about the living world, and get used to the way things are here. ”

  “What if I don’t want to forget the living world?” Allie asked.

  Mary smiled politely. “I understand how you feel,” she said. “Letting go is hard. ”

  “Tips For Taps,” Nick said, reading from the cover of the book. “‘By Mary Hightower. ’ That’s you?

  Mary smiled. “We all must do something with our afterlife,” she said. “I write. ”

  Allie looked at her own volume, impressed in spite of herself. She leafed through the book. Three hundred pages at least, and each page handwritten, with painstakingly perfect penmanship.

  Well, thought Allie, we came here looking for answers—and now we’re in the company of the Authority of Everlost. What could be better? Yet for some reason Allie didn’t feel all that comforted.

  In her book Death Be Not Dull, Mary Hightower writes, “Afterlight Greensouls are precious. They are fragile. There are so many hazards for them here in Everlost, for they are like babies with no knowledge of the way things are — and like babies they must be nurtured and guided with a loving, but firm hand. Their eternity rests on how well they adjust to life in Everlost. A poorly adjusted Afterlight can warp and distort in horrifying ways. Therefore Greensouls must be treated with patience, kindness, and charity. It’s the only way to properly mo
ld them. ”

  Chapter 8 Dominant Reality Mary Hightower detested being called Mary Queen of Snots, although there was some truth to it. Most of the Afterlights in her care were much younger than her. At fifteen, she was among the oldest residents of Everlost. So when kids closer to her age arrived in her towering domain, she paid extra-special attention to them.

  She sensed, however, that Allie was going to be a problem. To say that Mary didn’t like Allie would be a stretch. Mary, quite simply, liked everyone. It was her job to like everyone, and she took it very seriously. Allie, however, was dangerously willful, and could spell disaster. Mary hoped she was wrong, but had to admit that she seldom was. Even her worst predictions came true—not because she had any glimpse into the future—but because her many years in Everlost had made her a keen judge of character.

  “The Greensouls are taken care of,” Vari announced after he returned. “The boys chose a room together facing south, the girl chose a room alone facing north.

  All on the ninety-third floor. ”

  “Thank you, Vari. ” She gave him a kiss on the top of his curly head, as she often did. “We’ll give them a few hours to settle in, and I’ll pay them a visit. ”

  “Would you like me to play for you?” Vari asked. “Mozart, maybe. ”

  Although Mary didn’t feel like listening to music, she told him yes. It gave him pleasure to bring her happiness, and she didn’t want to deny him that. He had been her right-hand man since before she could remember, and she often forgot that he was only nine years old, forever trapped at that age where he wanted to please. It was wonderful. It was sad. Mary chose to focus on the wonderful. She closed her eyes and listened as Vari raised his violin, and played a concerto she had heard a thousand times, and would probably hear a thousand times more.

  When the sun sank low, she went to visit the three Greensouls. The boys first.

  Their “apartment” was sparsely furnished with flotsam and jetsam furniture that had crossed over. A chair here, a desk there, a mattress, and a sofa that would have to suffice as a second bed.

  Lief sat on the floor trying to make sense of a Game Boy. It was an old device by living-world standards, but certainly new to him. He didn’t even look up when Mary entered. Nick, on the other hand, stood, took her hand, and kissed it. She laughed in spite of herself, and he blushed bright red. “I saw that in a movie once. You seemed so … royal, or something, it just seemed like the thing to do.

  Sorry. ”

  “No, that’s fine. I just wasn’t expecting it. It was very…gallant. ”

  “Hey, at least I didn’t leave behind chocolate on your hand,” he said. She took a long look at him. He had a good face. Soulful brown eyes. There was that hint of Asian about him that made him seem…exotic. The more Mary looked, the deeper his blush. As Mary recalled, a blush was caused by blood rushing to the capillaries of one’s face. They no longer had blood or capillaries — but Greensouls were still close enough to the living world to mimic such physiological reactions. He may have been embarrassed, but for Mary, that crimson tinge in his face was a treat.

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