Everlost, p.11
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       Everlost, p.11

         Part #1 of Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman
Page 11


  If Nick felt that anything was wrong, it was lost beneath everything that was right about Mary. The way she always thought of others before herself, the way she made the little kids all feel loved. The way she took an interest in him.

  Mary always made a point of coming over to Nick and asking what he was up to, how he was feeling, what new things he “was thinking about. She spoke with him about a book she was working on, all about theories on why there were no seventeen-year-olds in Everlost, when everyone knew eighteen was the official age of adulthood.

  “That’s not actually true,” Nick offered. “That’s voting age, but drinking age is twenty-one. In the Jewish religion, adulthood is thirteen, and I know for a fact there are fourteen-year-old Jewish kids here. ”

  “That still doesn’t explain why kids older than us aren’t admitted into Everlost. ”

  Admitted to Everlost, thought Nick. That sounded a lot better than Lost on the way to heaven. Her way of thinking was such a welcome relief from his own propensity toward gloom and doom. “Maybe,” suggested Nick, “it’s a very personal thing. Maybe it’s the moment you stop thinking of yourself as a kid. ”

  Vari, who was lingering at the door, snickered. He had snickered at every single comment Nick made.

  “Vari, please,” Mary told him. “We value a free flow of ideas here. ”

  “Even the stupid ones?” Vari said.

  Nick couldn’t really see why she kept Vari around. Sure, he had musical talent, but it didn’t make up for his attitude.

  Mary took Nick to show him how her books were made. The sixty-seventh floor was the publishing room. There were thirty kids there, all sitting at school desks.

  It looked like a classroom with kids practicing their penmanship.

  “We’ve yet to find a printing press that’s crossed over,” she told him. “But that’s all right. They enjoy copying by hand. ”

  And sure enough, the kids in the publishing room seemed thrilled to do their work, like ancient scribes copying scriptures on parchment.

  “They find comfort in the routine,” Mary said, and Nick accepted it, without giving it much thought.

  Allie, on the other hand, had begun to understand the nature of the “routines”

  these children found comfort in. She grabbed Nick one day, during one of the times when he wasn’t following Mary around.

  “I want you to watch this kid,” she told Nick. “Follow him with me. ”

  “What for?”

  “You’ll see. ”

  Nick was reluctant, but it wasn’t like he had anything pressing to do, so he played along at whatever game Allie had up her sleeve. For Allie, it wasn’t a game, though. It was very serious business.

  The boy, who was about seven, was on the plaza playing kickball with a dozen other kids.

  “So what are we looking for?” Nick asked, growing impatient.

  “Watch,” said Allie. “His team is going to lose. Nine to seven. ”

  Sure enough, the game ended when the score reached nine to seven.

  “What are you telling me? You can tell the future. ”

  “Sort of,” Allie said. “I can when there is no future. ”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Just follow him. ”

  Nick was intrigued now. Keeping their distance, they followed the boy into the lobby of Tower Two, where several other kids had gathered with a deck of cards to play go-fish.

  Allie and Nick hid behind a pillar, but it didn’t seem to matter—these kids didn’t notice, or care that they were being watched.

  “He’s going to ask for threes,” Allie said.

  “Got any threes?” the kid asked the girl next to him.

  “Go fish,” Allie whispered to Nick. “Got any sevens?”

  “Go fish,” said the girl. “Got any sevens?”

  Now Nick was a little bit freaked. “How do you know thus?”

  “Because it’s the same. Every day. The same score in kickball, the same game of cards. ”

  “No way!”

  “Watch,” said Allie. “In a second the kid we followed here is going to throw down his cards and accuse the little girl of cheating. Then he’s going to run out the third revolving door from the left. ”

  It happened just as Allie said.

  It was the first time since arriving in Mary’s world that Nick felt uneasy.

  “It’s like … it’s like …”

  Allie finished the thought for him. “It’s like they’re ghosts. ” Which, of course, they were. “You know how there are those ghost sightings — people say they see a ghost doing the same thing, in the same place, every day?”

  Nick wasn’t willing to let it sit at that. He ran toward the boy before he reached the revolving door. “Hey!” Nick said to him. “Why did you leave the card game?”

  “They were cheating!” he said.

  “I dare you to go back. ”

  The boy looked at him with mild fear in his eyes. “No. I don’t want to. ”

  “But didn’t you play the same game yesterday?” Nick said. “Didn’t they cheat in the same way yesterday?”

  “Yeah,” said the boy, like it was nothing. “So?”

  The boy pushed through the revolving door and hurried off.

  Allie came up beside Nick. “I joined their card game a few days ago. It threw them off, but the next day, they were back to the same old routine. ”

  “But it doesn’t make sense…”

  “Yes it does,” said Allie. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. You know when you’re listening to music, and the CD starts to skip? Well it’s like our lives are CDs that started to skip on the very last note. We never got to the end, we’re just sort of stuck. And if we’re not careful, we start to fall into ruts, doing the same things over and over and over. ”

  “…Because there’s comfort in the routine, …” said Nick, echoing Mary’s words.

  “Is that what’s going to happen to us?”

  “Not if I can help it. ”

  “We are not like the living,” Mary writes in her book The First Hundred Years.

  “We are beyond life. We are better than life. We don’t need to complicate our existence with a thousand meaningless activities, when one will do fine. Just as the world’s great artists learn the value of simplicity, so do we Afterlights learn to simplify. As time goes on, we fall into our perfect routine; our Niche in space and time, as consistent as the rising and falling of the sun.

  This is normal and natural. Routine gives us comfort. It gives us purpose. It connects us to the rhythm of all things. One must feel a certain pity for Afterlights who never do find their niche. ”

  Chapter 9

  Endless Loop Nick spent the next few days following other Afterlights in Mary’s domain, and it confirmed what Allie had shown him. For these kids, each day had become a repetition of the same day—and although he wanted to ask Mary about it, he didn’t, because he knew she would find some way of giving it a wonderful, positive spin. He wanted to sit with it for a while and think about it himself without Mary’s input.

  That didn’t stop him from spending as much time as he could with her, though.

  Mary was not routine. Each day was different for her—the kids she spent time with, the things she did. It eased Nick’s mind to know that endless repetition was not an irresistible force. A person had choice in the matter, if they were strong enough.

  It was a constant irritation to Nick that he and Mary could never have time alone. Wherever Mary ‘was, Vari was there, too, like her own personal valet. Or like a lap dog. Clinging to Mary kept the boy’s life from becoming repetitive, like the others—although Nick wished Vari would just lock himself in a room, and play endless Beethoven to the walls for a few hundred years.

  “Do you always have to hang around her?” Nick asked him. “Don’t you ever want to do anything else?”

  Vari shrugged. “I like what I do.
Then he studied Nick with a certain coldness in his eyes. “You’ve been spending lots of time with Mary,” he said. “Maybe it’s time for you to do something else. ”

  Nick couldn’t quite read Vari’s emotions, only that they were unpleasant ones.

  “It’s a free spirit world — I can do what I want,” Nick said.

  “She’ll grow tired of you,” said Vari. “She likes you because you’re new, but you won’t be new forever. Soon you’ll be just another Afterlight, and she won’t even remember your name. But I’ll still be here. ”

  Nick huffed at the suggestion. “She won’t forget my name. ”

  “Yes she will. Even you will. ”

  “What are you talking about? “

  “Your clothes, and your chocolate-face might cross over with you, but your name doesn’t. Not really. It fades just like any other memory. Soon everyone’ll just call you Chocolate. Or Hershey. ” Vari grinned, but it wasn’t a pleasant grin.

  “Yeah, that’s it. You’ll be Hershey. ”

  “No I won’t. And I won’t forget my name. ”

  “Really,” said Vari. “Then what is your name?”

  He was about to answer, when suddenly he drew a blank. It only lasted for a second, but a second was way too long to not remember your own name. It was a profoundly frightening moment. “Uh…Uh…Nick. My name is Nick. ”

  “Okay,” said Vari. And then he asked: “What’s your last name?”

  Nick opened his mouth, but then closed it again and said nothing. Because he couldn’t remember.

  When Mary arrived, she noticed the distressed look on Nick’s face immediately.

  “Vari, have you been teasing our new friend?”

  “We were just talking. If he thinks that’s teasing, that’s his problem. ”

  Mary just shook her head, and gave Vari a kiss on his curly blond hair. Vari threw Nick a gloating grin when she did.

  “Will you escort me to the lobby? There’s a Finder waiting for me, and I suspect he has some interesting things to sell. ”

  Vari stepped forward.

  “No, not you, Vari. You’ve seen Finders before, but I thought Nick might like to learn how to barter with them. ”

  Now it was Nick’s turn to gloat.

  Once the elevator door closed, and Vari was out of sight, Nick put him out of mind, dismissing what he had said—not just about his name, but his certainty that Mary would tire of Nick. Vari, after all, was only nine years old. He was a little kid, feeling little-kid jealousy. Nothing more.

  What Nick didn’t realize was that Vari had been nine for 146 years. Little-kid emotions do not sit well after a century and a half. If Nick had realized that, things might have gone differently.

  Lief stood in the arcade, staring at the video-game screen, and didn’t dare blink. Move the stick right. Up. Left. Eat the big white ball. The little hairy things turn blue. Eat the hairy things until they start to blink. Then run away from them.

  Lief had become a Pac-Man junkie.

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