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Home > Everwild (Skinjacker #2)

Everwild (Skinjacker #2)
Author: Neal Shusterman

Chapter 1 Fresh Havoc

There were rumors.

Of terrible things, of wonderful things, of events too immense to keep to oneself, and so they were quietly shared from soul to soul, one Afterlight to another, until every Afterlight in Everlost had heard them.

There was the rumor of a beautiful sky witch, who soared across the heavens in a great silver balloon. And there were whispers of a terrible ogre made entirely of chocolate, who lured unsuspecting souls with that rich promising smell, only to cast them down a bottomless pit from which there was no return.

In a world where memories bleach clean from the fabric of time, rumors become more important than that which is actually known. They are the life's blood of the bloodless world that lies between life and death.

On a day much like any other in Everlost, one boy was about to find out if those rumors were true.

His name is unimportant--so unimportant that he himself had forgotten it--and less important still, because in a brief time he will be gone forever. He had died about two years earlier, and, having lost his way to the light, he slept for nine months, then had woken up in Everlost. The boy was a wanderer, solitary and silent, hiding from others who crossed his path, for fear of what they might do to him. Without camaraderie and friendship to remind him who he was, he forgot his identity more quickly than most.

On the occasions that he did come across packs of other Afterlight kids, he would listen to them from his hiding spot as they shared with each other the rumors of monsters, so he knew as well as any other Afterlight what lay in store for the unwary.

When the boy had first crossed into Everlost, his wanderings had a purpose. He had begun in search of answers, but now he had even forgotten the questions. All that remained was an urge to keep moving, resting only when he came across a deadspot--a solid, bright patch of earth that had, like him, crossed into Everlost. He had learned very quickly that deadspots were unlike the faded, unfocused world of the living, where every footfall pulled you ankle-deep, and threatened to take you all the way down to the center of the earth if you stood still for too long.

On this day, his wanderings had brought him to a field full of deadspots--he had never seen so many in one place ... but what really caught his attention was the bucket of popcorn. It just sat there on a deadspot, beside a huge Everlost tree, like it had no better place to be.

Somehow, the popcorn had crossed over!

The dead boy had not had the luxury of food since arriving in Everlost--and just because he didn't need to eat anymore, it didn't mean the cravings ended--so how could he resist that popcorn? It was the largest size, too--the kind you order with big eyes in the movie theater, but can never finish. Even now the corn inside glistened with butter. It seemed too good to be true!

Turns out, it was.

As he stepped onto the deadspot and reached for the tub, he felt a trip wire against his ankle, and in an instant a net pulled up around him, lifting him off the ground. Only after he was fully snared within the net did he realize his mistake.

He had heard of the monster that called itself the McGill, and his soul traps--but he had also heard that the McGill had traveled far away, and was now wreaking fresh havoc across the Atlantic Ocean. So then, who had set this trap? And why?

He struggled to free himself, but it was no use--his only consolation was that the bucket of popcorn was trapped in the net with him, and although half of its contents had spilled onto the ground, half still remained. He savored every single kernel, and when he was done, he waited, and he waited. Day became night, became day over and over, until he lost track of time, and he began to fear that his eternity would be spent strung up in this net... . Until he finally heard a faint droning sound--some sort of engine approaching from the north. The sound was echoed from the south--but then, as both sounds grew louder, he realized it wasn't an echo at all. The sounds were different. He was being approached on two sides. Were these other Afterlights coming for him, or were they monsters? Would he be freed, or would he become the victim of fresh havoc himself? The faint memory of a heart pounded in his ghostly chest, and as the whine of engines grew louder, he waited to see who would reach him first.

Chapter 2 The View on High

Miss Mary, one of our lookouts spotted a trap that's sprung."

"Excellent news! Tell Speedo to bring us down close, but not too close--we don't want to frighten our new friend."

Mary Hightower was in her element this far from the ground. Not so high as the living flew, where even the clouds were so far below, they seemed painted on the earth, but here, in that gap between earth and the heavens, is where she felt at home. She was queen of the Hindenburg, and she liked that just fine. The massive silver airship--the largest zeppelin ever built--had gone up in a ball of flames way back in 1937, leaving the living world and crossing into Everlost. Mary, who believed all things happened for a reason, knew why it had exploded: It had crossed into Everlost for her.

The Starboard Promenade, which ran the full length of the passenger compartment, was her plush personal retreat, and her center of operations. Its downward-slanted windows gave her a dramatic view of the ground below: the washed-out hues of the living world, speckled with features both man-made and natural that stood out more boldly than the rest. Those were the places that had crossed into Everlost. Trees and fields, buildings and roads. While Afterlights could still see the living world, it was blurred and faded. Only things and places that had crossed into Everlost appeared bright and in sharp focus. Mary estimated that one in a hundred things that died or were destroyed crossed into Everlost. The universe was very selective in what it chose to keep.

Only now, as she spent her days riding the skies, did she realize she had stayed put for way too long. She had missed so much up in her towers--but then the towers were a citadel against her brother, Mikey--the monster who called himself the McGill. Mikey had been defeated. He was harmless now. And now Mary no longer had to wait for Afterlights to find her. She could go out and find them herself.

"Why are you always looking out of those windows?" Speedo would ask her, when he took a break from piloting the airship. "What do you see?"

"A world of ghosts," she would tell him. Speedo had no idea that the ghosts she spoke of were the so-called living. How insubstantial that world was. Nothing in it lasted, not places, not people. It was a world full of pointless pursuits that always ended the same way. A tunnel, and surrender. Well, not always, she thought happily. Not for everyone.

"I'd still rather be alive," Speedo would say whenever she spoke of how blessed they were to be here in Everlost.

"If I had lived," Mary would remind him, "I'd be long dead by now ... and you'd probably be a fat, bald accountant." Then Speedo would look at his slight physique, dripping wet--always dripping wet in the bathing suit he died in--to reassure himself that he'd never have grown fat and bald, had he lived. But Mary knew better. Adulthood can do the most horrific things to the best of people. Mary much preferred being fifteen forever.

Mary took a moment to gather herself and prepare to greet the new arrival. She would do it personally. It was her way, and it was the least she could do. She would be the first out of the ship--a slender figure in a plush green velvet dress, and with a perfect fall of copper hair, descending the ramp from the impossibly huge hydrogen airship. This is how it was done. With class, with style. The personal touch. All new arrivals would know from the first moment they met her that she loved each and every child in her care and they were safe under her capable protection.

As she left the Starboard Promenade, she passed other children in the common areas of the ship. She had collected forty-seven of them. In her days at the towers, there had been many, many more--but Nick had taken them from her. He had betrayed her, handing each of her children the key to their own undoing. He had placed a coin in each of their hands. The coins! Those horrid little reminders that a true death did await all of them if they were foolish enough to seek it--and just because there was a light at the end of the tunnel, it didn't mean it was something to be desired. Not the way Mary saw it. Heaven might shine bright, but so do flames.

As the ship descended, Mary went to the control car-- the ship's bridge which hung from the belly of the giant craft. From there she would have the best view as they descended.

"We should touch down in a few minutes," Speedo told her, as he intently piloted the sleek silver beast. He was one of the few Afterlights to refuse to take a coin on the day Nick betrayed her. That had earned him a special place. A position of trust and responsibility.

"Look at that field." Speedo pointed it out. "Do you see all those deadspots?"

From the air it looked like a hundred random polka dots on the ground.

"There must have been a battle here once," Mary suggested. "Perhaps the Revolutionary War."

There was one Everlost tree, standing on its own deadspot. "The trap is in that tree," Speedo told her as they neared the ground.

It was a grand tree, its leaves full of rich reds and yellows, set apart from the greener summertime trees of the living world. For this tree it would always be the early days of fall, but the leaves would never drop from its branches. Mary wondered what had caused it to cross over. Perhaps lovers had carved their initials in it, and then it was struck by lightning. Perhaps it was planted in someone's memory, but was then cut down. Or maybe it simply soaked up the blood of a fallen soldier, and died years later in a drought. For whatever reason, the tree didn't die entirely. Instead it crossed into Everlost, like so many things that the universe saw fit to preserve.

The foliage of the tree was so dense, they couldn't see the trap, even after they had touched down. "I'll go first," Mary said. "But I'd like you to come too. I'll need you to free our new friend from the net."

"Of course, Miss Mary." Speedo smiled a smile that was slightly too large for his face.

The ramp was lowered, and Mary stepped from the airship to the earth, keeping the grace of her stride even as her feet sank almost to her ankles in the living world with each step.

But as she got closer to the tree, she saw that something was terribly, terribly wrong. The net had been taken down, and there was no Afterlight inside. All that remained was the empty popcorn tub on the ground--the bait she had left, just as her brother used to--but while the McGill offered his captives slavery, Mary offered them freedom. Or at least her definition of it. But there was no Afterlight in the net to receive her gift today.

"Musta gotten out," Speedo said as he came up behind her.

Mary shook her head. "No one gets out of these nets."

And then a scent came to her from the tree. It was a sweet, heady aroma that filled her with a rich blend of love, swirled with loathing.

The aroma was coming from a brown handprint on the trunk of the tree. A handprint left there to mock her.

"Is that dried blood?" Speedo asked.

"No," she told him, maintaining her poise in spite of the fury that raged within her. "It's chocolate." In her book Caution, This Means You, Mary Hightower says the following about the "evils" of the chocolate one: "Wise Afterlights would do well to heed the many warnings relating to the creature known as the Chocolate Ogre. He is a force of chaos and distress in this world. Indeed, Everlost itself shakes in fury at his terrible misdeeds. If there is justice in this world--and I believe there most certainly is--he will be held accountable when he meets his maker. Should the ogre be seen anywhere near your vicinity, it is best to seek shelter, and immediately report his presence to an authority."

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