Authors: Neal Shusterman
Besides, she had another compelling reason to skinjack.
The Everlost wind. It was uncanny, and maddeningâa gale force that only Afterlights could feel blasting off the Mississippi River. Five miles east of Memphis, where she and Milos had parted company, the wind was just a breeze, but the closer one came to the river, the more powerful the wind grewâand since Memphis rested right on the river's east bank, there was no way to escape it.
Allie skinjacked a tourist walking toward the river to see what this was all about. From within a fleshie, there seemed to be nothing unusual at all. The river appeared normal â¦ but then she made the mistake of peeling out of the tourist right by the riverbank. The wind caught her like a hurricane, whistling in her ears, scrambling her thoughts. She struggled against it, but in the end it lifted her off her feet, and tumbled her head over heels through building after building, until she was far enough away to find her balance again. In this cityâand presumably anyplace on the east bank of the Mississippiâthe only way to resist the wind was to skinjack.
Therefore negotiating Memphis required her to skinjack on a regular basis. It was a challenge, because Allie had never stayed fleshbound for long periods of time. The longest had been the recent drive with Milos, Moose, and Squirrel as they drove to Memphis in the bodies of a family. That had taken just a few hours, and Allie found that peeling out had been like trying to take off a wetsuit that was two sizes two small.
The task of finding and approaching her family would require a very specific kind of host, but who to choose? There were so many variables, Allie had to create herself a
checklist of all the things that her host should, and should not be.
1) It had to be someone her parents would invite inside.
If she skinjacked a deliveryman, as she had done when she approached her old house in New Jersey, it wouldn't be good enough. With a deliveryman as her host, any encounter would be brief, and only over the threshold of the front door. What she needed was not just a way to get the door open, but a way to get through it.
2) It had to be someone they would feel comfortable talking with about the accident.
When she finally got inside their new home, she didn't want to talk about the weather and current events, she wanted to know how it all played out, and somehow give her parents, her sister, and maybe herself, some comfort and closure.
3) It had to be someone who would not be missed for multiple skinjackings.
If Allie was to use someone's body as a base of operations, it would be a nuisance if that person had a demanding job or a whole lot of personal responsibilities.
4) It had to be someone who would not notice the lost time themselves.
A suspicious fleshie was the worst kind of host. Best to choose someone who wouldn't be aware that something unusual was going onâor at least could come up with a logical explanation for the missing time.
With all these things to consider, Allie was undecided for days, shuttling from person to person, hiding within them, observing them, thinking she had the perfect host, but
then changing her mind. Allie finally settled on a woman who lived alone, except for a multitude of cats that came and went through a pet door. By Allie's observations, the woman's life was simple, and predictable. Tending to the cats, watching TV, crocheting, taking an afternoon nap. No one bothered her, and she bothered no one else. She was the perfect host for a long-term project.
When the woman lay down for her nap at two o'clock the following afternoon, Allie skinjacked her, and her detective work began. The first few phone calls determined that none of the Adams and Andreas listed were her parents, so she went on to the countless A. Johnsons. The idea that one of her parents' live voices could be at the other end of any phone call made her borrowed heart race, but mostly she got answering machines, which was a relief each time. That first day all she did was make calls, but not a single A. Johnson had been her mother or her father, and what few Memphis relatives she knew by name must have been unlisted too.
After three hours of unsuccessful phone calls, Allie began to doubt everything. What if the people in New Jersey were wrong, and her parents didn't come to Memphis? What if her father died in the accident after all? Allie began to despair, and her own emotional turmoil began to wake the woman.
Losing control of a fleshie was like slipping on wet iceâonce you lost control, it was hard to get it back, and Allie was slip-sliding like crazy. The woman awoke, took over her own body, and Allie quickly hid behind the woman's thoughtsâwhich, without proper preparation, was like
hiding behind window curtains. Now there was only a slim veil between her consciousness and Allie'sâany powerful thought would reveal her presence, so she tried not to think at all.
âMy my myâhalf past five long napâmy my myâhow did I get into the kitchenâmy my myâI didn't leave that phone book out did Iâmy my myâ
Allie knew peeling out of the woman wouldn't be easy, having been in her for more than three hours, but she didn't want to linger inside her either. She peeled out while the woman was distracted, tending to the catsâbut after three whole hours, this wasn't like peeling off a wet suit, it was more like ripping off a Band-Aid. It was sharp and shocking. The woman gasped and fell back into a chair, her hand on her chest. Then, when the woman caught her breath, she went around the house checking that all the locks were secure, as if she sensed an intruder. So much for not raising suspicion.
Now Allie was back in the windânot strong enough to knock her off her feet, but disorienting nonetheless. She skinjacked someone driving through the neighborhood, then when she got to a more crowded street, she soul-surfed from car to car, until she was far enough away from the river that the wind was bearable. She spent the night knees-to-chest on a roadside deadspot the size of a basketball, considering what her next move should be.
It was somewhere around midnight that it struck Allie how amazingly stupid she had been! Her investigative technique was stuck in “Nancy Drew” mode, which might have
been fine when the cat woman was her age, but not in this day and age. Allie should have been much more forward-thinking. This, after all, was the age of information. Why would anyone need a phone book when you had e-mail addresses?
Allie returned the following day to discover that the cat woman was cutting-edge. In her spare room, she had a laptop that picked up a neighbor's wireless network. Of course her Internet favorites list contained things like the Crocheting Club of America, but it was good to know that even the hopelessly old-fashioned and questionably batty could still be Web-savvy.
Now Allie had a plan. She waited until the woman took her afternoon nap, jacked her the instant the woman's head hit the pillow, and went straight for the laptop.
First Allie created a new e-mail address: [email protected] The question was, why would the cat woman have a reason to e-mail Allie's parents? Allie had the perfect solution. The cat woman bore a slight resemblance to Mrs. Wintuck, one of Allie's old teachers. Of course the hair was the wrong color and a little too straight, but that could be dealt with. Allie felt confident that this woman could pass for Mrs. Wintuckâat least when it came to her parents. So she composed an e-mail using both of her parents' e-mail addresses as recipients, marking it “urgent.”
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson: I'm not sure if you'll remember meâmy name is Sarah Wintuck, I was your daughter Allie's fourth-grade teacher. Having left New Jersey myself several
years ago, I never heard about what happened to her until recently. I'm so terribly sorry. My heart goes out to you. I will be visiting Memphis all this week, and would love the opportunity to meet with you.
Allie thought for a moment, then added:
I have some fond memories of your daughter that I know she would have wanted me to share with you.
Now there was nothing to do but wait.
Within five minutes the mailer-daemon sent back her father's e-mail as “undeliverable” and “nonexistent.”
Allie's heart sank in the old woman's chest as she stared numbly at the screen. It was her mother who had relatives in Memphis. Could it be that her father died in the crash? She tried to dismiss the notion and see the glass as half-full. Her mother's e-mail was not bounced back. That was a positive sign.
She waited for a response from her mother, filling her time by tending to all those mewling cats who kept jumping up on the table, competing for her attention. By six o'clock no response had come, and Allie knew she couldn't stay much longer. She lay down on the bed, peeled out of the woman, and the shock of it jarred the woman awake. The cat woman bolted up in bed, then once more chastised herself for sleeping the day away, and checked all the locks again.
* * *
The next day when the cat woman lay down for her nap, she set her alarm clock for one hour. It did no good, because the moment Allie skinjacked her, she turned the alarm off.
There was a single e-mail waiting for [email protected]
Allie felt the woman's body become lightheaded in nervous anticipation. She took slow, deep breaths, waited until the wave of dizziness passed, then Allie opened the e-mail.
Mrs. Wintuck: Thank you for your note. It would be wonderful to catch up with you. Anytime after five, any day this week would be fine. Perhaps you could come over for dinner. The address is 42 Springdale Streetâlet me know if you need directions, and when you'd like to stop by.
Allie pushed away from the computer so quickly, she nearly fell over backward in the chair. A cat jumped up on the laptop, opening several random windows. It must have hit the reply button as well, because the top window was an empty reply, just waiting for Allie to fill in the words.
Allie told her mother she would be there at six thirty tonight.
Then she went out to buy hair color and a curling iron.
The house did not look like a home her family should live inâbut then, no home that didn't include Allie would seem right. As she approached the front door, she double-checked her dowdy clothes, and her newly styled hairânow auburn instead of the salt-and-pepper it had been. If she didn't know better, she really would think she was her fourth-grade teacher.
She stood at the front door for what felt like forever, reaching for the doorbell, then pulling her finger back, reaching, then pulling back, until finally she pulled back a little too late, and succeeded in ringing the bell anyway.
Footsteps from inside. The door opening. A familiar face. A little careworn, a little tired, but Allie still knew that face. After three years Allie was standing in front of her mother.
“Mrs. Wintuck, I'm glad you could make it.”
Allie had to keep from hurling herself into her mother's arms. She had to remember she had a role to play. She was Allie pretending to be a cat woman pretending to be a teacher from New Jersey.
“Please, call me Sarah,” Allie said, and stepped into the house. The foyer opened right into the living room. All their old furniture was there, with a few new additions.
“Make yourself comfortable,” her mother said. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Some water would be nice.”
Her mother went off to get some water, and Allie went to work looking around the room, searching for any sign that her father was still part of this picture, but there was so much to take in, she didn't even know what she should be looking for. He was in photographs, but then so was she. A high school graduation picture sat on the mantel. It hadn't even occurred to Allie that her sister, April, would now be away at college. While time had stopped for Allie, everyone else's lives had moved on.
“I've ordered Chinese food,” her mother said, coming back from the kitchen with some bottled water. “I hope you don't mind; I didn't get home from work in time to cook.”
“That's perfectly all right, I'm just glad to be here.”
“We're glad to have you.”
Her mother said
! “So â¦ your husband â¦”
“He's picking up the food on the way home. He should be here soon.”
Allie practically collapsed into the sofa, full of sweet relief. So he had survived! If nothing else came from this meeting, at least she would have that! But thenâwhat if it was a
husband? What if her mother had remarried? A sister in college, a new houseâa lot can happen in three years. She had to know.
“Was he â¦ badly injured in the accident? I hope not.”
Allie clenched her toes, preparing for the worst of all possible news. Then her mother said.
“It was a difficult rehabilitation, but he pulled through.”
Allie released her breath, not even realizing she had been holding it. She felt her face flush with relief. Her mother took it for thirst, and sat across from her, pouring the bottled water into a glass for her. As Allie reached for the glass, she saw that her handâthe cat woman's handâwas trembling, so Allie took the glass with her other hand instead.
“I must say, I was surprised to get your e-mail,” her mother said.
“As soon as I heard you were here in Memphis, I knew I had to contact you. You know, Allie was one of my favorite students.”
Her mother smiled slimly. “Really.”
Allie searched her memory for a poignant moment to share. “I remember for Mother's Day, we had a poem that each student was supposed to paste into a card they were makingâbut Allie insisted on writing her own poemâand when it was done, half the class wanted to use her poem instead of the original one!”
Her mother looked at her incredulously. “I still have that card. And you're telling me you remember that?”