Authors: Neal Shusterman
She didn't know why she should be different from others. Not even Mary wrote about such things in her books of questionable information. But then, Allie had powers that other Afterlights didn't possess. Why she and no one else should have these powers was a mystery to her as well. Allie could skinjack. The living might call it “possession,” but she much preferred the Everlost termâfor she was not a demon taking control of a human being for evil purposes. She merely “borrowed” people, wearing their bodies for a short timeâand only when absolutely necessary.
They made their way down the quaint main street of Cape May. The living went about their blurred, muffled business. Cars passed through Allie and Mikey, but they had grown accustomed to the flow of the living world through and around them so they barely noticed it anymore. Not even their horse did.
“Turn left here,” Allie told Mikey at the next corner, and as they turned onto the street where she once lived, a sense
of dread began to fill that place that ought to be filled with great joy and anticipationâ¦ .
â¦ For what if her father hadn't survived the crash after all?
What if he went down that tunnel into the light in that terrible head-on collision, leaving her mother and sister to mourn for both of them?
“Are you okay?” Mikey knew something was wrong. Perhaps it was the way she sat so stiffly on the horse behind him, or perhaps their spirits had become so in tune, he could sense the things she felt.
She also had another reason for her reluctance, and her mind was drawn to her coin. It had been cold in her hand, which meant she was not ready to leave Everlost. She was not ready to move on. Now, as she thought about it, she realized why. She would never be ready for that final journey until she went home, and saw the truth with her own eyes. Her whole Everlost existence had been leading to thisâand yet she had stalled for as long as she could.
Because going home meant completion.
Once she learned what had become of her parents, there would be nothing holding her to Everlost. Her coin would grow warm, and although she could resist it at first, she knew she wouldn't be able to resist it for long. She would hold it in her hand, she would make the journey.
And she would lose Mikey.
For this reason, her return to Cape May was both something she longed for, and something she dreadedâbut she would not share such private feelings with Mikey.
When they stood on her street, a pang came to her chest. She knew she shouldn't be able to feel pain, but sometimes emotions could coalesce into phantom aches when they were strong enough.
“There it is,” she said. “The third house on the right.”
Home. Even in the faded tones of Everlost, it looked just the same as she remembered. An unassuming Victorian house, white with blue trim. Her parents had moved to Cape May to capture some rustic charm in a modern world, so they bought an old house with plumbing that rattled, and thin wiring that could never quite grasp the concept of computers and high-voltage appliances. Circuit breakers were constantly popping, and Allie had complained endlessly about it when she was alive. Now she longed for the simple act of turning on a hair drier and plunging the house into darkness.
“Wait here,” she told Mikey. “I need to do this alone.”
She hopped down from the horse, already feeling an uncertainty in the ground beneath her. It felt less like tar, and more like Jell-O just before it sets. She had to move fast.
“Good luck,” Mikey said.
She crossed the street toward her home, not looking back at Mikey for fear that she might change her mindâ but rushing headlong to her front door was not wise either. With the threat of sinking so very real, she needed someone who could carry her home safely.
Someone like the UPS man.
The brown truck turned onto the street, and stopped at a neighbor's house. The deliveryman pulled a package from
the back of the truck, and carried it toward the neighbor's front door. Allie followed him, preparing to make her move before he rang the neighbor's bell.
Skinjacking was not a pleasant sensation. It was like diving into water that was too cold, or stepping into a tub that was too hot. Even though Allie had gotten much better at it, the sudden sensation of flesh, and all that went with it, was always a shock. She took a moment to brace herself, then she stepped inside the UPS manâ
âThree more hoursâI should just quitâI can't quit but I wish I couldâthree more hoursâcan't quitâwife would be furiousâbut there's got to be more work out thereâI never should have taken this jobâthree more hours to goâ
The chill of the air, the pumping of a heart, the sudden brightnessâ
âof the living world around her. She was in! The volume of his thoughts was painfulâlike they were being blasted through a megaphone.
âThree more hoursâbut waitâwaitâI don't feel rightâ what's this? Whoâhuhâwhatâ?
Allie quickly clamped her spirit down, taking control of his flesh, and at the same instant she forced his unsuspecting consciousness deep down into the limbic systemâthat primordial part of the human brain where consciousness retreated during the deepest of sleeps. It was easy to put him to sleep; he wasn't all that conscious to begin with.
She turned back to Mikey, but he was invisible now, as she knew he would be. She was seeing through
eyes now, seeing only the things that living eyes could see. As long as she stayed inside the delivery man, Everlost would be hidden from her.
Once the initial shock of the skinjack had faded, she took a moment to enjoy it, luxuriating in the warmth of the sun on this warm June day. Even the heaviness of the package in her arms was a fine thing; yet another memory of the wonderful limitations of being alive.
She lingered at the neighbor's door a moment more, then left, taking the package with her to the front door of her own home. Then she stood at her own front door, frozen, just as she had been frozen at the city sign. This was the moment she had waited for. All she had to do was ring the bell. All she had to do was lift her fingerâhis fingerâand do it. Never had a living hand felt so heavy.
Then, to her surprise, the door opened without her ever ringing the bell.
“Hi, is that package for us?”
The woman who opened the door was not her mother. She was a total stranger. She was in her twenties, and had a baby on her hip, who was very excited by the prospect of a large box.
“Just bring it in, and put it by the stairs,” the woman said. “Do I have to sign for it?”
“Uh â¦ uh â¦ It's not for you.” Allie cleared her throat, startled by the way she sounded. She could never get used to the masculine timbre of her voice when she cross-jacked. It was one of several troubling things that came with being temporarily male.
“Well, if it's not for us, then who is it for?”
“The Johnson family.”
“Who?” she asked, then realized. “Oh, right. We got
things for them every once in a while, once the forwarding order expired.”
They had movedâbut that could just be her mother and sister, who weren't in the car. She still had no way of knowing if her father had survived.
“Any idea where they went?”
“No,” the woman said.
“Wasn't there an accident?” Allie asked. “I heard about itâthey lost a daughter.”
“I wouldn't know about that. Sorry.”
And then Allie asked the big question. “How long have you been living here?”
“Almost three years now.”
Allie closed her eyes, and tried to take that in. She had been in Everlost for three years. Unchanged, never aging. Still fourteen. How could so much time have passed?
“Wait a second,” the woman said. “Of course, I can't be sure, but I seem to recall something about Memphis. I think that's where they went.”
It made senseâher mother had family there â¦ but did that mean her father had died in the crash, and her mother had sold the house? There were so many questions still unanswered.
The woman shifted the baby to her other hip, getting impatient. “The neighbors might know more, but then a lot of them are just summer renters.”
“Thank you. Sorry to have bothered you.”
Then the woman closed the door, to the protests of the baby, who began to wail over the fact that the box was not for him.
Allie went to other homes on the street, but few neighbors were home, and the ones who did come to the door were clueless.
Allie returned to the UPS truck, took one last breath of the flavorful June air, then pulled herself out of the delivery man. Ending a skinjacking was as unpleasant as beginning one, and sometimes a fleshie who fit too well was hard to escape fromâespecially when she'd stayed inside for a while. Fortunately the UPS man was not one of those. She was able to extricate herself without too much effort, peeling him off like a loose-fitting robe. She suffered a moment of vertigo, and the instinctive panic of spirit separating from flesh. She endured the transition, and when she opened her eyes, the living world had faded to blurred, washed-out hues. She was back in Everlost. Beside her, the deliveryman stumbled for a moment, quickly shook off his confusion, and went to deliver his package to the proper house, never knowing that he had been skinjacked.
“What happened?” Mikey asked, coming up to her. “Were they there? Did you talk to them?”
“They moved to Memphis,” she told him, still a bit dazed by it all.
Mikey sighed. “So â¦ I suppose that means we're going to Tennessee.”
She offered him an apologetic grin that wasn't all that apologetic. It was disheartening to know that her home was no longer hers, and troubling to have so far to go until she could find out the truth. Yet there was relief in it as well â¦ because Memphis was far, far away, and that meant she wouldn't be losing Mikey so quickly! Looking
at him now, he seemed taller. Majestic. There was a reason for that.
“You're sinking,” Mikey said.
Laughing, Allie reached out to him. He took her hand gently but firmly, and eased her out of the ground.
They left, but as they did, Allie couldn't help but look back toward the deliveryman, who was now heading back to his truck. She couldn't deny how much she enjoyed the lingering sensation of flesh. Each time she skinjacked, it felt more and more seductive.
In her book
“Finders who survive excursions into the untamed corners of Everlost tell stories of things strange, mystical, and dangerous. Whether or not these stories of the Everwild are true do not matter to the sensible Afterlight, for all sensible Afterlights know that it's best to leave the wild wild, and the Unknown unknown. Venturing beyond one's personal zone of safety is always ill-advised, and can only end in profound unpleasantness.”
It is important to note that Mary wrote this before she, herself, took to the skies.
Nick had never seen a city with so many deadspots. They were so numerous that they could hardly be called deadspots at all. The city of Atlanta belonged as much to Everlost as it did to the living world. The streets were part cobblestone, part asphalt, part dirt. The night was lit by just as many gas lamps as modern street-lights. Buildings from multiple time periods seemed to occupy the same space, fighting to claim “dominant reality.” It made it very clear to Nick that as much as he thought he knew and understood Everlost, he barely knew anything at all.
Their train slowly, cautiously rolled forward on tracks that once carried the Civil War dead. Then, as the train neared the center of Atlanta, the living world road began to fill the train like an asphalt river.
“We're sinking!” shouted Johnnie-O. “We're sinking into the earth! Stop the train!”
“I don't think that's it,” said Charlie. “It's more like the street's rising. We're still riding on tracks.”
“I have a feeling we're in for a few more surprises,” said Nick.
* * *
Long ago, when the battle between locomotive and automobile came to Atlanta, the city was caught in a dilemma. Atlanta, being the chief railroad city of the south, had so many trains, there was simply no room for cars. Then the city planners had a brilliant idea. The words “brilliant” and “city planning” usually don't go together. However, in this instance, the solution was not only brilliant, it was elegant.
Why not build roads
the train tracks?
And so by building automobile viaducts above the central railroad gulch, the city of Atlanta was effectively raised almost twenty feet. The first floor of every building was now undergroundâand second floors became the new ground floors. Then, as cars took over, and rail lines closed down, those old subterranean storefronts were forgotten. Thus was born underground Atlantaâand although modern business interests have turned parts of it into a mall, the real Atlanta underground belongs to Everlost.
The train rolled down the underground street in near darkness, but then the faint, pale blue glow of Afterlights began to fill the street around them. Afterlights were quite literally coming out of the woodworkânot dozens, but hundreds, and, like the buildings around them, these kids were from every era in history. Some held bricks, others metal pipes or batsâbut one thing was clearâevery single one of them was armed and prepared for a fight.
Sticks and stones can't break my bones
,” said Johnnie-O, reciting the familiar Everlost rhyme.
But names can always hurt me
,” finished Nick. True
enough, because an Everlost name can define you, and not always for the better. “It's not the sticks and stones I'm worried about,” Nick said. “It's that look in their eyes.”