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On the Way to the Light...
On a hairpin turn, above the dead forest, on no day in particular, a white Toyota crashed into a black Mercedes, for a moment blending into a blur of gray.
In the front passenger seat of the Toyota sat Alexandra, Allie to her friends. She was arguing with her father about how loud the radio should be playing. She had just taken off her seat belt to adjust her blouse.
In the center backseat of the Mercedes, dressed for his cousin's wedding, sat Nick, trying to eat a chocolate bar that had been sitting in his pocket for most of the day. His brother and sister, who sandwiched him on either side, kept intentionally jostling his elbows, which caused the molten chocolate to smear all over his face. As it was a car meant for four, and there were five passengers, there was no seat belt for Nick.
Also on the road was a small piece of sharp steel, dropped by a scrap metal truck that had been loaded to the brim. About a dozen cars had avoided it, but the Mercedes wasn't so lucky. It ran over the metal, the front left tire blew, and Nick's father lost control of the car.
As the Mercedes careened over the double yellow line, into oncoming traffic, both Allie and Nick looked up and saw the other's car moving closer very quickly. Their lives didn't quite flash before them; there was no time. It all happened so fast that neither of them thought or felt much of anything. The impact launched them forward, they both felt the punch of inflating air bags -- but at such a high speed, and with no seat belts, the air bags did little to slow their momentum. They felt the windshields against their foreheads, then in an instant, they had each passed through.
The crash of splintering glass became the sound of a rushing wind, and the world went very dark.
Allie didn't know what to make of all this quite yet. As the windshield fell behind her, she felt herself moving through a tunnel, picking up speed, accelerating as the wind grew stronger. There was a point of light at the end of the tunnel, getting larger and brighter as she got closer, and there came a feeling in her heart of calm amazement she could not describe.
But on the way to the light, she hit something that sent her flying off course. She grabbed at it, it grunted, and for an instant she was aware that it was someone else she had bumped -- someone about her size, and who smelled distinctly of chocolate.
Both Allie and Nick went spinning wildly, crashing out of the blacker-than-black walls of the tunnel, and as they flew off course, the light before them disappeared. They hit the ground hard, and the exhaustion of their flight overcame them.
Their sleep was dreamless, as it would be for a long, long time.
Copyright © 2006 by Neal Shusterman
Chapter Two: Arrival in Everlost
Arrival in Everlost
The boy had not been up to the road since forever. What was the point? The cars just came and went, came and went, never stopping, never even slowing. He didn't care who passed by his forest on their way to other places. They didn't care about him, so why should he?
When he heard the accident he was playing a favorite game; leaping from branch to branch, tree to tree as high from the ground as he could get. The sudden crunch of steel was so unexpected, it made him misjudge the next branch, and lose his grip. In an instant he was falling. He bounced off one limb, then another and then another, like a pinball hitting pegs. It didn't hurt, all this banging and crashing. In fact he laughed, until he had passed through all the branches, and all that remained was a long drop to the ground.
He hit the earth hard -- it was a fall that would have certainly ended his life, had circumstances been different, but instead the fall was nothing more than a quicker way to reach the forest floor.
He picked himself up and got his bearings, already hearing the echoes of commotion up on the road. Cars were screeching to a halt, people were yelling. He hurried off in the direction of the sounds, climbing the steep granite slope that led up to the road. This wasn't the first accident on this treacherous strip of highway; there were many -- a few every year. Long ago a car had even left the road, flown like a bird, and landed smack on the forest floor. Nobody came with it, though. Oh, sure there had been people in the car when it had crashed, but they got where they were going even before the boy came to inspect the wreck.
This new wreck was bad. Very bad. Very messy. Ambulances. Fire trucks. Tow trucks. It was dark by the time all the trucks were gone. Soon there was nothing but broken glass and bits of metal where the accident had been. He frowned. The people got where they were going.
Resigned, and a little bit mad, the boy climbed back down to his forest.
Who cared anyway? So what if no one else came? This was his place. He would go back to his games, and he'd play them tomorrow and the next day and the next, until the road itself was gone.
It was as he reached the bottom of the cliff that he saw them: two kids who had been thrown from the crashing cars, over the edge of the cliff. Now they lay at the base of the cliff, in the dirt of the forest. At first he thought the ambulances might not have known they were here -- but no; ambulances always know these things. As he got closer, he could see that neither their clothes, nor their faces bore any sign of the accident. No rips, no scratches. This was a very good sign! The two seemed to be about fourteen years old -- a few years older than he was -- and they lay a few feet apart from one another, both curled up like babies. One was a girl with pretty blond hair, the other a boy who kind of looked Chinese, except for his nose, and his light reddish-brown hair. Their chests rose and fell with a memory of breathing. The boy smiled as he watched them, and made his own chest rise and fall in the same way.
As the wind passed through the trees of the forest, not rustling them in the least, he waited patiently for his playmates to awake.
Allie knew she was not in her bed even before she opened her eyes. Had she fallen onto the floor in the middle of the night again? She was such a thrasher when she slept. Half the time she woke up with the sheets tugged off the mattress and wrapped around her like a python.
Her eyes opened to clear sunlight streaming through the trees, which was not unusual except for the fact that there was no window for the light to shine through. There was no bedroom either; only the trees.
She closed her eyes again, and tried to reboot. Human brains, she knew, could be like computers, especially in the time that hung between sleep and wakefulness. Sometimes you said strange things, did even stranger things, and once in a while you couldn't figure out exactly how you got where you got.
She wasn't bothered by this. Not yet. She simply concentrated, searching her memory for a rational explanation. Had they gone camping? Was that it? In a moment the memory of falling asleep beneath the stars with her family would come exploding back into her mind. She was sure of it.
Something about that word made her uneasy.
She opened her eyes again, sitting up this time. There were no sleeping bags, no campsite, and Allie felt strange, like someone had filled her head with helium.
There was someone else a few feet away, sleeping on the ground, knees to chest. A boy with a bit of an Asian look about him. He seemed both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, as if they had once met, but only in passing.
Then an icy wave of memory flowed over her.
Flying through a tunnel. He was there. He had bumped her, the clumsy oaf!
"Hello!" said a voice behind her, making her jump. She turned sharply and saw another, younger boy sitting cross-legged on the ground. Behind him was a granite cliff that extended high out of sight.
This boy's hair was unkempt, and his clothes were weird -- sort of too heavy, too tight, and buttoned way too high. He also had more freckles than she had ever seen on a human being.
"It's about time you woke up," he said.
"Who are you?" Allie asked.
Instead of answering, he pointed to the other kid, who was starting to stir. "Your friend is waking up, too."
"He's not my friend."
The other kid sat up, blinking in the light. He had brown stuff on his face. Dried blood? thought Allie. No. Chocolate. She could smell it.
"This is freaky," the chocolate boy said. "Where am I?"
Allie stood up and took a good look around. This wasn't just a grove of trees, it was an entire forest.
"I was in the car, with my dad," Allie said aloud, forcing the scrap of memory to her lips, hoping that would help to drag the rest of it all the way back. "We were on a mountain road, above a forest...." Only this wasn't the forest they had driven past. That forest was full of tall dead tree trunks, with stubby, rotting limbs. "A dead forest," Dad had said from the driver's seat, pointing it out. "It happens like that sometimes. A fungus, or some other kind of blight -- it can kill acres at a time."
Then Allie remembered the squealing of tires, and a crunch, and then nothing.
She began to get just a little bit worried.
"Okay, what's going on here," she demanded of the freckled kid, because she knew Chocolate Boy was as clueless as she was.
"This is a great place!" Freckle-face said. "It's my place. Now it's your place, too!"
"I've got a place," said Allie. "I don't need this one."
Then Chocolate Boy pointed at her. "I know you! You bumped into me!"
"No -- you bumped into me."
The freckled kid came between them. "C'mon, stop talking about that." He started bouncing excitedly on the balls of his feet. "We got stuff to do!"
Allie crossed her arms. "I'm not doing anything until I know what's going on -- " and then it all came crashing back to her with the fury of --
" -- A head-on collision!"
"Yes!" said Chocolate Boy. "I thought I dreamed it!"
"It must have knocked us out!" Allie felt all over her body. No broken bones, no bruises -- not even a scratch. How could that be? "We might have a concussion."
"I don't feel concussed."
"Concussions are unpredictable, Chocolate Boy!"
"My name's Nick."
"Fine. I'm Allie." Nick tried to wipe the chocolate from his face, but without soap and water it was a lost cause. They both turned to the freckled kid. "You got a name?" Allie asked.
"Yeah," he said, looking down. "But I don't have to tell you."
Allie ignored him, since he was starting to become a nuisance, and turned to Nick. "We must have been thrown clear of the accident, and over the cliff. The branches broke our fall. We have to get back up to the road!"
"What would you want to go up there for?" the freckled kid asked.
"They'll be worried about us," Nick said. "My parents are probably searching for me right now."
And then suddenly Allie realized something. Something she wished she hadn't.
"Maybe they won't," she said. "If the accident was bad enough..."
She couldn't say it aloud, so instead, Nick did.
"We could be the only survivors?"
Allie closed her eyes, trying to chase the very idea away. The accident had been bad, there was no question about it, but if they came through it without a scratch, then her father must have as well, right? The way they made cars nowadays, with crumple zones, and air bags everywhere. They were safer than ever.
Nick began to pace, losing himself in morbid thoughts of doom. "This is bad. This is really, really bad."
"I'm sure they're all okay," Allie said, and repeated it, as if that would make it so. "I'm sure they are."
And the freckled boy laughed at them. "The only survivors!" he said. "That's a good one!" This was no laughing matter. It made both Nick and Allie furious.
"Who are you?" Allie demanded. "Why are you here?"
"Did you see the accident?" Nick added.
"No," he said, choosing to answer Nick's question only. "But I heard it. I went up to look."
"What did you see?"
The kid shrugged. "Lots of stuff."
"Were the other people in the cars all right?"
The kid turned and kicked a stone, angrily. "Why does it matter? Either they got better, or they got where they were going, and anyway there's nothing you can do about it, so just forget about it, okay?"
Nick threw his hands up. "This is nuts! Why are we even talking to this kid? We have to get up there and find out what happened!"
"Can you just calm down for a second?"
"I am calm!" Nick screamed.
Allie knew there was something...off...about the whole situation. Whatever it was, it all seemed centered on this oddly dressed, freckle-faced boy.
"Can you take us to your home? We can call the police from there."
"I don't got a telly-phone."
"Oh, that's just great!" said Nick.
Allie turned on him. "Will you just shut up -- you're not helping." Allie took a good long look at the freckled boy again. His clothes. The way he held himself. She thought about the things he had said -- not so much what he said, but the way he had said it. This is my place...now it's your place, too. If her suspicions were correct, this situation was even weirder than she had thought.
"Where do you live?" Allie asked him.
"Here," was all he said.
"How long have you been 'here'?"
The Freckle-boy's ears went red. "I don't remember."
By now Nick had come over, his frustration defused by what he was hearing.
"And your name?" Allie asked.
He couldn't even look her in the eye. He looked down, shaking his head. "I haven't needed one for a long time. So I lost it."
"Whoa..." said Nick.
"Yeah," said Allie. "Major whoa."
"It's okay," said the boy. "I got used to it. You will, too. You'll see. It's not so bad."
There were so many emotions for Allie to grapple with now -- from fear to anger to misery -- but for this boy, Allie could only feel pity. What must it have been like to be lost alone in the woods for years, afraid to leave?
"Do you remember how old you were when you got here?" she asked.
"Eleven," he told them.
"Hmm," said Nick. "You still look eleven to me."
"I am," said the boy.
* * *
Allie decided to call him Lief, since they had found him in the forest, and he blushed at the name as if she had kissed him. Then Lief led them up the steep stone slope to the road, climbing with a recklessness that not even the most skilled rock climbers would dare show. Allie refused to admit how terrified she was by the climb, but Nick complained enough for both of them.
"I can't even climb a jungle gym without getting hurt!" he complained. "What's the point of surviving an accident, if you're going to fall off a mountain and die?"
They reached the road, but found very little evidence of the accident. Just a few tiny bits of glass and metal. Was that a good sign or bad? Neither Allie nor Nick was sure.
"Things are different up here," Lief said. "Different from the forest, I mean. You better come back down with me."
Allie ignored him and stepped onto the shoulder of the road. It felt funny beneath her feet. Kind of soft and spongy. She had seen road signs before that said soft shoulder, so she figured that's what it meant.
"Better not stand in one place too long," Lief said. "Bad things happen when you do."
Cars and trucks flew by, one every five or six seconds. Nick was the first one to put up his hands and start waving to flag down help, and Allie joined him a second later.
Not a single car stopped. They didn't even slow down. A wake of wind followed each passing car. It tickled Allie's skin, and her insides as well. Lief waited just by the edge of the cliff, pacing back and forth. "You're not gonna like it up here! You'll see!"
They tried to get the attention of passing drivers, but nobody stopped for hitchhikers nowadays. Standing at the edge of the road simply wasn't enough. When there was a lull in the traffic, Allie stepped over the line separating the shoulder from the road.
"Don't!" warned Nick.
"I know what I'm doing."
Lief said nothing.
Allie ventured out into the middle of the northbound lane. Anyone heading north would have to swerve around her. They couldn't possibly miss seeing her now.
Nick was looking more and more nervous. "Allie..."
"Don't worry. If they don't stop, I'll have plenty of time to jump out of the way." After all, she was in gymnastics, and pretty good at it, too. Jumping was not a problem.
A harmonica hum that could only be a bus engine began to grow louder, and in a few seconds a northbound Greyhound ripped around the bend. She tried to lock eyes with the driver, but he was looking straight ahead. In a second he'll see me, she thought. Just one second more. But if he saw her, he was ignoring her.
"Allie!" shouted Nick.
"Okay, okay." With plenty of time to spare, Allie tried to hop out of the way...only she couldn't hop. She lost her balance, but didn't fall. Her feet wouldn't let her. She looked down, and at first it looked like she had no feet. It was a moment before she realized that she had sunk six inches into the asphalt, clear past her ankles, like the road was made of mud.
Now she was scared. She pulled one foot out, then the other, but when she looked up, she knew it was too late; the bus was bearing down on her, and she was about to become roadkill. She screamed as the grill of the bus hit --
-- Then she was moving past the driver, through seats and legs and luggage, and finally through a loud grinding engine in the back, and then she was in the open air again. The bus was gone, and her feet were still sinking into the roadway. A trail of leaves and dust swept past her, dragged in the bus's wake.
Did I...Did I just pass through a bus?
"Surprise," said Lief with a funny little smile. "You should see the look on your face!"
Copyright © 2006 by Neal Shusterman