Nick wasn't sure he ever wanted to get used to an eternity of longing.
They also discovered their spectral bodies didn't actually require sleep, but, as with food, it didn't change the craving for it. Nick and Allie had agreed that they would take time to sleep, as they would have if they were still alive.
It was a connection to the world of the living that they did not want to lose.
The simple act of resting, however, couldn't be done just anywhere.
"How can we sleep if we sink?" Nick had asked on the first evening. The road-shoes they wore did their job while Nick and Allie walked, keeping them mostly on the surface of the road, but if they stood still for too long, the ground began its slow swallow. They couldn't find a way to keep from sinking that first night, and so they kept walking.
It was on the second day of their journey that the solution came. When the mountain road became treacherous, they began to find odd little patches of asphalt that weren't like the rest of the road. They were solid! The patches were never more than a few feet wide. It was Allie who figured it out when they came across one that was marked with a small white wooden cross.
"I know what this is!" Allie said. "I saw them when we visited Mexico. They put little crosses by the side of the road where people died in car accidents. I never thought to look for it here in the States, but I'll bet there are people who do it here, too."
"So the passing of a spirit must leave a permanent mark on the spot where it happened, turning it into a dead-spot!" Nick had to admit it was an exciting, if somewhat morbid discovery.
They rested on one of the so-called dead-spots, close together, because the spot was so small, and as they basked in the light of their own glows, they allowed themselves the luxury of small talk. They discussed all those subjects that didn't matter much in the larger scheme of things, like what music they liked, and who they thought won the World Series during their nine-month transition.
Their conversation took a sober turn, as late night conversations often do.
"When I get home," Allie said, "I'm going to find a way to make them all see me."
"But what if they never see you?" Nick said. "What if they just keep on living their lives like you're not even there?"
"That's not gonna happen."
"Why not?" said Nick. "Because you say so? That's not how the world works."
"How do you know? You don't know how this world works any more than I do."
"Exactly. That's why I say we learn more about it before we go home. We've got to find other ghosts with more experience."
"Other Afterlights," Allie corrected, still refusing to admit she was a ghost.
The thought made Nick look at his hands and arms, studying his own peculiar incandescence; his gentle Afterlight glow.
The lines that ran across his palms were still there. He could see his fingerprints- but perhaps that was just because fingerprints are what he expected to see. He wondered if he would still look the same if he had made it all the way to the light at the end of the tunnel, or if the memory of flesh would completely dissolve into the glow once he reached his final destination-a destination where his family might already be.
"We have to accept that there may be nobody to go home to," Nick reminded Allie.
Allie pursed her lips. "Maybe for you, but it was just my Dad and me in our car.
Mom stayed home because my sister was sick."
"Doesn't it even bother you that your Dad might not have made it?"
"He made it somewhere," Allie said, "which is more than I can say for us. It's like Lief said-everyone else in the accident either survived or they got where they were going-which means that either way they're sort of okay."
Allie did have a point; it was some comfort to know that there truly was some place they were all ultimately going-that the end wasn't the end. Even so, the thought of his whole family making that mysterious journey all at the same terrible time…Then something occurred to Nick. "I didn't see any dead-spots where the accident happened. We got thrown into the forest, but there were no dead-spots on the road!"
"We weren't looking for dead-spots then," Allie pointed out, but Nick chose to believe there were none. It was better than the alternative.
"Where were you going that day?" Nick asked.
Allie took her time before she answered him. "I can't remember. Isn't that funny?"
"I'm starting to forget things, too," Nick admitted. "I don't want to forget their faces."
"You won't," she said-and although there was no evidence to back it up, Nick chose to believe that, too.
By the third day, they had passed out of the mountains, and the highway became wider and straighten They were still in Upstate New York, many miles away from their respective destinations. At this rate it would take weeks, maybe months to get there.
They passed town after town, and soon learned how to easily identify dead-spots.
They were different from the living places. First of all, there was a clarity to them-they were in sharper focus, and the colors were far more vibrant. Secondly, when you stood in one of those spots, there was a certain sense of well-being-a sense of belonging-as if the ghost places were the true living places, and not the other way around.
It was that fundamental grayness of the living world that struck more deeply than any chill. Although they wouldn't speak it aloud, it made both Nick and Allie long for the lush and comforting beauty of Lief's forest.
At dusk, on the fifth day, they found a nice patch of solid ground, beneath a big sign that said, WELCOME TO ROCKLAND COUNTY! Leaves poked through the pavement, lush and green to their eyes, eternally unaffected by the changing of seasons. The spot was large enough for both of them to stretch out and sleep.
"I'm tired of sleeping every night," Nick said. "We don't need it. We don't get tired," and then he said the real reason why he didn't want to sleep. "I don't like not dreaming."
Allie felt the same way, but didn't want to say anything about it. Once, many years ago, her appendix had burst, and she had gone under general anesthesia. It was a strange sensation. She started to breathe in the anesthetic, and boom, she was out. Then suddenly she was awake again, and it was all over. There was just a hiccup of time, some groggy confusion, and she was back, with an ache in her side and some stitches. It was like…not existing. Sleep here was the same way.
"We sleep because we can," she told Nick. "Because it reminds us of what it's like to be alive."
"How can eight hours of death remind us of being alive?"
Allie had no answer for him, only that it felt right. It felt natural, and in their unnatural state, anything that felt natural was a good thing. In the end Nick stopped his grumbling, and lay down. "I'll lie here, but I'm not going to sleep. I'll stay awake and watch the stars."
The stars, however, were not sufficiently exciting to keep him awake. In fact, they were sedating. He fell asleep before Allie did, leaving her to ponder their predicament. What if she got home, and her parents weren't there? What if her father had died in the accident, and her mother had moved away? She wouldn't be able to ask anyone about it, she'd have no way of finding out.
She was thankful when the anesthetic sleep of Everlost finally overtook her.
The ambush came without warning in the middle of the night.
Nick and Allie opened their eyes to four stern, glowing faces looking down on them. In an instant they were grabbed and hauled to their feet, roughed up and manhandled. Allie tried to scream, but a large hand covered her mouth. A hand like that of a monster. Only these weren't monsters; these were boys no older than she.
"Nick!" she called. But Nick was too busy fighting off two boys who were struggling to hold him as well.
"What's your problem?" Nick shouted. "Who are you? What do you want? "
"We ask the questions," said the boy who was apparently in charge. He was smaller than the rest, but clearly the toughest of the lot. He wore baggy knickerbockers, not much different from Lief's, and from h.is lip dangled a cigarette that never got smaller and never went out. But by far the strangest thing about him was his hands. They were the size of a man's hands, big and knobby, and when he curled them into fists, they seemed as large as boxing gloves.
"I think they're Greensouls, Johnnie-O," said one kid with a weird mop of candy-apple-red hair that made him look like a Raggedy Andy doll. "A week old, maybe less."
"I can see that," Johnnie-O said. "I'm not stupid, I know a Greensoul when I see one."
"We're Afterlights," Nick shouted out, "just like you, so leave us alone."
Johnnie-O laughed. "Of course you're Afterlights, idiot. What we're saying is that you're new arrivals. Greensouls. Get it?"
"They might still got stuff," said Raggedy Andy. "Greensouls always got stuff."
"Welcome to Everlost," Johnme-O said in a voice that wasn't welcoming at all.
"This here's my territory, and you gots to pay me for passage."
Allie gave the boy holding her a punch in the face to get him to let go. "Is this how you always greet visitors?" Allie said.
Johnnie-O took a suck on his cig. "Visitors ain't always friendly."
Nick shrugged off the two boys who were holding him. "We don't have anything to pay you with."
"Yeah, so I guess you'll just have to kill us," Allie said snidely, and added, "Oh, sorry, guess you can't."
"Turn their pockets," Johnnie-O ordered, and his goons reached into Nick and Allie's pants pockets and turned them inside out. Mostly they got lint, but Nick had a couple of things he had forgotten were in there. There was that old coin, which must have been a nickel, although the face had worn off. The tough kids weren't interested in it, and flicked it back at him. He caught it and returned it to his pocket.
It was the other object in Nick's pocket that got their attention.
"Look at this," said a funny-looking kid with dark purple lips, like he had died while sucking on a grape jawbreaker. He held up a hard little object that had fallen out of Nick's pocket, which Nick quickly recognized as a piece of what is commonly referred to as "ABC" gum, wrapped up in its original wrapper. His mother always complained that he left his chewed gum in his pockets and it got all over the clothes in the wash.
The purple-mouthed kid held the hard, cold wad of gum and looked over at Johnnie-O, hesitating.
"Hand it over," said Johnnie-O. His voice was commanding for a boy of his size.
He opened up his huge, beefy hand.
Still Purple-puss hesitated. "We can cut it into pieces," he suggested.
"I said hand it over." Johnnie-O held his upturned palm right before the boy.