Challenger deep, p.1
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       Challenger Deep, p.1

           Neal Shusterman
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Challenger Deep


  For Dr. Robert Woods




  1. Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum

  2. Forever Down There

  3. Better for This

  4. How They Get You

  5. I Am the Compass

  6. So Disruptive

  7. Charitable Abyss

  8. Reality Check

  9. You Are Not the First and You Will Not Be the Last

  10. In the Fright Kitchen

  11. Nothing Awful Is without Its Beautiful Side

  12. Spree

  13. No Such Thing as Down

  14. Can’t Get There from Here

  15. No Passage of Space

  16. Swabby

  17. I’d Pay to See That

  18. Mystery Ashtray

  19. Deconstructing Xargon

  20. Parrots Always Smile

  21. Crew Member Questionnaire

  22. The Mattress Didn’t Save Him

  23. Eight-Point-Five Seconds

  24. Don’t Think You Own It

  25. You Were Not Given Permission

  26. All Things Not Nice

  27. Hand-Sanitized Masses

  28. Skippy Rainbow

  29. Some of My Best Friends Are Cirque-ish

  30. The Movements of Flies

  31. Is That All They’re Worth?

  32. Less Than Nothing

  33. Weakness Leaving the Body

  34. Behind Her Back

  35. The Unusual Suspects

  36. Without Her We’re Lost

  37. Third Eye Blind

  38. Ah, Here’s the Proboscis

  39. Stars on My Scantron

  40. Hell Asail

  41. Nothing of Interest

  42. Spirit of Battle

  43. It’s All Kabuki

  44. Boss Key

  45. Ten Graves Deep

  46. Food Fight

  47. We Even Have a Diving Bell

  48. Really That Lonely

  49. Don’t You Want a Whopper?

  50. Garage Widows

  51. Not Entirely Me

  52. Evidence of the Truth

  53. Hindsight at My Feet

  54. Due Diligence

  55. A Regular Infestation

  56. The Stars Are Right

  57. The Chemicals between Us

  58. Head-banger

  59. Man on Fire

  60. The Things They Say

  61. Check Brain

  62. More Alive Than You Think

  63. People I Don’t Know in Places I Can’t See

  64. If Snails Could Talk

  65. The Darkness Beyond

  66. Your Terrifying Awesomeness

  67. The Flesh Between

  68. Worm Inside

  69. Your Meaning Is Irrelevant

  70. Silver Shark

  71. A Worse Enemy

  72. Our Only Hope

  73. The Honors

  74. In God We Trust

  75. Safety Locks

  76. No Way to Stop It

  77. Oil Slick

  78. Realm of the Forgiving Sun

  79. Submitted for Your Approval

  80. Salted Slug

  81. War of the Nemesi

  82. Deep in the Throat of Doom

  83. Clockwork Robots

  84. Lost Landscape

  85. All Meat Must Be Tenderized

  86. Therapy Rodeo

  87. All That We’ve Worked For

  88. Toxic Tide

  89. Streets Green with Blood

  90. Atlas Drugged

  91. Not in the Olympics at All

  92. The Greater Unknown

  93. No Other Way

  94. Critical Mass

  95. Windmills of My Mind

  96. Divine Dealer

  97. Can I Trust You?

  98. Decomposed Potential

  99. Running on Saturn’s Rings

  100. Her Embedded Extremities

  101. A Piece of Skye

  102. Severe Nails

  103. Magic Mantras and Latex Poodles

  104. Mutinous Mutton

  105. Out of Alignment

  106. The Skin of Who We Were

  107. The Fo’c’sle Key

  108. Up or Drown?

  109. When Ink Acts Up

  110. Garden of Unearthly Delights

  111. Hot for You

  112. Abstract Angular Angst

  113. Who They Were

  114. Happy Paper Cup

  115. Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

  116. Dirty Martini

  117. While You Were Out

  118. Zimple Physics

  119. Little Chatterbox

  120. The Maps Say Otherwise

  121. Mentally We Roll Along

  122. Historically Freaking

  123. Bard and Dog

  124. Hating the Messenger

  125. Promenade

  126. A Fine Kind of Pain

  127. Have You Considered That Maybe It Was Intentional?

  128. Intestinal Time-share

  129. Against Us

  130. Stay Broken

  131. Cardboard Forts

  132. Without Whispering

  133. Crestmare Alley

  134. On the Other Side of the Glass

  135. Which Is More Horrifying?

  136. Becoming a Constellation

  137. Lost Horizon

  138. Marksman on the Fields of Color

  139. The Rest Is Silence

  140. The Time of Words Is Over

  141. Like He Never Existed

  142. Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been?

  143. Fail

  144. Other Places

  145. Soul of Our Mission

  146. Psychonoxious

  147. Genetic Life-form and Disk Operating System

  148. Squirrelly

  149. Half-life

  150. Last Man Standing

  151. King of All Destinies

  152. Scarecrow

  153. The Overwhelming Never

  154. Challenger Deep

  155. Vestibule

  156. No Miracles Here

  157. Kind of Like Religion

  158. Morons in High Places

  159. 10:03.

  160. The Way It Works

  161. Points Exotic

  Author’s Note


  About the Author and Artist

  Books by Neal Shusterman


  Back Ads


  About the Publisher


  Challenger Deep has been a labor of love, the creation of which spanned many years. First and foremost, I’d like to thank my son Brendan for his contributions; my son Jarrod for his amazing book trailers; and my daughters, Joelle and Erin, for their many insights and for being the wonderful human beings they are. My deepest gratitude to my editor, Rosemary Brosnan; associate editor, Jessica MacLeish; and everyone at HarperCollins for the amazing amount of support they have given this book. Thanks also to my assistants Barb Sobel and Jessica Widmer for keeping my life and speaking schedule on track. I’d like to thank to the Orange County Fictionaires for their support and critiques through the years; NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, for being such a great resource; and finally my friends for always being there through the best and worst of times.

  Thank you all! My love for you is bottomless.

  1. Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum

  There are two things you know. One: You were there. Two: You couldn’t have been there.

  Holding these two incompatible truths together takes skill at juggling. Of course juggling requires a third ball to keep the rhythm smooth.
That third ball is time—which bounces much more wildly than any of us would like to believe.

  The time is 5 a.m. You know this, because there’s a battery-powered clock on your bedroom wall that ticks so loudly you sometimes have to smother it with a pillow. And yet, while it’s five in the morning here, it’s also five in the evening somewhere in China—proving that incompatible truths make perfect sense when seen with global perspective. You’ve learned, however, that sending your thoughts to China is not always a good thing.

  Your sister sleeps in the next room, and in the room beyond that, your parents. Your dad is snoring. Soon your mom will nudge him enough to make him roll over and the snoring will cease, maybe until dawn. All of this is normal, and there’s great comfort in that.

  Across the street a neighbor’s sprinklers come on, hissing loud enough to drown out the ticking of the clock. You can smell the sprinkler mist through the open window—mildly chlorinated, heavily fluoridated. Isn’t it nice to know that the neighborhood lawns will have healthy teeth?

  The hiss of the sprinklers is not the sound of snakes.

  And the painted dolphins on your sister’s wall cannot plot deadly schemes.

  And a scarecrow’s eyes do not see.

  Even so, there are nights where you can’t sleep, because these things you juggle take all of your concentration. You fear that one ball might drop, and then what? You don’t dare imagine beyond that moment. Because waiting in that moment is the Captain. He’s patient. And he waits. Always.

  Even before there was a ship, there was the Captain.

  This journey began with him, you suspect it will end with him, and everything between is the powdery meal of windmills that might be giants grinding bones to make their bread.

  Tread lightly, or you’ll wake them.

  2. Forever Down There

  “There’s no telling how far down it goes,” the captain says, the left side of his mustache twitching like the tail of a rat. “Fall into that unknowable abyss, and you’ll be counting the days before you reach bottom.”

  “But the trench has been measured,” I dare to point out. “People have been down there before. I happen to know that it’s 6.8 miles deep.”

  “Know?” he mocks. “How can a shivering, malnourished pup such as you know anything beyond the wetness of his own nose?” Then he laughs at his own assessment of me. The captain is full of weatherworn wrinkles from a lifetime at sea—although his dark, tangled beard hides many of them. When he laughs, the wrinkles stretch tight, and you can see the muscles and sinews of his neck. “Aye, it be true that those who have ventured the waters of the trench speak of having seen the bottom, but they lie. They lie like a rug, and get beat twice as often—but just so it scares the dust out of ’em.”

  I’ve stopped trying to decipher the things the captain says, but they still weigh on me. As if maybe I’m missing something. Something important and deceptively obvious that I’ll only understand when it’s too late to matter.

  “It’s forever down there,” the captain says. “Let no one tell you any different.”

  3. Better for This

  I have this dream. I am lying on a table in an overlit kitchen where all the appliances are sparkling white. Not so much new as pretending to be new. Plastic with chrome accents, but mostly plastic.

  I cannot move. Or I don’t want to move. Or I’m afraid to move. Each time I have the dream, it’s a little bit different. There are people around me, only they aren’t people, they’re monsters in disguise. They have gone into my mind and have ripped images from it, turning the images into masks that look like people I love—but I know it’s just a lie.

  They laugh and speak of things that mean nothing to me, and I am frozen there among all the false faces, at the very center of attention. They admire me, but only in the way you admire something you know will soon be gone.

  “I think you took it out too soon,” says a monster wearing my mother’s face. “It hasn’t been in long enough.”

  “Only one way to find out,” says the monster disguised as my father. I sense laughter all around—not from their mouths, because the mouths of their masks don’t move. The laughter is in their thoughts, which they project at me like poison-tipped darts shot from their cutout eyes.

  “You’ll be better for this,” says one of the other monsters. Then their stomachs rumble as loud as a crumbling mountain as they reach toward me and tear their main course to bits with their claws.

  4. How They Get You

  I can’t remember when this journey began. It’s like I’ve always been here, except that I couldn’t have been, because there was a before, just last week or last month or last year. I’m pretty certain that I’m still fifteen, though. Even if I’ve been on board this wooden relic of a ship for years, I’m still fifteen. Time is different here. It doesn’t move forward; it sort of moves sideways, like a crab.

  I don’t know many of the other crewmen. Or maybe I just don’t remember them from one moment to the next, because they all have a nameless quality about them. There are the older ones, who seem to have made their lives at sea. These are the ship’s officers, if you can call them that. They are Halloween pirates, like the captain, with fake blackened teeth, trick-or-treating on hell’s doorstep. I’d laugh at them if I didn’t believe with all my heart that they’d gouge my eyes out with their plastic hooks.

  Then there are the younger ones like me: kids whose crimes cast them out of warm homes, or cold homes, or no homes, by a parental conspiracy that sees all with unblinking Big-Brother eyes.

  My fellow crewmates, both boys and girls, go about their busywork and don’t speak to me other than to say things like, “You’re in my way,” or “Keep your hands off my stuff.” As if any of us has stuff worth guarding. Sometimes I try to help them with whatever they’re doing, but they turn away, or push me away, resentful that I’ve even offered.

  I keep imagining I see my little sister on board, even though I know she’s not. Aren’t I supposed to be helping her with math? In my mind I see her waiting for me and waiting for me, but I don’t know where she is. All I know is that I never show up. How could I do that to her?

  Everyone on board is under constant scrutiny by the captain, who is somehow familiar, and somehow not. He seems to know everything about me, although I know nothing about him.

  “It’s my business to have my fingers curled around the heart of your business,” he told me.

  The captain has an eye patch and a parrot. The parrot has an eye patch and a security badge around his neck.

  “I shouldn’t be here,” I appeal to the captain, wondering if I’ve told him this before. “I have midterms and papers due and dirty clothes I never picked up from my bedroom floor, and I have friends, lots of friends.”

  The captain’s jaw is fixed and he offers no response, but the parrot says, “You’ll have friends, lots of friends here too, here too!”

  Then one of the other kids whispers in my ear, “Don’t tell the parrot anything. That’s how they get you.”

  5. I Am the Compass

  The things I feel cannot be put into words, or if they can, the words are in no language anyone can understand. My emotions are talking in tongues. Joy spins into anger spins into fear then into amused irony, like leaping from a plane, arms wide, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can fly, then discovering you can’t, and not only don’t you have a parachute, but you don’t have any clothes on, and the people below all have binoculars and are laughing as you plummet to a highly embarrassing doom.

  The navigator tells me not to worry about it. He points to the parchment pad on which I often draw to pass the time. “Fix your feelings in line and color,” he tells me. “Color, collar, holler, dollar—true riches lie in the way your drawings grab me, scream at me, force me to see. My maps show us the path, but your visions show us the way. You are the compass, Caden Bosch. You are the compass!”

  “If I’m a compass, then I’m a pretty useless one,” I tell him. “I
can’t find north.”

  “Of course you can,” he says. “It’s just that in these waters, north is constantly chasing its own tail.”

  It makes me think of a friend I once had, who thought that north was whatever direction he was facing. Now I think that maybe he was right.

  The navigator requested me as a roommate when my old roommate, who I barely even remember, disappeared without explanation. We share a cabin that’s too small for one, much less two. “You are the most decent among the indecents here,” he tells me. “Your heart hasn’t taken on the chill of the sea. Plus, you have talent. Talent, talons, tally, envy—your talent will turn the ship green with envy—mark my words!”

  He’s a kid who’s been on many voyages before. And he’s farsighted. That is to say, when he looks at you he’s not seeing you, but instead sees something behind you in a dimension several times removed from our own. Mostly he doesn’t look at people. He’s too busy creating navigational charts. At least that’s what he calls them. They’re full of numbers and words and arrows and lines that connect the dots of stars into constellations I’ve never seen before.

  “The heavens are different out here,” he says. “You have to see fresh patterns in the stars. Patterns, Saturns, Saturday, Sunday, sundial. It’s all about measuring the passing day. Do you get it?”


  “Shore to boat, boat to goat. That’s the answer, I’m saying. The goat. It eats everything, digesting the world, making it a part of its own DNA, and spewing it out, claiming its territory. Territory, heredity, heresy, hearsay—hear what I say. The sign of the goat holds the answer to our destination. It all has a purpose. Seek the goat.”

  The navigator is brilliant. So brilliant that my head hurts just being in his presence.

  “Why am I here?” I ask him. “If everything has a purpose, what is my purpose on this ship?”

  He goes back to his charts, writing words and adding fresh arrows on top of what is already there, layering his thoughts so thick, only he can decipher them. “Purpose, porpoise, dolphin, doorframe, doorway. You are the doorway to the salvation of the world.”

  “Me? Are you sure?”

  “Just as sure as we’re on this train.”

  6. So Disruptive

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