Clearly offended, Lev says, "Tithing's in the Bible; you're supposed to give 10 percent of everything. And storking's in the Bible too."
"No, it isn't!"
"Moses," says Lev. "Moses was put in a basket in the Nile and was found by Pharaoh's daughter. He was the first storked baby, and look what happened to him!"
"Yeah," says Connor, "but what happened to the next baby she found in the Nile?"
"Will you keep your voices down?" says Risa. "People could hear you in the hall, and anyway, you might wake Didi."
Connor takes a moment to collect his thoughts. When he speaks again, it's a whisper, but in a tiled room there are no whispers. "We got storked when I was seven."
"Big deal," says Risa.
"No, this was a big deal. For a whole lot of reasons. See, there were already two natural kids in the family. My parents weren't planning on any more. Anyway, this baby shows up at our door, my parents start freaking out. . . and then they have an idea."
"Do I want to hear this?" Risa asks.
"Probably not." But Connor's not about to stop. He knows if he doesn't spill this now, he's never going to. "It was early in the morning, and my parents figured no one saw the baby left at the door, right? So the next morning, before the rest of us got up, my dad put the baby on a doorstep across the street."
"That's illegal," announces Lev. "Once you get storked, that baby's yours."
"Yeah, but my parents figured, who's gonna know? My parents swore us to secrecy, and we waited to hear the news from across the street about their new, unexpected arrival . . . but it never came. They never talked about getting storked and we couldn't ask them about it, because it would be a dead giveaway that we'd dumped the baby on them."
As Connor speaks, the stall, as small as it is, seems to shrink around him. He knows the others are there on either side, but he can't help but feel desperately alone.
"Things go on like it never happened. Everything was quiet for a while, and then two weeks later, I open the door, and there on that stupid welcome mat, is another baby in a basket . . . and I remember ... I remember I almost laughed. Can you believe it? I thought it was funny, and I turned back to my mother, and I say 'Mom, we got storked again'—Just like that little kid this morning said. My Mom, all frustrated, brought the baby in . . . and that's when she realizes—"
"Oh, no!" says Risa, figuring it out even before Connor says:
"It's the same baby!" Connor tries to remember the baby's face, but he can't. All he sees in his mind's eye is the face of the baby Risa now holds. "It turns out that the baby had been passed around the neighborhood for two whole weeks—each morning, left on someone else's doorstep . . . only now it's not looking too good."
The bathroom door squeals, and Connor falls silent. A flurry of footsteps. Two girls. They chat a bit about boys and dates and parties with no parents around. They don't even use the toilets. Another flurry of footsteps heading out, the squeal of the door, and they are alone again.
"So, what happened to the baby?" Risa asks.
"By the time it landed on our doorstep again, it was sick. It was coughing like a seal and its skin and eyes were yellow.''
"Jaundice," says Risa, gently. "A lot of babies show up at StaHo that way."
"My parents brought it to the hospital, but there was nothing they could do. I was there when it died. I saw it die." Connor closes his eyes, and grits his teeth, to keep tears back. He knows the others can't see them, but he doesn't want them to come anyway. "I remember thinking, if a baby was going to be so unloved, why would God want it brought into the world?"
He wonders if Lev will have some pronouncement on the topic—after all, when it comes to God, Lev claimed to have all the answers. But all Lev says is, "I didn't know you believed in God."
Connor takes a moment to push his emotions down, then continues. "Anyway, since it was legally ours, we paid for the funeral. It didn't even have a name, and my parents couldn't bear to give it one. It was just 'Baby Lassiter,' and even though no one had wanted it, the entire neighborhood came to the funeral. People were crying like it was their baby that had died. . . . And that's when I realized that the people who were crying—they were the ones who had passed that baby around. They were the ones, just like my own parents, who had a hand in killing it."
There's silence now. The leaky flush handle drizzles. Next door in the boys' bathroom a toilet flushes, and the sound echoes hollowly around them.
"People shouldn't give away babies that get left at their door," Lev finally says.
"People shouldn't stork their babies," Risa responds.
"People shouldn't do a lot of things," says Connor. He knows they're both right, but it doesn't make a difference. In a perfect world mothers would all want their babies, and strangers would open up their homes to the unloved. In a perfect world everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn't a perfect world. The problem is people who think it is.
"Anyway, I just wanted you to know."
In a few moments the bell rings, and there's commotion in the hall. The bathroom door creaks open. Girls laughing, talking about everything and nothing.
"Next time wear a dress."
"Can I borrow your history book?"
"That test was impossible."
Unending squeals from the door and constant tugs on Connor's locked stall door. No one's tall enough to look over, no one has any desire to look under. The late bell rings; the last girl hurries to class. They've made it to second period. If they're lucky, this school will have a midmorning break. Maybe they can sneak out then. In Risa's stall, the baby is making wakeful noises. Not crying but sort of clicking. On the verge of hungry tears.
"Should we change stalls?" asks Risa. "Repeat visitors might get suspicious if they see my feet in the same stall."
"Good idea." Listening closely to make sure he can't hear any footfalls in the hall, Connor pulls open his stall, switching places with Risa. Lev's door is open as well, but he's not coming out. Connor pushes Lev's door open all the way. He's not there.
"Lev?" He looks to Risa, who just shakes her head. They check every stall, then check the one Lev was in again, as if he might reappear—but he doesn't. Lev is gone. And the baby begins wailing for all it's worth.
Lev is convinced his heart will explode in his chest.
It will explode, and he will die right here in a school hallway. Slipping out of the bathroom once the bell rang had been nerve-racking. He had unlocked his stall door, and had kept his hand on the handle for ten minutes waiting for the electronic buzz of the bell to mask the sound of its opening. Then he'd had to make it to the bathroom entrance without the others hearing his brand-new sneakers squeaking on the floor. (Why did they call them sneakers if it was so hard to sneak in them?) He couldn't open that squealing door, then walk out by himself. It would be too conspicuous. So he waited until a bathroom-bound girl did it for him. Since the bell had just rung, he only had to wait a few seconds. She pulled open the door and he pushed his way past her, hoping she didn't say anything that would give him away. If she commented about a boy being in the girl's bathroom, Connor and Risa would know.
"Next time, wear a dress," the girl said to him as he hurried away, and her friend laughed. Was that enough to alert Connor and Risa to his escape? He hadn't turned back to find out, he had just pressed forward.
Now he's lost in the hallways of the huge high school, his heart threatening to detonate at any second. A wild mob of kids hurrying to their next class surround him, bump him, disorient him. Most of the kids here are bigger than Lev. Imposing. Intimidating. This is how he always imagined high school—a dangerous place full of mystery and violent kids. He had never worried about it because he had always known he would never have to go. In fact, he only had to worry about getting partway through eighth grade.
"Excuse me, can you tell me where the office is?" he asks one of the slower-moving students.
The kid looks down at him as if Lev were from Mars. "How could you not know that?" And he just walks away shaking his head. Another, kinder kid points him in the right direction.
Lev knows that things must be put back on track. This is the best place to do it: a school. If there are any secret plans to kill Connor and Risa, it can't happen here with so many kids around, and if he does this right, it won't happen at all. If he does it right, all three of them will be safely on their way to their unwinding, as it ought to be. As it was ordained to be. The thought of it still frightens him, but these days of not knowing what the next hour will bring—that is truly terrifying. Being torn from his purpose was the most unnerving thing that had ever happened to Lev, but now he understands why God let it happen. It's a lesson. It's to show Lev what happens to children who shirk their destiny: They become lost in every possible way.
He enters the school's main office and stands at the counter, waiting to be noticed, but the secretary is too busy shuffling papers. "Excuse me . . ."
Finally, she looks up. "Can I help you, dear?"
He clears his throat. "My name is Levi Calder, and I've been kidnapped by two runaway Unwinds."
The woman, who really wasn't paying attention before, suddenly focuses her attention entirely on him. "What did you say?"
"I was kidnapped. We were hiding in a bathroom, but I got away. They're still there. They've got a baby, too."
The woman stands up and calls out, her voice shaky, like she's looking at a ghost. She calls in the principal, and the principal calls in a security guard.
* * *
A minute later, Lev sits in the nurse's office, with the nurse doting on him like he's got a fever.
"Don't you worry," she says. "Whatever happened to you, it's all over now."
From here in the nurse's office, Lev has no way of knowing if they've captured Connor and Risa. He hopes that, if they have, they don't bring them here. The thought of having to face them makes him feel ashamed. Doing the right thing shouldn't make you ashamed.
"The police have been called, everything's being taken care of," the nurse tells him. "You'll be going home soon."
"I'm not going home," he tells her. The nurse looks at him strangely, and he decides not to go into it. "Never mind. Can I call my parents?"
She looks at him, incredulous. "You mean, no one's done that for you?" She looks at the school phone in the corner, then fumbles for the cell phone in her pocket instead. "You call and let them know you're okay—and talk as long as you like."
She looks at him for a moment, then decides to give him his privacy, stepping out of the room. "I'll be right here if you need me."
Lev begins to dial, but stops himself. It's not his parents he wants to talk to. He erases the numbers and keys in a different one, hesitates for a moment, then hits the send button.
It's picked up on the second ring.
There's only a split second of dead air, and then recognition. "Dear God, Lev? Lev, is that you? Where are you?"