"So the Dunfees found the records. The father, I think, worked for the government, so he was able to hack into the parts department."
Hayden sighs. "The National Unwind Database."
"And he gets a printout of every single person who received a piece of Humphrey. Then the Dunfees go traveling around the world to find them . . . so they can kill them, take back the parts, and bit by bit make Humphrey whole. . . ."
"That's why people call him Humphrey," Connor adds. "'Cause 'all the king's horses and all the king's men . . . couldn't put Humphrey together again."'
The thought hangs heavy in the air, until Hayden, leaning forward over the candle, suddenly throws his hands out toward Mai and shouts, "Boo!"
They all flinch in spite of themselves—Mai most of all.
Connor has to laugh. "Did you see that? She practically jumped out of her skin!"
"Better not do that, Mai," says Hayden. "Jump out of your skin, and they'll give it to someone else before you can get it back."
"You can both just take a flying leap." Mai tries to punch Hayden, but he easily evades her. That's when Roland appears from behind his bookshelves.
"What's going on here?"
"Nothing," says Hayden. "Just telling ghost stories."
Roland looks at the three of them, clearly irritated, and distrustful of any situation not involving him. "Yeah, well, get to bed. It's late."
Roland lumbers back to his corner, but Connor's sure he's monitoring the conversation now, probably paranoid that they're plotting against him.
"That Humphrey Dunfee thing," says Mai. "It's just a story, right?"
Connor keeps his opinion to himself, but Hayden says, "I knew a kid who used to tell people he had Humphrey's liver. Then one day he disappeared and was never seen again. People said he just got unwound, but then again . . . maybe the Dunfees got him." Then Hayden blows out the candle, leaving them in darkness.
* * *
On Connor and Risa's third day there, Sonia calls each of them upstairs—but one at a time, in the order they'd arrived.
"First the thieving ox," she says, pointing down the stairs at Roland. Apparently she knows about the stolen MP3 player.
"What do you suppose the Dragon Lady wants?" Hayden asks, after the trapdoor is closed.
"To drink your blood," says Mai. "Beat you with her cane for a while. Stuff like that."
"I wish you'd stop calling her the Dragon Lady," Risa says. "She's saving your ass—the least you could do is show some respect.'' She turns toward Connor. "You wanna take Didi? My arms are getting tired." Connor takes the baby, cradling it a bit more skillfully than he had before. Mai looks at him with mild interest. He wonders if Hayden told her that they're not really the baby's parents.
Roland comes back from his appointment with Sonia half an hour later, and says nothing about it. Neither does Mai when she comes back. Hayden takes the longest, and when he returns, he's closemouthed too—which is strange for him. It's unsettling.
Connor goes next. It's night outside when he goes upstairs. He has no idea what time of night. Sonia sits with him in her little back room, putting him in an uncomfortable chair that wobbles whenever he moves.
"You'll be leaving here tomorrow," she tells him.
She ignores the question and reaches into the drawer of an old rolltop desk. "I'm hoping you're at least semiliterate."
"Why? What do you want me to read?"
"You don't have to read anything." Then she pulls out several sheets of blank paper. "I want you to write."
"What, my last will and testament? Is that it?"
"A will implies you have something to pass on—which you don't. What I want you to do is write a letter." She hands him the paper, a pen, and an envelope. "Write a letter to someone you love. Make it as long as you want, or as short as you want; I don't care. But fill it with everything you wished you could say, but never had the chance. Do you understand?"
"What if I don't love anybody?"
She purses her lips and shakes her head slowly. "You Unwinds are all the same. You think that because no one loves you, then you can't love anyone. All right, then, if there's no one you love, then pick someone who needs to hear what you have to say. Say everything that's in your heart—don't hold back. And when you're done, put it in the envelope and seal it. I'm not going to read it, so don't worry about that."
"What's the point? Are you going to mail it?"
"Just do it and stop asking questions." Then she takes a little ceramic dinner bell, and places it on the rolltop desk, next to the pen and paper. "Take all the time you need, and when you're done, ring the bell."
Then she leaves him alone.
It's an odd request, and Connor actually finds himself a bit frightened by it. There are places inside he simply doesn't want to go. He thinks he might write to Ariana. That would be easiest. He had cared about her. She was closer to him than any other girl had ever been. Every girl except Risa—but then, Risa doesn't really count. What he and Risa have isn't a relationship; it's just two people clinging to the same ledge hoping not to fall. After about three lines of his letter, Connor crumples the page. Writing to Ariana feels pointless. No matter how much he's resisted, he knows who he needs to address this letter to.
He presses his pen to a fresh page and writes, Dear Mom and Dad. . . .
It's five minutes before he can come up with another line, but once he does, the words start flowing—and in strange directions, too. At first it's angry, as he knew it would be. How could you? Why did you? What kind of people could do this to their kid? Yet by the third page it mellows. It becomes about all the good things that happened in their lives together. At first he does it to hurt them, and to remind them exactly what they've thrown away when they signed the order to unwind him. But then it becomes all about remembering—or more to the point, getting them to remember, so that when he's gone . . . if he's gone, there will be a record of all the things he felt were worth keeping alive. When he started, he knew how the letter would end. I hate you for what you've done. And I'll never forgive you. But when he finally reaches the tenth page, he finds himself writing, J love you. Your one-time son, Connor.
Even before he signs his name, he feels the tears welling up inside. They don't seem to come from his eyes but from deep in his gut. It's a heaving so powerful it hurts his stomach and his lungs. His eyes flood, and the pain inside is so great, he's certain it will kill him right here, right now. But he doesn't die, and in time the storm inside him passes, leaving him weak in every joint and muscle of his body. He feels like he needs Sonia's cane just to walk again.
His tears have soaked into the pages, warping little craters in the paper but not smudging the ink. He folds the pages and slips them into the envelope, then seals and addresses it. He takes a few more minutes to make sure the storm won't come back. Then he rings the little bell.
Sonia steps in moments later. She must have been waiting all this time just on the other side of that curtain. Connor knows she must have heard him bawling, but she doesn't say a thing. She looks at his letter, hefts it in her hand to feel its weight, and raises her eyebrows, impressed. "Had a lot to say, did you?"
Connor only shrugs. She puts the envelope facedown on the table again. "Now I want you to put a date on the back. Write down the date of your eighteenth birthday."
Connor doesn't question her anymore. He does as she asks. When he's done, she takes the envelope from him. "I'm going to hold this letter for you," she tells him. "If you survive to eighteen, you must promise that you'll come back here to get it. Will you make me that promise?"
Connor nods. "I promise."
She shakes the letter at him to help make her point. "I will keep this until a year after your eighteenth birthday. If you don't come back, I'll assume you didn't make it. That you were unwound. In that case I'll send the letter myself."
Then she hands the letter back to him, stands, and goes over to the old trunk that had covered the trapdoor. She opens the latch and, although it must be heavy, heaves open the lid to reveal envelopes—hundreds of them, filling the trunk almost up to the top.
"Leave it here," she says. "It will be safe. If I die before you come back, Hannah has promised to take care of the trunk."
Connor thinks of all the kids Sonia must have helped to have this many letters in her trunk, and he feels another wave of emotion taking hold of his gut. It doesn't quite bring him to tears, but it makes him feel all soft inside. Soft enough to say, "You've done something wonderful here."
Sonia waves her hand, swatting the thought away. "You think this makes me a saint? Let me tell you, I've had a considerably long life, and I've done some pretty awful things, too."
"Well, I don't care. No matter how many times you smack me with that cane, I think you're decent."
"Maybe, maybe not. One thing you learn when you've lived as long as I have—people aren't all good, and people aren't all bad. We move in and out of darkness and light all of our lives. Right now, I'm pleased to be in the light."
On his way downstairs, she makes sure to smack him on the butt with her cane hard enough to sting, but it only makes him laugh.
He doesn't tell Risa what's in store for her. Somehow telling her would be stealing something from her. Let this be between her, Sonia, the pen, and the page, as it had been for him.
She leaves the baby with him as she goes up to face the old woman. It's asleep, and right now, in this place and at this moment, there's something so comforting about holding it in his arms, he's thankful he saved it. And he thinks that if his soul had a form, this is what it would be. A baby sleeping in his arms.
The next time Sonia opens the trapdoor, Risa knows things are changing again. The time has come to leave the safety of Sonia's basement.
Risa's the first in line when Sonia calls them to come up. Roland would have been, but Connor threw an arm out like a turnstile to let Risa get to the stairs first.
With the sleeping baby crooked in her right arm, and her left hand on the rusty steel banister, Risa climbs the jagged stone steps. Risa assumes she'll be climbing into daylight, but it's night. The lights are out in the shop—just a few night-lights are on, carefully positioned so the kids can avoid the minefield of random antiques around them.
Sonia leads them to a back door that opens into an alley. There's a truck waiting for them there. It's a small delivery truck. On its side is a picture of an ice cream cone.
Sonia hadn't lied. It is the ice cream man.
The driver stands beside the open back door of the truck. He's a scruffy guy who looks like he'd more likely be delivering illegal drugs than kids. Roland, Hayden, and Mai head for the truck, but Sonia stops Risa and Connor.
"Not yet, you two."
Then Risa notices a figure standing in the shadows. Risa's neck hairs begin to bristle defensively, but when the figure steps forward, she realizes who it is. It's Hannah, the teacher who saved them at the high school.