"You hate school. You said you'd be dropping out when you turn sixteen."
"Testing out," she says. "There's a difference."
"So you're not coming?"
"I want to, 1 really, really want to . . . but I can't."
"So everything we talked about was just a lie."
"No," says Ariana. "It was a dream. Reality got in the way, that's all. And running away doesn't solve anything."
"Running away is the only way to save my life," Connor hisses. "I'm about to be unwound, in case you forgot."
She gently touches his face. "1 know," she says. "But I'm not."
Then a light comes on at the top of the stairs, and reflexively Ariana closes the door a few inches.
"Ari?" Connor hears her mother say. "What is it? What are you doing at the door?"
Connor hacks up out of view, and Ariana turns to look up the stairs. "Nothing, Mom. I thought I saw a coyote from my window and I just wanted to make sure the cats weren't out."
"The cats are upstairs, honey. Close the door and go back to bed."
"So, I'm a coyote," says Connor.
"Shush," says Ariana, closing the door until there's just a tiny slit and all he can see is the edge of her face and a single violet eye. "You'll get away, I know you will. Call me once you're somewhere safe." Then she closes the door.
Connor stands there for the longest time, until the motion sensor light goes out. Being alone had not been part of his plan, but he realizes it should have been. From the moment his parents signed those papers, Connor was alone.
* * *
He can't take a train; he can't take a bus. Sure, he has enough money, but nothing's leaving until morning, and by then they'll be looking for him in all the obvious places. Unwinds on the run are so common these days, they have whole teams of Juvey-cops dedicated to finding them. The police have it down to an art.
He knows he'd be able to disappear in a city, because there are so many faces, you never see the same one twice. He knows he can also disappear in the country, where people are so few and far between; he could set up house in an old barn and no one would think to look. But then, Connor figures the police probably thought of that. They probably have every old barn set up to spring like a rat trap, snaring kids like him. Or maybe he's just being paranoid. No, Connor knows his situation calls for justified caution—not just tonight, but for the next two years. Then once he turns eighteen, he's home free. After that, sure, they can throw him in jail, they can put him on trial—but they can't unwind him. Surviving that long is the trick.
Down by the interstate there's a rest stop where truckers pull off the road for the night. This is where Connor goes. He figures he can slip in the back of an eighteen-wheeler, but he quickly learns that truckers keep their cargo locked. He curses himself for not having forethought enough to consider that. Thinking ahead has never been one of Connor's strong points. If it was, he might not have gotten into the various situations that have plagued him over these past few years. Situations that got him labels like "troubled" and "at risk," and finally this last label, "unwind."
There are about twenty parked trucks, and a brightly lit diner where half a dozen truckers eat. It's 3:30 in the morning. Apparently truckers have their own biological clocks. Connor watches and waits. Then, at about a quarter to four, a police cruiser pulls silently into the truck stop. No lights, no siren. It slowly circles the lot like a shark. Connor thinks he can hide, until he sees a second police car pulling in. There are too many lights over the lot for Connor to hide in shadows, and he can't bolt without being seen in the bright moonlight. A patrol car comes around the far end of the lot. In a second its headlights will be on him, so he rolls beneath a truck and prays the cops haven't seen him.
He watches as the patrol car's wheels slowly roll past. On the other side of the eighteen-wheeler the second patrol car passes in the opposite direction. Maybe this is just a routine check, he thinks. Maybe they're not looking for me. The more he thinks about it, the more he convinces himself that's the case. They can't know he's gone yet. His father sleeps like a log, and his mother never checks on Connor during the night anymore.
Still, the police cars circle.
From his spot beneath the truck Connor sees the driver's door of another eighteen-wheeler open. No—it's not the driver's door, it's the door to the little bedroom behind the cab. A trucker emerges, stretches, and heads toward the truckstop bathrooms, leaving the door ajar.
In the hairbreadth of a moment, Connor makes a decision and bolts from his hiding spot, racing across the lot to that truck. Loose gravel skids out from under his feet as he runs. He doesn't know where the cop cars are anymore, but it doesn't matter. He has committed himself to this course of action and he has to see it through. As he nears the door he sees headlights arcing around, about to turn toward him. He pulls open the door to the truck's sleeper, hurls himself inside, and pulls the door closed behind him.
He sits on a bed not much bigger than a cot, catching his breath. What's his next move? The trucker will be back. Connor has about five minutes if he's lucky, one minute if he's not. He peers beneath the bed. There's space down there where he can hide, but it's blocked by two duffle bags full of clothes. He could pull them out, squeeze in, and pull the duffle bags back in front of him. The trucker would never know he's there. But even before he can get the first duffle bag out, the door swings open. Connor just stands there, unable to react as the trucker reaches in to grab his jacket and sees him.
"Whoa! Who are you? What the hell you doin' in my truck?"
A police car cruises slowly past behind him.
"Please," Connor says, his voice suddenly squeaky like it was before his voice changed. "Please, don't tell anyone. I've got to get out of this place." He reaches into his backpack, fumbling, and pulls out a wad of bills from his wallet. "You want money? I've got money. I'll give you all I've got."
"I don't want your money," the trucker says.
"All right, then, what?"
Even in the dim light the trucker must see the panic in Connor's eyes, but he doesn't say a thing.
"Please," says Connor again. "I'll do anything you want. ..."
The trucker looks at him in silence for a moment more. "Is that so?" he finally says. Then he steps inside and closes the door behind him.
Connor shuts his eyes, not daring to consider what he's just gotten himself into.
The trucker sits beside him. "What's your name?"
"Connor." Then he realizes a moment too late he should have given a fake name.
The trucker scratches his beard stubble and thinks for a moment. "Let me show you something, Connor." He reaches over Connor and grabs, of all things, a deck of cards from a little pouch hanging next to the bed. "Did ya ever see this?" The trucker takes the deck of cards in one hand and does a skillful one-handed shuffle. "Pretty good, huh?"
Connor, not knowing what to say, just nods.
"How about this?" Then the trucker takes a single card and with sleight of hand makes the card vanish into thin air. Then he reaches over and pulls the card right out of Connor's shirt pocket. "You like that?"
Connor lets out a nervous laugh.
"Well, those tricks you just saw?" The trucker says, "I didn't do em."
"I . . . don't know what you mean."
The trucker rolls up his sleeve to reveal that the arm, which had done the tricks, had been grafted on at the elbow.
"Ten years ago I fell asleep at the wheel," the trucker tells him. "Big accident. I lost an arm, a kidney, and a few other things. I got new ones, though, and I pulled through." He looks at his hands, and now Connor can see that the trick-card hand is a little different from the other one. The trucker's other hand has thicker fingers, and the skin is a bit more olive in tone.
"So," says Connor, "you got dealt a new hand."
The trucker laughs at that, then he becomes quiet for a moment, looking at his replacement hand. "These fingers here knew things the rest of me didn't. Muscle memory, they call it. And there's not a day that goes by that I don't wonder what other incredible things that kid who owned this arm knew, before he was unwound . . . whoever he was."
The trucker stands up. "You're lucky you came to me," he says. "There are truckers out there who'll take whatever you offer, then turn you in anyway."
"And you're not like that?"
"No, I'm not." He puts out his hand—his other hand—and Connor shakes it. "Josias Aldridge," he says. "I'm heading north from here. You can ride with me till morning."
Connor's relief is so great, it takes the wind right out of him. He can't even offer a thank-you.
"That bed there's not the most comfortable in the world," says Aldridge, "but it does the job. Get yourself some rest. I just gotta go take a dump, and then we'll be on our way." Then he closes the door, and Connor listens to his footsteps heading off toward the bathroom. Connor finally lets his guard down and begins to feel his own exhaustion. The trucker didn't give him a destination, just a direction, and that's fine. North, south, east, west—it doesn't matter as long as it's away from here. As for his next move, well, first he's got to get through this one before he can think about what comes next.
A minute later Connor's already beginning to doze when he hears the shout from outside.
"We know you're in there! Come out now and you won't get hurt!"
Connor's heart sinks. Josias Aldridge has apparently pulled another sleight of hand. He's made Connor appear for the police. Abracadabra. With his journey over before it even began, Connor swings the door open to see three Juvey-cops aiming weapons.
But they're not aiming at him.
In fact, their backs are to him.
Across the way, the cab door swings open of the truck he had hidden under just a few minutes before, and a kid comes out from behind the empty driver's seat, his hands in the air. Connor recognizes him right away. It's a kid he knows from school. Andy Jameson.
My God, is Andy being unwound too?
There's a look of fear on Andy's face, but beyond it is something worse. A look of utter defeat. That's when Connor realizes his own folly. He'd been so surprised by this turn of events that he's still just standing there, exposed for anyone to see. Well, the policemen don't see him. But Andy does. He catches sight of Connor, holds his gaze, only for a moment . . .
. . . and in that moment something remarkable happens.
The look of despair on Andy's face is suddenly replaced by a steely resolve bordering on triumph. He quickly looks away from Connor and takes a few steps before the police grab him—steps away from Connor, so that the police still have their backs to him.
Andy had seen him and had not given him away! If Andy has nothing else after this day, at least he'll have this small victory.
Connor leans back into the shadows of the truck and slowly pulls the door closed. Outside, as the police take Andy away, Connor lies back down, and his tears come as sudden as a summer downpour. He's not sure who he's crying for—for Andy, for himself, for Ariana—and not knowing makes his tears flow all the more. Instead of wiping the tears away he lets them dry on his face like he used to when he was a little boy and the things he cried about were so insignificant that they'd be forgotten by morning.