"So are you ever going to tell them you're the Akron AWOL?" she quietly asks Connor.
"I don't want that kind of attention. Besides, they wouldn't believe me anyway. They're all saying the Akron AWOL is this big boeuf superhero. I don't want to disappoint them."
Lev doesn't show up with any of the batches of new kids. The only thing that arrives with them is an increase of tension. Forty-three kids by the end of their first week, and there's still one bathroom, no shower, and no answer as to how long this will last. Restlessness hangs as heavy as body odor in the air.
The Fatigues do their best to keep them all fed and occupied, if only to minimize friction. There are a few crates of games, incomplete decks of cards, and dog-eared books that no library wanted. There are no electronics, no balls—nothing that would create or encourage noise.
"If people out there hear you, then you're all done for," the Fatigues remind them as often as they can. Risa wonders if the Fatigues have lives separate and apart from saving Unwinds, or if this endeavor is their life's work.
"Why are you doing this for us?" Risa asked one of them during their second week.
The Fatigue had been almost rote in her answer—like giving a sound bite to a reporter. "Saving you and others like you is an act of conscience," the woman had said. "Doing it is its own reward."
The Fatigues all talk like that. Big-Picture-speak, Risa calls it. Seeing the whole, and none of the parts. It's not just in their speech but in their eyes as well. When they look at Risa, she can tell they don't really see her. They seem to see the mob of Unwinds more as a concept rather than a collection of anxious kids, and so they miss all the subtle social tremors that shake things just as powerfully as the jets shake the roof.
By the end of the second week, Risa has a pretty good idea where trouble is brewing. It all revolves around one kid she hoped she'd never see again, but he had turned up shortly after she and Connor arrived.
Of all the kids here, he is by far the most potentially dangerous. The troubling thing is that Connor hasn't exactly been the image of emotional stability himself this past week.
He'd been all right in the safe houses. He'd held his temper—he hadn't done anything too impulsive or irrational. Here, however, in the midst of so many kids, he's different. He's irritable and defiant. The slightest thing can set him off. He'd been in half a dozen fights already. She knows this must be why his parents chose to have him unwound—a firestorm temper can drive some parents to desperate measures.
Common sense tells Risa to distance herself from him. Their alliance has been one of necessity, but there's no reason to ally herself with him anymore. Yet, day after day, she keeps finding herself drawn to him . . . and worried about him.
She approaches him shortly after breakfast one day, determined to open his eyes to a clear and present danger. He's sitting by himself, etching a portrait into the concrete floor with a rusty nail. Risa wishes she could say it was good, but Connor's not much of an artist. It disappoints her, because she desperately wants to find something redeeming about him. If he were an artist they could relate on a creative level. She could talk to him about her passion for music, and he would get it. As it is, she doesn't think he even knows, or cares, that she plays piano.
"Who are you drawing?" she asks.
"Just a girl I knew back home," he says. 3
Risa silently suffocates her jealousy in a quick emotional vacuum. "Someone you cared about?"
Risa takes a better look at the sketch. "Her eyes are too big for her face."
"I guess that's because it's her eyes that I remember most."
"And her forehead's too low. The way you've drawn it, she'd have no room for a brain."
"Yeah, well, she wasn't all that bright."
Risa laughs at that, and it makes Connor smile. When he smiles, it's hard to imagine he's the same guy who got into all those fights. She gauges whether or not he'd be open to hear what she has to tell him.
He looks away from her. "Is there something you want, or are you just an art critic today?"
"I . . . was wondering why you're sitting by yourself."
"Ah, so you're also my shrink."
"We're supposed to be a couple. If we're going to keep up the image, you can't be entirely antisocial."
Connor looks out over the groups of kids, busy in various morning activities. Risa follows his gaze. There's a group of kids who hate the world, and spend all day spewing venom. There's a mouth-breathing kid who does nothing but read the same comic book over and over again. Mai is paired off with a glum spike-haired boy named Vincent, who's all leather and body piercings. He must be her soul mate, because they make out all day long, drawing a cluster of other kids who sit there and watch.
"I don't want to be social," Connor says. "I don't like the kids here."
"Why?" asks Risa, "They're too much like you?"
"Yeah, that's what I mean."
He gives her a halfhearted dirty look, then looks down at his drawing, but she can tell he's not thinking about the girl— his head is somewhere else. "If I'm off by myself, then I don't get into fights." He puts down the nail, giving up on his etching. "I don't know what gets into me. Maybe it's all the voices. Maybe it's all the bodies moving all around me. It makes me feel like I've got ants crawling inside my brain and I want to scream. I can stand it just so long, then I blow. It happened even at home, everyone was talking at once at the dinner table. One time, we had family over and the talk got me so crazy, I hurled a plate at the china hutch. Glass blew everywhere. Ruined the meal. My parents asked me what got into me, and I couldn't tell them."
That Connor is willing to share this with her makes her feel good. It makes her feel closer to him. Maybe now that he has opened up, he'll stay open long enough to hear what she has to tell him.
"There's something I want to talk about."
Risa sits beside him, keeping her voice low.
"I want you to watch the other kids. Where they go. Who they talk to."
"All of them?"
"Yeah, but one at a time. After a while you'll start to notice things."
"Like the kids who eat first are the ones who spend the most time with Roland—but he never goes to the front of the line himself. Like the way his closest friends infiltrate the other cliques and get them arguing so they break apart. Like the way Roland is especially nice to the kids that everyone else feels sorry for—but only until nobody feels sorry for them anymore. Then he uses them."
"Sounds like you're doing a class project on him."
"I'm being serious. I've seen this before. He's power hungry, he's ruthless, and he's very, very smart."
Connor laughs at that. "Roland? He couldn't think himself out of a paper bag."
"No, but he could think everyone else into one, and then crush it." Clearly that gives Connor pause for thought. Good, thinks Risa. He needs to think. He needs to strategize.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because you're his biggest threat."
"You're a fighter—everyone knows that. And they also know that you don't take crap from anyone. Have you heard kids mumbling about how someone oughta do something about Roland?"
"They only say that when you're close enough to hear. They're expecting you to do something about him—and Roland knows it."
He tries to wave her off, but she gets in his face.
"Listen to me, because I know what I'm talking about. Back at StaHo there were always dangerous kids who bullied their way into power. They were able to do it because they knew exactly who to take down, and when. And the kid they took down the hardest was the one with the greatest potential for taking them down."
She can see Connor curling his right hand into a fist. She knows she's not getting through to him. He's getting the wrong message.
"If he wants a fight, he'll get one."
"No! You can't take the bait! That's what he wants! He'll do everything within his power to pull you into a fight. But you can't do it."
Connor hardens his jaw. "You think I can't take him in a fight?"
Risa grabs his wrist and holds it tight. "A kid like Roland doesn't want to fight you. He wants to kill you."
As much as Connor hates to admit it, Risa has been right about a lot of things. Her clarity of thought has saved them more than once, and now that he knows to look for it, her take on Roland's secret power structure is right on target. Roland is a master of structuring life around him for his own benefit. It's not the overt bullying that does it, either. It's the subtle manipulation of the situation. The bullying almost acts as cover for what's really going on. As long as people see him as a dumb, tough guy, they don't notice the more clever things he does . . . such as endearing himself to one of the Fatigues by making sure the man sees him giving his food to one of the younger kids. Like a master chess player, every move Roland makes has purpose, even if the purpose isn't immediately clear.
Risa wasn't just right about Roland, she was also right about Lev—or at least the way Connor feels about the kid. Connor hasn't been able to get Lev out of his mind. For the longest time he had convinced himself it was merely out of a desire for revenge, as if he couldn't wait to get even with him. But each time a new group of kids shows up and Lev isn't among them, a sense of despair worms its way through Connor's gut. It makes Connor angry that he feels this way, and he suspects this is part of the anger that fuels the fights he gets into.
The fact is, Lev hadn't just turned them in, he had turned himself in as well. Which means that Lev is probably gone. Unwound into nothing—his bones, his flesh, his mind, shredded and recycled. This is what Connor finds so hard to accept. Connor had risked his life to save Lev, just as Connor had done for the baby on the doorstep. Well, the baby had been saved, but Lev had not, and although he knows he can't be held responsible for Lev's unwinding, he feels as if it is his fault. So he stands there with secret anticipation each time there's a group of new arrivals, hoping beyond hope he'll find that self-righteous, self-important, pain-in-the-ass Lev still alive.
The Fatigues arrive with Christmas dinner an hour late. It's the same old slop, but the Fatigues wear Santa hats. Impatience rules the evening. Everyone's so hungry, they crowd noisily around, like it's a food delivery in a famine, and to make it worse, there are only two Fatigues there tonight to serve the meal instead of the usual four.
"Single line! Single line!" yell the Fatigues. "There's enough for everybody. Ho, ho, ho." Rut tonight it's not a matter of getting enough, it's a matter of getting it now.
Risa's just as hungry as the others, but she also knows that meals are the best time to have some privacy in the bathroom, without someone bursting in through the unlocked door or simply pounding repeatedly to get you out faster. Tonight, with everyone clamoring for their holiday hash, there's no one at the bathroom at all, so, putting her hunger on hold, she moves away from the crowd and across the warehouse toward the bathroom.