Unwind / Page 22

Page 22



Once inside she hangs the makeshift OCCUPIED sign on the door knob, and pushes the door closed. She takes a moment to examine herself in the mirror, but she doesn't like the straggly-haired, ragged girl she's become, so she doesn't look at herself for long. She washes her face and, since there are no towels, dries it with her sleeve. Then, before she even turns for the toilet, she hears the door creak open behind her.

She turns and must stifle a gasp. It's Roland who has entered the bathroom. And now he closes the door gently behind him. Risa immediately realizes her mistake. She should never have come here alone.

"Get out!" she says. She wishes she could sound more forceful in the moment, but he's caught her by surprise.

"No need to be so harsh." Roland moves toward her in a slow, predatory stride. "We're all friends here, right? And since everyone's eating dinner, we've got some quality time to get to know each other."

"Stay away from me!" Now she's scanning her options, but realizes in this tight a space, with only one door, and nothing she can use as a weapon, her options are limited.

Now he's dangerously close. "Sometimes I like having dessert before dinner. How about you?"

The second he's in range, she acts quickly to hit him, to knee him, to inflict any kind of pain that would distract him enough for her to fly out the door. His reflexes are simply too fast. He grabs her hands, pushes her back against the cold green tile wall, and presses his hip against her so that her knee can't reach its mark. And he grins, as if it was all so easy. His hand is on her cheek now. The shark tattooed on his forearm is inches away, and seems ready to attack.

"So, whaddaya say we have some fun and make sure you don't get unwound for nine months?"

Risa has never been a screamer. The way she always saw it, screaming was a show of weakness. A sign of defeat. Now she has to admit defeat, for although she has lots of experience warding off creeps, Roland has even more experience being one.

So she screams. She lets loose a bloodcurdler at the top of her lungs. But her timing is as bad as it could possibly be, because just then a jet roars by overhead, shaking the walls and completely swallowing her scream.

"Ya gotta learn to enjoy life," Roland says. "Let's call this lesson one."

That's when the door swings open, and over Roland's massive shoulder Risa sees Connor standing at the threshold, eyes blazing. She's never been happier to see anyone.

"Connor! Stop him!"

Roland sees him too, catching his reflection in the bathroom mirror, but he doesn't release Risa.

"Well," says Roland. "Isn't this awkward."

Connor makes no move to tear him away. He just stands there on the threshold. His eyes still rage, but his hands—they're not even clenched into fists. They just hang there limply by his side. What's wrong with him?

Roland winks at Risa, then he calls over his shoulder to Connor. "Better get out if you know what's good for you."

Connor steps over the threshold, but he doesn't move toward them. Instead he goes to the sink. "Mind if I wash up for dinner?"

Risa waits for him to make a sharp and sudden move, catching Roland off guard, but he doesn't. He just washes his hands.

"Your girlfriend's had her eye on me since Sonia's basement," says Roland. "You know that, don't you?"

Connor dries his hands on his pants. "You two can do whatever you like. Risa and I broke up this morning. Should I turn off the light when I leave?"

The betrayal is so unexpected, so complete, Risa doesn't know who to hate more, Roland or Connor. But then Roland eases his grip on her. "Well, now the mood's ruined, isn't it." He lets her go. "Hell, I was just kidding, anyway. I wouldn't have done anything." He backs away and offers that smile of his again. "How's about we wait until you're ready." Then he struts out just as boldly as he had come in, bumping Connor's shoulder on the way out as a parting shot.

All of her confusion and frustration unleashes at Connor, and she pushes him back against the wall, shaking him. "What was that? You were just going to let him do it? You were just going to stand there and let it happen?"

Connor pushes her off of him. "Didn't you warn me not to take the bait?"

"What?"

"He didn't just follow you to the bathroom—he pushed past me first. He made sure I knew he was following you here. This whole thing wasn't about you, it was about me—just like you said. He wanted me to catch him. He wanted to make me crazy, to get me fighting mad. So I didn't take the bait."

Risa shakes her head—not in disbelief, but reeling from the truth of it. "But ... but what if . . . what if he . . ."

"But he didn't, did he? And now he won't. Because if he thinks you and I broke up, you're more useful to him if you're on his side. He might still be after you, but from now on, I'll bet he'll be killing you with kindness."

All the emotions rebounding madly through Risa finally come to rest in an unfamiliar place, and tears burst from her eyes. Connor steps forward to comfort her, but she pushes him away with the same force she would have used against Roland.

"Get out!" she yells. "Just get out!"

Connor throws up his hands, frustrated. "Fine. I guess I should have just gone to dinner and not come in here at all."

He leaves and she closes the door behind him, in spite of the line of kids now waiting for the bathroom. She sits down on the floor, her back against the door so no one can get in as she tries to get her emotions under control.

Connor had done the right thing. For once, he had seen the situation more clearly than she—and he had probably ensured that Roland wouldn't physically threaten her again, at least for a while. And yet there's a part of her that can't forgive him for just standing there. After all, heroes are supposed to behave in very specific ways. They're supposed to fight, even if it means risking their lives.

This is the moment Risa realizes that, even with all his troubles, she sees Connor as a hero.

25 Connor

Holding his temper in that bathroom was perhaps the hardest thing Connor had ever had to do. Even now, as he storms away from Risa, he wants to lay into Roland—but blind rage is not what the moment needs, and Connor knows it. Risa's right—a brutal, all-out fight is exactly what Roland wants—and Connor's heard from some of the other kids that Roland has fashioned himself a knife out of some metal he found lying around the warehouse. If Connor launches at him with a rage of swinging fists, Roland will find a way to end it with a single deadly thrust— and he'll be able to get away with it, claiming it was self-defense.

Whether Connor can take him in a fight isn't the question. Even against a knife, Connor suspects he might be able to either turn the blade against him, or take Roland out in some other way before he has the chance to use it. The question is this: Is Connor willing to enter a battle that must end with one of them dead? Connor might be a lot of things, but he's no killer. So he holds his temper and plays it cool.

This is new territory for him. The fighter in him screams foul, but another side of him, a side that's growing steadily stronger, enjoys this exercise of silent power—and it is power, because Roland now behaves exactly the way he and Risa want him to. Connor sees Roland offer his dessert to Risa that night as an apology. She doesn't accept it, of course, but it doesn't change the fact that he offered it. It's as if Roland thinks his attack on her could be wiped away by feigning remorse—not because he's actually sorry for what he did, but because it serves Roland's needs to treat her well now. He has no idea that Risa and Connor have him on an invisible leash. Connor knows it will only be a matter of time, however, until he chews his way through it.

Part Four

Destinations

The following is a response from eBay with regard to a seller's attempt to auction his soul online in 2001.

Thank you for taking the time to write eBay with your concerns. I'm happy to help you further.

If the soul does not exist, eBay could not allow the auctioning of the soul because there would be nothing to sell. However, if the soul does exist, then in accordance with eBay's policy on human parts and remains we would not allow the auctioning of human souls. The soul would be considered human remains; and although it is not specifically stated on the policy page, human souls are still not allowed to he listed on eBay. Your auction was removed appropriately and will not be reinstated. Please do not relist this item with us in the future.

You may review our policy at the following link:

http:llpages.ebay.comfhelplpolicieslremains.html.

It is my pleasure to assist you. Thank you for choosing eBay.

26 Pawnbroker

The man inherited the pawnshop from his brother, who had died of a heart attack. He wouldn't have kept the place, but he inherited it while he was unemployed. He figured he could keep it and run it until he could find a better job. That was twenty years ago. Now he knows it's a life sentence.

A boy comes into his shop one evening before closing. Not his usual type of customer. Most folks come into a pawnshop down on their luck, ready to trade in everything they own, from TVs to family heirlooms, in exchange for a little quick cash. Some do it for drugs. Others have more legitimate reasons. Either way, the pawnbroker's success is based on the misery of others. It doesn't bother him anymore. He's grown used to it.

This boy is different, though. Sure, there are kids who come in, hoping to get a deal on items that were never claimed, but there's something about this kid that's markedly off. He looks more clean-cut than the kids that usually turn up in his store. And the way he moves, even the way he holds himself, is refined and graceful, deliberate and delicate, like he's lived his life as a prince and is now pretending to be the pauper. He wears a puffy white coat, but it's a bit dirty. Maybe he's the pauper after all.

The TV on the counter plays a football game, but the pawnbroker isn't watching the game anymore. His eyes are on it, but his mind is keeping track of the kid as he meanders through the shop, looking at things, like he might want to buy something.

After a few minutes, the kid approaches the counter.

"What can I do for you?" the pawnbroker asks, genuinely curious.

"This is a pawnshop isn't it?"

"Doesn't it says so on the door?"

"So that means you trade things for money, right?"

The pawnbroker sighs. The kid's just ordinary after all, just a little more naive than the other kids who show up here trying to hock their baseball card collections or whatever. Usually they want money for cigarettes or alcohol or something else they don't want their parents to know about. This kid doesn't look like the type for that, though.

"We loan money, and take objects of value as collateral," he tells the kid. "And we don't do business with minors. You wanna buy something, fine, but you can't pawn anything here, so take your baseball cards somewhere else."

"Who said I have baseball cards?"

Then the kid reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bracelet, all diamonds and gold.

The pawnbroker's eyes all but pop out of his skull as the kid dangles it from his fingers. Then the pawnbroker laughs. "Whad'ya do, steal that from your mommy, kid?"

The kid's expression stays diamond hard. "How much will you give me for it?"


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