Unwind / Page 28

Page 28



The cops reach for their holsters and pull out their guns, but Lev doesn't care.

"Drop the shovel!" one of them yells. His gun is trained at Lev's chest, but Lev won't drop it. Let him shoot. If he does, I'll still get in one good swing at Tyler's parents before I go down. I might die, but at least I'll take one of them with me. In his whole life, he's never felt like this before. He's never felt this close to exploding.

"TELL HIM! TELL HIM NOW!"

Everything freezes in the stand-off: the cops and their guns, Lev and his shovel. Then finally the man and woman end it. They look down at the boy rocking back and forth, sobbing over the random pieces of tangled jewelry he's spread at their feet.

"We won't unwind you, Tyler."

"PROMISE HIM!"

"We won't unwind you, Tyler. We promise. We promise."

Cy's shoulders relax, and although he still cries, they're no longer sobs of desperation. They're sobs of relief.

"Thank you," Cy says. "Thank you . . ."

Lev drops the shovel, the cops lower their guns, and the tearful couple escape toward the safety of their home. Cyrus's dads are there to fill the void. They help Cyrus up and hold him tight.

"It's all right, Cyrus. Everything's going to be okay."

And through his sobs, Cy says, "I know. It's all good now. It's all good."

That's when Lev takes off. He knows he's the only variable in this equation left to resolve, and in a moment the cops are going to realize that. So he backs into the shadows while the officers are still distracted by the scurrying couple, and the crying kid, and the two dads, and the shiny things on the ground. Then, once he's in the shadows, he turns and runs. In a few moments they'll know he's gone, but a few moments is all he needs. Because he's fast. He's always been fast. He's through the bushes, into the next yard, and onto another street in ten seconds.

The look on Cy's face as he dropped the jewelry at the feet of those horrible, horrible people, and the way they acted, as if they were the ones being victimized—these things will stay with Lev for the rest of his life. He knows he's been changed by this moment, transformed in some deep and frightening way. Wherever his journey now takes him, it doesn't matter, because he has already arrived there in his heart. He's become like that briefcase in the ground— full of gems yet void of light, so nothing sparkles, nothing shines.

The last bit of daylight is gone from the sky now; the only color left is dark blue fading to black. The streetlights have not yet come on, so Lev dodges through endless shades of pitch. The better to run. The better to hide. The better to lose himself now that darkness is his friend.

Part Five

Graveyard

[Southwest Arizona] serves as an ideal graveyard for airplanes. It has a dry, clear and virtually smog-free climate that helps minimize corrosion. It has an alkaline soil so firm that airplanes can be towed and parked on the surface without sinking. . . .

An airplane graveyard is not just a fence around airplane carcasses and piles of scrap metal. Rather, many millions of dollars' worth of surplus parts are salvaged to keep active aircraft flying. . . .

—JOE ZENTNER, "Airplane Graveyards," desertusa.com

32 The Admiral

The blazing sun bakes the Arizona hardpan by day, and the temperature plunges at night. More than four thousand planes from every era of aviation history shine in the heat of that sun. From cruising altitude, the rows of planes look like crop lines, a harvest of abandoned technology.

#1) YOU ARRIVED HERE BY NECESSITY. YOU STAY HERE BY-CHOICE.

From way up there you can't see that some of those grounded jets are occupied. Thirty-three, to be exact. Spy satellites can catch the activity, but catching it and noticing it are two different things. CIA data analysts have far more pressing things to look for than a band of refugee Unwinds. This is what the Admiral's counting on—but just in case, the rules in the Graveyard are strict. All activity takes place in the fuselage or under the wings, unless it's absolutely necessary to go out into the open. The heat helps enforce the edict.

#2) SURVIVING HAS EARNED YOU THE RIGHT TO BE RESPECTED.

The Admiral doesn't exactly own the Graveyard, but his management is undisputed, and he answers to no one but himself. A combination of business sense, favors owed, and a military willing to do anything to get rid of him are what made such a sweet deal possible.

#3) MY WAY IS THE ONLY WAY.

The Graveyard is a thriving business. The Admiral buys decommissioned airplanes and sells the parts, or even resells them whole. Most business is done online; the Admiral is able to acquire about one retired jet a month. Of course, each one arrives loaded with a secret cargo of Unwinds. That's the real business of the Graveyard, and business has been good.

#4) YOUR LIFE IS MY GIFT TO YOU. TREAT IT LIKE ONE.

Buyers do, on occasion, come to inspect or to pick up merchandise, but there's always plenty of warning. From the time they enter the gate, it's five miles to the yard itself. It gives the kids more than enough time to disappear like gremlins into the machinery. These types of business-related visitors come only about once a week. There are people who wonder what the Admiral docs with all the rest of his time. He tells them he's building a wildlife preserve.

#5) YOU ARE BETTER THAN THOSE WHO WOULD UNWIND YOU. RISE TO THE OCCASION.

There are only three adults in the Admiral's employ; two office workers stationed in a trailer far from the Unwinds, and a helicopter pilot. The pilot goes by the name of Cleaver, and he has two jobs. The first is to tour important buyers around the lot in style. The second is to take the Admiral on trips around the Graveyard once a week. Cleaver is the only employee who knows about the hoard of Unwinds sequestered in the far reaches of the lot. He knows, but he's paid more than enough to keep quiet; and besides, the Admiral trusts Cleaver implicitly. One must trust one's personal pilot.

#6) EVERYONE IN THE GRAVEYARD CONTRIBUTES. NO EXCEPTIONS.

The real work in the yard is done by the Unwinds. There are whole teams specially designated to strip the jets, sort parts, and get them ready for sale. It's just like any other junkyard, but on a larger scale. Not all the jets get stripped. Some remain untouched, if the Admiral thinks he can resell them whole. Some are retooled as living quarters for the kids who are, both literally and figuratively, under his wing.

#7) TEENAGE REBELLION IS FOR SUBURBAN SCHOOLCHILDREN. GET OVER IT.

The kids are grouped in teams best suited for their jobs, their ages, and their personal needs. A lifetime of experience molding military boeufs into a coherent fighting force has prepared the Admiral for creating a functional society out of angry, troubled kids.

#8) HORMONES WILL NOT RULE MY DESERT.

Girls are never grouped with boys.

#9) AT EIGHTEEN YOU CEASE TO BE MY CONCERN.

The Admiral has a list of his ten supreme rules, posted in each and every plane where kids live and work. The kids call them "The Ten Demandments." He doesn't care what they call them, as long as each and every one of them knows the list by heart.

#10) MAKE SOMETHING OF YOURSELF. THIS IS AN ORDER.

It's a challenge keeping almost four hundred kids healthy, hidden, and whole. But the Admiral has never walked away from a challenge. And his motivation for doing this, like his name, is something he prefers to keep to himself.

33 Risa

For Risa, the first days in the Graveyard are harsh and seem to last forever. Her residency begins with an exercise in humility.

Every new arrival is required to face a tribunal: three seventeen-year-olds sitting behind a desk in the gutted shell of a wide-bodied jet. Two boys and a girl. These three, together with Amp and Jeeves, who Risa met when she first stepped off the plane, make up the elite group of five everyone calls "the Goldens." They're the Admiral's five most trusted kids—and therefore the ones in charge.

By the time they get to Risa, they've already processed forty kids.

"Tell us about yourself," says the boy on the right. Starboard Boy, she calls him, since, after all, they're in a vessel. "What do you know, and what can you do?"

The last tribunal Risa faced was back at StaHo, when she was sentenced to be unwound. She can tell these three are bored and don't care what she says, just as long as they can get on to the next one. She finds herself hating them, just as she hated the headmaster that day he tried to explain why her membership in the human race had been revoked.

The girl, who sits in the middle, must read her feelings, because she smiles and says, "Don't worry, this isn't a test—we just want to help you find where you'll fit in here." It's an odd thing to say, since not fitting in is every Unwinds problem.

Risa takes a deep breath. "I was a music student at StaHo," she says, then immediately regrets telling them she's from a state home. Even among Unwinds there's prejudice and pecking orders. Sure enough, Starboard leans back, crossing his arms in clear disapproval, but the port-side boy says: "I'm a Ward too. Florida StaHo 18."

"Ohio 23."

"What instrument do you play?" the girl asks.

"Classical piano."

"Sorry," says Starboard. "We've got enough musicians, and none of the planes came with a piano."

"'Survival has earned me the right to be respected,'" Risa says. "Isn't that one of the Admiral's rules? I don't think he'd like your attitude."

Starboard squirms. "Can we just get on with this?"

The girl offers an apologetic grin. "As much as I hate to admit it, in the here and now, there are other things we need before a virtuoso. What else can you do?"

"Just give me a job and I'll do it," Risa says, trying to get this over with. "That's what you're going to do anyway, right?"

"Well, they always need help in the galley," says Starboard. "Especially after meals."

The girl gives Risa a long, pleading look, perhaps hoping that Risa will come up with something better for herself, but all Risa says is "Fine. Dishwasher. Am I done here?"

She turns to leave, doing her best to douse her disgust. The next kid comes in as she's heading out. He looks awful. His nose is swollen and purple. His shirt is caked with dried blood, and both his nostrils have started bleeding fresh.

"What happened to you?"

He looks at her, sees who it is, and says, "Your boyfriend— that's what happened to me. And he's gonna pay."

Risa could ask him a dozen questions about that, but the kid's bleeding all over his shirt, and the first priority is to stop it. He tips his head back.

"No," Risa tells him. "Lean forward, otherwise you'll gag on your own blood."

The kid listens. The tribunal of three come out from behind their desk to see what they can do, but Risa has it under control.

"Pinch it like this," she tells him. "You need to be patient with this kind of thing." She shows the kid exactly how to pinch his nose to stem the flow of blood. Then, once the bleeding stops, Port-side comes over to her and says, "Nice work."

She's immediately promoted from dishwasher to medic. Funny, but it's indirectly Connor's doing, since he's the one who broke that kid's nose in the first place.

As for the kid with the bloody nose, he gets assigned to dish washing.

* * *

The first few days, actually trying to act like a medic without any real training is terrifying. There are other kids in the medical jet who seem to know a lot more, but she quickly comes to realize they were thrown into this just like she was, when they first arrived.


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