Unwind / Page 3

Page 3

The trucker never comes to check on him. Instead Connor hears the engine start and feels the truck pulling out. The gentle motion of the road rocks him to sleep.

* * *

The ring of Connor's cell phone wakes him out of a deep sleep. He fights consciousness. He wants to go back to the dream he was having. It was about a place he was sure he had been to, although he couldn't quite remember when. He was at a cabin on a beach with his parents, before his brother was born. Connor's leg had fallen through a rotted board on the porch into spiderwebs so thick, they felt like cotton. Connor had screamed and screamed from the pain, and the fear of the giant spiders that he was convinced would eat his leg off. And yet, this was a good dream—a good memory—because his father was there to pull him free, and carry him inside, where they bandaged his leg and sat him by the fire with some kind of cider so flavorful, he could still taste it when he thought about it. His father told him a story that he can no longer remember, but that's all right. It wasn't the story but the tone of his voice that mattered, a gentle baritone rumble as calming as waves breaking on a shore. Little-boy-Connor drank his cider and leaned back against his mother pretending to fall asleep, but what he was really doing was trying to dissolve into the moment and make it last forever. In the dream he did dissolve. His whole being flowed into the cider cup, and his parents placed it gently on the table, close enough to the fire to keep it warm forever and always.

Stupid dreams. Even the good ones are bad, because they remind you how poorly reality measures up.

His cell phone rings again, chasing away the last of the dream. Connor almost answers it. The sleeper room of the truck is so dark, he doesn't realize at first that he's not in his own bed. The only thing that saves him is that he can't find his phone and he must turn on a light. When he finds a wall where his nightstand should be, he realizes that this isn't his room. The phone rings again. That's when it all comes back to him, and he remembers where he is. Connor finds his phone in his backpack. The phone ID says the call is from his father.

So now his parents know he's gone. Do they really think he'll answer his phone? He waits until voicemail takes the call, then he turns off the power. His watch says 7:30 a.m. He rubs the sleep out of his eyes, trying to calculate how far they've come. The truck isn't moving anymore, but they must have traveled at least two hundred miles while he slept. It's a good start.

There's a knock on the door. "Come on out, kid. Your ride's over."

Connor's not complaining—it was outrageously generous of this truck driver to do what he did. Connor won't ask any more of him. He swings open the door and steps out to thank the man, but it's not Josias Aldridge at the door. Aldridge is a few yards away being handcuffed, and in front of Connor is a policeman: a Juvey-cop wearing a smile as big as all outdoors. Standing ten yards away is Connor's father, still holding the cell phone he had just called from.

"It's over, son," his father says.

It makes Connor furious. I'm not your son! He wants to shout. I stopped being your son when you signed the unwind order! But the shock of the moment leaves him speechless.

It had been so stupid of Connor to leave his cell phone on—that's how they tracked him—and he wonders how many other kids are caught by their own blind trust of technology. Well, Connor's not going the way Andy Jameson did. He quickly assesses the situation. The truck has been pulled over to the side of the interstate by two highway patrol cars and a Juvey-cop unit. Traffic barrels past at seventy miles per hour, oblivious to the little drama unfolding on the shoulder. Connor makes a split-second decision and bolts, pushing the officer against the truck and racing across the busy highway. Would they shoot an unarmed kid in the back, he wonders, or would they shoot him in the legs and spare his vital organs? As he races onto the interstate, cars swerve around him, but he keeps on going.

"Connor, stop!" he hears his father yell. Then he hears a gun fire.

He feels the impact, but not in his skin. The bullet embeds in his backpack. He doesn't look behind him. Then, as he reaches the highway median, he hears another gunshot, and a small blue splotch appears on the center divider. They're firing tranquilizer bullets. They're not taking him out, they're trying to take him down—and they're much more likely to fire tranq bullets at will, than regular bullets.

Connor climbs over the center divider, and finds himself in the path of a Cadillac that's not stopping for anything. The car swerves to avoid him, and by sheer luck Connor's momentum takes him just a few inches out of the Caddy's path. Its side mirror smacks him painfully in the ribs before the car screeches to a halt, sending the acrid stench of burned rubber up his nostrils. Holding his aching side, Connor sees someone looking at him from an open window of the backseat. It's another kid, dressed all in white. The kid is terrified.

With the police already reaching the center divider, Connor looks into the eyes of this frightened kid, and knows what he has to do. It's time for another split-second decision. He reaches through the window, pulls up the lock, and opens the door.

2 Risa

Risa paces backstage, waiting for her turn at the piano.

She knows she could play the sonata in her sleep—in fact, she often does. So many nights she would wake up to feel her fingers playing on the bed sheets. She would hear the music in her head, and it would still play for a few moments after she awoke, but then it would dissolve into the night, leaving nothing but her fingers drumming against the covers.

She has to know the Sonata. It has to come to her as easily as breathing.

"It's not a competition," Mr. Durkin always tells her. "There are no winners or losers at a recital."

Well, Risa knows better.

"Risa Ward," the stage manager calls. "You're up."

She rolls her shoulders, adjusts the barrette in her long brown hair, then she takes the stage. The applause from the audience is polite, nothing more. Some of it is genuine, for she does have friends out there, and teachers who want her to succeed. But mostly it's the obligatory applause from an audience waiting to be impressed.

Mr. Durkin is out there. He has been her piano teacher for five years. He's the closest thing Risa has to a parent. She's lucky. Not every kid at Ohio State Home 23 has a teacher they can say that about. Most StaHo kids hate their teachers, because they see them as jailers.

Ignoring the stiff formality of her recital dress, she sits at the piano; it's a concert Steinway as ebony as the night, and just as long.


She keeps her eyes on the piano, forcing the audience to recede into darkness. The audience doesn't matter. All that matters is the piano and the glorious sounds she's about to charm out of it.

She holds her fingers above the keys for a moment, then begins with perfect passion. Soon her fingers dance across the keys making the flawless seem facile. She makes the instrument sing . . . and then her left ring finger stumbles on a B-flat, slipping awkwardly onto B-natural.

A mistake.

It happens so quickly, it could go unnoticed—but not by Risa. She holds the wrong note in her mind, and even as she continues playing, that note reverberates within her, growing to a crescendo, stealing her focus until she slips again, into a second wrong note, and then, two minutes later, blows an entire chord. Tears begin to fill her eyes, and she can't see clearly.

You don't need to see, she tells herself. You just need to feel the music. She can still pull out of this nosedive, can't she? Her mistakes, which sound so awful to her, are barely noticeable.

"Relax," Mr. Durkin would tell her. "No one is judging you."

Perhaps he truly believes that—but then, he can afford to believe it. He's not fifteen, and he's never been a ward of the state.

* * *

Five mistakes.

Every one of them is small, subtle, but they are mistakes nonetheless. It would have been fine if any of the other kids' performances were less than stellar, but the others shined.

Still, Mr. Durkin is all smiles when he greets Risa at the reception. "You were marvelous!" he says. "I'm proud of you."

"I stunk up the stage."

"Nonsense. You chose one of Chopin's most difficult pieces. Professionals can't get through it without an error or two. You did it justice!"

"I need more than justice."

Mr. Durkin sighs, but he doesn't deny it. 'You're coming along nicely. I look forward to the day I see those hands playing in Carnegie Hall." His smile is warm and genuine, as are the congratulations from the other girls in her dorm. It's enough warmth to ease her sleep that night, and to give her hope that maybe, just maybe, she's making too much of it and being unnecessarily hard on herself. She falls asleep thinking of what she might choose to play next.

* * *

One week later she's called into the headmaster's office.

There are three people there. A tribunal, thinks Risa. Three adults sitting in judgment, like the three monkeys: hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil.

"Please sit down, Risa," says the headmaster.

She tries to sit gracefully but her knees, now unsteady, won't allow it. She slaps awkwardly down into a chair far too plush for an inquisition.

Risa doesn't know the other two people sitting beside the headmaster, but they both look very official. Their demeanor is relaxed, as if this is business as usual for them.

The woman to the headmaster's left identifies herself as the social worker assigned to Risa's "case." Until that moment, Risa didn't know she had a case. She says her name. Ms. Something-or-other. The name never even makes it into Risa's memory. She flips through the pages of Risa's fifteen years of life as casually as if she were reading a newspaper. "Let's see . . . you've been a ward of the state from birth. It looks like your behavior has been exemplary. Your grades have been respectable, but not excellent." Then the social worker looks up and smiles. "I saw your performance the other night. You were very good."

Good, thinks Risa, but not excellent.

Ms. Something-or-other leafs through the folder for a few seconds more, but Risa can tell she's not really looking. Whatever's going on here was decided long before Risa walked through the door.

"Why am I here?"

Ms. Something-or-other closes her folder and glances at the headmaster and the man beside him in an expensive suit. The suit nods, and the social worker turns back to Risa with a warm smile. "We feel you've reached your potential here," she says. "Headmaster Thomas and Mr. Paulson are in agreement with me."

Risa glances at the suit. "Who's Mr. Paulson?"

The suit clears his throat and says, almost as an apology, "I'm the school's legal counsel."

"A lawyer? Why is there a lawyer here?"

"Just procedure," Headmaster Thomas tells her. He puts a finger into his collar, stretching it, as if his tie has suddenly become a noose. "It's school policy to have a lawyer present at these kinds of proceedings."

"And what kind of proceeding is this?"

The three look at one another, none of them wanting to take the lead. Finally Ms. Something-or-other speaks up. "You must know that space in state homes are at a premium these days, and with budget cuts, every StaHo is impacted—ours included."

Risa holds cold eye contact with her. "Wards of the state are guaranteed a place in state homes."

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