Unwind / Page 34

Page 34



* * *

There's a work call the following day.

Risa hates them, because she knows there isn't going to be anything for her, but everyone must attend work call. Today, the gathering isn't run by an Unwind, it's run by Cleaver. Apparently he's temporarily taken over the job, since no one's been found to fulfill Amp's duties. Risa doesn't like him. He's got an unpleasant, slimy look about him.

There are only a few calls for work today. Someone wants a plumber's assistant in some godforsaken town named Beaver's Breath; there's some farm work out in California; and the third job is just plain weird.

"Prudhoe Bay, Alaska," Cleaver says. "You'll be working on an oil pipeline until you're eighteen. From what I hear, it's one of the coldest, most brutal places on Earth. But, hey, it's a way out, right? I need three volunteers."

The first hand up belongs to an older kid who looks like punishment is his middle name—like he was born for brutal work, right down to his shaved head. The second hand raised catches Risa by surprise. It's Mai. What is Mai doing volunteering for work on a pipeline? Why would she leave the boy she was so attached to back in the warehouse? But then, come to think of it, Risa hasn't seen that boy around the Graveyard at all. While she tries to process this, a third hand goes up. It's a younger kid. A smaller kid. A kid with a bad sunburn. Lev's hand is held high, and he gets chosen for the pipeline job.

Risa just stands there in disbelief, then she searches for Connor in the crowd. He's seen it too. He looks at Risa and shrugs. Well, maybe this is just a shrug to Connor, but it's not to her.

When the meeting breaks up, she makes a beeline for Lev, but he's already vanished into the mob. So the instant Risa gets back to the infirmary, she calls for a messenger, and another and another, sending them each off with redundant notes reminding kids to take their medications. Finally, after her fourth call, the messenger they send is Lev.

He must see the look on her face, because he just stands there at the hatch not coming in. One of the other medics is there, so Risa glares at Lev, pointing toward the back. "That way. Now!"

"I don't take orders," he says.

"That way!" she says again, even more forcefully. "NOW!"

Apparently he does take orders after all, because he steps in and marches toward the back of the plane. Once they reach the storage room at the back, she closes the bulkhead door behind them and lays into him.

"What the hell are you thinking?"

His face is steel. It's the door of a safe she can't get into. "I've never been to Alaska," he says. "I might as well go now."

"You've barely been here a week! Why are you in such a hum' to leave—and for a job like that?"

"I don't have to explain anything to you or to anyone else. I raised my hand, I got chosen, and that's all."

Risa crosses her arms in defiance of his defiance. "You don't go anywhere if I don't give you a clean bill of health. I could tell the Admiral you've got . . . you've got. . . infectious hepatitis."

"You wouldn't!"

"Just watch me."

He storms away from her, kicking the wall in fury, then storms back. "He won't believe you! And even if he does, you can't keep me sick forever!"

"Why are you so determined to go?"

"There are things I have to do," Lev says. "I don't expect you to understand. I'm sorry I'm not who you want me to be, but I've changed. I'm not that same stupid, naive kid you guys kidnapped two months ago. Nothing you can do will keep me from leaving here and doing what I've got to do."

Risa says nothing, because she knows he's right. She can stall him at best, but she can't stop him.

"So," says Lev, a bit more calmly now. "Do I have infectious hepatitis or not?"

She sighs. "No. You don't."

He turns to leave, opening the bulkhead door. He's so determined to move on, he doesn't even think to offer her a good-bye.

"You're wrong about one thing," she says before he's out the door. "You're just as naive as you were before. And maybe twice as stupid."

Then he's gone. That same afternoon, an unmarked white van comes to take him, Mai, and the flesh-head away. Once again, Risa thinks she'll never see Lev again. Once again, she'll be wrong.

37 Emby and the Admiral

Emby has no idea of all the gears turning in the Graveyard— or even that he's one of them. His world is contained within the square panels of his comic books and the well-defined borders of a pinball machine. Staying within those borders has been a successful defense against the injustice and cruelty of life outside of them.

He does not question the oddness of the trio that just left for Alaska; it's not his business. He does not sense the tension in Connor; Connor can take care of himself. He does not spend time wondering about Roland; he just stays out of Roland's way.

But keeping his head down does not keep him in the safe zone. Emby is, in fact, the central bumper on the pinball board, and every single ball in play is about to rebound off of him.

* * *

The Admiral has called for him.

Emby now stands nervously at the entrance to what was once the mobile command center for a president of the United States. There are two other men here. They are in white shirts and dark ties. The black sedan that waits at the bottom of the stairs must be theirs. The Admiral sits at his desk. Emby tries to decide whether he should enter, or turn around and run away. But the Admiral sees him, and his gaze freezes Emby's feet in place.

"You wanted me, sir?"

"Yes. Have a seat, Zachary."

He forces his feet to move toward the chair across from the Admiral. "Emby," he says. "Everyone just calls me Emby."

"Is that your choice, or theirs?" asks the Admiral.

"Well . . . theirs, mostly—but I got used to it."

"Never let anyone else name you," says the Admiral. He leafs through a file with Emby's picture clipped to the cover. It's a full file, and Emby can't imagine how there could be enough interesting things in his life to fill a file that thick. "You may not realize this, but you're a very special boy," says the Admiral.

Emby can only look down at his shoelaces, which are, as always, moments away from coming untied. "Is that why I'm here, sir? Because I'm special?"

"Yes, Zachary. And because of it, you're going to be leaving us today."

Emby looks up. "What?"

"There's someone who wants to meet you. In fact, it's someone who has been looking for you for a very long time."

"Really?"

"These men will take you there."

"Who is it?" Emby has a longstanding fantasy that one of his parents is actually still alive. If not his mother, then his father. He has always dreamed that his father was actually a spy—that his death all those years ago was just the official story, and he's been off in the untamed corners of the world fighting evil, like a real-life comic-book hero.

"It's no one you know," says the Admiral, dashing Emby's hopes. "She's a good woman, though. Actually, she's my ex-wife."

"I ... I don't understand."

"It will be clear to you soon enough. Don't worry."

Which, to Emby, is an open invitation to worry without end. It makes him start to hyperventilate, which makes his bronchial tubes begin to constrict. He starts to wheeze. The Admiral looks at him with concern.

"Are you all right?"

"Asthma," Emby says between wheezes. He pulls out an inhaler from his pocket and takes a puff.

"Yes," says the Admiral. "My son had asthma—he responded very well to Xolair." He looks up at one of the men behind Emby. "Please make sure you get some Xolair for that lung."

"Yes, Admiral Dunfee."

It takes a moment for this to bounce around on the pegs and pins in Emby's mind before hitting his mental flippers.

"Dunfee? Your last name is Dunfee"?"

"We have no last names in the Graveyard," says the Admiral, then he stands and grabs Emby's hand, shaking it. "Good-bye, Zachary. When you see my ex-wife, give her my regards."

Emby can only squeak a wordless response as the men take him by the arms and lead him out and down toward the waiting sedan.

* * *

Once the boy is gone, Admiral Dunfee leans back in his chair. With all the things threatening his domain, here's one thing he can be pleased with. He allows himself a brief moment of satisfaction, glancing over at the smiling picture of his son Harlan—better known as Humphrey in modern folklore, but those who loved him know his real name. Yes, the Admiral is redeeming himself, and setting things right, bit by bit by bit.

38 Mob

Emby's disappearance goes undiscovered for almost two days, until someone takes a look at the pinball machine and notices that something is missing.

"Where's the mouth breather?" people begin to ask. It's not until nightfall that people start asking seriously, and by morning it's clear that he's gone.

Some people claim they saw him wandering off into the desert. Some people claim there was a mysterious car that took him away. Ralphy Sherman claims he saw Emby beamed up to the mother ship to be with his own kind. Even' suggestion is mulled over. Every theory is entertained. A search is mounted by Emby's team. It turns up nothing.

Through all of this, the Admiral is silent.

Now Emby, the kid at the bottom of the pecking order, has suddenly become everyone's best friend, and his disappearance fuel for everyone's fire. Roland uses it to further his own agenda of fear—after all, he was the one who very publicly predicted that Emby would vanish. He didn't believe it for an instant, but now that his prediction has come true, he has everyone's attention.

"You watch," Roland tells all those who will listen. "The Admiral's going to show up one of these days with a nice, thick head of Emby-hair hidden beneath his hat—and any one of us could be next. Has he been looking at your eyes? Has he been listening to the sound of your voice? If he wants a part of you, you'll end up just like Emby!"

He's so convincing, he almost believes it himself. Connor has a completely different view of the situation. He's certain that Roland did away with Emby so he could use his disappearance to gather support. For Connor, it's more proof that Roland killed the Goldens—that he'll stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Connor brings his suspicions to the Admiral. He listens, but still says nothing. The Admiral knows that claiming responsibility for Emby's absence would play right into the mania that Roland is creating. The Admiral could tell Connor that he was the one who sent the boy away, but that would beg questions that he has no desire to answer. He decides to let Connor think that Roland did it—it would motivate Connor even more to find that crucial link connecting Roland to the murders. Because now the Admiral has come to believe in Roland's guilt as well.

"Forget the missing boy," he tells Connor. "Concentrate on proving Roland killed the others. Someone must have helped him—someone must know. Right now Roland has too many supporters. We can't take him down without hard evidence."

"Then somehow I'll get you evidence," Connor tells him. "I'll do it for Emby."

After Connor leaves the Admiral's jet, the Admiral sits alone, pondering the ins and outs of the situation. Things in the Graveyard have gotten dicey before, but dicey situations have always been the Admiral's specialty. He's sure he can play this one to a successful conclusion, and get everything back under his control. As he sits there in his jet, he gets an ache in his shoulder that spreads down to his arm. No doubt it's another manifestation of his various war wounds. He calls for a medic to bring him some aspirin.


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