Unwind / Page 38

Page 38



However, this time, what the Happy Jack staff doesn't know is that Connor Lassiter's reputation has preceded him. The staff's own announcement that they've taken down the Akron AWOL does not deflate the spirits of the Unwinds there. Instead, it takes a boy who was only a rumor and turns him into a legend.

52 Risa

"Before we begin our session, I feel it's important to remind you that although you've developed a friendship with the so-called Akron AWOL, it's in your best interests to dissociate yourself from him."

The first thing they did was to separate the three of them. Divide and conquer, isn't that the term? Risa has no problem being separated from Roland, but seeing what they did to Connor makes her long to see him even more. Physically, he was not harmed in any way. It would not do to damage the merchandise. Psychologically, however, that's a different story. They paraded him through the grounds for nearly twenty minutes. Then they took off his shackles and just left him there by the flagpole. No trip to the "welcome center," no orientation, nothing. He was left to figure everything out for himself. Risa knew the point wasn't to challenge him, or even to punish him. It was to give him every opportunity to do the wrong thing. That way, they could justify any punishment they gave. It had worried Risa, but only for a moment—because she knows Connor all too well. He will only do the wrong thing when it's the right thing to do.

"It looks like you did very well on the aptitude tests, Risa— above average, actually. Good for you!"

After being there for half a day, Risa is still shell-shocked by the general appearance of Happy Jack Harvest Camp. In her mind's eye she always pictured harvest camps as human cattle stockades: dead-eyed crowds of malnourished kids in small gray cells—a nightmare of dehumanization. Yet somehow this picturesque nightmare is worse. Just as the airplane graveyard was Heaven disguised as Hell, harvest camp is Hell masquerading as Heaven.

"You seem to be in good physical condition. You've been getting a lot of exercise, yes? Running, perhaps?"

Exercise seems to be a principal component of the Unwind's day. At first she assumed the various activities were designed to keep the Unwinds occupied until their number came up. Then, as she passed a basketball game on the way to the welcome center, she noticed a totem pole by the court. In the eyes of each of the five totems were cameras. Ten players, ten cameras. It meant that someone, somewhere, was studying each of the Unwinds in that game, taking notes on eye-hand coordination, gauging the strengths of various muscle groups. Risa had quickly realized that the basketball game wasn't to keep the Unwinds entertained, but to help put a cash value on their parts.

"Over the next few weeks you'll be involved in a program of diverse activities. Risa, dear, are you listening? Is any of this going over your head—would you like me to slow down?"

The harvest counselor who interviews her seems to assume that, in spite of aptitude scores, every Unwind must be an imbecile. The woman wears a floral print blouse with lots of leaves and pink flowers. Risa would like to attack her with a weed whacker.

"Do you have any questions or concerns, dear? If you do, there's no better time to ask."

"What happens to the bad parts?"

The question seems to throw the woman off stride. "Excuse me?"

"You know—the bad parts. What do you do with the club feet, and the deaf ears? Do you use those in transplants?"

"You don't have either of those, do your"

"No—but I do have an appendix. What happens to that?"

"Well," says the counselor with near infinite patience, "a deaf ear is better than no ear at all, and sometimes it's all people can afford. And as for your appendix, nobody really needs that anyway.”

"Then, aren't you breaking the law? Doesn't the law specify that you have to keep 100 percent of an Unwind alive?"

The smile has begun to fade from the counselor's face. "Well, actually it's 99.44 percent, which takes into account things like the appendix."

“I see.”

"Our next bit of business is your preadmission questionnaire. Due to your unorthodox arrival, you never had the opportunity to fill one out." She flips through the pages of the questionnaire. "Most of the questions don't matter at this point . . . but if you have any special skills you'd like to let us know about—you know, things that could be of use to the community during your stay here . . ."

Risa wishes she could just get up and leave. Even now, at the end of her life, she still has to face that inevitable question, What good are you?

"I have some medical experience," Risa tells her flatly. "First aid, CPR."

The woman smiles apologetically. "Well, if there's one thing we have too many of here, it's medical staff." If the woman says "well" one more time, Risa may just drop her down a nice deep one. "Anything else?"

"I helped in the infant nursery back at StaHo."

Again that slim smile. "Sorry. No babies here. Is that all?"

Risa sighs. "I also studied classical piano."

The woman's eyebrows raise about an inch. "Really? You play piano? Well, well, well!"

53 Connor

Connor wants to fight. He wants to mistreat the staff and disobey every rule, because he knows if he does, it will get this over with faster. But he won't give in to the urge for two reasons. One: It's exactly what they want him to do. And two: Risa. He knows how it will devastate her to see him led to the Chop Shop. That's what the kids call it, "the Chop Shop"— although they never say it in front of the staff.

Connor is a celebrity in his dormitory. He finds it absurd and surreal that the kids here see him as some sort of symbol, when all he did was survive.

"It can't be all true, right?" the kid who sleeps in the bed next to his asks the first night. "I mean, you didn't really take on an entire squad of Juvey-cops with their own tranq guns."

"No! It's not true," Connor tells him, but denying it just makes the kid believe it even more.

"They didn't really shut down entire freeways looking for you," another kid says.

"It was just one freeway—and they didn't shut it down. I did. Sort of."

"So, then it is true!"

It's no use—no amount of downplaying the story can convince the others that the Akron AWOL is not some larger-than-life action figure.

And then there's Roland, who as much as he despises Connor, is now riding Connor's fame wave for all it's worth. Although Roland's in another unit, wild stories are already getting back to Connor about how he and Roland stole a helicopter and liberated a hundred Unwinds being held in a Tucson hospital. Connor considers telling them that all Roland did was turn them in, but decides life is literally too short to start things up with Roland again.

There's one kid Connor speaks to who actually listens and can tell the truth from the fabrications. His name is Dalton. He's seventeen but short and stocky, with hair that has a mind of its own. Connor tells him exactly what happened on that day he went AWOL. It's a relief to have someone believe the truth. Dalton, however, has his own perspective on it.

"Even if that's all that happened," Dalton says, "it's still pretty impressive. It's what the rest of us wish we could have done."

Connor has to admit that he's right.

"You're, like, king of the Unwinds here," Dalton tells him, "but guys like you get unwound real quick—so watch yourself." Then Dalton takes a long look at him. "You scared?" he asks.

Connor wishes he could tell him different, but he won't lie. "Yeah."

He seems almost relieved that Connor's scared too. "In group they tell us that the fear will pass and we'll get to a place of acceptance. I've been here almost six months, and I'm just as scared as the day I got here."

"Six months? I thought everyone goes down in just a few weeks."

Dalton leans in close and whispers, as if it's dangerous information. "Not if you're in the band."

A band? The thought of there being music at a place where lives are silenced doesn't sit well with Connor.

"They set us up on the roof of the Chop Shop and have us play while they're bringing kids in," Dalton says. "We play everything—classics, pop, Old World rock. I'm the best bass player this place has ever seen." And then he grins. "You should come listen to us tomorrow. We just got a new keyboard player. She's hot."

* * *

Volleyball in the morning. Connor's first official activity. Several staffers in their rainbow of flowered shirts stand on the sidelines with clipboards, because apparently the volleyball court isn't equipped with twelve individual cameras. From behind them, on the roof of the chop shop, music plays. Dalton's band. It's their sound track for the morning.

The opposing team completely deflates when they see Connor, as if his mere presence will ensure their loss. Never mind that Connor stinks at volleyball; to them the Akron AWOL is a star in even' sport. Roland's on the opposing team as well. He doesn't wilt like the others—he just glares, holding the volleyball, ready to serve it down Connor's throat.

The game begins. The intensity of play can only be matched by an undercurrent of fear that runs beneath eventap of the ball. Both teams play as if the losers will be immediately unwound. Dalton had told Connor that it doesn't work that way, but losing can't help, either. It reminds Connor of the Mayan game of pokatok—something he learned about in history class. The game was a lot like basketball, except that the losers were sacrificed to the Mayan gods. At the time Connor thought it was cool.

Roland spikes the ball, and it hits one of the staffers in the face. Roland grins before he apologizes and the man glares at him, making a note on his clipboard. Connor wonders if it will cost Roland a few days.

Then suddenly, the game pauses, because everyone's attention begins to shift to a group of kids in white, passing the far side of the court.

"Those are tithes," a kid tells Connor. "You know what those are, right?"

Connor nods. "I know."

"Look at them. They think they're so much better than everyone else."

Connor has already heard how tithes are treated differently than the regular population. "Tithes" and "Terribles," that's how the staff refers to the two kinds of Unwinds. Tithes don't participate in the same activities as the terribles. They don't wear the same blue and pink uniforms the terribles wear. Their white silk outfits are so bright in the Arizona sun, you have to squint your eyes when you look at them, like they were adolescent versions of God himself—although to Connor they look more like a little squad of aliens. The terribles hate the tithes the way peasants despise royalty. Connor might have once felt the same way, but having known one, he feels more sorry for them than anything else.

"I hear they know the exact date and time of their unwinding," one kid says.

"I hear they actually make their own appointment!" says another.

The ref blows his whistle, "All right, back to the game."

They turn away from the bright white uniforms of the chosen few, and add one more layer of frustration to the match.

For a moment, as the tithes disappear over a hillside, Connor thinks that he recognizes a face among them, but he knows it's just his imagination.


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