Unwind / Page 39

Page 39



54 Lev

It's not Connor's imagination.

Levi Jedediah Calder is one of the very special guests of Happy Jack Harvest Camp, and he is wearing his tithing whites once more. He does not see Connor on the volleyball court because the tithes are strictly instructed not to look at the terribles. Why should they? They have been told from birth they are of a different caste and have a higher calling.

Lev may still have the remnants of a sunburn, but his hair is cut short and neat, just as it used to be, and his manner is sensitive and mild. At least on the outside.

He has an appointment for unwinding in thirteen days.

55 Risa

She plays on the roof of the Chop Shop, and her music carries across the fields to the ears of more than a thousand souls waiting to go under the knife. The joy of having her fingers on the keys again can only be matched by the horror of knowing what's going on beneath her feet.

From her vantage point on the roof she sees them brought down the maroon flagstone path that all the kids call "the red carpet." Kids who walk the red carpet have guards flanking them on either side, with firm grips on their upper arms—firm enough to restrain them, but not enough to bruise them.

Yet in spite of this, Dalton and the rest of his band play like it doesn't matter at all.

"How can you do this?" she asks during one of their breaks. "How can you watch them day after day, going in and never coming out?"

"You get used to it," the drummer tells her, taking a swig of water. "You'll see."

"I won't! I can't!" She thinks about Connor. He doesn't have this same reprieve from unwinding. He doesn't stand a chance. "I can't be an accomplice to what they're doing!"

"Hey," says Dalton, getting annoyed. "This is survival here, and we do what we have to do to survive! You got chosen because you can play, and you're good. Don't throw it away. Either you get used to kids walking down the red carpet or you'll be on it yourself, and we'll have to play for you."

Risa gets the message, but it doesn't mean she has to like it. "Is that what happened to your last keyboard player?" Risa asks. She can tell it's a subject they'd rather not think about. They look at one another. No one wants to take on the question. Then the lead singer answers with a nonchalant toss of her hair, like it doesn't matter. "Jack was about to turn eighteen, so they took him a week before his birthday."

"He was not a very happy Jack," says the drummer, and hits a rim shot.

"That's it?" says Risa. "They just took him?"

"Business is business," says the lead singer. "They lose a ton of money if one of us turns eighteen, because then they've got to let us go."

"I've got a plan, though," says Dalton, winking at the others, who have obviously heard this before. "When I'm getting close to eighteen, and they're ready to come for me, I'm jumping right off this roof."

"You're going to kill yourself?"

"I hope not—it's only two stories, but I'll sure get busted up real bad. See, they can't unwind you like that; they have to wait until you heal. By then I'll be eighteen and they will be screwed!" He high-fives the drummer, and they laugh. Risa can only stare in disbelief.

"Personally," says the lead singer, "I'm counting on them lowering the legal age of adulthood to seventeen. If they do, I'll go to the staffers and counselors, and the friggin' doctors. I'll spit right in their faces—and they won't be able to do anything but let me walk right out that gate on my own two legs."

Then the guitar player, who hasn't said a word all morning, picks up his instrument.

"This one's for Jack," he says, and begins playing the opening chords to the prewar classic "Don't Fear the Reaper."

The rest of them join in, playing from the heart, and Risa does her best to keep her eyes away from the red carpet.

56 Connor

The dormitories are divided into units. There are thirty kids per unit—thirty beds in a long, thin room with large shatterproof windows to bring in the cheerful light of day. As Connor prepares for dinner he notices that two beds in his unit have been stripped, and the kids who slept in them are nowhere to be seen. Everyone notices but no one talks about it, except one kid who takes one of the bunks because his mattress has broken springs.

"Let a newbie have the broken one," he says. "I'm gonna be comfortable my last week."

Conner can't remember either the names or the faces of the missing kids, and that haunts him. The whole day weighs heavily on him—the way the kids think he can somehow save them, when he knows he can't even save himself. The way the staff keeps waiting for him to make a mistake. His one joy is knowing that Risa is safe, at least for now.

He had seen her after lunch when he stopped to watch the band. He had been searching for her everywhere, and all that time she was right there in plain view, playing her heart out. She had told him she played piano, but he never gave it much thought. She's amazing, and now he wishes he had taken more time to get to know who she was before she escaped from that bus. When she saw him watching that afternoon, she smiled—something she rarely did. But the smile was quickly replaced by a look that registered the reality. She was up there, and he was down here.

Connor spends so much time with his thoughts in the dormitory that, when he looks up, he realizes that everyone in the unit has already left for dinner. As he gets up to leave, he sees someone lurking at the door and stops short. It's Roland.

"You're not supposed to be here," Connor says.

"No, I'm not," says Roland, "but thanks to you, I am."

"That's not what I mean. If you get caught out of your unit, it's a mark against you. They'll unwind you sooner."

"Nice of you to care."

Connor heads for the doorway, but Roland blocks his path. For the first time Connor notices that in spite of Roland's muscular build, they're not all that different in height. Connor always thought Roland towered over him. He doesn't. Connor prepares himself for whatever Roland might have up his sleeve and says, "If you're here for a reason, get on with it. Otherwise, step aside so I can get to dinner."

The look on Roland's face is so toxic it could take out an entire unit. "I could have killed you a dozen times. I should have—because then we wouldn't be here."

"You turned us in at the hospital," Connor reminds him. "If you hadn't done that, we wouldn't be here. We all would've made it safely back to the Graveyard!"

"What Graveyard? There's nothing left. You locked me in that crate and let them all destroy it! I would have stopped it, but you never gave me the chance!"

"If you were there, you would have found a way to kill the Admiral yourself. Hell, you would have killed the Goldens if they weren't already dead! That's what you are! That's who you are!"

Roland suddenly gets very quiet, and Connor knows he's gone too far.

"Well, if I'm a killer, I'm running out of time," says Roland. "I better get to it." He begins swinging, and Connor is quick to defend, but soon it's more than just defending himself. Connor taps into his own wellspring of fury, and he lets loose a brutal offensive of his own.

It's the fight they never had in the warehouse. It's the fight Roland wanted when he had cornered Risa in the bathroom. Roth of them fuel their fists with a world's worth of anger. They smash against walls and bedframes, relentlessly pummel-ing each other. Connor knows this is not like any fight he's ever had before, and although Roland doesn't have a weapon, he doesn't need one. He's his own weapon.

As well as Connor fights, Roland is simply stronger, and as Connor's strength begins to fade, Roland grabs him by the throat and slams him against the wall, his hand pressed against Connor's windpipe. Connor struggles, but Roland's grip is way too strong. He slams Connor against the wall over and over, never loosening that grip on his neck.

"You call me a killer, but you're the only criminal here!" screams Roland. "I didn't take a hostage! I didn't shoot a Juvey-cop! And I never killed anyone! Until now!" Then he squeezes his fingers together and shuts off Connor's windpipe completely.

Connor's struggles become weaker without oxygen to feed his muscles. His chest heaves against the absence of air, and his vision begins to darken until all he can see is Roland's furious grimace. Would you rather die, or be unwound? Now he finally knows the answer. Maybe this is what he wanted. Maybe it's why he stood there and taunted Roland. Because he'd rather be killed with a furious hand than dismembered with cool indifference.

Connor's eyesight fills with frantic squiggles, the darkness closes in, and his consciousness fails.

But only for an instant.

Because in a moment his head hits the ground, startling him conscious again—and when his vision starts to clear he sees Roland looking down on him. He's just standing there, staring. To Connor's amazement, there are tears in Roland's eyes that he tries to hide behind his anger, but they're still there. Roland looks at the hand that came so close to taking Connor's life. He wasn't able to go through with it—and he seems just as surprised as Connor.

"Consider yourself lucky," Roland says. Then he leaves without another word.

Connor can't tell whether Roland is disappointed or relieved that he's not the killer he thought he was, but Connor suspects it's a little bit of both.

57 Lev

The tithes at Happy Jack are like first-class passengers on the Titanic. There's plush furniture throughout the tithing house. There's a theater, a pool, and the food is better than homemade. Sure, their fate is the same as the "terribles," but at least they're getting there in style.

It's after dinner, and Lev is alone in the tithing house workout room. He stands on a treadmill that isn't moving, because he hasn't turned it on. On his feet are thickly padded running shoes. He wears a double pair of socks to cushion his feet even more. However, his feet are not his concern at the moment—it's his hands. He stands there staring at his hands, lost in the prospect of them. Never before has he been so intrigued by the lines across his palms. Isn't one of them supposed to be a life line? Shouldn't the life line of a tithe divide out like the branches of a tree? Lev looks at the swirls of his fingerprints. What a nightmare of identification it must be when other people get an Unwind's hands. What can fingerprints mean when they're not necessarily yours?

No one will be getting Lev's fingerprints. He knows this for a fact.

There are tons of activities for the tithes, but unlike the terribles, no one is forced to participate. Part of preparation for tithing is a monthlong regimen of mental and physical assessments even before one's tithing party, so all the hard work is done at home, before they get here. True, this isn't the harvest camp he and his parents had chosen, but he's a tithe— it's a lifetime pass that's good anywhere.

Most of the other tithes are in the rec room at this time of the evening, or in any number of prayer groups. There are pastors of all faiths in the tithing house—ministers, priests, rabbis, and clerics—because that notion of giving the finest of the flock back to God is a tradition as old as religion itself.

Lev attends as often as necessary, and in Bible study he says just enough of the right things so as not to look suspect. He also keeps his silence when Bible passages become shredded to justify unwinding, and kids start to see the face of God in the fragments.


Prev Next