"My uncle got the heart of a tithe and now people say he can perform miracles."
"I know this woman who got a tithe's ear. She heard a baby crying a block away, and rescued it from a fire!"
"We are Holy Communion."
"We are manna from Heaven."
"We are the piece of God in everyone."
Lev recites prayers, trying to let them transform him and lift him up like they used to, but his heart has been hardened. He wishes it could be hard enough to be diamond instead of crumbling jade—maybe then he'd have chosen a different path. But for who he is now, for what he feels and what he doesn't feel, the path is right. And if it's not right, well, he doesn't care enough to change it.
The other tithes know Lev is different. They've never seen a fallen tithe before, much less one who, like the prodigal son, has renounced his sins and returned to the fold. But then, tithes don't generally know many other tithes. Being surrounded by so many kids just like them feeds that sense of being a chosen group. Still, Lev is outside of that circle.
He turns the treadmill on, making sure his strides are steady and his footfalls as gentle as can be. The treadmill is state-of-the-art. It has a screen with a programmable vista: You can jog through the woods, or run the New York Marathon. You can even walk on water. Lev was prescribed extra exercise when he arrived a week ago. That first day, his blood tests showed high triglyceride levels. He's sure that Mai's and Blaine's blood tests showed the same problem as well— although the three of them were "captured" independently and arrived a few days apart from one another, so no connection among the three of them could be made.
"Either it runs in your family or you've had a diet high in fats," the doctor had said. He prescribed a low-fat diet during his stay at Happy Jack, and suggested additional exercise. Lev knows there's another reason for the high triglyceride level. It's not actually triglyceride in his bloodstream at all, but a similar compound. One that's a little less stable.
Another boy enters the workout room. He has fine hair so blond it's practically white, and eyes so green, there must have been some genetic manipulation involved. Those eyes will go for a high price. "Hi, Lev." He gets on the treadmill next to Lev and begins running. "What's up?"
"Nothing. Just running."
Lev knows the kid didn't come here of his own accord. Tithes are never supposed to be left alone. He was sent here to be Lev's buddy.
"Candlelighting will be starting soon. Are you coming?"
Every evening, a candle is lit for each tithe being unwound the next day. The honored kids each give a speech. Everyone applauds. Lev finds it disgusting. "I'll be there," Lev tells the kid.
"Have you started working on your speech yet?" he asks. "I'm almost done with mine."
"Mine's still in bits and pieces," Lev says. The joke goes over the kid's head. Lev turns off the machine. This kid will not leave him alone as long as he's here, and Lev really doesn't want to talk to him about the glory of being a chosen one. He'd rather think about those who aren't chosen, and are lucky enough to be far from the harvest camp—like Risa and Connor, who to the best of his knowledge are still in the sanctuary of the Graveyard. It's a big comfort to know that their lives will continue even after he's gone.
* * *
There's an old trash shed behind the dining room that's no longer in use. Lev found it last week, and decided it was the perfect place for secret meetings. When he arrives that evening, Mai is pacing in the small space. She's been getting more and more nervous each day. "How long are we going to wait?" she asks.
"Why are you in such a hum'?" Lev asks. "We'll wait until the time is right."
Blaine pulls out six small paper packets from his sock, tears one open, and pulls out a little round Band-Aid.
"What's that for?" Mai asks.
"For me to know and for you to find out."
"You're so immature!"
Mai always has a short fuse, especially when it comes to Blaine, but tonight there seems to be more rumbling beneath the surface of her attitude. "What's wrong, Mai?" Lev asks.
Mai takes a moment before answering. "I saw this girl today playing piano on the Chop Shop roof. I know her from the Graveyard—and she knows me."
"That's impossible. If she's from the Graveyard, why would she be here?" asks Blaine.
"I know what I saw—and I think there are other kids here I know from the Graveyard too. What if they recognize us?"
Blaine and Mai look to Lev as if he can explain it. Actually, he can. "They must be kids who were sent out on a job and got caught, that's all."
Mai relaxes. "Yeah. Yeah, that must be it."
"If they recognize us," says Blaine, "we can say the same thing happened to us."
"There," says Lev. "Problem solved."
"Good," says Blaine. "Back to business. So . . . I'm thinking we go for the day after tomorrow, on account of I'm scheduled for a game of football the day after that, and I don't think it'll go very well."
Then he hands two of the little Band-Aids to Mai and two to Lev.
"What do we need Band-Aids for?" Mai asks.
"I was told to give these to you after we got here." Blaine dangles one from his fingers, like a little flesh-colored leaf. "They're not Band-Aids," he says. "They're detonators."
* * *
There was never a job on an Alaskan pipeline. After all, what Unwind would volunteer for such a job? The whole point was to make sure no one but Lev, Mai, and Blaine volunteered. Their van had taken them from the Graveyard to a run-down house, in a run-down neighborhood where people who had been run down by life plotted unthinkable deeds.
Lev was terrified of these people, and yet he felt a kinship with them. They understood the misery of being betrayed by life. They understood what it felt like to have less than nothing inside you. And when they told Lev how important he was in the scheme of things, Lev felt, for the first time in a long time, truly important.
The word "evil" was never used by these people—except to describe the evils of what the world had done to them. What they were asking Lev, Mai, and Blaine to do wasn't evil—no, no, no, not at all. It was an expression of all the things they felt inside. It was the spirit, and the nature, and the manifestation of all they had become. They weren't just messengers, they were the message. This is what they filled Lev's mind with, and it was no different than the deadly stuff they filled his blood with. It was twisted. It was wrong. And yet it suited Lev just fine.
"We have no cause but chaos," Cleaver, their recruiter, was always so fond of saying. What Cleaver never realized, even at the end of his life, is that chaos is as compelling a cause as any other. It can even become a religion to those unlucky enough to be baptized into it, those whose consolation can only be found in its foul waters.
Lev does not know of Cleaver's fate. He does not know, or care, that he himself is being used. All Lev knows is that someday soon the world will suffer a small part of the loss and the emptiness and the utter disillusionment he feels inside. And they will know the moment he raises his hands in applause.
Connor eats his breakfast as quickly as he can. It's not because he's hungry but because he has somewhere else he wants to be. Risa's breakfast hour is right before his. If she's slow, and he's quick, they can force their paths to cross without attracting the attention of the Happy Jack staff.
They meet in the girls' bathroom. The last time they were forced to meet in a place like this, they took separate, isolated stalls. Now they share one. They hold each other in the tight space, making no excuses for it. There's no time left in their lives for games, or for awkwardness, or for pretending they don't care about each other, and so they kiss as if they've done it forever. As if it is as crucial as the need for oxygen.
She touches the bruises on his face and neck, the ones he got from his fight with Roland. She asks what happened. He tells her it's not important. She tells him she can't stay much longer, that Dalton and the other band members will be waiting for her on the Chop Shop roof.
"I heard you play," Connor tells her. "You're amazing."
He kisses her again. They don't speak of unwinding. In this moment none of that exists. Connor knows they would take this further if they could—but not here, not in a place like this. It will never happen for them, but somehow he's content in knowing that in some other place and time it would have. He holds her for ten seconds, twenty. Thirty. Then she slips away, and he returns to the dining hall. In a few minutes he hears her playing, the strains of her music pouring forth, filling Happy Jack with the upbeat, pulse-pounding sound track of the damned.
They come for Roland that same morning, right after breakfast. A harvest counselor and two guards corner him in the dormitory hallway, isolating him from the others.
"You don't want me," Roland says desperately. "I'm not the Akron AWOL; Connor's the one you want."
"I'm afraid not," says the counselor.
"But . . . but I've only been here a few days. . . ." He knows why this happened. It's because he hit that guy with the volleyball, that must be it. Or it's because of his fight with Connor. Connor turned him in! He knew Connor would turn him in!
"It's your blood type," the counselor says. "AB negative— it's rare and in very high demand." He smiles. "Think of it this way, you're worth more than any other kid in your unit."
"Lucky you," says one of the guards as he grabs Roland by the arm.
"If it's any consolation," says the counselor, "your friend Connor is scheduled for unwinding this afternoon."
* * *
Roland's legs feel weak as they bring him out into the light of day. The red carpet stretches out before him, the color of dried blood. Any time kids cross that terrible stone path, they always jump over it as if touching it were bad luck. Now they won't let Roland step off of it.
"I want a priest," says Roland. "They give people priests, right? I want a priest!"
"Priests give last rites," says the counselor, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. "That's for people who are dying. You're not dying—you'll still be alive, just in a different way."
"I still want a priest."
"Okay, I'll see what I can do."
The band on the roof of the Chop Shop has begun their morning set. They play a familiar dance tune, as if to mock the dirge playing inside his head. He knows Risa is in the band now. He sees her up there playing the keyboard. He knows she hates him but still he waves to her, trying get her attention. Even an acknowledgment from someone who hates him is better than having no one but strangers watch him perish.
She doesn't turn her eyes toward the red carpet. She doesn't see him. She doesn't know. Perhaps someone will tell her he was unwound today. He wonders what she'll feel.
They've reached the end of the red carpet. There are five stone steps leading to the doors of the Chop Shop. Roland stops at the bottom of the steps. The guards try to pull him along, but he shakes them off.
"I need more time. Another day. That's all. One more day. I'll be ready tomorrow. I promise!"