And still, above him, the band plays. He wants to scream, but here, so close to the Chop Shop, his screams will be drowned out by the band. The counselor signals to the guards. They grab him more firmly just beneath the armpits, forcing him to take those five steps. In a moment he's through the doors, which slide closed behind him, shutting out the world. He can't even hear the band anymore. The Chop Shop is soundproof. Somehow he knew it would be.
No one knows how it happens. No one knows how it's done. The harvesting of Unwinds is a secret medical ritual that stays within the walls of each harvesting clinic in the nation. In this way it is not unlike death itself, for no one knows what mysteries lie beyond those secret doors, either.
What does it take to unwind the unwanted? It takes twelve surgeons, in teams of two, rotating in and out as their medical specialty is needed. It takes nine surgical assistants and four nurses. It takes three hours.
Roland is fifteen minutes in.
The medical staff that buzz around him wear scrubs the color of a happy-face.
His arms and legs have been secured to the operating table with bonds that are strong but padded so he won't hurt himself if he struggles.
A nurse blots sweat from his forehead. "Relax, I'm here to help you through this."
He feels a sharp pinprick in the right side of his neck, and then in the left side.
"That," says the nurse, "is the only pain you'll be feeling today."
"This is it, then," Roland says. "You're putting me under?"
Although he can't see her mouth beneath her surgical mask, he can see the smile in her eyes.
"Not at all," she says. "By law, we're required to keep you conscious through the entire procedure." The nurse takes his hand. "You have a right to know everything that's happening to you, every step of the way."
"What if I don't want to?"
"You will," says one of the surgical assistants, wiping Roland's legs down with brown surgical scrub. "Everybody does."
"We've just inserted catheters into your carotid artery and jugular vein," says the nurse. "Right now your blood is being replaced with a synthetic oxygen-rich solution."
"We send the real stuff straight to the blood bank," says the assistant at his feet. "Not a bit gets wasted. You can bet, you'll be saving lives!"
"The oxygen solution also contains an anaesthetic that deadens pain receptors." The nurse pats his hand. "You'll be fully conscious, but you won't feel a thing."
Already Roland feels his limbs starting to go numb. He swallows hard. "I hate this. I hate you. I hate all of you."
* * *
Twenty-eight minutes in.
The first set of surgeons has arrived.
"Don't mind them," says the nurse. "Talk to me."
"What do we talk about?"
"Anything you want."
Someone drops an instrument. It clatters on the table and falls to the floor. Roland flinches. The nurse holds his hand
"You may feel a tugging sensation near your ankles," says one of the surgeons at the foot of the table. "It's nothing to worry' about."
* * *
Forty-five minutes in.
So many surgeons, so much activity. Roland couldn't remember ever having so much attention directed at him. He wants to look, but the nurse holds his focus. She's read his file. She knows everything about him. The good and the bad. The things he never talks about. The things he can't stop talking about now.
"I think it's horrible what your stepfather did."
"I was just protecting my mother."
"Scalpel," says a surgeon.
"She should have been grateful."
"She had me unwound."
"I'm sure it wasn't easy for her."
"All right, clamp it off."
* * *
An hour and fifteen.
Surgeons leave, new ones arrive. The new ones take an intense interest in his abdomen. He looks toward his toes but can't see them. Instead he sees a surgical assistant cleaning the lower half of the table.
"I almost killed a kid yesterday."
"That doesn't matter now."
"I wanted to do it, but I got scared. I don't know why, but I got scared."
"Just let it go." The nurse was holding his hand before. She's not anymore.
"Strong abdominal muscles," says a doctor. "Do you work out?"
A clanging of metal. The lower half of the table is unhooked and pulled away. It makes him think of when he was twelve and his mom took him to Las Vegas. She had dropped him off at a magic show while she played the slots. The magician had cut a woman in half. Her toes were still wiggling, her face still smiling. The audience gave him thunderous applause.
Now Roland feels discomfort in his gut. Discomfort, a tickling sensation, but no pain. The surgeons lift things away. He tries not to look, but he can't help it. There's no blood, just the oxygen-rich solution, which is flourescent green, like antifreeze.
"I'm scared," he says.
"I know," says the nurse.
"I want you all to go to Hell."
One team leaves; another comes in. They take an intense interest in his chest.
* * *
An hour forty-five.
"I'm afraid we need to stop talking now."
"Don't go away."
"I'll be here, but we won't be able to talk anymore."
The fear surrounds him, threatening to take him under. He tries to replace it with anger, but the fear is too strong. He tries to replace it with the satisfaction that Connor will be taken very soon, but not even that makes him feel better,
"You'll feel a tingling in your chest," says a surgeon. "It's nothing to worry about."
* * *
Two hours, five minutes.
"Blink twice if you can hear me."
"You're being very brave."
He tries to think of other things, other places, but his mind keeps being drawn back to this place. Everyone's so close around him now. Yellow figures lean all around him like flower petals closing in. Another section of the table is taken away. The petals move in closer. He does not deserve this. He has done many things, not all good, but he does not deserve this.
And he never did get his priest.
* * *
Two hours, twenty minutes.
"You'll feel a tingling in your jaw. It's nothing to worry about."
"Blink twice if you can hear me."
He locks his eyes on the nurse, whose eyes still smile. They always smile. Someone made her have eternally smiling eyes.
"I'm afraid you're going to have to stop blinking now."
* * *
"Where's the clock?" says one of the surgeons.
"Two hours, thirty-three minutes."
"We're running late."
Not quite darkness, just an absence of light. He hears everything around him but can no longer communicate. Another team has entered.
"I'm still here," the nurse tells him, but then she falls silent. A few moments later he hears footsteps, and he knows she's left.
"You'll feel a tingling in your scalp," says a surgeon. "It's nothing to worry about." It's the last time they talk to him. After that, the doctors talk like Roland is no longer there.
"Did you see yesterday's game?"
"Splitting the corpus callosum."
"Well, it's not brain surgery." Laughter all around.
Memories tweak and spark. Faces. Dreamlike pulses of light deep in his mind. Feelings. Things he hasn't thought about in years. The memories bloom, then they're gone. When Roland was ten, he broke his arm. The doctor told his mom he could have a new arm, or a cast. The cast was cheaper. He drew a shark on it. When the cast came off he got a tattoo to make the shark permanent.
"If they had just made that three-pointer."
"It'll be the Bulls again. Or the Lakers."
"Starting on the left cerebral cortex."
Another memory tweaks.
When I was six, my father went to jail for something he did before I got born. I never knew what he did, but Mom says I'm just the same.
"The Suns don't stand a chance."
"Well, if they had a decent coaching staff . . ."
"Left temporal lobe."
When I was three, I had a babysitter. She was beautiful. She shook my sister. Real hard. My sister got wrong. Never got right again. Beautiful is dangerous. Better get them first.
"Well, maybe they'll make the playoffs next year."
"Or the year after that."
"Did we get the auditory nerves?"
"Not yet. Getting them right n—"
I'm alone. And I'm crying. And no one's coming to the crib. And the nightlight burned out. And I'm mad. I'm so mad.
Left frontal lobe.
I... I ... I don't feel so good.
Left occipital lobe.
I ... I ... J don't remember where . . .
Left parietal lobe.
I ... I ... I can't remember my name, but . . . but . . .
. . . but I'm still here.
I'm still here . . .
I'm still. . .
I'm . . .
I'm. . .
I. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
* * *
"Where's the clock?"
"Three hours, nineteen minutes."
"All right, I'm on break. Prep for the next one."
The detonators are hidden in a sock in the back of his cubby. Anyone who finds them will think they're Band-Aids. He tries not to think about it. It's Blaine's job to think about it, and to tell him when it's time.
Today Lev's unit of tithes are taking a nature walk to commune with creation. The pastor who leads them is one of the more self-important ones. He speaks as if every word out of his mouth were a pearl of wisdom, pausing after each thought as if he expects someone to write it down.
He leads them to an odd winter-bare tree. Lev, who is used to winters with ice and snow, finds it odd that trees in Arizona still lose their leaves. This tree has a multitude of branches that don't quite match, each with different bark and a different texture.
"I wanted you to see this," the pastor says to the crew. "It's not much to see now, but, oh, you should see it in the spring. Over the years many of us have grafted branches from our favorite trees to the trunk." He points to the various limbs. "This branch sprouts pink cherry blossoms, and this one fills with huge sycamore leaves. This one fills with purple jacaranda flowers, and this one grows heavy with peaches."
The tithes examine it, touching its branches cautiously, as if it might at any moment turn into the burning bush. "What kind of tree was it to begin with?" asks one of the tithes.
The pastor can't answer him. "I'm not sure, but it really doesn't matter—what matters is what it's become. We call it our little 'tree of life.' Isn't it wonderful?"
"There's nothing wonderful about it." The words are out of Lev's mouth before he realizes he's spoken them, like a sudden, unexpected belch. All eyes turn toward him. He quickly covers. "It's the work of man, and we shouldn't be prideful," he says. '"When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but with humility comes wisdom.'"