He turns to see two guards at the entrance. Around him, most of the kids have left the unit for their afternoon activity. The ones that remain take a quick glance at the guards, and at Connor, then look away, busying themselves in anything that will keep them out of this business.
"Yeah. What do you want?"
"Your presence is requested at the harvest clinic," says the first guard. The other guard doesn't talk. He just chomps on chewing gum.
Connor's first reaction is that this can't be what it sounds like. Maybe Risa sent them. Maybe she wants to play something for him. After all, now that she's in the band, she has more influence than the average Unwind, doesn't she?
"The harvest clinic," echoes Connor. "What for?"
"Well, let's just say you're leaving Happy Jack today."
Chomp, chomp, goes the other guard.
"C'mon, son, do we have to spell it out for you? You're a problem here. Too many of the other kids look up to you, and that's never a good thing at a harvest camp. So the administration decided to take care of the problem."
They advance on Connor, lifting him up by the arms.
"No! No! You can't do this."
"We can, and we are. It's our job—and whether you make it hard, or easy, it doesn't matter. Our job gets done either way."
Connor looks to the other kids as if they might help him, but they don't. "Good-bye, Connor," says one, but he won't even look in Connor's direction.
The gum-chewing guard looks more sympathetic, which means there might be a way to get through to him. Connor looks at him pleadingly. It makes him stop chewing for an instant. The guard thinks for a moment and says, "I got a buddy looking for brown eyes, on account of his girlfriend don't like the ones he got. He's a decent guy—you could do a lot worse."
"We sometimes get dibs on parts and stuff," he says. "One of the perks of the job. Anyways, all I'm saying is I can give you some peace of mind. You'll know your eyes won't go to some lowlife or nothin'."
The other guard snickers. "Piece of mind. Good one. Okay, time to go." They pull Connor forward, and he tries to prepare himself, but how do you prepare yourself for something like this? Maybe what they say is right. Maybe it's not dying. Maybe it's just passing into a new form of living. It could be all right, couldn't it? Couldn't it?
He tries to imagine what it must be like for an inmate to be led to his execution. Do they fight it? Connor tries to imagine himself kicking and screaming his way to the Chop Shop, but what would be the use of that? If his time on Earth as Connor Lassiter is ending, then maybe he should use the time well. He should allow himself to spend his final moments appreciating who he was. No! Who he still is! He should appreciate the last breaths moving in and out of his lungs while those lungs are still under his control. He should feel the tension and release in his muscles as he moves, and see the many sights of Happy Jack with his eyes and store them in his brain.
"Hands off me, I'll walk by myself," he orders the guards, and they instantly release him, perhaps surprised by the authority in his voice. He rolls his shoulders, cracks his neck, and strides forward. The first step is the hardest, but from that moment on he decides that he will neither run nor dawdle. He will neither quiver nor fight. He will take this last walk of his life in steady strides—and in a few weeks from now, someone, somewhere, will hold in their mind the memory that this young man, whoever he was, faced his unwinding with dignity and pride.
Who can say what goes through the mind of a clapper in the moments before carrying out that evil deed? No doubt whatever those thoughts are, they are lies. However, like all dangerous deceptions, the lies that clappers tell themselves wear seductive disguises.
For clappers who have been led to believe their acts are smiled upon by God, their lie is clothed in holy robes and has outstretched arms promising a reward that will never come.
For clappers who believe their act will somehow bring about change in the world, their lie is disguised as a crowd looking back at them from the future, smiling in appreciation for what they've done.
For clappers who seek only to share their personal misery with the world, their lie is an image of themselves freed from their pain by witnessing the pain of others.
And for clappers who are driven by vengeance, their lie is a scale of justice, weighted evenly on both sides, finally in balance
It is only when a clapper brings his hands together that the lie reveals itself, abandoning the clapper in that final instant so that he exits this world utterly alone, without so much as a lie to accompany him into oblivion.
The path that brought Mai to this place in her life was full of fury and disappointment. Her breaking point was Vincent. He was a boy no one knew. He was a boy she met and fell in love with in the warehouse more than a month ago. He was a boy who died in midair, crammed into a crate with four other kids who choked on their own carbon dioxide. No one seemed to notice his disappearance, and certainly no one cared. No one but Mai, who had found her soul mate, and had lost him that day she arrived in the Graveyard.
The world was to blame, but when she secretly witnessed the Admiral's golden five burying Vincent and the others, she was able to give faces to her fury. The Goldens buried Vincent not with respect, but with profanities. They cracked jokes and laughed. They covered the five dead boys carelessly with dirt like cats cover their turds. Mai had never felt such rage.
Once Cleaver befriended her, she told him what she had seen, and he agreed that revenge was in order. It was Cleaver's idea to kill the Goldens. It was Blaine who drugged them and brought them to the FedEx jet—but it was Mai who sealed the hatch of the crate. It was amazing to her that killing could be as easy as closing a door.
After that, there was no turning back for Mai. Her bed had been made; all that remained was for her to lie in it. She knows that today will be the day she climbs in and goes to her rest.
Once inside the Chop Shop she finds a storage room full of surgical gloves, syringes, and shiny instruments she cannot identify. She knows Blaine is somewhere in the north wing of the building. She expects Lev is in position too, standing on the loading dock at the back of the Chop Shop—at least that's the plan. It is now one o'clock on the nose. Time to do this.
Mai enters the storage room and closes the door. And waits. She will do this, but not quite yet. Let one of the others go. She refuses to be the first.
* * *
Blaine waits in a deserted hallway on the second floor. This area of the Chop Shop doesn't appear to be in use. He has decided not to use his detonators. Detonators are for wimps. For a hardcore clapper, a single, powerful clap is enough to bring it on, even without detonators—and Blaine wants to believe he's hardcore, like his brother was. He stands at the end of the hallway, legs spread to shoulder width, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a tennis player awaiting a serve. His hands are held apart. But he waits. He's hardcore, yes—but he's not going first.
* * *
Lev has convinced the psychologist that he's suitably relaxed. It's the best acting performance of his life, because his heart is racing and there's so much adrenaline flooding his blood, he's afraid he'll spontaneously combust.
"Why don't you go back to the tithing house?" the doctor suggests. "Spend some time getting to know the other kids. Make an effort, Lev—you'll be glad you did."
"Yes. Yes, I'll do that. Thank you. I feel better now."
The counselor motions to the pastors and everyone rises. It is 1:04. Lev wants to race out the door, but he knows that will just get him another therapy session. He leaves the office with the pastors, who babble about his place in the scheme of things and the joys of tithing. It's only as Lev gets outside that he becomes aware of the commotion. Kids are all running from their activities and into the commons between the dormitories and the Chop Shop. Have Blaine and Mai gone off already? He didn't hear any explosions. No, this is something else.
"It's the Akron AWOL," he hears one of the kids shout. "He's being unwound!"
That's when Lev spots Connor. He's halfway down the red carpet, marching with two guards right behind him. Kids have gathered in the grassy commons, but they keep their distance as more kids arrive. They're spilling out of the dormitories, the dining hall—everywhere.
The band has stopped playing in the middle of a tune. The keyboardist—a girl—wails at the sight of Connor on the red stone path. Connor looks up at her, halts for a second, and blows her a kiss before continuing on. Lev can hear her crying.
Now guards, staffers, and counselors converge on the quad in panic, trying to herd this volatile gathering of kids back to their places, but no one will leave. The kids just stand there—maybe they can't stop this, but they can witness it. They can be there as Connor strides out of this life.
"Let's hear it for the Akron AWOL!" one boy shouts. "Let's hear it for Connor!" and he starts to applaud. Soon the entire crowd of kids is applauding and cheering Connor as he marches down the red carpet.
Mai and Blaine!
Suddenly Lev realizes what's about to happen. He can't let Connor go in there! Not now! He's got to stop him.
Lev breaks away from the pastors. Connor is almost to the steps of the Chop Shop. Lev races between the kids, but he can't push his way through them. If he does, he knows he'll detonate. He must be quick, but he must be careful—and being careful slows him down.
"Connor!" He screams, but the cheers all around him are too loud. And now the band has begun to play again. They're playing the national anthem, just like they do at the funerals of great Americans. The guards and the staff can't stop this. They try but they can't—and they're so busy trying to control the crowd, they let Lev slip right past onto the red carpet.
Now he has a clear path to Connor, who has begun climbing the steps. Lev screams his name again, but Connor still can't hear. Although Lev races down the path, he's still twenty yards away when the glass doors open and Connor steps inside with the guards.
"No! Connor! No!"
But the doors close. Connor is inside the Chop Shop. But he won't be unwound. He's going to die just like everyone else inside . . . and as if to complete Lev's failure, he finally takes a look up at the roof to catch the gaze of the keyboard player looking down at him.
How could he have been so stupid? He should have known it was her from the way she wailed, and from the kiss that Connor blew her. Lev stands there, petrified with disbelief . . . And then the world comes to an end.
* * *
Blaine still stands at the end of the hall, waiting for someone else to go first.
"Hey! Who are you? What are you doing here?" a guard shouts at Blaine.
"Stay back!" Blaine says. "Stay back, or else!"
The guard pulls out his tranq pistol and speaks into his radio. "I got an Unwind loose up here. I need backup!"
"I'm warning you," says Blaine. But the guard knows exactly how to deal with an Unwind loose in the Chop Shop. He aims his tranq gun at Blaine's left thigh, and fires.