Unwind / Page 46

Page 46



"Can they put my face on someone else?"

Pastor Dan chuckles again, and this time it's not as forced as before. He looks at Lev like he's just a kid, and not something inhuman. It makes him feel, if only for a moment, like a normal thirteen-year-old. It's a strange feeling, because even in his old life he never really was a normal kid. Tithes never are.

"So, what happens now?" Lev asks.

"The way I understand it, they'll clear the worst of the explosive out of your bloodstream in a few weeks. You'll still be volatile, but not as bad as before. You can clap all you want and you won't explode—but I wouldn't play any contact sports for a while."

"And then they'll unwind me?"

Pastor Dan shakes his head. "They won't unwind a clapper—that stuff never entirely gets out of your system. I've been talking to your lawyer. He has a feeling they're going to offer you a deal—after all, you did help them catch that group who gave you the transfusion to begin with. Those people who used you, they'll get what they deserve. But the courts are likely to see you as a victim."

"I knew what I was doing," Lev tells him.

"Then tell me why you did it."

Lev opens his mouth to speak but he can't put it into words. Anger. Betrayal. Fury at a universe pretending to be fair and just. But was that really a reason? Was that justification?

"You may be responsible for your actions," Pastor Dan says, "but it's not your fault you weren't emotionally prepared for life out there in the real world. That was my fault—and the fault of everyone who raised you to be a tithe. We're as guilty as the people who pumped that poison into your blood." He looks away in shame, curbing his own growing anger, but Lev can tell it's not anger aimed at him. He takes a deep breath and continues. "The way the winds are blowing, you'll probably serve a few years of juvenile detention, then a few more years of house arrest."

Lev knows he should be relieved by this, but the feeling is slow in coming. He considers the idea of house arrest. "Whose house?'' he asks.

He can tell Pastor Dan reads everything between the lines of that question. "You have to understand, Lev, your parents are the kind of people who can't bend without breaking."

"Whose house?"

Pastor Dan sighs. "When your parents signed the unwind order, you became a ward of the state. After what happened at the harvest camp, the state offered to return custody to your parents, but they refused it. I'm sorry."

Lev is not surprised. He's horrified, but not surprised. Thoughts of his parents bring up the old feelings that drove him crazy enough to become a clapper. But now he finds that sense of despair is no longer bottomless. "So is my last name 'Ward' now?"

"Not necessarily. Your brother Marcus is petitioning for guardianship. If he gets it, you'll be in his care whenever they let you go. So you'll still be a Calder . . . that is, if you want to be."

Lev nods his approval, thinking back to his tithing party and how Marcus was the only one to stand up for him. Lev hadn't understood it at the time. "My parents disowned Marcus, too." At least he knows he'll be in good company.

Pastor Dan straightens out his shirt and shivers a bit from the cold. He doesn't really look like himself today. This is the first time Lev has seen him without his pastor's clothes. "Why are you dressed like that, anyway?"

He takes a moment before he answers. "I resigned my position. I left the church."

The thought of Pastor Dan being anything but Pastor Dan throws Lev for a loop. "You . . . you lost your faith?"

"No," he says, "just my convictions. I still very much believe in God—just not a god who condones human tithing."

Lev begins to feel himself choking up with an unexpected flood of feeling, all the emotions that had been building up throughout their talk—throughout the weeks—arriving all at once, like a sonic boom. "I never knew that was a choice."

All his life there was only one thing Lev was allowed to believe. It had surrounded him, cocooned him, constricted him with the same stifling softness as the layers of insulation around him now. For the first time in his life, Lev feels those bonds around his soul begin to loosen.

"You think maybe I can believe in that God, too?"

69 Unwinds

There's a sprawling ranch in west Texas.

The money to build it came from oil that had long since dried up, but the money remained and multiplied. Now there's a whole compound, an oasis as green as a golf course in the middle of the flat, wild plains. This is where Harlan Dunfee grew to the age of sixteen, finding trouble along the way. He was arrested for disorderly behavior twice in Odessa, but his father, a big-shot admiral, got him off both times. The third time, his parents came up with a different solution.

Today is Harlan Dunfee's twenty-sixth birthday. He's having a party. Of sorts.

There are hundreds of guests at Harlan's party. One of them is a boy by the name of Zachary, though his friends know him as Emby. He's been living here at the ranch for some time now, waiting for this day. He has Harlan's right lung. Today, he gives it back to Harlan.

* * *

At the same time, six hundred miles to the west a wide-bodied jet lands in an airplane graveyard. The jet is full of crates, and each crate contains four Unwinds. As the crates are opened, a teenage boy peers out of one, not sure what to expect. He's faced by a flashlight, and when the flashlight lowers he can see that it's not an adult who opened the crate but another kid. He wears khaki clothes and he smiles at them, showing braces on a set of teeth that don't seem to need them. "Hi, my name's Hayden, and I'll be your rescuer today," he announces, "Is everyone safe and sound in there?"

"We're fine," says the young Unwind. "Where are we?"

"Purgatory," says Hayden. "Also known as Arizona."

The young Unwind steps out of the crate, terrified of what might be in store for him. He stands in the processional of kids being herded along, and, against Hayden's warning, bangs his head on the door of the cargo hold as he steps out. The harsh light of day and the blistering heat assault him as he walks down a ramp to the ground. He can tell this isn't an airport, and yet there are planes everywhere.

In the distance a golf cart rolls toward them, kicking up a plume of red dust. The crowd falls silent as it approaches. As it comes to a stop, the driver steps out. He's a man with serious scars over half of his face. The man speaks quietly for a moment with Hayden, then addresses the crowd.

It's then that the young Unwind realizes this is not a man but just another kid, one not much older than himself. Perhaps it's the scars on his face that make him look older— or maybe it's just the way he carries himself.

"Let me be the first to welcome you all to the Graveyard," he says. "Officially, my name is E. Robert Milliard. . . ." He smiles. "But everyone calls me Connor."

* * *

The Admiral never returned to the Graveyard. His health would not allow it. Instead, he's at his family's Texas ranch, in the care of a wife who left him years before. Although he's weak and can't get around well anymore, he hasn't changed much. "The doctors say only 25 percent of my heart is still alive," he tells anyone who asks. "It'll do."

What has kept him alive more than anything else is the prospect of Harlan's big party. You could say that those terrifying stories about "Humphrey Dunfee" are true. At last, all his parts have been found, all the recipients have been gathered. But there will be no surgeries here—in spite of the rumors, rebuilding Harlan piece by piece was never the plan. But the Dunfees are putting their son together in the only meaningful way they can.

He's here even now, as the Admiral and his wife step into their garden. He's in the voices of their many party guests, talking and laughing. There are men and women of all ages. Each wears a name tag, but there are no names on those tags. Today, names are unimportant.

RIGHT HAND reads the sticker on one young man's lapel. He couldn't be any older than twenty-five.

"Let me see," says the Admiral.

The man holds out his hand. The Admiral looks it over until he finds a sear between the thumb and forefinger. "I took Harlan fishing when he was nine. He got that sear trying to gut a trout."

And then there's a voice from behind him—another man, a little bit older than the first.

"I remember!" he says. The Admiral smiles. Perhaps the memories are spread out, but they're here—every one of them.

He catches that boy who insists on calling himself Emby milling around at the edge of the garden by himself, wheezing less now that he's finally been put on the proper asthma medication. "What are you doing over here?" the Admiral asks. "You should be over with the others."

"I don't know anybody."

"Yes, you do," says the Admiral. 'You just don't realize it yet." And he leads Emby toward the crowd.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the airplane graveyard, Connor speaks to the new arrivals as they stand outside the jet that brought them here. Connor is amazed that they listen to him. He's amazed that he actually commands their respect. He'll never get used to that.

"You're all here because you were marked for unwinding but managed to escape, and, thanks to the efforts of many people, you've found your way here. This will be your home until you turn seventeen and become a legal adult. That's the good news. The bad news is that they know all about us. They know where we are and what we're doing. They let us stay here because they don't see us as a threat."

And then Connor smiles.

"Well, we're going to change that."

As Connor talks, he makes eye contact with every one of them, making sure he remembers each of their faces. Making sure each of them feels recognized. Unique. Important.

"Some of you have been through enough and just want to survive to seventeen," he tells them. "I don't blame you. But I know that some of you are ready to risk everything to end unwinding once and for all."

"Yeah," screams a kid from the back, and pumping his fist in the air he begins chanting, "Happy Jack! Happy Jack!" A few kids join in, until everyone realizes this is not what Connor wants. The chants quickly die down.

"We will not be blowing up chop shops," he says. "We're not going to feed into their image of us as violent kids who are better off unwound. We will think before we act—and that's going to make it difficult for them. We'll infiltrate harvest camps and unite Unwinds across the country. We'll free kids from buses, before they even arrive. We will have a voice, and we will use it. We will make ourselves heard." Now the crowd can't hold back their cheers, and this time Connor allows it. These kids have been beaten down by life, but there's an energy now in the Graveyard that's beginning to fill each and even' one of them. Connor remembers that feeling. He had it when he first arrived here.

"I don't know what happens to our consciousness when we're unwound," says Connor. "I don't even know when that consciousness starts. But I do know this." He pauses to make sure all of them are listening. "We have a right to our lives!"

The kids go wild.

"We have a right to choose what happens to our bodies!"


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