Risa is bowled over. "You knew that?"
Connor looks at her, a bit amused. "Well . . . yeah."
If Risa felt uncertain about him before, it's even worse now. She has no idea what to think. "So . . . everything that happened back there was all a show?"
Now it's Connor's turn to be unsure. "I guess. Sort of. Wasn't it?"
Risa has to hold back a smile. Suddenly she's feeling strangely at ease with Connor. She marvels at how that could be. If their argument had been entirely real, she'd be on her guard against him. If it had been entirely a show she'd be on guard too, because if he could lie so convincingly, she'd never be able to trust him. But this was a mixture of both. It was real, it was pretend, and that combination made it all right—it made it safe, like performing death-defying acrobatic tricks above a safety net.
She holds on to that unexpected feeling as the two of them catch up with Lev, and move toward the frightening prospect of civilization.
"You can't change laws without first changing human nature."
— NURSE GRETA
"You can't change human nature without first changing the law."
The mother is nineteen, but she doesn't feel that old. She feels no wiser, no more capable of dealing with this situation, than a little girl. When, she wonders, did she stop being a child? The law says it was when she turned eighteen, but the law doesn't know her.
Still aching from the trauma of delivery, she holds her newborn close. It's just after dawn on a chilly morning. She moves now through back alleys. Not a soul around. Dumpsters cast angular black shadows. Broken bottles everywhere. This she knows is the perfect time of day to do this. There's less of a chance that coyotes and other scavengers would be out. She couldn't bear the thought of the baby suffering needlessly.
A large green Dumpster looms before her, listing crookedly on the uneven pavement of the alley. She holds the baby tight, as if the Dumpster might grow hands and pull the baby into its filthy depths. Maneuvering around it, she continues down the alley.
There was a time, shortly after the Bill of Life was passed, that Dumpsters such as that would be tempting to girls like her. Desperate girls who would leave unwanted newborns in the trash. It had become so common that it wasn't even deemed newsworthy anymore—it had become just a part of life.
Funny, but the Bill of Life was supposed to protect the sanctity of life. Instead it just made life cheap. Thank goodness for the Storking Initiative, that wonderful law that allows girls like her a far better alternative.
As dawn becomes early morning, she leaves the alleys and enters a neighborhood that gets better with each street she crosses. The homes are large and inviting. This is the right neighborhood for storking.
She chooses the home shrewdly. The house she decides on isn't the largest, but it's not the smallest, either. It has a very short walkway to the street, so she can get away quickly, and it's overgrown with trees, so no one either inside or out will be able to see her as she storks the newborn.
She carefully approaches the front door. No lights are on in the home yet, that's good. There's a car in the driveway— hopefully that means they're home. She gingerly climbs the porch steps, careful not to make a sound, then kneels down, placing the sleeping baby on the welcome mat. There are two blankets wrapped around the baby, and a wool cap covers its head. She makes the blankets nice and tight. It's the only thing she's learned to do as a mother.
She considers ringing the bell and running, but she realizes that would not be a good idea. If they catch her, she's obliged to keep the baby—that's part of the Storking Initiative too—but if they open the door and find nothing but the child, it's "finder's keepers" in the eyes of the law. Whether they want it or not, the baby is legally theirs.
From the time she learned she was pregnant she knew she would end up storking this baby. She had hoped that when she finally saw it, looking up at her so helplessly, she might change her mind—but who was she kidding? With neither the skill nor the desire to be a mother at this point in her life, storking had always been her best option.
She realizes she's lingered longer than is wise. There's an upstairs light on now, so she forces herself to look away from the sleeping newborn, and leaves. With the burden now lifted from her, she has sudden strength. She now has a second chance in life, and this time she'll be smarter—she's sure of it. As she hurries down the street, she thinks how wonderful it is that she can get a second chance. How wonderful it is that she can dismiss her responsibility so easily.
Several streets away from the storked newborn, at the edge of a dense wood, Risa stands at the door of a home. She rings the bell, and a woman answers in her bathrobe.
Risa offers the woman a big smile. "Hi, my name is Didi? And I'm collecting clothes and food for our school? We're, like, giving them to the homeless? And it's like this competition— whoever gets the most wins a trip to Florida or something? So it would be really, really great if you could help out?"
The sleepy woman tries to get her brain up to speed with "Didi," airhead for the homeless. The woman can't get a word in edgewise because Didi talks way too fast. If Risa had had a piece of chewing gum, she would have popped a bubble somewhere in there to add more authenticity.
"Please-please-pretty-please? I'm, like, in second place right now?"
The woman at the door sighs, resigned to the fact that "Didi" isn't going away empty-handed, and sometimes the best way to get rid of girls like this is just to give them something. "I'll be right back," the woman says.
Three minutes later, Risa walks away from the house with a bag full of clothes and canned food.
"That was amazing," says Connor, who had been watching with Lev from the edge of the woods.
"What can 1 say? I'm an artist," she says. "It's like playing the piano; you just have to know which keys to strike in people."
Connor smiles. "You're right, this is way better than stealing."
"Actually," says Lev, "scamming IS stealing."
Risa feels a bit prickly and uncomfortable at the thought, but tries not to show it.
"Maybe so," says Connor, "but it's stealing with style."
The woods have ended at a tract community. Manicured lawns have turned yellow along with the leaves. Autumn has truly taken hold. The homes here are almost identical, but not quite, full of people almost identical, but not quite. It's a world Risa knows about only through magazines and TV. To her, suburbia is a magical kingdom. Perhaps that's why Risa was the one who had the nerve to approach the house and pretend to be Didi. The neighborhood drew her like the smell of fresh bread baking in the industrial ovens of Ohio State Home 23.
Back in the woods where they can't be seen from anyone's window, they check their goody bag, as if it's full of Halloween candy.
There's a pair of pants and a blue button-down shirt that fits Connor. There's a jacket that fits Lev. There are no clothes for Risa, but that's okay. She can play Didi again at a different house.
"I still don't know how changing our clothes is going to make a difference." Connor asks.
"Don't you ever watch TV?" says Risa. "On the cop shows they always describe what perps were last wearing when they put out an APB."
"We're not perps," says Connor, "we're AWOLs."
"We're felons," says Lev. "Because what you're doing—I mean, what we're doing—is a federal crime."
"What, stealing clothes?" asks Connor.
"No, stealing ourselves. Once the unwind orders were signed, we all became government property. Kicking-AWOL makes us federal criminals."
It doesn't sit well with Risa, or for that matter with Connor, but they both shake it off.
This excursion into a populated area is dangerous but necessary. Perhaps as the morning goes on they can find a library where they can download maps and find themselves a wilderness large enough to get lost in for good. There are rumors of hidden communities of AWOL Unwinds. Maybe they can find one.
As they move cautiously through the neighborhood, a woman approaches them—just a girl, really, maybe nineteen or twenty. She walks fast, but she's walking funny, like she's got some injury or is recovering from one. Risa's certain she's going to see them and recognize them, but the girl passes without even making eye contact and hurries around a corner.
Exposed. Vulnerable. Connor wishes they could have stayed in the woods, but there are only so many acorns and berries he can eat. They'll find food in town. Food, and information.
"This is the best time not to be noticed," Connor tells the others. "Everyone's in a hurry in the morning. Late to work, or whatever."
Connor finds a newspaper in the bushes, misthrown by a delivery boy. "Look at this!" says Lev. "A newspaper. How retro is that?"
"Does it talk about us?" asks Lev. He says it like it's a good thing. The three of them scan the front page. The war in Australia, King politicians—the same old stuff. Connor turns the page clumsily. Its pages are large and awkward. They tear easily and catch the breeze like a kite, making it hard to read.
No mention of them on page two, or page three.
"Maybe it's an old newspaper," suggests Risa.
Connor checks the date on top. "No, it's today's." He fights against the breeze to turn the page. "Ah—there it is."
The headline reads, PILEUP ON INTERSTATE. It's a very small article. A morning car accident, blah-blah-blah, traffic snarled for hours, blah-blah-blah. The article mentions the dead bus driver, the fact that the road was closed for three hours. But nothing about them. Connor reads the last line of the article aloud.
"It is believed that police activity in the area may have distracted drivers, leading to the accident."
They're all dumbfounded. For Connor, there's a sense of relief—a sense of having gotten away with something huge.
"That can't be right," says Lev, "I was kidnapped, or . . . uh . . . at least they think I was. That should be in the news."
"Lev's right," says Risa. "They always have incidents with Unwinds in the news. If we're not in there, there's a reason."
Connor can't believe these two are looking this gift horse in the mouth! He speaks slowly as if to idiots. "No news report means no pictures—and that means people won't recognize us. I don't see why that's a problem."
Risa folds her arms. "Why are there no pictures?"
"I don't know—maybe the police are keeping it quiet because they don't want people to know they screwed up."
Risa shakes her head. "It doesn't feel right. . . ."
"Who cares how it feels!"
"Keep your voice down!" Risa says in an angry whisper. Connor fights to keep his temper under control. He doesn't say anything for fear he's going to start yelling again and draw attention to them. He can see Risa puzzling over the situation and Lev looking back and forth between the two of them. Risa's not stupid, thinks Connor. She's going to figure out that this is a good thing, and that she's worrying for nothing.
But instead, Risa says, "If we're never in the news, then who's going to know if we live or die? See—if it's all over the news that they're tracking us, then when they find us, they have to take us down with tranquilizer bullets and take us to be harvested, right?"