Page 14

"I have some lovely infant items in the back room," she tells them loud enough for the customer to hear. "Why don't you go back there, and wait for me?" Then she whispers, "And for God's sake, feed that baby!"

The back room is through a doorway covered by what looks like an old shower curtain. If the front room was cluttered, this place is a disaster area. Things like broken picture frames and rusty birdcages are piled all around—all the items that weren't good enough to be displayed out front. The junk of the junk.

"And you're telling me this old woman is going to help us?" says Connor. "It looks like she can't even help herself!"

"Hannah said she would. I believe her."

"How could you be raised in a state home and still trust people?"

Risa gives him a dirty look and says, "Hold this." She puts the baby in Connor's arms. It's the first time she's given it to him. It feels much lighter than he expected. Something so loud and demanding ought to be heavier. The baby's cries have weakened now—it's just about exhausted itself.

There's nothing keeping them tied to this baby anymore. They could stork it again first thing in the morning. . . . And yet the thought makes Connor uncomfortable. They don't owe this baby anything. It's theirs by stupidity, not biology. He doesn't want it, but he can't stand the thought of someone getting the baby who wants it even less than he does. His frustration begins to ferment into anger. It's the same kind of anger that always got him into trouble back home. It would cloud his judgment, making him lash out, getting into fights, cursing out teachers, or riding his skateboard wildly through busy intersections. "Why do you have to get wound so tight?" his father once asked, exasperated, and Connor had snapped back, "Maybe someone oughta unwind me." At the time, he thought he was just being funny.

Risa opens a refrigerator, which is as cluttered as the rest of the back room. She pulls out a container of milk, then finds a bowl, into which she pours the milk.

"It's not a cat," Connor says. "It won't lick milk out of a bowl."

"I know what I'm doing."

Connor watches as she rummages around in drawers until finding a clean spoon. Then she takes the baby from him. Sitting down, she cradles the baby a bit more skillfully than Connor, then she dips the spoon into the milk and spills the spoonful into the baby's mouth. The baby begins to gag on the milk, coughing and sputtering, but then Risa puts her index finger into its mouth. It sucks on her finger and closes its eyes, satisfied. In a few moments, she crooks her finger enough to leave a little space for her to spill in another spoonful of milk, then lets the baby suck on her finger again.

"Wow, that's impressive," says Connor.

"Sometimes I got to take care of babies at StaHo. You learn a few tricks. Let's just hope it's not lactose intolerant."

With the baby quieted, it's as if all the day's tension has been suddenly released. Connor's eyelids grow heavy, but he won't allow himself to fall asleep. They're not safe yet. They may never be, and he can't let his guard down now. Still, his mind begins to drift off. He wonders if his parents are still looking for him, or if it's just the police now. He thinks about Ariana. What would have happened to them if she had come along with him, as she had promised? They would have been caught on that first night—-that's what would have happened.Ariana wasn't street-smart like Risa. She wasn't resourceful. Thoughts of Ariana bring a wave of sadness and longing, but it's not as powerful a feeling as Connor thought it would be. How soon until she forgets him? How soon until everyone forgets him? Not long. That's what happens with Unwinds. Connor had known other kids at school who disappeared over the past couple of years. One day they just didn't turn up. Teachers would say that they were "gone" or "no longer enrolled." Those were just code words, though. Everyone knew what they meant. The kids who knew them would talk about how terrible it was, and gripe about it for a day or two, and then it became old news. Unwinds didn't go out with a bang—they didn't even go out with a whimper. They went out with the silence of a candle flame pinched between two fingers.

The customer finally leaves, and Sonia joins them in the back room. "So, you're Unwinds and you want my help, is that it?"

"Maybe just some food," says Connor, "a place to rest for a few hours. Then we'll be on our way."

"We don't want to be any trouble," says Risa.

The old woman laughs at that. "Yes, you do! You want to be trouble to everyone you meet." She points her cane at Risa. "That's what you are now. TROUBLE in caps-lock." Then she puts her cane down, and softens a bit. "That's not your fault, though. You didn't ask to be born, and you didn't ask to be unwound, either." She looks back and forth between the two of them, then says to Risa just as bald-faced as can be: "If you really want to stay alive, honey, have him get you pregnant again. They won't unwind an expectant mother, so that will buy you nine whole months."

Risa drops her jaw, speechless, and Connor feels a flush come to his face. "She . . . she wasn't pregnant the first time. It's not her baby. Or mine."

Sonia considers this and takes a closer look at the baby. "Not yours, hmm? Well, that explains why you're not breastfeeding." She laughs suddenly and sharply. It makes Connor and the baby jump.

Risa isn't startled, just annoyed. She gets the baby's attention again with another spoonful of milk and her index finger. "Are you going to help us or not?"

Sonia lifts her cane and raps it against Connor's arm, then points to a huge trunk covered with travel stickers. "Think you're boeuf enough to bring that over here?"

Connor gets up, wondering what could possibly be of use to them in the trunk. He grabs on to it and struggles to push it across the faded Persian rug.

"Not much of a boeuf, are ya?"

"I never said I was."

He inches the trunk across the floor until it's right in front of her. Instead of opening it, she sits on top of it and begins to massage her ankles.

"So what's in it?" Connor asks.

"Correspondence," she says. "But it's not what's in it that matters. It's what's underneath." Then with her cane she pushes away the rug where the trunk had been to reveal a trapdoor with a brass pull-ring.

"Go on," says Sonia, pointing again with her cane. Connor sighs and grabs the ring, pulling open the trapdoor to reveal steep stone steps leading down into darkness. Risa puts down her bowl and, holding the baby over her shoulder in burping position, approaches the trapdoor, kneeling beside Connor.

"This is an old building," Sonia tells them. "Way back in the early twentieth century, during the first Prohibition, they hid hooch down there."

"Hooch?" asks Connor.

"Alcohol! I swear, this whole generation's the same. Caps-lock IGNORANT!"

The steps down are steep and uneven. At first Connor thinks Sonia will send them down alone, but she insists on leading the way. She takes her time, and seems more surefooted on the steps than she does on level ground. Connor tries to hold her arm to give her support, but she shakes him off, and throws him a nasty gaze. "If I want your help, I'll ask. Do I look feeble to you?"

"Actually, yes."

"Looks are deceiving," she says. "After all, when I saw you, I thought you looked reasonably intelligent."

"Very funny."

At the bottom, Sonia reaches toward the wall and throws a light switch.

Risa gasps, and Connor follows her gaze until he sees them. Three figures. A girl and two boys.

"Your little family has just grown," Sonia tells them.

The kids don't move. They appear to be close to Connor's and Risa's age. Fellow Unwinds, for sure. They look wary and exhausted. Connor wonders if he looks as bad.

"For God's sake, stop staring," she says to them. "You look like a pack of rats."

Sonia shuffles around the dusty cellar, pointing things out to Risa and Connor. "There arc canned goods on these shelves, and a can opener around somewhere. Eat whatever you want, but don't leave anything over or you really will see rats. Bathroom's back there. Keep it clean. I'll go out in a bit and get some formula and a baby bottle." She glances at Connor. "Oh, and there's a first-aid kit around here somewhere for the bite on your arm, whatever that's all about."

Connor suppresses a grin. Sonia doesn't miss a thing.

"How much longer?" asks the oldest of the three cellar-rats, a muscular guy who looks at Connor with intense distrust, as if Connor might challenge his role as alpha male or something.

"What do you care?" says Sonia. "You got a pressing appointment?"

The kid doesn't respond; he just glares at Sonia and crosses his arms, displaying a shark tattooed on his forearm. Ooh, thinks Connor with a smirk. Intimidating. Now I'm really scared.

Sonia sighs. "Four more days until I'm rid of you for good."

"What happens in four days?" Risa asks.

"The ice cream man comes." And with that, Sonia climbs up the stairs faster than Connor thought she'd be able to. The trapdoor bangs closed.

"Dear, sweet Dragon Lady won't tell us what happens next," says the second boy, a lanky blond kid with a faint smirk that seems permanently fixed on his face. He has braces on teeth that don't appear to need them. Although his eyes tell of sleepless nights, his hair is perfect. Connor can tell that this kid, despite the rags he's wearing, comes from money.

"We get sent to harvest camp and they cut us apart, that's what happens next," says the girl. She's Asian, and looks almost as tough as the kid with the tattoo, with hair dyed a deep shade of pink and a spiked leather choker on her neck.

Shark Boy looks at her sharply. "Will you shut up with your end-of-the-world crap?" Connor notices that the kid has four parallel scratch marks on one side of his face, consistent with fingernails. The girl has a black eye.

"It's not the end of the world," she grumbles. "Just the end of us."

"You're beautiful when you're nihilistic," says the smirker.

"Shut up."

"You're only saving that because you don't know what nihilistic means."

Risa gives Connor a look, and he knows what she's thinking. We have to suffer through four days with this crew? Still, she's the first to hold out her hand to them and introduce herself. Reluctantly, Connor does the same.

Turns out, each of these kids, just like every Unwind, has a story that ranks a ten on the Kleenex scale.

The smirker is Hayden. As Connor predicted, he comes from a ridiculously wealthy family. When his parents got a divorce, there was a brutal custody battle over him. Two years and six court dates later, it still wasn't resolved. In the end the only thing his mother and father could agree on was that each would rather see Hayden unwound than allow the other parent to have custody.

"If you could harness the energy of my parents' spite," Hayden tells them, "you could power a small city for several years."

The girl is Mai. Her parents kept trying for a boy, until they finally got one—but not before having four girls first. Mai was the fourth. "It's nothing new," Mai tells them. "Back in China, in the days when they only allowed one kid per family, people were killing off their baby girls left and right."