Unwind / Page 15

Page 15

The big kid is Roland. He had dreams of being a military boeuf but apparently had too much testosterone, or steroids, or a combination of both, leaving him a little too scary even for the military. Like Connor, Roland got into fights at school— although Connor suspected Roland's fights were much, much worse. That's not what did him in, though. Roland had beaten up his stepfather for beating his mom. The mother took her husband's side, and the stepfather got off with a warning. Roland, on the other hand, was sent to be unwound.

"That's so unfair," Risa tells him.

"Like what happened to you is any fairer?" says Connor.

Roland fixes his gaze on Connor. It's emotional stone. "You keep talking to her in that tone of voice, maybe she'll find herself a new boyfriend."

Connor smiles with mocking warmth at him, and glances at the tattoo on his wrist. "I like your dolphin."

Roland is not amused. "It's a tiger shark, idiot."

Connor makes a mental note never to turn his back on Roland.

* * *

Sharks, Connor once read, have a deadly form of claustrophobia. It's not so much a fear of enclosed spaces as it is an inability to exist in them. No one knows why. Some say it's the metal in aquariums that throws their equilibrium off. But whatever it is, big sharks don't last long in captivity.

After a day in Sonia's basement, Connor knows how they feel. Risa has the baby to keep her occupied. It requires a huge amount of attention, and although she gripes about the responsibility, Connor can tell she's thankful simply to have something to help pass the hours. There's a back room to the basement, and Roland insists that Risa have it for herself and the baby. He acts like he's doing it to be kind, but it's obvious that he's doing it because he can't stand the baby's crying.

Mai reads. There's a whole collection of dusty old books in the corner, and Mai always has one in her hand. Roland, having surrendered the back room to Risa, pulls out a shelving unit and sets up his own private residence behind it. He occupies the space like he's had experience with being in a cell. When he's not sitting in his little cell, he's reorganizing the food in the basement into rations. "I take care of the food," he announces. "Now that there's five of us, I'll redivide the rations, and decide who gets what and when."

"I can decide what I want and when for myself," Connor tells him.

"Not gonna work that way," Roland says. "I had things under control before you got here. It's gonna stay that way." Then he hands Connor a can of Spam. Connor looks at it in disgust. "You want better," Roland says, "then you get with the program."

Connor tries to weigh the wisdom of getting into a fight over this—but wisdom rarely arrives when Connor is ticked off. It's Hayden who defuses the situation before it can escalate. Hayden grabs the can from Connor and pulls open the top.

"You snooze, you lose," he says, and begins eating the Spam casually with his fingers. "Never had Spam till I came here—now I love it." Then he grins. "God help me, I'm turning into trailer trash."

Roland glares at Connor and Connor glares back. Then he says what he always says at moments like this.

"Nice socks."

Although Roland doesn't look down right away, it derails him just enough for him to back off. He doesn't check to see if his socks match until he thinks Connor isn't looking. And the moment he does, Connor snickers. Small victories are better than none.

Hayden is a bit of a riddle. Connor's not sure whether he's actually amused by everything that goes on around him or if it's all just an act—a way of defending himself against a situation too painful to allow himself to feel. Usually Connor disliked rich, affected kids like Hayden, but there's something about Hayden that simply makes it impossible not to like him.

Connor sits next to Hayden, who glances to make sure that Roland has gone behind his shelving unit.

"I like the 'nice socks' maneuver," says Hayden. "Mind if I use that sometime?"

"Be my guest."

Hayden pulls off a piece of Spam and offers it to Connor. Although it's the last thing Connor wants right now, he takes it, because he knows it's not about the meat—just as he knows Hayden didn't take it because he wanted it.

The chunk of processed ham passes from Hayden to Connor, and something between them relaxes. An understanding is reached. I'm on your side, that piece of Spam says. I've got your back.

"Did you mean to have the baby?" Hayden asks.

Connor considers how he might answer. He figures the truth is the best way to begin even a tentative friendship. "It's not mine."

Hayden nods. "It's cool that you're hanging with her even though the kid's not yours."

"It's not hers, either."

Hayden smirks. He doesn't ask how the baby came into their possession, because apparently the version he's come up with in his mind is far more entertaining than anything Connor can offer. "Don't tell Roland," he says. "The only reason he's being so nice to the two of you is because he believes in the sanctity of the nuclear family." Connor can't tell whether Hayden's being serious or sarcastic. He suspects he'll never figure that out.

Hayden chows down the last of the Spam, looks into the empty can, and sighs. "My life as a Morlock," he says.

"Am I supposed to know what that is?"

"Light-sensitive underground frogmen, often portrayed in bad green-rubber costumes. Sadly, this is what we've become. Except for the green-rubber costume part."

Connor glances at the food shelves. When he listens closely, he can hear the tinny beat of music coming from the antique MPS player Roland must have stolen from upstairs when he first arrived.

"How long have you known Roland?"

"Three days longer than you," Hayden says. "Word to the unwise—which I suspect you are—Roland is fine as long as he thinks he's in charge. As long as you let him think that, we're all one big, happy family."

"What if I don't want him to think that?"

Hayden tosses his can of Spam into the trash a few feet away. "The thing about Morlocks is that they're known to be cannibals."

* * *

Connor can't sleep that first night. Between the discomfort of the basement and his distrust of Roland, all he can do is doze for moments at a time. He wont sleep in the side room with Risa because the space is small, and he and Risa would have to sleep right up against each other. He tells himself the real reason is that he's afraid of rolling over on the baby during the night. Mai and Hayden are also awake. It looks like Mai's trying to sleep, but her eyes are open and her mind is somewhere else.

Hayden has lit a candle he found in the debris, making the basement smell like cinnamon over mildew. Hayden passes his hand back and forth over the flame. He doesn't move slowly enough to burn himself, but he does move slowly enough to feel the heat. Hayden notices Connor watching him. "It's funny how a flame can only burn your hand if you move too slow," Hayden says. "You can tease it all you want and it never gets you, if you're quick enough."

"Are you a pyro?" Connor asks.

"You're confusing boredom with obsession."

Connor can sense, however, that there's more to it.

"I've been thinking about kids that get unwound," says Hayden.

''Why would you want to do that?" asks Connor.

"Because," says Mai from across the room, "he's a freak."

"I'm not the one wearing a dog collar."

Mai flips Hayden the finger, which he ignores. "I've been thinking about how harvest camps are like black holes. Nobody knows what goes on inside."

"Everybody knows what goes on," says Connor.

"No," says Hayden. "Everybody knows the result, but nobody knows how unwinding works. I want to know how it happens. Does it happen right away, or do they keep you waiting? Do they treat you kindly, or coldly?"

"Well," Mai sneers, "maybe if you're lucky, you'll get to find out firsthand."

"You know what," says Connor. "You think too much."

"Well, somebody has to make up for the collective lack of brainpower down here."

Now Connor finally begins to get it. Even though Hayden has put the candle down, all this talk of unwinding is just like passing his hand across the flame. He likes to linger at the edge of dangerous places. Dangerous thoughts. Connor thinks about his own favorite edge, behind the freeway road sign. In a way, they're both alike.

"Fine," Connor tells him. "Think about stuff until your head explodes. But the only thing I want to think about is surviving to eighteen."

"I find your shallowness both refreshing and disappointing at the same time. Do you think that means I need therapy?"

"No, I think your parents deciding to unwind you just to spite each other means you need therapy."

"Good point. You have a lot of insight for a Morlock." Then Hayden gets quiet for a moment. The smirk on his face fades. "If I actually get unwound, I think it will bring my parents back together."

Connor doesn't have the heart to burst his fantasy, but Mai does. "Naah. If you get unwound, they'll just blame each other for it, and hate each other even more."

"Maybe," says Hayden. "Or maybe they'll finally see the light, and it will be Humphrey Dunfee all over again."

"Who?" says Mai.

They both turn toward her. Hayden cracks a wide smile. "You mean you've never heard of Humphrey Dunfee?"

Mai looks around suspiciously. "Should I have?"

The smile never leaves Hayden's face. "Mai, I'm truly amazed that you don't know this. It's your kind of story." He reaches for the candle and pushes it out so that it sits between the three of them. "It's not a campfire," he says, "but it will have to do." Hayden looks into the flame for a moment, then slowly, eerily turns his eyes toward Mai.

"Years ago there was this kid. His name wasn't really Humphrey—it was probably Hal or Harry or something like that—but Humphrey kind of fits, considering. Anyway, one day his parents sign the order to have him unwound."

"Why?" asks Mai.

"Why do any parents sign the order? They just did, and the Juvey-cops came for him bright and early one morning. They snatch him, ship him off, and it's over for him.—He's unwound without a hitch."

"So that's it?" asks Mai.

"No . . . because there is a hitch," says Connor, picking up where Hayden left off. "See, the Dunfees, they're not what you would call stable people. They were a little bit nuts to begin with, but after their kid is unwound, they lose it completely."

Now Mai's tough-girl exterior is all but gone. She truly is like a little kid listening wide-eyed to a campfire story. "What did they do?"

"They decided they didn't want Humphrey unwound after all," says Hayden.

"Wait a second," says Mai. "You said they already unwound him."

Hayden's eyes look maniacal in the candlelight. "They did."

Mai shudders.

"Here's the thing," says Hayden. "Like I said, everything about harvest camp is secret—even the records of who receives what, once the unwinding is done."

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