Unwind / Page 17

Page 17

"Honey, the baby can't go where you're going," Hannah says.

Reflexively, Risa holds the baby closer to her. She doesn't even know why. All she's wanted to do since getting stuck with the thing is to get rid of it.

"It's all right," says Hannah. "I've talked it over with my husband. We'll just say we were storked. It will be fine."

Risa looks in Hannah's eyes. She can't see all that well in the dim light, but she knows the woman means what she says.

Connor, however, steps between them. "Do you want this baby?"

"She's willing to take it," says Risa. "That's enough."

"But does she want it?"

"Did you want it?"

That seems to give Connor pause for thought. Risa knows he didn't want it, but he had been willing to take it when the alternative was a miserable life with a miserable family. Just as Hannah is willing to save it from an uncertain future right now. Finally Connor says, "It's not an it. It's a she." Then he heads off toward the truck.

"We'll give her a good home," Hannah says. She takes a step closer, and Risa transfers the baby to her.

The moment the baby is out of her arms Risa feels a tremendous sense of relief, but also an indefinable sense of emptiness. It's a feeling not quite intense enough to leave her in tears, but strong enough to leave her with a phantom sort of aching, the type of thing an amputee must feel after losing a limb. That is, before a new one is grafted on.

"You take care, now," says Sonia, giving Risa an awkward hug. "It's a long journey, but I know you can make it."

"Journey to where?"

Sonia doesn't answer.

"Hey," says the driver, "I don't got all night."

Risa says good-bye to Sonia, nods to Hannah, and turns to join Connor, who's waiting lor her at the back of the truck. As Risa leaves, the baby starts to cry, but she doesn't look back.

She's surprised to find about a dozen other kids in the truck, all distrustful and scared. Roland's still the biggest, and he solidifies his position by making another kid move, even though there's plenty of other places to sit.

The delivery truck is a hard, cold, metal box. It once had a refrigeration unit to keep the ice cream cold, but that's gone along with the ice cream. Still, it's freezing in there, and it smells of spoiled dairy. The driver closes and locks the back doors, sealing out the sound of the baby, who Risa can still hear crying. Even after the door is closed, she thinks she can still hear it, although it's probably just her imagination.

The ice cream truck bounces along the uneven streets. The way the truck sways, their backs are constantly smacked against the wall behind them.

Risa closes her eyes. It makes her furious that she actually misses the baby. It was thrust upon her at the worst possible moment in her life—why should she have any regret about being rid of it? She thinks about the days before the Heartland War, when unwanted babies could just be unwanted pregnancies, quickly made to go away. Did the women who made that other choice feel the way she felt now? Relieved and freed from an unwelcome and often unfair responsibility . . . yet vaguely regretful?

In her days at the state home, when she was assigned to take care of the infants, she would often ponder such things. The infant wing had been massive and overflowing with identical cribs, each containing a baby that nobody had wanted, wards of a state that could barely feed them, much less nurture them.

"You can't change laws without first changing human nature," one of the nurses often said as she looked out over the crowd of crying infants. Her name was Greta. Whenever she said something like that, there was always another nurse within earshot who was far more accepting of the system and would counter with, "You can't change human nature without first changing the law." Nurse Greta wouldn't argue; she'd just grunt and walk away.

Which was worse, Risa often wondered—to have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted, or to silently make them go away before they were even born? On different days Risa had different answers.

Nurse Greta was old enough to remember the days before the war, but she rarely spoke of them. All her attention was given to her job, which was a formidable one, since there was only one nurse for every fifty babies. "In a place like this you have to practice triage," she told Risa, referring to how, in an emergency, a nurse had to choose which patients would get medical attention. "Love the ones you can," Nurse Greta told her. "Pray for the rest." Risa took the advice to heart, and selected a handful of favorites to give extra attention. These were the ones Risa named herself, instead of letting the randomizing computer name them. Risa liked to think she had been named by a human being instead of by a computer. After all, her name wasn't all that common. "It's short for sonrisa," a Hispanic kid once told her. "That's Spanish for 'smile.'" Risa didn't know if she had any Hispanic blood in her, but she liked to think she did. It connected her to her name.

"What are you thinking about?" Connor asks, tearing her out of her thoughts and bringing her back to the uneasy reality around them.

"None of your business.''

Connor doesn't look at her—he seems to be focusing on a big rust spot on the wall, thinking. "You okay about the baby?" he asks.

"Of course." Her tone is intentionally indignant, as if the question itself offended her.

"Hannah will give her a good home," Connor says. "Better than us, that's for sure, and better than that beady-eyed cow who got storked." He hesitates for a moment, then says, "Taking that baby was a massive screwup, I know—but it ended okay for us, right? And it definitely ended better for the baby."

"Don't screw up like that again," is all Risa says.

Roland, sitting toward the front, turns to the driver and asks, "Where are we going?"

"You're asking the wrong guy," the driver answers. "They give me an address. I go there, I look the other way, and I get paid."

"This is how it works," says another kid who had already been in the truck when it arrived at Sonia's. "We get shuffled around. One safe house for a few days, then another, and then another. Each one is a little bit closer to where we're going."

"You gonna tell us where that is?" asks Roland.

The kid looks around, hoping someone else might answer for him, but no one comes to his aid. So he says, "Well, it's only what I hear, but they say we end up in a place called . . . the graveyard."'

No response from the kids, just the rattling of the truck.

The graveyard. The thought of it makes Risa even colder. Even though she's curled up knees to chest, arms wrapped tight around her like a straitjacket, she's still freezing. Connor must hear the chattering of her teeth, because he puts his arm around her.

"I'm cold too," he says. "Body heat, right?"

And although she has an urge to push him away, she finds herself leaning into him until she can feel his heartbeat in her ears.

Part Three



. . . The BBC has spoken to mothers from the city of Kharkiv who say they gave birth to healthy babies, only to have them taken by maternity staff. In 2003 the authorities agreed to exhume around 30 bodies from a cemetery used by maternity hospital number 6. One campaigner was allowed into the autopsy to gather video evidence. She has given that footage to the BBC and Council of Europe.

In its report, the Council describes a general culture of trafficking of children snatched at birth, and a wall of silence from hospital staff upward over their fate. The pictures show organs, including brains, have been stripped—and some bodies dismembered. A senior British forensic pathologist says he is very concerned to see bodies in pieces—as that is not standard postmortem practice. It could possibly be a result of harvesting stem cells from bone marrow.

Hospital number 6 denies the allegation.

Story by Matthew Hill, BBC Health Correspondent

From BBC NEWS: at BBC.com


Published: 2006/12/12 09:34:50 GMT © BBC MMVI

21 Lev

"Ain't no one gonna tell you what's in your heart," he tells Lev. "You gotta find that out for yourself."

Lev and his new travel companion walk along train tracks, surrounded by thick, brushy terrain.

"You got it in your heart to run from unwinding, ain't no one can tell you it's the wrong thing to do, even if it is against the law. The good Lord wouldn't have put it in your heart if it wasn't right. You listenin', Fry? 'Cause this here is wisdom. Wisdom you can take to the grave, then dig it up again when you need some solace. Solace—that means 'comfort.'"

"I know what solace means," says Lev, peeved by the mention of "the good Lord," who hasn't done much for Lev lately, except confuse things.

The kid is fifteen, and his name is Cyrus Finch—although he doesn't go by that name. "No one calls me Cyrus," he had told Lev shortly after they met. "I go by CyFi."

And, since CyFi is partial to nicknames, he calls Lev "Fry"—short for small-fry. Since it has the same number of letters as "Lev," he says it's appropriate. Lev doesn't want to burst his bubble by pointing out that his full name is Levi.

CyFi enjoys hearing himself talk.

"I make my own roads in life," he tells Lev. "That's how come we're traveling the rails instead of some dumb old country road."

CyFi is umber. "They used to call us black—can you imagine? Then there was this artist dude—mixed-race himself, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. He got famous, though, for painting people of African ancestry in the Deep South. The color he used most was umber. People liked that a whole lot better, so it stuck. Bet you didn't know where the word came from, did you, Fry? Following right along, they started calling so-called white people "sienna," after another paint color. Better words. Didn't have no value judgment to them. Of course, it's not like racism is gone completely, but as my dads like to say, the veneer of civilization got itself a second coat. You like that, Fry? "The veneer of civilization?" He slowly sweeps his hand in the air as he says it, like he's feeling the fine finish of a table. "My dads are always saying stuff like that."

CyFi's a runaway, although he claims not to be. "I ain't no runaway—I'm a run-to," he had told Lev when they first met, although he won't tell Lev where he's running to. When Lev asked, CyFi shook his head and said, "Information shall be given on a need-to-know basis."

Well, he can keep his secret, because Lev doesn't care where he's going. The simple fact that he has a destination is enough for Lev. It's more than Lev has. Destination implies a future. If this umber-skinned boy can lend Lev that much, it's worth it to travel with him.

They had met at a mall. Hunger had driven Lev there. He had hidden in dark lonely places for almost two days after he lost Connor and Risa. With no experience being a street rat, he went hungry—but eventually, hunger turns anyone into a master of survival.

The mall was a mecca for a newborn street rat. The food court was full of amazingly wasteful people. The trick, Lev discovered, was to find people who bought more food than they could possibly cat, and then wait until they were done. About half the time, they just left it on the table. Those were the ones Lev went after—because he might have been hungry enough to eat table scraps, but he was still too proud to rifle through the trash. While Lev was finishing off some cheerleader's pizza, he heard a voice in his ear.

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