"We're gonna suffocate! I know it!" announces the Mouth Breather.
"Will you shut up?" says Connor. "I'm sure there's more than enough air in here for us."
"How do you know? I can barely breathe already—and I got asthma, too. I could have an asthma attack in here and die!"
"Good," says Connor. "One less person breathing the air."
That shuts Emby up, but Connor feels bad having said it. "No one's going to die," he says. "Just relax."
And then Hayden says, "At least dying's better than being unwound. Or is it? Let's take a poll—would you rather die, or be unwound?"
"Don't ask things like that!" snaps Connor. "I don't want to think about either." Somewhere outside of their little crated universe, Connor hears a metal hatch closing and can feel the vibration in his feet as they begin to taxi. Connor waits. Engines power up—he can feel the vibration in his feet. He's pushed back against the wall as they accelerate. Hayden tumbles into him, and he shifts over, giving Hayden room to get comfortable again.
"What's happening? What's happening?" cries Emby.
"Nothing. We're just taking off."
"What! We're on a plane?"
Connor rolls his eyes, but the gesture is lost in the darkness.
* * *
The box is like a coffin. The box is like a womb. Normal measures of time don't seem to apply, and the unpredictable turbulence of flight fills the dark space with an ever-present tension.
Once they're airborne, the four kids don't speak for a very long time. Half an hour, an hour maybe—it's hard to tell. Everyone's mind is trapped in the holding pattern of their own uneasy thoughts. The plane hits some rough air. Everything around them rattles. Connor wonders if there are kids in crates above them, below them, and on every side. He can't hear their voices if they are. From where he sits, it feels like the four of them are the only ones in the universe. Emby silently relieves himself. Connor knows because he can smell it—everyone can, but no one says anything. It could just as easily have been any one of them—and depending on how long this trip is, it still could be.
Finally, after what feels like forever, the quietest of them all speaks.
"Unwound," Diego says. "I'd rather be unwound."
Even though it's been a long time since Hayden posed the question, Connor knows immediately what it refers to. Would you rather die or be unwound? It's like the question has hung in the cramped darkness all this time, waiting to be answered.
"Not me," says Emby. "Because if you die, at least you go to Heaven."
Heaven? thinks Connor. More likely they'd go to the other place. Because if their own parents didn't care enough about them to keep them, who would want them in Heaven?
"What makes you think Unwinds don't go?" Diego asks Emby.
"Because Unwinds aren't really dead. They're still alive . . . sort of. I mean, they have to use every single part of us somewhere, right? That's the law."
Then Hayden asks the question. Not a question, the question. Asking it is the great taboo among those marked for unwinding. It's what everyone thinks about, but no one ever dares to ask out loud.
"So, then," says Hayden, "if every part of you is alive but inside someone else . . . are you alive or are you dead?"
This, Connor knows, is Hayden bringing his hand back and forth across the flame again. Close enough to feel it, but not close enough to burn. But it's not just his own hand now, it's everyone's, and it ticks Connor off.
"Talking wastes our oxygen," Connor says. "Let's just agree that unwinding sucks and leave it at that."
It shuts everyone up, but only for a minute. It's Emby who talks next.
"I don't think unwinding is bad," he says. "I just don't want it to happen to me."
Connor wants to ignore him but can't. If there's one thing that Connor can't abide, it's an Unwind who defends unwinding. "So it's all right if it happens to us but not if it happens to you?
"I didn't say that."
"Yes, you did."
"Ooh," says Hayden. "This is getting good."
"They say it's painless," says Emby—as if that were any consolation.
"Yeah?" says Connor. "Well, why don't you go ask all the pieces of Humphrey Dunfee how painless it was?"
The name settles like a frost around them. The jolts and rattles of turbulence grow sharper.
"So . . . you heard that story too?" says Diego. "Just because there are stories like that, doesn't mean unwinding is all bad," says Emby. "It helps people."
"You sound like a tithe," says Diego.
Connor finds himself personally insulted by that. "No, he doesn't. I know a tithe. His ideas might have been a little bit out there, but he wasn't stupid." The thought of Lev brings with it a wave of despair. Connor doesn't fight it—he just lets it wash through him, then drain away. He doesn't know a tithe; he knew one. One who has certainly met his destiny by now.
"Are you calling me stupid?" says Emby.
"I think I just did."
Hayden laughs. "Hey, the Mouth Breather is right— unwinding does help people. If it wasn't for unwinding, there'd be bald guys again—and wouldn't that be horrible?"
Diego snickers, but Connor is not the least bit amused. "Emby, why don't you do us all a favor and use your mouth for breathing instead of talking until we land, or crash, or whatever."
"You might think I'm stupid, but I got a good reason for the way I feel," Emby says. "When I was little, I was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. Both my lungs were shutting down. I was gonna die. So they took out both my dying lungs and gave me a single lung from an Unwind. The only reason I'm alive is because that kid got unwound."
"So," says Connor, "your life is more important than his?"
"He was already unwound—it's not like I did it to him. If I didn't get that lung, someone else would have."
In his anger, Connor's voice begins to rise, even though Emby's only a couple of feet away at most. "If there wasn't unwinding, there'd be fewer surgeons, and more doctors. If there wasn't unwinding, they'd go back to trying to cure diseases instead of just replacing stuff with someone else's."
And suddenly the Mouth Breather's voice rings out with a ferocity that catches Connor by surprise.
"Wait till you're the one who's dying and see how you feel about it!"
"I'd rather die than get a piece of an Unwind!" Connor yells back.
The Mouth Breather tries to shout something else, but instead goes into a coughing fit that lasts for a whole minute. It gets so bad, it frightens even Connor. It's like he might actually cough up his transplanted lung.
"You okay?" asks Diego.
"Yeah," says Emby, trying to get it under control. "Like I said, the lung's got asthma. It was the best we could afford."
By the time his coughing fit is over, it seems there's nothing more to say. Except this:
"If your parents went to all that trouble," asks Hayden, "why were they having you unwound?"
Hayden and his questions. This one shuts Emby down for a few moments. It's clearly a tough topic for him—maybe even tougher than it is for most Unwinds.
"My parents didn't sign the order,'' Emby finally says. "My dad died when I was little, and my mom died two months ago. That's when my aunt took me in. The thing is, my mom left me some money, but my aunt's got three kids of her own to put through college, so . . ."
He doesn't have to finish. The others can connect the dots.
"Man, that stinks," says Diego.
"Yeah," says Connor, his anger at Emby now transferred to Emby's aunt.
"It's always about money," Hayden says. "When my parents were splitting up, they fought over money, until there was none left. Then they fought over me. So I got out before there was none of me left, either."
Silence falls again. There's nothing to hear but the drone of the engine, and the rattle of the crates. The air is humid and it's a struggle to breathe. Connor wonders if maybe the Fatigues miscalculated about how much air they had. We're all gonna die in here. That's what Emby said. Connor bangs his head back sharply against the wall, hoping to jar loose the bad thoughts clinging to his brain. This is not a good place to be alone with your thoughts. Perhaps that's why Hayden feels compelled to talk.
"No one ever answered my question," Hayden says. "Looks like no one has the guts."
"Which one?" asks Connor. "You've got questions coming out of you like farts on Thanksgiving."
"I was asking if unwinding kills you, or if it leaves you alive somehow. C'mon—it's not like we haven't thought about it."
Emby says nothing. He's clearly been weakened by coughing and conversation. Connor's not interested in volunteering either.
"It depends," says Diego. "Depends on where your soul is once you're unwound."
Normally Connor would walk away from a conversation like this. His life is about tangibles: things you can see, hear, and touch. God, souls, and all that has always been like a secret in a black box he couldn't see into, so it was easier to just leave it alone. Only now, he's inside the black box.
"What do you think, Connor?" asks Hayden. "What happens to your soul when you get unwound?"
"Who says I even got one?"
"For the sake of argument, let's say you do."
"Who says I want an argument?"
"Ijolé! Just give him an answer, man, or he won't leave you alone."
Connor squirms, but can't squirm his way out of the box. "How should I know what happens to it? Maybe it gets all broken up like the rest of us into a bunch of little pieces."
"But a soul isn't like that," says Diego. "It's indivisible."
"If it's indivisible," says Hayden, "maybe an Unwinds spirit stretches out, kind of like a giant balloon between all those parts of us in other places. Very poetic."
Hayden might find poetry in it, but to Connor the thought is terrifying. He tries to imagine himself stretched so thin and so wide that he can reach around the world. He imagines his spirit like a web strung between the thousand recipients of his hands, his eyes, the fragments of his brain—none of it under his control anymore, all absorbed by the bodies and wills of others. Could consciousness exist like that? He thinks about the trucker who performed a card trick for him with an Unwinds hand. Did the boy who once owned that hand still feel the satisfaction of performing the trick? Was his spirit still inexplicably whole, even though his flesh had been shuffled like that deck-of cards, or was he shredded beyond all hope of awareness—beyond Heaven, Hell, or anything eternal? Whether or not souls exist Connor doesn't know. But consciousness dues exist—that's something he knows for sure. If every part of an Unwind is still alive, then that consciousness has to go somewhere, doesn't it? He silently curses Hayden for making him think about it . . . but Hayden isn't done yet.
"Here's a little brain clot for you," says Hayden. "I knew this girl back home. There was something about her that made you want to listen to the things she had to say. I don't know whether she was really well-centered, or just psychotic. She believed that if someone actually gets unwound, then they never had a soul to begin with. She said God must know who's going to be unwound, and he doesn't give them souls."