Page 25

Diego grunts his disapproval. "I don't like the sound of that."

"This girl had it all worked out in her head," continued Hayden. "She believed Unwinds are like the unborn."

"Wait a second," says Emby, finally breaking his silence. "The unborn have souls. They have souls from the moment they get made—the law says."

Connor doesn't want to get into it again with Emby, but he can't help himself. "Just because the law says it, that doesn't make it true."

"Yeah, well, just because the law says it, that doesn't make it false, either. It's only the law because a whole lot of people thought about it, and decided it made sense."

"Hmm," says Diego. "The Mouth Breather has a point."

Maybe so, but the way Connor sees it, a point ought to be sharper than that. "How can you pass laws about things that nobody knows?"

"They do it all the time," says Hayden. "That's what law is: educated guesses at right and wrong."

"And what the law says is fine with me," says Emby.

"But if it weren't for the law, would you still believe it?" asks Hayden. "Share with us a a personal opinion, Emby. Prove there's more than snot in that cranium of yours."

"You're wasting your time," says Connor. "There's not."

"Give our congested friend a chance," says Hayden.

They wait. The sound of the engine changes. Connor can feel them begin a slow descent, and wonders if the others can feel it too. Then Emby says, "Unborn babies . . . they suck their thumbs sometimes, right? And they kick. Maybe before that they're just like a bunch of cells or something, but once they kick and suck their thumbs—that's when they've got a soul."

"Good for you!" says Hayden. "An opinion! I knew you could do it."

Connor's head begins to spin. Was it the plane's banking, or a lack of oxygen?

"Connor, fair is fair—Emby found an opinion somewhere in his questionable gray matter. Now you have to give yours."

Connor sighs, not having the strength to fight anymore. He thinks about the baby he and Risa so briefly shared. "If there's such a thing as a soul—and I'm not saying that there is—then it comes when a baby's born into the world. Before that, it's just part of the mother."

"No, it's not!" says Emby.

"Hey—he wanted my opinion, I gave it."

"But it's wrong!"

"You see, Hayden? You see what you started?"

"Yes!" Hayden says excitedly. "It looks like we're about to have our own little Heartland War. Pity it's too dark for us to watch it."

"If you want my opinion, you're both wrong," says Diego. "The way I see it, it's got nothing to do with all of that. It has to do with love."

"Uh-oh," says Hayden. "Diego's getting romantic. I'm moving to the other end or the crate."

"No, I'm serious. A person don't got a soul until that person is loved. If a mother loves her baby—wants her baby—it's got a soul from the moment she knows it's there. The moment you're loved, that's when you got your soul. Punto!"

"Yeah?" says Connor. "Well, what about all those babies that get storked—or all those kids in state schools?"

"They just better hope somebody loves them some day."

Connor snorts dismissively, but in spite of himself, he can't dismiss it entirely, any more than he can dismiss the other things he's heard today. He thinks about his parents. Did they ever love him? Certainly they did when he was little. And just because they stopped, it didn't mean his soul was stolen away . . . although sometimes to admit that it felt like it was. Or at least, part of it died when his parents signed the order.

"Diego, that's really sweet," Hayden says in his best mocking voice. "Maybe you should write greeting cards."

"Maybe I should write them on your face."

Hayden just laughs.

"You always poke fun at other people's opinions," says Connor, "so how come you never give your own?"

"Yeah," says Emby.

"You're always playing people for your own entertainment. Now it's your turn. Entertain us."

"Yeah," says Emby.

"So tell us," says Connor, "in The World According to Hayden, when do we start to live?"

A long silence from Hayden, and then he says quietly, uneasily, "I don't know."

Emby razzes him. "That's not an answer."

But Connor reaches out and grabs Emby's arm, to shut him up—because Emby's wrong. Even though Connor can't see Hayden's face, he can hear the truth of it in his voice. There was no hint of evasion in Hayden's words. This was raw-honesty, void of Hayden's usual flip attitude. It was perhaps the first truly honest thing Connor had ever heard him say. "Yes, it is an answer," Connor says. "Maybe it's the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don't know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War."

There's a mechanical jolt beneath them. Emby gasps.

"Landing gear," says Connor.

"Oh, right."

In a few minutes they'll be there, wherever "there" is. Connor tries to guess how long they've been in the air. Ninety minutes? Two hours? There's no telling what direction they've been flying. They could be touching down anywhere. Or maybe Emby was right. Maybe it's piloted by remote control and they're just ditching the whole plane in the ocean to get rid of the evidence. Or what if it's worse than that? What if . . . what if . . .

"What if it's a harvest camp after all?" says Emby. Connor doesn't tell him to shut up this time, because he's thinking the same thing.

It's Diego who answers him. "If it is, then I want my fingers to go to a sculptor. So he can use them to craft something that will last forever."

They all think about that. Hayden is the next to speak.

"If I'm unwound," says Hayden, "I want my eyes to go to a photographer—one who shoots supermodels. That's what I want these eyes to see."

"My lips'll go to a rock star," says Connor.

"These legs are definitely going to the Olympics."

"My ears to an orchestra conductor."

"My stomach to a food critic."

"My biceps to a body builder."

"I wouldn't wish my sinuses on anybody."

And they're all laughing as the plane touches down.

28 Risa

Risa doesn't know what went on in Connor's crate. She assumes guys talk about guy things, whatever those things are. She has no way of knowing that what occurred in his crate was a reenactment of what happened in her own, and in almost every other container on the plane. Fear, misgivings, questions rarely asked, and stories rarely told. The details are different, of course, as are the players, but the gist is the same. No one will discuss these things again, or even acknowledge having ever discussed them at all, but because of it, invisible bonds have been forged. Risa has gotten to know an overweight girl prone to tears, a girl wound up from a week of nicotine withdrawal, and a girl who was a ward of the state, just like her— and also just like Risa, an unwitting victim of budget cuts. Her name is Tina. The others told their names, but Tina's is the only one she remembers.

"We're exactly the same," Tina had said sometime during the flight. "We could be twins." Even though Tina is umber, Risa has to admit that it's true. It's comforting to know there are others in the same situation, but troubling to think her own life is just one of a thousand pirate copies. Sure, the Unwinds from state homes all have different faces, but otherwise, their stories are the same. They even all have the same last name, and she silently curses whoever it was who determined that they should all be named Ward—as if being one weren't enough of a stigma.

The plane touches down, and they wait.

"What's taking so long?" asks the nicotine girl, impatiently. "I can't stand this!"

"Maybe they're moving us to a truck, or another plane," suggests the pudgy girl.

"They'd better not be," says Risa. "There's not enough air in here for another trip."

There's noise—someone's outside the crate. "Shhh!" says Risa. "Listen." Footsteps. Banging, She hears voices, although she can't make out what the voices say. Then someone unlatches a side of the crate and pulls it open a crack. Hot, dry air spills in. The sliver of light from the plane's hold seems bright as sunlight after the hours of darkness.

"Is everyone all right in there?" It's not a Fatigue—Risa can tell right away. The voice is younger.

"We're okay," Risa says. "Can we get out of here?"

"Not yet. We gotta open all the other crates first and get everyone some fresh air." From what Risa can see, this is just a kid her age, maybe even younger. He wears a beige tank top and khaki pants. He's sweaty, and his cheeks are tan. No, not just tan: sunburned.

"Where are we?" Tina asks.

"The graveyard," says the kid, and moves on to the next crate.

* * *

In a few minutes the crate is opened all the way, and they're free. Risa takes a moment to look at her travel companions. The three girls look remarkably different from her memory of them when they first got in. Getting to know someone in blind darkness changes your impression of them. The large girl isn't as overweight as Risa had thought. Tina isn't as tall. The nicotine girl isn't nearly as ugly.

A ramp leads down from the hold, and Risa must wait her turn in a long line of kids leaving their crates. Rumors are already buzzing. Risa tries to listen, and sort the fact from fiction.

"A buncha kids died."

"No way."

"I heard half the kids died."

"No way!"

"Look around you, moron! Does it look like half of us died?"

"Well, I just heard."

"It was just one crateful that died."

"Yeah! Someone says they freaked out and ate each other—you know, like the Donner party."

"No, they just suffocated."

"How do you know?"

"Cause I saw them, man. Right in the crate next to mine. There were five guys in there instead of four, and they all suffocated."

Risa turns to the kid who said that. "Is that really true, or are you just making it up?"

Risa can tell by the unsettled look on his face that he's sincere. "I wouldn't joke about something like that."

Risa looks for Connor, but her view is limited to the few-kids around her in line. She quickly docs the math. There were about sixty kids. Five kids suffocated. One-in-twelve chance it was Connor. No, because the boy who saw into the dead crate said there were guys in there. There were only thirty guys in all. One-in-six chance it was Connor. Had he been one of the last ones in? Had he been shoved into an overpacked crate? She didn't know. She had been so flustered when they were rousted that morning, it was hard enough to keep track of herself, much less anyone else. Please, God, let it not be Connor. Let it not be Connor. Her last words to him had been angry ones. Even though he had saved her from Roland, she was furious at him. "Get out of here!" she had screamed. She couldn't bear the thought of his dying with those being her last words. She couldn't bear the thought of his dying, period.