"Very true—but the guarantee only holds until thirteen."
Then all of a sudden everyone has something to say
"The money only stretches so far," says the headmaster.
"Educational standards could be compromised," says the lawyer.
"We only want what's best for you, and all the other children here," says the social worker.
And back and forth it goes like a three-way Ping-Pong match. Risa says nothing, only listens.
"You're a good musician, but . . ."
"As I said, you've reached your potential."
"As far as you can go."
"Perhaps if you had chosen a less competitive course of study."
"Well, that's all water under the bridge."
"Our hands are tied."
"There are unwanted babies born every day—and not all of them get storked."
"We're obliged to take the ones that don't."
"We have to make room for every new ward."
"Which means cutting 5 percent of our teenage population."
"You do understand, don't you?"
Risa can't listen anymore, so she shuts them up by saying what they don't have the courage to say themselves.
"I'm being unwound?"
Silence. It's more of an answer than if they had said "yes."
The social worker reaches over to take Risa's hand, but Risa pulls it back before she can. "It's all right to be frightened. Change is always scary."
"Change?" yells Risa, "What do you mean 'change'? Dying is a little bit more than a 'change."'
The headmaster's tie turns into a noose again, preventing blood from getting to his face. The lawyer opens his briefcase. "Please, Miss Ward. It's not dying, and I'm sure everyone here would be more comfortable if you didn't suggest something so blatantly inflammatory. The fact is, 100 percent of you will still be alive, just in a divided state." Then he reaches into his briefcase and hands her a colorful pamphlet. "This is a brochure from Twin Lakes Harvest Camp."
"It's a fine place," the headmaster says. "It's our facility of choice for all our Unwinds. In fact, my own nephew was unwound there."
"Goody for him."
"Change," repeated the social worker, "that's all. The way ice becomes water, the way water becomes clouds. You will live, Risa. Only in a different form."
But Risa's not hearing anymore. Panic has already started to set in. "I don't have to be a musician. I can do something else."
Headmaster Thomas sadly shakes his head. "Too late for that, I'm afraid."
"No, it's not. I could work out. I could become a boeuf. The military always needs more boeufs!"
The lawyer sighs in exasperation and looks at his watch. The social worker leans forward. "Risa, please," she says. "It takes a certain body type for a girl to be an Army boeuf, and many years of physical training."
"Don't I have a choice in this?" But when she looks behind her, the answer is clear. There are two guards waiting to make sure that she has no choice at all. And as they lead her away, she thinks of Mr. Durkin. With a bitter laugh, Risa realizes that he may get his wish after all. Someday he may see her hands playing in Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately, the rest of Risa won't be there.
* * *
She is not allowed to return to her dormitory. She will take nothing with her, because there's nothing she needs. That's the way it is with unwinds. Just a handful of her friends sneak down to the school's transportation center, stealing quick hugs and shedding quick tears, all the while looking over their shoulders, afraid of getting caught.
Mr. Durkin does not come. This hurts Risa most of all.
She sleeps in a guest room in the home's welcome center, then, at dawn, she's loaded onto a bus full of kids being transferred from the huge StaHo complex to other places. She recognizes some faces, but doesn't actually know any of her travel companions.
Across the aisle, a fairly nice-looking boy—a military boeuf by the look of him—gives her a smile. "Hey," he says, flirting in a way only boeufs can.
"Hey," Risa says back.
"I'm being transferred to the state naval academy," he says. "How about you?"
"Oh, me?" She quickly sifts through the air for something impressive. "Miss Marple's Academy for the Highly Gifted."
"She's lying," says a scrawny, pale boy sitting on Risa's other side. "She's an Unwind."
Suddenly the boeuf boy leans away, as if unwinding is contagious. "Oh," he says. "Well. . . uh . . . that's too bad. See ya!" And he leaves to sit with some other boeufs in the back.
"Thanks," snaps Risa at the scrawny kid.
The kid just shrugs. "It doesn't matter, anyway." Then he holds out his hand to shake. "I'm Samson," he says. "I'm an Unwind too."
Risa almost laughs. Samson. Such a strong name for such a mealy boy. She doesn't shake his hand, still annoyed at having been exposed to the handsome boeuf.
"So, what did you do to get yourself unwound?" Risa asks.
"It's not what I did, it's what I didn't do."
"What didn't you do?"
"Anything," Samson answers.
It makes sense to Risa. Not doing anything is an easy path to unwinding.
"I was never going to amount to much anyway," Samson says, "but now, statistically speaking, there's a better chance that some part of me will go on to greatness somewhere in the world. I'd rather be partly great than entirely useless."
The fact that his twisted logic almost makes sense just makes her angrier. "Hope you enjoy harvest camp, Samson." Then she leaves to find another seat.
"Please sit down!" calls the chaperone from the front, but no one's listening to her. The bus is full of kids moving from seat to seat, trying to find kindred spirits or trying to escape them. Risa finds herself a window seat, with no one beside her.
This bus trip will be only the first leg of her journey. They explained to her—to all the kids after they boarded the bus— that they would first be taken to a central transportation center, where kids from dozens of state homes would be sorted onto buses that would take them to wherever they were going. Risa's next bus would be a bus full of Samsons. Wonderful. She had already considered the possibility of sneaking onto another bus, but the bar codes on their waistbands make that an impossibility. It's all perfectly organized, and foolproof. Still, Risa occupies her mind with all the scenarios that could lead to escape.
That's when she sees the commotion out of her window. It's farther up the road. Squad cars are on the other side of the freeway, and as the bus changes lanes, she sees two figures in the road: two kids racing across traffic. One kid has the other in a chokehold and is practically dragging him. And both of them have run right in front of the bus.
Risa's head is slammed against the window as the bus suddenly pulls to the right to avoid the two kids. The bus fills with gasps and screams, and Risa is thrown forward, down the aisle, as the bus comes to a sudden, jarring stop. Her hip is hurt, but not bad. It's just a bruise. She gets up, quickly taking stock of the situation. The bus leans sideways. It's off the road, in a ditch. The windshield is smashed, and it's covered with blood. Lots of it.
Kids around her all check themselves. Like her, no one is badly hurt, although some are making more of a fuss than others. The chaperone tries to calm down one girl who's hysterical.
And in this chaos, Risa has a sudden realization.
This is not part of the plan.
The system might have a million contingencies for state wards trying to screw with things, but they don't have a plan of action for dealing with an accident. For the next few seconds, all bets are off.
Risa fixes her eyes on the front door of the bus, holds her breath, and races toward that door.
The party is big, the party is expensive, the party has been planned for years.
There are at least two hundred people in the country club's grand ballroom. Lev got to pick the band, he got to choose the food—he even got to select the color of the linens: red and white—for the Cincinnati Reds—and his name, Levi Jedediah Calder, is stamped in gold on the silk napkins for people to take home as a remembrance.
This party is all for him. It's all about him. And he's determined to have the best time of his life.
The adults at the party are relatives, friends of the family, his parents' business associates—but at least eighty of the guests are Lev's friends. There are kids from school, from church, and from the various sports teams he's been on. Some of his friends had felt funny about coming of course.
"I don't know, Lev," they had said, "it's kind of weird. I mean, what kind of present am I supposed to bring?"
"You don't have to bring anything," Lev had told them. "There are no presents at a tithing party. Just come and have a good time. I know / will."
And he does.
He asks every girl he invited to dance, and not a single one turns him down. He even has people lift him up in a chair and dance with him around the room, because he had seen them do that at a Jewish friend's bar mitzvah. True, this is a very different kind of party, but it's also a celebration of him turning thirteen, so he deserves to get lifted up in a chair too, doesn't he?
Lev finds that the dinner is served far too soon. He looks at his watch to see that two hours have already gone by. How-could it have gone so quickly?
Soon people grab the microphone and, holding up glasses of champagne, they start making toasts to Lev. His parents give a toast. His grandmother gives a toast. An uncle he doesn't even know gives a toast.
"To Lev: It's been a joy to watch you grow into the fine young man you are, and I know in my heart that you'll do great things for everyone you touch in this world."
It feels wonderful and weird for so many people to say so many kind things about him. It's all too much, but in some strange way it's not enough. There's got to be more. More food. More dancing. More time. They're already bringing out the birthday cake. Everyone knows the party ends once the cake is served. Why are they bringing out the cake? Can it really be three hours into the party?
Then comes one more toast. It's the toast that almost ruins the evening.
Of Lev's many brothers and sisters, Marcus has been the quietest all evening. It's unlike him. Lev should have known something was going to happen. Lev, at thirteen, is the youngest often. Marcus, at twenty-eight, is the oldest. He flew halfway across the country to be here at Lev's tithing party, and yet he's barely danced, or spoken, or been a part of any of the festivities. He's also drunk. Lev has never seen Marcus drunk.
It happens after the formal toasts are given, when Lev's cake is being cut and distributed. It doesn't start as a toast; it starts as just a moment between brothers.
"Congrats, little bro," Marcus says, giving him a powerful hug. Lev can smell the alcohol on Marcus's breath. "Today you're a man. Sort of."
Their father, sitting at the head table just a few feet away, lets out a nervous chuckle.
"Thanks . . . sort of," Lev responds. He glances at his parents. His father waits to see what's coming next. His mother's pinched expression makes Lev feel tense.
Marcus stares at Lev with a smile that doesn't hold any of the emotion a smile usually comes with. "What do you think of all this?" he asks Lev.