Page 5

"It's great."

"Of course it is! All these people here for you? It's an amazing night. Amazing!"

"Yeah," says Lev. He's not sure where this is going, but he knows it's going somewhere. "I'm having the time of my life."

"Damn right! The time of your life! Gotta wrap up all those life events, all those parties, into one—birthdays, wedding, funeral." Then he turns to their father. "Very efficient, right, Dad?"

"That's enough,'' their father says quietly, but it only makes Marcus get louder.

"What? I'm not allowed to talk about it? Oh, that's right— this is a celebration. I almost forgot."

Lev wants Marcus to stop, but at the same time he doesn't.

Mom stands up and says in a voice more forceful than Dad's, "Marcus, sit down. You're embarrassing yourself."

By now everyone in the banquet hall has stopped whatever they were doing and are tuned in to the unfolding family-drama. Marcus, seeing he has the room's attention, picks up someone's half-empty glass of champagne, and holds it high. "Here's to my brother, Lev," Marcus says. "And to our parents! Who have always done the right thing. The appropriate thing. Who have always given generously to charity. Who have always given 10 percent of everything to our church. Hey, Mom— we're lucky you had ten kids instead of five, otherwise we'd end up having to cut Lev off at the waist!"

Gasps from all those assembled. People shaking their heads. Such disappointing behavior from an eldest son.

Now Dad comes up and grabs Marcus's arm tightly. "You're done!" Dad says. "Sit down."

Marcus shakes Dad's arm off. "Oh, I'll do better than sit down." Now there are tears in Marcus's eyes as he turns to Lev. "I love you, bro . . . and I know this is your special day. But I can't be a part of this." He hurls the champagne glass against the wall, where it shatters, spraying fragments of crystal all over the buffet table. Then he turns and storms out with such steady confidence in his stride that Lev realizes he's not drunk at all.

Lev's father signals the band and they kick into a dance number even before Marcus is gone from the huge room. People begin to fill the void of the dance floor, doing their best to make the awkward moment go away.

"I'm sorry about that, Lev," his father tells him. "Why don't you . . . why don't you go dance?"

But Lev finds he doesn't want to dance anymore. The desire he had to be the center of attention left along with his brother. "I'd like to talk to Pastor Dan, if that's all right."

"Of course it is."

Pastor Dan has been a family friend since before Lev was born, and he has always been much easier to talk to than his parents about any subject that required patience and wisdom.

The banquet hall is too loud, too crowded, so they go outside to the patio overlooking the country club's golf course.

"Are you getting scared?" Pastor Dan asks. He's always able to figure out what's on Lev's mind.

Lev nods. "I thought I was ready. I thought I was prepared."

"It's natural. Don't worry about it,"

But it doesn't ease the disappointment Lev feels in himself. He's had his entire life to prepare for this—it should have been enough. He knew he was a tithe from the time he was little. "You're special," his parents had always told him. "Your life will be to serve God, and mankind." He doesn't remember how old he was when he found out exactly what that meant for him.

"Have kids in school been giving you a hard time?"

"No more than usual," Lev tells him. It's true. All his life he's had to deal with kids who resented him, because grownups treated him as if he was special. There were kids who were kind, and kids who were cruel. That was life. It did bother him, though, when kids called him things like "dirty Unwind." As if he was like those other kids, whose parents signed the unwind order to get rid of them. That couldn't be further from the truth for Lev. He is his family's pride and joy. Straight As in school, MVP in little league. Just because he's to be unwound does NOT means he's an Unwind.

There are, of course, a few other tithes at his school, but they're all from other religions, so Lev has never felt a real sense of camaraderie with them. The huge turnout at tonight's party testifies to how many friends Lev has—but they're not like him: Their lives will be lived in an undivided state. Their bodies and their futures are their own. Lev has always felt closer to God than to his friends, or even his family. He often wonders if being chosen always leaves a person so isolated. Or is there something wrong with him?

"I've been having lots of wrong thoughts," Lev tells Pastor Dan.

"There are no wrong thoughts, only thoughts that need to be worked through and overcome."

"Well . . . I've just been feeling jealous of my brothers and sisters. I keep thinking of how the baseball team is going to miss me. I know it's an honor and a blessing to be a tithe, but I can't stop wondering why it has to be me."

Pastor Dan, who was always so good at looking people in the eye, now looks away. "It was decided before you were born. It's not anything you did, or didn't do."

"The thing is, I know tons of people with big families . . ."

Pastor Dan nodded. "Yes, it's very common these days."

"But lots of those people don't tithe at all—even families in our church—and nobody blames them."

"There are also people who tithe their first, second, or third child. Every family must make the decision for itself. Your parents waited a long time before making the decision to have you."

Lev reluctantly nods, knowing it's true. He was a "true tithe." With five natural siblings, plus one adopted, and three that arrived "by stork," Lev was exactly one-tenth. His parents had always told him that made him all the more special.

"I'll tell you something, Lev," Pastor Dan says, finally meeting his eye. Like Marcus, his eyes are moist, just one step short of tears. "I've watched all your brothers and sisters grow and, although I don't like playing favorites, I think you are the finest of all of them in so many ways, I wouldn't even know where to start. That's what God asks for, you know. Not first fruits but best fruits."

"Thank you, sir." Pastor Dan always knows what to say to make Lev feel better. "I'm ready for this," and saying it makes him realize that, in spite of his fears and misgivings, he truly is ready. This is everything he has lived for. Even so, his tithing party ends much too soon.

* * *

In the morning the Calders have to eat breakfast in the dining room, with all the leaves in the table. All of Lev's brothers and sisters are there. Only a few of them still live at home, but today they've all come over for breakfast. All of them, that is, except Marcus.

Yet, for such a large family it's unusually quiet, and the clatter of silverware on china makes the lack of conversation even more conspicuous.

Lev, dressed in his silk tithing whites, eats carefully, so as not to leave any stains on his clothes. After breakfast, the good-byes are long, full of hugs and kisses. It's the worst part. Lev wishes they would all just let him go and get the good-byes over with.

Pastor Dan arrives—he's come at Lev's request—and once he's there, the good-byes move more quickly. Nobody wants to waste the pastor's valuable time. Lev is the first one out in his Dad's Cadillac, and although he tries not to look back as his father starts the car and drives away, he can't help it. He watches as his home disappears behind them.

I will never see that home again, he thinks, but he pushes the thought out of his mind. It's unproductive, unhelpful, selfish. He looks at Pastor Dan, who sits beside him in the backseat watching him, and the pastor smiles.

"It's all right, Lev," he says. Just hearing him say it makes it so.

"How far is the harvest camp?" Lev asks to whoever cares to. answer.

"It's about an hour from here," his Mom says.

"And . . . will they do it right away?"

His parents look to each other. "I'm sure there'll be an orientation," says his father.

That short answer makes it clear to Lev that they don't know any more than he does.

As they pull onto the interstate, Lev rolls down the window to feel the wind on his face, and closes his eyes to prepare himself.

This is what I was born for. It's what I've lived my life for. I am chosen. I am blessed. And I am happy.

Suddenly his father slams on the brakes.

With his eyes closed, Lev doesn't see the reason for their unexpected stop. He just feels the sharp deceleration of the Cadillac and the pull of the seat belt on his shoulder. He opens his eyes to see they have stopped on the interstate. Police lights flash. And—was that a gunshot he just heard?

"What's going on?"

Then, just outside his window is another kid, a few years older than him. He looks scared. He looks dangerous. Lev reaches over to quickly put up his window, but before he can this kid reaches in, pulls up the lock on the door, and tugs the door open. Lev is frozen. He doesn't know what to do. "Mom? Dad?" he calls.

The boy with murder in his eyes tugs on Lev's white silk shirt, trying to pull him out of the car, but the seat belt holds him tight.

"What are you doing? Leave me alone!"

Lev's mom screams for his father to do something, but he's fumbling with his own seat belt.

The maniac reaches over and in one swift motion unclips Lev's seat belt. Pastor Dan grabs at the intruder, who responds with a quick powerful punch—a jab right at Pastor Dan's jaw. The shock of seeing such violence distracts Lev at a crucial moment. The maniac tugs on him again, and this time Lev falls out of the car, hitting his head on the pavement. When he looks up he sees his father finally getting out of the car, but the crazy kid swings the car door hard against him, sending him flying.

"Dad!" His father lands in the path of an oncoming car. The car swerves and, thank God, it misses him—but it cuts off another car, hitting it, that car spins out of control, and the sound of crashes fills the air. Lev is pulled to his feet again by the kid, who grabs Lev's arm and drags him off. Lev is small for his age. This kid is a couple of years older, and much bigger. Lev can't break free.

"Stop!" yells Lev. "You can have whatever you want. Take my wallet," he says, even though he has no wallet. "Take the car. Just don't hurt anyone."

The kid considers the car, but only for an instant. Bullets now fly past them. On the southbound roadway are policemen who have finally stopped traffic on their side of the interstate, and have made it to the median dividing the north and southbound lanes. The closest officer fires again. A tranq bullet hits the Cadillac and splatters.

The crazy kid now puts Lev into a choke hold, holding Lev between himself and the officers. Lev realizes that he doesn't want a car, or money: He wants a hostage.

"Stop struggling—I've got a gun!" And Lev feels the kid poke him in the side. Lev knows it's not a gun—he knows it's just the kid's finger, but this is clearly an unstable individual, and he doesn't want to set him off.

"I'm worthless as a human shield," Lev says, trying to reason with him. "Those are tranq bullets they're shooting, which means the cops don't care if they hit me—they'll just knock me out."