Page 23

 Neal Shusterman

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“Please don’t call him that.”
“Sorry—but he’s gonna be okay, right?”
“It looks like it.”
They’ve been here for nearly a week, and Connor has yet to feel welcome. Tolerated is more like it—and not because they’re outsiders, for Elina and her brother-in-law, Pivane, have been more than kind to Grace—especially after they realized she’s low-cortical. Even when she stitched up Connor’s ostrich wound, Elina was cool and impassionate about it. “Keep it clean. It’ll heal,” was all she said. She offered no “your welcome,” to Connor’s “thank you,” and he couldn’t tell whether it was a cultural thing, or if her silence was deliberate. Perhaps now that Elina knows he wasn’t responsible for Lev becoming a clapper, she might treat him with a little less frost.
Kele returns with another board game, fumbling with black and white pieces of different sizes.
“So what do you call this game?” Connor asks.
He looks at Connor like he’s an imbecile. “Chess,” he says. “Duh.”
Connor grins, recognizing the pieces as he places them. Like everything else on the rez, the game is hand carved and the pieces unique, like little sculptures—which is why he didn’t recognize it right away. Grace rubs her hands together in anticipation, and Connor considers warning the kid not to get his hopes up, but decides not to: He’s much too entertaining as a sore loser.
Kele is twelve, by Connor’s estimate. He’s not family, but Elina and her husband, Chal, took him in when his mother died a year ago. While Elina has offered Connor no information on anything, Kele, whose mouth runs like an old-time combustion engine, has been filling Connor in on a part of Lev’s life that Lev never spoke about.
“Lev showed up here maybe a year and a half ago,” Kele had told Connor. “Stayed for a few weeks. That was before he got all scary and famous and stuff. He went on a vision quest with us, but it didn’t turn out so good.”
Connor placed Lev’s weeks at the rez somewhere between the time he and Risa lost Lev at the high school in Ohio and the time he showed up at the Graveyard, markedly changed.
“He and Wil became good friends,” Kele told Connor, glancing at a portrait of a teenaged boy who looked a lot like Elina.
“Where is Wil now?” Connor asked.
It was the only time Kele got closemouthed. “Gone,” he had finally said.
“Left the rez?”
“Sort of.” Then Kele had changed the subject, asking questions about the world outside the reservation. “Is it true that people get brain implants instead of going to school?”
“NeuroWeaves—and it’s not instead of school. It’s something rich stupid people do for their rich stupid children.”
“I’d never want a piece of someone else’s brain,” Kele had said. “I mean, you don’t know where it’s been.”
On that, Connor and Kele were in total agreement.
Now, as Kele concentrates intently on his game of chess with Grace, Connor tries to catch him off guard enough to get some answers.
“So do you think Wil might come back to the rez to visit with Lev?”
Kele moves his knight and is promptly captured by Grace’s queen. “You did that on purpose to distract me!” Kele accuses.
Connor shrugs. “Just asking a question. If Wil and Lev are such good friends, he’d come back to see him, wouldn’t he?”
Kele sighs, never looking up from the board. “Wil was unwound.”
Which doesn’t make sense to Connor. “But I thought ChanceFolk don’t unwind.”
Finally Kele looks up at him. His gaze is like an accusation. “We don’t,” Kele says, then returns to the game.
“So then how—”
“If you wanna know, then talk to Lev; he was there too.”
Then Grace captures one of Kele’s rooks, and Kele flips the board in frustration, sending pieces flying. “You eat squirrel!” he shouts at Grace, who laughs.
“Who’s low-cortical now?” she gloats.
Kele storms off once more, but not before throwing Connor a glare that has nothing to do with the game.
20 • Lev
Lev sits in shadow on the terrace, looking out at the canyon. It’s nowhere near as dramatic as the great gorge that separates Arápache land from the rest of Colorado, but the canyon is impressive in its own way. Across the dry stream bed, the homes carved into the face of the opposing cliff are filled with dramatic late-afternoon shadows and activity. Children play on terraces with no protective rails, laughing as they climb up and down rope ladders in pursuit of one another. When he was first here, he was horrified, but he quickly came to learn that no one ever fell. Arápache children learn a great respect for gravity at an early age.
“We built America’s great bridges and skyscrapers,” Wil had told him proudly. “For us, balance is a matter of pride.”
Lev knew he had meant that in many ways—and nowhere in his own life had Lev felt more balanced than when he was here at the rez. But it was also here that he was thrown so off-kilter that he chose to become a clapper. He hopes that maybe he can find some of the peace he once had, if only for a little while. Yet he knows he’s not entirely welcome. Even now, he sees adults across the canyon eying him as he sits there. From this distance, he can’t tell if it’s with suspicion or just curiosity.
Lev’s shoulder itches, and there’s a faint throbbing with every beat of his heart. His left side feels hot and heavy, but the pain he had felt in the car has subsided to a dull ache that only sharpens when he moves too fast. He has not seen Connor or Grace since awakening. As long as he knows they’re all right, he’s fine with that. In a way, his life has been compartmentalized into discrete little boxes. His life as a tithe, his life as a clapper, his life as a fugitive, and his life on the rez. He had been here for only a few weeks that first time, but the experience looms large for him. The idea of merging this delicate oasis of his life with the rest of his tumultuous existence is something he must get used to.
“When the council cast you out, it broke my heart.”
Lev turns to see Elina coming out onto the terrace, carrying a tray with a teapot and a mug, setting it down on a small table.
“I knew you weren’t responsible for what happened to Wil,” she tells him, “but there was a lot of anger back then.”
“But not now?”
She sits in the chair beside his and hands him a mug of steaming tea instead of answering. “Drink. It’s getting chilly.”
Lev sips his tea. Bitter herbs sweetened with honey. No doubt a potent brew of healing steeped by the modern medicine woman.
“Does the council know I’m here?”
She hesitates. “Not officially.”
“If they know officially, will they cast me out again?”
Unlike her tea, her answer is honest and unsweetened. “Maybe. I don’t know for sure. Feelings about you are mixed. When you became a clapper, some people thought it heroic.”
“Did you?”
“No,” she says coldly, then with much more warmth says, “I knew you had lost your way.”
The understatement is enough to make Lev laugh. “Yeah, you could say that.”
She turns to look across the ravine at the lengthening shadows and the neighbors trying to look as if they’re not looking. “Pivane took it very hard. He refused to even speak of you.”
Lev is not surprised. Her brother-in-law is very old-school when it comes to dealing with the world outside of the rez. While her husband, Chal, seems to spend more time off the rez than on, Pivane is a hunter and models his life much more on ancestral ways.
“He never liked me much,” Lev says.
Elina reaches out to touch his hand. “You’re wrong about that. He wouldn’t speak of you because it hurt too much.” Then she hesitates, looking down at his hand clasped in hers rather than in his eyes. “And because, like me, he felt partially responsible for you becoming a clapper.”
Lev looks to her, thrown by the suggestion. “That’s just stupid.”
“Is it? If we had gone against the council. If we had insisted you stay—”
“—then it would have been horrible. For all of us. You would look at me and remember how Wil sacrificed himself to save me.”
“And to save Kele and all the other kids on that vision quest.” The doctor leans back in her chair. Still unable to look at him for any length of time, she looks across the arroyo and waves to a staring neighbor. The woman waves back, then self-consciously adjusts the potted plants on her terrace.
“Look at me, Elina,” Lev says, and waits until she does. “When I left here, I was on my way to a terrible place. A place where all I wanted to do was share my anger with the world. You didn’t make that anger. My parents did. The Juvies did. The lousy parts pirates who took Wil did. Not you!”
Lev closes his eyes, trying to ward off the memory of that one awful day. Like Pivane, Lev finds the pain of it too much to bear. He takes a deep breath, keeping the memory and all the emotions it holds at bay, then opens his eyes once more. “So I went to that terrible place inside . . . . I went to hell. But in the end I came back.”
Elina grins at him. “And now you’re here.”
Lev nods. “And now I’m here.” Although he has no idea where he’ll be tomorrow.
• • •
Lev comes out to the great room after the sun sets.
“You’re alive,” Connor says when he sees him. Connor is tense, but his stress level does look a little bit lower.
“Yeah, every time I see you.”
Connor wears a designer Arápache shirt with a coarse weave and a tailored fit, to replace the rank shirt he had taken from the deputy. It looks good on him, but it’s also an odd disconnect. Lev finds it hard to allow Connor and the rez to share the same space in his mind.
“Love the ponytail,” Connor says, pointing at his hair.
Lev shrugs. “It’s just because my hair is so tatted. But maybe I’ll keep it.”
“Don’t,” Connor tells him. “I lied. I hate it.”
That makes Lev laugh, which makes his side hurt, and he grimaces.
The greetings now begin to feel like a receiving line. Kele comes up to Lev, looking awkward. He was a head shorter than Lev when they last saw each other. Now he’s almost the same height.
“Hi, Lev. I’m glad you came back and that you didn’t come back dead.”
Kele will continue to grow, but Lev will not. Stunted growth. That’s what he gets for lacing his blood with explosive chemicals.
Pivane is there, cooking dinner. A stew of fresh meat—something he probably shot in the wild today. Pivane’s greeting, reserved at first, ends in a hug that hurts, but Lev doesn’t let on. Only Grace keeps her distance, ignoring Lev. Even after their desperate road trip here, she’s still not sure what to make of him. It isn’t until the middle of dinner that she finally speaks to him.