Page 26

 Neal Shusterman

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It’s kids like these, thinks Risa, that made people think unwinding was a good idea.
The third kid lingers, saying nothing, looking a little bit worried. Risa marks him as her possible escape route. None of them have recognized her yet. If they do, their motives will instantly compound. Rather than trying to have their way with her, then leaving her there in the alley, they’ll have their way, then turn her in for the reward.
“Let’s not get off on the wrong foot, now,” Prime Douche says. “We could be of service to you.”
“Yeah,” says Porterhouse. “If you’re of ‘service’ to us.”
Sleaze number three snickers at that and moves forward, joining the other two. So much for an escape route. Prime Douche takes a bold step toward her. “We’re the kind a’ friends a girl like you needs. To protect you and such.”
Risa locks eyes with him. “Touch any part of me, and I break a part of you.”
She knows that a guy like this, with more bravado than brain, will take that as a dare—which he does. He grabs her wrist—then braces himself for whatever she might try to do.
She smiles at him, lifts her foot, and jams her heel into Porterhouse’s knee instead. Porterhouse’s kneecap breaks with an audible crunch, and he goes down, screaming and writhing in pain. It’s enough to shock Prime Douche into loosening his grip. Risa twists free and elbows him in the nose. She’s not sure if she’s broken it, but it does start gushing blood.
“YOU THTINKING BITH!!” he yells. Porterhouse is in such agony, he can only wail wordlessly. Sleaze number three takes this as his cue to exit, running off down the alley, knowing he’ll be next if he doesn’t.
Then Prime Douche produces more bad news. He pulls out a knife and starts swinging at Risa, trying to cut any part of her he can. His sweeping slashes are wild, but deadly.
She uses her backpack to block, and he slices it open. He swings again, coming dangerously close to her face. Then suddenly she hears—
“In here! Hurry!”
There’s a woman poking her head out of the back door of a shop. Risa doesn’t hesitate. She lurches into the open door, and the woman tries to close it behind her. She almost gets it closed, but Prime Douche gets his hand in, stopping it—so the woman slams the door on his hand. He screams on the other side of the door. Risa throws her shoulder against the door, slamming it on his fingers again. He screams even louder. She releases the tension just enough for him to pull his swelling fingers back, then pushes the door fully closed while the woman locks it.
They endure the furious barrage of bile—a vitriolic burst of curses that sound increasingly impotent, until the douche and Porterhouse stumble off, vowing vengeance.
Only now does Risa look at the woman. Middle-aged, wrinkles she tries to hide with makeup. Big hair. Kind eyes.
“You all right, hon?”
“Fine. My backpack might not pull through though.”
The woman throws a quick glance at the backpack. “Pandas and hearts? Hon, that thing needed to be put out of its misery.”
Risa grins, and the woman holds her gaze just a moment too long. Risa can clock the exact moment of recognition. The woman knows who she is—although she doesn’t let on right away.
“You can stay here until we’re sure they’re gone for good.”
A pause, then the woman drops all pretenses. “I suppose I should ask you for your autograph.”
Risa sighs. “Please don’t.”
The woman gives her a sly grin. “Well, being that I’m not turning you in for the reward money, I figured I could sell the signature someday. It might be worth something.”
Risa returns the grin. “You mean after I’m dead.”
“Well, if it was good enough for van Gogh . . .”
Risa laughs, and her laughter begins to chase away the anxiety of just a few moments ago. She still feels adrenaline making her fingers tingle. It will take longer for her physiology to recognize safety.
“Are you sure all the doors are locked?”
“Hon, those boys are long gone, licking their wounds and icing their bruised egos. But yes. Even if they came back, they couldn’t get in.”
“It’s boys like that who give the rest of us teenagers a bad name.”
The woman waves her hand at the suggestion. “Bottom-feeders come in all ages,” she says. “I should know. I’ve dated my share of them. You can’t just unwind the young ones, ’cause once they’re gone, others’ll sink down to take their place.”
Risa carefully gauges the woman, but she’s not all that easy to read. “So you’re against unwinding?”
“I’m against solutions that are worse than the problem. Like old women who want their hair dyed the color of shoe polish to hide the gray.”
Risa finally takes a moment to look around and quickly understands why the woman made the comparison she did. They’re in the back room of a salon—a retro kind of place with big hair dryers and notched black sinks. The woman introduces herself as Audrey, the proprietor of Locks and Beagles—an establishment specializing in salon services for people who absolutely, positively must bring their dog with them everywhere.
“You’d be surprised how much some of these ladies will pay for a shampoo and cut if their Chihuahua can sit in their lap.”
Audrey looks Risa over, like a prospective client. “Of course, we’re closed now, but I wouldn’t be disagreeable to an after-hours makeover.”
“Thank you, but I’m good,” Risa says.
Audrey frowns. “Come now. I thought you’d have better survival instincts than that!”
Risa bristles. “Excuse me?”
“What, do you think hiding under a hood is doing you any good?”
“I’ve done fine until now, thank you very much.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Audrey says. “Smarts and instinct go a long way—but when you get too proud of how very clever you are at outwitting the powers that be, bad things are bound to happen.”
Risa begins to subconsciously rub her wrist. She had thought she was too good to fall for a trap—which is why she ended up getting caught. Changing her look would play to her advantage, so why is she so resistant?
Because you want to look the same for Connor.
She almost gasps at the realization. He’s been on her mind more and more, clouding her judgment in ways she never even considered. She can’t let her feelings for him get in the way of self-preservation.
“What kind of makeover?” Risa asks.
Audrey smiles. “Trust me, hon. When I’m done, it’ll be a whole new you!”
• • •
The makeover takes about two hours. Risa thinks Audrey must be bleaching her hair blond, but instead she gives Risa just a lighter shade of brown with highlights and a light perm.
“Most people think it’s hair color that changes a person’s looks—but it’s not. It’s all about texture,” Audrey tells Risa. “And hair’s not even the most important thing. The eyes are. Most people don’t realize how much of recognition is in the eyes.”
Which is why she suggests a pigment injection.
“Don’t worry. I’m a licensed ocular pigmentologist. I do it every day and never had complaints, except from the people who’d complain no matter what I did.”
Audrey goes on to talk about all her high-society patrons and their bizarre requests, from phosphorescent eye colors that match their nails, to midnight-black pigment injections that make it look like the pupil has swallowed the iris altogether. Her voice is soothing and as anesthetic as the drops she puts into Risa’s eyes. Risa lets her guard down and doesn’t notice until it is too late that Audrey has clamped her arms against the arms of the chair and has secured her head in place against the headrest. Risa begins to panic. “What are you doing? Let me go.”
Audrey just smiles. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, hon.” And she turns to reach for something Risa can’t see.
Now Risa realizes that Audrey’s agenda has nothing to do with helping her. She wants the reward after all! A single call and the police will be here. How stupid Risa was to trust her! How could she have been so blind!
Audrey comes back with a nasty-looking device in her hand. A syringe with a dozen tiny needles at the tip, forming a small circle.
“If you’re not immobilized, you might move during the process—even grab the device reflexively, and that could damage your cornea. Locking you down is for your own protection.”
Risa releases a shuddering breath of relief. Audrey takes it as anxiety from the sight of the injection needles. “Don’t you worry, hon. Those eye drops I gave you are like magic. I promise you won’t feel a thing.”
And Risa finds her eyes welling with tears. This woman truly does mean to help her. Risa feels guilty for her burst of paranoia, even though Audrey never knew. “Why are you doing this for me?”
Audrey doesn’t answer at first. She focuses on the task at hand, injecting Risa’s irises with a surprise shade that Audrey promised Risa would like. Risa believed her because the woman was so overwhelmingly confident about it. For a moment Risa feels as if she’s being unwound, but wills the feeling away. There is compassion here, not professional detachment.
“I’m helping you because I can,” Audrey says, as she works on her other eye. “And because of my son.”
“Your son . . .” Risa thinks she gets it. “Did you—”
“Unwind him? No. Nothing like that. From the moment he arrived on my doorstep, I loved him. I would never dream of unwinding him.”
“He was a stork?”
“Yep. Left at my door in the dead of winter. Premature, too. He was lucky to survive.” She pauses as she checks how the pigments are taking, then goes for a second layer of injections. “Then, when he was fourteen, he was diagnosed with cancer. Stomach cancer that had spread to his liver and pancreas.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Audrey leans back, looking Risa in the eyes, but not to gauge her own handiwork. “Honey, I’d never take an unwound part for myself. But when they told me the only way to save my boy’s life was to basically gut him and replace all his internal organs with someone else’s, I didn’t even hesitate. ‘Do it!’ I said. ‘Do it the second you can get him in that operating room.’”
Risa says nothing, realizing this woman needs to give her confession.
“You want to know the real reason unwinding keeps going strong, Miss Risa Ward? It isn’t because of the parts we want for ourselves—it’s because of the things we’re willing to do to save our children.” She thinks about that and laughs ruefully. “Imagine that. We’re willing to sacrifice the children we don’t love for the ones we do. And we call ourselves civilized!”
“It’s not your fault that unwinding exists,” Risa tells her.
“Isn’t it?”
“You had no other way to save your son. You had no choice.”