Page 7

 Neal Shusterman

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At 2:15 a.m. a customer shuffles in and buys a ToXin Energy drink and a pack of gum. Shady-looking guy. But then, anyone who shows up at a roadside 7-Eleven at this time of night looks questionable and has got a story you don’t want to hear.
The man notices the tabloid the night manager is reading. “Crazy, huh? Clappers. Where do they come from, right?”
“I know where they go,” says the night manager. “They oughta take all the clappers and AWOLs and ferals, put ’em on a plane and crash it.”
He had thought he’d found a sympathetic ear, but the customer looks at him with shock. “All of ’em, huh? Didn’t a planeload of AWOLs go down in the Salton Sea a couple of weeks ago?”
“Good riddance. I wish I’d been close enough to see it.” There’s an awkward silence between them. “That’ll be $5.65.”
The customer pays, but makes a point of making chilly eye contact with the night manager as he drops all of his change in the charity box for Runaway Rescue, which helps straighten out feral teens before someone can shove an unwind order up their worthless asses. It’s a cause the night manager despises, but keeping that charity box there is company policy.
The customer leaves, and the night manager has something else to grumble to himself about. Bleeding hearts. Way too many people are not willing to take a hard line on the unwindable. Sure there are ballot measures up the wazoo this year. Shall we set aside X billion to construct new harvest camps? Yes or no? Shall we allow for partial unwinding and slow sequential division? Yes or no? Even the constitutionality of the Cap-17 law is being challenged.
But with the population evenly divided in their support of unwinding, it all comes down to that huge 30 percent who either don’t have an opinion or are afraid to voice it. “The wishy-washy masses,” the night manager calls them, too weak to take a stand. If the glacier huggers and feral forgivers start to outnumber sensible folk, all the hard-line unwinding legislation could fail, and then what?
At 2:29 a woman with more baggage under her eyes than stuffed in her cluttered car buys chips and flashes a medical tobacco license for a pack of Camels.
“Have a good one,” he says as she leaves.
“Too late for that.”
Her rust bucket of a Volkswagen drives off with a backfire and spews thick blue smoke that the night manager can smell inside. Some people oughta be unwound just to protect the environment. It makes him chuckle. Protect the environment—who’s the glacier hugger now?
The night becomes unusually quiet. Nothing but crickets and the occasional rumble of a passing car. Usually he enjoys an empty shop, but tonight there’s an air of tension about that silence. Intuition being a night manager’s most useful tool, he checks beneath the counter to make sure that his sawed-off shotgun is there. He’s not supposed to have one, but a man’s gotta protect himself.
At 3:02 the ferals descend on the 7-Eleven out of nowhere, pouring in through the door. Dozens and dozens of them, swarming like a cloud of locusts as they grab things from the aisles. The night manager reaches for the shotgun, but before he can grab it, there’s a gun aimed at his face, and another, and another. The three kids hold their aim steady.
“Hands where I can see them,” one of them says. It’s a tall girl with short hair and man shoulders. She definitely looks tough enough to blow his brains out without a second thought. Still he says, “Go to hell!”
It makes her smile. “Be a good little lowlife and do as you’re told, and you might live to sell more chips tomorrow.”
Reluctantly, he puts his hands up and watches as kids flood in and out, filling trash bags with everything they can get their hands on. All the drinks from the coolers, the snacks from the aisles, even the toiletries. Then suddenly he realizes who these kids must be. These must be the survivors from that plane that went down in the Salton!
A kid saunters in wearing an unpleasant musk of superiority. Clearly he’s the one in charge. He’s not tall, but he’s muscular, with a mop of red hair with much darker roots. There’s also something about his left hand. It’s bandaged with layer after layer of gauze, as if he had slammed it in a car door, or worse. He comes up to the counter, and offers the night manager a smile.
“Don’t mind us,” he says jovially. “We’ll be on our way in a minute. Your convenience store was just too convenient to pass up.”
The cashier would spit in his face if he thought it wouldn’t get him killed.
“Now comes the moment where I ask you to open the register and you point to the sign that says ‘Cashier Does Not Have More Than Twenty Dollars in Change,’ but I make you open it anyway.”
The night manager opens the cash drawer to reveal the sign is true to its word. “See? All the money goes into the cash box, and I don’t have a key, scumbag.”
The kid is unfazed. “Your attitude reminds me of our pilot. If you’d like to visit him, he’s at the bottom of the Salton Sea.”
“We could send you there too,” says the girl, still holding her gun on him.
The kid in charge reaches over to the cash drawer and grabs a dime. Then he grabs a few lotto scratchers, lays them on the counter, and with his good hand, he uses the coin to scratch away the silver boxes. All the while, the three other kids keep their guns aimed at the night manager’s face, and the swarm of kids behind them continue their relentless ransack, carrying everything off in their greedy little arms.
“Look at that!” says the kid in charge. “I won five bucks!” Then he flicks the winning scratcher card at the cashier. “Keep it,” he says. “My gift to you. Buy yourself something nice.”
Then he leaves, followed by the rest of his brood. Only the girl with the gun remains until everyone else is gone; then she backs out, keeping the gun trained on the night manager until she’s out the front door. The second she leaves, he goes for the rifle and hurries out after them. He fires into the dark at the retreating shapes, but no one goes down. He wasn’t fast enough. He screams after them, curses, swears he’ll get them, but knows he won’t and that just angers him even more.
He turns to go back into the store and just stares. There’s virtually nothing left. The store hasn’t just been robbed. It’s been gutted of everything not nailed down. They chewed through the place like piranhas.
There on the floor, having fallen behind the counter, is the Runaway Rescue box. To hell with it—the night manager reaches in and pockets whatever money it has. The ferals it tries to save don’t deserve that money any more than these AWOLs do, and he’ll be damned if he’ll let them get any of it. Lock ’em up, cut ’em up. Let them serve society in pieces rather than tear it down whole.
Shall we give more power to the Juvenile Authority? Yes or no? There’s no question where the night manager’s vote is going.
5 • Lev
He should never have agreed to let Connor go off alone to get them a car. He wasn’t back by the afternoon, or by the evening, or during the night. Now it’s dawn of the following day. Connor’s been gone for twenty-four hours, and Lev’s anxiety grows, as well as his aggravation at both himself and at Connor. A better plan would have been to tail Connor at a distance so that if something did go wrong, at least Lev would see it and would know. Now it’s the uncertainty that’s killing him. He gets out his frustration by kicking the side of a rusty old industrial dryer lying half-buried in the weeds. He has to stop because the thing rings out like a bell with each kick, and he knows people can probably hear it for miles. He sits down in the shade of the dryer, trying to figure out what to do now. He has very few choices. If Connor doesn’t show up soon, he’s going to have to go on alone to Ohio, to find an antique store where he’s never been, to speak to an old woman he doesn’t know about a man who disappeared before Lev was born.
“Sonia could be the key to everything,” Connor had told Lev. Connor explained how the old woman—a key player in the Anti-Divisional Resistance—ran a safe house for AWOL Unwinds, getting them off the street. She had given shelter to Connor and Risa during those early days on the run. What Connor hadn’t known at the time was that her husband was Janson Rheinschild—the scientist whose advances in medical science made unwinding possible . . . and a man who was meticulously and systematically erased from history by the very organization he founded to prevent the misuse of his technology.
“If she knows something worth knowing,” Lev had asked Connor on their long drive from Arizona, “why didn’t Proactive Citizenry make her disappear as well?”
“Maybe they don’t see her as a threat,” Connor had answered. “Or maybe they don’t know she’s alive any more than they know I’m alive.”
Proactive Citizenry isn’t exactly a household name to Lev. He’s heard of them, though. Everyone’s heard of them, but no one pays much attention. They’re just one of many charitable organizations you hear about but have no idea what they actually do. Or how powerful they really are.
No matter how powerful Proactive Citizenry is, though, one thing is certain: They’re afraid of Janson Rheinschild. The question is, why?
“If you want to mess with things,” Connor had said, “that’s where we start.”
But as far as Lev is concerned, he’s messed—and has been messed with—enough. He had turned himself into a bomb but chose not to detonate. He had been the target of a clapper vengeance attack. He had been coddled and sequestered and treated like a god by a mansion full of tithes saved from their unwindings. And he had entered a battle zone to save a kid whom he considered to be his truest, and maybe only, friend.
With all that behind him, what Lev wants more than anything else is normality. His dreams aren’t of greatness or of power, wealth, or fame. He’s had all of those things at one time or another. No, what he wants is to be a kid in high school, with no more worries than what teachers he’ll get stuck with and whether or not he’ll make the baseball team.
Sometimes his fantasies of the simple life include Miracolina, the tithe who was so determined to be unwound, she despised him and everything he stood for. At least at first. His current fantasies put them at the same suburban school—it doesn’t matter which suburb. They do class projects together. Go to the movies. Make out on the couch when her parents aren’t home. She cheers for him at his baseball games, but not so loudly that she’s heard above the crowd, because she’s not that type.
He has no idea where she is now, or if she’s even alive. And now he’s facing the same uncertainty with Connor. Lev has come to realize that he’s strong, but there’s only so much he can take.
Lev resolves to wait one more hour before heading out alone. Unlike Connor, he doesn’t know how to hot-wire a car. Technically, he doesn’t know how to drive either, although he’s done it before with marginal success. His best bet for getting to Ohio would be to stow away, which means going into town and finding a truck, bus, or train headed in the right direction. No matter what, though, it would put him at serious risk. He broke the terms of his parole, so he’s a fugitive. If he’s caught, there’s no telling what will happen to him.