Page 2

 Neal Shusterman

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He hangs the towel after he finishes drying the dishes, and thinks about going back to his room, but he’s curious about Wil. He finds him at the end of the hall, closing his bedroom door and putting on a light jacket. He looks somehow incomplete without his guitar. Evidently, Wil feels the same. His hand fingers the doorknob; then with a sigh he opens the door again and retrieves his guitar, and a jacket for Lev, too.
“Are we going somewhere?” Lev asks.
“Here and there.” Which seems a logical answer for a guy like Wil, but the answer makes Lev think about being unwound. The dispersal of every piece of him. Here and there. Lev climbed the rez wall desperate for some sort of sanctuary, but what if he put too much faith in rumors?
“Is it true that reservations are safe for AWOLs?” he asks. “Is it true that People of Chance don’t unwind?”
Wil nods. “We never signed the Unwind Accord. So not only don’t we unwind, we also can’t use unwound parts.”
Lev mulls that over, baffled at how a society could work without harvesting organs. “So . . . where do you get parts?”
“Nature provides,” Wil says. “Sometimes.” An enigmatic look crosses Wil’s face like a shadow behind his eyes. “C’mon, I’ll show you around the rez.”
Moments later they stand on an open balcony, staring down almost four stories to a dry creek below. Across the ravine are other houses, also hewn right out of the red stone wall. They appear to be of ancient design, yet somehow modern and carved with diamond precision. New-world technology serving ancestral respect.
“Not scared of heights, are you?” Wil doesn’t wait for an answer, but makes sure his guitar strap has his instrument secure on his back, then hops on a rope ladder. He climbs down, sometimes sliding for yards at a time.
Lev swallows nervously, but not as nervously as he might have three weeks ago. Lately he’s been doing plenty of dangerous things. He waits till Wil reaches the bottom; then he grits his teeth and follows him. With his left wrist still in a brace, it’s hard, and his stomach rolls every time he looks down, but Lev grins when he reaches bottom, realizing why Wil made him do this. The first thing an AWOL loses is his dignity. By allowing Lev to climb the rope alone, Wil gave his dignity back to him.
When Lev turns to Wil, he’s surprised to see that they’re not alone.
“Lev, this is my uncle Pivane.”
Lev cautiously shakes the large man’s hand, keeping an eye on the shiny tranq rifle cradled in his left arm. His deerskins are worn, and the long graying hair escaping from its rawhide knot makes him look scruffy—but there is no mistaking the designer quality of his boots or the Swiss watch on his wrist. And that rifle with its fine zebrawood stock was probably custom-made.
“How did today’s hunt go?” Wil asks. It should be a casual question, but Lev catches how intently Wil looks at his uncle.
“Tranq’d a lioness, but had to let her go: She was nursing.” Pivane rubs his eyes. “We’re heading to Cash Out Gulch in the morning. Rumors of a male down there. You coming with us for once?”
Wil doesn’t answer, and Lev wonders at the sly look Pivane gives his nephew. Lev assumed all ChanceFolk hunted, but maybe that’s just a myth. Just like everything else in his life has been.
Pivane spares a glance at Lev. “You look better than when I found you. That arm okay?”
“Yeah. Better. Thanks for saving me.” Lev can’t remember being rescued. He can’t remember much after dropping off the wall except the sharp pain in his wrist, then lying in the leaves and pine needles, certain that this was what dying felt like.
Pivane’s gaze sharpens on Wil’s guitar. “Are you going down to the medical warren today? Are you going to visit your grandfather?”
“Maybe not” is all Wil says.
The man’s voice roughens, becoming almost an accusation. “Medicine folk and musicians don’t get to choose who their hands heal. Or whose way they smooth for dying.” Then he points a finger at Wil. “You do it for him, Chowilawu.” A moment of uneasy eye contact between them; then Pivane takes a step back and shifts his rifle. “Tell your grandfather we’ll bag a heart for him tomorrow.” Then he nods a solemn good-bye to Lev and leaves, using not the ropes but an elevator that Lev did not see, and Wil did not see fit to show him.
They walk into the village. Lev, so used to bland sienna suburbia, feels out of place among the red cliff homes, the whitewashed adobes, and the sidewalks of rich mahogany planks. Although the place appears at first to be primitive, Lev knows upper crust when he sees it, from the luxury cars parked on the side streets to the gold plaques embedded in the adobe walls. Men and women wear business suits that are clearly Chance-Folk in style, yet finer than the best designer fashions.
“What do your people do here?”
Wil throws him an amused look. “My people as in ‘Slot-Mongers’ in general, or are you asking about my family in particular?”
Lev reddens, wondering if the medicine woman told Wil how he’d accidently called the ChanceFolk by the rude slang name. “Both, I guess.”
“Didn’t do your homework before scaling our wall?”
“I needed a place to hide and had no time to be choosy. A kid at a train station told me that since your people are protected, I would be protected too. And that you know the legal mumbo jumbo to make it stick.”
Wil relents and offers Lev a brief history of the tribe. “When my grandfather was a kid, the rez made a bundle—not just from gaming, but from some lawsuits over land usage, a water treatment plant, a wind farm that went haywire, and casinos we didn’t want but got stuck with when another tribe rolled on us.” He shrugs uncomfortably. “Luck of the draw. We’ve got it better than some tribes.”
Lev looks down the street, where the curbs gleam with gold. “Way better, by the look of it.”
“Yah,” says Wil, looking both embarrassed and proud at the same time. “Some tribes did wise investing with their casino cash; others squandered it. Then, when the virtual casinos got ritzier than the real ones and it all came crashing down, tribes like ours did very well. We’re a Hi-Rez. You’re lucky you didn’t jump the wall of a Low-Rez. They’re much more likely to sell AWOLs to parts pirates.”
Lev has, of course, heard of the wealth chasm between the rich tribes and the poor ones, but as it was never a part of his world, he never gave it much thought. Maybe people this rich don’t need to profit off AWOLs. Still, he tries not to let his spark of hope ignite. He has quickly learned that hope is a luxury the hunted can ill afford.
“Anyway,” says Wil, “my tribe knows the law and how to use it. In fact my dad’s a lawyer, and has done pretty well for our family. My mom runs the pediatrics lodge in the medical warren and is well respected. We get rich tribal kids from all over North America coming here for healing.”
Lev wonders at the irony in Wil’s voice but feels awkward about asking him more questions. His mother always told him it was rude to talk about money, especially if you didn’t know the person well. But on the other hand, after listening to Wil play the guitar for him, he feels he knows him better than much of his own family.
Wil stops before a small storefront at the end of the street. A carved oak sign says LUTHIER. He tries the handle, but it’s locked. “Huh. I wanted to introduce you to my fiancée, but I guess she’s taking a break.”
“Yah,” says Wil. “It’s like that around here.”
Lev looks up at the sign above the door, feeling increasingly ignorant. “So . . . what’s a luthier?”
“Guitar maker. Una is an apprentice to the rez’s best.”
“You mean there’s more than one?”
“It’s kind of a tribal specialty.” Wil looks around, clearly disappointed, and Lev realizes this was less about showing him around than about showing him off to his fiancée. “Ready to go back yet?”
But Lev is tired of hibernating at Wil’s house. Besides, if that petition is approved, this could be his new home. The thought gives him a strange chill: excitement laced with fear of a future so new and unknown. There have never been unknown quantities in his life. Until a few weeks ago, everything was carefully laid out for him, so he never needed to consider the concept of possibilities. But now there are possibilities enough to make him dizzy.
“Show me more. How about your schools? What kind of school would I go to?”
Wil shakes his head, laughing. “You really don’t know anything about us, do you?”
Lev doesn’t dignify that with a response—he just waits for an explanation.
“Very young kids learn what they need to know from extended family and the neighborhood elders,” Wil explains. “Then, as their talents and passions are recognized, they’re apprenticed to a master in the field, whatever that field is.”
“Seems kind of narrow to learn only one thing.”
“We learn many things, from many people,” Wil says, “as opposed to your world, where you’re taught all the same things, by the same people.”
Lev nods, point taken. “Advantages and disadvantages to both, I guess.”
Lev thinks Wil will just defend his tribe’s ways, but instead he says, “Agreed.” Then he adds, “I don’t always like the way things are done here, but the way we learn works for us. It even prepares kids for university every bit as well as your system. We learn because we want to, not because we have to, so we learn faster. We learn deeper.”
Then Lev hears a young voice behind him.
Lev turns around to see three kids, maybe about ten years old, staring admiringly at Wil. The kid who spoke is skinny as an arrow, and just as tightly wound. He has a pleading look on his face.
“Something wrong, Kele?” Wil asks.
“No . . . it’s just . . . Elder Muna asks if you’ll play for us.”
Wil sighs but grins, as if he feels put upon and flattered at the same time. “Elder Muna knows I’m not permitted to play lightly. There must be a need.”
“It’s Nova,” Kele says, indicating a girl beside him, her eyes downcast. “Ever since her father divorced his spirit-guide, her parents have been fighting.”
“It’s bad,” Nova blurts out. “My ma says she married an eagle, not a possum—but he was the only accountant in his office who wasn’t a possum. So now they fight.”
Lev wants to laugh, but realizes that this is no laughing matter.
“So shouldn’t I play for your parents, not you?” Wil asks her.
“They won’t ask,” Nova says. “But maybe some of what you give me will rub off on them.”
Wil looks to Lev, offers him a shrug, and agrees to perform. “Not too long,” he tells them. “Our new mahpee can’t have too much excitement on his first waking day.”
Lev looks at him, puzzled.
“Mahpee is short for ‘sky faller.’ It’s what we call AWOLs who climb the wall and drop into the rez as if they’ve fallen from the sky.”