Page 3

 Neal Shusterman

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Elder Muna, a white-haired woman, meets them at the door a few streets away, clasping Wil’s hands with both of hers, asking him about his parents. Lev looks around the round room with its many windows. The maps on the walls and the computer stations make the place resemble a classroom, but only slightly. A dozen children mill about in what appears to be total mayhem: Two argue over a helix on one monitor, one child traces a path on a map of Africa, four act out a play that could be Macbeth if Lev remembers his Shakespeare correctly, and except for the three who have shanghaied Wil, the rest are playing some complicated game on the floor with a pile of pebbles.
Elder Muna claps once, and the children instantly look her way, see Wil, and swarm him. He shoos them away, and they stampede to the center of the room, jostling for the best place on the floor. Wil settles on a stool, and all the kids start shouting their favorites at him. But Elder Muna silences them with a raised hand.
“The gift is for Nova today. She will choose.”
“The Crow and Sparrow song,” Nova says, trying to hide her delight with a solemn expression.
The song is markedly different from the music Wil played for Lev. This tune is bright and joyous, evoking perhaps a different kind of healing. Lev closes his eyes and imagines himself a bird flitting through summer leaves in an orchard that seems to go on forever. The music captures, if only for a few moments, a sense of an innocence recently lost.
When the song is done, Lev raises his hands to clap, but Elder Muna, anticipating this, gently takes his hand before he can, and shakes her head no.
The group of kids sits in silence for a good thirty seconds, filled with the aftermath of the song. Then the elder releases them, and they all go back to their games and learning.
She thanks Wil and wishes Lev luck with his new journey, and they leave.
“You really are amazing,” Lev tells him once they’re out on the street. “I bet you could make millions outside the rez with your music.”
“It would be nice,” Wil says wistfully, almost sadly. “But we both know that’s not going to happen.”
Lev wonders at his sadness, because it seems to him if you never have to worry about unwinding, you can do anything. “Why no applause?” he asks. “Are people here that afraid of clappers?”
Wil laughs at that. “Believe it or not, we don’t have clappers on the rez. I’d like to believe that’s because people here don’t get angry enough to become suicide bombers and make their blood explosive . . . but maybe it’s just that we vent our anger at the world in different ways.” Then he sighs and says, with more than a little bitterness, “No, we don’t applaud because it’s not our way. Applause is for the musician, and the musician is ‘just an instrument.’ Accepting applause is considered vanity.” Then he looks at his guitar, stroking the strings with his fingertips, peering into its hollow, like maybe something will speak out from inside. “Every night I dream of cheering crowds and wake up guilty for it.”
“Don’t be,” Lev tells him. “Where I come from, everyone wants to be cheered for something. It’s normal.”
“Ready to go back?”
Lev isn’t sure whether he means Wil’s home or back to the world outside of the rez. Well, Lev isn’t ready to do either. He points down a winding path. “What’s down there?”
Wil huffs, his mood clearly darkened by Lev’s talk of adoration. “Why do you need to see everything? Maybe there are some places it’s best not to go!”
Lev stares at the ground, feeling more hurt by the rebuke than he wants to admit.
When he looks up, Wil is staring with pain at the cliffs on the other side of the village, then down the winding path. “The medical warren is down there,” he tells Lev. “It’s where my mother works.”
And then Lev recalls something. “And where your grandfather is?”
Wil nods, saying nothing for a moment . . . and then he takes off his guitar and leaves it hidden behind a boulder. “Come on. I’ll take you there.”
Lost in thought, Wil walks down the cobblestone road. His face looks grim, and Lev leaves him alone, wrapped in memories of his own. Clappers remind him of the last time he saw Connor and Risa, and guilt prickles him. They had rescued him, and in his own uneasy ambivalence between his past and his future, he had betrayed them. Connor and Risa had pretended to be clappers, solemnly applauding in grand, rhythmic sweeps—and it caused a panic. They had escaped. He hopes. The truth is, he has no idea what befell them. They could be unwound by now. In a “divided state.” The more he thinks about it, the more he despises that euphemism.
The road curves outside the village toward the wide fissure in the cliff and dips into a gulch filled with gleaming one-story buildings separated by greenbelts.
“This first building is the pediatrics lodge,” Wil explains tersely as they pass. Wil doesn’t stop, but Lev peers through the windows and into the patios, hoping to see the medicine woman. He sees other healers and groups of children, but not Wil’s ma.
Lev shoots a look at Wil and sees his eyes glued on someone ahead: a short girl with warm almond eyes, a cascade of feathers woven into her vest, and a faint smile that reminds Lev of Risa. She is standing in front of another medical lodge, stalling at the door, when she catches sight of Wil.
Even before they speak, Lev realizes that this must be Wil’s fiancée. There’s a connection between them perhaps even more powerful than Wil’s connection with his guitar. As Wil approaches her, Lev thinks they might kiss, but instead Wil reaches for the beaded ribbon restraining her hair and unties it, sending her shiny black locks cascading down her shoulders.
“Much better,” he says, with the slightest of smiles.
“Not for the workshop,” she points out. “It’ll wrap around a saw blade, and my head will get cut off.”
“Now that’s what I call unwinding!” Wil says with a smirk. She gives him a glare that’s more like a visual rim shot, and he laughs.
“Una, this is Lev. Lev, Una.”
“Nice to meet you, Lev.” She snatches at Wil’s hand, but as he’s a foot taller than her, he easily holds the ribbon out of reach. “Give it to me, Guitar Boy.” Then, as if she’s had years of practice, she leaps and yanks it from his hand. “Ha!” Winking at Lev, she says, “Take notes, little brother. If you hang with this one, you’ll need that move.”
Lev isn’t sure why she’s calling him little brother, but he feels pleased.
Una studies Wil. “Is your uncle back?”
Something intense passes between them. Lev notices that this long, narrow lodge has CARDIOLOGY carved in large wood letters above the door.
“Yah,” Wil says. “Didn’t find anything. So are you here to see my grandfather?”
“Someone has to,” she says. “He’s been here for weeks, and how many times have you visited?”
“Stop it, Una. It’s bad enough I get it from my family.”
“You get it because you deserve it.”
“Well, I’m visiting now, aren’t I?”
“Then where’s your guitar?”
Something crumples in Wil’s face, and Lev looks sideways, not wanting to see the tears building in his eyes. “Una, I can’t do it. He wants me to soothe him into death. I just can’t do it!”
“It doesn’t mean he’ll actually die.”
Wil’s voice gets louder. “He’s waiting for me when he should be waiting for a heart.”
And although Lev knows none of the particulars, he touches Wil on the arm to get his attention and says, “Maybe he’s waiting for both . . . but he’ll accept one if he can’t have the other.”
Wil looks at him like he’s seeing him for the first time, and Una smiles. “Well said, little brother,” says Una. “I suspect if you were one of us, your spirit-guide would be an owl.”
Lev feels himself go just the tiniest bit red. “More like a deer in the headlights.”
Lev follows them inside and to the far end of the building, where a spacious round room is subdivided into four open enclaves. It feels less like a hospital and more like a spa. There are large windows framed in rough-hewn wood. Blooming flowers decorate the walls, and in the very center is a fountain gently drizzling water over a copper sculpture made to look like a stylized dream catcher. There is state-of-the-art medical equipment in each enclave, but discreetly placed, as not to disturb the calming nature of the place.
Of the four beds, only two are occupied. In the one closest to the door rests a young woman who breathes irregularly, her lips tinged blue. In the farthest bed is a gaunt old man, who looks tall even lying down. Lev stalls in the hallway with Wil and Una until Wil takes a deep breath and leads the way in, mustering a smile.
His grandfather is awake. Seeing them, he chuckles delightedly, but the laugh turns into a ragged cough.
“Grandfather, this is Ma’s patient Lev. Lev, this is my grandfather, Tocho.”
“Please sit,” Tocho says. “Keep standing around me and I’ll feel like I’m already dead.”
Lev sits with the others but scoots his plush chair slightly back, disturbed at how pasty the old man looks, his face drawn and his breathing ragged. Lev sees the family resemblance, and it unnerves him that this frail man probably looked like Wil sixty years ago. This man is dying for lack of a heart. It reminds Lev of the heart he might have provided someone. Did a person die because Lev kept his heart for himself? There’s still a part of him that wants to feel guilty for that, and it makes him angry.
Wil picks up his grandfather’s hand. “Uncle Pivane says he’ll bag a mountain lion tomorrow.”
“Always tomorrow with that one,” Tocho says. “And I suppose you’ll play for me tomorrow too?”
Wil reluctantly nods. Lev notices how he won’t meet the old man’s gaze. “I don’t have my guitar today. But yes, tomorrow for sure.”
Then Tocho wags a finger at Wil. “And no more talk of changing my guide to a pig.” He smiles hugely. “Not happ’nin’.”
Lev looks to Wil. “Pig?”
“Nova’s dad isn’t the only one who divorced his spirit-guide. My dad writes petitions to the Tribal Council all the time asking to switch people’s animal spirit-guides to something more . . . helpful. It’s no big deal.”
Tocho’s expression is mutinous. “Big deal to me. Lion chose me.” He turns weakly to Lev. “My grandson thinks I should change my spirit-guide to a pig, just so I can have a new heart quick and easy. What do you think?”
Wil throws Lev a forbidding look, but Una nods at Lev, giving him silent permission to voice an opinion. But how can he have an opinion? “This is all new to me,” Lev says. “I don’t think I would want an animal part . . . but sir, I think whatever lets you keep your dignity is the right thing to do.”
Wil’s frown is so severe, Lev backpedals.
“But on the other hand, a pig heart would be okay if it works. If I eat pork chops, I can’t object to you using its heart, can I?”