1 • Connor
It begins with roadkill—an act so random and ridiculous that it boggles the mind to consider the events to which it leads.
Connor should have pulled off the road to sleep—especially on a windy night like this. Certainly his reflexes behind the wheel would be much better in the morning, but the burning need to get himself and Lev to Ohio keeps pushing him harder each day.
Just one more exit on the interstate, he tells himself, and although he had resolved to stop once they crossed into Kansas, that marker came and went half an hour ago. Lev, who is good at talking sense into Connor, is no help tonight, slumped in the passenger seat, fast asleep.
It’s half past midnight when the unfortunate creature leaps into Connor’s headlights, and Connor has enough time only to register a brief impression of it as he jerks the wheel in a desperate attempt to avoid a collision.
That can’t be what I think it is . . . .
Even though he swerves wide, the stupid thing bolts right into the car’s path again as if it has a death wish.
The “borrowed” Charger slams into the creature, and it rolls over the hood like a boulder, shattering the windshield into a million bits of safety glass. Its body wedges in the windshield frame, with a twisted wiper blade embedded in its slender neck. Connor loses control of the steering wheel, and the car leaves the asphalt, careening wildly through the roadside chaparral.
He screams and curses reflexively, as the creature, still clinging to life, rips at Connor’s chest with its talons, tearing fabric and flesh, until finally Connor pulls enough of his wits together to slam on the brakes. The abominable creature dislodges from the windshield, launching forward as if shot from a cannon. The car keels like a sinking ship, comes to a sudden stop in a ditch, and finally the air bags deploy, like a faulty parachute opening upon impact.
The quiet that follows feels like the airless silence of space, but for the soulless moan of the wind.
Lev, who woke up the second they hit the thing, says nothing. He just gasps for the breath that was knocked out of him by the air bag. Connor has discovered Lev to be more of an opossum than a screamer. Panic makes him freeze.
Connor, still trying to process the previous ten seconds of his life, checks the wound in his chest. Beneath the tear in his shirt is a diagonal gash in his skin maybe six inches long. Oddly, he’s relieved. It’s not life-threatening, and flesh wounds can be dealt with. As Risa would have said when she ran the infirmary at the airplane graveyard, “Stitches are the least of all
evils.” This wound will take about a dozen. The biggest problem will be where a fugitive-presumed-dead AWOL can get medical attention.
Both he and Lev get out of the car and climb up from the ditch to examine their roadkill. Connor’s legs are weak and wobbly, but he doesn’t want to admit it to himself, so he concludes that he’s merely shaky from the adrenaline rush. He looks at his arm—the one with the shark tattoo—and pumps the hand into a fist, coopting the brutal strength of that stolen arm for the rest of his body.
“Is that an ostrich?” asks Lev, as they look down on the huge dead bird.
“No,” snaps Connor, “it’s the freaking Road Runner.” Which was actually Connor’s first irrational thought when the giant bird had first loomed in his headlights. The ostrich, which had still been alive enough to rip into Connor’s chest a minute ago, is now very dead. Its torn neck is twisted at a severe angle, and its glassy eyes stare at them with zombielike intensity.
“That was some bird strike,” Lev says. He seems no longer fazed by it, just observational. Maybe because he wasn’t driving, or maybe because he’s seen things far worse than a roadkill raptor. Connor envies Lev’s calm in a crisis.
“Why the hell is there an ostrich on the interstate?” Connor asks. His answer comes with the rattle of a fence in a sudden gust of wind. Passing headlights illuminate the limb of an oak tree brought down by the wind. The bough was heavy enough to take out a piece of the chain-link fence. Long-necked shapes move behind the fence, and a few ostriches have already come through the breach, wandering toward the road. Hopefully they’ll have better luck than their comrade.
Connor has heard that ostrich farms were becoming more common as the price of other meat soared, but he’d never actually seen one. He idly wonders whether or not the
bird’s death was suicide. Better roadkill than roast.
“They used to be dinosaurs, you know?” says Lev.
Connor takes a deep breath, only now realizing how shallowly he’s been breathing—partially from the pain, partially from the shock of it all. He shows Lev his cut. “As far as I’m concerned, they still are. The thing tried to unwind me.”
Lev grimaces. “You okay?”
“I’ll be fine.” Connor takes off his windbreaker, and Lev helps him fix it tightly around his back and across his chest as a makeshift tourniquet.
They look back at the car, which couldn’t be more totaled if it had been hit by a truck rather than a flightless bird.
“Well, you did plan to ditch the car in a day or two, right?” Lev asks.
“Yeah, but I didn’t mean in an actual ditch.”
The waitress who was kind enough to let them take her car said she wouldn’t report it missing for a few days. Connor can only hope she’ll be happy with the insurance money.
A few more cars pass on the interstate. The wreck is far enough off the road not to be noticed by someone who’s not looking. But there are some people whose job it is to look.
A car passes, slows a hundred yards up, and makes a U-turn across the dirt median. As it makes the turn, another car’s headlights illuminate its black-and-white coloring. A highway patrol car. Maybe the officer saw them—or maybe he just saw the ostriches, but either way, their options have suddenly been cut short.
“Run!” says Connor.
“He’ll see us!”
“Not until he shines his spotlight. Run!”
The patrol car pulls to a stop by the side of the road, and Lev doesn’t argue anymore. He turns to run, but Connor grabs his arm. “No, this way.”
“Toward the ostriches?”
The spotlight comes on, but it fixes on one of the birds nearing the road and not on them. Connor and Lev reach the breach in the fence. Birds scatter around them, creating more moving targets for the patrolman’s spotlight.
“Through the fence? Are you crazy?” whispers Lev.
“If we run along the fence, we’ll get caught. We have to disappear. This is the only way to do it.”
With Lev beside him, Conner pushes through the broken fence, and like so many other times in his life, he finds himself running blind into the dark.
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They can’t stay at the ostrich ranch. Lights are on in the farmhouse; more than likely the owner has been notified of the problem on the interstate, and the place will be crawling with farmhands and police to wrangle the birds.
Down a dirt road, a half mile from the farm, they come across an abandoned trailer. There’s a bed with a mattress, but it’s so mildewed, they both decide their best bet is to sleep on the floor.
In spite of everything, Connor falls asleep in minutes. He has vague dreams of Risa, whom he hasn’t seen in many months, and may never see again, as well as dreams of the battle at the airplane graveyard. The takedown operation that routed the place. In his dreams, Connor tries dozens of different tactics to save the hundreds of kids in his care from the Juvenile Authority. Nothing ever works. The outcome is always the same—the kids are all either killed or put in transport trucks bound for harvest camps. Even Connor’s dreams are futile.
When he wakes, it’s morning. Lev isn’t there, and Connor’s chest aches with every breath. He loosens the tourniquet. The bleeding has stopped, but the gash is red and still very raw. He puts it back on until he can find something other than his bloodstained Windbreaker to cover it.
He finds Lev outside, surveying their surroundings. There’s a lot to survey. What at night appeared to be just a lone trailer is actually the central mansion of an entire rust-bucket estate. All around the trailer is a collection of large, useless objects. Rusted cars, kitchen appliances, even a school bus so old it retains none of its original color, not a single window intact.
“You have to wonder about the person who lived here,” Lev says.
As Connor looks around the veritable junkyard, it strikes him as disturbingly familiar. “I lived in the airplane junkyard for more than a year,” he reminds Lev. “Everyone’s got issues.”
“Graveyard, not junkyard,” Lev corrects.
“There’s a difference?”
“One is about a noble end. The other is about, well . . . garbage.”
Connor looks down and kicks a rusted can. “There was nothing noble about our end at the Graveyard.”
“Give it up,” says Lev. “Your self-pity is getting old.”
But it’s not self-pity—Lev should know that. It’s about the kids who were lost. Of the more than seven hundred kids in Connor’s care, over thirty died, and about four hundred were shipped off to harvest camps to be unwound. Maybe no one could have stopped it—but it happened on Connor’s watch. He has to bear the weight of it.
Connor takes a long look at Lev, who, for the moment, seems content to examine a wheelless, hoodless, roofless Cadillac so overgrown by weeds inside and out, it looks like a planter.
“It has a kind of beauty, you know?” says Lev. “Like how sunken ships eventually become part of a coral reef.”
“How can you be so stinking cheery?” Connor asks.
Lev’s response is a toss of his overgrown blond hair and a grin that is intentionally cheerful. “Maybe because we’re alive and we’re free,” Lev says. “Maybe because I singlehandedly saved your butt from a parts pirate.”
Now Connor can’t help but grin as well. “Stop it; your self-congratulation is getting old.”
Connor can’t blame Lev for being upbeat. His mission succeeded with flying colors. He walked right into the middle of a no-way-out battle and not only found a way out, but saved Connor from Nelson, a disgraced Juvey-cop with a grudge who was hell-bent on selling Connor on the black market.
“After what you did,” Connor tells Lev, “Nelson will want your head on a stake.”
“And other parts, I’m sure. But he’s got to find me first.”
Only now does Lev’s optimism begin to rub off on Connor. Yes, their situation is dire, but for a dire situation, things could be worse. Being alive and free counts for something, and the fact that they have a destination—one that may just give them some crucial answers—adds a fair amount of hope into the mix.
Connor shifts his shoulder and the motion aggravates his wound—a reminder that it will have to be taken care of sooner rather than later. It’s a complication they don’t need. Not a single clinic or emergency room will do the work without asking questions. If he can just keep it clean and dressed until they get to Ohio, he knows Sonia will get him the care he needs.
That is, if she’s still at the antique shop.
That is, if she’s even alive.
“The last road sign before we flipped the bird said there was a town just ahead,” Connor tells Lev. “I’ll go jack a car and come back for you.”
“No,” says Lev. “I traveled across the country to find you—I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
“You’re worse than a Juvey-cop.”
“Two sets of eyes are better than one,” says Lev.
“But if one of us gets caught, the other can make it to Ohio. If we’re together, then we risk both of us getting caught.”
Lev opens his mouth to say something, but closes it again. Connor’s logic is irrefutable.
“I don’t like this at all,” Lev says.
“Neither do I, but it’s our best option.”
“And what am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
Connor offers him a crooked grin. “Make yourself part of the reef.”
• • •
It’s a long walk—especially for someone in pain. Before leaving, Connor had found some “clean” linens in the trailer, as
well as a stash of cheap whiskey, perfect for cleaning a wound. Painful, too, but as all the world’s sports coaches say, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Connor always hated coaches. Once the stinging had stopped, he created a more secure dressing, which he now wears under a faded flannel shirt that belonged to the trailer’s final resident. It’s too warm a shirt for such hot weather, but it was the best he could do.
Now, sweating from the heat and aching from the wound, Connor counts his steps along the dirt road until it becomes paved. He has yet to see a passing car, but that’s fine. The fewer eyes that see him, the better. Safety in solitude.
Connor also doesn’t know what to expect ahead of him in this small town. When it comes to cities and suburbs, Connor has found that most are fairly identical—only the geography changes. Rural areas, however, vary greatly. Some small towns are places you’d want to come from and eventually go back to: warm, inviting communities that breathe out Americana the way rain forests breathe out oxygen. And then there are towns like Heartsdale, Kansas.
This is the place where fun came to die.
It’s clear to Connor that Heartsdale is economically depressed, which is not that uncommon. All it takes these days for a town to give up the ghost is for a major factory to shut down or pick up its skirt and do an international waltz for cheaper labor. Heartsdale, however, isn’t just depressed; it’s ugly in a fundamental way and on more than one level.
The main drag is full of low, flat-faced architecture, all in shades of beige. Although there are farms in abundance that Connor had passed, thriving and green in the July sun, the town center has no trees, no green growth except for weeds between pavement cracks. There’s an uninviting church built out of institutional mustard-colored bricks. The sermon message on the billboard reads WHO W LL ATONE FOR YOUR S NS? B NGO ON FR DAYS.
The town’s most attractive building is a new three-story parking garage, but it isn’t open for business. The reason, Connor realizes, is the empty lot next to it. There’s a billboard for a modern office building to be erected there, which may one day need three levels of parking, but the forlorn state of the lot betrays the fact that the office complex has been in the planning stages for perhaps a decade and will probably never be built.
The place isn’t exactly a ghost town—Connor sees plenty of people going about their morning business, but he has an urge to ask them, “Why bother? What’s the point?” The problem with a town like this is that anyone with even a rudimentary survival instinct managed to get out long ago—perhaps finding themselves one of those other small towns in which to live. The kind with the heart that Heartsdale lacks. Left behind are the souls that kind of got stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Connor comes to a supermarket. A Publix. Its blacktop parking lot shimmers with waves of heat. If he’s going to jack a car, there are plenty here to choose from, but they’re all out in the open, so he can’t do it without the risk of being exposed. Besides, his hope is to find a long-term parking lot where a stolen car might not be missed for a day or more. Even if he manages to get away with a car from this lot, it will be reported stolen within the hour. But who is he kidding? A long-term parking lot implies the owners of the vehicles parked there had somewhere to go. The folks in Heartsdale don’t seem to be going anywhere.
It’s hunger, however, that pulls him toward the market, and he realizes he hasn’t eaten in half a day. With twenty-some-odd dollars in his pocket, he reasons that there’s nothing wrong with buying something to eat. It’s easy to remain anonymous in a market for a whole of five minutes.
As the automatic door slides open, he’s hit with a blast of cold air that is at first refreshing, then makes his sweaty clothes cold against his body. The market is brightly lit and
filled with shoppers moving slowly through the aisles, probably here to get out of the heat as much as they are to shop.
Connor grabs premade sandwiches and cans of soda for himself and for Lev, then goes to the self-checkout, only to find that it’s closed. No way to avoid human contact today. He chooses a checker who looks disinterested and unobservant. He seems a year or two older than Connor. Skinny, with straggly black hair and a baby-fuzz mustache that just isn’t working. He grabs Connor’s items and runs them across the scanner.
“Will that be it for you?” the checker asks absently.
“Did you find everything all right?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
He glances once at Connor. It seems he holds Connor’s gaze a moment too long, but maybe he’s been instructed to make eye contact with customers, as well as ask his standard rote questions.
“You need help out with that?”
“I think I can handle it.”
“No worries, man. Keep cool. It’s a scorcher out there.”
Connor leaves without further incident. He’s back out in the heat and halfway across the parking lot, when he hears—
“Hey, wait up!”
Connor tenses, his right arm contracting into a habitual fist. But when he turns, he sees that it’s the checker coming after him, waving a wallet.
“Hey, man—you left this on the counter.”
“Sorry,” Connor tells him. “It’s not mine.”
The checker flips it open to look at the license. “Are you sure? Because—”
The attack comes so suddenly that Connor is caught off guard. He has no chance to protect himself from the blow—and it’s a low one. A kick to the groin that registers a surge of
shock, followed by a building swell of excruciating pain. Connor swings at his attacker, and Roland’s arm doesn’t fail him. He connects a powerful blow to the checker’s jaw, then swings with his natural arm, but by now the pain is so overwhelming, the punch has nothing behind it. Suddenly his attacker is behind him and puts Connor in a choke hold. Still Connor struggles. He’s bigger than this guy, stronger, but the checker knows what he’s doing, and Connor’s reaction time is slowed. The choke hold cuts off Connor’s windpipe and compresses his carotid artery. His vision goes black, and he knows he’s about to lose consciousness. The only saving grace is that being unconscious means he doesn’t have to feel the agony in his groin.
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Connor snaps awake, fully conscious, fully aware. No bleary-eyed moments of uncertainty; he knows he was attacked, and he knows he’s in trouble. The question is how bad will this trouble be?
The wound on his chest aches, his head pounds, but he pushes thoughts of the pain away and quickly begins to take in his surroundings. Cinder-block walls. Dirt floor. This is good: It means he’s not in a jail cell or a holding pen. The only light is a single dangling bulb above his head. There are food supplies and cases of bottled water piled against the wall to his right, and to his left, concrete stairs lead to a hatch up above. He’s in some sort of basement or bunker. Maybe a storm cellar. That would account for the emergency supplies.
He tries to move but can’t. His hands are tied to a pole behind his back.
“Took you long enough!”
Connor turns to see the greasy-haired supermarket checker sitting in the shadows by the food supplies. Now that he’s been spotted, he scoots forward into the light. “That choke hold I gave you knocks people out for ten, maybe twenty minutes usually—but you were out for nearly an hour.”
Connor doesn’t say anything. Any question, any utterance, is a show of weakness. He doesn’t want to give this loser any more power than he already has.
“If I held you ten seconds more, it woulda killed you. Or at least given you brain damage. You don’t got brain damage, do you?”
Connor still gives him nothing beyond a cold stare.
“I knew who you were the second I laid eyes on you,” he says. “People said the Akron AWOL was dead, but I knew it was all lies. ‘Habeas corpus,’ I say. ‘Bring me his body.’ But they couldn’t do it, because you’re not dead!”
Connor can’t hold his tongue any longer. “That’s not what habeas corpus means, you moron.”
The checker giggles, then pulls out his phone and takes a picture. The flash makes Connor’s head pound. “Do you have any idea how cool this is, Connor? I can call you Connor, right?”
Connor looks down and sees that the wound on his chest has been redressed with actual gauze and surgical tape. The fact that he can see the bandage brings to his attention the fact that he’s shirtless.
“What did you do with my shirt?”
“Had to take it off. When I saw the blood, I had to check it out. Who cut you? Was it a Juvey-cop? Did you give as good as you got?”
“Yeah,” says Connor. “He’s dead.” Hopefully his continued glare implies, And you’re next.
“Wish I coulda seen that!” said the checker. “You’re my hero. You know that, right?” Then he goes off into a twisted reverie. “The Akron AWOL blows the hell out of Happy Jack Harvest Camp, escaping from his own unwinding. The Akron AWOL tranqs a Juvey-cop with his own gun. The Akron AWOL turns a tithe into a clapper!”
“I didn’t do that.”
“Yeah, well, you did the rest, and that’s enough.”
Connor thinks about Lev waiting for him back at the field of junk and begins to feel sick.
“I followed your career, man, until they said you died—but I never believed it, not for a minute. A guy like you don’t get taken down so easy.”
“It wasn’t a career,” Connor says, disgusted by this guy’s particular brand of hero worship, but it’s as if he doesn’t hear Connor.
“You tore up the world. I could do that too, y’know? Just
need the opportunity. And maybe a partner in crime who knows what he’s doing. Knows how to mess with the powers that be. You know where I’m going with this, right? Sure you do—you’re too smart not to know. I always knew if we’d met, we’d be friends. We’d click—kindred spirits and all that.” Then he laughs. “The Akron AWOL in my storm cellar. Can’t be an accident. It was fated, man! Fated!”
“You kicked me in the nuts. That wasn’t fate; it was your foot.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. But, see, I had to do something or you’d just leave. It hurts, I know, but there’s no real damage. I hope you won’t take it the wrong way.”
Connor laughs bitterly at that. He can’t help himself. He wonders if anyone saw the attack happen. If someone did, they didn’t care, or at least they didn’t care enough to stop it.
“Friends don’t tie friends up in a cellar,” Connor points out.
“Yeah, sorry about that, too.” But he makes no move to untie him. “Here’s the quandary. You know what a quandary is, right? Sure you do. See, if I untie you, you’ll probably bolt. So I have to convince you I’m the real deal. A decent guy in spite of knocking you out and tying you up. I gotta make you see that a friend like me is hard to find in this screwed-up world and that this is the place where you want to be. You don’t gotta run anymore. See, nobody looks for nobody in Heartsdale.”
His captor stands and paces, gesturing with his hands. His eyes get wide as he talks as if he’s telling a campfire story. He’s not even looking at Connor anymore as he weaves his little fantasy. Connor just lets him talk, figuring in his verbal diarrhea, he might expel some piece of information that Connor can use.
“I got it all figured out,” he continues. “We’ll dye your hair as dark as mine. I know a guy who’ll do pigment injections in your eyes on the cheap so they’ll look the same hazel as mine—although
I can see one of your eyes is slightly different from the other, but we can get them to match, right? Then we’ll tell folks you’re my cousin from Wichita, on account of everyone knows I got family in Wichita. With my help, you’ll disappear so good, no one’ll know you’re not dead.”
The thought of being made to look like this guy in any way is almost as unpleasant as a kick to the groin. And disappearing in Heartsdale? That’s the stuff of nightmares. Yet in spite of everything, Connor dredges up the warmest smile he can muster.
“You say you want to be friends, but I don’t even know your name.”
He looks offended. “It was on my name tag at the market. Don’t you remember?”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Not too observant, are you? A guy in your situation should learn to be more observant.” And then he adds, “Not your situation here. I mean your situation out there.”
Connor waits until his captor finally says, “Argent. Like Sergeant without the S. It means money in French. Argent Skinner at your service.”
“Of the Wichita Skinners.”
Argent looks a bit shocked and increasingly suspicious. “You heard of us?”
Connor considers toying with him, but decides that Argent won’t look kindly upon it once he figures it out. “No—you said so before.”
Now Argent just stares at him, grinning until the trapdoor swings open and someone else clambers down the steps. The woman looks somewhat like Argent, but a couple of years older, taller, and a little doughier—not fat, but a bit heavyset and unshapely. Dowdy—if a woman so young could be called
dowdy. Her expression is a bit vaguer than Argent’s, if indeed that’s possible.
“Is that him? Can I see him? Is it really him?”
Suddenly Argent’s whole demeanor changes. “You shut your stupid hole!” he shouts. “You want the whole world to know who we got visitin’?”
“Sorry, Argie.” Her broad shoulders seem to fold at the reprimand.
Connor quickly sizes her up to be Argent’s older sister. Twenty-two or twenty-three, although she carries herself much younger. The slack expression on her face speaks of a dullness that isn’t her fault, although Argent clearly blames her for it.
“You want to keep us company, then go sit in the corner and be quiet.” Argent turns back to Connor. “Grace has got a problem using her indoor voice.”
“We’re not indoors,” Grace insists. “The shelter’s in the yard, and that’s outside the house.”
Argent sighs and shakes his head, giving Connor an exaggerated long-suffering look. “You see how it is?”
“Yeah, I see,” says Connor. He logs one more bit of information. This cellar is not in the house, but in the yard. Which means if Connor manages to escape the cellar, he’s maybe a dozen yards closer to freedom. “Won’t it be hard to keep it a secret that I’m down here,” Connor asks, “once everyone else gets home?”
“No one else comin’,” Argent says. This was the news Connor was fishing for. He’s ambivalent about it. On the one hand, if there were other members of this household, someone might be rational enough to stop this before it gets any further. But on the other hand, a rational person would most likely turn Connor over to the authorities.
“Well, I figured you’ve got a house, so you must have a family. Parents maybe.”
“Dead,” says Grace. “Dead, dead, dead.”
Argent throws her a severe warning look before turning back to Connor. “Our mother died young. Our father kicked the ghost last year.”
“Good thing too,” adds Grace, grinning. “He was gonna unwind Argent’s sorry ass for the cash.”
In one smooth motion, Argent picks up a water bottle and hurls it at baseball speed at Grace. She ducks, but not fast enough, and the bottle careens off the side of her head, making her yelp with pain.
“HE WAS JUST SAYING THAT!” yells Argent. “I WAS TOO OLD TO BE UNWOUND.”
Grace holds the side of her head, but remains defiant. “Not too old for parts pirates. They don’t care how old you are!”
“DIDN’T I TELL YOU TO SHUT IT?” Argent takes a moment to let his fury dissipate, then looks for an ally in Connor. “Grace is like a dog. Sometimes you gotta shake a can at her.”
Connor can’t hold back his own seething fury. “That was more than shaking.” He looks over at Grace, still holding her head, but Connor is sure her spirit is hurt more than anything else.
“Yeah, well, unwinding is nothing to joke about,” says Argent. “You know that more than anyone. Truth be told, our father woulda unwound us both if he could, so he didn’t have our mouths to feed. But Grace wasn’t ever eligible since there’s laws against unwinding the feebleminded, and not even parts pirates’ll do it. He couldn’t do me either, because he needed me to take care of Grace. You see how it is?”
“Yeah, I see.”
“Low-cortical,” grumbles Grace. “I ain’t feebleminded. I’m low-cortical. It’s the less insulting way.”
Although low-cortical always sounded pretty insulting to Connor. He twists his wrists, gauging the tightness of the knots. Apparently Argent is very good with knots, because the ropes don’t give at all. His hands are tied individually, so he’ll have to squirm out of both sets of bonds to free himself. It makes Connor think of how he had tied Lev to a tree after Connor had first rescued him. He had kept Lev against his will to save his life. Well, thinks Connor, what goes around comes around. Now he’s at the mercy of someone who believes he’s holding Connor captive for his own good.
“Did you happen to keep the sandwiches I bought?” Connor asks. “Because I’m starving.”
“Nah. They’re still in the parking lot, I imagine.”
“Well, if I’m your guest, don’t you think it’s rude not to feed me?”
Argent considers this. “Yeah, that is rude. I’ll go fix you something.” He orders Grace to give Connor some water from their stockpile of survival rations. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”
Connor’s not sure if he’s talking to him or to Grace, but decides it doesn’t really matter.
After Argent is gone, Grace visibly relaxes, freed from her brother’s sphere of influence. She holds out the water bottle for Connor to take, then realizes he can’t take it. Grace unscrews the cap and pours it into Connor’s mouth. He gets a good gulp, although most of it spills on his pants.
“Sorry!” says Grace, almost in a panic. Connor knows why.
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell Argent that I pissed myself. He can’t get mad at you for that.”
Grace laughs. “He’ll find a way.”
Connor looks Grace in the eye. There’s an innocence there that’s slowly breaking. “He doesn’t treat you too well, does he?”
“Who, Argie? Nah, he’s okay. He’s just mad at the world, but the world isn’t around to be mad at. Just me.”
Connor smiles at that. “You’re smarter than Argent thinks.”
“Maybe,” Grace says, although she doesn’t seem too convinced. She looks back toward the closed cellar door and then to Connor again. “I like your tattoo,” she says. “Great white?”
“Tiger shark,” Connor tells her. “Only it’s not mine. It belonged to a kid who actually tried to strangle me with this same arm. He couldn’t do it, though. Chickened out at the last second. Anyway, he got unwound, and I wound up with his arm.”
Grace processes it and shakes her head, getting a little red in the face. “You’re making that up. You think I’m dumb enough to believe the Akron AWOL would take an Unwind’s arm?”
“I didn’t have a choice. They slapped this thing on while I was in a coma.”
“Untie me and I’ll show you the scar where it was grafted on.”
“Yeah, it would have worked better if I had my shirt on and you couldn’t see the scar for yourself.”
Grace comes closer, kneeling down, examining Connor’s shoulder. “I’ll be damned. It is a grafted arm!”
“Yeah, and it hurts like hell. You can’t tie a grafted arm back like this.”
Grace looks at him—maybe searching Connor’s eyes the way Connor searched hers.
“You got new eyes, too?” Grace asks.
“Just one of them.”
“Right. The left one is mine.”
“Good,” says Grace. “ ’Cause I already decided that’s the
honest one.” She reaches behind Connor for the ropes. “I’m not gonna untie you—I’m not that dumb—but I’ll loosen the rope on this arm a little so it don’t pull at your shoulder so much.”
“Thank you, Grace.” Connor feels the rope loosen. He wasn’t lying. His shoulder was burning from the strain. As the rope gives, Connor tugs his hand. It slips through the loop, and his hand—Roland’s hand—is free. It closes reflexively into a fist ready to swing. Connor’s own instinct is to do it, but Risa’s voice, ever present in his head, as if it has been transplanted there, stops him. Think, Risa would say. Don’t do anything rash.
The fact is, only one of his hands is free. Will he be able to knock Grace out with one blow, then free his other hand and escape before Argent gets back? In his current state, will he be able to outrun the two of them, and what will the consequences be if he fails? All this flashes through Connor’s mind in a fraction of a second. Grace still stares at Connor’s freed fist in shock, not knowing what to do. Connor makes a decision. He takes a deep breath, loosens his fingers, and shakes his hand. “Thanks. That feels much better,” he says. “Now quick. Tie up my hand again before Argent comes back—only not as tight this time.”
Relieved, Grace redoes the bonds, and Connor allows her to do it without resisting. “You won’t tell him I did that, will you?” Grace asks.
Connor smiles at her. It’s easier to pull off a smile for Grace than for Argent. “It’ll be our secret.”
In a few moments, Argent returns with a BLT heavy on mayo and light on bacon. He feeds it to Connor by hand, never noticing the subtle shift in dynamics. Grace now trusts Connor more than she trusts her own brother.