Authors: Neal Shusterman
Sponsored by Neighborhood Watch Inc.
The safe house is a sewer pump station. Automated. No city workers ever show up unless something breaks.
“You get used to the smell,” Starkey is told as they bring him in, which he finds hard to believeâbut it turns out to be true. Apparently one's sense of smell realizes it's going to lose the battle and just goes with itâand, as they told him in the van, the food makes up for it.
The whole place is a petri dish of angst, generated by kids whose parents gave up on them, which is the worst kind of angst there is. There are fights and ridiculous posturing on a daily basis.
Starkey's always been a natural leader among sketchy outcasts and borderline personalities, and the safe house is no exception. He quickly rises in the social ranks. Word of his escape act is already churning out smoke in the rumor mill, helping his status from the very beginning.
“Is it true you shot two Juvey-cops?”
“Is it true you shot your way out of lockup with a machine gun?”
“Sure, why not?”
And the best part is that the storked kidsâwho, even among Unwinds, are treated like second-class citizensâare now the elite, thanks to him!
Starkey says the storks get served first? They get served first. Starkey says they get the best beds, farthest from the stinking vents? They get the best beds. His word is law. Even those running the place know that Starkey is their greatest asset, and they know to keep him happy, because if he becomes an enemy, then every Unwind there is an enemy too.
He starts to settle in, figuring he'll be there until he's seventeenâbut then in the middle of the night they're rounded up and taken away by the ADRâshuffled like a deck of cards to different safe houses.
“This is the way it works,” they're all told. The reason, Starkey comes to understand, is twofold. One, it keep the kids moving closer to their destination, wherever that might be. Two, it splits them apart to keep any alliances from becoming permanent. Kind of like unwinding the mob rather than the individuals to keep them in line.
Their plan, however, backfires with Starkey, because in each safe house he manages to earn respect, building his credibility among more and more kids. In each new location he comes across Unwinds who fancy themselves alpha males, trying to take charge, but in truth they're just betas waiting for an alpha to humble them into submission.
In every instance, Starkey finds his opportunity to challenge, defeat, and rise above. Then there's another midnight ride, another shake-up, and a new safe house. Each time Starkey learns a new social skill, something to serve him, something to make him even more effective at gathering and galvanizing these scared, angry kids. There could be no better leadership program than the safe houses of the Anti-Divisional Resistance.
And then come the coffins.
They show up at the final safe house: a shipment of lacquered wood caskets with rich satin linings. Most kids are terrified; Starkey is just amused.
“Get in!” they're told by armed resistance fighters who look more like special ops. “No questions, just get in. Two to a box! Move it!”
Some kids hesitate, but the smarter ones quickly find a partner like it's a sudden square dance, and nobody wants to be stuck with someone too tall, too fat, too unwashed, or too randyâbecause none of those things would fare well in the confines of a coffinâbut no one actually gets in until Starkey gives the nod.
“If they meant to bury us,” he tells them, “they would have done it already.” As it turns out, he's more persuasive than the guys with the guns.
He chooses to share his little box with a wisp of a girl who is giddy at having been chosen by him. Not that he particularly likes her, but she is so slight that she'll barely take up any room. Once they're wedged in together in a tight spoon position, they're handed an oxygen tank and then closed into the darkness of the coffin together.
“I've always liked you, Mason,” says the girl, whose name he can't recall. He's surprised that she knows his first name, since he never uses it anymore. “Of all the boys in the safe houses, you're the only one who makes me feel safe.”
He doesn't respond; he just kisses her on the back of her head, to maintain his image as the safest port in her storm. It's a powerful feeling to know you make others feel safe.
“We . . .
, you know . . . ,” she says coyly.
He reminds her that the ADR workers were very clear. “No extracurricular activities,” they had said, “or you'll use up your oxygen and die.” Starkey doesn't know if it's true, but it certainly is a good argument for restraint. Besides, even if someone were stupid enough to tempt fate, there's not enough space to move, much less generate any sort of friction, so the point is moot. He wonders if it's some sort of twisted joke the adults are having, shoving hormonal teens into tight quarters but making it impossible to do anything but breathe.
“I wouldn't mind suffocating if it was with you,” the girl says, which is flattering, but makes him even less interested in her.
“There'll be a better time,” he tells her, knowing that such a time will never comeâat least not for herâbut hope is a powerful motivator.
Eventually they settle into a sort of symbiotic breathing rhythm. He breathes in when she breathes out, so their chests don't fight for space.
After a while, there's a jarring motion. With his arm now around the girl, he holds her a little more tightly, knowing that easing her fear somehow eases his own. Soon there's a strange kind of acceleration, like they're in a speeding car, but the angle changes, tilting them.
“A plane?” asks the girl.
“I think so.”
He doesn't answer because he doesn't know. Starkey begins to feel light-headed and, remembering the oxygen tank, turns the valve so that it slowly hisses. The coffin isn't quite air tight, but closed tightly enough that they would suffocate without that oxygen, even in the pressurized hull of a plane. In a few minutes the stress-induced exhaustion puts the girl to sleep, but not Starkey. Finally, an hour later, the sudden jar of landing jolts the girl awake.
“Where do you think we are?” the girl asks.
Starkey is feeling irritable from the tight quarters but tries not to show it. “We'll find out soon enough.”
Twenty minutes of anticipation, and finally the lid is unlatched and opened, resurrecting the two of them from the dead.
There's a smiling kid with braces above them.
“Hello, I'm Hayden, and I'll be your personal savior today,” he says brightly. “Oh look! No vomit or other unpleasant bodily fluids. Lucky you!”
With barely any blood circulating in his feet, Starkey joins a limping procession out of the jet's cargo hold and into the blinding day. What he sees before him as his eyes adjust seems more like a mirage than anything real.
It's a desert filled with thousands of airplanes.
Starkey's heard of places like this, airplane boneyards where decommissioned aircraft go to die. Around them are teens in military camouflage, carrying weapons. They're not unlike the adults back at the last safe house, just younger. They herd the kids into a loose formation at the bottom of the ramp.
A Jeep drives up. Clearly this is the approach of someone important, someone who will tell them why they're here.
The Jeep comes to a halt, and out steps an unremarkable-looking teenager in blue camouflage. He's Starkey's age or maybe a little bit older, and he has scars on the right half of his face.
As the crowd gets a good look at him, people begin to murmur with excitement. The kid raises his hand to quiet them down, and Starkey spots a shark tattoo on his arm.
“No way!” a fat kid next to Starkey says. “You know who that is? That's the Akron AWOL! That's Connor Lassiter.”
Starkey scoffs, “Don't be ridiculous, the Akron AWOL is dead.”
“No, he ain't! He's right there!”
The very idea sends a surge of adrenaline through Starkey's body, finally bringing circulation back to his limbs. But noâas he looks at this teen trying to rein in the chaos, he realizes this couldn't be Connor Lassiter. This kid does not look the part at all. His hair is tousled, not coolly slicked back, the way Starkey always imagined it would be. This kid looks too open and honestânot quite innocent, but he has nowhere near the level of jaded anger that the Akron AWOL would have. The only thing about him that could even slightly resemble Starkey's image of Connor Lassiter would be the slight smirk that always seems to be on his face. No, this kid before them, trying to command their respect, is nobody special. Nobody at all.
“Let me be the first to welcome you to the Graveyard,” he says, delivering what must be the same speech he delivers to every batch of new arrivals. “Officially my name is Elvis Robert Mullard . . . but my friends call me Connor.”
Cheers from the Unwinds.
“Told you so!” says the fat kid.
“Doesn't prove anything,” says Starkey, his jaw set and teeth clenched as the speech continues.
“You're all here because you were marked for unwinding but escaped, and thanks to the efforts of a whole lot of people with the Anti-Divisional Resistance, you've made it here. This will be your home until you turn seventeen and can't be unwound. That's the good news. . . .”
The more he speaks, the more Starkey's heart sinks, and he comes to realize the truth of it. This
the Akron AWOLâand he's not larger than life at all. In fact, he barely lives up to reality.
“The bad news is that the Juvenile Authority knows about us. They know where we are and what we're doingâbut so far they've left us alone.”
Starkey marvels at the unfairness of it all. How could this be? How is it possible that the great champion of runaway Unwinds is just some ordinary kid?
“Some of you just want to survive to seventeen, and I don't blame you,” Connor says. “But I know that many of you would risk everything to end unwinding forever.”
“Yeah!” Starkey shouts out, making sure it's loud enough to draw everyone's attention away from Connor, and he starts pumping his fist in the air. “Happy Jack! Happy Jack! Happy Jack!” He gets a whole chant going in the crowd. “We'll blow up every last harvest camp!” Starkey shouts. Yet even though he's riled them up, one look from Connor throws a wet blanket over the whole crowd, silencing them.
“There's one in every crowd,” says Hayden, shaking his head.
“I'm sorry to disappoint you, but we will
be blowing up Chop Shops,” Connor says, looking right at Starkey. “They already see us as violent, and the Juvies use public fear to justify unwinding. We can't feed into that. We're not clappers. We will not commit random acts of violence. We will
before we act. . . .”
Starkey does not take the reprimand well. Who is this guy to shut him down? He keeps talking, but Starkey's not listening anymore, because Connor has nothing to say to him. But the others listen, and that makes Starkey burn.
Now, as he stands there, waiting for the so-called Akron AWOL to shut up, a seed starts to take root in Starkey's mind. He has killed two Juvey-cops. His legend is already set, and unlike Connor, he didn't have to pretend to die to become legendary. Starkey has to smile. This airplane salvage yard is filled with hundreds of Unwinds, but in the end, it's no different from the safe housesâand like those safe houses, here is just one more beta male waiting for an alpha like Starkey to put him in his place.