Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog
Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission. May be incomplete or contain other coding.
1 · Connor
"There are places you can go," Ariana tells him, "and a guy as smart as you
has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen."
Connor isn't so sure, but looking into Ariana's eyes makes his doubts go
away, if only for a moment. Her eyes are sweet violet with streaks of gray.
She's such a slave to fashion -- always getting the newest pigment
injection the second it's in style. Connor was never into that. He's always
kept his eyes the color they came in. Brown. He never even got tattoos,
like so many kids get these days when they're little. The only color on his
skin is the tan it takes during the summer, but now, in November, that tan
has long faded. He tries not to think about the fact that he'll never see
the summer again. At least not as Connor Lassiter. He still can't believe
that his life is being stolen from him at sixteen.
Ariana's violet eyes begin to shine as they fill with tears that flow down
her cheeks when she blinks. "Connor, I'm so sorry." She holds him, and for
a moment it seems as if everything is okay, as if they are the only two
people on Earth. For that instant, Connor feels invincible, untouchable...
but she lets go, the moment passes, and the world around him returns. Once
more he can feel the rumble of the freeway beneath them, as cars pass by,
not knowing or caring that he's here. Once more he is just a marked kid, a
week short of unwinding.
The soft, hopeful things Ariana tells him don't help now. He can barely
hear her over the rush of traffic. This place where they hide from the world
is one of those dangerous places that make adults shake their heads,
grateful that their own kids aren't stupid enough to hang out on the ledge
of a freeway overpass. For Connor it's not about stupidity, or even
rebellion -- it's about feeling life. Sitting on this ledge, hidden behind
an exit sign is where he feels most comfortable. Sure, one false step and
he's roadkill. Yet for Connor, life on the edge is home.
There have been no other girls he's brought here, although he hasn't told
Ariana that. He closes his eyes, feeling the vibration of the traffic as if
it's pulsing through his veins, a part of him. This has always been a good
place to get away from fights with his parents, or when he just feels
generally boiled. But now Connor's beyond boiled -- even beyond fighting
with his mom and dad. There's nothing more to fight about. His parents
signed the order -- it's a done deal.
"We should run away," Ariana says. "I'm fed up with everything, too. My
family, school, everything. I could kick-AWOL, and never look back."
Connor hangs on the thought. The idea of kicking-AWOL by himself terrifies
him. He might put up a tough front, he might act like the bad boy at
school -- but running away on his own? He doesn't even know if he has the
guts. But if Ariana comes, that's different. That's not alone. "Do you mean
Ariana looks at him with her magical eyes. "Sure. Sure I do. I could leave
here. If you asked me."
Connor knows this is major. Running away with an Unwind -- that's
commitment. The fact that she would do it moves him beyond words. He
kisses her, and in spite of everything going on in his life Connor suddenly
feels like the luckiest guy in the world. He holds her -- maybe a little
too tightly, because she starts to squirm. It just makes him want to hold
her even more tightly, but he fights that urge and lets go. She smiles at
"AWOL..." she says. "What does that mean, anyway?"
"It's an old military term or something," Connor says. "It means 'absent
Ariana thinks about it, and grins. "Hmm. More like 'alive without lectures.'"
Connor takes her hand, trying hard not to squeeze it too tightly. She said
she'd go if he asked her. Only now does he realize he hasn't actually asked
"Will you come with me, Ariana?"
Ariana smiles and nods. "Sure," she says. "Sure I will."
Ariana's parents don't like Connor. "We always knew he'd be an Unwind," he
can just hear them saying. "You should have stayed away from that Lassiter
boy." He was never "Connor" to them. He was always "that Lassiter boy."
They think that just because he's been in and out of disciplinary school
they have a right to judge him.
Still, when he walks her home that afternoon, he stops short of her door,
hiding behind a tree as she goes inside. Before he heads home, he thinks
how hiding is now going to be a way of life for both of them.
Connor wonders how he can call the place he lives home, when he's about to
be evicted -- not just from the place he sleeps, but from the hearts of
those who are supposed to love him.
His father sits in a chair, watching the news as Connor enters.
His father points at some random carnage on the news. "Clappers again."
"What did they hit this time?"
"They blew up an Old Navy in the North Akron mall."
"Hmm," says Connor. "You'd think they'd have better taste."
"I don't find that funny."
Connor's parents don't know that Connor knows he's being unwound. He wasn't
supposed to find out, but Connor has always been good at ferreting out
secrets. Three weeks ago, while looking for a stapler in his dad's home
office, he found airplane tickets to the Bahamas. They were going on a
family vacation over Thanksgiving. One problem, though: There were only
three tickets. His mother, his father, his younger brother. No ticket for
him. At first he just figured the ticket was somewhere else, but the more
he thought about it, the more it seemed wrong. So Connor went looking a
little deeper when his parents were out, and he found it. The Unwind order.
It had been signed in old-fashioned triplicate. The white copy was already
gone -- off with the authorities. The yellow copy would accompany Connor to
his end, and the pink would stay with his parents, as evidence of what
they'd done. Perhaps they would frame it and hang it alongside his first-
The date on the order was the day before the Bahamas trip. He was going off
to be unwound, and they were going on vacation to make themselves feel
better about it. The unfairness of it had made Connor want to break
something. It had made him want to break a lot of things -- but he hadn't.
For once he had held his temper, and aside from a few fights in school that
weren't his fault, he kept his emotions hidden. He kept what he knew to
himself. Everyone knew that an unwind order was irreversible, so screaming
and fighting wouldn't change a thing. Besides, he found a certain power in
knowing his parents' secret. Now the blows he could deal them were so much
more effective. Like the day he brought flowers home for his mother and she
cried for hours. Like the B-plus he brought home on a science test. Best
grade he ever got in science. He handed it to his father, who looked at it,
the color draining from his face. "See, Dad, my grades are getting better.
I could even bring my science grade up to an A by the end of the semester."
An hour later his father was sitting in a chair, still clutching the test
in his hand, and staring blankly at the wall.
Connor's motivation was simple: Make them suffer. Let them know for the rest
of their lives what a horrible mistake they made.
But there was no sweetness to this revenge, and now, three weeks of rubbing
it in their faces has made him feel no better. In spite of himself he's
starting to feel bad for his parents, and he hates that he feels that way.
"Did I miss dinner?"
His father doesn't look away from the TV. "Your mother left a plate for
Connor heads off toward the kitchen, but halfway there he hears:
He turns to see his father looking at him. Not just looking, but staring.
He's going to tell me now, Connor thinks. He's going to tell me
they're unwinding me, and then break down in tears, going on and on about
how sorry sorry sorry he is about it all. If he does, Connor just might
accept the apology. He might even forgive him, and then tell him that he
doesn't plan to be here when the Juvey-cops come to take him away. But in
the end all his father says is, "Did you lock the door when you came in?"
"I'll do it now."
Connor locks the door, then goes to his room, no longer hungry for whatever
it is his mother saved for him.
At two in the morning Connor dresses in black and fills a backpack with the
things that really matter to him. He still has room for three changes of
clothes. He finds it amazing, when it comes down to it, how few things are
worth taking. Memories, mostly. Reminders of a time before things went so
wrong between him and his parents. Between him and the rest of the world.
Connor peeks in on his brother, thinks about waking him to say good-bye,
then decides it's not a good idea. He silently slips out into the night. He
can't take his bike, because he had installed an antitheft tracking device.
Connor never considered that he might be the one stealing it. Ariana has
bikes for both of them though.
Ariana's house is a twenty-minute walk, if you take the conventional route.
Suburban Ohio neighborhoods never have streets that go in straight lines, so
instead he takes the more direct route, through the woods, and makes it
there in ten.
The lights in Ariana's house are off. He expected this. It would have been
suspicious if she had stayed awake all night. Better to pretend she's
sleeping, so she won't alert any suspicion. He keeps his distance from the
house. Ariana's yard and front porch are equipped with motion-sensor
lights that come on whenever anything moves into range. They're meant to
scare off wild animals and criminals. Ariana's parents are convinced that
Connor is both.
He pulls out his phone and dials the familiar number. From where he stands
in the shadows at the edge of the backyard he can hear it ring in her
room upstairs. Connor disconnects quickly and ducks farther back into the
shadows, for fear that Ariana's parents might be looking out from their
windows. What is she thinking? Ariana was supposed to leave her phone on
He makes a wide arc around the edge of the backyard, wide enough not to set
off the lights, and although a light comes on when he steps onto the front
porch, only Ariana's bedroom faces that way. She comes to the door a few
moments later, opening it not quite wide enough for her to come out or for
him to go in.
"Hi, are you ready?" asks Connor. Clearly she's not; she wears a robe over
satin pajamas. "You didn't forget, did you?"
"No, no, I didn't forget...."
"So hurry up! The sooner we get out of here, the more of a lead we'll get
before anyone knows we're gone."
"Connor," she says, "here's the thing..."
And the truth is right there in her voice, in the way it's such a strain
for her to even say his name, the quiver of apology lingering in the air
like an echo. She doesn't have to say anything after that, because he
knows, but he lets her say it anyway. Because he sees how hard it is for
her, and he wants it to be. He wants it to be the hardest thing she's ever
done in her life.
"Connor, I really want to go, I do...but it's just a really bad time for
me. My sister's getting married, and you know she picked me to be the maid
of honor. And then there's school."
"You hate school. You said you'd be dropping out when you turn sixteen."
"Testing out," she says. "There's a difference."
"So you're not coming?"
"I want to, I really, really want to...but I can't."
"So everything we talked about was just a lie."
"No," says Ariana. "It was a dream. Reality got in the way, that's all. And
running away doesn't solve anything."
"Running away is the only way to save my life," Connor hisses. "I'm about
to be unwound, in case you forgot."
She gently touches his face. "I know," she says. "But I'm not."
Then a light comes on at the top of the stairs, and reflexively Ariana
closes the door a few inches.
"Ari?" Connor hears her mother say. "What is it? What are you doing at the
Connor backs up out of view, and Ariana turns to look up the stairs.
"Nothing, Mom. I thought I saw a coyote from my window and I just wanted
to make sure the cats weren't out."
"The cats are upstairs, honey. Close the door and go back to bed."
"So, I'm a coyote," says Connor.
"Shush," says Ariana, closing the door until there's just a tiny slit and
all he can see is the edge of her face and a single violet eye. "You'll get
away, I know you will. Call me once you're somewhere safe." Then she closes
Connor stands there for the longest time, until the motion sensor light
goes out. Being alone had not been part of his plan, but he realizes it
should have been. From the moment his parents signed those papers, Connor
He can't take a train; he can't take a bus. Sure, he has enough money, but
nothing's leaving until morning, and by then they'll be looking for him in
all the obvious places. Unwinds on the run are so common these days, they
have whole teams of Juvey-cops dedicated to finding them. The police have
it down to an art.
He knows he'd be able to disappear in a city, because there are so many
faces, you never see the same one twice. He knows he can also disappear
in the country, where people are so few and far between; he could set up
house in an old barn and no one would think to look. But then, Connor
figures the police probably thought of that. They probably have every
old barn set up to spring like a rat trap, snaring kids like him. Or
maybe he's just being paranoid. No, Connor knows his situation calls
for justified caution -- not just tonight, but for the next two years.
Then once he turns eighteen, he's home free. After that, sure, they can
throw him in jail, they can put him on trial -- but they can't unwind him.
Surviving that long is the trick.
Down by the interstate there's a rest stop where truckers pull off the road
for the night. This is where Connor goes. He figures he can slip in the
back of an eighteen-wheeler, but he quickly learns that truckers keep their
cargo locked. He curses himself for not having forethought enough to
consider that. Thinking ahead has never been one of Connor's strong points.
If it was, he might not have gotten into the various situations that have
plagued him over these past few years. Situations that got him labels like
"troubled" and "at risk," and finally this last label, "unwind."
There are about twenty parked trucks, and a brightly lit diner where half
a dozen truckers eat. It's 3:30 in the morning. Apparently truckers have
their own biological clocks. Connor watches and waits. Then, at about a
quarter to four, a police cruiser pulls silently into the truck stop. No
lights, no siren. It slowly circles the lot like a shark. Connor thinks he
can hide, until he sees a second police car pulling in. There are too many
lights over the lot for Connor to hide in shadows, and he can't bolt
without being seen in the bright moonlight. A patrol car comes around the
far end of the lot. In a second its headlights will be on him, so he rolls
beneath a truck and prays the cops haven't seen him.
He watches as the patrol car's wheels slowly roll past. On the other side
of the eighteen-wheeler the second patrol car passes in the opposite
direction. Maybe this is just a routine check, he thinks. Maybe
they're not looking for me. The more he thinks about it, the more he
convinces himself that's the case. They can't know he's gone yet. His
father sleeps like a log, and his mother never checks on Connor during
the night anymore.
Still, the police cars circle.
From his spot beneath the truck Connor sees the driver's door of another
eighteen-wheeler open. No -- it's not the driver's door, it's the door
to the little bedroom behind the cab. A trucker emerges, stretches, and
heads toward the truckstop bathrooms, leaving the door ajar.
In the hairbreadth of a moment, Connor makes a decision and bolts from
his hiding spot, racing across the lot to that truck. Loose gravel skids
out from under his feet as he runs. He doesn't know where the cop cars
are anymore, but it doesn't matter. He has committed himself to this
course of action and he has to see it through. As he nears the door he
sees headlights arcing around, about to turn toward him. He pulls open
the door to the truck's sleeper, hurls himself inside, and pulls the door
closed behind him.
He sits on a bed not much bigger than a cot, catching his breath. What's
his next move? The trucker will be back. Connor has about five minutes if
he's lucky, one minute if he's not. He peers beneath the bed. There's
space down there where he can hide, but it's blocked by two duffle bags
full of clothes. He could pull them out, squeeze in, and pull the duffle
bags back in front of him. The trucker would never know he's there. But
even before he can get the first duffle bag out, the door swings open.
Connor just stands there, unable to react as the trucker reaches in to
grab his jacket and sees him.
"Whoa! Who are you? What the hell you doin' in my truck?"
A police car cruises slowly past behind him.
"Please," Connor says, his voice suddenly squeaky like it was before his
voice changed. "Please, don't tell anyone. I've got to get out of this
place." He reaches into his backpack, fumbling, and pulls out a wad of
bills from his wallet. "You want money? I've got money. I'll give you all
"I don't want your money," the trucker says.
"All right, then, what?"
Even in the dim light the trucker must see the panic in Connor's eyes, but
he doesn't say a thing.
"Please," says Connor again. "I'll do anything you want...."
The trucker looks at him in silence for a moment more. "Is that so?" he
finally says. Then he steps inside and closes the door behind him.
Connor shuts his eyes, not daring to consider what he's just gotten
The trucker sits beside him. "What's your name?"
"Connor." Then he realizes a moment too late he should have given a fake
The trucker scratches his beard stubble and thinks for a moment. "Let me
show you something, Connor." He reaches over Connor and grabs, of all
things, a deck of cards from a little pouch hanging next to the bed. "Did
ya ever see this?" The trucker takes the deck of cards in one hand and
does a skillful one-handed shuffle. "Pretty good, huh?"
Connor, not knowing what to say, just nods.
"How about this?" Then the trucker takes a single card and with sleight of
hand makes the card vanish into thin air. Then he reaches over and pulls
the card right out of Connor's shirt pocket. "You like that?"
Connor lets out a nervous laugh.
"Well, those tricks you just saw?" The trucker says, "I didn't do 'em."
"I...don't know what you mean."
The trucker rolls up his sleeve to reveal that the arm, which had done the
tricks, had been grafted on at the elbow.
"Ten years ago I fell asleep at the wheel," the trucker tells him. "Big
accident. I lost an arm, a kidney, and a few other things. I got new ones,
though, and I pulled through." He looks at his hands, and now Connor can
see that the trick-card hand is a little different from the other one. The
trucker's other hand has thicker fingers, and the skin is a bit more olive
"So," says Connor, "you got dealt a new hand."
The trucker laughs at that, then he becomes quiet for a moment, looking at
his replacement hand. "These fingers here knew things the rest of me
didn't. Muscle memory, they call it. And there's not a day that goes by
that I don't wonder what other incredible things that kid who owned this
arm knew, before he was unwound...whoever he was."
The trucker stands up. "You're lucky you came to me," he says. "There are
truckers out there who'll take whatever you offer, then turn you in
"And you're not like that?"
"No, I'm not." He puts out his hand -- his other hand -- and Connor
shakes it. "Josias Aldridge," he says. "I'm heading north from here. You
can ride with me till morning."
Connor's relief is so great, it takes the wind right out of him. He can't
even offer a thank-you.
"That bed there's not the most comfortable in the world," says Aldridge,
"but it does the job. Get yourself some rest. I just gotta go take a
dump, and then we'll be on our way." Then he closes the door, and Connor
listens to his footsteps heading off toward the bathroom. Connor finally
lets his guard down and begins to feel his own exhaustion. The trucker
didn't give him a destination, just a direction, and that's fine. North,
south, east, west -- it doesn't matter as long as it's away from here. As
for his next move, well, first he's got to get through this one before he
can think about what comes next.
A minute later Connor's already beginning to doze when he hears the shout
"We know you're in there! Come out now and you won't get hurt!"
Connor's heart sinks. Josias Aldridge has apparently pulled another
sleight of hand. He's made Connor appear for the police. Abracadabra. With
his journey over before it even began, Connor swings the door open to see
three Juvey-cops aiming weapons.
But they're not aiming at him.
In fact, their backs are to him.
Across the way, the cab door swings open of the truck he had hidden under
just a few minutes before, and a kid comes out from behind the empty
driver's seat, his hands in the air. Connor recognizes him right away. It's
a kid he knows from school. Andy Jameson.
My God, is Andy being unwound too?
There's a look of fear on Andy's face, but beyond it is something worse.
A look of utter defeat. That's when Connor realizes his own folly. He'd
been so surprised by this turn of events that he's still just standing
there, exposed for anyone to see. Well, the policemen don't see him. But
Andy does. He catches sight of Connor, holds his gaze, only for a
...and in that moment something remarkable happens.
The look of despair on Andy's face is suddenly replaced by a steely resolve
bordering on triumph. He quickly looks away from Connor and takes a few
steps before the police grab him -- steps away from Connor, so that the
police still have their backs to him.
Andy had seen him and had not given him away! If Andy has nothing else
after this day, at least he'll have this small victory.
Connor leans back into the shadows of the truck and slowly pulls the door
closed. Outside, as the police take Andy away, Connor lies back down, and
his tears come as sudden as a summer downpour. He's not sure who he's
crying for -- for Andy, for himself, for Ariana -- and not knowing makes
his tears flow all the more. Instead of wiping the tears away he lets
them dry on his face like he used to when he was a little boy and the
things he cried about were so insignificant that they'd be forgotten by
The trucker never comes to check on him. Instead Connor hears the engine
start and feels the truck pulling out. The gentle motion of the road rocks
him to sleep.
The ring of Connor's cell phone wakes him out of a deep sleep. He fights
consciousness. He wants to go back to the dream he was having. It was about
a place he was sure he had been to, although he couldn't quite remember
when. He was at a cabin on a beach with his parents, before his brother was
born. Connor's leg had fallen through a rotted board on the porch into
spiderwebs so thick, they felt like cotton. Connor had screamed and
screamed from the pain, and the fear of the giant spiders that he was
convinced would eat his leg off. And yet, this was a good dream -- a good
memory -- because his father was there to pull him free, and carry him
inside, where they bandaged his leg and sat him by the fire with some kind
of cider so flavorful, he could still taste it when he thought about it.
His father told him a story that he can no longer remember, but that's all
right. It wasn't the story but the tone of his voice that mattered, a
gentle baritone rumble as calming as waves breaking on a shore. Little-boy-
Connor drank his cider and leaned back against his mother pretending to
fall asleep, but what he was really doing was trying to dissolve into the
moment and make it last forever. In the dream he did dissolve. His whole
being flowed into the cider cup, and his parents placed it gently on the
table, close enough to the fire to keep it warm forever and always.
Stupid dreams. Even the good ones are bad, because they remind you how
poorly reality measures up.
His cell phone rings again, chasing away the last of the dream. Connor
almost answers it. The sleeper room of the truck is so dark, he doesn't
realize at first that he's not in his own bed. The only thing that saves
him is that he can't find his phone and he must turn on a light. When he
finds a wall where his nightstand should be, he realizes that this isn't
his room. The phone rings again. That's when it all comes back to him, and
he remembers where he is. Connor finds his phone in his backpack. The
phone ID says the call is from his father.
So now his parents know he's gone. Do they really think he'll answer his
phone? He waits until voicemail takes the call, then he turns off the
power. His watch says 7:30 a.m. He rubs the sleep out of his eyes, trying
to calculate how far they've come. The truck isn't moving anymore, but
they must have traveled at least two hundred miles while he slept. It's a
There's a knock on the door. "Come on out, kid. Your ride's over."
Connor's not complaining -- it was outrageously generous of this truck
driver to do what he did. Connor won't ask any more of him. He swings open
the door and steps out to thank the man, but it's not Josias Aldridge at
the door. Aldridge is a few yards away being handcuffed, and in front of
Connor is a policeman: a Juvey-cop wearing a smile as big as all outdoors.
Standing ten yards away is Connor's father, still holding the cell phone
he had just called from.
"It's over, son," his father says.
It makes Connor furious. I'm not your son! He wants to shout. I
stopped being your son when you signed the unwind order! But the shock
of the moment leaves him speechless.
It had been so stupid of Connor to leave his cell phone on -- that's how
they tracked him -- and he wonders how many other kids are caught by their
own blind trust of technology. Well, Connor's not going the way Andy
Jameson did. He quickly assesses the situation. The truck has been pulled
over to the side of the interstate by two highway patrol cars and a Juvey-
cop unit. Traffic barrels past at seventy miles per hour, oblivious to the
little drama unfolding on the shoulder. Connor makes a split-second
decision and bolts, pushing the officer against the truck and racing across
the busy highway. Would they shoot an unarmed kid in the back, he wonders,
or would they shoot him in the legs and spare his vital organs? As he
races onto the interstate, cars swerve around him, but he keeps on going.
"Connor, stop!" he hears his father yell. Then he hears a gun fire.
He feels the impact, but not in his skin. The bullet embeds in his
backpack. He doesn't look behind him. Then, as he reaches the highway
median, he hears another gunshot, and a small blue splotch appears on the
center divider. They're firing tranquilizer bullets. They're not taking him
out, they're trying to take him down -- and they're much more likely to
fire tranq bullets at will, than regular bullets.
Connor climbs over the center divider, and finds himself in the path of a
Cadillac that's not stopping for anything. The car swerves to avoid him,
and by sheer luck Connor's momentum takes him just a few inches out of the
Caddy's path. Its side mirror smacks him painfully in the ribs before the
car screeches to a halt, sending the acrid stench of burned rubber up his
nostrils. Holding his aching side, Connor sees someone looking at him from
an open window of the backseat. It's another kid, dressed all in white.
The kid is terrified.
With the police already reaching the center divider, Connor looks into the
eyes of this frightened kid, and knows what he has to do. It's time for
another split-second decision. He reaches through the window, pulls up the
lock, and opens the door.
Copyright © 2007 by Neal Shusterman