Sample text for Unwind / Neal Shusterman.

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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

without leave.'"

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.

"Hi, Dad."

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-

grade picture.

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

the door.

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

was alone.

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've got."

"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

himself into.

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

in tone.

"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

from outside.

"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

good start.

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

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Fugitives from justice -- Fiction.
Survival -- Fiction.
Revolutionaries -- Fiction.
Science fiction.