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Home > UnStrung (Unwind Dystology #1.5)

UnStrung (Unwind Dystology #1.5)
Author: Neal Shusterman

1 - Lev

“Do it for him,” a woman says, her voice quiet but steeped in authority.

Mired in a numbing gray fog, Lev feels her cool fingers on his neck, taking his pulse. His throat hurts, his tongue feels like chewed leather, his left wrist aches, and he can’t open his eyes.

“Not yet, Ma.”

Like his eyes, Lev’s lips won’t open. Who is it who just spoke? Maybe one of his brothers. Marcus, perhaps? No, the voice is wrong. And no one in his family is so informal as to call their mother “Ma.”

“All right,” he hears the woman say. “You decide when he’s ready. And don’t forget your guitar.”

The sound of footsteps recedes, and Lev slips back into darkness.

-

When he wakes again, his eyes open, but only a sliver. He’s alone in a large bedroom with blinding-white walls. A red, woven blanket covers him. Beneath him he can feel a smooth and expensive cotton sheet, like the ones he once knew. He’s on a bed that’s low to the ground, and beyond its foot he sees the fur of a mountain lion on the slate floor. He shudders at the sight of it. An oak bureau faces him. It has no mirror, and for the moment he’s glad.

Forcing his eyes wider, he sees unshuttered windows on the far wall, the light beyond them weakening to dusk. Or is it strengthening to dawn? There is a nightstand next to him. A stethoscope is coiled there, and for a brief, devastating moment he thinks that he’s been discovered and taken to a harvest camp. Despair presses him against the cotton sheet, and he sinks into the fog that fills his head, confusing dreams with delirium and making a mockery of time. He drifts through the fog until he hears—

“When he wakes, get his name.” It’s a different voice. Deeper. “The council can’t give him sanctuary without a name.”

Cool fingers touch his wrist again. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He senses the woman leaning over him. He can hear her breathing. She smells of sage and smoky cottonwood. It’s comforting. “Now leave us be.”

He feels a prick in his upper arm, like a tranq dart, but not. The world goes hazy—but not like the fog. This is a different kind of sleep.

Suddenly he’s standing in a yard, near a briefcase covered in mud that lies halfway down a hole. Outside the picket fence, police are sidling toward him. No, it’s not him they’re interested in—it’s the skinny umber kid with him. CyFi’s hands overflow with gold chains and glittering stones of every color. He’s pleading with the sienna-colored man and woman, who clutch each other, staring at the kid in terror.

“Please don’t unwind me.” CyFi’s words are hoarse and choked with sobs. “Please don’t unwind me. . . .”

A cool hand touches Lev’s cheek, and the memory is sucked in like a mental gasp. He left CyFi days ago. He’s somewhere else now.

“You’re safe, child,” the woman’s reassuring voice says. “Open your eyes.”

When he does, he sees her pleasant face smiling at him. Square jaw, black hair tied back, and bronze skin, she’s a—“SlotMonger!” he blurts, and feels his skin flush red. “I’m sorry . . . I didn’t mean . . . It just came out . . .”

She chuckles. “Old words die hard,” she tells him, with infinite understanding. “We were called Indians long after it was obvious we weren’t from India. And ‘Native American’ was always a bit too condescending for my taste.”

“ChanceFolk,” Lev says, hoping his SlotMonger slur will quickly be forgotten.

“Yes,” the woman says. “People of Chance. Of course the casinos are long gone, but I suppose the name had enough resonance to stick.”

He sees the stethoscope around her neck—the one he at first incorrectly thought belonged to a harvest-camp surgeon.

“You’re a doctor?”

“A Woman of Medicine, yes—and as such I can tell you that your cuts and bruises are healing, and the swelling of your wrist is much reduced. Leave the brace on till I give you leave to shed it. You need to gain a few pounds, but once you taste my husband’s cooking, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Lev watches warily as she sits on the edge of his bed and studies him.

“But your spirit, child, is a vastly different matter.”

He withdraws, and her lips purse ruefully.

“Medicine women know that healing takes time, some more time than others. Tell me one thing, and I’ll leave you to rest.”

He stiffens, reflexively on his guard. “What?”

“What is your name?”

“Lev Calder,” he says, and regrets it immediately. It’s been almost three weeks since he was dragged by Connor from his limo, but the Powers That Be are still looking for him. It was one thing to be traveling with CyFi, but to give a doctor his name—what if she turns him over to the Juvenile Authority? He thinks of his parents, and the destiny he left behind. How could he have wanted to be unwound? How could his parents have made him want it? It fills him with an unrelenting fury at everyone and everything. He’s not a tithe anymore. He’s an AWOL now. He’d better start thinking like one.

“Well, Lev, we’re petitioning the Tribal Council to allow you to stay. You don’t have to tell me all you’ve been through—I’m sure it was horrible.” And then her eyes brighten. “But we People of Chance do believe in people of second chance.”

2 - Wil

He stands in the doorway watching the boy sleep. His guitar hangs down his back, warm from the sun, strings still humming.

He doesn’t mind being here, though he was sorry to have to leave the forest. His time accompanying the sounds of shivering leaves, whirling dust devils, and powerful Chinook winds was special to him. There was calming joy in transposing nature to music. Adapting the chords of yellow-shouldered blackbirds, prairie dogs, and wild pigs. Bringing their voices into each movement he played.

Wil brought Dad’s leftover blackberry crumble to the forest with him. Una brought some elk jerky and a thermos of cinnamon-spiced chocolate. She sat with him beneath a spreading oak while he played, although she left before he finished, as it was her turn to clean the workshop.

His guitar always sounds a little melancholy when Una leaves.

The AWOL boy that his mother has taken into their home has been awake for a day now, but he hasn’t come down for anything, even meals. Dad offered to carry him, but Ma said he needed more time.

“Can’t fret over AWOLs,” his father told her. “They never stay long, and they’re too desperate to be grateful.” But Ma just ignores him. She’s taken the boy under her protection, and that is that.

Wil wonders how the boy can sleep when the sun blasts from the windows over his head and the roar of tribal construction in town echoes down the ravine. The boy’s chest rises and falls, and then his legs churn beneath the sheets as if he’s running. Wil is not surprised: AWOLs know much about running. Sometimes he thinks that’s all they know.

Wil is confident the boy will be calmed. Wild animals, rattlesnakes, and feral teenagers go quiet in Wil’s presence. Even when his guitar hangs silent on his back, his presence calms them—perhaps in anticipation of what he’ll deliver. Although Wil’s just a teenager himself, he’s got old-soul style, a storyteller vibe that he got from his grandfather—

But he doesn’t want to think about his grandfather now.

While he considers what music may reach this AWOL, the boy wakes. His wide pupils constrict, revealing pale blue eyes that focus on Wil standing in the doorway.

Wil takes a few steps into the room and sits cross-legged on the mountain-lion skin, swinging his guitar into his lap in a single, practiced movement.

“My name’s Chowilawu,” he tells the boy. “But everyone calls me Wil.”

The boy stares at him guardedly. “I heard you talking yesterday. The medicine woman is your mom?”

He nods. The kid looks about thirteen—three years younger than Wil—but something about his eyes makes him seem like he’s going on one hundred. More old-soul style, but of the world-weary kind. Life has done a number on this AWOL.

“Okay if I play my guitar here?” Wil asks, his voice as gentle as he can make it.

The boy squints suspiciously. “Why?”

Wil shrugs. “It’s easier for me than talking.”

The boy hesitates, chewing on his lip. “Sure, okay.”

It starts that way with them. Being an AWOL breaks kids’ spirits—makes them distrustful of the world. But since they can’t see the trickery in listening to a guitar, or how Wil’s music breaks through barriers that betrayal built, they surrender, listening to his fingers caress the strings, his music finally gives voice to their souls’ sorrow.

His ma took a music-therapy seminar at Johns Hopkins, but she only knows its theories. Wil has seen how music heals since the day he picked up a guitar on his third birthday. Not all the AWOLs and not all ChanceFolk with sick spirits heal, though. Some are too far gone. Too early to tell into which camp this boy will fall.

Wil plays for two straight hours, until he smells lunch and feels the cramp in his back. The AWOL sits on the bed, having been awake and listening the whole time. His arms are wrapped around his legs; his chin rests on his knees; his eyes stare at the blanket. The chords of Wil’s music fade to silence.

“Time to eat.” Wil gets to his feet, his guitar swinging over his shoulder to hang down his back. “Probably soup and cornbread. You coming down?”

The boy reminds him of a rabbit, frozen, trapped between staying or fleeing. Wil waits, letting the quiet hum in widening ripples till the boy unwraps his arms from his legs and gets off the bed, standing straighter than Wil expected he would.

“My name’s Lev. I was a tithe.”

Wil accepts this with a nod and no judgment. Maybe this kid will be okay after all.

3 - Lev

Lev watches Wil wash the dishes after lunch, still thinking about what possessed him to tell Wil that he’s a runaway tithe. Giving out too much information can only make things worse for him. Then a dish towel hits him in the face and drops to the counter.

“Hey.” Lev glares at Wil, wondering if it was thrown in anger. Wil may be big as a bear, but he has a teddy-bear grin.

“You can dry the dishes. Meet me at the end of the hall when you finish.”

Lev never did dishes at home: That was the servants’ job. He’s been sick, too. Who makes sick people dry dishes? Still, he does the job. He owes Wil for the one-man concert. He’d never heard guitar playing like that before—and Lev’s folks were big on the arts, making sure their kids had violin lessons, listening to the Cincinnati Pops most Thursday nights.

But Wil’s music was different. It was . . . real. For two hours, and strictly from memory, Wil played a little Bach, Schubert, and Elton, but he mostly played Spanish guitar.

Lev thought such wild, complex music would be too hard to listen to in his weakened state, but it was just the opposite. The music lulled him until it seemed to sing through his synapses: notes rising, sweetening, spinning in perfect synchronicity with his thoughts.

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