I just read the book, and it's been sticking with me. It's been a hot minute since I last wrote any fanfic, but I hope you enjoy nonetheless!
Eight Ball, Pocket
The Graveyard still serves its purpose.
A few hundred kids became a thousand, and the numbers are still skyrocketing. Hayden, it turns out, is a competent leader. Though he is one more generally suited to tugging marionette strings instead of taking center stage, a little responsibility is doing him good. He tells anyone who asks that he's sure he'll make an excellent (and exceptionally good-looking) president one day. In quiet moments to himself, he exhales a shaky breath and knows that he will never seek to be in charge of another human being as long as he lives. Though girls are a bit outnumbered in the Graveyard, they notice him now. He briefly entertains the idea of a normal life – normal job, normal house, normal cereal, normal car, normal wife, normal kids. Normal, normal, normal. Boring, even. It's a luxury he doesn't believe in.
"You would make an okay dad," Connor says suddenly, fixing him with a steady gaze as he re-racks the pristine set of pool balls.
"I didn't know you wanted to take our relationship there so soon. I'm touched," answers Hayden, pressing a hand to his chest in mock delight. Before Connor has an answer or a death threat ready, Hayden changes the subject. "What's the name on this table again?"
Connor bends to check the piece of masking tape that runs along the side of the dark wood. The dedication is in simple handwriting from a simple permanent marker. "For Sam – Happy 18th," he reads aloud.
The pool table is temporarily outdoors in the shade of an A380 airbus once owned by AirFrance. The inside of the plane is a phantom of its former grandeur, but the beds have been relocated, the champagne confiscated, and a rec center of sorts has sprung up in the recently gutted craft. The marble tables in the plane have been pushed together to create something approximating a ping pong table, and it is fast becoming one of the more popular activities for the residents. Even now, Connor ignores the sounds of ex-delinquents teaching younger recruits an ancient game involving a ping pong ball, a pool-style rack of plastic cups, and two teams. It's played without alcohol, and Hayden finds it too entertaining to outlaw.
"Did we ever find the Sam…antha? Or…amuel?" Hayden has already taken his first shot, and the balls scatter like a recently disturbed anthill. A distracted Connor is righteously indignant at being taken advantage of, and he retaliates by sinking the orange three and green fourteen in quick succession.
"We have one Samantha, but she's only fourteen." The unspoken assumption hangs in the air between them, and they observe a moment of silence for the unknown Sam. "Rest in peace, though in pieces," adds Conner quietly, as Hayden sends the red eleven ball careening into three other balls, none of which find pockets.
The small amount of publicity for what happened at Happy Jack – and who it happened to – was largely kept out of mainstream media outlets. Some locals were given a version of what caused the black smoke to mar their desert sky, but authorities seized on Lev as the poster child for reform, and the Graveyard and its inhabitants were allowed to slip back into feigned nonexistence. Ignoring the Unwinds seemed like the best idea until the political climate and debate cooled down. Lev, the nonthreatening tithe, took center stage during the discourse, but the damage to the Unwinding system seemed irreparable.
Guilt and shame began to replace complacency, and that's when the gifts started to arrive. Parents who had unwound children, friends of unwinds, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, lovers, neighbors, teachers – people were secretly coming out of the woodwork to express their hatred for the Harvest Camps. People weren't blowing them up – yet – but anyone who could figure out how to get something shipped to the Graveyard was doing it. When a plane arrived, it would carry crates of young people, just as in the past. With them, however, came pool tables – and mattresses, medical supplies, Rainer cherries, cash donations, whatever. The gifts came with notes, letters, plaques, tombstones, all sorts of ways for the anonymous donors to explain their motives.
Some donations were small – board games and decks of playing cards, things that a sympathetic family could spare. Some Unwinds who had being lucky enough to turn eighteen sent small amounts of cash, spare clothes, and forged identification documents no longer needed. Other donations were much bigger. No one will soon forget the night that every Graveyard resident got to eat themselves silly on slightly melted mint chocolate chip ice cream, the favorite of an unwound grandson that a grandmother in Maryland missed terribly.
Donors who had received the gift of life or limb from an Unwind were among some of the most generous. The Admiral's fund for Unwinds who turn eighteen and are released (now in E. Robert Mullard's name) found itself $100,000 richer just a few weeks ago. A woman in Salt Lake City had danced at her daughter's wedding on mismatched legs, and wanted to express her gratitude to someone she'd never meet – and never could.
Connor sinks the blue two and stands up again, stretching his arms over his head. Hayden is about to send the eight ball chasing wildly after the orange thirteen, but pauses when he realizes that Connor is neither trying nor paying any semblance of attention. Hayden shades his eyes, scans the gaps between landing gear and warm bodies – and zeroes in on a wheelchair. Suddenly, it all makes sense.
"Say, Elvis, why were you bringing up my parenting skills?" He leans forward casually, pool stick abandoned beside him, and knocks the yellow one ball into the nearest pocket with a careless brush of his fingers.
"I just thought you'd, I don't know. You'd be, you know, better," finishes Connor lamely, eyes fixed on a point some hundred yards off in the distance. The aforementioned point is rolling away from a G4 that houses a wide variety of generic antibiotics.
"Better, uh huh." Hayden's wandering fingers send nine and seven neatly into the same pocket. "Better at what, exactly?" He can't help but smirk as his friend begins to unconsciously straighten his shirt, run fingers through sun-bleached hair.
"Better than you think."
Hayden sighs. "Oh, go get her, Elvis. I'll find some minions to help me get this thing aboard without a scratch."
Connor is all but running before Hayden can even sink the eight ball.
"What's it like, being nineteen?" He can just barely see, but the in the fading moments of twilight, he knows she's smiling. He feels it against his cheeks, his lips, and once, accidentally, against his teeth.
"Like a dream." His free hand reaches up to thread through her hair, brush across her cheek, and then eventually find her own hand again. They lay on a sagging mattress on the floor of the plane that once flew for Air Force One.
Connor quickly abandoned it, choosing quarters with Hayden and a few other older kids who now held positions of importance. The Admiral's old plane is more of an office now, and it hasn't had a soul inside it since the last person turned eighteen. A girl named Holly had celebrated her birthday with Connor last week as he handed her an envelope of cash, explained what to do next, and waved her off as she was golf carted off to a nearby road, where she would begin her journey back to the land of the living.
"I can't wait to see if you're lying," she says with a laugh, smoothing his hair back from his forehead. Twenty seven terrified kids joined their ranks today, and she can feel exhaustion written in every line of his body. Every kid shook his hand, every kid has a bed, and all but four of them have jobs to begin when they wake up in the morning. Rise realized before Connor that the Admiral had a stronger – and far bigger – heart than he was ever given credit for.
"I couldn't – I can't. Not to you."
As the room darkens around them, the temperature finally dropping in the desert outside, Connor's hand frees itself from hers and loops a finger through her belt loop. He tugs.
"Can you feel that?"
She sighs. They play this game often, even nightly, at his insistence, and tonight of all nights, she is sure their time can be spent better. She is beyond certain that his hands have more important things to be doing.
"Humor me, Risa."
She sighs again, propping herself up on an elbow. "Am I aware that you're touching me? Yes. Mentally, physically, you name it. I can feel you next to me," she pauses, leaning down to press her lips to his briefly. "Warm, and alive. I can feel all of that."
"But…?" He prompts, leaning forward to close the distance between their faces.
She pulls back, turning her face away from him slightly. "But…that's what matters."
He pulls his hand back, something like shame beginning to creep into his gut. "You don't want me to touch you." It is an edict, not a question. His voice is flat, strained. She can feel him pulling back, inching away from her on the aging mattress.
Color flushes her cheeks, and she's thankful for the darkness, for the cool air settling on her already overheated skin. "That's not true."
In a moment, he's gone. Not far – just to the foot of the bed – but the distance is a ravine, jagged and carved centuries ago by glaciers and rivers and doubt. The room is still warm, and so is the night, but the sudden lack of his body makes her suppress a shiver. She tries to meet his eyes in the dim room, but he's looking away.
"Is it…this?" He holds out his arm, the arm that isn't his, and gestures vaguely in her direction. He won't look at her, can't do it, instead wiggling the fingers that are just a shade too tan, the perpetually bruised knuckles. He thought he had made his peace, and he thought that she had too. He was wrong, it is disgusting, and every ounce of revulsion and hatred that he has ever felt – for his parents, for Juvey cops, for Roland, oh, for Roland, to whom he owes a debt he'll never repay – every ounce comes surging back. Consuming him, burning him from the inside out, rising like bile throughout his whole being.
"No! No." She pulls herself into a sitting position, lamely patting the space beside her. The gesture seems too small, lost in the once-pink fabric of the mattress, an insignificant gesture by an insignificant girl under a wide canopy of stars in an endless, unrelenting desert.
"Come back. Please."
He obliges her, he knows he will, crawling back onto his side of the makeshift bed. He would like very much to forget this, to take her in his arms, but the arm itself is a deadened thing, vile and unspeakable. He puts his hands in his lap, protecting her from the predator that he'll never erase.
"It's not that," she begins softly, reaching for the tattooed arm. She holds his hand between her own, waiting for his muscles to relax. He holds the arm tensely at first, ready to rip it away, but minutes pass, and he gives in. "I love this arm. And I am in love with the man on the other end of it." She presses a kiss to his palm, ignoring his silence and marching on.
"I want you…to touch me. Everywhere. I want you to do more than that. But I can't – we can't – and it's killing me."
The heat that was flaying him alive is now molten, starting in his toes and spreading out to the crown of his head. "Risa, I –"
"Don't say anything," she interrupts, a finger to his lips. "I want…this, everything, with you. But…I can't. You ask me if I can feel anything, and I can. I feel when you touch my knee to see if I'm paying attention. I feel it when you swear there's something in my pocket you need. I feel it when we fall asleep and you hold me so tightly, like I'll disappear in the night if you don't."
He is blushing, his mouth hanging open slightly against her fingers. She finally releases his hand, and it takes him a long moment to notice. She moves her hand from his lips to his cheek, tracing the jaw of a face she knows better than her own.
"I feel everything. But…I don't have control."
Connor's hand begins to drift, almost of its own volition, to her legs. He rests his hand on her knee a moment, and then begins to drag his fingers slowly up her thigh. Risa watches his face, not his hand, as a grim sort of acceptance colors his features.
"So you feel…all of it." His words are slow and his voice is barely above a whisper as he traces intricate, almost lazy patterns against her jeans.
"Yes. And I can't do anything about it."
He meets her eyes then, and for the first time since Happy Jack, the idea of a donated spinal cord enters his mind. She sees it flash across his face, though he says nothing. Risa remains silent, biting her lip. She wishes she was a hundred percent sure about the issue, but every night when she falls asleep, curled up against his frame, she thinks. And wonders. And dreams. How easy it would be to someday enjoy a spine stolen from someone just like her…
"Oh," he whispers, and presses his lips to her temple. To the bridge of her nose. To her cheek, and finally her mouth.
"I've….been doing some reading, and some self diagnostics. I'm, ah, good, until the L1 vertebra. Motor function no, sensory function, yes."
"You would," he says, almost laughing as his lips find the skin behind her ear. She shivers.
"And you're okay with…this? With me? With waiting? Maybe...forever?" It is a question she has been dying to ask for months. When she is asking someone to bend down so she can adjust a bandage, when she brushes her teeth, when she takes requests from Chopin to Debussy, when she is struggling to change a light bulb – every moment, she wonders. Has she fallen further, faster? Will he ever catch up? Is she asking, expecting too much? Did the threat of imminent death spur mutual attraction and self-preservation into something that passes for love?
Connor is silent a moment, and then lays down on the mattress. He fluffs up her pillow, and punches his a few times. He only has to wait a moment before she slides down to join him, nestling into his arms even though the question hangs unanswered in the air. It's a lot to think about, she decides.
Risa listens to him breathing, hears it begin to slow into a rhythmic pattern approaching sleep. In his arms, sleep comes easily, free of restless dreams and nightmares. She welcomes unconsciousness, pressing her lips to his pulse just before drifting off.
"I love you too, Risa," he breathes, finally settling in to sleep himself.