About the Author
Neal Shusterman is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty award-winning books for children, teens, and adults, including The Unwind Dystology, The Skinjacker trilogy, Downsiders, and Challenger Deep, which won the National Book Award. Scythe, the first book in his newest series Arc of a Scythe, is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows. The father of four children, Neal lives in California. Visit him at Storyman.com and Facebook.com/NealShusterman.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
UnWholly 1 · Starkey
He’s fighting a nightmare when they come for him.
A great flood is swallowing the world, and in the middle of it all, he’s being mauled by a bear. He’s more annoyed than terrified. As if the flood isn’t enough, his deep, dark mind has to send an angry grizzly to tear into him.
Then he’s dragged feetfirst out of the jaws of death and drowning Armageddon.
“Up! Now! Let’s go!”
He opens his eyes to a brightly lit bedroom that ought to be dark. Two Juvey-cops manhandle him, grabbing his arms, preventing him from fighting back long before he’s awake enough to try.
“No! Stop! What is this?”
Handcuffs. First his right wrist, then his left.
“On your feet!”
They yank him to his feet as if he’s resisting—which he would, if he were more awake.
“Leave me alone! What’s going on?”
But in an instant he’s awake enough to know exactly what’s going on. It’s a kidnapping. But you can’t call it kidnapping when transfer papers have been signed in triplicate.
“Verbally confirm that you are Mason Michael Starkey.”
There are two officers. One is short and muscular, the other tall and muscular. Probably military boeufs before they took jobs as Juvey-rounders. It takes a special heartless breed to be a Juvey-cop, but to specialize as a rounder you probably need to be soulless as well. The fact that he’s being rounded for unwinding shocks and terrifies Starkey, but he refuses to show it, because he knows Juvey-rounders get off on other people’s fear.
The short one, who is clearly the mouthpiece of this duo, gets in his face and repeats, “Verbally confirm that you are Mason Michael Starkey!”
“And why should I do that?”
“Kid,” says the other rounder, “this can go down easy or hard, but either way it’s going down.” The second cop is more soft spoken with a pair of lips that clearly aren’t his. In fact, they look like they came from a girl. “The drill’s not so hard, so just get with the program.”
He talks as if Starkey should have known they were coming, but what Unwind ever really knows? Every Unwind believes in their heart of hearts that it won’t happen to them—that their parents, no matter how strained things get, will be smart enough not to fall for the net ads, TV commercials, and billboards that say things like “Unwinding: the sensible solution.” But who is he kidding? Even without the constant media blitz, Starkey’s been a potential candidate for unwinding since the moment he arrived on the doorstep. Perhaps he should be surprised that his parents waited so long.
Now the mouthpiece gets deep in his personal space. “For the last time, verbally confirm that you are—”
“Yeah, yeah, Mason Michael Starkey. Now get out of my face, your breath stinks.”
With his identity verbally confirmed, Lady-Lips pulls out a form in triplicate: white, yellow, and pink.
“So is this how you do it?” Starkey asks, his voice beginning to quaver. “You arrest me? What’s my crime? Being sixteen? Or maybe it’s just being here at all.”
“Quiet-or-we-tranq-you,” says Mouthpiece, like it’s all one word.
A part of Starkey wants to be tranq’d—just go to sleep and if he’s lucky, never wake up. That way he won’t have to face the utter humiliation of being torn from his life in the middle of the night. But no, he wants to see his parents’ faces. Or, more to the point, he wants them to see his face, and if he’s tranq’d, they get off easy. They won’t have to look him in the eye.
Lady-Lips holds the unwind order in front of him and begins to read the infamous Paragraph Nine, the “Negation Clause.”
“Mason Michael Starkey, by the signing of this order, your parents and/or legal guardians have retroactively terminated your tenure, backdated to six days postconception, leaving you in violation of Existential Code 390. In light of this, you are hereby remanded to the California Juvenile Authority for summary division, also known as unwinding.”
“Blah, blah, blah.”
“Any rights previously granted to you by the county, state, or federal government as a citizen thereof are now officially and permanently revoked.” He folds the unwind order and shoves it into his pocket.
“Congratulations, Mr. Starkey,” says Mouthpiece. “You no longer exist.”
“Then why are you talking to me?”
“We won’t be for much longer.” They tug him toward the door.
“Can I at least put on shoes?”
They let him go but stay on their guard.
Starkey takes his sweet time tying his shoes. Then they pull him out of his room and down the stairs. The Juvey-cops have heavy boots that intimidate the wood of the steps. The three of them sound like a herd of cattle as they go down.
His parents wait in the foyer. It’s three in the morning, but they’re still fully dressed. They’ve been awake all night anticipating this. Starkey sees anguish on their faces, or maybe it’s relief, it’s hard to tell. He hardens his own emotions, hiding them behind a mock smile.
“Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!” he says brightly. “Guess what just happened to me? I’ll give you twenty guesses to figure it out!”
His father takes a deep breath, preparing to launch into the Great Unwinding Speech that every parent prepares for a wayward child. Even if they never use it, they still prepare it, running the words through their minds while on lunch break, or while sitting in traffic, or while listening to some moronic boss blather on about price points and distribution, and whatever other crap that people in office buildings have meetings about.
What were the statistics? Starkey saw it on the news once. Every year the thought of unwinding passes through the mind of one in ten parents. Of those, one in ten seriously considers it, and of those, one in twenty actually goes through with it—and the statistic doubles with every additional kid a family has. Crunch those juicy numbers, and one out of every two thousand kids between the ages of thirteen and seventeen will be unwound each year. Better odds than the lottery—and that doesn’t even include the kids in state homes.
His father, keeping his distance, begins the speech. “Mason, can’t you see that you left us no choice?”
The Juvey-cops hold him firm at the bottom of the stairs, but they make no move to get him outside. They know they must allow the parental rite of passage; the verbal boot out the door.
“The fights, the drugs, the stolen car—and now being expelled from yet another school. What’s next, Mason?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Dad. There are so many bad choices I can make.”
“Not anymore. We care enough about you to end your bad choices before they end you.”
That just makes him laugh out loud.
And then there’s a voice from the top of the stairs.
“No! You can’t do this!”
His sister, Jenna—his parents’ biological daughter—stands at the top of the stairs in teddy bear pajamas that seem too old for her thirteen years.
“Go back to bed, Jenna,” their mother says.
“You’re unwinding him just because he was storked, and that’s unfair! And right before Christmas, too! What if I had come storked? Would you unwind me also?”
“We are not having this discussion!” yells their father, as their mother begins to cry. “Go back to bed!”
But she doesn’t. She folds her arms and sits at the top of the stairs in defiance, witnessing the whole thing. Good for her.
His mother’s tears are genuine, but he’s unsure whether she’s crying for him or for the rest of the family. “All these things you do, everyone told us they were a cry for help,” she says. “So why didn’t you let us help you?”
He wants to scream. How could he possibly explain it to them if they can’t see? They don’t know what it’s like to go through sixteen years of life knowing you weren’t wanted; a mystery baby of uncertain race storked on the doorstep of a couple so sienna-pale, they could have been vampires. Or to still remember that day when you were three years old and your mom, all doped up on pain medication from your sister’s cesarean delivery, took you to a fire station and begged them to take you away and make you a ward of the state. Or how about knowing every Christmas morning that your gift is not a joy, but an obligation? And that your birthday isn’t even real because they can’t pinpoint when you were born, just the day you were left on a welcome mat that some new mother took too literally?
And what about the taunts from the other kids at school?
In fourth grade Mason’s parents were called into the principal’s office. He had flipped a boy off the top platform of the jungle gym. The kid had suffered a concussion and a broken arm.
“Why, Mason?” his parents had asked, right there in front of the principal. “Why did you do it?”
He told them that the other kids were calling him “Storky” instead of Starkey, and that this was the boy who had started it. He naively thought they’d rise to his defense, but they just dismissed it as if it didn’t matter.
“You could have killed that boy,” his father had reprimanded. “And why? Because of words? Words don’t hurt you.” Which is one of the hugest criminal lies perpetrated by adults against children in this world. Because words hurt more than any physical pain. He would have gladly taken a concussion and a broken arm if he never had to be singled out as a storked child ever again.
In the end, he got sent to a different school and was ordered to have mandatory counseling.
“You think about what you did,” his old principal had told him.
And he did what he was told, like a good little boy. He gave it plenty of thought and decided he should have found a higher platform.
So how do you even begin to explain that? How do you explain a lifetime of injustice in the time it takes the Juvey-cops to herd you out the door? The answer is easy: You don’t even try.
“I’m sorry, Mason,” his father says, tears in his eyes as well. “But it’s better for everyone this way. Including you.”
Starkey knows he’ll never make his parents understand, but if nothing else, he’ll have the last word.
“Hey, Mom, by the way . . . Dad’s late nights at the office aren’t really at the office. They’re with your friend Nancy.”
But before he can begin to relish his parents’ shocked expressions, it occurs to him that this secret knowledge could have been a bargaining chip. If he had told his father he knew, it could have been ironclad protection from unwinding! How could he be so stupid not to have thought of that when it mattered?
So in the end he can’t even enjoy his bitter little victory as the Juvey-cops push him out into a cool December night.
Do you have a troubled teen? Can’t seem to fit in? Listless and angry? Often prone to fits of impulsive and sometimes dangerous behavior? Does your teen seem unable to stand living in his or her own skin? It could be more than simple teenage rebellion. Your child may be suffering from Biosystemic Disunification Disorder, or BDD.
Well, now there’s hope!
Haven Harvest Services has five-star youth camps throughout the nation that will take the angriest, most violent, and dysfunctional sufferers of BDD and carefully ease them into a soothing divided state.
Call now for a free consultation—counselors are standing by!
Haven Harvest Services. When you love them enough to let them go.
The Juvey squad car leaves the driveway with Starkey locked in the backseat behind a bulletproof barrier. Mouthpiece drives while Lady-Lips flips through a fat file folder. Starkey can’t imagine his life could have that much data.
“It says here you scored in the top ten percentile in your early childhood exams.”
The mouthpiece shakes his head in disgust. “What a waste.”
“Not really,” says Lady-Lips. “Plenty of folks will get the benefit of your smarts, Mr. Starkey.”
The suggestion gives him an unpleasant chill, but he tries not to show it. “Love the lip graft, dude,” Starkey says. “What’s the deal? Did your wife tell you she’d rather be kissed by a woman?”
Mouthpiece smirks, and Lady-Lips says nothing.
“But enough lip service,” says Starkey. “You boys hungry? Because I could go for a midnight snack right about now. Some In-N-Out? Whaddaya say?”
No answer from the front seat. Not that he expects one, but it’s always fun to mess with law enforcement and see how much it takes to irritate them. Because if they get ticked off, he wins. What’s that story about the Akron AWOL? What did he always say? Oh yeah. “Nice socks.” Simple, elegant, but it always undermined the confidence of any figure of false authority.
The Akron AWOL—now there was an Unwind! Sure, he died in the attack on Happy Jack Harvest Camp almost a year ago, but his legend lives on. Starkey longs for the kind of notoriety that Connor Lassiter has. In fact, Starkey imagines Connor Lassiter’s ghost sitting by his side, appreciating his thoughts and his every action—not just approving, but guiding Starkey’s hands as he wriggles his handcuffs down to his left shoe—just low enough to fish out the knife from the lining. The knife he’s saved for special occasions like this.
“Come to think about it, In-N-Out Burger does sound good right about now,” says Lady-Lips.
“Excellent,” says Starkey. “There’s one up ahead on the left. Order me a Double-Double, Animal Style, and Animal fries, too, because, hey—I’m an animal.”
He is amazed that they actually pull into the all-night drive-through. Starkey feels like the master of subliminal suggestion, even though his suggestion was not all that subliminal. Still, he is in control of the Juvey-cops . . . or at least he thinks he is until they order meals for themselves and nothing for him.
“Hey! What’s the deal?” He pounds his shoulder against the glass that separates their world from his.
“They’ll feed you at harvest camp,” says Lady-Lips.
Only now does it hit home that the bulletproof glass doesn’t just separate him from the cops—it’s a barrier between him and any part of the outside world. He will never taste his favorite foods again. Never visit his favorite places. At least not as Mason Starkey. Suddenly he feels like hurling up everything he’s eaten, backdated to six days postconception.
The night shift cashier at the drive-through window is a girl Starkey knows from his last school. As he sees her, a whole mess of emotions toy with his brain. He could just lurk in the shadows of the backseat, hoping not to be seen, but that would make him feel pathetic. No, he will not be pathetic. If he’s going down, then it will be in flames that everyone must see.
“Hey, Amanda, will you go to the prom with me?” He shouts loud enough to be heard through the thick glass barrier.
Amanda squints in his direction, and when she realizes who it is, she turns up her nose as if she’s smelled something rancid on the grill.
“Not in this life, Starkey.”
“A, you’re a sophomore, and B, you’re a loser in the back of a police car. And anyway, don’t they have their own prom at the alternative school?”
Could she possibly be any denser? “Uh, as you can see, I’ve graduated.”
“Pipe down,” says Mouthpiece, “or I’ll unwind you right into the burgers.”
Finally Amanda gets it, and suddenly she becomes a little sheepish. “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, Starkey. I’m really sorry. . . .”
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