Connor has no idea why she's stating the obvious. "So, what's your point?"
"What if they don't want to take us to be unwound. What if they want us dead?"
Connor opens his mouth to tell her how stupid that is, but stops himself. Because it's not stupid at all.
"Lev," says Risa, "your family's pretty rich, right?"
Lev shrugs modestly. "I guess."
"What if they paid off the police to get you back by killing the kidnappers . . . and to do it quietly, so no one ever knew it happened?"
Connor looks to Lev, hoping the kid will laugh at the very suggestion, telling them that his parents would never, ever do such a terrible thing. Lev, however, is curiously silent about it as he considers the possibility.
And at that moment two things happen. A police car turns onto the street, and somewhere very close by, a baby begins to cry.
* * *
This is the first thought in Connor's mind, his first instinct, but Risa grabs his arm tightly the moment she sees the police car, and it makes him hesitate. Connor knows hesitation can mean the difference between life and death in dire situations. But not today. Today it gives him enough time to do something Connor rarely does in an emergency. He goes beyond his first thought, and processes his second thought: Running will attract attention.
He forces his feet to stay in one place, and takes a quick moment to assess their surroundings. Cars are starting in driveways as people head off to work. Somewhere a baby is crying. High-school-aged kids are gathered on a corner across the street, talking, pushing each other, laughing. As he looks to Risa, he can tell they're both of one mind, even before she says, "Bus stop!"
The patrol car rolls leisurely down the street. Leisurely, that is, to someone who has nothing to hide, but to Connor its slow pace is menacing. There's no way of telling if these officers are looking for them or just on a routine patrol. Again, he fights down the urge to run.
He and Risa turn their backs to the police car, ready to stride off inconspicuously toward the bus stop, but Lev is not with the program. He faces the wrong way, staring straight at the approaching cop car.
"What, are you nuts?" Connor grabs his shoulder and forces him around. "Just do what we do, and act natural."
A school bus approaches from the other direction. The kids at the corner begin gathering their things. Now, at last, there's permission to run without looking out of place. Connor begins it, taking a few strides ahead of Risa and Lev, then turns back, calling with a calculated whine, "C'mon, you guys— we're gonna miss the bus again!"
The cop car's right beside them now. Connor keeps his back to it and doesn't turn to see if the officers inside are watching them. If they are, hopefully they'll just hear the conversation and assume this is normal morning mayhem, and not think twice. Lev's version of "acting natural" is walking with wide eyes and arms stiff by his side like he's crossing a minefield. So much for being inconspicuous. "Do you have to walk so slow?" Connor yells. "If I get another tardy, I'll get detention."
The squad car rolls past them. Up ahead, the bus nears the stop. Connor, Risa, and Lev hurry across the street toward it— all part of the charade, just in case the cops are watching them through their rearview mirror. Of course, thinks Connor, it could backfire on them, and the cops could cite them for jaywalking.
"Are we really going to get on the bus?" asks Lev.
"Of course not," says Risa.
Now Connor dares to glance at the cop car. Its blinker is on. It's going to turn the corner, and once it does, they'll be safe. . . . But then the school bus stops and turns on its blinking red lights as it opens its door—and anyone who's ever ridden a school bus knows that when those red lights start blinking, all traffic around them must stop and wait until the bus moves on.
The cop car comes to a halt a dozen yards short of the corner, waiting until the bus is finished loading. That means that the cop car will still be sitting right there when the bus pulls away. "We're screwed," Connor says. "Now we have to get on the bus."
It's as they reach the sidewalk that a sound which has been too faint and too low-priority to care about suddenly snares Connor's attention. The crying baby.
At the house in front of them, there's a bundle on the porch. The bundle is moving.
Connor instantly knows what this is. He's seen it before. He's seen a storked baby twice on his own doorstep. Even though it's not the same baby, he stops in his tracks as if it is.
"C'mon, Billy, you'll miss the bus!"
It's Risa. She and Lev are a few yards ahead of him. She speaks to Connor through gritted teeth. "C'mon, 'Billy.' Don't be an idiot."
Kids have already started piling onto the bus. The police car sits motionless behind the blinking red lights.
Connor tries to make himself move, but can't. It's because of the baby. Because of the way it wails. This is not the same baby! Connor tells himself. Don't he stupid. Not now!
"Connor," whispers Risa, "what's wrong with you?"
Then the door of the house opens. There's a fat little kid at the door—six, maybe seven. He stares down at the baby. "Aw, no way!" Then he turns and calls back into the house, "Mom! We've been storked again!"
Most people have two emergency modes. Fight and Flight. But Connor always knew he had three: Fight, Flight, and Screw Up Royally. It was a dangerous mental short circuit. The same short circuit that made him race back toward armed Juvey-cops to rescue Lev instead of just saving himself. He could feel it kicking in again right now. He could feel his brain starting to fry. "We've been storked again," the fat kid had said. Why did he have to say "again"? Connor might have been all right if he hadn't said "again."
Don't do it! Connor tells himself. This is not the same baby!
But to some deep, unreasoning part of his brain, they're all the same baby.
Going against all sense of self-preservation, Connor bolts straight for the porch. He approaches the door so quickly, the kid looks up at him with terrified eyes and backs into his mother, an equally plump woman who has just arrived at the door. Her face wears an unwelcoming scowl. She stares at Connor, then spares a quick glance down at the crying baby, but she makes no move toward it.
"Who are you?" she demands. The little boy now hides behind her like a cub behind a mother grizzly. "Did you put this here? Answer me!" The baby continues to cry.
"No . . . No, I—"
"Don't lie to me!"
He doesn't know what he hoped to accomplish coming here. This is none of his business, not his problem. But now he's made it his problem.
And behind him the bus is still loading kids. The police car is still there, waiting. Connor could have very well just ended his life by coming to this house.
Then there's a voice behind him. "He didn't put it there. 1 did."
Connor turns to see Risa. Her face is stony. She won't even look at Connor. She just glares at the woman, whose beady eyes shift from Connor to Risa.
"You got caught in the act, little dearie," she says. The words "little dearie" come out like a curse. "The law might let you stork, but only if you don't get caught. So take your baby and go, before I call those cops over."
Connor tries desperately to unfry his brain. "But . . . but . . ."
"Just shut up!" says Risa, her voice full of venom and accusation.
This makes the woman at the door smile, but it's not a pleasant thing. "Daddy here ruined it for you, didn't he? He came back instead of just running away." The woman spares a quick dismissive look at Connor. "First rule of motherhood, dearie: Men are screwups. Learn it now and you'll be a whole lot happier."
Between them, the baby still cries. It's like a game of steal the bacon, where no one wants to take the bacon. Finally, Risa bends down and lifts the baby from the welcome mat, holding it close to her. It still cries, but much more softly now.
"Now get out of here," says the fat woman, "or you'll be talking to those cops."
Connor turns to see the cop car partially blocked by the school bus. Lev stands halfway in and halfway out of the bus, keeping the door from closing, a look of utter desperation on his face. The irritated bus driver peers out at him. "C'mon, I don't have all day!"
Connor and Risa turn away from the woman at the door and hurry for the bus.
"Don't," she snaps. "I don't want to hear it."
Connor feels as broken as he did the moment he found out his parents had signed the order to unwind him. Back then, however, he had anger to help dilute the fear and the shock. But there's no anger in him now, except for anger at himself. He feels helpless, hopeless. All of his self-confidence has imploded like a dying star. Three fugitives running from the law. And now, thanks to his short-circuit stupidity; they are three fugitives with a baby.
She can't even begin to guess what possessed Connor.
Now Risa realizes he doesn't just make bad decisions, he makes dangerous ones. The school bus only has a few kids on it as they step on, and the driver angrily closes the door behind them, making no comment about the baby. Perhaps because it's not the only baby on the bus. Risa pushes past Lev and leads the three of them to the back. They pass another girl with her own little bundle of joy, which couldn't be any older than six months. The young mother curiously eyes them, and Risa tries not to make eye contact.
After they're sitting in the back, a few rows away from the nearest riders, Lev looks at Risa, almost afraid to ask the obvious question. Finally he says. "Uh . . . why do we have a baby?"
"Ask him," says Risa.
Stone-faced, Connor looks out the window. "They're looking for two boys and a girl. Having a baby will throw them off."
"Great," snaps Risa. "Maybe we should all pick up a baby along the way."
Connor goes visibly red. He turns toward her and holds out his hands. "I'll hold it," he says, but Risa keeps it away from him.
"You'll make it cry."
Risa is no stranger to babies. At the state home she occasionally got to work with the infants. This one probably would have ended up at a state home too. She could tell that the woman at the door had no intention of keeping it.
She looks at Connor. Still red, he intentionally avoids her gaze. The reason Connor gave was a lie. Something else drove him to run to that porch. But whatever the real reason was, Connor's keeping it to himself.
The bus comes to a jarring halt and more kids get on. The girl at the front of the bus—the one with the baby—makes her way to the back and sits right in front of Risa, turning around and looking at her over the seat back.
"Hi, you must be new! I'm Alexis, and this is Chase." Her baby looks at Risa curiously, and drools over the seat back. Alexis picks up the baby's limp hand, and makes it wave like she might wave the hand of a toy doll. "Say hello, Chase!" Alexis seems even younger than Risa.
Alexis peers around to get a look at the sleeping baby's face. "A newborn! Oh, wow! That's so brave of you, coming back to school so soon!" She turns to Connor. "Are you the father?"
"Me?" Connor looks flustered and cornered for a moment before he comes to his senses and says, "Yeah. Yeah, I am."
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