"I'm the eldest of seven," Louis says. It's the first thing any of them have said since the old woman shut the door, leaving them in darkness save the tiny candle sitting between them. "Five sisters, one brother. Oldest four are from the same dad, youngest two from another. I was the, uh, black sheep of the family, if you will." He sighs. "Last step-dad adopted me after my mom died, but he always thought I was too much of a trouble maker, so he decided he would have me unwound, save himself the trouble of sending me to a detention center again." His voice wavers, but he doesn't stop. "Told me it would be easier on the girls, on Ernie. I wouldn't be around to cause trouble anymore, and they'd have more money for the rest of them."
He sniffs, features scrunching up in the weak light. "Girls didn't know what he'd done. Probably still don't. But I've only got to survive another year, and then I can go back and tell them I didn't just abandon them. They'll forgive me." His eyebrows pull together, and he looks down at the chain in his hands. "They gotta."
It's quiet. Harry looks like he's about to cry for Louis, as if his tears will help any. Niall has to hold back a scoff.
"My parents divorced when I was a kid," Harry says quietly. Niall suppresses an eye roll. He doesn't want to hear this. "It was really messy, my dad would try to pick a fight over everything. Wanted to make my mom suffer, he kept saying. Somehow, in all the mess of divorce papers, he managed to slip in a custody agreement. Got my mom to give up her rights to me without anybody noticing. He never mentioned it in all these years, but he kept trying to make things difficult for my mom. He wouldn't pay child support, he refused to see me and my sister on his weekends. A week ago he and my mom got into a really nasty fight, and he signed the unwind order without telling anybody. We found out because the Juvey-cops showed up at the door." He folds his knees up against his chest, wraps his lanky arms around them and plants his chin down on the bone. "My sister sprayed them with this can of pepper spray she keeps on her keys, told me to run. Been bouncing around these safe-houses since."
Louis looks up at him sharply. "Have they told you where we're going? Where we're gonna end up?"
Harry shakes his head. "They haven't answered any of my questions, or the ones other kids asked. Just told us all the same thing; keep quiet, keep low, follow the rules. Blah blah blah."
He falls silent, and then he and Louis both look up at Niall expectantly. He raises his brows in return.
Niall knows what's going on here. They think that if they share their stories they'll become closer, grow some sort of bond. As if they won't eventually get caught. As if it'll help them. Well, he's not going to share. His story is his alone, for him to take to the grave. It's not that big a deal, but there are some things you just don't tell others.
He's always been selfish that way.
"No," he says, and lies down, back to them. The silence that follows is awkward, but he doesn't break. No one is going to force him to tell his story.
They're saved from saying anything else when the door above them opens up again, Sonia's shadow creeping towards them. "Harry," she calls. "Get up here."
Harry looks to them, terrified, but Louis nods encouragingly.
"She's not gonna hurt you," he says. "I've heard of this; it's not anything bad. Just go up there."
Nodding, Harry stumbles to his feet, and then again up the stairs. He almost falls twice, but he catches himself before it can happen. Niall has to smother a laugh.
It's quiet in his absence, tense and awkward just like it was before he showed up. They don't speak, and Harry is only gone for about half an hour. When he returns, he's quiet, much more than usual. Niall could tell when he first saw him that Harry was once a charismatic young guy, probably drawing people in without even intending it, but the shock of his father signing the unwind order was probably too much for him to handle. He's been pretty quiet since he first arrived, but now it's like someone's put him on mute rather than low volume.
Louis goes up next, takes probably twice as long as Harry, if not more, and comes back just as silent as Harry did. His eyes are red, his cheeks blotchy, and Niall realizes that whatever it is Sonia is making them do up there isn't going to be pleasant. It makes him clench his jaw, take a deep breath, and climb up the steps before his name is even called. Sonia's brows raise, unimpressed, but she leads him behind a shelf full of junk, where a single chair and table are sitting, like a one sided interrogation. Next to the setup is the huge chest that sits above the trapdoor hiding the basement she's been hiding runaway Unwinds in. Niall sits without being told to.
Sonia places a stack of paper and a pen in front of him, and whacks his calf with her cane. "You're gonna write a letter," she says. "Write it to someone you love, or someone who needs to hear what you've got to say. Take as long as you need, as much paper as you need. If you need more, just call me over. When you're finished, let me know."
And she leaves him. At first, Niall doesn't know who to write to. If he was going to write to his parents, he'd have to do it separately, seeing as they haven't even lived in the same state since they divorced when he was five. His brother has been couch surfing since he was old enough to move out, so writing him a letter is out of the question, even if Niall wanted to. Maybe a teacher? A distant family member with enough authority to be able to get his parents to actually sit in the same room for the first time in over a decade? Or a friend?
With a sigh, Niall pulls the stack of papers closer to him and resigns himself to writing two letters. He grabs the pen, but it hovers over the paper uncertainly. Sure, Niall still loves his parents, but what could he possibly say to them that won't make it seem like he blames them? He doesn't want to make them feel guilty, and he doesn't want to write anything that may upset them, so he's not really left with many options.
Just write what you feel, he hears. It's a voice he recognizes, but hasn't heard in years. His fifth grade music teacher, the one who gave him a guitar from the school's own supply with the lame excuse of It's so old I would have had to throw it away anyway. She'd helped him write lyrics, and then helped him put those lyrics to music. Every time he would stumble on a sentence, a word, an entire song, she would sit right next to him and calmly say, Just write what you feel.
And so, for the millionth time, he takes her advice. He writes to his dad about how much he loved going to those soccer games with him, about how much Niall looked up to him and always hoped they'd be just alike when Niall was grown. He makes sure to remind his dad that he never blamed him for not being there enough to really claim he raised Niall. His mother gets somewhat of a different letter, since his relationship with her was never as strong, considering she lived in a different state and is the one who initiated the divorced, moved so far away in the first place. Niall only ever saw her a handful of times a year, and that was only when they could afford to pay for the trip. Still, his letter to her is full of the same love as the first. It's a different kind of love, a formal one rather than a personal one, but it's the most he can conjure up.
He doesn't cry, though he comes close a few times. In the end, each letter is no more than three pages long, front and back. It's not even a quarter of what Sonia set out for him. Niall wants to call for her, tell her he's done, but something holds him back. Taking a breath so deep his lungs rattle in his chest, he pulls the leftover stack back to him, and sets his pen to the paper. Greg, he writes.
The hesitation and uncertainty is gone this time, and the jealousy, anger, resentment, love, happiness, and every other conflicting emotion he'd ever felt towards his brother pours out. I'm sorry you thought I was trying to outshine you. If I make it I want you to know I'm not mad. Please don't get into trouble; Bobby can't afford it right now. Ask Denise out, you idiot, she's pining after you since you first met.
Why did you do it?
This time, he cries so much the pages are soaked through and wrinkled by the time he's finished. The ink, however, isn't smudged even a bit. Niall has to chuckle, however mirthless it is. Sonia thinks of everything, apparently.
After folding each letter into its own envelope, he calls her back into the room with a sniff, and when she comes back into the room she eyes the three different letters. There's a hint of surprise in her expression, but no judgement, which is all Niall can really ask for.
"Address them," she says. "And date each of them with your eighteenth birthday." After he's done so, using his dad's address for Greg, she flips open the chest sitting next to him, revealing a pile of letters that almost overflows. Sitting at the top, Niall can see one with the last name Styles. Harry's, then. He tries to look for Louis's, but the other boy never gave his last name.
"What's the point?" Niall asks, dropping his letters in.
Sonia swings it shut again, shrugging. "If there's one thing I've learned in all my years of doing this, it's that the voice of an Unwind is never heard. Most of you kids are results of poor parenting, in one way or another, and the rest of you just have something about you that required special care. Parents these days, they think that unwinding will solve all their issues. None of them realize that being released from the burden of parenthood also releases them from the joys of it." She places the end of her cane on Niall's chin, pushing his head until he's looking her in the eye. "I'm going to send those out one week after your eighteenth birthday," she says seriously. "But only if you don't come for them yourself. I want you to promise me that if you make it to eighteen you will come right back here and hand deliver those letters yourself. You hear me?" Niall nods, promising. "Good. Now get back down there; you're gonna need to rest up."
Niall goes back down without another word, but when he sees Harry and Louis staring up at him expectantly, he can't seem to hold it back anymore.
"My parents never signed the unwind order," he says, shocking even himself. Harry and Louis frown, and he sighs heavily, sitting himself across from them. "They're divorced, too, and my mom doesn't even live in Ohio. It was...it was my brother who did it." Harry gasps loudly, but Louis's brows pull together in disbelief.
"That's not possible," he says.
"It is when you forge a signature," Niall explains. "My brother had enough experience with all the teachers' forms he's brought home over the years that forging my dad's was as easy as his own for him. My mom's, on the other hand, was a bit more crude, but he managed it." He brings his knees up, wrapping his arms around them and resting his chin. "He and I never really got along. He was always angry at me, because I wasn't as much of a problem child as he was." Niall frowns, not really liking how that sounded. "I don't mean he was awful and I was perfect, just. I never did anything so bad my dad had to threaten to unwind me to get me to behave. My brother, well. Let's just say there were a lot of adults trying t convince my dad he would be better off in a divided state.
"We were always getting into arguments, Greg and me. He didn't like how seriously I took school, and he hated the fact that I wanted to go to college and actually do something with myself. Last time I saw him he was working as a truck driver for a grocery store. The fact that I had ambition he couldn't match frustrated him, or at least that's what my dad always said. Greg thought I was a wuss, a nerd. We got along when I was younger, but then my mom left my dad and he started acting out, and every time he would get in trouble my dad would say something stupid like why can't you act more like Niall or Niall would never act out like this, you should take a page out of his book. It was so embarrassing, but no matter how much I told my dad to stop he wouldn't. Every time he would say something like that, though, Greg would sneak into my room that night and just...stare at me. Creep me out, on purpose. Once or twice he would say something about unwinding, but I always ignored him in the hopes he would just leave me alone.
"He moved out about a year ago, but last month he came back home. Said he was just visiting for a few days. He seemed really excited about something, but I couldn't tell what it was so I just ignore him. Then one day while I was making dinner the Juvey-cops showed up. I didn't really get it at first, but then Greg started laughing, and I realized. All those threats he used to make when we were kids weren't just threats. Turned out he'd been planning to have me unwound as revenge against my dad ever since he moved out. Only reason it took so long was because he couldn't get my mom's signature right."
Harry's eyes are shining when he asks, "How did you get away?"
Niall shrugs. "Wasn't planning on it. Unwinding has never really bothered me the way it does everyone else." He sighs at the confused looks at the other two's faces. "I've always been really anxious, you know? Always had a lot of restless energy. I was, no pun intended, too tightly wound, ever since I was a kid. When I realized what Greg had done, I realized, you know. Maybe I'd finally be able to relax if I was unwound." He digs his chin into his knee, skin crawling under Louis and Harry's intense gazes. "I know it sounds terrible, alright, but I just figured it couldn't be any worse than waking up dry heaving every morning and falling into a restless sleep every night. Anyway, the Juvies got a call from my dad on the way to the harvest camp and they pulled over, but then a group the resistance crashed into the car and pulled me out. They sent me on the run, and wouldn't listen when I said the Juvies were gonna take me back home. I've been on the run since."
"Why don't you just go home?" Louis asks. "If your dad was gonna have it sorted?"
The laugh that tumbles out of Niall's throat is much more bitter than he'd anticipated. "Figure it's not really gonna fix anything. Once an unwind order is signed it can't be reversed, right? Isn't that what Humphree Dunfee is all about?"
"Who?" Harry asks, frowning.
Niall and Louis groan simultaneously, and Niall tips over onto his side. "I'm not telling it, Louis, you do it."
The tension in the air is gone as soon as it came, and with a wicked grin Louis starts in on what is, in Niall's opinion, the worst urban legend of all time.
The same time the next night, Sonia opens the trapdoor above them for the last time. "Come on boys," she says.
"The ice cream man is here for you."