Unbreakable, page 1
by Will McIntosh
Copyright © 2017 by Will McIntosh
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
About the Author
Other Titles by Will McIntosh
“How you doing, Celia?” someone shouted at her. The girl’s face was so close to hers that the sound made Celia’s hair vibrate, and she could smell fish sticks on the girl’s breath. Celia strained to open her burning eyes. Who was that? It was...she grasped for the name. She’d just been thinking it.
Molly! It was Molly, waving her hand in front of Celia’s face. Molly wasn’t allowed to touch her. No one was allowed to touch her. Who couldn’t stay awake for—Celia checked her digital wristwatch—eighteen days, twenty hours, and nine minutes—if they had someone shaking them the whole damned time? Or if they could take drugs. She’d give anything for a cup of coffee. She’d give both pinkies, or either middle finger. Their choice. Three toes and any one of her albums except Imagino’s Smoke and Thunder.
She was thinking weird thoughts again. It was brutally difficult to keep her mind from going off. When you hadn’t slept for (Celia checked her watch again) eighteen days, twenty hours, and eleven minutes, strange things happened. She would look at Janine, or Molly, and flat-out not recognize them. They were faces she knew better than her own, yet she’d see nothing but generic eyes, nose, and mouth surrounded by generic skin and hair.
At times, everything became hyper-clear. Other times, like right now, everything in her vision swam, as if the entire world was turning liquid and going down a titanic drain, spinning, spinning...
“How you doing, Celia?” Molly repeated.
“Fabuloush.” It was hard to form syllables; her words were slurred like she was very drunk. “I’m just fan-tas-tically fabulous. Feel like dancing.”
“Only forty-two minutes to go.” Molly’s voice was hoarse from shouting at her. She didn’t take it personally. Her teammates had been taking turns shouting at her for...she’d forgotten how long, and was suddenly too tired to lift her arm to check her watch again. The overwhelming drowsiness washed over her in cycles. When it came, Celia felt like she either had to give in and sleep, or die.
“Stay with me, Rock. Stay with me.”
Sometimes they called her Rock. Except Constantine, who called her Hamster. Not that Constantine had ever seen a hamster outside of movies. Celia let her eyelids flutter closed. She would rest her eyes for a moment, just a moment, then open them again.
“Up!” Molly screamed. “Let’s go. Time to walk.”
In a minute. Right now it felt as if drills were spinning clear through the soft spots at her temples, digging into her brain from both sides—
“Celia, please, please don’t fall asleep. Thirty-nine minutes. That’s all you need. We’ll never have to worry about making our rent again. We can go back to eating out like we used to.”
Right. This was a huge record in her specialty. A colossus. She might not draw another one this big in her lifetime. She had to hang onto that thought, let it pull her through these last few minutes like a lifeline.
Celia inhaled until she couldn’t anymore, then shrieked until she ran out of air.
That jolted her awake. From the look on Molly’s face, it had jolted her as well.
This is what she did. She kept going. She ate misery—chewed it up and spit it out, even if a few of her teeth went with it. She could never eat fifty slices of pizza like Janine, or do two thousand pushups like Fizz, but she could hang on and not let go better than anybody else. And her teammates were counting on her to do just that. They needed this one. Badly.
Speak of the devil. Janine had joined them in the darkness outside the stadium. She must be taking the final shift. Celia studied Janine, her face now crystal clear, each individual strand of her silvery-gray hair standing out. No more swimming vision. “I will do this. I will break this record.”
Janine grinned. “That’s my girl.”
The exit door into the stadium opened halfway. The event coordinator, whose name Celia knew when she hadn’t been awake for nearly twenty days, poked his head out. “Time to head to the arena. You’re the main attraction tonight, Celia. Let’s give ’em a good show.”
The main attraction. She’d never been the main attraction before. The audience would cheer her on. That would energize her. And afterward she could sleep. Eighty-something more minutes and she could crawl under cool, clean sheets and sleep as long as she liked. In their house, which could remain their house indefinitely when Celia broke this record.
Fizz blew her a kiss. She hadn’t realized Fizz was there. He clenched his hands together and shook them. The rest of her team would be in the arena. She blew a kiss back to Fizz, and followed Janine through the door.
“Thirty-six minutes,” Molly shouted to her, just before the door closed.
Celia squinted under the bright lights of the prep room. A dozen or so of tonight’s contestants watched her pass. She could feel them assessing her, could almost feel the burn of their envy. Even if they succeeded in breaking whatever records they were attempting tonight, Celia’s feat would overshadow them, and her team was in for a payday that would dwarf any of theirs.
Eighteen days, twenty hours, fifty minutes. The record had stood for nineteen years. It was one of the few that had been set out in the world, not here in Record Village. Those were precious.
Janine opened the door into Telco Stadium and motioned her ahead. Celia could hear the crowd, voices raised, their applause like heavy rain on blacktop. As she stepped through the door into the glare of spotlights, the crowd rose to their feet and roared. Celia raised one fist into the air and headed down the concrete steps into the arena, where other, lesser feats would be attempted while Celia stood in the center and the clock ticked down.
Nothing could stop her now; she was operating on raw adrenaline, fueled by the crowd’s energy. It would carry her through. Everything was about to change for her and her team. They wouldn’t have to move to some slum apartment, they’d finally be able to buy some new clothes.
A remarkably tall guy, Indian or Middle Eastern, turned to watch as she bounded down the steps.
He smiled at her.
There was a familiarity to his smile, as if they were acquaintances, or friends. It puzzled Celia. She turned to study his face as she passed him. He had big, shiny, pony eyes that contrasted with a mangled, mostly missing ear, and angry red scars that trailed down one side of his neck.
When she finally looked away, she glimpsed the strap of a backpack jutting into
Celia woke to the buzz of music playing through earbuds on someone’s phone. Her nose was throbbing. She reached up, touched thick bandages. Something had happened; she’d had an accident, but couldn’t remember—
She sprang out of bed. “No. No!” She’d been on the stadium steps. Half an hour to go.
Janine intercepted Celia at the doorway and tried to wrap her arms around her, but Celia pushed her away. “What happened? Please tell me I didn’t blow it.”
Janine’s face told her everything she needed to know. “You fell. You were knocked unconscious. You’ve been out for almost twenty-four hours.”
Celia grabbed Janine’s arms. “That’s not the same as sleeping. I didn’t fall asleep. They need to restart the clock now that I’m conscious.” She looked around for Landon or Maris, the pair of officials who’d been monitoring her in shifts, making sure she didn’t sleep. Neither of them was there. “I didn’t fall asleep. It’s not fair—I didn’t fall asleep.” Celia sank to the carpet. Janine went with her, holding her.
It had been right there within her grasp. She’d had it. “Damn it.” Celia pounded her thigh. Thirty minutes. She’d been thirty minutes from the sleep-deprivation record, and she’d tripped.
“You’re right though, Celia. You didn’t fall asleep.” Molly was leaning against the wall in the hallway. One by one, most of her teammates had appeared while Celia’d been flipping out. They hung back, eyes downcast.
“Some ignorant gawker left his backpack in your way.” Molly slapped the wall so hard it shuddered. “How stupid do you have to be, to leave something in the path of someone who hasn’t slept in eighteen days? On steps. My God, where do they get these people? If this is what people on the outside are like, I don’t want to retire.”
Not that Molly had a choice. Celia felt an irrational surge of anger, that Molly had gotten the call at such a young age and not her. She loved Molly to death, but at that moment she hated her. A couple months after they settled into their crappy new apartment, Molly would get to leave, to live on the outside—
Celia buried her face in her hands, even though it goosed the pain in her nose. “We’re going to have to squeeze into some awful apartment with paper-thin walls downtown, two to a room.”
“We still have two events before the end of the season,” Janine reminded her.
“Sure. One of them pays pocket change, and the other is unbreakable.” Celia couldn’t see Constantine, their memory and intellectual specialist. He was evidently listening from the living room. He was right—the hot dog eating record was unbreakable, and the other wouldn’t pay enough to stave off eviction, even if Fizz could drag a bulldozer a hundred yards in under fifty seconds. Everything had hinged on the sleep record. It had been a once-in-a-decade opportunity. They would have won more breaking that one record than the eight of them had made in the entire past year combined.
And Celia had tripped. She’d tripped.
Constantine stepped into view holding an open bag of cookies. “We’re in a nosedive. This has been an ugly season.”
“That’s not Celia’s fault,” Molly said.
“It’s not solely her fault, no,” Constantine said as he chewed. “There are others who haven’t been pulling their weight on a consistent basis.”
Janine glared up at him. “You’re saying ‘others,’ but you’re looking right at me. If you’ve got something to say to me, why don’t you just say it?”
Constantine folded his arms. “I am saying it. I was just trying to be kind about it.”
Janine stood. “Oh, sure,” she said sarcastically, “you’re being extremely kind in your attempt to shame me in front of the entire team.”
“I shouldn’t have to shame you. You aren’t contributing—you should feel ashamed without my help.”
Constantine’s words burned into Celia just as deeply as if he’d been saying them about her. “Just shut the hell up, Constantine! For once?” Celia closed her eyes; her head was pounding. She hated Constantine, with his condescending attitude and thinly veiled contempt.
Of course Janine couldn’t eat like she had in her prime. It was as if getting old was a crime here, like Janine should walk off into the woods and shoot herself so they could replace her. Janine was family. Or what passed for family in this place.
“What were you looking at?” Constantine asked.
Celia looked up, saw he was talking to her. “Huh? What are you talking about?”
“When you tripped. You took your eye off the steps to look at something, and that’s why you tripped. What was it?”
“She hadn’t slept in eighteen days!” Molly said. “She was probably hallucinating.”
Constantine ignored her. He was waiting for Celia’s answer.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.” But she did remember. She’d been looking at that tall guy smiling at her. Had he been a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation? Celia didn’t think so. She wasn’t one hundred percent sure of anything that’d happened in those last hours, but she was pretty sure he’d been real.
Constantine rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, like he was beseeching the heavens to grant him patience. “You’re a professional. You should have known better than to take your eyes off those steps in your condition.”
Janine put her hand on Celia’s shoulder and steered her back toward her room. “Don’t listen to him. He has no idea what it feels like to suffer for a record.” She shot Constantine an angry glare.
“Maybe... But I do know what it feels like to break them,” Constantine shouted after them as Janine slammed the door.
They sat on the bed, in a room that would only be Celia’s for a few more weeks. Celia pulled her knees up to her chin.
“He’s such an ass.” Janine’s voice was shaking.
“He is,” Celia said. “He’s right, though. I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off the steps. There was too much riding on that record.”
Janine took Celia’s shoulders and drew her down until her head rested on Janine’s lap. “You can’t beat yourself up for not thinking clearly, if you had to put yourself in a position where you couldn’t think clearly to break the record.” She stroked Celia’s hair, the way she used to when Celia first joined the team. “We’ll figure out another way.”
“I miss Max.” She pictured his smiling face, his rough, acne-scarred skin, heard his gravelly voice. Always teasing, a nickname for everyone. If Max had still been here, Constantine wouldn’t dare talk that way to his teammates. Especially Janine.
“I do, too,” Janine whispered. “I think about him all the time. I hope he’s happy out there.”
When Celia had first joined the team at twelve, she’d secretly believed Janine and Max were her real parents, and they couldn’t tell her for some secretive convoluted reason she’d concocted. As she got older she slowly grew to accept that Janine, whose skin was the color of 72% dark chocolate, and Max, who was maybe a shade lighter than milk chocolate, had given birth to Celia, whose skin was roughly the color of white bread.
“One of these days we’re all going to be together again.” Janine said.
Celia didn’t answer. The thought of living on the outside both thrilled and terrified her. She loved books and movies about outsiders, and would love to be free to see it all, to go anywhere. On the other hand, she was good at record-breaking. Even without the record for staying awake, not many seventeen-year-olds had accomplished what she had. She’d broken the record for holding breath underwater last year, a record that still stood. If she could avoid tripping over backpacks, she might eventually be someone in Record Village. She had no idea who she’d be on the outside.
The door creaked open and Molly poked her head in. “Come on, you’re not sitting in your room all day. I need help out on the track.”
Celia very much wanted to spend all day in her room, wallowing in despair, but she held out her hands and let Molly pull her to a sitting position. If a teammate asked for help, you gave it, no matter how bad you felt.
Celia and Janine left the tenement building and retraced their steps through the desperate end of the village, where Burger Barn wrappers and soda cans littered tiny lawns, and people who had all but given up on breaking records stared, hollow-eyed, at nothing. Celia opened Grendel’s Travels on her phone and read as they walked. It needed a solar recharge anyway.
“Don’t mind me,” Janine said. “Just pretend I’m not here.”
“Sorry,” Celia said without looking up. “Anything to spare my eyes and soul from having to experience this place.”
Janine put an arm across Celia’s shoulders. “I could have come alone.”
“Nah. I’m the klutz who reduced us to this. If anyone should’ve done it alone, it’s me.” The sting hadn’t worn off at all in the five days since her fall, although the bruises on her face had morphed from dark purple to yellowish-green.
Janine squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll work this out, don’t you worry.”
They turned a corner and passed through a group of seven or eight teens, all around Celia’s age, who were lounging in front of a cigarette shop. Celia made brief eye contact with a girl wearing a baseball cap, her long ponytail poking through the back, then quickly glanced back at her phone, feeling inexplicably uncomfortable. Would these be her friends, once she moved here? Whenever friends moved, whether down to the slums or up to the fancy houses of Hillside, everyone vowed to stay friends, but they never did. The only friends you could really count on were the ones on your team. And Molly was leaving.
Celia didn’t want to think about that. She tried to focus on Grendel’s Travels, but it wasn’t holding her attention. It wasn’t because it was an old book—she loved most classics—it was just too fantastical. She liked books about the real world outside.
Celia closed the book and scrolled through her movie list. Thank goodness for books and movies. If she didn’t have those diversions she’d probably drown herself in the reservoir.
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