Tuesday June 16
Naveed awoke to a throbbing drumbeat. He tried to work out why his limbs were so heavy, why he was so tired, but it was too much for his foggy brain to grasp. Instead, he pulled the pillow over his head. “Kourosh, turn it down! I’m trying to sleep,” he grumbled before dozing off again.
But he couldn’t escape from it. The song wormed its way into his dreams, an endless loop. Once his subconscious worked out the lyrics, he began dreaming of all-night dance parties as the song repeated, over and over and over:
It isn’t a party without the Bitz
Crunch ‘em on the dance floor when the music hits
All night long, hangin’ with your crew
These are the best times, Blazin Bitz and you
Eventually, he threw the pillow to the ground and sat up. “Kourosh, will you turn it off? That music is driving me….” He trailed off as he realized in icy horror: this was not his room.
This room was hardly bigger than a closet. Crammed into the small space: a twin bed. A table containing a bowl of chips and a stack of papers. A cooler full of soda and snack cakes. Two doors: one locked, the other leading to a tiny bathroom. A flat-screen television was mounted to the wall, still blaring its song as attractive young people turned a dull evening into a wild party with the help of Blazin Bitz and a strobe light.
Naveed shuffled to the television—his body still felt burdensome, sluggish—and switched it off. In the sudden quiet, he could think again, but this was not a comfort for long. When the memories came, they rushed back with intensity: the chaos of the protest; Cyrus getting caught at the receptionist's computer; Andi handing her resume to that woman, because for some baffling reason she wanted to work at Nutrexo; Cyrus and Roya falling asleep at the table, drugged; and that woman, that woman who wouldn't let him leave, who knew his name....
She'd tried to drug Naveed too. Judging from the way he felt, she'd ultimately succeeded, but it hadn't worked right the first time. Back in the room at headquarters, the guards had wrestled him to the ground, focusing all their attention on him. This was good; he wanted Andi to escape and find help. The woman kneeled next to him, pushing up his sleeve, tearing open a syringe. Then Naveed made a mistake. He glanced toward the door, where Andi was running, and the woman noticed. She didn't get up, though, because she wasn't done with him yet. As she plunged the needle into his arm, her face got close to his, and he made one last effort to distract her by ramming his head into her mouth.
He felt it all: the soft flesh of her lip meeting the hard bones of her teeth, the cold liquid of the drug squirting on his bare arm—his unexpected attack must have caused her to remove the needle mid-dose—her warm blood trickling across his forehead, and the explosive ache spreading inside his own skull, followed by leaden numbness as the drug took effect. It seemed like the entire room was rattling, as if some sort of chain reaction had been started, one that had shaken the whole world.
Naveed looked to the door again, to see if Andi had escaped, but the room had gone dark. His eyes closed, and he wasn't able to open them again. Too heavy. Everything was too heavy. He couldn't move at all; his jaw was frozen shut, his tongue too big for his mouth, he couldn't force out a single sound—
Even though it would have been a relief to embrace the sleep trying to overtake him, he willed himself to stay awake, because the woman and the guards were talking.
“The other one... we're taking her too?” That was one of the guards, whispering.
The woman sighed. “We don't have a choice.” Her words were slightly garbled from her mouth injury.
“If it's money you're worried about, I can get you more. We'll work it out later, right now we have to....”
The woman's voice faded. Naveed tried to hold on.
One of the guards spoke. “But what are you going to tell Richard? Does he—”
“No one needs to know anything about this. I have it under control. Now, let's go. Here, help me....”
Naveed became aware of movement—they were carrying him somewhere. He tried to shake himself free, but couldn't even wiggle a finger, and panic rose up, all-consuming; he had to stop this from happening, but he couldn't. He couldn't.
Now he sat in this tiny room, digesting it all, trying to steer his thoughts away from the image that kept returning: Roya sleeping at that round table, face hidden in her nest of dark hair, oblivious to the threat. Certain that Naveed would always protect her.
He was supposed to keep them safe. Maman had trusted him to do that. When he thought back to their conversation on the patio, he wondered why she’d been so adamant. It was almost like she knew something was going to happen at the protest. But that didn’t make sense; she wouldn’t have let them attend if she’d known. He wondered what had happened to his parents, after the SWAT team arrived. He hoped they were all right.
Naveed searched the room for his phone, but it was gone. They had taken it, along with his wristwatch and everything in his pockets, which meant he couldn't contact his parents. Or Brooke. She had been calling him all weekend, but he kept sending her to voicemail, texting brief excuses as to why he couldn't take her calls. His last text had been in the car on Monday morning. Can't talk now, headed to protest. It's gonna be epic. Fill you in later. She'd responded, Are you mad at me? He had never replied, because even though he didn't want to be, he was. They were supposed to be going to the protest together.
Considering the way things had turned out, he was relieved she hadn't been there, but he regretted avoiding her. Nothing he could do about it now, though.
Now, he needed to find the others, and get them all out of this place.
Naveed was tempted to snack on the chips while he made a plan, but stopped himself even though he was starving. They had drugged the soda; no telling what was hidden in those harmless-looking snacks. He did take a good long drink of water from the sink faucet after he used the bathroom, but it didn’t much help the hunger gnawing at his empty stomach.
When he returned to the bed, he noticed a letter atop the stack of papers.
After Security managed to restrain you following your violent outburst on the morning of the protest, I spoke with your parents. We came to an agreement: Nutrexo will not file assault charges against you, as long as you help us out by providing your feedback on some new products we're testing. If you cooperate, you'll be free to go in a few weeks. Please help yourself to the food in your room and fill out the attached questionnaires. We look forward to receiving your input.
-Dr. Tara Snyder
Naveed fumed. That woman—Dr. Snyder—had drugged them, kidnapped them, yet she had the nerve to suggest that this imprisonment was his fault. And after all that, she expected him to participate in her research?
Disgusted, furious, Naveed threw the stack of papers to the floor, where they landed in a messy white heap. He picked up the plastic bowl of chips and hurled it across the room. It bounced off the television, sending the Bitz scattering across the floor. He sought out every single chip, crushing them into the fibers of the carpet with his shoe.
Then he lugged the cooler into the bathroom and dumped the soda down the drain. It was harder to destroy the snack cakes. When he opened them, the escaped fragrance was so tempting that it took all his willpower to crumble them up and send them down the toilet.
He wanted to punch through the walls, tear down the television, wreck it all, destroy everything. But he was, pathetically, too tired for that. Instead, he retrieved the letter, his blood boiling again when his eyes fell on the words violent outburst.
They had left him only a nub of black crayon: apparently he couldn't be trusted with a sharp pencil. Over Dr. Snyder's note, Naveed wrote one word in giant capital letters. BULLSHIT.
In the white space below, he added: You can't brainwash me into believing your lies. I refuse to participate in this insanity, and I'm not going to eat your poison food.
As he walked to the door, he paused to scribble one last line at the bottom.
That's right. I know what's going on. I remember everything.
His response, scrawled in thick crayon, didn't look very menacing, but he didn't care. He pushed the note through the crack at the bottom of the door, then dragged the cooler out of the bathroom. He wished he had something heavy to put in it—bricks or rocks would be nice—but the melting ice would have to do.
And there he stayed, sitting next to the door. Someone would have to open it eventually, and when they did, he would be ready.
He waited hours before the door flew open. Naveed tightened his grip on the cooler and started to stand, but the guard was ready for him, too. As soon as he burst through the door, he aimed his steel-toed boot right where Naveed was sitting.
Naveed had gotten up fast enough to avoid taking the hit in the face, but the boot caught him square in the chest instead, knocking the wind out of him and buying the guards enough time to pin his arms behind his back. They worked quickly, shoving him into a wooden chair one of them had situated in front of the television, and tying him to it with a rope.
Naveed struggled, but this time they anticipated all his moves, so he tried a different tactic. No doubt they recognized Dr. Snyder's craziness; maybe he could coax them over to his side. Noticing the turkey-tattooed guard's black eyes, he said, “Hey, man, sorry about that. How's the nose?”
The guard—Zane, according to his ID badge—said nothing, only cinched the rope tighter against Naveed's throbbing chest. He wrapped more rope around Naveed's wrists, tying them with force. Then he began fastening Naveed's right ankle to the legs of the chair, while the other guard worked on the left. Naveed stared down at Zane's tattoo. “Nice ink. What’s the story with that? You raise turkeys or something?”
“No. I hunt them.” He knotted the ropes, and Naveed strained against them, but it was futile. These guys knew what they were doing.
Naveed gave up. “Please, I just have to know... my sister, Roya... is she okay? Because if you hurt her—”
“She's fine. So are the others,” the second guard, Chase, said. “They're not giving us any problems. You know, you could make this a lot easier on yourself if you cooperated too.”
“No! I'm not going to be that crazy woman's lab rat.”
“Just saying.” Chase stood up. “Dr. Snyder will see you tomorrow. In the meantime, she wanted to make sure you had something to watch.”
He turned the television back on, adjusting the volume to full blast. Then they left him, as the same commercial played on. And on. And on.
These are the best times, Blazin Bitz and you.
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