• Black Instagram Icon
  • Black Spotify Icon

©2019 by Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Fifteen

Friday June 19

Dr. Snyder opened the door to Naveed’s prison. She wore a disposable yellow smock over her lab coat, and was pushing a metal cart covered with a white sheet. Something large and lumpy was underneath. Naveed didn’t want to think about what it might be. He figured she was going to try to make him eat something again, and this time it was going to be much harder to refuse, no matter how revolting it was.


The door whooshed shut behind her. She sat down on a stool, and the cart rolled into his knees. The room was too small for this.


Naveed stared her in the eye, even though he had to squint. It was too bright after all that darkness. He couldn't help glancing at the cart again, wondering if she’d brought any water.  


“We’ll start the experiment shortly,” Dr. Snyder said. “But first I want you to know what this research is about. A colleague of mine has gotten disconcerting results from the new herbicide—weedkiller—we’ve been testing in the fields. It appears to be harmful to birds. Neurotoxic, in fact.”


She pulled on a pair of purple gloves. “I’ve been doing toxicity assays on rats to study its effects in mammals. The results are encouraging—only one has died so far. Yesterday, I ran a test with one of my cows. Unfortunately, the cow was already weakened by an infection, and the stress of the experiment was too much. Well, when life gives you lemons….” She yanked off the sheet. 


Naveed wasn’t prepared for the shock of what he saw on the cart: the cow’s severed head. 


Its eyes were open—of course she had left them open. They stared at him through the thick lashes rimming its eyelids. Its dull brown hide was matted with blood, especially around the neck. The smell—fetid, foul—filled the room. Naveed felt like vomiting, but managed to regain his composure by breathing through his mouth.


Dr. Snyder selected a scalpel from the shiny surgical instruments lined up on the cart. “Neurotoxins are fascinating, but the nervous system is hard to study in living subjects. Some of the symptoms of nerve damage—mental impairments, tingling or burning in the limbs, loss of sensation or balance—can be difficult to measure. Brain scans like MRI's can give some information, but if you want to see what's happening on a cellular level, you have to examine the brain tissue.” 


She began cutting through the cow’s scalp, peeling away the skin. Naveed closed his eyes.


“What’s the matter? It’s only meat. Oh, you probably don’t eat meat, do you? I bet you’re a vegetarian.” He bristled at her contemptuous tone. Even though he wasn’t, it always bothered him when people gave Brooke a hard time about being vegan. 


“I’m not.” He forced his eyes open. For some reason, probably because he didn’t want her to be right—ever, about anything—he added, “We have chickens, and I’ve helped slaughter them before.”


“Then this should be no big deal. I just wanted you to see what’s going to happen to you, in the end.” 


He tried to act like she wasn't getting to him, but couldn’t hold back a shudder when he realized what she was threatening to do. 


She sliced through the cartilage holding the cow’s horns to its skull, and added them to the accumulating bloody pile of skin and muscle. Naveed swallowed hard to push back the bile rising to his throat as she continued talking. “Rats aren’t people. Cows aren’t people, either. The herbicide is hitting the market soon, and we have to make sure that workers aren’t going to drop dead if they’re still picking in the fields when it’s sprayed. Not that anyone cares about them—they’re all illegals anyway—but it could be a public relations nightmare if it harmed the wrong people.”


Naveed opened his mouth to push back against her racist remark, but had to close it again quickly to stop himself from gagging. 


She kept talking. “I’m not trying to kill you—in fact, I’d prefer it if you lived; it's convenient having access to a human specimen—but I’m afraid with the way you’re behaving, refusing food and water, it’s a foregone conclusion.” 


“No,” he said through the lump in his throat. “I’m not going to die here.” 


She shrugged. “No one is exempt from the rules of the body. But at least you can take comfort in knowing that you’ll be making a contribution to science after you’re gone. For the greater good.”


“Oh, is that the ‘greater good’? Avoiding PR nightmares? You know, if you hurt me, my parents will have you making a contribution to the prison population.” 


Dr. Snyder picked up a jagged saw. “I don’t relish the idea of doing this kind of work on human subjects, but your attitude makes this much easier for me.” She sliced at the cow, and even though Naveed looked away, he heard the saw scraping against wet bone. It vibrated into him, shaking him apart. 


She was so intent on her work that she stopped paying attention to him for a while; it took a long time, and much concentration, to saw through bone so thick. Naveed resumed scraping, quickly but quietly, against the screw in the wall. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but the rope seemed to be loosening. Maybe it was finally beginning to fray….

Then the saw stopped, so he did too. Dr. Snyder pried open the skull, removing the brain. It released with an awful slurping sound. Naveed stared at his shoes. 


“Still don’t want to look?” she asked. “I didn't think so. Just like your mother—you want everyone to think you’re such a hero, but you’re only a spineless coward.”


Naveed met her eyes again. She stood up, her yellow smock covered in blood, holding the pink cow-brain as casually as if it were a tray of appetizers. He hated her with a ferocity he’d never felt before. All the ugly things inside him took root, they grew, they bloomed. He wished he could take her saw and start hacking away. First he’d cut off her hands….


But she gathered the surgical instruments and left, locking the door behind her. Naveed slumped with relief. He thought she’d come back for the cart, or turn the light off again, but she had left it on for him. He was alone with the cow head, its skull now an empty cavity like a blood-filled bowl, its eyes still attached, still staring.


She would be back to do the experiment, but he didn’t know when. He kept his head down, trying to ignore the growing stench of decay and the panic fluttering in his chest. Although it seemed pointless, he scraped his wrists against the wall. Up, down. Up, down.  


And then, on one upward thrust of his wrists, the rope snapped open. He moved his hands and felt a satisfying slackness as it fell away. 


His hands were free. Free. 


His chest was still bound, but he was able to hold the chair steady with one hand and wriggle the ropes over the back of the chair. Then they were loose, and he slipped them over his head. Now, he only had to untie his ankles—  


But the door opened. She was back. 


No time to think. He stood up, ready to claw at her, to grab her by the throat. But the days of sitting in that chair had taken their toll, and he dizzily lurched forward, losing his balance. She took advantage of his disequilibrium and pulled the chair upward, yanking his feet from under him. He reached for the cart to break his fall, but it wheeled away from him as he clutched onto it, and they all fell together, him and the cow head and the cart, and everything was a crimson blur. His hands slipped on the blood-wet floor, and he came down hard on his right ear. Even the red went away then; all he saw was a starry night sky.   


For a moment he was dazed, staring out the open door at the laboratory stretching beyond, at the rows upon rows of cages, white rats turning on their wheels within, squeaking squeaking. By the time he realized what was happening, she was already retying his hands, this time to the top bar of the chair, so tightly that the rope dug into his raw skin. He lay on his chest, the chair on top of him, nestling its weight into his upper back and his bent knees. 


She made no acknowledgment of his escape attempt, but tipped the cart upright and wheeled it from the room. Then she set the cow head next to his, so that they were eye to eye. Naveed wanted to say something to show he was not a coward, that she hadn’t broken him. But nothing came, because he was, and she had. The only words at all were, I hate you I hate you I hate you, which escaped on his breath in a whisper.


“What did you say?” She kneeled down, her starched white lab coat grazing the bloody ground. She touched his temple, and he tried to turn his head away, but given his position it was impossible. She traced a line across his forehead. Her fingertip, encased in latex, felt cold and waxen.  


Naveed said, louder, “I’m not going to die here.” In his mind, he added, And if I ever get out of this place, I am going to ruin you. 


Dr. Snyder picked up a large white bottle marked with a skull and crossbones. A hose was attached, with a nozzle at the end. “Well, then, I’m sure I can find other uses for you. I’ll bring you some water later… assuming you make it through this experiment.” 


She closed the door, leaving the nozzle head inside the room. A fine mist soon sprayed from it, filling the air with an unnaturally sweet odor—what did it smell like? Pancake syrup? But it was getting hard to breathe, and the mist burned his lungs, and he grasped for a pleasant memory—the figs, think of the figs—and he tried to picture Brooke with her bright sun-kissed hair, holding the fig to his mouth. 


But all he saw when he closed his eyes were the figs that crows had dropped, rotting in the grass, riddled with gaping red wounds.


Join the When We Vanished mailing list to receive exclusive behind-the-scenes content whenever a new chapter is posted.