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©2019 by Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Four

Saturday June 13

Naveed didn’t usually pay attention to the audience while acting in a play, but Brooke’s father was impossible to miss. Scott Hawthorne stood alone in back, as stiff and stern as ever, his bald scalp gleaming in the sunlight. His dress shirt was buttoned up to the collar, setting him apart from the casual crowd gathered at the outdoor amphitheater. It had been months since Naveed had seen him, and he was not eager for a reunion. 

But Scott left during the fifth act, and after the play ended, Naveed was swept up in the celebratory atmosphere. He and Brooke mingled with the audience, accepting hugs and flowers from their families and friends, before gathering with the rest of the jubilant cast in the backstage area behind a stand of pines. Naveed’s friend Ethan, apparently still in character as Puck, frolicked among them. Their laughter floated into the evergreens. 

 

Naveed led Brooke away from the crowd, to the wooden bench where their belongings were all mixed together: his sneakers and her sandals jumbled in a pile; her jeans draped on his messenger bag; their scripts stacked up, alternate parts highlighted. For some reason, this sight filled him with intense joy. He wanted to take Brooke in his arms and carry her into the forest, away from her disapproving father, like they'd done as Lysander and Hermia in the play. 

 

He bent to kiss her. “You were amazing,” he said, presenting her with the bouquet of wild roses he’d hidden behind his bag, along with two cherry turnovers tied up in a cloth napkin. 

 

“For me? Thank you.” Her eyebrows furrowed, and she took his hand, whispering, “Come with me.” 

 

Brooke led him through the pines to a secluded meadow, stopping under the branches of a madrona tree. She smoothed the swirling skirts of her white dress as she sat on a gnarled root, the pink streak in her bleached-blonde hair glowing fluorescent in a shaft of sunlight. Naveed sat close beside her, positioning his shoulder so that she could lean against him. For most of the year, she hid herself under thick scarves and knit sweaters, and Naveed wasn't accustomed to seeing her skin on display. It still wasn't much; sheer sleeves covered her lovely arms (he called them lovely; she called them chunky). Her skirt was long, but the neckline was low. 

 

He wanted to touch that liberated skin, to cover every inch of it in kisses. But he sensed that something was off, that now was not the time. He fiddled with the knot on the napkin instead.

 

“Did you see my dad?” she asked, watching Naveed's hands. “I can’t believe he came.”

 

“Yeah. I bet he’s so proud of you.” The knot loosened, and Naveed unwrapped the cherry turnovers. He broke off a piece and held it to her lips. “Here, try this. Kourosh has been working on his coconut oil crust for that bake sale.”

 

“Maybe later.” She plucked at her bouquet. The roses were droopy; he hadn’t thought to bring a vase. 

 

While waiting for her to explain what was wrong, Naveed ate the turnover she'd rejected. It was delicious, the cherries so fresh… which reminded him of something that might cheer her up. “Hey, when I bought the cherries at the market yesterday, Gretchen and Frida invited us to their farm. They said they’d love to talk to your mom, if she’s still interested in getting goats. Maybe we could stop by on our way to the campground next week.”

 

A rose petal dropped from Brooke’s fingers. It landed on her bare foot, and she pointed her toes so it slid into the grass. “Actually, there’s something I need to tell you. You know how my dad applied for a transfer to the Boston branch a few months ago? He just found out it was approved.”

 

“Oh,” said Naveed, not following what that had to do with their camping trip, and unsure what reaction to show. Inside, he rejoiced, but he knew to tread lightly whenever the divorce came up.

 

“He asked me to go with him. Just for the summer,” she added.

 

“He did?” Brooke had barely seen her father over the past few months; his demanding job at the Nutrexo Research Institute required him to travel often. “Huh. I bet your mom wasn't too happy about that.”

“No. She wants me to stay, of course. But she said it was my decision, and I kind of... I told him I'd go.”

 

“What?” Naveed nearly choked on his last bite of turnover, and coughed to dislodge the crumbs from his throat. When he met her eyes, he saw that she was serious. “For the whole summer?” he asked in a small voice.

 

“It doesn't have to be the entire summer. But I'm sure there will be so much to do... plus, he has a couple weeks of vacation scheduled in July, and he wants to take me to Montreal! Isn't that amazing? And—he said you could join us!”

 

“In Montreal?” Naveed was skeptical. Allowing them to explore a foreign city together, to sleep under the same roof—it didn't sound like Scott at all. 

 

“Don't worry, he'll buy your plane ticket and everything. Won't that be great? To get out of town for a while, discover a new place?”

 

“Yeah, but... why go all the way to Montreal? We're going to Vancouver this summer anyway.”

 

Brooke seemed to sense the words he meant but wasn't saying: don't go. She looked at the wilted roses in her hands. “I'm going to miss you, so much. But this is a great opportunity.”

 

“I guess.” Naveed stared at a branch overhead, its auburn bark peeling away to expose the golden trunk beneath. He forced a smile. “Then we'll make the most of the time we have left. We have that celebration dinner with my family later… but we can skip Ethan's party if you want.”

 

She was quiet again. “Actually... we fly out this evening.”

“You're leaving tonight?”

Now she looked close to tears. “Don't be mad. I only found out this morning, and I didn't want to tell you before the play, and I'm sorry this is all so sudden, but I want to go—my dad's not perfect, but I miss him. Besides, July's only a few weeks away. As soon as we get settled, I'll get your tickets to Montreal. Think how awesome it will be to meet there... you'll get off the plane and I'll be at the airport, waiting for you....”

 

She set the roses down. They were so fragile that they fell apart, leaving the pink petals scattered in the grass. She took his hands, kissing each palm before looking up at him with watery eyes. He wanted to say the right thing, to be supportive, but he was so blindsided he couldn't even speak. He couldn't believe she had kept this from him all day.

 

“I should go,” Brooke said. “My mom's pretty upset, and I have a ton of packing to do, so it's probably not a good idea for you to come over today. I guess we should just....”

 

Neither of them wanted to finish her sentence. Say goodbye. 

 

“I'll call you in the morning. And every day,” she said, leaning in to kiss him. It didn't last nearly long enough. “I love you.”

 

“I love you, too,” he said, in a voice that wasn't quite his. It sounded like he'd been replaced by a robot.

 

She stood, still holding his left hand. She tugged it in an attempt to pull him up, but he remained seated. So she squeezed it instead, stooping to give him one last kiss and whispering, “I'll see you in Montreal,” before she walked away. 

 

For a long time, Naveed stayed beneath the madrona tree, surrounded by the fallen rose petals. Eventually, he wandered down to the lake. He sat on the rocky beach and gazed southward, where Mount Rainier towered in the distance, ancient and alone, finally visible after being blanketed in rainclouds all spring. Even on this clear day, the base of the mountain was obscured by wispy white clouds, giving the illusion that it was not anchored to the earth, but floating above it. It looked perfect against the blue sky, its steep, straight sides rising to meet at the rounded, snow-capped summit. And yet, Naveed found it hard to forget that it was a sleeping volcano: all that beauty, all that potential destruction.

 

Soon his hands searched for driftwood, then found his pocketknife, and he slipped into the steady rhythm of carving. The skill of woodworking had been passed down for generations in his family, and it never failed to comfort him. The wood could take whatever emotion he poured into it, which, right now, was anger. Part of him was mad at Brooke for springing this on him without warning, and for being so willing to leave. Mostly, though, he was angry with her father. He tried to give Scott the benefit of the doubt—maybe he had changed, maybe this really was an attempt to make up for his extended absence. But something nagged at Naveed, a feeling that there had to be another reason for their sudden departure. Maybe Scott was hoping that distance would drive them apart. Despite what Brooke said, Naveed doubted he'd be joining them in Montreal. 

 

Naveed hadn't seen Scott since the previous December. One cold winter night, he had biked to Brooke’s house after dinner, eager to see her again after spending several days in the backyard workshop making Roya’s birthday present. Brooke invited him in, even though her parents were away at the Nutrexo Christmas banquet and it was against her father’s rules. 

 

He figured he wouldn’t stay long, but snow started falling, a rarity in Seattle. They cuddled together under a scratchy wool blanket on the deck watching the flakes float into the lake, its water black against the snow-bright sky. The scent of the rosewater she spritzed in her hair mingled with his own sawdust-smell, and their cheeks were flushed with the warmth of each other, and then they were kissing, and she climbed onto his lap, and his hands found their way under her shirt, and her hands— 

 

Then gravel crackled under tires as her parents pulled into the driveway, earlier than expected. They were arguing, their angry voices audible through the closed windows of their SUV. Brooke slid off Naveed’s lap, adjusting her shirt, but Scott had seen; he slammed the car door and approached them, his eyes as cold as the frozen night.

 

“Brooke, get inside.” Scott turned to Naveed. “You shouldn’t be here. Go home. Now.”

 

Naveed trudged into the whirling snow, so rattled by Scott’s rage that he left his bike behind. A few minutes later, their SUV pulled up beside him. Naveed nervously glanced through the window, but Brooke's mom was the only one inside. Kelly begged him to get in.

 

Inside, the heater roared, forcing out warm air. Naveed apologized. “I’m sorry, I just missed her so much, I didn’t mean to cause any trouble. We only wanted to watch the snow.”

 

Kelly didn’t answer, but her tension traveled invisibly through the air. When they pulled up in front of his house, she exhaled deeply. “They changed him,” she muttered, as if to herself. “I told him not to take the job at Nutrexo… he never would have worked on a project like that, before….” 

 

Confused, Naveed thanked her for the ride and opened his door. Kelly got out too, saying she needed to talk to his mother. He worried that he was in trouble, that he and Brooke would have to go the whole star-crossed-lovers route. But Kelly didn’t say a word about him, or Brooke, or even Scott. All she said was, “Mahnaz. I have a new project for CFJ.” And they pulled the door to the office closed.

 

By the following weekend, Scott had moved out. Brooke talked to him often, but had only seen him a few times since then. Naveed puzzled once again over Scott’s reappearance at the play, wondering what had caused him to swoop back into their lives, and why he was taking Brooke away, and what Naveed was going to do all summer, without her. 

* * *

 

After biking aimlessly around the neighborhood for a few hours, Naveed walked his bike into the backyard. Usually, their garden was a busy place on summer afternoons, but he heard no voices, no flute, nothing to indicate his family’s presence. So he was surprised to find them gathered on the patio, looking to the treetops. Maman pressed a pair of binoculars to her eyes. Unexpectedly, Andi was there too, standing behind everyone else, combing her long black hair with her fingers. 

 

Naveed tapped her shoulder. “Hey, Andi. What’s going on?” 

 

“The crows,” she said, and Naveed saw them when he looked up, hundreds of crows dotting the trees and hedges and power lines, every bird silent with downcast eyes. She continued, “Cyrus invited me and my mom over for dinner. Turns out we’re neighbors—we live down the hill on the next block.”

 

“No way,” Naveed said. He was glad she and Cyrus had hit it off; he’d hoped they would. He was about to ask if her dad was coming when Roya threw her arms around his waist. 

 

“He didn’t make it,” she cried. “The other crow. I just found his body. That’s why they all came. Something’s wrong, and they’re scared.” 

 

A single loud caw sounded. It must have been a signal, for all the crows rose into the air then, forming a black cloud that swirled away. For a moment, only their beating wings could be heard.

 

When the stillness returned, Baba asked, “What do you think, Mahnaz-jaan?”

 

“I don’t know,” Maman said. “Two dead crows in two days—it’s odd. West Nile Virus, maybe?”

 

Roya sniffled. Naveed crouched next to her. “You okay, Roya?” 

 

She nodded, but a tear spilled out of one eye and caught on her cheek, a perfect round drop.

 

Naveed wiped it off with his thumb. “I have an idea. Tonight I’ll tell you a special story—a true one—about a crow. Would you like that?” She looked up and smiled. He wished he could be eight again, that the heaviness lodged in his own chest could be lifted so easily. 

 

They turned toward the kitchen, where Baba was now sawing into a loaf of fresh-baked sourdough, but Maman said, “Naveed, could I talk to you for a minute?”

 

She had probably heard the news from Kelly. He didn’t want to have a conversation about it right now, but he lucked out: she had something different on her mind. “About the protest. Looks like we’re going, but I need you to do something for me.” 

 

He was so glad not to talk about Brooke that he eagerly agreed. “Sure, what is it?”

 

“The three of you need to stick together. Keep a close eye on Roya especially; make sure she doesn't wander off. And… not that anything is going to happen, but… if things start to get out of hand… I want you to leave right away. Don’t wait for your father or me, just get out of there. I need you to promise that you’ll keep them safe.”

 

“But—” Naveed started.

 

“Please. Will you?”

 

“Okay. I promise. Of course, I’ll keep them safe.”

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