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©2020 Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Nineteen

Saturday June 20

They hadn't gone far into the forest before darkness engulfed them; moonlight barely penetrated the canopy of pine trees. They weren’t moving quickly enough for Andi’s liking, but it was the best they could do in this dense brush. 


The black gun in her hand was heavy, its textured handle rough beneath her sweaty palm. It felt burdensome rather than powerful, and she didn't like being stuck with it, but she couldn't give it to Cyrus. He was saddled with Naveed, whose unsteadiness grew with every step. So Andi held the gun tightly and followed the path they cleared, glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one had caught up. She didn't know what she'd do if Dr. Snyder found them….


Well, Andi had a gun now. She supposed she'd have to use it.  


The images she'd seen that night would haunt her forever: Naveed lying in all that blood blinking vacantly, like he didn't even know her; the severed cow head on the ground beside him; the EcoCows trapped in that filthy barn, their inflamed udders, their long-lashed, sorrowful eyes. But she was also unable to forget the photograph of Dr. Snyder's mother, that white hole where her brother's head had been. Dr. Snyder had lied about so much, but Andi knew she had not lied about that. 


Andi's attention was on the woods behind her, so she didn't notice when the small, wild-haired figure appeared before them, silhouetted in the dim moonlight. 


“Roya? Is that you?” Cyrus whispered.


“Kourosh!” Roya threw her arms around his waist. 


“You got out! Did you dig that hole?” 


“Yes,” said Roya with pride. “It took a long time. The dirt was hard.”


“Then you saved us too. They totally would have caught us….” He shook his head. “I can’t believe you figured out how to get out of there before we did.”


“I had to. I wasn’t sure if she was ever going to come.” Roya looked at Andi, then her eyes flicked over to Naveed’s gaunt, shadowy face. “Oh, Naveed, what happened?” She moved to embrace him, but he stepped away.


“Don't touch me,” he said, his voice thin and raspy. It was the first he'd spoken.


Roya turned to Andi. “I told you he was there! She was lying, you knew she was lying, so how could you go along with everything she said?”


“I—I’m sorry, I had no idea he was—” Andi began, her voice cracking, because she felt awful. She'd been so focused on her father that she hadn't given much thought to where Naveed and Cyrus might be. At least, not until tonight, after all that talk about Dr. Snyder's brother, about the difficult experiments she'd done.... 


“Stop it. I'm fine, really.” Naveed said. 


“You're not!” Roya was on the verge of tears. “I can smell the poison, it’s all over you, and you’re bleeding.” She held his muddy hand, squinting at his wrist.


“It's nothing.” Naveed pulled it away and coughed to clear his throat. “The smell… it's just manure, from the barn….” 


“No, it’s a different smell. Kind of sweet, like fake maple syrup. They spray it on the fields. It's been killing the crows.”


“Maple syrup,” Cyrus murmured, and Andi could practically see connections forming inside his head, the same connections she’d made in the lab: the white bottle, the spray nozzle, the chemical smell. “It’s killing crows? How do you know that?” 


“Please, stop.” Naveed sounded miserable. 


“But—” Roya started.


“Never mind.” Cyrus said. “We need to keep moving. This way looks pretty clear—come on.”


Roya took Naveed’s hand, turning her back on Andi. She was right to be angry, Andi thought while trudging behind them. Roya may not know the details, but she understood enough: something horrible had happened to her brother, and Andi had failed to prevent it.  


* * *


They hadn’t been hiking for long, half an hour at most, when Naveed collapsed. He fell into a stand of moonlit ferns and did not rise. 


Andi, still lagging behind the others, rushed closer. Roya was crouched over him, frantic. “Naveed! Wake up!” She slapped at his cheeks with her small hands, repeating, “Wake up, wake up, wake up….” 


After a seemingly endless minute, Naveed responded. “Let me sleep,” he mumbled, turning his head away.


Cyrus stepped out of the ferns. “We should stop for a while. It’s hard enough to get through this brush as it is, and if we have to carry him….”


“But shouldn’t we keep going? We can’t let them find us,” Andi whispered, not wanting Roya to hear.


“They won’t. They didn’t follow, and it would be impossible to track us through the woods when it’s this dark. We’re safe for now,” he whispered back. He was trying to be comforting, but the last two words settled ominously in Andi’s mind. For now.


Roya, her hands still on Naveed’s cheeks, looked at them through teary eyes. “Kourosh, is he going to be okay?”


“Of course. He just needs rest. Here, let’s clear a spot for him.” He started moving rocks and fallen branches from the adjacent ground. Andi set the gun down and helped the others lift him out of the ferns. Naveed rolled onto his side and Roya lay down beside him, sniffling.


“Why don’t you get some sleep, too. We’ll keep watch,” Cyrus offered. Roya didn’t answer, but she closed her eyes and put her thumb into her mouth. She nuzzled at Naveed’s back with her curled-up fist. 


Cyrus took a seat on a mossy log nearby. Andi retrieved the gun and offered it to him, holding it by the barrel. “I hate carrying this. Do you want it?”


“Not really, but I'll take it if you want me to.” He set it on the log. “Good thing you got it—that's probably why they didn't follow us.” 


Andi was about to sit next to him when she remembered the wallets in her back pockets. She handed them to Cyrus. “Here, I found these in the supply closet.”


Cyrus’s wallet was held together with duct tape. He opened it, revealing a few tattered dollar bills. “Thanks. Man, I wish cash was edible. I’m super hungry.” He tucked both wallets into his jeans. “I’ll give Naveed’s back later. Did you find anything else? Our phones?”


“They weren’t there. Just the wallets, the knife, and this.” As she pulled out Naveed’s wristwatch, one of the purple lab gloves fell onto the forest floor. She stuffed it back into her pocket.  


“The watch!” Cyrus exclaimed, strapping it to his left wrist. Andi didn’t understand why he was so excited, until Cyrus continued, “He just got it for graduation—it’s got a bunch of extra features. Including a compass.”


“But we don’t know where we are. How do we know which direction to go?”


“At least we can make sure we’re not going in circles.”


Andi glanced at Roya, now fast asleep, and then at Naveed’s shadowed body, his shoulders rising and falling to the rhythm of his breath. “What are we going to do about him? He really needs water. I don’t think she gave him any. Or if she did, it wasn’t enough.”


“We’ll forage for food in the morning. Find some edible leaves—those have water in them, a little bit. And then we’ll look for a better source.” 


“But they sprayed the fields tonight... do you think the leaves are safe?”


“They're probably fine. The wind wouldn't carry it this far into the woods.” Cyrus poked at the ground with a stick he’d found beside the log. “Andi, how did you do that, in the lab?”


“How did I know the combination, you mean?” A heavy ache settled in her gut when she remembered the afternoon she'd first seen that metal door across the lab, and those messy shelves nearby, looking like they didn't belong. If only she'd put it together then, she might have been able to get Naveed out before—


To avoid thinking about it, she kept talking. “I was in her office the other day. She bought the story I told her at the protest, that I wanted to do an internship, and I got her to talk about her research. When she opened the lab door to... put something inside, I memorized the notes the keys played.” 


“The notes were different? They all sounded the same to me.”


Andi shrugged. “I have a good ear for that stuff, I guess. That's probably the one time in my life it's ever been useful.” 


Cyrus was looking at her curiously. “You're just full of hidden superpowers, huh? But no, I was wondering about after we got inside. I mean, one minute you’re about to have a panic attack, and the next you’re being all awesome, like an ER doctor or something. I need the knife! Water, stat!”


Andi was quiet for a time, thinking. “I had to do it. Because it was my fault.” 


“No, it wasn’t. This whole thing only happened because I tried to break into that computer.”


“But we wouldn't have even gone into NRI if it weren't for me. And I should have figured out what she was doing, but I didn't, not until you and I were sitting there in the lab. Once I put it together... it was like the part of my brain that was panicking turned off, because I had to focus on the only thing that mattered. Rescuing him.” 


“Good thing you did. I couldn’t even move. All that blood….”


“I think it was the cow’s, though. I didn’t see any cuts on his head or anything.”


“That’s good,” Cyrus said. “What was that cow all about, anyway?”


Andi shuddered, wishing she had a blanket to cover her bare arms. It was cold out here in the night. “I have no idea. She's... she....” Andi didn't know how to finish. “She needs help,” she finally said. 


“Well, that's the understatement of the millennium.” Cyrus excavated a tuft of moss from the log with his stick.


There was nothing more to say. Andi put her head in her hands, wishing she could erase everything she'd seen that night.


“Hey, I have an idea,” Cyrus said. “Let’s pretend we’re on a camping trip. Nutrexo doesn’t exist. The others are sleeping in the tent, but we came out here to look at the stars.” 


“Did you just say ‘let’s pretend’? What are we, five years old?”


“I'm just saying that might make it easier to, you know, talk about something else for a while.”  


“Yeah, but pretending our problems aren’t there won’t make them go away.”


“Dwelling on them won’t help, either. There is honestly nothing we can do right now. This has been a horrible night, and I think we both deserve a break.” He punctured the ground for emphasis.


He was right, Andi realized. This whole week had been a constant strain. She was always holding back, always careful about what she said, always presenting herself as the person Dr. Snyder wanted to see. But… it wasn’t only at SILO. Ever since her father's record store had closed, she’d worked hard to pretend everything was fine, wanting to keep up appearances for her friends, for her mother. But here, next to Cyrus, she felt the same ease that she did around Naveed. She didn’t have to worry that every word she said was being analyzed and judged; she didn’t have to do anything to impress him. In fact, trying to impress him would probably have the opposite effect.  


“Here,” she said, extending her empty hand to him. “How many marshmallows do you want on your s’more?”


Cyrus caught her eye and smiled. He pantomimed picking up the invisible marshmallows and impaling them on his stick. “I’ll take… oh, I don’t know. Fifty.”


Andi pretended to hand him more from the imaginary bag next to her, then found a stick of her own. They leaned forward, extending them towards the nonexistent campfire. 


“Maybe I should make s’more cupcakes for the bake sale,” Cyrus mused.


“What bake sale?” Andi’s stomach growled. “And yes. Yes, you should.” 


“You know those outdoor movies at Columbia Park? I got permission to have a stand there in a couple weeks. Oh, Andi, it’s going to be epic. Like, days of baking to get ready. I had one last year, too. Got to keep saving up for my car.”


“But you’re not even sixteen yet.”


“I will be in a few months. They barely give me any hours at the bakery, and it's not like my parents can help out much. And I’m not about to go trekking around Seattle on a bike. Not my thing.”


Andi couldn’t suppress a smile. “Cyrus, don’t take this the wrong way, but… you guys are so weird.”


“Hey, Naveed’s the weird one, not me! What kind of teenager would be content to spend a day carving wood and reciting Persian poetry? I’m super normal, compared to him!”


“Yeah, but you’re planning to finance your car… by holding bake sales. That’s not exactly a common strategy. Especially for guys.”


“What’s wrong with that? Everyone should know how to bake, and how to cook. Those are basic life skills!” 


“I’m just joking,” Andi said. “I think it’s awesome. What else are you going to bake?”


Cyrus started listing all the treats, the cookies and cakes, the turnovers and tarts, until Andi begged him to stop. He sat up to stretch, then reclined against the log, propping his head on it like a pillow, looking up. 


Andi joined him. Above, tree branches spread out like spokes in a wheel. Wedges of sky were visible in the gaps, sparkling with distant light. Andi had never before noticed that stars actually twinkled; it was hard to tell in the city. The sky seemed textured, as if loosely woven fabric had been draped between earth and sun, but no one had smoothed out the wrinkles. 


They sat for a while in silence, watching the stars brighten and fade, each lost in their own thoughts. 


Finally, Cyrus straightened up. “You all right keeping watch for a minute? I really have to pee.”


“Of course,” Andi said, though she didn’t want him to go. 


“Okay if I take this?” He picked up the gun.


Andi nodded. Twigs snapped as he disappeared into the darkness, leaving her there, tiny under the immensity of the sky. 


She wasn’t alone, though. The others still slept nearby, and as Andi listened, Naveed’s wheezy breath quickened. She stepped over the log to see him twisting in agitation, murmuring words she couldn’t understand. She crouched next to him, patting his shoulder, wondering if she should try to wake him up. 


He seemed to sense her presence, and reached out to her with eyes still closed. His head came to rest in her lap, and she let it stay. She touched his face, feeling its angles. Scratchy stubble shadowed his chin, and his curls were stiff from dried blood, but his skin was soft.  


It felt wrong, holding him like this. Naveed was devoted to Brooke; that had been clear when she'd seen them together at the play. But his nearness felt good, and right now she needed something good.


Besides, it was calming him, too. His breath slowed, and he sighed in what might have been contentment. He pressed closer, and she was suddenly at the mercy of an intense, churning tide that contained everything: love and fear, sorrow and hope, yearning and anguish. When it receded, all that remained was a deep, aching regret. Despite Cyrus’s praise, what Andi had done in the lab had not been enough. And her father was still at SILO. 


Overcome, she began sobbing. Though she tried to be silent, a whimper escaped. It echoed in the hush of the midnight forest.


Naveed moved his hand to her knee, and its warm weight settled there, radiating through her and bringing a small measure of comfort. Andi sniffed, trying to regain composure. Though she didn’t want to move, she figured she should get up before Cyrus returned. He had been gone for a while, actually. She was beginning to wonder why he wasn’t back yet when Naveed awoke. 


Andi froze, her hand still on his cheek, as he opened his eyes and regarded her with horrified surprise.  


“What are you doing?” he yelled hoarsely, jerking back. “Get away from me!”


Andi stood, as Roya sat up rubbing her eyes. “Naveed? Are you okay?”


He didn’t answer. Roya held him now, stroking his back and looking to Andi. “What happened? What did you do?”


“Nothing.” Andi wiped tears from her cheeks, grateful for the dark. Her insides felt squirmy, like she’d swallowed a living worm.  


Cyrus sauntered back at that moment, oblivious to the tension in the air. “Oh, good, you’re awake,” he said. “Time to pack up, guys. I found water.”


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