Friday June 12
Andi Lin’s mouth was on fire, but she scooped up another handful of Blazin Bitz anyway. Something about that slow, sweet burn was irresistible. She wanted to take the entire bowl and plop down on the couch with it, eating chip after chip until her fingers were caked in bright red dust.
But tonight was about keeping up appearances. Andi forced herself to step away from the snack table.
She drifted through her friend Marina’s den. A couple of younger kids, who’d probably been dragged along by their Nutrexo-executive parents, played a video game on the wall-mounted TV. Marina sat near them on the long couch, her legs draped over her boyfriend’s lap, both of them tapping at their phones.
Andi sat in an empty armchair, and Marina’s eyes flicked upward. “Oh, hey, Andi. We’re trying to figure out which party to go to once this thing’s over. What’re you doing later?”
Her boyfriend raised his head. Marina had introduced him a few minutes ago, but Andi had instantly forgotten his name. He looked her over, slowly, as if noticing her for the first time, then asked, “You want to come out with us? I have this friend—you’re totally his type.”
This from a guy who knew absolutely nothing about her, other than what she looked like. She cringed inside as he continued, “He’s really into Asians—”
Andi had no interest in hearing the rest of that sentence, so she cut him off. “That’s okay, I already have plans. I’m catching a show later,” she lied.
Marina snuggled closer to her boyfriend. “Andi’s dad is Jake Powell. From Mile Seven—remember that old song, ‘Swerve’? All he has to do is call the venue, and they'll put her on the list.”
This wasn’t exactly true anymore; his connections had dwindled so much that Andi could only get into a few clubs that barely ever hosted all-ages shows. The boyfriend didn’t seem to care, anyway. He was thumbing at his phone. But seconds later, he raised his eyebrows and asked, “Hey—you think I could get a picture with him? He’s here, right?”
It had been a long time since anyone asked Andi’s father for a celebrity selfie. He would have been thrilled. “Uh, no. He couldn’t make it.” She swallowed, extra conscious of the Bitz burn lingering in the back of her throat. Marina had no idea where Andi's father really was, and Andi didn't plan to tell her. Especially not here, not tonight.
Above her, the ceiling fan turned, humming a low A-flat that reminded Andi of another sound. She tried to stop her brain from making the connection, but it came anyway. The fan buzzed at the same frequency as the bumblebees in the lilac bush by her front door, the bees that had droned on and on as she'd watched her father walk away. A month had passed since then, but Andi could still hear him apologizing before he closed the gate, saying that he needed to do this. That it was for the greater good.
The tone of his voice, that was the worst thing. How lifeless it had sounded. How unlike him.
Andi rubbed her temples, but it didn't help. The ceiling fan's hum kept vibrating into her skull. Marina and her boyfriend had returned their attention to their phones, so Andi muttered, “I’ll be right back,” and slipped out of the den.
The roar of party guests filled her ears as she walked through the foyer. Andi noticed her mother standing alone near the front door. Her black hair was easy to spot; the two of them stuck out in this house filled with rich white people. Her mother took slow sips from her champagne flute while glancing around the room. She was probably still looking for Marina's dad to congratulate him on his promotion to senior vice president of Nutrexo.
Though Andi was tempted to rescue her mom, she knew they’d just end up getting drawn into yet another awkward conversation with a random executive who would furtively shift his gaze between them, making some comment about how they looked so different from each other and pressing Andi until she explained that her mom was Taiwanese but her dad was white, and then he would nod knowingly, his curiosity satisfied now that she’d been put into a box that made sense to him.
That was the last thing she wanted to deal with at the moment. She ducked into the shadowed stairwell before her mom could catch her eye and crept upstairs to the second-story deck.
Outside, it was gloriously quiet. All she heard now were the tiny beads of hail crunching under her flats. City lights sparkled against the gray waters of Puget Sound below. Rainclouds obscured the distant mountains and evergreens, but Andi was glad for it. The haze made it easier to avoid comparing this view to the one from her bedroom window: a chain-link fence, a weedy yard.
Andi shivered in the June chill. Maybe she should go see a show tonight. Something loud and shouty would be perfect, where she could lose herself in the crowd, jumping and yelling along with hundreds of sweaty strangers, letting the music carry her away for a while.
Now that she was thinking about her dad, though, she couldn’t stop. She opened her email to see if he had responded yet, but of course he hadn’t. At first, he’d emailed frequently, but the last message he’d sent had been sitting in her inbox for five days now. Andi, how's your week going? I'm doing good, nothing new here. Just the same old, same old. Miss you. Love, Dad.
Andi had written back, several times. Still nothing. He hadn't even replied to the news that she'd passed all her finals, that junior year was now over. Really, was it so hard to send a quick email? Something like, Congratulations! We'll celebrate next month, when I come home. Anything, even a single word, would have been better than no response at all. Andi didn’t know what to make of his silence.
She wanted to hear his voice, so she dialed his cell phone. Maybe this time, by some miracle, her call would go through....
Nope. Straight to voicemail, like usual.
Fine, then. His recorded voice would have to do. Andi unwound her earbuds and put on Mile Seven's second album. She'd always liked it better than the first; it was louder, grittier, not as polished. Too bad no one else shared her opinion. If the album hadn't tanked, maybe things would be different. Maybe he'd be here tonight, scandalizing the executives by wearing jeans instead of a suit and treating them to piano renditions of Pixies songs.
One thing was certain: if his music career had been more successful, he never would have signed up to be a human subject in a clinical trial at Nutrexo.
After listening to a few songs, she took out her earbuds. No use hiding up here any longer. Time to plaster on a smile and get back to the party. Maybe she could convince her mom to leave early.
A strong vanilla scent hit her when she opened the door. This place smelled nothing like Marina's old house, the one Andi had been welcomed into ever since third grade. The air was so cloying that she was tempted to turn around, but she forced herself to step onto the plush carpet inside.
The din of the party was still far away, but grew louder as she made her way down the hall. Only—wait, this was something different. The low murmur she heard now was coming from behind the closed office door.
“...they may have accessed data from the clinical trial at SILO,” was all she heard, but it stopped her. It wasn't only the words themselves; their hushed, conspiratorial tone made her both curious and uneasy.
Another man spoke now. Andi strained to hear this second voice, which was softer, and familiar: it was Mark Williams, Marina’s father. “Shouldn't be a problem, right? Tara said the paper trail was clean, no indication of any harm—”
“But everything was backed up to the same server. The human subjects data the regulatory committees didn't see, the internal documents we signed off on....”
The men spoke very quietly now. Heart pounding, Andi willed her legs to move. She took one step closer to the door.
“Tara assured me that her team has it under control,” the unknown man continued. “They’ll locate the source of the breach and contain the damage. We could get PR and Legal involved if we have to, but let's hope it doesn't come to that.”
“It better not,” Marina's father said. “But... are you sure she should be in charge of this?”
“Of course. It's her project, so this is her mess to clean up. She knows how important it is, and she'll do whatever it takes.” A phone chimed, and the unknown man added, “I have to get going—Emmett’s waiting for me to drop some cash at his crime prevention fundraiser. Actually, if this blows up, he might be able to help. He owes me a favor.”
The office door flew open, leaving Andi blinking in the harsh light. There, standing next to Mark, was the source of the other voice. Richard Caring.
Andi recognized him instantly; fawning news articles featuring his photograph often crossed her radar. Everyone in Seattle loved him, since he'd moved Nutrexo's headquarters to their city when he took over as the food corporation’s CEO.
Richard Caring was focused on his phone as he stepped out of the office, so he didn’t notice Andi. Mark's eyes went straight to her, though. They widened in surprise, and she noticed something else in them, too.
He opened his mouth and drew in a sharp breath, and she worried he would call out to her. Instead, he gave a curt side-nod toward the staircase as he said to Richard, “So, I hear you and Emmett were frat brothers back in the day.” As Richard Caring turned to face Mark, Andi hurried downstairs.
She returned to the den, heart still hammering. Marina and her boyfriend had disappeared, and a group of tweens stood near the snack table, right in front of the bowl of Blazin Bitz. Andi could have used another handful right about now.
Instead, she leaned against the wall, watching the gamers lay waste to an army of zombies. They attacked the undead with axes and sledgehammers, releasing fountains of cartoon blood.
Not helping. She pulled out her phone and googled “nutrexo silo.” While waiting for the results, she mentally replayed the upstairs conversation. Human subjects. Harm. She tried to reassure herself. Stop freaking out. They're a huge corporation, they must have hundreds of clinical trials going on. Besides, they couldn't possibly be harming the subjects, could they? Dad's fine. Of course he's fine.
She wished she knew more about the study he'd signed up for, but her father hadn't given her any details about what they were testing. All she knew was that he had to be away from home for four more weeks. Which suddenly felt like a very long time.
The search results finally appeared, but all the links were about grain storage, not research studies. Andi opened her email and composed a quick message. Hey Dad, I need to talk to you. Call me as soon as you can. I know your cell doesn't work out there but find some other way because it's really important. I love you.
A collective groan erupted from the gamers and spectators. Andi looked up at the TV, where one of the warriors lay dying. The zombies closed in to harvest his brains while carrion crows circled overhead.
Then the game restarted, the fallen warrior springing back to life as if nothing had ever happened. But the zombies would keep coming, and the warriors would keep dying. It was an endless, futile cycle.
It’s only a game, Andi thought. And then: why am I still here?
She sent off a quick text to Marina, thanking her for the invitation and saying that she had to get going. Six months before, Andi probably would have told her everything. But this Marina, in her grand new house with her shiny perfect life, would never want to hear it.
Once in the foyer, Andi spotted her mother by the kitchen, deep in conversation with another woman. To Andi's relief, Richard Caring was nowhere in sight; he must have left for that fundraiser. But as she headed towards her mother, someone stepped in front of her, blocking her path.
He smiled in the same friendly way he always greeted her, but Andi could see the anxiety in his eyes.
“I don't know how much you heard up there,” he said quietly. “But I can imagine how it must have sounded, out of context. I wish I could explain, but it's too complicated. The bottom line is that we're the ones working for the greater good, and the hackers are trying to undermine us. So... don't discuss what you heard with anyone. Richard would be furious if he ever found out you were eavesdropping. Do you understand?”
Andi understood perfectly. Nutrexo was covering up something very wrong, something that might involve her father. But Mark's eyes were so hard, his voice so stern, that she couldn't bring herself to confront him. She only nodded.
“Mark! There you are,” Andi's mother said from behind them. She shook his hand, congratulating him on his promotion and his beautiful new home. Mark said something in response, but all the words got disconnected from each other and the only thing Andi heard was the message he communicated with his eyes. Don't tell anyone. Just forget it.
Andi wasn't going to forget. And when her father called back, she would tell him everything.
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