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©2019 by Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Seventeen

Friday June 19

Andi was making cupcakes. In Dr. Snyder's kitchen. 

She had to concentrate as she weighed the ingredients on a scale and portioned out the batter for their test conditions (three different doses of EcoCow milk, with regular cow's milk as the control). But as soon as the cakes went into the oven, she took in the scene: Dr. Snyder in her white apron, wiping the counter; Zane the security guard on a bar stool, snacking on chips and salsa. 

 

It was bizarre. That was the only way to describe it.

 

As surprised as she'd been by the invitation to help with this project, Andi had jumped at the chance to learn more. But so far, she hadn't come up with anything new. Dr. Snyder was not in a talkative mood, and her apartment hadn't offered any insight either. Andi wasn't sure what she expected; it wasn't like she was going to find a So You Want to be a Mad Scientist? self-help manual on the bookshelf, or a white board diagram explaining what had happened the day of the protest. Still, she was disappointed: it was tiny, barely furnished. The walls were bare, the rooms devoid of personal touches.

 

When Dr. Snyder finished wiping the counter, she said, “Why don't we sit on the patio for a minute. Would you like something to drink, Andi? Zane?”

 

“You got any beer?” Zane asked.

 

“No, but I have wine.”

 

Zane made a face. “I'll stick with pop, thanks,” he said.

 

Andi opted for water, and Dr. Snyder arranged the beverages on a tray, along with a glass of red wine for herself.

 

The patio was a concrete slab surrounded by high walls, containing a round table and four plastic chairs. Andi had just stepped outside when a crow swooped above Dr. Snyder's head, cawing menacingly.

 

Dr. Snyder shrieked, and the tray wobbled as she transferred it to one hand, using the other to protect herself from the dive-bombing bird. Her wine glass toppled onto the ground as the crow brushed the top of her head—Andi caught an unexpected glimpse of white in its wings—and she turned to run back inside. But Zane stood in the doorway, reaching for something on his belt: a gun, Andi realized with dread.

 

“You want me to—” Zane started, but the crow was already fluttering out of sight, still cawing.

 

Dr. Snyder exhaled and set the drinks on the table. She stooped to examine her broken wine glass, and the dark red liquid pooling on the concrete. “Next time you see him, be my guest. That crow, the one with the white feathers—he's such a nuisance. I tried to trap him the other day to run an experiment.” She picked up the shards, collecting them in a neat pile on the tray.  “Of course, he’s just a bird. He doesn’t understand about making sacrifices for the greater good.”

 

Dr. Snyder retreated inside. Andi wished she could peek over the patio to see what lay beyond, but Zane was right there watching, with a gun in his holster. 

 

So she sat at the table sipping her ice water. As she strained to listen for the crow, she heard something else: a song, one she recognized. At first, she figured it was precipitated by her longing for home, that it only existed in her head. But when she heard that hesitation during the bridge as the chord changed to D minor, that millisecond of silence that happened every time he played it live, she knew.

 

Her father was here, playing his guitar. He was here, on another patio somewhere, strumming and singing. From this distance, she couldn't hear his voice, but Andi knew the lyrics by heart. 

 

Now that you’re here I can’t think straight

Thoughts circling back like figure eights

Out of control we skid into the curve

We have to surrender, we have to swerve

Andi choked back the cry that rose to her throat, trying to cover it by coughing. It took every ounce of self-control not to leap over the wall and run for him, yelling, Dad! It's me, I came for you, quick we have to get out of here—

 

But that could only end badly. She forced herself to stay quiet, and was gulping her water when Dr. Snyder returned with a new glass of wine in hand.

 

Andi was grateful for the silence as they sipped their drinks. She tried to collect herself, but it wasn't easy. All she could think about was how to find her father and leave. The problem was, she had no idea what to do. Every possibility for escape was too risky, too impractical.

 

“You know, it's been a long day at work. I had to do some difficult experiments, and I'm not really up for talking about research right now,” Dr. Snyder eventually said, and Andi forced herself to focus. “So why don't you tell me more about yourself, Andi. When did your family come to this country?”

 

Andi bristled at the question, and its implication that her ethnicity was the most important thing about her. Besides, the answer was complicated. She wasn't in the mood for a conversation about how it felt to be forever dipping her toes into the waters of two different cultures, unable to fully immerse herself in either one. 

 

So she gave Dr. Snyder the answer she wanted. “My grandparents moved here from Taiwan before my mom was born.”

 

“Oh, I see. So what do your parents do?”

 

“My dad’s...” Andi trailed off, because it was hard to finish. He's a subject in your study. In fact, he's right over there, playing guitar for us! She took a sip of her water and continued, “He's in between things at the moment. And my mom works in the Psychology department at the university.” Andi always phrased it that way, because it sounded better than admitting that her mother was basically a secretary. In college, she had studied philosophy but dreamed of being a professional photographer. She’d met Andi’s father while on assignment, taking photos at a music festival where Mile Seven was playing. 

 

“Psychology? Interesting. Is she a professor?”    

 

Andi was about to answer, but was interrupted by a deep voice blaring from a nearby intercom: “Attention. Spraying begins in five minutes. Please move inside immediately.” 

 

“Oh, I forgot. We'd better go in,” Dr. Snyder said, but Andi stood slowly, listening. The late afternoon air was now still. Her father had stopped playing, so he must have heard the announcement too.

 

The oven timer began beeping as they walked inside, so Dr. Snyder removed the cupcakes and prepared for the blind taste test. Andi sat on the sofa, still rattled from hearing her father and wishing intensely to leave. She couldn't keep up the pretense much longer. 

 

“Zane, would you like to join us?” Dr. Snyder asked once she'd set everything up. He nodded eagerly. 

 

The first three cupcakes tasted normal to Andi, but the fourth was better somehow. She couldn't pinpoint anything different about the flavor, yet she quickly declared it the winner.     

 

“Yeah, that one's definitely the best,” Zane agreed, though it was hard to hear through his mouthful of cupcake. “Are there any more?”

 

Dr. Snyder handed him another cake, then began slicing one into wedges for herself. 

 

“Which one was that?” Andi asked.

 

“The one with the highest EcoCow milk dose—just as I hypothesized.”

 

“Why did it taste so much better, though?” 

 

Dr. Snyder bit into a small wedge of cake. “Mmm,” she said. “I think we've got it—I'll submit our recipe to the product development team so they can produce a test run for us.”

 

Andi was unsatisfied with the lack of answer, and no longer in a hurry to leave. The taste test had renewed her interest in the EcoCow milk. So she offered to help clean up, figuring that the tipsier Dr. Snyder got, the more likely she'd be to let something slip. 

 

“Yeah, why don't you ladies take care of that,” Zane said, drifting over to the sofa with his bag of chips. He turned on a hockey game.

 

Andi gathered the uneaten cakes on a plate, trying to figure out which were the good ones so she could sneak one more bite, but Dr. Snyder seemed to know what she was thinking. “Sorry, they're all gone. But I'm glad to see they have the intended effect.”

 

Andi carried the empty muffin tins into the kitchen, trying to sound nonchalant as she asked, “What do you mean?”

 

“Well... while manipulating the genes, I did put in the code for something else—a protein that stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, it makes you feel relaxed.”

 

Andi should have felt triumphant to finally get her answer, but instead she was only disturbed. “You did? Why?”

 

“If you feel good when you’re eating something, you’ll eat more of it. These last few years have been hard on the company. We need to do everything we can to raise profits—we’re falling behind our biggest rival, Hannigan Foods. Plus, we’re making people happy, giving them what they want. It’s a win-win situation.”

 

“So... it's like a drug?” Andi asked.

 

“No, not at all.” Dr. Snyder sounded almost angry at the suggestion. “It's all in the dose. The amount we're talking about here is miniscule; it's hardly even there. No different from any naturally occurring ingredient, really. In fact, sugar has similar effects, but no one calls it a drug.”

 

Andi was unconvinced. It still sounded drug-like to her—and, more importantly, it felt so. She already ached for more, craving these cupcakes the same way she did Blazin Bitz. She hadn't been able to give up eating the chips, even after swearing them off following her last conversation with Dr. Snyder. They always calmed her down, and she needed all the calm she could get in this place.

 

She thought of her father, sitting in a room like hers, also growing addicted to the Bitz. It seemed an especially cruel twist of fate that, after all he’d gone through to get sober, his brain chemistry was now being hijacked by a harmless-looking snack food. At least he wasn't so far gone that he'd forgotten how to play his own songs... but he'd apparently grown apathetic enough not to bother corresponding with his own daughter.

 

“Oh. That makes sense,” Andi said, in an attempt to cover her skepticism and keep Dr. Snyder talking. “So how did you do that? It sounds complicated.”

 

“That was the easy part, actually.” Dr. Snyder launched into an explanation that Andi only half-heard, because she was still thinking of her father, still hearing his song in her head, still trying to figure out how to reach him.

 

Dr. Snyder started the dishwasher and poured another glass of wine—which was this, her third? Fourth? She leaned against the counter, swirling it contemplatively, and Andi watched the liquid catch on the edge of the glass, dripping down to collect in the red pool at the bottom.

 

When Andi crossed the kitchen to refill her water from the refrigerator dispenser, she noticed a framed photograph balanced atop a stack of books. It was a family portrait, awash in the same golden haze that Andi recognized from her own parents' baby pictures. A long-haired woman in big glasses sat in the center of the frame. A toddler with blonde pigtails stood beside her, gazing up and smiling—Dr. Snyder, Andi guessed. Another figure in overalls sat on the woman's lap. Andi couldn't tell if it was a girl or a boy, because the child's head had been cut out, leaving a white hole in the woman's chest, right where her heart should be.

 

“That's my mother.” Andi almost jumped; she hadn't noticed Dr. Snyder approach, but now she stood close enough that Andi could smell her fermented breath. “It's the only photo I have of her, and my brother ruined it. So I had to cut him out—I can't stand looking at his face.” She turned to Andi. “Do you have any siblings?”

 

“No.”

 

“Lucky you.” Dr. Snyder took another sip of her wine. “My mother's pretty far gone now. But every time she's coherent during one of my visits, she only wants to know how he's doing. Even though he has never once gone to see her—I know, I checked with the nursing staff. Even though I'm the one paying for her care. It's always him she wants to talk about. Her golden boy. The one who could never do anything wrong.”

 

Andi didn't know what to say. She felt strange, as if she were the one drinking wine, and the world was starting to go topsy-turvy. 

 

“She has no idea what my brother did to me,” Dr. Snyder continued. “How he tortured me, my whole life. He used to tell me that she wasn't my real mom at all, that she'd found me crying in a Dumpster and took pity on the dirty little baby that nobody else wanted. And when she started losing her memory—she had early-onset dementia, but for years we had no idea what was happening to her—he said that was my fault too, that it had started the day she brought me home. According to him, I was cursed, and as long as I was around she would never be well again. He made my life miserable… he hurt me in so many ways… but every time I went to her for help, she believed his story over mine. He was so charming, so perfect around her. He knew what she wanted to see.”

 

“That's awful,” Andi said reflexively, unsure how this conversation had taken such an intimate turn. Why is she telling me this? she wondered. The answer came swiftly, disconcertingly: Because she has no one else. Dr. Snyder had isolated herself so completely that her only option for companionship was a girl she had imprisoned. 

 

“And that's not the worst of it.” Dr. Snyder's eyes looked cold, like frozen lakes. “Once, the summer I was fourteen, my mother left us to look for my dad—she was convinced he was waiting for her somewhere, even though he died when I was two. She didn't come back for days. My brother wouldn't let me call anyone, or tell the police. He was seventeen, already a fucking meth addict—he didn’t want any cops around. I was so worried, I rode my bike all over town trying to find her. When I walked in the door, all of his asshole friends were there with him, everyone completely wasted, and they were going on and on about how hot I looked in my bike shorts. I ignored them and went to my room, but it didn't matter. They found me.” Dr. Snyder gulped the rest of her wine, then set the glass in the sink. The crystal rang out a sharp, clear note, and she placed a finger on the rim to silence it. “My brother knew. I'm sure he heard me. But he didn't stop them.”

 

Andi felt sick. She stared at the empty wine glass, at the pale pink half-moon imprint made by Dr. Snyder's lipstick. “I'm so sorry,” she said, and she was. 

 

“Well. They all wanted me to believe I was worthless; they thought it would be easy to tear me down, because I was just a girl. But I was smarter than that. I got out of there as soon as I could, and decided to study neurology when I got to college. I wanted to figure out what was broken inside my mother's brain and how to fix it. But Richard Caring started his Women in Science program shortly after I graduated high school, and I ended up on a different path. The Nutrexo Foundation financed my studies, and afterward they offered me a job here. They believed in me. They saw that I could accomplish great things. 

 

“Not that it's been easy. None of it has. People are still trying to sabotage my work, to destroy my career. But I won't let them. I'm going to do it, Andi. I am going to save this company.”

 

Over on the couch, Zane muted the television while advertisements played, and Andi became aware of the dishwasher's B-flat hum, of the quiet whooshing of water within, and she felt suddenly like she was drowning, like she'd never escape. Dr. Snyder was going to keep her here forever.

 

“That's why my research is so important. The experiments I did today... they were necessary, Andi.” Dr. Snyder had a strange look in her eyes, almost as if pleading for something. Forgiveness, maybe. “They had to be done.” 

 

Andi couldn't suppress a shiver. She tried to look away, but her eyes were drawn back to the photograph, to that gaping white hole. She couldn't ask, but she wanted to know, and at the same time she didn't want to know at all.

 

What did you do?

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