• Black Instagram Icon
  • Black Spotify Icon

©2019 by Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Sixteen

Friday June 19

Roya had no idea why they called this place a farm. Nothing grew here. 


When Andi told her she'd arranged a visit to the freezer farm, Roya was excited, thinking there would be plants. But it was only a room with machines and boxes and equipment. And freezers. Lots of freezers. It was big, L-shaped, and Andi ran laps around it with her hair up in a ponytail. What Roya wanted to do was climb, but she was not allowed to touch anything, and Erika and the guard were watching. 


At the front of the room was a huge machine. Andi taught Roya the name of it: autoclave. It had a big circular door that opened into a dark hole, and a tray inside like a silver tongue. Erika worked nearby, covering lids of beakers with foil and masking tape decorated with white lines, then loading them into its mouth. When she turned the autoclave on it whooshed and clanked like an old washing machine. The beakers were very hot when they came out, and the lines on the tape weren’t white anymore. Inside the machine they turned black.


Roya did not like the autoclave. She stayed as far from it as she could. That was how she found the window.


It was around the corner, hidden behind a stack of boxes atop a freezer. Roya could only see a sliver of it, but that was enough. Through the haze of dust, she saw a green fringe of grass, and a sprawling juniper bush, and the golden glow of sun.


Roya rushed to tell Andi, but Andi only whispered, “Not yet.” She angled her head toward the guard, who sat in the corner of the L. 


Roya was tired of waiting. They'd been here for five whole days. Today was Friday, and it made her sad to think about her parents making dinner in an empty house, when Cyrus should be cooking. The sadness was distant, hard to reach, but Roya wanted to feel it. She wanted to feel something, after spending all this time in a daze. Even though the constant calm felt kind of good, she fought against it, because she needed to remember: she was trapped here.


Now that she'd finally found a chance to escape, she was going to take it. When they were far from the guard, Roya whispered, “We can wait until he's not looking. Then you just have to lift me up. I can fit through.”  


“It’s not the right time,” Andi whispered back. “Dr. Snyder’s coming to get me in a few minutes. I'm going to help her test some recipes.”


Roya did not like that Andi was spending time with the bad lady. “But I don't want to go back to my room yet. I'm tired of that place.” 


“I know. Want me to ask Erika if you can stay here a little longer?” 


Roya fingered the silver star charm on her flute case. All she wanted was to feel that grass beneath her feet, to breathe air that was fresh, not refrigerated. If only she were alone, she could figure out how to climb on top of the freezer, open the window.... 


“Yes. I want to stay,” Roya said.


But Erika had left the room for a moment, so Andi asked the guard instead. He grumbled, “Maybe, if Erika watches her. Snyder needs me to escort you.” 


While Andi ran laps, Roya sat against a freezer at the far end of the room. This was like something from a story book: being held prisoner, searching for a way to escape. To get out of here, she'd need to be clever, like the wily tricksters in the Shahnameh and A Thousand and One Nights. Roya leaned against the freezer, eyes closed, thinking and thinking and thinking. 


When Dr. Snyder appeared in the doorway, Andi hugged Roya and whispered, “Soon. I promise.” She jogged away, her black ponytail swinging back and forth. 


Roya stood up. The guard was following Dr. Snyder and Andi, but he paused to ask Erika, “You okay with the little one?” The turkey picture on his neck moved when he talked.


Erika tore off a sheet of aluminum foil and crinkled it over a beaker. “Yeah, I can watch her.”


“Call if you need me,” he said.


Roya was scared, but this was her chance. She waited until the guard was at the door before she ran toward the group, saying, “Wait for me!” as she passed the autoclave. They were far away enough that they wouldn't be able to hear her over the machine. 


Roya waved at Erika. “Bye.”

Erika looked puzzled. “You’re going with them? I thought you were staying here.”


“Andi asked me to come,” Roya said, and as she turned to run toward the closing door, she accidentally-on-purpose knocked into a cart of clean beakers, sending a few crashing to the ground.


Erika cried out in surprise and bent to pick them up. Roya kept running, but instead of leaving through the door, she wedged herself behind an adjacent stack of boxes and kept very, very still for what seemed a very, very long time.


Roya couldn't hear anything but the thump of her own heart and the rumble of the autoclave. She worried that Erika would come looking for her hiding place, or maybe call the guard, but she didn't. 


Eventually, the machine stopped. Glassware clinked as Erika took out the black-marked beakers and started a new load. She wheeled the cart out of the room and closed the door behind her. 


Roya was alone.


The boxes next to her were big and sturdy, but not heavy. She pushed three of them around the corner, one by one, and built a staircase in front of the freezer.


She nudged aside the boxes on top, then squeezed herself into the small space between the ceiling and the freezer. She touched the window. It was warm.


But it didn't have a latch, and Roya realized she would have to break it. She climbed back down and searched the room for something heavy that could shatter the glass. She had to be quick. Erika could come back any minute.    


Beakers, boxes, gloves, test tubes. Nothing was strong enough. She wished for a rock, but of course there were no rocks here.


Roya looked down at her hand. She had been holding the star when she made that wish. And then something on the ground caught her eye, right by the door. The brick Erika had used as a doorstop when she pushed the cart in.


Brick in hand, Roya rushed back to the window. Standing atop the box stairway, she threw it with all her might.


The shattering glass would have been loud, if it hadn’t been for the autoclave. Roya scooted atop the freezer, reaching her hand outside—outside!—to retrieve the brick. She used it to push out the glass that still hung in the frame, clearing an opening for herself. The warm summer air found its way to her, and she breathed in deeply. She crawled out the window, checked that no one was near, then wriggled through the juniper hedge.   


Roya crouched in the grass looking at the blue sky, which she could see in patches between the many cherry tree branches crisscrossing overhead. The cherries were ripe, red as rubies. 


For the first time in days, she smiled. 


Roya entered the orchard and scaled one of the trees. It had grown up tall, unpruned, but she found knobby knots in the trunk to use as footholds. There were so many cherries within her reach that she picked enough to fill her pockets within minutes. She bit into one. It was tart, a pie cherry. Albaloo! she thought with delight. She had always liked the Persian name better.


Then she heard something: a flutter of wings and a hoarse caw. A crow landed on a branch beside her. He was glossy and regal, very important-looking. 


“Hello,” Roya whispered, placing a cherry in her palm and offering it to him. He accepted it. “I’m Roya. What’s your name?”


He raised his wings, and a patch of white feathers gleamed in the sun.


Something about the light, those shining feathers, that unexpected streak of white, took Roya somewhere else. The orchard faded away, and she was back in Khaleh Yasmin’s living room. It smelled like saffron rice, and Khaleh Yasmin's hair—dark black with glints of white peeking through—gleamed beneath her head scarf as she told stories, ending each tale with the same short verse in Persian: Gheseyeh mah beh sar resid, kalahgheh beh khunash naresid, which translated to something like, Now our story is done, but the crow's journey home is never over. She never looked at Roya as she said it; she looked up at the photograph of her lost son Omid, who—Roya once overheard—had fought with the Iranian army in a long-ago war, and was martyred at age seventeen in an explosion or maybe from poison gas, they never knew how, so many people were dying then. For a while after it was hard for Roya to face the photo of Omid with his little brother Farhad, just a toddler in the pictures. But eventually Roya looked up at him every time Khaleh Yasmin got to the part about that crow and its endless journey. She liked to think that he was listening too.


Now, in the tree, Roya took another mouth-puckering bite of albaloo, settling on the perfect name. She cocked her head at the white-feathered crow and said, “Hello, Omid.” 

Though Roya knew she couldn’t stay in the tree long, she crouched there with the crow for a few minutes. Far away, someone was playing a song on the guitar. She’d never heard it before, but it had a nice melody, and she listened until it was interrupted by another sound: the crackle of a loudspeaker. Roya could only make out four words: Spraying. Move inside. Immediately.


That didn’t sound good. But Roya wasn’t about to go back through the window. 


The crow looked at her and cawed. She knew exactly what he was saying.


Follow me.


* * *


Through fields of tall grass Roya ran, following Omid until he perched on a craggy dead tree next to a big red barn. 


When Roya emerged from the field, another crow stood in her path. This one hopped along the ground like the pair of crows in her yard. 


An airplane droned in the distance. Omid fluttered down beside them, cawing as if in warning. Roya tried to pick the other crow up, but it pecked at her fingers, cackling angrily and flapping out of her hands. 


“Stop that! Come with me—you’re in danger!” Roya said, but it hopped further away. Frustrated, she kept grabbing for it, until she saw the plane in the distance, flying low—


There was no time. She abandoned the crows and ran for the barn, but stopped when she saw the huge padlock on the door. Frantically, she grabbed it with both hands, pulling and twisting at it as the plane flew closer, closer, and as she was about to give up she heard a faint click and it popped open: someone hadn't squeezed it shut all the way. She pulled the lock off and cracked the door open just in time. Omid sailed in behind her. She was grateful for his company.


Inside the barn, a green tractor stood in the center of the room. The building was dusty and old, and some of the walls had gaps where the wood had rotted away. They shook when the plane buzzed near, and the air began filling with a sweet scent. It reminded her of Sunday breakfast, of… maple syrup? But it had a chemical edge that made her head hurt and her chest tighten, so she pulled her shirt over her nose and ran for the tractor. Its door was unlocked, and Omid followed her before she closed it. Inside, it smelled of gasoline and hay. 


They stayed in the tractor for a long time. Omid perched on the dashboard, and she told him stories about other crows: the ones who had died in her garden, and the one Naveed had helped years ago. Then, thinking of Khaleh Yasmin again, she told him stories from the Shahnameh about the Simorgh: the mythical phoenix-like bird that appeared as a dark cloud when summoned, and always offered protection, healing, guidance. 


When she ran out of things to say, she played him the melody she’d just heard in the cherry tree. Normally, crows didn’t think much of her flute playing—they weren’t songbirds, after all—but Omid seemed to enjoy it, cocking his head and looking so interested that she rewarded him with more albaloo. He squawked in gratitude, setting a cherry on the dashboard to tear it into small pieces with his beak. 


Soon the sun slanted through the gaps in the walls. It must be sunset. Roya cracked open the tractor door and sniffed the air. It smelled musty, like a barn again. Omid cawed in thanks before flying through the barn door she pushed open for him.


Roya stayed to explore, climbing a rickety ladder into a loft. Through its filmy window, she could see all the way over the fields to a low white building. It was different from the one she'd been trapped in, because it was long and narrow and didn't have any windows. Next to the building was a large pool filled with something brown and wet, maybe mud. 


But Roya focused on the chain-link fence that ran alongside the white building, stretching far into the distance. It was topped with razor wire, so she couldn’t climb over it. Beyond it was a tangle of untamed woods. If she could find a way through the fence, she would be free, and could hide in the forest until she figured out what to do next.


As Roya descended the ladder, wind blew through a crack in the boards, carrying with it a terrible smell. Not the same chemical sweetness as before, but a harsh barnyard stink so strong it stung her eyes. She hopped off the ladder and ducked into a section of the barn where the walls were thicker. 


A pile of old farm tools was heaped in one corner. Beneath the pitchfork and rake and hoe was a rusty shovel. She hadn’t even wished that time, but it was exactly what she needed. 


Shovel in hand, she ran out of the barn and into the dusk, stopping abruptly when she saw Omid standing near a small dark body in the center of the path. It was the other crow, the one she had left behind. He was still, his talons curled up like tiny hands. 


Roya hoped it hadn’t been painful for him, and wished that she'd fought him harder, or that he had listened. But it wasn’t really her fault, or his. The poisoned air had killed him, she was sure of it. 


Roya trudged toward the fence. There was no way to help him now, no time for a burial. She had her own digging to do.


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