Thursday June 18
All was darkness.
Silence, except for the scraping.
Right now, the scraping was all Naveed had.
When he awoke in the dark room, he explored with his hands, which were still bound behind him. They didn’t have much mobility—his chest and arms were also tied against the chair—but he could feel the wall behind him, smooth and cold, as if made of metal. To his left, too far to reach comfortably, he discovered one screw that was not flush with the wall. It jutted out, just enough to have a hint of an edge.
Naveed managed to scoot the chair closer, so that his hands were centered under the screw. He still had to strain to reach it, but he hoped if he scraped up and down long enough, the rope would begin to fray. Worth a try, anyway. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
Dr. Snyder was responsible for this, he kept telling himself. She kept him tied up in a dark room without food or water, all because of a long-ago betrayal involving Maman and someone—something?—named Molly. And she'd soon be back to do some horrific experiment on him. He wanted to meet her with some semblance of dignity, but that was not going to be easy. When he’d awoken, his pants were wet and the room smelled like piss. Being forced to sit in a puddle of your own urine was humiliating. But, he supposed, it could be worse.
After a while, he didn’t notice the smell anymore, and his legs went numb from immobility, so that detail was easier to ignore. But his thirst could not be forgotten. Or his hunger. It felt like curved metal gouges had hollowed out his insides, leaving a barren emptiness.
Naveed kept scraping the rope against the screw, dreaming of escape. He had no idea how long he’d been here, but it felt like many days had passed. He’d probably missed a ton of his work shifts by now. He wondered if anyone was looking for him. Where was Andi, who had seen what happened the day of the protest? She and the others were probably trapped too. They had no way of knowing what a mess he'd gotten himself into.
Sometimes he wondered what would've happened if he'd played along with Dr. Snyder. That might have been a better strategy; he would have had more freedom in the other room to come up with a way out of here. But he tried not to dwell on this, because it didn't matter. He'd made his choice. All he could do now was keep scraping. Keep trying to cut through the rope.
As he worked, he thought about food. He imagined arriving at Pike Place Market, its farm stands rainbowed with silver salmon and golden cherries and emerald kale. He dreamed of walking into Brooke’s favorite vegan Thai restaurant in the University District, where chafing dishes full of curry and noodles and spring rolls steamed up the room, and everything smelled like basil and lemongrass and peanut sauce, and tall carafes of ice water graced every table.
Being so close to the university always filled Naveed with anticipatory excitement. Brooke was only a month younger than him, but since her birthday was in September, she still had one more year left at the Waldorf high school she attended. He liked imagining that she’d end up at the UW too, that they’d move in together, making their home in a tiny studio apartment. That every morning he’d wake up beside her, their limbs tangled together, and he could watch the shadows shrink, the sunlight stretch through the curtains to set her skin aglow. That inside the bathroom, their toothbrushes would stand next to each other in the same glass jar.
Once, while waiting for a bus after lunch at the restaurant, Naveed had pointed out an old brick apartment building with a pub in the basement, casually suggesting they could live there during school. (He left out the details of his domestic fantasies. Especially the part about the toothbrushes.) But Brooke just shrugged it off. She didn’t know if she even wanted to go to college, and was already scheming about spending a gap year exploring the world.
Naveed wanted that, too. He’d long been saving for a trip to Iran, the country where his parents were born. Both of them had left when they were young, under very different circumstances. Maman’s parents had been Marxist-Leninist activists during the Islamic Revolution. After her father was executed, Maman and her mom had fled to Lebanon, her mother’s native country, eventually making their way to the United States. Years later, the rest of the family remaining in Iran had been killed when an Iraqi bomb leveled the building where they all lived.
Baba, on the other hand, had been born out of wedlock, resulting in a huge scandal that caused both of his parents to become estranged from their wealthy, conservative families. They had come to the U.S. several years before the revolution, and after they settled in Seattle, Naveed’s auntie Leila had been born.
Naveed’s grandparents had long since passed away, and visiting the country of his ancestors was important to him. He wanted to see the bridges of Isfahan, the ruins at Persepolis. For years, he had been studying Persian literature and poetry with his honorary aunt, Khaleh Yasmin. Naveed had also started a lively correspondence with her son Farhad, who'd moved back overseas and had offered him a place to stay should he ever visit Tehran. But the plane tickets were so expensive that he'd barely made any headway. Brooke wasn’t that interested in traveling to Iran anyway, since she was opposed to the requirement that women wear a headscarf in public. She wanted to spend at least a year trekking through Europe, but Naveed would never be able to afford such a journey. Besides, he couldn't imagine being away from home that long.
Here, trapped in the dark room, an ugly voice inside started to whisper. That's why she was so eager to go to Boston. She wanted a change. She's tired of Seattle. Tired of you.
He didn't want to believe this, but it nagged at him all the same. His shoulders, wrists, and elbows ached, but he kept moving his bonds up and down on the screw, trying to think about a happier time instead. The beginning.
Naveed and Brooke had known each other since they were nine, but grew apart during their early teenage years. The previous summer, when his family hosted a barbecue for CFJ volunteers, Naveed had found her in the fig tree, reading a secondhand copy of Voltaire's Candide. She sat on a thick, low branch that grew parallel to the ground, a perfect bench. As children, they had sat on that branch together, bare legs dangling, filling up on figs during the tree’s brief but bountiful season.
So he took a seat next to her, and as they began talking he realized how much he had missed her. It was like waking up to find the world changed, as if it had been dull and faded before and he hadn’t noticed, because nothing was bright until this moment. He watched her wide mouth curve into a smile as she told stories about her misadventures at French camp. (“I totally would have won the mime competition if it weren’t for Jacques. He was not using that baguette for its intended purpose.”) Her hair glistened where the sun reached through the branches to touch it, and a few tendrils blew against her cheeks in the summer breeze, as if the light and the air wanted to be close to her, too.
Brooke tucked her hair behind her ears—at the time it was an indescribable shade of purple-magenta, somehow two colors at once—then pulled a leaf off the tree and examined its downy underside. “Did you get any figs this year?”
The tree was old, and didn’t fruit as much as it used to. Now, crows got most of the harvest. They selected the perfect ones, but took only a few bites before letting the fruit fall to the ground to decay.
“Not many,” he said, looking into the tree and spotting a few still clinging to upper limbs. “Wait, I think I see some.”
Naveed sidestepped his way along the smooth branch and pulled himself up into the tree, reaching precariously above to test the remaining figs. The first three were too hard, but the fourth was ready. A bead of nectar swelled at the opening in its blossom end, and it was so ripe that it practically fell into his hand.
It was too fragile for him to hold as he climbed down, so he called Brooke over. She reached up, on tiptoe, arms stretching toward him, and he placed the fruit in her palm. She looked as thrilled as if he’d presented her with a diamond. As Naveed descended, she sat again on the branch and touched her finger to the nectar.
Then, slowly, she tore the fig in half to reveal the pink seed-studded flesh, rimmed in milky-white skin. She raised one half to Naveed’s mouth. The breeze stirred the wind chimes. He didn't look at the fig, but at her eyes, which were everything. As he took a bite, her fingers brushed his lips.
It was the sweetest fig he’d ever eaten.
Thinking about it now made him mad, though. Angry at the way he'd left things, but also crazy with want. He wanted her back. He wondered if she was thinking of him, if she had any idea where he'd gone. He wondered if he would ever see her again.
Naveed was half asleep, drifting among rambling thoughts of figs and curry and toothbrushes, when the room lost its darkness. A bright light shone into his prison. He stopped scraping.
Dr. Snyder was removing a piece of cardboard that had covered a square window. Naveed tried to project nonchalance, as if he were acting out a scene. Oh, hello there! Yeah, I’m just hanging out, starving in the dark! Sitting in my own filth! No big deal!!!
Her face was blank, though he sensed in the iciness of her blue eyes the same hatred that he felt toward her. She raised her hand, pinching something between her purple-gloved thumb and forefinger. At first, he thought it was a long, taut pink string. Naveed’s stomach seized when she held it higher, and he saw the furry white body dangling, rotating beneath.
A dead rat.
Its body was stiff, its pink eyes dull and unseeing. She held it there for a minute, then disappeared from the window. Naveed exhaled, trying to compose himself. When Dr. Snyder appeared again, he hoped he looked unruffled. Blank, like her.
She raised a scrap of paper to the window. A single word was written in black ink. Tomorrow.
As soon as she returned him to darkness, he scraped against the screw faster, faster, even though the rope cut into his wrists, even though he could hardly breathe now, because he didn't want to know what she was planning, and he wasn't going to be her lab rat, he wasn't, and there was only one thing to do.
Break the rope.
Break the rope, and get out.
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