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©2020 Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Thirty

Sunday June 21

Stealing the bicycle had seemed like a good idea at the time. It made perfect sense to Naveed: the bike was unlocked, abandoned beside an empty driveway; he needed to get from Orting to Seattle; he had no money; he couldn’t risk asking anyone for help. Biking had always been easy, and he kept telling himself it was only forty-three miles. That was shorter than the Lake Washington loop, which he and Brooke had done a few weeks ago. If he could cover ten miles an hour, he’d be there before the sun rose.


Still, there was a part of him, the part that kept whispering neurotoxin neurotoxin whenever he had trouble thinking, that urged him to stop. This isn’t some lazy weekend bike ride around the lake, the small insistent voice said. It’s night, and you don’t have reflectors or a helmet, and you’re so tired you can barely see straight. You’re making everything worse. Breathing shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn’t hurt this much.


It’s not that bad, Naveed told himself. Besides, I have to do this. It’s important. This is war.


To distract himself, he thought about his conversation with Brooke. It had been such a relief to hear her voice, to know she was safe, but he was also ashamed of how pathetic he must have sounded. Part of him feared he could never be with her again: once she found out how messed up his head was now, she might not want to stay.


Still, he kept replaying the words she had said right before she hung up. I love you. A tiny wild hope fluttered against the doubt. Maybe, if he could prove what he needed to prove, if he could show that all this had been worth something, that he was worth something, it could be okay again. Someday. 


There was another complication, though: he was confused about Andi. It had been so comforting to feel her touch, to be held, even when he was filthy and disgusting. Of course, he had thought she was Brooke at the time. But later, when they had been alone by the river, he'd wished she would again cradle his head in her lap, sheltering him with her warmth, keeping watch while he slept. It was a fleeting desire, but he was uncertain what it meant.   


Right now, everything was uncertain. All he could do was keep moving forward.


He kept to the smallest, darkest streets he could find, on constant lookout for any police cars. For the first several hours of his ride, the terrain was mostly flat with a few long downhill stretches, and the inclines were manageable. But, inevitably, the first real hill loomed ahead. It wasn’t too steep; under normal circumstances he would have powered on without a thought, but now it took all his focus to convince himself that he could do this.


Naveed only made it halfway up before breathing became so difficult that he gasped for air. In the process, he choked on something—maybe an unlucky bug, maybe his own saliva—which triggered an intense coughing fit. He swerved into the road, losing his balance but managing to catch himself before falling. 


He had veered into the lane of oncoming traffic. Good thing it was the dead of night; he hadn’t seen a car in ages. Dismounting shakily, still cough/gasping, he wheeled his bike off the street and crouched alongside it in the tall grasses. Seconds after he stepped off the pavement, a car crested the hill and sped over the place where he had just stood. There was a loud crack as its tires drove over the GPS, which must have fallen out of his pocket. Its shiny guts lay flattened on the road, sparkling in the moonlight.


Eventually, his breath slowed, but he couldn’t stop shaking. He told himself it would be okay. He was fine. From now on, he’d walk his bike up hills. Take it slower. Follow the stars instead of the GPS. He searched for Polaris above, but the sky was big and swirling, and he couldn’t find it. Everything looked unfamiliar, random; he couldn’t pick out a single constellation. 


It made him dizzy, the way the world spun. He'd better lie down for a minute. 


Behind him, blackberry vines arched over a thicket of crabgrass: a good place to hide. He unlooped the bag of bread from the handlebars and heaved his bike into the brush. Sharp pain shot through his wrists when he tried to bear weight on his hands, so he army-crawled as far as he could into the tunnel made by the brambles. In the distance, he thought he heard someone laughing, but it was probably his imagination. 


Once inside his hideout, he rolled onto his back and tried to untie his wrist bandages to examine the wounds. But his hands were weak, and he only managed to loosen the knots before giving up. Not that it mattered; the red streaks traveling up both his arms were proof enough. 


The infection was spreading.


He had been running from this, refusing to acknowledge the symptoms, but there was no denying it now. A chill seeped through him from the inside out, which made him acutely aware of the lingering dampness of his jeans; the river water still clung to the thick denim in places, refusing to dry. A deep ache spread not only through his chest but into his limbs, his back. Now that he was lying down, he wasn't sure he could get up again.


What bothered him most, though, was falling apart at the worst possible time, when he still had so much to do. He had to get downtown. He had to find Isaiah, the Real Change vendor whose chant greeted Brooke and Naveed every time they went to the Central Library: “Real Change, ma’am? Have a great day, ma’am, have a great day, sir.” Isaiah, who had been right across the street from their parked minivan the morning of the protest. If Dr. Snyder had somehow planted the bomb in their trunk, then Isaiah must have seen. He was Naveed’s only hope. 


Naveed had to keep going. Stopping would be giving up. Stopping would be letting everyone down. So he’d eat and rest, just for a few minutes, and then he’d move on.


He opened the bread, but its overpowering yeasty smell nauseated him. For the first time in a week, he wasn’t hungry at all. He twisted the bag shut and curled up on the ground, using the bread as a pillow, pulling his arms into his shirt and shivering. He wished fervently for warmth: for a blanket. For tea, or soup. For home.  


He slipped into a fitful, cough-interrupted sleep. A nagging mantra repeated (get up - go to the library - find Isaiah), morphing and twisting as he traveled through varying levels of consciousness. Sometimes, parts of it repeated over and over: get up - get up – library - library. Sometimes it threaded into dreams, where he was walled in by library books, and unfolded newspapers lined the floor like in a rat cage, and Isaiah’s voice boomed, These are the best times, Blazin Bitz and you, and from a shadowy corner a red stain bled into the newsprint, spreading, spreading…. 


Near sunrise he awoke, convinced that the plastic bag of his bread-pillow was melting beneath his cheek, warping and bubbling from its heat. It wasn’t, but some distance away he heard voices. He remained still and silent, remembering that he did not want to be found, drifting back into sleep. 


As the hours passed, as the morning stretched itself across the sky, waking became less frequent. He was sinking into something like a frozen lake, something dark and cold and deep. The urgency of his mission dimmed. Everything did, as he sank deeper, deeper. 


But then the dream-sound began, and it was the sound of sawing, but not through wood, no, through something wet and alive; a sound that changed as the blade cut through skin, through muscle, and then, finally, as it wrenched through bone. 


Naveed tried to tread upward, back to the surface, but something was wrong; he was trapped beneath thick ice, and he kept getting pulled back down, and the more frantically he struggled the deeper he sank, and she was there, she was down at the bottom waiting; he had to get out, there was something he needed to do, he was running out of time—  


Then a voice came from above, a man’s voice, unfamiliar. His words shattered the ice, heavy as a stone, startling Naveed to wakefulness.


“Well. What do we have here?”


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