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©2020 Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Monday June 22

“Alexandria! Roya! Time to wake up.” The words were muffled through the pillow over her head; Andi had tried to drown out Cyrus’s loud snores during the night.

 

She wanted to go back to sleep. Her whole body ached, her back and throat especially. The fresh air on her face felt unpleasantly cool when she pushed the pillow aside. Cyrus stood above her.

 

“What time is it?” she asked. 

 

“It's already 8:30,” Cyrus said. “Here, come over to the computer for a minute.”

 

On the floor, Roya sat up, looking as groggy as Andi felt, and they both dragged themselves over to the desk. Roya coughed, and Cyrus glanced at her, concerned. Andi noticed he had dark circles under his eyes. “You okay, Roya?” 

 

“I feel kind of yucky,” was all Roya said. 

 

He felt his sister’s forehead and frowned. “Shoot, sis, I think you have a fever. But I know something that might make you feel better. I chatted with Dev this morning, and—like I thought—Naveed didn't get caught by those guys in the woods. He made it out and contacted Brooke. She told him about a safe place where he could hide. He must be there by now, because it'd be all over the news if the cops had found him.”

 

Roya seemed cheered by this, but Andi was still digesting the information. “Wait, back up,” she said. “Where is he? We should go find him.”

 

“Frida's headed there now—to some park on Lake Washington.”

 

“Lake Washington? That's like an hour's drive from here, right? How would Naveed—”

 

“Apparently he has a bike. Anyway, Frida will find him, and they'll meet us at the hospital. But we need to leave soon. Someone at a bar recognized Naveed and called the cops, so they're combing the area looking for him. And us.”

 

Andi was about to stand up, but Cyrus gestured for her to stay seated. He was clicking around on the computer, opening a website.

 

“Do you remember Nutkin the dancing squirrel?” he asked.

 

“Of course.” Andi almost smiled as she recalled the video of a frantic squirrel, expertly cut so that he appeared to be dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Her father had found it particularly hilarious; it had even inspired the theme of one of their playlists. “What does that have to do with anything?”

 

“Dev made that video. He’s brilliant at this stuff. So he’s going to help us spread the word about SILO with viral videos and memes. They’ll link back to this website he's working on, NutrexoTruth.com, that has the presentation on it. We should still tell our story to Real Change—Gretchen's calling them now, seeing if we can do a phone interview on our way in to Seattle—but the website will be focused on Blazin Bitz Crave. I mean, this is way bigger than just what happened to us, and people need to know what's going on. I doubt Nutrexo has a clue that we actually have evidence against them, so we're going to fight back with everything we've got. Put it in front of the people, and let them come to their own decisions. See, check this out—here's one of the images he made for our campaign.”

 

The picture showed a cluster of zombies. Their mouths were stained not with blood, but with bright red powder, and each held its own bag of Blazin Bitz Crave in its crimson hands. “#BewareTheBitz” was printed in large letters at the top. The website address was listed below.  

 

“Wow.” Andi was unsure how to react. To her, it seemed too playful, considering their dire situation.

 

“I know, right?” Cyrus clicked over to a video program on the computer. Their bleary-eyed reflections stared back at them, mimicking their movements.

 

“Wait, what are you doing?” she asked.

 

“Dev needs some video footage of us.”

 

“Are you sure that's a good idea?”

 

“I've got my speech planned. Feel free to chime in, but you two don't have to say anything if you don't want to.”

 

“At least let me get ready first.” Andi reached up to smooth her tangled hair, but Cyrus touched her hand, guiding it away.

 

“No, you look perfect,” he said, with such genuine admiration that it almost seemed like a compliment. Then he continued, “The more desperate we look, the better.”

 

Roya had not bathed the night before and was the grimiest of the three, but she made no attempt to groom herself. “Please, can we start? I'm tired.”

 

“Okay. Here we go.” Cyrus pressed Record and cleared his throat. “Um, hi. This is Cyrus, and Andi, and Roya. Don’t worry, we’re not hiding out planning a violent overthrow of capitalist society or whatever. We had nothing to do with that bomb, and my parents didn't either. If you want to know what really happened when we vanished off the face of the earth, the person to ask is Dr. Tara Snyder. Maybe you've heard that she created the EcoCows? Maybe you've even heard that she was doing a small study on human subjects to test new products like Blazin Bitz Crave. But what you haven't heard is the true purpose of the research. Head over to NutrexoTruth.com if you want to know what she's really doing.”

 

He paused to cough, and Andi felt like she should interject. There was something she wanted to add, but her mind was still waking up and she couldn't think what to say. Roya slumped in her chair, droopy-eyed, like she was about to fall asleep.

 

“Yeah, I know, you're probably wondering how we found out about this. It's because we were there. She was experimenting on us, but we got out, and we think everyone deserves to know the truth about Blazin Bitz Crave.”   

 

Roya tugged on Cyrus's shirt, and he turned to his sister. “Tell about Naveed,” she said.

 

Cyrus faced the camera again. “Naveed's innocent, too. If you see him just... help him out, okay? The guy's been through a lot.” He repeated the website address one more time, then stopped recording.

 

“There,” he said with a smile. “I think that about covers it. I'll get this to Dev, and he'll work his magic and get everything posted. He said the site won't go live until noon or so—he has to do some back-end work to make sure it can handle all the traffic. Now, we should get our disguises on. Don't want anyone to recognize us on the way to Harborview.” 

 

Andi took her pile of clothes into the bathroom. After she dressed in a baggy blouse and tapered jeans of Gretchen’s, she checked under the pile of towels in the cupboard, but the gun was no longer there. She had expected as much, since she'd told Gretchen about it after dinner, but now Andi wondered if they should have held onto it just in case. She soon dismissed the thought as absurd—they couldn't march into the hospital armed, and if the police somehow caught them along the way, having a gun would make things worse. 

 

Besides, it was unlikely they'd run into any trouble, and she was tired of worrying about it. Andi turned her thoughts to her mother instead, picturing their reunion as she twisted her hair into a knot and hid it under a floppy teal sun hat. Now, she was unrecognizable. And painfully frumpy. 

 

Before going upstairs, she found the purple lab gloves in the pocket of her old clothes. They were inside-out, so the side she touched was clean, but a faint manure smell escaped when she transferred them to her jeans. She figured they might be useful as further evidence to back up their story.

 

Feeling more hopeful now, she climbed the stairs to find Cyrus and Roya already waiting. Roya sat on the floor, her cheeks flushed, her knees pulled under the same T-shirt she had slept in. A kerchief was tied over her hair. Cyrus leaned against the wall beside her, in a cowboy-style shirt that fit him surprisingly well.

 

“Wow,” Cyrus said when he saw her. “Alexandria, you are a sight to behold.” 

 

“Ugh. I look like I just stepped out of the 1980’s. And not in a good way.” 

 

“Maybe we are from the ‘80s.” He tapped the bill of the navy-blue mesh-backed trucker cap he wore. A caricature of Smokey the Bear was emblazoned on its front, earnestly reminding them that Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires. “Maybe we’re time travelers.”

 

“A time machine would be nice,” Andi said. “I think we could find a good use for that.”

 

Gretchen appeared with a thermos of warm tea and a soft flannel blanket for Roya, then handed Andi a canvas bag containing fresh fruit and buttered bread and boiled eggs. Cyrus removed his glasses, wrapping them in a thick swath of fabric and putting them in his front pocket. He looked like a different person without them. Andi again noticed his eyes, which today appeared light brown, with bright flecks of gold and green.

 

Gretchen opened the door and ushered them to the car, looking nervous but determined. “The senior reporter for Real Change will be ready for the interview in about fifteen minutes. You can use my phone.” She handed it to Andi, along with a scrap of paper containing the reporter's number. 

 

They climbed into the back seat of her Subaru. Cyrus took the middle and Roya slid in next to him, her blanket wrapped around her shoulders like a cloak. She leaned against his shoulder, barely awake.

 

Though she wasn't hungry, Andi figured she should eat something, and pulled out a container of deep red strawberries. She bit into one so ripe it seemed to melt on her tongue, filling her mouth with sweetness; it was as if the flavor of a thousand supermarket strawberries had been packed inside this single, tiny fruit.

 

She ate a few more, enjoying their cool smoothness against her sore throat, before offering them to Cyrus. Then she rested her forehead against the window, watching as the tree-lined streets gave way to strip malls. Gretchen was taking back roads, so it would probably be over an hour before they made it to Seattle.

 

Cyrus sighed in pleasure as he ate strawberries. “Gretchen, these are fabulous. Hey, would you mind turning on some music? Maybe something from the ‘80s?” 

 

Gretchen fiddled with the radio dial until Cyrus stopped her on a station playing Duran Duran's “Come Undone.” The song was solidly '90s, but Andi decided not to point this out. Cyrus leaned closer, whispering winkingly, “I think we found the time machine.”

 

Andi shifted against the seat. Her back ached, and her chest felt tight, congested. She wasn't in the mood for jokes anymore. “Do you really think this will work?” she asked. 

 

“Of course it will! I have a good feeling about it. I’m so glad I contacted Dev. SILO’s totally getting shut down.”

 

Andi was quiet, picturing Dev's red-mouthed zombies.  

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“It’s just… I don’t know. This is serious, Cyrus. Do you think that stuff about 'Bitz-Zombies' is going to get the point across? And what if Nutrexo manages to get the site taken down or something?”

 

“By the time they figure out what’s going on, it’ll be too late. And there’s more than one way to spread a message, you know. I happen to prefer making people laugh to being all doom-and-gloom.”

 

“Mmm.” Andi turned to the window again. Beside her, Cyrus coughed, and the sound of it made Andi think about Naveed by the riverside, of the way he had moved so deliberately, conserving what little energy he had. 

 

“This is too far,” she said.

 

“What?”

 

“Too far. For Naveed to bike. There’s no way he made it to Lake Washington.”

 

Cyrus looked irritated. “He made it. He had to.”

 

Andi glanced at Roya, but the little girl was fast asleep. “No, think about it. He doesn't have any food or water—and he told me he hadn't eaten anything the whole time we were at SILO, so it's probably been like a week since he's had a meal. Biking for that long would be impossible. And how's he supposed to find his way around? He doesn’t have his phone, and can’t ask anyone. Even if he did make it to the lake, I don’t think he would just hide out, with everything that’s going on. That’s not like him at all.”

 

“Stop acting like you know him better than I do. He’s my brother.”

 

The bite of this comment, the anger behind it, stunned her. Normally, she would have backed down, but Cyrus's response was frustrating. “Can’t we talk about him for one minute without you getting all huffy?”

 

“I am not huffy.”

 

“You are!” she whispered, trying to keep Gretchen from hearing. “I want to think this through, okay?”

 

“There’s nothing to figure out. He’s at the lake, safe.” Cyrus started coughing again, but Andi got the distinct impression he was faking it this time, to avoid further conversation. 

 

“You all right back there?” Gretchen asked from the front. 

 

“Fine,” Cyrus said. 

 

“There’s a jug of water in the lunch bag,” Gretchen said, nudging the radio’s volume up. 

 

“So what exactly did Dev tell you?” Andi asked, recklessly, as Cyrus opened the jug. “If Naveed called Brooke, he must not know what happened at the protest. And why did he call her, anyway? Didn't you say she left for the summer?” 

 

“Will you stop already?” Cyrus turned toward her so abruptly that water sloshed onto his jeans. “I get it, okay? You don't have to hit me over the head with it.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

Cyrus's face clouded, and when he spoke, his tone was unfamiliar and cruel. “It’s obvious, Andi. I knew it from the very first day. That music mix, those sappy love songs... they were never meant for Brooke. They were for him.”

 

Andi wanted to evaporate, but she was trapped in this car, too close to Cyrus. She felt exposed; he had uncovered something she’d tried to conceal, shining a bright, unflattering light on it. And he had insulted her songs: the songs she adored, the songs she had so carefully chosen. 

 

“No,” she said. “It wasn’t like that. He loves Brooke. I know that. I’ve always known.” Then, as shock gave way to anger, “Why are we talking about this anyway? It doesn’t matter.”

 

“Oh, it matters. He’s all anyone ever wants to talk about. My perfect brother, the one everybody loves.”

 

Andi could hear the anguish in his voice, but Cyrus had hurt her, and something savage came from that raw, open wound; she wanted to hurt him back. The words spilled out before she could stop them, words that should never be spoken. “Is that what this is about? You’re jealous of him? Maybe that’s why you don’t care about finding him. Because you don’t want him to come back.”

 

The words might as well have been knives. In the instant after they hit, his eyes widened, and she saw then why it mattered to Cyrus so much. She saw what he had been trying to tell her.

 

It was obvious now. It was the way he glanced up, delighted, whenever she entered the room. It was the way he pronounced her name, her full name, enunciating all of its syllables; the way he had touched her hand this morning, gently guiding it away from her messy hair, telling her she looked perfect.

 

Cyrus made a small, choked sound, gripping his stomach and breathing hard, as if she had stabbed him in the gut. She supposed, in a way, she had. She'd gone too far. “Cyrus, wait, I didn’t mean it—”

 

He stared straight ahead, not blinking at the sound of her voice. It was like she no longer existed. “Gretchen, can you pull over? I feel like I’m going to puke.”

 

Gretchen changed lanes. “There isn’t much of a shoulder here….”

 

“Please! Just pull the car over!” When she did, he tumbled out of the car and slammed the door.

 

Roya sat up. “Are we here?”

 

“No. Go back to sleep,” Andi said. Roya settled back in, pulling her blanket tighter and leaning against the window.

 

“I’m going to check on him.” Gretchen unbuckled her seat belt, but Cyrus was already opening the passenger door. 

 

He slid into the front seat and reclined it. “False alarm. The back seat was making me queasy, I guess.” He angled the hat down, covering his face.  

 

“It's time to call Real Change—” Gretchen started.

 

“Andi can deal with it,” Cyrus said. “It was her idea anyway.”

 

An uncomfortable silence settled in the car. Andi took out Gretchen's phone, even though the interview was the last thing she wanted to do right now. She was feeling worse every minute, because what Cyrus had said was true. She'd never noticed him the way he wanted to be noticed; she had always been dazzled by the brilliance of his brother. But Cyrus had his charms, too. And now that she knew how he felt about her, she saw him in a different light. He did look cute in that cowboy shirt, that trucker cap.

Not that it mattered anymore. She had messed it up. She had messed everything up.

 

Andi dialed the reporter's number. He greeted her warmly, setting her at ease; he had a soothing voice, a deep baritone. She knew that she'd chosen the right place to tell their story when she asked whether they accepted advertising money from Nutrexo, and without hesitation, the reporter answered that the paper would never take money from them. One of their missions, he said, was to promote economic justice, something that Nutrexo undermined by refusing to fairly compensate workers at lower levels of the company—workers on farms, in fast food restaurants, in factories—while their executives made millions of dollars each year. 

 

Reassured, Andi began. The reporter listened, rapt, asking clarifying questions, alternating between intrigue and outrage as she described what had happened.  

 

Soon they began to pass sprawling warehouses and shipyards stacked high with sun-faded shipping containers. The city skyline glimmered ahead, growing closer. Harborview Medical Center wasn't far from downtown, so Andi wrapped up the interview and hung up the phone.

 

The radio had been turned down, but it continued playing old songs. Andi absentmindedly tucked the phone into her pocket and leaned back, straining to listen. At first she only heard disjointed notes, then the chord progression clicked into place in her mind and she knew exactly what was coming.  

 

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….  

The car was a time machine. In here, Mile Seven lived again. In here, it seemed like their fame could go on forever, like they would never break up—which made her wonder, what if they hadn’t? What if her father had spent her childhood away on tour? What if he’d never gone to rehab? What if that December morning at the record store, when she’d met Naveed and Cyrus, had never been? 

 

We have to surrender…

 

With a start, Andi realized what she’d forgotten: she had neglected to say anything about her father when they filmed the video. She'd missed her opportunity; she knew now what she should have said. My dad's still there, he's one of the human subjects, he doesn't know what they're doing to him. 

 

Now she felt even worse. She tried to convince herself that it was okay, because SILO would have to be shut down after their evidence was leaked, and he would be safe then. The thought was not very comforting, though. Just forgetting about him felt like enough of a betrayal.

 

We have to swerve…

Gretchen exclaimed something in German from the front seat. “Missed my turn,” she added, glancing over her shoulder and merging into the left lane so she could turn around. They were in the thick of downtown now: skyscrapers towered above, traffic was heavy. 

 

The car stopped while they waited for someone ahead to turn left. Beside Andi, Roya stirred, inhaling sharply.

 

“Naveed?” she said hoarsely. “Naveed! It's him! There, in that car!” She pointed to a beat-up silver Buick alongside them. Just before it rumbled past, crossing the intersection ahead, Andi caught a glimpse of someone in the back seat. A hoodie was pulled over the person's head, so she couldn't see his face, but she did see—or maybe she only thought she saw—his distinctive, angular nose. 

 

Cyrus turned around. “Are you sure?” 

 

"Yes! Quick, we have to follow, he's getting away!” 

 

“I can't get over—” Gretchen started, but before anyone realized what was happening, Roya had already opened her door. 

 

She darted across the street, dodging traffic, and Andi watched in horror as a red Tesla in the right lane slammed on its brakes to avoid hitting her. Then came a terrible crunching sound, metal on metal, as an SUV crashed into the Tesla’s rear bumper. Andi looked around frantically but Roya was nowhere in sight, and Gretchen was shifting into park and jumping out her door, yelling at Andi and Cyrus to stay put and get down.

 

Andi couldn't move. Her heart raced—too fast, this was all happening too fast—and she kept staring out the window, even though she was afraid of what she might see— 

 

But Roya reappeared moments later, safe on the sidewalk, blanket still wrapped cloak-like around her. Andi's relief didn't last long, because then sirens blared, and red and blue lights flashed, and two police officers slammed their doors, running down the sidewalk, running after Roya.  

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