Saturday June 20
The promise of water changed everything. That word, that single word, transformed the tense mood into a more hopeful one. Andi hung back as the others helped Naveed up, Cyrus supporting him on his shoulders.
“How far?” Naveed sounded tired, even though they had just started walking, but at least he wasn’t upset anymore.
“Not very,” said Cyrus. “I cleared a trail for us. This way.”
The river was narrow, shallow; maybe it wasn’t technically a river at all, but it was filled with cold clear water, and that was what mattered. Naveed stumbled to the bank, dipping his hands into the stream and drinking, drinking.
Andi hesitated. “Is it safe? Isn’t mountain water contaminated with parasites and stuff?” she asked Cyrus.
“Sometimes, but what choice do we have? We don’t have a filter, or anything to boil it in. We’ll have to take our chances.”
In the end, Andi’s thirst won out, and she joined the others at the river's edge. The water numbed her fingers, but was bracingly refreshing. She didn’t often drink plain water, ever since Marina had gotten her hooked on Nutrexo’s zero-calorie, vitamin-enriched FlavrBoost packets. Even without enhancement, though, this was easily the best thing she’d ever had to drink.
At first, Naveed lay by the stream, drinking from Roya’s cupped hands, but soon he sat up, leaning against a rock. Roya joined him, and although their words were drowned by the rushing water, Andi could tell by Roya’s cheerful tone of voice that they were reassuring.
Naveed didn't say a word to Andi, and he avoided her eyes. She had no idea if he was angry with her, or if he’d been confused, but she felt she had crossed a line. She told Cyrus she wanted to rest for a while, and curled up on the hard ground. Despite her exhaustion, sleep did not come.
As dawn approached and the birds sang their waking songs, Cyrus and Roya explored nearby, searching for edible plants. When Andi got up, they showed her how to find spindly shoots of miner’s lettuce, and how to pluck tiny white elderflowers (which, according to them, had healing properties) from their green stems (which were toxic). Andi was wary of any plant in which medicine and poison were in such close proximity, but she nibbled a few fragrant blossoms while preparing a pile for Naveed.
Roya began exploring further afield in search of more edibles. “Stay close,” Cyrus called.
“I will,” she replied, disappearing into the brush.
As soon as she’d gone, Cyrus sat next to his brother. In the early morning light, the filthiness of Naveed's clothes and skin was obvious. “You should wash the blood off your face. It makes you look like a zombie or something. I’m fearing for the safety of my brains right now.” An odd expression crossed Naveed’s face, but he returned to the riverbank.
“Wash your arms too—I’ll make some bandages,” Cyrus added. With the knife, he cut two long strips from the bottom of his dirt-smudged T-shirt, then cleaned them in the river before wrapping them around Naveed’s wrists. Andi turned her attention back to the cluster of elderflowers, but she heard Cyrus say, “I’m sorry. About being so stupid the day of the protest, and, you know. Everything.”
“Kourosh, listen.” Naveed sounded irritated. “She wanted to take us—well, except for Andi—and none of it had anything to do with you, okay? But I don't want to talk about it right now, so don't ask. And quit apologizing.”
“Okaaaay....” Cyrus responded, drawing the word out. It sounded like an exhale, a release.
Cyrus asked Andi to help him create a makeshift gun holster from another strip of T-shirt fabric. They had just finished concealing it under his shirt when Roya reappeared at the tree line. “Guys! Come see!” she called.
Andi and Cyrus stood up, but Naveed stayed seated. “You go,” he said. “I need a few minutes to wash up.”
“You sure?” Cyrus asked.
“I’ll be fine,” Naveed assured him.
“Okay, we’ll be right back.” Once out of his earshot, Cyrus said to Andi, “He seems a lot better, huh? I think you’re right, he just needed something to drink.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Andi didn’t want to tell Cyrus about last night’s embarrassing encounter, and he wouldn’t want to hear what she really thought: Naveed was far from better. Water had helped, but it couldn’t fix everything. He needed to eat, too; leaves and flowers weren’t enough. And those were just the immediate priorities.
They soon emerged in a grassy meadow dotted with wildflowers. “Look—the Mountain!” Roya said, throwing her arms wide and spinning in delight. Mount Rainier towered above, so close they could see the stark edges of its glaciers, frozen walls stretching along the mountain's craggy furrows. The shining ice reflected the rosy gleam of sunrise.
“Awesome,” said Cyrus, consulting the compass watch and studying the mountain ridges. “So, as long as we keep heading west, we should eventually hit civilization.”
“Eventually?” Andi repeated. Naveed had barely made it to the river; she wasn't sure he could manage a long hike. “How far do you think we'll have to go?”
Cyrus shrugged. “Hard to say. I got the impression SILO was pretty remote. We're probably at least ten or fifteen miles from anything else.”
This did not reassure Andi, but Roya was trying to get their attention. She pointed across the meadow to a section of forest marred by scorched stumps. “Look! There was a fire. Maybe we can find some morels.”
“Maybe,” Cyrus said. “Guess we should all head that way, then.”
“No, Naveed should stay by the river. You come with me,” said Roya, pulling Cyrus’s hand.
“Okay. Andi, will you stay here with Naveed?”
“Are you sure we should split up?” Once, Andi would have jumped at the opportunity for time alone with Naveed, but not now.
“It’ll be fine—mushrooms will make a good breakfast. We won’t be gone long.”
Roya set off across the meadow, Cyrus hurrying after her. Andi watched them go, feeling small again, only a speck at the base of the enormous mountain. Now that it was morning, she was impatient to get moving, but Naveed needed more rest, and more food, before they set out. It couldn’t hurt to stay a little longer.
When Andi returned to the river, Naveed was bathing in the middle of the stream. His clothes were heaped on the riverbank, but he still wore his boxers. Andi stepped behind a bush, wanting to allow him privacy, but unable to avert her eyes. She watched him lie down where the water was deepest, heard his involuntary cry when he submerged himself in the cold river. The rushing water skimmed around him, rippling his hair, sliding down the sharp angles of his ribs to pool in the crater of his belly button, sparkling in the shafts of light filtered through the trees.
Soon he eased himself out of the water and returned to the riverbank. Crouching there, in his wet boxers, he began washing his jeans. Every movement was slow and deliberate; he did what was necessary, nothing more. He seemed to have a hard time wringing the jeans out and set them, still dripping, on a nearby rock. After plunging his shirt into the water, he wiped off his once-green sneakers. They were now a muddy olive color.
Andi judged that it was time to reveal herself, and made her way toward the river. He looked up in alarm when he heard the bushes rustling, but returned to cleaning his shoes when he saw it was only her.
“Where did the others go?” he asked as she approached, holding his shirt underwater again. His arms were covered in goosebumps. The air was chilly this early in the morning.
“They're looking for mushrooms.” Andi examined his jeans on the rock: they were still grimy and bloodstained. She took the heap of heavy denim and joined him at the riverside.
Naveed tensed up, as if wanting to stop her. But he said nothing, so she started scrubbing.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked as she worked. She tried not to look at the thick, curly black hair on his chest; it was very hard to ignore his near-nakedness. Andi would have given him her shirt, but that would only make things more awkward.
“Yes. But it’s worth it, to be clean again.”
Andi took a deep breath. “Naveed, I’m sorry about earlier. I was trying—”
“I thought you were Brooke,” he interrupted, still avoiding her eyes. He spoke slowly; his words, like his movements, were measured. “I thought she was holding me. That it was a nightmare, all of it. Then I saw you, and I knew. I didn’t mean to flip out like that. I just….”
Andi waited, but he didn’t finish the sentence. “It’s okay,” she said, relieved that he wasn’t mad at her. “Cyrus knows how to navigate us out of the woods—we’re close to Mount Rainier. We're going to be fine. Once we’re home, everything will get back to normal.” But she recognized the emptiness of this promise. How could Naveed ever be the same again, after spending days tied up in that foul-smelling room, staring at that open skull….
“Back to normal,” he repeated, his voice flat. After a pause, he added, “Can I ask you something, Andi?”
“Of course. You can ask me anything.”
“You wanted to work at Nutrexo? Why?”
The stains were not coming out. Andi pulled the jeans out of the river and began wringing the icy water from them. “I didn't, not really. My dad signed up to be in a Nutrexo study, but I found out something harmful was happening at SILO and that my dad was there, and Cyrus and I made this plan to investigate.”
“Your dad was there?” Naveed sounded shocked.
“He still is.” Andi fought to keep her voice steady. “There was no time to get him last night.”
“Shit. I'm sorry,” said Naveed.
Andi blinked, hard. “Well, as soon as we get back, we'll send help. Have the police go in and find him.”
“So that's why you... the internship....” Naveed paused. “But when you first woke up there, what did she tell you? You remember what happened at the protest, don't you?”
“Not really. I remember going into the building, and Cyrus getting in trouble, but after that it kind of... fades. When I woke up she told me there was some sort of 'incident.' That I fell and hit my head. I didn't believe it, but it was obvious she wanted me to, so I went along with it. Why, do you know what happened?”
“Yes. She drugged us.”
Even though Andi had suspected as much, it was disturbing to hear it put so bluntly. Naveed was resting his head on his knees now. “Andi, I don't... can we not... oh, I'm just so tired and I can't....”
“Hey, don't worry, you don't have to talk about it. Why don't you lie down for a minute? There's a sunny spot over there—”
He lifted his head. “One more thing... I have to know... the food. Did she make you eat the food?”
“Oh. Yeah,” said Andi, surprised by the question.
“And you ate it? You followed the rules?”
“Yes. I did.” She hated admitting this. It made her sound weak.
“And nothing bad happened? She didn’t hurt any of you?”
“No.” Andi suddenly understood. “Wait, is that why she… locked you up? Because you didn’t comply with the study?”
He didn’t answer for a long time. Instead, he rinsed his shirt again, holding it at the neckline while the current tugged at the black fabric. It looked like an oil slick, suspended darkly on the surface of the water.
Finally, he turned to her, his eyes in shadow. “Yes. I brought it upon myself.”
Andi felt like her heart was being squeezed. “Oh, Naveed, I'm so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.”
“But I should have known….”
“No. You—and Kourosh—got me out. That’s…” he trailed off, coughing. “That’s what matters,” he managed to choke out.
“You okay?” Andi asked.
“I’m fine,” he said through his coughs. When they tapered off, he stooped at the river’s edge, filling his hands. He was shaded by trees, but a sunbeam pierced through a gap in the branches, illuminating him from behind. A thin rim of light outlined his edges, and it was like viewing a solar eclipse: witnessing the disappearance of something steady and bright and warm, and realizing how much had been lost.
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