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©2019 by Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Sunday June 21

The first thing was to catch his breath. Only after he'd managed this could Naveed focus on anything else. 


It was dark in here. The walls were close. This made him breathe faster, and his whole body throbbed with every beat of his heart. He angled his head so that he stared out of a crack in the plastic lid, reminding himself that he could easily get out, that this was only a temporary shelter.


He had scrambled into the Dumpster when he’d heard footsteps behind him. At least, he thought he had, but there were no sounds now. Nothing except the quiet crinkling of garbage bags when he shifted his weight. It was surprisingly soft in here, not nearly as objectionable as he’d assumed Dumpster-hiding would be. 


Naveed exhaled. Maybe the bartender hadn't recognized him. Good. He needed a minute to rest, and to think, since everything had just been blown apart into tiny pieces. 


The police thought he was responsible for the bombing. If he called them for help, they would arrest him, cinch handcuffs tight against his raw wrists—just the thought made him shudder. He could explain about SILO, but he'd heard enough of the newscast to guess how that would play out. Even though he couldn't imagine what “evidence” they'd dredged up—or fabricated—against him, it was obvious that Nutrexo was controlling the message. They had twisted Maman into the person they needed her to be, and could easily do the same to him.


What infuriated Naveed the most was that they’d framed his family using a racist stereotype, and the rest of the world apparently had no trouble believing it. His parents weren’t even practicing Muslims, not that this would have made them any more likely to be terrorists in the first place—but he hated that Nutrexo had gotten the upper hand by tapping into the dark, powerful undercurrent of Islamophobia. All it took was a whisper, a suggestion, for entire institutions to align against his family. And that not only hurt, in a deep, soul-scraping way, but it made his situation even more dangerous.


It was also cruel to use Maman's mental health history as “proof” that she was crazy enough to bomb Nutrexo. She would never have dreamed of doing such a thing, not even when she was seeing the psychiatrist all those years ago.


Shortly after she was fired from Nutrexo, the newscaster had said. Naveed searched his memory, fitting pieces together, because now he knew that she'd lost her job after the Survival of the Fittest competition. Someone on Dr. Snyder's research team had died—although, given her level of crazy, Naveed wouldn't be surprised if Molly was a rat or something—and she had blamed Maman for it. He wished he could talk to his mother now, ask her what had really happened. All he had to go on were the memories of that difficult time years ago, back when his sister was a baby. 


Roya had been born a month too early. Naveed was nine then, and the first time he saw her in the incubator at the hospital, she was a tiny pink creature, her body scrunched in on itself. She had reached out to him, curling her tiny fingers around his. Cyrus, who was seven, didn't want to touch her. He said she looked like an alien. 


In the weeks before Roya was big enough to come home, Naveed often fell asleep to the sound of hammering. They had hired someone to build a dormer bedroom for the new baby, but construction dragged on and it wasn't finished in time. Baba, who had always loved building them backyard playhouses and wooden trucks, ended up taking over. He would come home from a long day at his desk job, prepare dinner with Cyrus, and then get to work. Naveed, drawn to the smell of sawdust and the whir of power tools, sometimes assisted. It seemed miraculous to him, watching planks of wood come together to give shape to a space that, before, was empty air.


Naveed liked working on the bedroom, because it helped him get his mind off of school. Ever since he and Maman had discovered the intriguing world of birds thanks to Rostam the crow, it had been hard for him to concentrate on the dull subjects they studied inside. At recess, he'd taken to feeding the crows peanuts, wanting to see if they would learn to recognize his face. They had started greeting him whenever he walked out of the building, landing at his feet and hopping alongside. This had gained him a reputation as a freak, though Naveed failed to see what the other kids found so weird about it.


Everything changed when Roya came home from the hospital. The dormer bedroom stayed closed off at the end of the hall, construction halted except on occasional weekends. Baba worked late, picking up odd jobs to make ends meet since Maman had decided not to go back to work. She'd told them that she wanted to stay home with the baby. 


Naveed noticed that Maman was different. Even when she was doing normal things, her movements were robotic, her eyes focused on something else, something far away. It seemed to Naveed that a shadow lurked within her now. It hid in different places on her face, in the frown tugging down the corners of her mouth, in the dark circles beneath her eyes. There were days when the shadow covered her entirely, and she didn't bother getting dressed. She would still be wrapped in her blue silk robe when they sat down to dinner.


At night he'd hear her drifting through the house, floorboards creaking under her feet, Roya wailing in her arms. It made him wonder if sometimes people turned into ghosts while they were still alive.


Naveed didn't talk about it with the others. Cyrus was too young, and still resentful of the sudden lack of attention. Baba was exhausted from work; besides, when he was home, Maman seemed more herself. Naveed was the only one who saw the shadow, so it was up to him to chase it away. 


He decided to make himself useful. Roya was always fussiest in the evenings, so Naveed helped get dinner on the table, reheating the meals Baba and Cyrus prepared on the weekends. He kept his brother entertained.


But it didn't work. Months passed, and everything slowly unraveled. Maman grew more distant. Naveed started having nightmares populated by terrifying, unseen creatures. One day, the boys at school kicked sand into Naveed's face as he lay on the ground watching a hawk circle above. They laughed while he ran to the bathroom, rubbing his streaming eyes to clear them of grit. Naveed spent that afternoon daydreaming; he knew that crows didn't attack unless people harmed them or came too close to their nests, but that didn't stop him from fantasizing about training his schoolyard crows to dive-bomb anyone who tried to mess with him. He was so lost in thought when his teacher handed back his math test that he didn't notice he'd failed it until she asked him to stay after class. She wanted to know if everything was all right at home. He said it was fine. 


Rain had poured down as they walked home that day, and Cyrus splashed in puddles, then tracked mud into the house and refused to clean it up. Distracted by the subsequent yelling match between his brother and mother, Naveed left the rice-and-bean dish in the oven too long and the edges turned black and crispy. Roya was teething, and so inconsolable that Maman didn't bother to sit down to eat with them. She walked in a silent loop, pausing each time she passed the dining room table to take a bite of charred rice, avoiding the patches of congealed cheese. It was a blue-robe day, and her face seemed harder and more shadowed than ever. 


Naveed wondered if he should say something about the test before she heard about it from his teacher. He didn't want her to ever find out. That was the kind of thing that strengthened shadows.


After dinner he stood before the mountain of dirty dishes piled in the kitchen sink. As he stared at the casserole pan, at the food sticking to the blue glass, he realized that things were not going to get better. That it would never be the way it was before.


He hunched over the sink and let the tears come at last. Hearing a creak behind him in the doorway, he ran the water and reached for the dish soap. But he couldn't stop crying. He felt like he'd let in something enormous: maybe there were shadows everywhere, and they had come for him too. Maybe they came for everyone, eventually.


“Naveed-jaan, don't worry about the dishes. I'll do them,” Baba said. 


Naveed wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands, but he couldn't say anything and he couldn't leave because there was no way out of the kitchen without facing his father. He couldn't hide, though: Baba was already embracing him. Naveed sobbed into his shirt, and told him everything. 


Not long afterward, Maman started seeing a special doctor; she met Kelly at the park around the same time. In fact, back then Naveed had thought that Kelly actually was the special doctor. The work they did together—making jam, knitting hats, tending plants—seemed to him a reasonable form of therapy. Whether it was due to the influence of the psychiatrist or Kelly or both, the end result was the same: Maman came alive again. The shadow was chased away, and once it was gone, it was almost as if it had never been.


One day that spring, while Cyrus dug a series of holes and Roya lay on a blanket clutching at blades of grass, Naveed helped Maman plant a black elderberry bush against the back fence. She poured water into the deep hole, then teased the roots apart with her fingers and spread them into the puddle. Naveed held the trunk steady while she filled up the hole with soil and compost. 


“Thank you for your help this winter,” she said as she patted the dirt. 


“Sure.” Naveed didn't know what else to say. He watched her mud-caked hands. She never wore gloves; she said she liked to feel the earth between her fingers.


“No, I really mean it, Naveed-jaan.” She looked up. “I know it was hard on all of you. But you kept going. And that kept me going.” Her eyes darted back to the ground, as if she'd said more than she should. He sat there holding the plant that was nothing more than a stick right then, sensing something in those words that he couldn't yet understand. 


They moved on from the low time, transforming their weedy backyard into a vibrant garden and finishing construction on the dormer bedroom. Through it all, the elderberry bush grew. Every summer it bloomed with fragrant white flowers, later growing heavy with dark berries that Maman harvested and boiled into a syrup. Whenever one of them was sick, she'd tuck them into bed and give them a spoonful every few hours, promising they'd feel better in the morning. 


Ever since then, Naveed had been certain that no matter how bad things got, they would work out in the end. But such optimism seemed childish now that he was on the run, hiding in a Dumpster. He couldn't imagine this situation ever coming right. 


It disgusted him how they'd taken pieces of his family's past out of context and twisted them into such lies. He had to do something to clear their names.


If only he wasn’t so exhausted. 


If only he had something to eat.


He again noticed the softness of the garbage bags underneath him, realizing, now, that the air smelled oddly good. Yeasty, like... bread? He untied one of the bags and tipped the lid of the Dumpster open to allow in the glow of streetlights. 


The bags were full of discarded loaves. They were past the sell-by date, but still looked as fresh as the day they were made, without a speck of mold. At least not that he could see. 


And so he ate. His mind wandered away from his current preoccupations, and he thought instead about the bread he was eating, about everything that had gone into making it: the seeds and soil, the water and land, the fertilizer and pesticides, the laboratory-made vitamins and fillers. 


All for nothing. Each of these loaves would be left to rot inside its bag, the nutrients that were originally extracted from soil not allowed to return, the old cycles broken. It would instead be sent to a landfill where it would remain for a thousand years, a hardened black lump still imprisoned in plastic. 


Such a waste.


As he chewed another slice of bread, he considered the immensity of his own problems. They seemed insurmountable. It was tempting to give up. 


But that wasn't an option. He had to keep going. For one thing, Cyrus and the others were probably still in the woods somewhere. Naveed took a little comfort in the fact that they had a compass and a gun, but he wished there was some way he could get in contact with them, or send help if they hadn't reached safety.


The best he could do was attempt to set the record straight. It was clear who had done this: only one person was twisted enough to plant a bomb in their minivan and fake the deaths of four kids so she could do her experiments. But he couldn't go straight to the police. First, he would need proof. 


He thought back to the protest, picturing his arrival at Nutrexo Headquarters. He'd been so distracted that morning, and hadn't noticed anything suspicious, but— 


Naveed sat up as it struck him. He knew someone who might have seen everything.


He took the GPS out of his back pocket and typed in “Seattle Central Library.” It was forty-three miles away. He lifted the lid, peeking out to make sure the alley was empty, then grabbed another loaf of bread before climbing out of the Dumpster. 


He was going to fix this. 


He was going to ruin her. 


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