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©2020 Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Sunday June 21

Andi stepped through the forest as twilight fell on Sunday, scanning for berry bushes. She was getting better at identifying edible plants. The woods, which she’d always seen as a random jumble of vegetation, had begun to look different, more organized. She kept hoping for berries, but every time they found a bush—usually salal, which was everywhere—the hard green beginnings of fruit taunted them. None were ripe this early in the season, so they were stuck with tough, bitter leaves that did little to satisfy their appetites.


They had been hiking for two full days. From time to time, they'd heard the helicopter in the distance, but were careful to keep under the thick canopy of trees. Now, they barely talked; everyone was cranky and exhausted. Andi glared at the back of Cyrus’s head as he followed the compass westward. She hated not knowing what had happened to Naveed. It felt like they’d given up on him. Just like she'd given up on her father.


As she walked through the muggy heat of evening, breathing the oppressive air, her father’s song played in her head. We have to surrender, we have to swerve…. She wished she could go back in time and convince him not to volunteer for the clinical trial. Or prevent the record store from going out of business in the first place.


The day after the store closed, Andi had gone with her father to pack up what remained. She wanted to say goodbye to the space, and to spend some time with him before she and her mother flew down to Berkeley to visit her grandparents for Chinese New Year. Her father would not accompany them this time. Andi understood more Mandarin than she let on, so she’d gleaned that her grandfather, who owned a tea importing business and dozens of tea plantations in Taiwan, had loaned her father a large sum to start the store. He had never made enough profit to pay it back. 


Inside the store, they worked in silence. Andi removed the pictures from the walls, but hesitated at the last one, the photograph of one of her dad's sold-out shows at the Paramount. Her mother had taken it from backstage, so Andi saw what he’d seen: the rows and rows of people, filling even the balconies, all of them eager to hear him play.


Her father stepped next to her, taking off his black-framed glasses to wipe them on his flannel shirt. He’d always had a larger presence at the record store: there, he was Jake Powell, frontman for Mile Seven, who had once toured the world. But now, he was only her dad. 


When he spoke, the words echoed in the empty room. “I should have known back then,” he said. “Once you make it to the top, the only direction left to go is down.” He laughed halfheartedly, as if it were a joke. 


“Dad,” Andi started, but she wasn’t sure what to say. “It’s not your fault. This just wasn’t the right location. Maybe you could try selling things online, building a website....”


“No. I'm done.” He touched the wall, holding his palm there. “I’m sorry.” She turned away while he took down the photograph, because she was all choked up, and couldn’t say what she wanted to then. But if she ever saw him again, she would say it: You're not a failed rock star. You’re not a failed business owner. You’re my dad, and even if no one else hears your songs, I’ll always listen.


And then he'd gone away to SILO, a place that promised him not only money, but the chance to do something for the greater good. If she had been able to rescue him, he would know how much he was missed. But she had failed.


She kept hearing his song… only, it was being played by a flute, and then she realized it wasn’t in her head; Roya was playing the melody as they walked.


“How do you know that song?” Andi asked, but Roya gazed at the sky and did not answer.


Andi asked again, louder, because she thought she was going crazy. This time, Roya responded, “I heard it at SILO. Omid likes it too… wait, there he is!” 


Roya ran ahead, scaling a tree. Andi wondered where she found the energy to climb. Cyrus sat on a flat rock, studying the wristwatch compass. Andi wanted to sit, too, but knew it would be hard to get up again, so she leaned against a tree instead, closing her eyes. They would have to find a place to camp for the night soon.


Then Roya yelled from above, “Hey—there's a house! This way!”


Cyrus sprang up, and, once she had dropped from the tree, Roya chattered on about how she knew Omid would help them, that she only needed to play the song and he would come. 


They soon reached a fence lined with tall hedges and followed its perimeter until they emerged on a road. At the top of a winding driveway, surrounded by flowering plants and fruit trees, was a small yellow cottage. 


They stood for a moment in disbelief. They had done it: they were out of the woods. A few calls to their parents, and then to the police, and it would all be over.  


The frantic barking of a dog shattered the stillness, and a dark shape moved toward them from the orchard. Andi was about to turn and run, but Cyrus held her wrist. He pointed to the opening door. 


“Astro! What is it, boy?” An older woman in a worn linen shirt stepped onto the front porch. As the dog ran up to the three of them, he stopped barking. He nosed Roya’s hand, then licked it. She stroked his back tentatively.


“Is it—” The woman drew in her breath. “It is you.” She squinted into the golden light of dusk, scanning the road behind them. “Is Naveed with you?”


“How do you know about Naveed?” asked Cyrus. Andi could tell that he, too, was shocked that the woman recognized them. Maybe she worked for Nutrexo, and they had walked into a trap.


“Everyone knows who you are,” said the woman. She had a thick Germanic accent. Behind her, another woman with long gray hair and broad shoulders had appeared in the doorway. “But we also have met Naveed at the market. We sell our summer fruit there. I’m Gretchen, by the way, and this is Frida.” She glanced back at the road, nervously this time, and stepped aside, gesturing to the open door. “You look very tired. Would you like to come in?” 


Andi and Cyrus exchanged a glance. Andi was still uncertain about whether to trust them, but she desperately wanted to. Her muscles were sore, her feet blistered; her arms burned from brushing against stinging nettles. Her hunger was intense. She felt she might pass out if she didn’t eat something soon. 


Cyrus asked, “Can we just use your phone? Naveed’s still out there in the woods. We need to send in a search party for him. And I need to call my parents.”


“Your parents?” Gretchen asked. Even though it was a perfectly normal request, it seemed to confuse her.


“You don't know?” Frida’s voice was deeper than Andi expected, a good half-octave lower than Gretchen’s. Almost as if to herself, Frida added, “Where have you been, that you don't know what has happened?”


“What are you talking about?” 


“I’m sorry, Cyrus,” said Gretchen. “But you cannot call your parents right now.”


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