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©2019 by Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Sunday June 21

Naveed had two options: Richie’s Burgers or Terrence’s Tavern. It was Sunday night, late, and they were the only two establishments open in this rundown strip mall in Orting.


He had eaten his last sandwich earlier in the afternoon, washing it down with the remaining Coolixir (which had gone flat and warm during his travels, becoming so syrupy that it was almost undrinkable). The day had been hot and muggy, so he was extremely thirsty, but his first priority was to call his parents. Then he'd call the police, send them out to search for the others if they hadn’t yet been found. He hadn’t seen a single payphone, not that he had money anyway, and he couldn’t ask to use someone’s phone, because he also hadn’t seen a single person. There were only three cars in the entire parking lot. 


Richie’s Burgers was one of Nutrexo’s fast food chains, so Naveed opted for the tavern instead. A welcome blast of air conditioning greeted him when he opened the door. The portly white guy behind the counter was absorbed in the blaring television. Naveed cleared his throat and the man turned around.


“We don’t serve minors here,” he said, looking Naveed over.


“Please, sir, could I just use your phone? I need to get a ride home.” Naveed hadn’t spoken for a while, and the words lodged in his throat like crumbs. He began coughing, and once he’d started, he had a hard time stopping. He leaned against the counter, hacking away.


The bartender sighed and slid a glass of water over as Naveed regained control. He placed the bar’s cordless phone next to it. “Fine. But keep it quick. And wait for your ride outside.” 


“Oh, thank you,” Naveed managed to say. “Thank you.” He waited until the bartender turned his back before he reached for the glass, because he didn’t want the man to see his wrist bandages. They were stained and wet—though he hadn’t looked, he suspected the wounds had started leaking pus. He kept hoping they weren’t infected, but wouldn’t be surprised if they were, after his fall in that filthy barn. The caustic mixture of urine and manure had stung his raw skin for hours before he’d been able to wash it off. 


The bartender had opened a bag of chips to eat while he watched the 11:00 news. Since he was distracted, Naveed sank onto a bar stool. After his long hike, two days of dragging around a body that would rather not be moving at all, he was beyond exhausted. But this was the end of the road; he would call his parents after enjoying this glass of water. This beautiful, cold glass of water. Beads of moisture formed where ice pressed against its walls, and the clear liquid glowed under the dim overhead light. He lifted the glass to his lips, losing himself in the ecstasy of hydration.


Once he’d drained most of the glass, he called home. But the answering machine clicked on after two rings, meaning it contained unheard messages. He hung up and dialed his parents’ cell phones, but they both went straight to voicemail. 


Naveed's uneasiness grew as he remembered the day of the protest. The sirens, the SWAT team…. 


Without stopping to think it through, he dialed one more number.  


“Hello?” Brooke’s voice was croaky, and she exhaled deeply after she answered, like she'd been holding her breath a long time. He had woken her up. “Who’s this?”


Naveed wanted to be there beside her, feeling that soft breath against his skin. “Brooke? It’s me.”


“It's you?” she whispered, so quietly that he had to press the phone closer to his ear. “Oh my God, it's you. Where have you been? Are you okay?”


“Brooke, I just… I need a ride.” As soon as he said it, he realized he shouldn’t have called. She was across the country; how could she possibly help?


“A ride?” she repeated, confused.


Naveed wanted to know if something had happened to his parents, but was afraid to ask. He could barely talk anyway. All that came out was, “I just want to go home.” 


“Ohhh,” was all Brooke said. A small sound, filled with so much sorrow. 


Naveed's insides knotted up, because then he knew: something horrible had happened, and it was not over. After everything—after SILO, after his long trek out of the woods—this was more than he could take.


The only thing that prevented him from breaking down was the presence of the bartender, who had been kind enough to let him use the phone even though he probably looked like a junkie. So Naveed tried to cover the sobs rising to his throat with coughs, but that made everything worse. Even though Brooke was still talking, he had to put down the phone while he spluttered uncontrollably. He glanced up, certain that he’d get kicked out before their conversation was over, but the bartender was engrossed in the news.


“Moving on to our feature story tonight, new evidence has surfaced in last Monday's downtown Seattle bombing,” the newscaster was saying, and Naveed’s attention shifted to the television. Two photographs appeared onscreen, a school picture of Andi and a snapshot of him with his sister and brother. At first he thought the news had made a mistake. They were running the wrong pictures for this story; the four of them had nothing to with a bombing. But the newscaster continued, “The children who were presumed dead after the blast may actually be in hiding. Though their parents have been the main suspects, police now suggest that the Mirzapour brothers may have built the bomb.” 


Naveed felt light-headed, even though he was still sitting down, and his chest tightened; there wasn't enough oxygen here. 


A bomb. At Nutrexo headquarters on the day of the protest, when Dr. Snyder was holding him down, the room had seemed to shake, but he was confused then, half-drugged with his head all rattled from ramming into her, and had figured he'd only imagined it.


His parents were blamed for it? And now Naveed and Cyrus were suspects too? 


Another surge of dizziness. This time his ears were ringing, and his field of vision narrowed, so he breathed harder and stared at the television but he couldn't hear what they were saying because Brooke's tinny chatter still rose from the phone, and they were still showing the photograph, the one that Maman had taken at the beach in Port Townsend last summer. The Naveed in that photo—young and healthy, curly-haired and clean-shaven—bore little resemblance to how he looked now: dirty and sweaty, with matted hair and thick stubble obscuring his face. In the picture Roya gazed up at him, and he remembered the day it was taken, how they had explored the abandoned bunkers at Fort Worden, descending with flashlights into the unlighted concrete structures, and Roya had gotten lost in the dark corridors. Her ghostly wail had traveled through the pitch-blackness, seeming to come from everywhere. Cyrus had gone one way and Naveed chose another, sweeping the flashlight through the next room to find her sobbing in its center. She hugged him ferociously, her fear pure and intense. Now he understood how she had felt.


Brooke was trying to get his attention. “Hey. Hey! Are you still there?” 


Naveed picked up the phone with shaky hands. “I'm here.”


“Did you hear me? Don't call the p—the people you'd usually call, because they can't help you. And you should head out now.” She said it casually enough, but put slight emphasis on the word now. “Go to the place where we ate coconut cake. I'll find someone to meet you there.”


It seemed to Naveed that she was speaking in riddles, and he wondered if she thought she was talking to someone else; he realized she'd never said his name. Coconut cake? It sounded vaguely familiar, but he had no idea where she meant.


He wanted to ask, but she was sobbing now. “Please be careful. You shouldn't have called. I'm so glad you called. I love you.”


Her voice was replaced with a dial tone, and Naveed, perplexed, turned the phone off. He was about to leave, as she'd told him to do, but the television caught his eye again. Now two different photographs were displayed on the screen, unflattering mug shots of his parents that must have been taken the day of the protest. Maman’s ponytail was half-undone, and her eyes were red-rimmed. Baba looked pale and bewildered behind his bushy beard.


The newscaster was introducing a journalist who had been covering the story. “I know everyone's talking about the boys now, but let's start with the parents,” the newscaster said. “Saman Mirzapour's still being held as a suspect, but most of the evidence has pointed to Mahnaz. What's the current theory on her involvement?”


“She did admit to the theft of confidential Nutrexo documents. But since several sources have stated she isn't very tech savvy, police were pursuing the theory that she had help. At first they thought Saman accessed the documents, but the discovery of Cyrus's flash drive hinted that he might have been the one to hack in. He's known to be accomplished at computer programming.”


“So they were working together?”


“Most likely. Mahnaz had become convinced that Nutrexo was hiding something about the EcoCows, and says she stole the files in order to prove it. Most of these contained data that could only be analyzed by someone with specialized knowledge in statistics. She had the necessary skills.”


“But there was nothing in the documents to back up her claims?”


“No. Nothing at all. None of the data files contained anything incriminating, and the only report described an approved research protocol that had nothing to do with the EcoCows.”


“The Mirzapours are immigrants from Iran. Is there any evidence tying them to larger terrorist organizations or Islamic extremist groups?”


“Not at this time, but it’s an active area of investigation. In any case, it’s clear that the family rejects American values. Their neighbors have described them as being ‘different’ and ‘never quite fitting in.’ Additionally, some sources have indicated that Mahnaz was under treatment by a psychiatrist after being fired from Nutrexo.”


Naveed felt like he was descending into those bunkers again, descending rapidly while bombs fell above, shaking the concrete walls with their shattering force. Because this was war. A war against his family.


“Now, let's turn to her sons. Evidence has been mounting against Naveed in particular....” 


At that moment, the bartender turned around. Crumbs of bright red dust lingered in the corners of his mouth. The open bag behind him brimmed with red mini-chips. Blazin Bitz.  


Naveed stood up. He still held his water in one hand, but not tightly enough. It slipped through his fingers onto the tile floor, where it exploded into shards and puddles. He froze for a second among all the jagged broken things, dizzy because everything was moving in circles.


Then he ran, and the bartender yelled, “Hey!” but did not follow, and Naveed didn't know whether he'd been recognized, but he wasn't safe there; he wasn't safe anywhere. 


Naveed raced out of this strip mall and into another, keeping to the back alleys, running running. 


Running through the dark. 


Running the concrete mazes. 


Running away. 


Into the war zone.


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