When We Vanished
Friday, June 11
Andi Lin’s mouth was on fire, but she scooped up another handful of Blazin Bitz anyway. Something about that slow, sweet burn was irresistible. She wanted to take the entire bowl and plop down on the couch with it, eating chip after chip until her fingers were caked in bright red dust.
But tonight was about keeping up appearances. Andi forced herself to step away from the snack table.
She drifted through her friend Marina’s den. A couple of younger kids, who’d probably been dragged along by their Nutrexo-executive parents, played a video game on the wall-mounted TV. Marina sat near them on the long couch, her legs draped over her boyfriend’s lap, both of them tapping at their phones.
Andi sat in an empty armchair, and Marina’s eyes flicked upward. “Oh, hey, Andi. We’re trying to figure out which party to go to once this thing’s over. What’re you doing later?”
Her boyfriend raised his head. Marina had introduced him a few minutes ago, but Andi had instantly forgotten his name. He looked her over, slowly, as if noticing her for the first time, then asked, “You want to come out with us? I have this friend—you’re totally his type.”
This from a guy who knew absolutely nothing about her, other than what she looked like. She cringed inside as he continued, “He’s really into Asians—”
Andi had no interest in hearing the rest of that sentence, so she cut him off. “That’s okay, I already have plans. I’m catching a show later,” she lied.
Marina snuggled closer to her boyfriend. “Andi’s dad is Jake Powell. From Mile Seven—remember that old song, ‘Swerve’? All he has to do is call the venue, and they’ll put her on the list.”
This wasn’t exactly true anymore; his connections had dwindled so much that Andi could only get into a few clubs that barely ever hosted all-ages shows. The boyfriend didn’t seem to care, anyway. He was thumbing at his phone. But seconds later, he raised his eyebrows and asked, “Hey—you think I could get a picture with him? He’s here, right?”
It had been a long time since anyone asked Andi’s father for a celebrity selfie. He would have been thrilled. “Uh, no. He couldn’t make it.” She swallowed, extra conscious of the Bitz burn lingering in the back of her throat. Marina had no idea where Andi’s father really was, and Andi didn’t plan to tell her. Especially not here, not tonight.
Above her, the ceiling fan turned, humming a low A-flat that reminded Andi of another sound. She tried to stop her brain from making the connection, but it came anyway. The fan buzzed at the same frequency as the bumblebees in the lilac bush by her front door, the bees that had droned on and on as she’d watched her father walk away. A month had passed since then, but Andi could still hear him apologizing before he closed the gate, saying that he needed to do this. That it was for the greater good.
The tone of his voice, that was the worst thing. How lifeless it had sounded. How unlike him.
Andi rubbed her temples, but it didn’t help. The ceiling fan’s hum kept vibrating into her skull. Marina and her boyfriend had returned their attention to their phones, so Andi muttered, “I’ll be right back,” and slipped out of the den.
The roar of party guests filled her ears as she walked through the foyer. Andi noticed her mother standing alone near the front door. Her black hair was easy to spot; the two of them stuck out in this house filled with rich white people. Her mother took slow sips from her champagne flute while glancing around the room. She was probably still looking for Marina’s dad to congratulate him on his promotion to senior vice president of Nutrexo.
Though Andi was tempted to rescue her mom, she knew they’d just end up getting drawn into awkward conversations with random executives, which Andi was definitely not in the mood for at the moment. She ducked into the shadowed stairwell before her mom could catch her eye and crept upstairs to the second-story deck.
Outside, it was gloriously quiet. All she heard now were the tiny beads of hail crunching under her flats. City lights sparkled against the gray waters of Puget Sound below. Rainclouds obscured the distant mountains and evergreens, but Andi was glad for it. The haze made it easier to avoid comparing this view to the one from her bedroom window: a chain-link fence, a weedy yard.
Andi shivered in the June chill. Maybe she should go see a show tonight. Something loud and shouty would be perfect, where she could lose herself in the crowd, jumping and yelling along with hundreds of sweaty strangers, letting the music carry her away for a while.
Now that she was thinking about her dad, though, she couldn’t stop. She opened her email to see if he had responded yet, but of course he hadn’t. At first, he’d emailed frequently, but the last message he’d sent had been sitting in her inbox for five days now. Andi, how’s your week going? I’m doing good, nothing new here. Just the same old, same old. Miss you. Love, Dad.
Andi had written back, several times. Still nothing. He hadn’t even replied to the news that she’d passed all her finals, that junior year was now over. Really, was it so hard to send a quick email? Something like, Congratulations! We’ll celebrate next month, when I come home. Anything, even a single word, would have been better than no response at all. Andi didn’t know what to make of his silence.
She wanted to hear his voice, so she dialed his cell phone. Maybe this time, by some miracle, her call would go through….
Nope. Straight to voicemail, like usual.
Fine, then. His recorded voice would have to do. Andi unwound her earbuds and put on Mile Seven’s second album. She’d always liked it better than the first; it was louder, grittier, not as polished. Too bad no one else shared her opinion. If the album hadn’t tanked, maybe things would be different. Maybe he’d be here tonight, scandalizing the executives by wearing jeans instead of a suit and treating them to piano renditions of Pixies songs.
One thing was certain: if his music career had been more successful, he never would have signed up to be a human subject in a clinical trial at Nutrexo.
After listening to a few songs, she took out her earbuds. No use hiding up here any longer. Time to plaster on a smile and get back to the party. Maybe she could convince her mom to leave early.
A strong vanilla scent hit her when she opened the door. This place smelled nothing like Marina’s old house, the one Andi had been welcomed into ever since third grade. The air was so cloying that she was tempted to turn around, but she forced herself to step onto the plush carpet inside.
The din of the party was still far away, but grew louder as she made her way down the hall. Only—wait, this was something different. The low murmur she heard now was coming from behind the closed office door.
“…they may have accessed data from the clinical trial at SILO,” was all she heard, but it stopped her. It wasn’t only the words themselves; their hushed, conspiratorial tone made her both curious and uneasy.
Another man spoke now. Andi strained to hear this second voice, which was softer, and familiar: it was Mark Williams, Marina’s father. “Shouldn’t be a problem, right? Tara said the paper trail was clean, no indication of any harm—”
“But everything was backed up to the same server. The human subjects data the regulatory committees didn’t see, the internal documents we signed off on….”
The men spoke very quietly now. Heart pounding, Andi willed her legs to move. She took one step closer to the door.
“Tara assured me that her team has it under control,” the unknown man continued. “They’ll locate the source of the breach and contain the damage. We could get PR and Legal involved if we have to, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“It better not,” Marina’s father said. “But… are you sure she should be in charge of this?”
“Of course. It’s her project, so this is her mess to clean up. She knows how important it is, and she’ll do whatever it takes.” A phone chimed, and the unknown man added, “I have to get going—Emmett’s waiting for me to drop some cash at his crime prevention fundraiser. Actually, if this blows up, he might be able to help. He owes me a favor.”
The office door flew open, leaving Andi blinking in the harsh light. There, standing next to Mark, was the source of the other voice. Richard Caring.
Andi recognized him instantly; fawning news articles featuring his photograph often crossed her radar. Everyone in Seattle loved him, since he’d moved Nutrexo’s headquarters to their city when he took over as the food corporation’s CEO.
Richard Caring was focused on his phone as he stepped out of the office, so he didn’t notice Andi. Mark’s eyes went straight to her, though. They widened in surprise, and she noticed something else in them, too.
He opened his mouth and drew in a sharp breath, and she worried he would call out to her. Instead, he gave a curt side-nod toward the staircase as he said to Richard, “So, I hear you and Emmett were frat brothers back in the day.” As Richard Caring turned to face Mark, Andi hurried downstairs.
She returned to the den, heart still hammering. Marina and her boyfriend had disappeared, and a group of tweens stood near the snack table, right in front of the bowl of Blazin Bitz. Andi could have used another handful right about now.
Instead, she leaned against the wall, watching the gamers lay waste to an army of zombies. They attacked the undead with axes and sledgehammers, releasing fountains of cartoon blood.
Not helping. She pulled out her phone and googled “nutrexo silo.” While waiting for the results, she mentally replayed the upstairs conversation. Human subjects. Harm. She tried to reassure herself. Stop freaking out. They’re a huge corporation, they must have hundreds of clinical trials going on. Besides, they couldn’t possibly be harming the subjects, could they? Dad’s fine. Of course he’s fine.
She wished she knew more about the study he’d signed up for, but her father hadn’t given her any details about what they were testing. All she knew was that he had to be away from home for four more weeks. Which suddenly felt like a very long time.
The search results finally appeared, but all the links were about grain storage, not research studies. Andi opened her email and composed a quick message. Hey Dad, I need to talk to you. Call me as soon as you can. I know your cell doesn’t work out there but find some other way because it’s really important. I love you.
A collective groan erupted from the gamers and spectators. Andi looked up at the TV, where one of the warriors lay dying. The zombies closed in to harvest his brains while carrion crows circled overhead.
Then the game restarted, the fallen warrior springing back to life as if nothing had ever happened. But the zombies would keep coming, and the warriors would keep dying. It was an endless, futile cycle.
It’s only a game, Andi thought. And then: why am I still here?
She sent off a quick text to Marina, thanking her for the invitation and saying that she had to get going. Six months before, Andi probably would have told her everything. But this Marina, in her grand new house with her shiny perfect life, would never want to hear it.
Once in the foyer, Andi spotted her mother by the kitchen, deep in conversation with another woman. To Andi’s relief, Richard Caring was nowhere in sight; he must have left for that fundraiser. But as she headed towards her mother, someone stepped in front of her, blocking her path.
He smiled in the same friendly way he always greeted her, but Andi could see the anxiety in his eyes.
“I don’t know how much you heard up there,” he said quietly. “But I can imagine how it must have sounded, out of context. I wish I could explain, but it’s too complicated. The bottom line is that we’re the ones working for the greater good, and the hackers are trying to undermine us. So… don’t discuss what you heard with anyone. Richard would be furious if he ever found out you were eavesdropping. Do you understand?”
Andi understood perfectly. Nutrexo was covering up something very wrong, something that might involve her father. But Mark’s eyes were so hard, his voice so stern, that she couldn’t bring herself to confront him. She only nodded.
“Mark! There you are,” Andi’s mother said from behind them. She shook his hand, congratulating him on his promotion and his beautiful new home. Mark said something in response, but all the words got disconnected from each other and the only thing Andi heard was the message he communicated with his eyes. Don’t tell anyone. Just forget it.
Andi wasn’t going to forget. And when her father called back, she would tell him everything.
Friday, June 11
While rolling out pastry dough, Cyrus Mirzapour thought about bugs. Not insect bugs, which definitely wouldn’t be appetizing in this context, but the stubborn, elusive errors in his video game code. The program wouldn’t stop crashing, and he was running out of time. The contest deadline was less than two days away. If he couldn’t get it to work….
Not an option. He’d figure this out. Somehow.
Cyrus let his mind wander as he assembled cherry turnovers, hoping that an epiphany would come if he focused on something else for a while. As he slid the tray into the oven, he heard his little sister calling from the garden.
“Maman! Maman, come!”
Cyrus stepped onto the back patio. As usual, Roya was perched high in the walnut tree with her flute. “She’s busy. What is it?”
“Oh. Is Naveed back yet?”
“No, not yet.” Their older brother had stopped by earlier to drop off a bag of cherries from Pike Place Market, hinting not-so-subtly that Cyrus should bake a pie for later. Cyrus had retorted that he wasn’t Naveed’s personal pastry chef, but the temptation was impossible to resist. School was finally out for summer, and even though his family would have their official celebration for Naveed’s high school graduation the following day, it was never too early to start. Cyrus soon found himself in the kitchen pitting cherries. For turnovers, not pie.
“Come look, then. I think it’s dead,” Roya was saying.
“What’s dead?” Talking with his sister often felt like following a winding path in the dark.
Cyrus most definitely did not want to see that. “Okay, fine. I’ll go find Maman.”
He stepped through the dining room and peeked into the closet-like nook they used as an office, surprised to find the desk chair empty. Even though his mother always nagged him about spending too much time on the computer, she’d been glued to it lately.
Cyrus sat down, thinking he’d check whether anyone had responded to the plea for help he’d posted in a developer forum. It was a last-ditch effort; even Dev, his best friend and co-creator of the game, was stumped.
The screen was locked, which was a little weird. They’d used this as their family computer for years, and usually left it logged on. He knew the password, though, so he typed it in, and immediately forgot about checking the forums when he saw the document on the screen.
The file was titled “SILO Research Progress Report.” He would have written it off as another one of the boring papers Maman was always reading for work, except that each page was stamped with a “CONFIDENTIAL” watermark and headed with the Nutrexo logo: a red heart enclosing a stalk of golden wheat.
The floorboards outside the office creaked. For once, Cyrus was thankful for their ancient house. He quickly locked the screen again and turned to the bookshelf as Maman entered.
“What are you doing in here?” she asked, her eyes flicking to the computer. At the sight of the empty screen, her shoulders relaxed. “I thought you were in the kitchen.”
Cyrus was relieved he hadn’t been caught. His instincts were right: whatever the document was, she obviously didn’t want him to see it. “Just looking for The New Persian Kitchen. I was thinking of making sour cherry syrup later.”
“It’s right in front of you,” she said, pulling it off the shelf.
“Thanks.” Cyrus silently congratulated himself on his quick thinking. It was the perfect ruse to avoid suspicion, since he used this particular cookbook all the time—though his parents had both been born in Iran, they’d come to the U.S. as children, and didn’t have many family recipes for classic Persian dishes. To distract Maman even further, Cyrus added, “Oh, Roya wanted me to tell you she found a dead crow in the garden.”
“She didn’t touch it, did she?”
“I don’t think so. She’s still up in the walnut tree.”
“Okay, I’ll take a look. I just have to finish a couple things first.”
Cyrus noticed that she waited for him to leave before turning back to the computer. He wondered what was going on, and whether it had anything to do with the sustainability conference the day before. She went every year and usually came back excited about new projects to tackle at the Coalition for Food Justice, the nonprofit she co-directed, but she hadn’t even wanted to talk about it last night. And now she was downloading confidential documents, acting all secretive….
Intriguing. But he’d have to investigate later. Fridays were his night to make dinner, and he’d wasted most of his prep time on dessert. Though he was tempted to suggest they feast on turnovers, he knew it would never fly. Maman might be hopeless at cooking, but she did have standards for what constituted a healthy meal.
Cyrus surveyed the contents of the fridge. Pizza sounded good, but he hadn’t started any dough rising yet, and they were out of cheese anyway. All he had to work with was a jar of garbanzo beans and a leftover chunk of roasted lamb. Soup, then.
And maybe a salad to go with it. Outside, Cyrus pulled on his boots and grabbed a basket. As he made his way to the fenced vegetable garden, he spotted Roya near the fire pit with two of their chickens. She knelt close to them, head cocked, as if listening to their clucked conversation.
Cyrus scanned the raised beds. He filled his basket with a head of lettuce, several sprigs of mint, a couple of carrots, and one baby beet, and returned to the vine-covered patio as rain began to fall.
“Roya! It’s raining, come put on your jacket,” Cyrus called.
“In a minute,” she yelled back.
Once inside, Cyrus cracked the kitchen window open and cleared space on the tiny counter for the cutting board. While chopping onions, he tried to mentally run through his code again, but his thoughts kept returning to the mysterious document instead. Maman had worked at Nutrexo when Cyrus was younger, but she was totally opposed to them now. Maybe she was organizing some new boycott or petition against the company?
The oven beeped, and Cyrus was presented with another problem: whether to test one of the turnovers. That dilemma was easily, and deliciously, resolved.
The rain grew heavier as Cyrus worked. Soon all he could hear was the dull roar of raindrops, so he was startled to see Roya behind him when he turned to refill the salt bowl. Her big eyes peered out from under her bangs, which were plastered to her forehead.
“Maman never came to see the crow. Did you even tell her?”
“Of course I did.” Cyrus bristled at Roya’s accusatory tone. “She said she’d take a look.”
“Well, she didn’t.” Roya inhaled deeply and glanced at the stove. “Hey, you made turnovers! Can I have one?”
Cyrus opened his mouth to say no, that dinner was almost ready and she’d spoil her appetite. But, after all, he’d just eaten one. He broke a turnover in half. “Careful. It’s still hot inside.”
Roya grinned. As she ate, she noticed the basket of vegetables. “Can I help with the salad?”
“Sure, you can wash the lettuce.”
“I want to do the grating.”
Cyrus reluctantly agreed. Roya was only eight, and her “help” often resulted in spectacular messes. Her grating technique somehow defied the laws of physics, flinging bright flecks of carrot and beet onto the walls. At least it was Naveed’s turn to clean the kitchen tonight.
Around six, Baba opened the front door. “Wow, it’s stormy out there—what a squall!” Droplets of water dripped from his beard, and he shook off his coat as Maman appeared from the office and kissed his wet cheek.
“Baba!” Roya abandoned her grating and ran to the door to hug him. “Did you build any roads today?”
Roya never seemed to get that Baba did very little actual building in his job as a civil engineer at the Department of Transportation, but he laughed anyway and kissed the top of her head. “No, not today, azizam.”
He took off his shoes and made his way into the kitchen. “Congrats, you two! Last day of school—just in time for Juneuary. Where’s Naveed? Is he working today?”
Cyrus opened the oven to take out the flatbread warming inside. “No, he’s over at Brooke’s house. Said he’d be back for dinner, though.”
“I hope he’s not biking home in this weather,” Maman said.
“I’m sure he’ll be here any minute,” Baba said. “Let’s eat. I’m starving.”
Cyrus sent Naveed a brief text—Where r u? Food’s getting cold—even though he didn’t expect an answer. Naveed was weirdly oblivious to his phone most of the time.
As Maman ladled out soup and Roya garnished the bowls with fresh mint, the raindrops began to harden. Soon, beads of hail flung themselves to the ground. Maman closed the kitchen window.
They gathered around the dinner table, lit the candles, passed the salad. Cyrus sat down across from Roya and Maman, noticing how similar they looked in the flickering candlelight. With their dark skin, thick eyelashes and curly black hair, both Roya and Naveed resembled Maman. Cyrus was brown-haired and lighter-skinned, like Baba, and on the pudgy side. His hazel eyes verged on green: his one redeeming feature. Not that anyone ever noticed them, thanks to his glasses.
Maman sipped her soup. “Roya-jaan, I’m sorry I never made it outside to see the crow. Will you show me after the storm clears up?”
Roya nodded. “That’s okay. The other crow needed to say goodbye, anyway.” She launched into one of her rambling stories, but Cyrus only half-listened. His mind wandered back to his coding problems. Maybe he could bring some turnovers to Dev’s house after dinner and they could look at it together….
Cyrus was helping himself to more salad when the door opened. Naveed entered, out of breath, looking like he’d taken a swim in the lake while fully clothed.
“Sorry I’m late! My bike got a flat.” He stepped out of his wet shoes and unzipped his dripping rain jacket.
“You’re soaked!” Maman said. “I’ll dish up your soup while you change into some dry clothes.”
When Naveed returned, he started devouring his meal. After he tasted the soup, though, he pushed his chair away from the table. He returned with a jar of torshi from the fridge and spooned a generous portion into his bowl. Cyrus was briefly offended by this implied criticism of his cooking, but the tang of pickled vegetables was exactly what it needed. He reached across the table for the jar.
Between bites, Naveed apologized again. “I meant to leave Brooke’s house earlier, but I lost track of time. It started pouring right after I left, and a few minutes later, my front wheel blew out, so I decided to walk—well, run—my bike home. I was waiting for a light on Rainier, and this bus came barreling through the intersection”—he swooped his hand in demonstration—“and splashed into a huge puddle. My jeans got totally soaked. Then it started hailing!” He laughed. “How’s that for timing?”
“You could have called. I would’ve picked you up,” Maman said.
“Nah, it was faster to walk. And besides, it was kind of exhilarating.” He paused to chew a bite of flatbread. “Hey, Maman, so Brooke’s mom was telling us about that presentation at the sustainability conference yesterday.”
Maman set down her spoon. “What did Kelly say?”
Naveed turned to Cyrus. “I guess some lady from Nutrexo gave a talk about how their genetically modified cows are going to save the planet. Apparently Nutrexo was the main sponsor of the conference! Even though they’re responsible for tons of environmental damage. Brooke and I are totally going to that protest downtown on Monday.”
Maman studied her soup. “I’m not sure it would be appropriate for you to go. Your father and I need to discuss it.”
“Why not? You’re going, aren’t you? Kelly said that CFJ’s one of the organizers.”
“I have the day off work—I thought we were going. Right, Mahnaz-jaan?” Baba said, but she didn’t answer.
“I want to come, too,” Cyrus said. First, a confidential document from Nutrexo, now a protest there? Something was up. He couldn’t miss this.
“Me, too!” Roya always hated being left out.
“Your father and I will discuss it,” Maman repeated, this time with finality.
“I found a dead crow today,” Roya began. Naveed listened to her story with interest, but Cyrus’s attention drifted to his parents, who spoke in voices so hushed they were barely audible.
Maman was saying, “Saman-jaan… I’d rather not go back there. I’m not sure how Roya would do at a protest anyway.”
“It’s been years. No one remembers,” Baba said. “And Roya will be fine. You worry too much.”
“You’re probably right,” Maman said, but she sounded unconvinced. She was definitely hiding something. And Cyrus was going to figure out what.