Where Shadows Grow
Where Shadows Grow
Call of the Crow Quartet
Tuesday, August 11
The distant cheers of the audience rose and fell, rhythmic as ocean waves. But there was nothing peaceful about these swells: they were unpredictable and strong, the kind that could pull you under and never let you go.
Andi Lin moved her hands to her lap, leaving a damp fog outline on the vinyl chair. She fidgeted with the bracelets they’d given her in Wardrobe. “To give you more sparkle,” they had said.
“Your face looks sweaty,” the makeup artist muttered. “Close your eyes.”
Andi obeyed, feeling the brush sweep across her forehead. Fragrant flakes of powder perfumed the air. The cloying scent tickled her nose.
When she opened her eyes, her face in the mirror looked much paler than usual. Maybe they thought she would look “prettier” that way, or maybe they didn’t have quite the right match for her skin tone. Then again, her nerves weren’t helping matters either.
“All set.” The artist took off the smock protecting Andi’s dress, gesturing towards the backstage room where Cyrus was waiting. “You’re on in five minutes.”
Andi felt like wiping off her pink lip gloss and tearing away through the halls. Why had she ever thought this would be a good idea?
Cyrus looked up from his phone, catching her eye as she entered the room. “Wow. Alexandria. You look…magnificent.”
“You dress up nice yourself,” she said. Cyrus looked pale, too, though he was light-skinned to begin with. They had styled his hair in an artfully messy way and dressed him in a suit, complete with bow tie. The two of them looked almost like they were going to prom or something, instead of appearing on Lillian Page’s afternoon talk show.
She slid onto the couch beside him, running her fingers through her long black hair. “I don’t think I can do this.”
He took her hand, not saying a thing about its clamminess. “Of course you can. It’ll go just like we practiced, then it’ll be over. We didn’t come all this way just to turn back now. Besides, we have to do this. For the greater good.”
“Don’t say that,” she said. He responded by shooting her a bewitchingly adorable grin.
Cyrus’s phone buzzed as someone peeked in the door to give a one-minute warning. Andi stood up, her knees shaky. What if she fainted as they walked out on the stage? That would be so embarrassing.
She smoothed her hair and reached her hand out to Cyrus, but he was staring at his phone with obvious dread. It continued buzzing insistently in his hand.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“What? Oh. My dad.”
“Aren’t you going to answer? He probably just wants to wish you luck.”
“Luck!” Cyrus said, like this hadn’t even crossed his mind. As if to make up for his odd reaction, he laughed. “Of course. No, better not to talk now, I’d rather wait till after the show.”
“Is everything okay?” The worry that had been stalking her all day, only recently overshadowed by stage fright, crept in again. Just after her phone alarm had gone off at 4 a.m., Andi had received an unexpected text from Cyrus: Change of plans, don’t pick me up, I’ll meet u at the airport. That had been strange, considering he lived less than a block away and it was no trouble to swing by and get him.
He’d arrived for their early morning flight to LA minutes before it took off, huffing into the cabin with his backpack askew. Once he’d settled into the seat next to hers, he apologized. “Long night. I’ll explain later. Better get some sleep before the show.”
She had asked the same question then. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
He’d gazed at her with heavy-lidded eyes, stifling a yawn, and said, “Everything’s wonderful. I’m going to California with a beautiful girl and we’re going to see… amazing stuff like… stars… celebrities, I mean, and… stucco and… palm trees….”
He’d slept in the car, too, but as soon as they arrived at the studios they had been sucked into the chaotic whirlwind of wardrobe and rehearsal and makeup and everything else, so she hadn’t had a chance to ask him anything more.
Now, his mouth twitched upward, but she knew his fake smile when she saw it. He didn’t get a chance to respond before someone wearing a headset appeared and ushered them out of the room. “You’re on.”
They walked into the bright lights and deafening applause. Andi tried not to think of tidal waves sweeping her off her feet. She looked for her parents in the front row and saw them beaming, adding to the intensity of the light.
Lillian shook her hand. Andi forced herself to keep smiling, to not think about how sweaty her palms were, to not get tripped up and tongue-tied. Just keep it like they’d practiced.
Once they sat down, Lillian jumped right in. “We’re thrilled that you could join us today. It’s been almost two months since Tara Snyder, the woman who allegedly abducted you, was arrested, and your terrifying ordeal ended. How are you doing now?”
Andi looked at Cyrus, but he sat there silent, looking shell-shocked. She wasn’t prepared for that. During rehearsal, he’d been his usual wisecracking self, and she’d just assumed he would take the lead. But when he didn’t, she took a deep breath, and her voice came out soft, but not shaky. The audience listened intently, like they had been waiting a long time to hear from her.
“We’re pretty good,” she answered. “We’re so grateful for all the support we’ve been given from our families, our doctors, our community… everyone’s been so generous.”
Cyrus was nodding. “We feel really lucky,” he added.
“And how are your brother and sister doing?” Lillian asked Cyrus.
Cyrus flinched subtly. “They’re fine. Not interested in doing interviews, though.”
“So your brother made a full recovery from the respiratory infection that had him hospitalized for weeks?”
“Like I said, he’s fine.” Earlier, too, Lillian had pried for details, and Cyrus had remained just as firmly tight-lipped as he was now. They would never talk about Naveed’s lingering health problems on the air. That wasn’t their story to tell.
Lillian added, “I’ve heard that new cases of the infection have started turning up throughout Washington state. They’re calling it Multidrug-Resistant Klebsiella, or MRK.” She pronounced it “murk,” the same way Andi’s doctors had. “Sure sounds like a nasty bug. Be careful out there, y’all. Keep that hand sanitizer at the ready, like Dr. Ben always says!”
Andi was sure that her face must be flaming red. She hadn’t heard anything about new cases of MRK; Lillian hadn’t mentioned this during rehearsal either. It struck her as terrible news, especially since Cyrus, Naveed, their younger sister Roya, and Andi had been the first patients infected with this new strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae. The bacteria had evolved into antibiotic-resistant superbugs because of the filthy conditions Tara Snyder’s research cows lived in, and Andi had only led Cyrus and Naveed into that barn because they were trying to escape. Andi had long been worried the disease was still out there, still spreading, but until now she’d tried not to dwell on it too much.
Andi took another deep breath, trying to calm down and pay attention. Lillian was smiling so sweetly, but her pancake makeup now seemed to conceal a cruel inner face.
“Coming to terms with what happened must have been hard,” Lillian said with exaggerated sympathy. “How has the experience affected you?”
“Things won’t ever be the same for any of us.” Andi didn’t really want to talk about that; she couldn’t even put into words how deeply it had changed them all. If Lillian could go off-script, though, why couldn’t she? “But I think what hurts the most is that the rest of the world has moved on. Whenever people talk about this, it’s always about Tara Snyder and what she did. It’s never about Nutrexo, the food company she worked for. It’s definitely not about their CEO, Richard Caring, who okayed the EcoCows in the first place. The whole project only existed because Nutrexo owned Genbiotix, a pharmaceutical company! And what about the fact that all the problems we saw are widespread across the whole food industry? Livestock are still being kept in horrific living conditions, which could lead to more infections like MRK. We might have stopped EcoCow milk from being sold, and Nutrexo is gone now, but Genbiotix spun off into its own company, and they’re still out there—”
“Making life-saving medicine, such as the only known effective treatment for MRK,” Lillian interrupted.
Ouch. So she wanted to play hardball? Fine. Andi was about to respond when Lillian continued, “Cyrus, I’ve heard that you’re doing particularly well now. Tell us about your summer job. It sounds like you’ve gotten quite the unique opportunity.”
Andi felt like she’d lived this moment before: there was a humming in her ears, an outwardly attractive but inwardly callous person sitting opposite her. Lillian wasn’t going to let Andi speak; her eyes flashed warningly. A little too far, dear. Wouldn’t want to offend the sponsors.
Cyrus said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been working at Parapluie Bistro, one of Chef Thierry Marchand’s restaurants. It’s been amazing. I’ve learned so much there.”
Andi’s heart sank. She’d hoped he would jump in to support her. She thought that was why they were here, to remind people that this fight was not over, that it was just beginning. But instead here he was, chattering on about some Persian-style dish he’d developed for the dessert menu. Lillian looked pleased. Andi tried to catch his eye, but he wouldn’t look at her.
“Sounds delicious!” Lillian said when Cyrus finished talking.
“Yeah, it’s been a busy summer, between that and the website my friend and I built—devilandcyborg.com, not that I’m trying to plug it or anything,” Cyrus said.
“Well, aren’t you talented,” Lillian fawned. “It’s so inspiring to see how well you’re doing despite everything you’ve been through. Thank you both for being here.”
“Thank you for having us,” Cyrus replied with a smile so fake that Andi was sure she wasn’t the only one who noticed.
Lillian turned back to the camera. “Up next, a special report from Dr. Ben on the silent killer lurking under your sink.”
Andi stood up, not even trying to act pleasant now that the cameras were off, and walked off the stage. As she exited, she saw Dr. Ben waiting in the wings with his smarmy smile, ready to be embraced by the crowds.
“Silent killer? Isn’t that a little over-dramatic?” Andi said to Cyrus as they returned to the backstage room. She was still annoyed at him for not supporting her out there, but she really needed to vent. “They’re probably talking about some disinfectant or whatever, but they make it sound like sink gremlins are going to pop out at you whenever you open a cupboard.”
“Sink gremlins.” Cyrus chuckled. “Hey, wasn’t Dr. Ben the one selling that supplement you took?”
Andi rubbed her temples. She really didn’t want to think about that right now—her head hurt at the mention of it. “Well, he had the Metafolia guy on his show and called it a ‘miracle product.’ If that’s what you mean.”
“Maybe I should rush out on the stage and throw down a white glove. Demand satisfaction for indirectly harming my girlfriend.”
“It was no big deal. Anyway, it’s in the past.” And yet, something still nagged at her. Even though she’d ended up in the emergency room after taking the herbal supplements several weeks ago, the experience hadn’t been entirely unpleasant. Throughout the whole fiasco, she’d felt strangely… peaceful.
Cyrus’s grin faded. “Alexandria, you rocked it. I’m sorry I couldn’t really talk about that stuff, I froze up and all I wanted to do was get out of there, but you… I like seeing that side of you. Your righteous indignation.”
The apology helped, a little. “Lillian didn’t. She totally cut me off. Had to get back to a safe topic of conversation.”
“Well, I think everybody watching will be able to tell what’s up. The truth is uncomfortable sometimes.”
“I can’t believe what she was saying about MRK. Why didn’t she mention that at rehearsal? I hate it when people keep stuff from me.”
Cyrus shrugged. “Who knows why anybody….” He trailed off, staring at his phone. Andi saw him swipe open the screen. Two new voicemails.
Andi checked her own phone. She’d gotten a sweet voicemail from her ah-ma in Berkeley, who had apparently organized a viewing party with a bunch of other Taiwanese retirees, as well as a few congratulatory texts. Andi’s parents had messaged that they’d meet her after the show was over to celebrate. She responded with a thumbs-up.
Cyrus took her hand. “Let’s go.”
“Anywhere. Outside. Find a palm tree to sit under.”
There were no palm trees outside. Just a big parking lot, the maze of studios, their gigantic hangar-like buildings, the trailers parked nearby.
They walked. Cyrus played back his voicemail, and Andi tried to listen, but the volume was too low for her to divine anything. All this stress was making her head hurt again.
Finally he shoved his phone back into his pocket, exhaling loudly as he slowed to a stop. She waited for him to say something. He didn’t.
Andi stepped in front of him. “Cy? What’s going on?”
He looked around, as if to make sure no one was watching, and then he hugged her, leaning his head onto her shoulder, angling his mouth toward her ear. Speaking very softly. “I don’t really want to talk about it, and please don’t tell anybody, but Naveed had to go back to the hospital last night.”
The news hit Andi brick-like, even though it was what she had suspected. “Oh, Cy—what happened?”
“It’s just, his feet… his hands, too… apparently he’s been having this pain, and it got really intense last night… like, bad enough that he couldn’t even walk… and… and he….”
Cyrus swallowed hard. It hurt Andi just to hear this, and she could imagine how awful that confrontation must have been, so she didn’t wait for him to finish. “That’s horrible,” she said, though the word seemed inadequate. “But I thought he couldn’t feel anything in his hands and feet? Because of the nerve damage?”
“They think it’s related to his neuropathy,” Cyrus said slowly, recovering his voice. “It’s a pretty common complication—that’s what my dad’s message said. But they’re going to do a bunch of tests, so they can rule other things out.”
“But he doesn’t have to stay there, right? They let him go home?”
“No. They admitted him. Sounds like it’ll be a few days at least.”
“Oh no, but his birthday’s coming up…”
“Not for another week. I’m sure he’ll be home by then.”
All this information was hitting Andi in waves. “Can I tell Brooke?”
“No,” Cyrus said quickly. “Better not. I really don’t think he wants to talk to her right now. If he does, he can contact her himself.”
That seemed fair enough. Their breakup was so recent, and Brooke was off in the wilds of British Columbia with her mom and older sister anyway. “Why didn’t you stay?” Andi asked. “Shouldn’t you be with him?”
Cyrus sounded pained. “He doesn’t want me there.”
“Because… because you made him go?” Andi asked.
Cyrus let out a strangled sound that she took as a yes, and she rubbed his back, trying not to think about that terrible evening when they’d all gone out to celebrate her seventeenth birthday at Parapluie. But the memories came anyway, in small vivid bursts: Naveed crouched in the back alley after freaking out inside the restaurant, sweat-drenched and struggling for breath; Brooke suggesting they call an ambulance; Naveed suddenly springing up, grabbing her by the wrists and slamming her against the wall; Brooke gasping, eyes wide with shock, as he yelled, No! Don’t make me go back there—I’m never going back, never—
It made Andi’s heart hurt to think of Naveed turning that same anger onto Cyrus, who had been so patient with his brother. She squeezed him closer. “Don’t worry. He’ll forgive you once he feels better.”
He sighed and pulled away. “Thanks, Alexandria. You’re right. This is for the best. They’ll take care of him, get things worked out. I guess we might as well enjoy our goddamn vacation.” He held his arm out. “Now. Back to the studio, so that Dr. Ben can tell us the truth about those murderous sink gremlins.”
Tuesday, August 11
Roya Mirzapour wandered along the rocky beach, farther and farther from Auntie Leila. If she just paid attention to the slippery stones beneath her feet, maybe she could guide her thoughts away from the bad places they wanted to go, away from the question she kept coming back to. Should I have gone with Maman? Did I make the wrong choice?
Up until this morning, her vacation had been going wonderfully. A few days before, Roya and Maman had journeyed up north by car and ferry to visit Auntie Leila, Baba’s younger sister. She was a marine biology postdoc in Oregon, but was spending the summer doing research on the San Juan Islands off the Washington coast, and had invited them to join her for a few weeks in the cabin she’d rented on Lopez Island.
Auntie Leila liked to go down to the beach at low tide and comb for treasures, and taught Roya about all the hidden things that come out when the water is low. Roya learned about the different kinds of sea birds, about the orca pods who swam through the waters occasionally, about the habitats of sea lions. She learned how to identify different types of seaweed: the long hollow tubes of bull kelp, the bright green nori, the air-filled bladderwrack like small, puffy hands.
Even better, it was the first time in her whole life that Roya had Maman all to herself, and getting away from home had released the heaviness that had been weighing them down for the past several months. The day before, as they’d explored tidepools, Roya had crouched to get a closer look at a bright purple sea star, humming to herself as she raked her fingers through the sloshy wet stones since she wanted so badly to touch the creature but knew she shouldn’t, and Maman had come up beside her and encircled her in a hug, kissing her on the cheek, even. “Oh, Roya-jaan, I love you so much,” Maman said, and it was so strange and out of the blue but that only made it more amazing, because it had been so long since something like that had happened, so long since her mother had been anything but a distant half-ghost, but here they were on the beach and Maman was solid and real and spilling over with this sudden, astonishing affection, and Roya drank it in, letting it fill her completely.
At the end of each day Roya fell asleep in a loft bed in the cabin, ceiling slanting low overhead to remind her of home, but with a window above so she could see the stars. Still, every night she ended up crawling over to Maman’s bed after the nightmares came.
Maman had woken her up early this morning, so early it wasn’t even light yet. Roya knew something was wrong by the fierce way Maman hugged her, by the tremble in her voice. She told Roya that she needed to go back to Seattle because Naveed was in the hospital again, quickly adding that he’d be fine but they needed to keep him there for a few days. Maman said she wouldn’t be gone for too long, and that Roya could stay here with her auntie. If she wanted to come back, though, that was fine too.
Roya got an itchy feeling in her belly, a sort of irritation, like something small was trapped in there and trying to get out. She knew her answer immediately: she wanted to stay. But she felt bad saying that out loud. It wasn’t like she didn’t want to see Naveed; she did, of course she did, but no way was she trading tidepools for hospital rooms, especially since Cyrus was in California and wouldn’t be there to lighten the mood. But it wasn’t fair that Maman had to leave this place just when she was starting to come alive again, and it wasn’t fair that Roya had to let her go.
“If it’s really okay… I think I’ll stay here,” Roya whispered. “But give him a big hug for me.”
Maman squeezed her close. “I’ll come back as soon as he gets discharged. And I’ll call you every day.”
Roya made him a get-well card while her mother finished packing up. It was hard to get back to sleep after Maman kissed her goodbye, because she kept thinking of her brother, wondering what exactly was wrong with him, knowing how awful he must feel to be back in the hospital… and meanwhile Roya was on this beautiful faraway island, being selfish, wanting to keep Maman all to herself.
When Auntie Leila finally woke up, she’d suggested a morning low-tide walk on the beach. Now, as Roya stepped toward a piece of driftwood, thinking she’d dig through the rocks to look for shells and sea glass, something caught her eye on top of the bluff behind her.
She turned and saw a girl with pale skin and dark braids watching from the shadow of the tree line. A shapeless linen dress hung from her thin frame.
“Hey!” Roya called out, scrabbling up the bluff as quickly as she could, but by the time she got up top, the girl was retreating into the woods. Roya was about to start after her when she heard Auntie Leila yelling her name.
“Roya! Come back down to the beach. We can explore the woods later. I want to show you something.”
Roya cast a long glance backward, but the girl was gone. If she’d ever really been there at all. The way she had moved, like a frightened animal, making so little noise as she darted through the trees. Her dress, her braids, the longing in her eyes. She looked like she’d stepped out of a story book.
“I saw a girl over there, by the woods,” Roya confessed to Auntie Leila when she returned to the beach.
“Yes. Maybe the same age as me, or a little older, but she looked strange. Old-fashioned.”
Auntie Leila frowned. “I didn’t see anyone. Here, look what I found.”
It was a pretty amber-colored agate stone that seemed to glow in the weak sunlight. Auntie Leila said she could have it, so Roya slipped it into her pocket, but she almost forgot to say thank you. Her mind was still far away.
Then her auntie gasped, and Roya followed her gaze. There, way out at sea, was a whole pod of orcas! Roya counted five dorsal fins, but she wasn’t sure how many there really were, because they kept moving.
“My binocs!” Auntie Leila exclaimed, scrambling across the rocks to her backpack, but Roya didn’t want to lose sight of the whales. They were swimming fast, so she ran down the beach to keep them in her view, around a narrow corner that she couldn’t usually walk on because it only appeared during low tide.
Then she was on a new beach. This one was sandier, but small, and Roya stopped when she realized she’d nearly run into an enormous sea lion.
It barked at her before disappearing into the water. Roya was relieved he hadn’t attacked or anything, but at the same time felt bad for disturbing him. She fixed her gaze back out at the sea. The orcas were gone.
Disappointed, Roya turned around—and saw that she had been standing in front of an outcropping of rock that jutted into the ocean. It was curved into an arch of stone, maybe three feet tall. A doorway into darkness.
After squinting into the shadows to make sure no sea lions were in there, she crawled into the small cave. Barnacles scraped at her knees. Inside it was dark, and only the quiet drippings of water broke the silence. Something was in there, though, something pale in the gleam of light shining through the opening. Roya scooted closer, and drew in her breath when she realized what it was.
A skull. A human skull. And not only the skull—it looked like an entire skeleton, huddled there on the ground in a heap of bones, bones not in their right places, bones washed around by tides.
Roya didn’t want to look at them, but at the same time she did. When she worked up the nerve to inspect them more closely, she noticed a small dark shape planted firmly in the sand underneath. Roya reached toward it, thinking she knew what it was, shivering as she nudged the waterlogged skeleton aside and closed her hand around solid, rough metal.
A key. An old, rusted iron key.
She slipped it into her pocket with the agate just as Auntie Leila crouched in the cave’s opening. “Roya! What are you—”
“I found something.” Roya pointed at the tangled-up skeleton. She was about to mention the key, too, but stopped herself. Auntie Leila would probably take it away. But Roya didn’t want to give it up. Somehow, it felt like the key belonged with her.
The police came, later. Roya watched them carry the bones out piece by piece. In the harsh daylight they looked small and fragile, and too wet. By then a crowd of onlookers had gathered, murmuring to each other, wondering.
One of the police officers took her aside to ask some questions. Roya was nervous to talk to them, but Auntie Leila stayed close, keeping an arm around her the whole time, and the officer was friendly. As they were wrapping things up, Roya asked, “Will you be able to figure out who it was?”
“It’s not likely,” the officer said. “Sometimes we can use the teeth, but they’re all worn away. Whoever they were, they died a long time ago.”
For some reason, this made Roya think of the old-fashioned-looking girl she’d seen on the bluff. She reached into her pocket, closing her hand around the key, feeling its rough edges, its weight in her palm.
Find her. The thought flew in from nowhere, almost as if it were a message transmitted by the key itself. Roya gripped it harder, knowing what it meant, knowing what she needed to do.
Find the girl.