“Miss Mitchell, Dr. Banks would very much appreciate it if you would accompany us back to SymboGen, so that he can see for himself that you’re all right.” The man’s expression didn’t waver. In its own way, it was as dead as the faces on the people who’d been in my yard. “We would be happy to wait while you got ready, and a space has been kept open for you in the van.”
The relief faded, followed by the familiar dread that mention of visiting SymboGen always engendered. This time, it had a darker edge. If I went with them now, how did I know that I would ever be coming back here? No one would know where I was. I could call and leave a message, but that wasn’t enough.
“No, thank you,” I said, through lips that felt suddenly numb and leaden. “I’m supposed to be meeting my boyfriend for lunch, and the roundtrip from SymboGen to here would leave only a few minutes for me to talk with Dr. Banks. It would be silly. But if he wants me to come in later this week…”
“Miss Mitchell, it may not be safe for you to remain here alone.”
“I’m not alone. I have Beverly.” I stooped enough to put my hand on the dog’s head. She stayed where she was, her attention going to the man who was trying to convince me to go with them. “I would never have known that there was potential danger outside if it weren’t for her. She’s an excellent guard dog.”
A flicker of displeasure lit in the man’s eyes. “Even so, Dr. Banks won’t like us leaving you here alone.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not going with you,” I said, unable to keep the edge of anxiety out of my tone. “I called because I needed help. Maybe that gives Dr. Banks the right to ask me to come and see him, but it doesn’t mean he gets to order me. I don’t work for him. I am not a part of SymboGen.”
“I’d like you to leave now, please. I need to put some clothes on.” Beverly, picking up on my tension, stood. I straightened, keeping my hand resting atop her head. “Please,” I repeated.
The man sighed. “All right. But please, if there is any further trouble, don’t hesitate to call. Dr. Banks worries for your safety.”
“I won’t. Hesitate, I mean. I’ll call,” I said. I stayed where I was, trying to take some comfort from the weight of Beverly pressed against my leg, and watched as the man from SymboGen waved the others off the porch. He walked after them. Once he was outside, I stepped forward and closed the door.
I let my hand rest on the doorknob, closing my eyes, and just breathed. No scary dead-eyed people in the yard. No SymboGen security on the lawn. It was just me and my dog, my good, good dog, who deserved an entire steak for the way she’d come to my defense. I would put on some clothes, call Nathan, and—
The doorbell rang. I recoiled from the door, not opening my eyes until I was well clear of the wood. It wasn’t intentional; I just reacted. Beverly barked once, but it was an inquisitive sound, not a panicked one. Whatever was on the porch, it didn’t upset her.
I pressed a hand to my chest, trying to slow the hammering of my heart, and called, “Hello?”
There was no response. The doorbell didn’t ring again. I cautiously approached the door, finally standing on tiptoe to peer through the peephole. There was no one there. Feeling like this was the second stupid thing I’d done in the short time that I’d been out of bed, I dropped back to the flats of my feet and opened the front door. The peephole hadn’t lied; there was no one there.
There was, however, a plain white envelope tucked halfway under the edge of the welcome mat, where the wind couldn’t take it away. I held my bathrobe closed with one hand as I bent to pull the envelope free, and then backed up, nudging Beverly out of the way. Once the door was closed and locked, I turned the envelope over in my hands, looking for some sign to identify who’d left it. There was nothing.
“Beverly, if this explodes, I want you to drag my body to safety,” I said. She looked up at me and wagged her tail. “Good dog,” I said. Beverly sat down.
I opened the envelope.
Inside was an index card printed in an oddly uneven font that smudged when my thumb touched it. The letters were faintly indented, and I realized it had been composed on a typewriter—something I’d only seen in the hospital records department, where some very specific types of paperwork had to be written on carbon paper. It was just one line of text:
The broken doors are open; come and enter and be home.
Underneath was a street address in the city of Clayton, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. I looked at it without saying a word for several minutes, until the text began to twist and slip away from me. That was my cue. I tucked the paper into the pocket of my bathrobe, pulling my phone out as I turned to walk toward my bedroom.
“Dial Nathan,” I said.
It was time to follow the map, whether or not it was going to get us lost.
I had to sacrifice a lot to get to where I ended up. As with so many other things in my life, while I may have regrets, I am not sorry. I made my choices. I knew what they had the potential to cost me. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d made other decisions, if I’d looked at certain possibilities and said “this is not worth the price.” I’m only human, after all. I’m allowed to have doubts every once in a while.
I will say this, without reservations: the choices I made meant that when the time came for Steven Banks to throw someone under the bus, there was no one else getting dragged along with me. I’m the one whose name went to the FDA when they questioned our research protocols. I’m the one who gets blamed for every irregularity in the research process. But because I made the choices I did, I had no weak spots for them to exploit. I was armor-clad. I got away.