Joyce pointed after Beverly, beaming angelically. “It won’t matter, because you need to clean up after your dog.”
I groaned. “Fine. I’ll be out as soon as I have some real clothes on.”
“Just remember that you keep your clothes in your dresser, and don’t go looking for them in your bed,” said Joyce sweetly.
I took great pleasure in closing the door in her face.
It only took me a few minutes to get dressed. Brushing my hair took longer. I might not remember any of my dreams, but I’d clearly been tossing and turning in the night, and my hair was a matted mass of tangles and knots that gave way with an audible ripping sound. I cringed and kept brushing until I felt vaguely presentable. Then I went out to join my family.
All three of them were sitting at the kitchen table, waiting. That was unusual all by itself. Mom would normally have left for her volunteer work by now, and Dad and Joyce usually made their way over to the lab before eight. The box from SymboGen was in the center of the table, covered with even more warning labels than Joyce had reported. I stopped in the hallway door, blinking at them.
“Is today a holiday that I forgot about?” I asked. “Because if it is, I’m going back to bed.”
“Good morning to you, too, sweetie,” said Mom.
“I called the lab and told them that Joyce and I would be in a little late this morning,” said my father. “We were concerned about you after last night, and I wanted a chance to talk to you before we left.”
“Besides, mystery box,” said Joyce. She was her usual blithe self. Mom and Dad… weren’t. They were both smiling, trying to look normal, but there was a grim undertone to their expressions that spoke of things they weren’t quite willing to say. I found myself wondering what secrets they were keeping from me, and pushed the thought aside. If I was going to start thinking like that, I might as well turn myself over to SymboGen right now. At least there I would know who I could trust—no one—and who was lying to me—everyone.
“Mystery box,” I agreed, and walked over to take a seat at the table. I tried to tug the box toward me, but it was so heavy I couldn’t move it. “What’s in here? Bricks?”
“The normal question is ‘rocks,’ and I don’t know, but I almost gave myself a hernia getting it inside.”
I blinked at my father. Corrections like that seemed normal and right from Sherman, but coming from him, it just felt like I was being scolded. I turned my attention back to the box, trying not to let my discomfort show.
The box had been taped shut, but there were tags built into the cardboard to make the box easier to open. They also rendered it impossible to use a second time, but I guess when you’re a giant multinational corporation, you don’t need to worry as much about reusability. I gripped the tabs and tugged them apart, causing the entire top of the box to detach. Biodegradable packing peanuts spilled out onto the kitchen table.
“Hang on a second, sweetie, I’ll get a bag,” said Mom, gesturing for me to stop. She pushed her chair back and bustled into the kitchen, returning a few moments later with a large plastic garbage bag. She swept the fallen packing peanuts into it, and stood ready to catch any more that tried to escape. “All right. Proceed.”
“Efficiency, thy name is Mom,” said Joyce.
I forced a chuckle, and pulled the top off the box, sending a larger flood of packing peanuts in all directions. I put the box top on the floor next to my chair. Mom hurried to capture all the packing peanuts before they could roll under the furniture, where they would be later inhaled by the dog. I ignored her in favor of digging down into the box, spilling more packing peanuts. My fingers hit plastic. “Got it,” I said, and lifted.
Whoever had been responsible for sterilizing and packing my personal possessions had taken their job very, very seriously. My things were swaddled in a double layer of plastic wrap, and there was an itemized inventory of what was inside affixed to the front. I scanned the list, and rolled my eyes. They’d definitely been thorough. I just didn’t see the utility of itemizing individual tampons.
“Is that all?” asked Joyce. She flicked a packing peanut at me, looking disappointed. “I was hoping for pirate gold.”
“Not even SymboGen can hand out big boxes of pirate gold without good reason,” I said, setting my things aside. “But that can’t be all that’s in here. Look at the size of this box.”
“Maybe SymboGen’s packing department is just really enthusiastic,” said Joyce.
“I don’t know.” I had to stand to see over the edge of the box. I rummaged down into the packing peanuts, flailing around until I hit what felt like the handle of a medium-sized cooler. “What the…?” I lifted.
It was, in fact, a cooler, labeled “Open Immediately.” I passed it to Joyce, who gave a little squeal of delight, and went back to rummaging around in the packing peanuts. By the time I’d found the next item—a flat box made of reinforced memory plastic and smelling suspiciously like croissants—Joyce had opened the cooler, and was squealing more loudly as she unpacked sliced fruit, berries and cream, and an assortment of cold breakfast meats onto the table. I passed the box of croissants to my father and went rummaging around in the big box one more time.
The last item inside was a square box with a small chemical heating unit attached to keep the contents warm, and a note taped to the outside: