I hope this helps to make up for lunch. I will see you soon, under better circumstances. For now, be well, and know that I am thinking of you fondly.
“Sal? Did SymboGen just send us breakfast?” asked Joyce.
“It looks like it,” I said. Mom made the big box disappear while I opened the box with the note. Inside was a stack of waffles, a bottle of what I was sure would prove to be real maple syrup, and a large bowl of eggs scrambled with cheddar cheese and chunks of tomato. It was a four-star breakfast packed for delivery, and I would have bet good money that it was prepared in the reopened executive cafeteria.
My pride wanted me to announce that I wasn’t hungry and leave this extravagant bribe—because there was no way this wasn’t a bribe—for my family and Beverly to consume. My body had other ideas. My stomach, which had been rumbling since I recognized the smell from the flat box as croissants, began to roar when I smelled the eggs. I resigned myself to the inevitable. I was going to eat my bribe, and I was going to like it.
Mom returned from the kitchen with place settings and a broad smile that didn’t look quite genuine. “Isn’t this nice? Breakfast for the family, catered by SymboGen.”
“I wouldn’t have eaten that cereal if I’d known you were ordering this much food,” said Joyce. She didn’t let her complaint stop her from taking two waffles and a sizable portion of the eggs.
“I didn’t know either,” I said. “Dr. Banks told me he’d be sending my things. He didn’t say that he’d be sending them along with enough food to feed an army.”
“Now, Sal, don’t exaggerate,” said my father. “You have a Labrador. There’s no way we could feed an army on this.” He grabbed a croissant.
My father was US military. He wouldn’t have been eating the food if it wasn’t safe. I laughed a little, some of my tension easing, and reached for a plate.
Dad looked tired. That was the first thing I noticed, and as I noticed it, I realized he’d been looking tired since before the outbreak Joyce and I witnessed in San Bruno. That was when he’d told me he knew about the sleepwalkers. Just how much did he know?
Joyce didn’t look tired—she looked focused, like she was calculating exactly how many calories she was getting from each bite, and how far she could make each of those calories take her, if she really pushed herself. Getting a late start was one thing. Paying for it by skipping meals throughout the day was something else entirely, and spoke to an urgency in whatever she was working on.
I took a bite of waffle, chewed, and said, as casually as I could, “They had to keep my things for decontamination because one of the PAs who usually helps me around the building suddenly freaked out and started attacking people. She seemed to go to sleep first, while she was still standing up. It was like all the lights went out inside her brain, and she wasn’t home anymore.”
Joyce put down her fork.
It was a small gesture, marked mainly by the faint clink of metal against ceramic, but it said worlds. Very little could make my sister stop eating once she got started. I turned my attention to our father.
“They tried to make her stop, but she wouldn’t. So some of the security officers who’d come to take care of the situation began zapping her with these electric batons they carry. They hit her over and over again, until she fell down and didn’t move anymore.” I didn’t tell them she’d said my name as she was falling. Some things I wasn’t ready to think about yet, and that was one of them.
“Sal…” said my father, and stopped, his throat working like he was trying to say something else. No sound came out.
“So security took everyone who’d been in the cafeteria when all this happened—and I mean everyone, they even took Dr. Banks—to the lab level for examination, so they could figure out whether or not we were infected. That’s where they took my clothes away.”
“They have a test for whether or not someone’s infected?” Joyce half stood in her excitement, hands braced against the table.
“Joyce Erin Mitchell, sit down,” said my father, his voice like a whip cracking. Joyce gave him a startled look and sank slowly back into her seat, eyes wide. He turned his focus on me. “Sal, honey, what you have to understand—”
“There’s this one PA, Sherman? He’s always really nice to me. He acts like I’m a guest or a volunteer, not a lab rat who doesn’t have a choice about what they want to do to her. He teaches me new slang. I usually have to look it up to make sure he’s not messing with me, but that’s part of the fun, you know? Well, when they took us all underground to be tested, he failed. He’s infected. And now I’m never going to see him again.” My voice was getting louder. I didn’t do anything to stop it. “And what I have to ask you, Dad, what I have to know, is whether you know anything about this that you’re not telling me. Because it seems like there’s a lot of people not telling people things, just now. And now my friends are dying. I don’t have that many friends. I can’t spare them.”
My father looked at me. I glared back. We stayed like that for almost a minute, no one moving to break the silence. It was like we were all afraid of what would happen when we did.
Finally, he stood. “I have to get to the lab,” he said. “Joyce, are you ready?”
“Wha—um, yeah.” Joyce shoved her chair away from the table, scrambling to her feet. “Have a nice day, Sal. Bye, Mom.” Mom got a hasty kiss on the cheek. I got a wave and an apologetic look as Joyce darted past me to grab her bag. Then she was gone, following Dad toward the garage.