Rosa Robelski tore the pizza crust to pieces in her shaky fingers. Had she just said that her family and friends would have to leave their home? Yes. Yes, she had. The golden brown scraps plopped onto the grease congealing on her paper plate.
“We’re not safe here.”She repeated, hoping her words would sink into her skull and stick.
Around the long table assembled for family gatherings, her cousin shifted in her seat. Her teenage friends stared at their plates of pizza and salads. The others blinked, as if exposed to daylight after a long night.
Little Erin, Rosa’s six-year-old niece opened her mouth. A wad of chewed food plopped onto her plate before she burst into tears. “I don’t wanna be mean like daddy.”
At the head of the table, Rosa’s sister chucked her paper napkin onto her plate and shoved back her chair. The legs scraping the tile ripped apart the silence. Ellen glowered as she rushed to her daughter’s side. “Really, Rosa? You couldn’t have waited until after lunch?”
Rosa crumbled the sliver of crust. Her sister could be such a pain in the ass. And everyone thought she was in denial. “I thought we were talking about our day.”
A day that had started normal enough, but ended with the psychotic guard from her workplace stealing her purse, identification, and keys.
The guard who’d invaded her house.
The guard who’d vandalized a month’s supply of food.
The guard whose brains she’d blown out to save Marcus Westmoreland’s life.
On her left, her coworker Marcus stiffened. Moisture stuck his burnt gold curls to his skull and dripped onto the Alice in Chains t-shirt. The borrowed shirt stretched taut across his chest, reminding her he was much more than an IT repair geek. He, too, had killed—to save her life.
“I would think you’d want your children to know what’s going on so the could be prepared.” Rosa glanced down the table to her neighbors on the right.
Mr. Brent, sitting in her father’s usual spot, clasped his wife Kelly’s hand. “Prepared for what exactly?”
Mrs. Kelly shoved her salad around her plate with her plastic fork. “And how is it related to food?”
Rosa’s stomach clenched, threatening to return her lunch to her mouth. This was it. The moment of truth. But would they believe her? She clasped her drink. Condensation slicked her palm. “The food is what’s causing everyone to go crazy.”
Erin buried her face in her mother’s chest. Her tiny fingers clutching Ellen’s shirt.
Ellen rolled her eyes, while smoothing her daughter’s brown hair. “Auntie Rosa isn’t talking about this food, sweetie. She’s talking about the other food, not the kind that mommy cooks with.”
Most of the time. Rosa took a sip of her soda before she corrected her sister. They all enjoyed soda and fast food. They were all at risk of catching the crazy. The sweet liquid turned bitter on her tongue.
Ellen’s neighbor, Drew took a pull on his beer before setting the glass bottle across the green tablecloth. “This is the organic thing, yeah?”
“Not again.” Cousin Raine shook a sliced mushroom at Rosa before shoving it into her mouth and chewing. “Your crusading still gets me the stink eye from the lunch ladies at Beaver Creek. Now, you’re going off that it’s making people crazy.”
At the head of the table, Mr. Brent swiped at the tomato sauce on his lips. “I remember your folks saying something about it. Genetically engineered foods, or such.”
A cascade of words blocked Rosa’s ability to speak. There was so much to say. Where would she begin in a manner that they would understand?
Clearing his throat, Marcus twirled his plastic fork in his fingers. “Genetically engineered is one word to describe it, although it is misleading. I for one usually associate engineering with precision and a knowledge of strengths and weaknesses. What is done to the genome of a seed is more akin to buckshot from a shotgun.”
Rosa winced. The memory of the guard’s head exploding played out on her eyelids. She wished he’d chosen a better image. His IQ was high enough that he should have been able to think of something. “Marcus has a PhD.”
“Two PhDs.” A blush stained his cheeks.
If he was embarrassed to be a smarty pants, he shouldn’t have corrected her. But she’d known why he’d done it. Credibility. Mr. Brent and half the table were looking for another reason. She set her hand over Marcus’s, stilling his spinning fork. “Marcus has two PhDs, and his family owns the research facility where I work.”
Ellen settled her daughter back into her chair then swiped up the blob of regurgitated food. “You can eat, sweetie. The pizza and salad are safe. Mommy and Grandmother made it.”
Sniffling, little Erin scrubbed her damp cheeks. Watery brown eyes glared at Rosa. “I’m not mean like Daddy.”
“Of course you’re not.” Instead of reaching across the table to comfort her niece, Rosa wrapped her arm around her nephew on her right and hugged him close. “You and your brother are nice. Your mom makes sure you eat good nutritious food.”
Although that wouldn’t explain why Ellen’s ex had flipped out. They’d only been divorced for a little while, so his exposure to genetically-engineered foods wouldn’t have been that long. Rosa glanced at Marcus. Could they have missed something?
Her nephew, Rafael, squirmed out of Rosa’s embrace. “I knew I wasn’t crazy.”
Rafe stuck his tongue out at his sister.
“Right.” Tosseling his hair, Rosa doubted crazy people knew they were crazy. Wouldn’t they justify their actions by blaming others? This morning, folks wouldn’t have surrendered to road rage if the car hadn’t broken down and blocked a lane of traffic. God knew what the guard had thought. She shut down memories of the guard. Now what had she been saying?
Mr. Brent folded his pizza and pointed it at her. “We eat regular food and we’re not crazy. Heck, there were lots of folks on the bus home, and they didn’t look like the granola-eating Hippie type.”
Rosa gritted her teeth. Hippies were the ones who promoted free love, freer drugs, and freedom from responsibility. Wanting to know what you were eating wasn’t the same thing. “We require labels to make informed decisions. Our clothes have labels, our medicines have labels, even our mattresses have labels.”
“So does a can of corn, dear.” Mrs. Kelly nibbled on a piece of Romaine lettuce.
God, could the woman be any more obtuse? Rosa leaned over her plate. “The label doesn’t tell you that a pesticide is grafted into the genetic code of the corn. That label doesn’t tell you that a virus is added, to make sure the corn is constantly producing the pesticide, at the cost of nutrition or your health.”
Mrs. Kelly chewed slowly for a moment before shrugging.
“I don’t think the government would let us eat it if it wasn’t safe.” Mr. Brent tore off a piece of his pizza.
Rosa rose from her seat. “The government is more concerned with biotechnology and business than the safety of the people. The people at the head of the FDA are appointed based on their political connections, not their concern for public health or their scientific acumen. They’re nothing but corporatists, who put profit over people.”
Swallowing, Mr. Brent dropped his pizza onto his plate. “Would you prefer that we turn communist?”
“Name calling is the resort of those who have no data to back up their views and are afraid of change.” Rosa wadded up her napkin and chucked it on her plate. And she wasn’t going to stand here and be insulted.
Marcus stood, shifting so he blocked her exit. “This is your family.”
And he’d given up his ride home to be with her and her family. She flattened her hand against his chest. His heart thudded against her palm. Her shoulders bowed.
Ellen’s chair creaked when she sat. “What makes you think it is the food?”
Marcus cocked his head. A honey-colored curl drooped over his forehead.
Rosa nodded and dropped onto her seat. “The animals that we’ve been feeding the genetically-engineered food to were dead. We’d thought we’d had a break-in, but the evidence indicated that many had flown into a rage and…” Her gaze cut to her niece and nephew. “Their actions led to their deaths.”
“Suicide?” Ellen’s neighbor, Drew leaned back in his chair and stacked his two empty plates. “Like people have been doing?”
“It was a form of suicide,” she supposed. Or a bid for freedom. And yet…
Marcus scratched his chin like he did when he was thinking. “There was also evidence that they killed each other.”
Mr. Brent snorted. “People are not rats.” He gestured to the closed drapes blocking out the emerging sunshine and the arcadia doors. “This is because people are fed up with the government, politicians, and… corporatists.”
Cousin Raine wrinkled her nose before turning to her dark-hair, bruised friend from school. “From what Jason said, he eats organic.” She set her hand on his arm before turning to Brent and Kelly Zindell. “But I know Cheyenne and her parents don’t.” After shoving her white-blond hair out of her eyes, she pointed to the guy across from her. “Colton didn’t eat organic until he came to live with us. If it’s the food, then why aren’t they crazy, too?”
Rosa stacked her fork on her uneaten food. And there it was, the facts that smashed her perfectly good theory.
Lips twitching, Mr. Brent finished his slice of pizza.
Marcus slid his empty plate under hers. “Not everyone gets sick at the same time. There are bound to be people resistant to the crazy, whose body can repair rogue genetic code faster, mitigating the effects. It makes sense that it would follow blood lines.”
God, she could kiss him. Such an explanation was brilliantly simple. Rosa stood just as he moved away. “And there’s the rage itself. Aside from the ACTH, there’s two hormones involved in the rage response that do double duty in pair bonding. Since we’re a close family with lots of touching, the secondary hormones could calm us so we don’t trip into crazyland.”
Somehow she doubted the government would go for the whole touchy-feely therapy. Gathering her nephew’s plate, she picked up Marcus’s discarded napkin and fork near her sister.
Drew side-eyed Ellen. “So, touching is the cure, yeah? I like to touch.”
Shaking her head, Ellen rolled her eyes but patted his hand. She leaned over her soup bowl, and her shirt gaped open. “Feeling calmer?”
Drew’s attention dropped to her exposed skin. “Well, I definitely ain’t feeling unusually crazy.”
At the far end of the table, Mr. Brent cleared his throat. “So if some of us are immune, and touch is the cure, there’s no reason to leave our homes, or the valley. We stick to the plan.”
Picking up Ellen’s empty soup bowl, Drew pushed to his feet. “What is this golden plan I keep hearing about?”
Ellen smoothed her crumpled napkin then began to fold it. “Well, um.”
Crafting had always been her sister’s way to deal with stress. Rosa had gotten a quilt out of her divorce. “We stay here and wait until the all clear is given. Then we resume life as usual.”
Rosa didn’t think it would work. They might be safe from the crazy, but everyone else’s train had derailed the tracks of sanity.
Embarrassment painted Ellen’s face in broad red strokes. “We have food for a month. Dad bought a filter for us to drink the pool water. We have propane tanks for cooking. Food, water and shelter all in one place.”
“And protection?” Drew’s hand dropped to the gun at his waist.
Rosa looked away. She didn’t want to see a gun for a while.
“We have knives, bats, and hockey sticks.” Mr. Brent used his beer bottle to point to the garage. “And enough adults to keep watch while the others sleep and prepare. We’re set.”
“If they’re gonna challenge you to a game of shirts versus skins.” Drew’s disbelief bounced off the high ceilings. “I mean real protection. Something to hurt or maim badly.”
At the thud on the table, Rosa flinched. That weight. It had to be the gun.
“My father doesn’t allow guns in the house.” Ellen’s statement produced a snort.
“Do any of you even know how to use a gun?” Drew tossed his scorn on the table.
Rosa raised her hand.
So did everyone else at the table, even little Erin. They’d all had gun safety classes after Cheyenne’s rape. And self defense courses. And survival bootcamp. Her parents were quite thorough.
Smiling, Mr. Brent slowly lowered his hand. “So you see, we aren’t as defenseless as you think. Paul Robelski believed the best way to survive was to band with others and use force only if absolutely necessary.”
“Sorry I missed the sign post to Fairyland when I walked into the neighborhood.” Drew stomped to the sink. “At least, we have two guns—Rosa’s and mine. Someone comes with another, and we’ll have that one, too.”
The flap of the garbage banged open when he dumped the dirty plates inside. He slapped on the tap to wash his hands.
Rosa shivered. The plan had so many holes, it might as well be made of Swiss cheese.
Mrs. Kelly dumped her empty plate onto her daughter Cheyenne’s. “Help with the clean up, Sweet Pea.”
Flicking it off, Cheyenne snapped. “I’m still eating here.”
Silence blanketed the room at the outburst.
Rosa froze; her breath locked in her lungs. Could she be wrong about the touch thing?
Colton nudged Cheyenne before spearing up his salad. “We eat, then we’ll clean up.”
Cheyenne nodded then glanced up. “What?”
Rosa’s shaky laugh joined the others’. She could deal with normal teenage angst. “Marcus and I will clean up. Why don’t you guys play board games with Erin and Rafael after you finish?”
Monopoly and Sorry didn’t involve violence or shooting. Circling around the table, she picked up Drew’s stacked plates then stopped by her niece Erin’s spot.
“Mom said we could have ice cream.” Erin leaned back in her metal folding chair and wiggled her loose tooth with her tongue.
“I think we have ice cream.” Non organic. Rosa bit her tongue. Ice cream had to be exempt from crazy-inducing or what was the point of living?
“And go swimming.” Rafe shoved the last bit of crust into his mouth. His cowlick fell over his eyes when he shoved his plate at her.
Swimming… Swimming was outside. The crazies were outside. Rosa glanced at the door. The sun must have scuttled behind a cloud as the outside darkened. Surely her sister wouldn’t let them go out there?
Ellen cleared her throat. “Why don’t you play a few games while you eat your ice cream. I’m pretty sure I saw lightning, and you know you can’t swim when it’s lightning out.”
Nice save. Rosa padded into the kitchen. The vertical blinds clacked together in the breeze of the ceiling fan. Between the gaps in the slats, movement shifted in her peripheral vision. She paused by the kitchen island. Was someone outside?
Her memory kicked back the image of the dead guard.
Marcus tugged the plates from her clutched hands and tossed them onto the granite counters. His arm swept around her shoulders. “You’ve gone pale on me. Are you going to pass out?”
“I thought I saw…”
Boo, the chocolate lab, lifted his head. His ears pricked up as he stared at the sliding door.
A loud rap echoed around the room. “Let us in. Or we’ll break the damn glass and come in anyway.”