Iona Edwards watched as her insulated mug twirled once then toppled over, splashing her freshly poured Dr. Pepper on the chipped cafeteria table. For the love of Pete.
Despite the din swirling inside the lunchroom, the number of people on first shift barely filled up three-quarters of the room. And that counted her three coworkers, especially the one who’d knocked the table. Another person was by the trio of fridges by the disused cash register. Cobwebs waved from the shuttered cafeteria doors since the company decided to outsource meals.
“You won’t survive the coming apocalypse.” Quentin York steadied the wobbly table with one hand, keeping the pool of fizzing brown liquid from approaching his pressed slacks and button-down green shirt.
Iona glared at the widening spill and struggled to control her temper. She’d limited herself to one Dr. Pepper a week. One. And now, half of it was gone. She righted the insulated mug, thunking it hard on the surface.
“And you just decided my fate now.” Not that Iona gave a fig, but the twenty-something military veteran brooded if he didn’t get a response to his crackpot theories. And at least he included her in his group of cannon fodder. That was more than could be said of her own family.
“Yep.” Quentin’s buzz cut and chunky Semper Fi gold pinky ring gave fair warning he was still one of the few, the proud, and the pains in the rear end.
Mae Gardner dumped a grocery bag containing her lunch on the chair next to Iona’s. Young and fresh, she resembled a cherry tree in full bloom—all pinks and whites and willowy. Nimble fingers made quick work of the knot in the plastic sack. With a flick of her wrist, a shower of napkins rained onto the oozing spill, quickly saturating the fat brown ones, thin white ones, and blurring the emblems of the assorted fast-food chains. “You’d think with all the money the company brags about making, they’d invest a little in tables that don’t wobble.”
“I don’t think any company makes cafeteria tables that don’t wobble.” Iona’s fingers tingled from the chill as she mopped up the mess. As for the nutraceutical company that employed them, she suspected things were not as they seemed. Much like her life, and the fact that she knew six ways to kill someone with a plastic spoon. Not that everyone deserved to die; just a few. She smiled at Quentin.
The air thickened with the sultry aroma of cilantro, cumin, and charred meat. Monday—Mexican food truck day.
Iona quickly swallowed the saliva pooling in her mouth. In a rare indulgence last month, she had tried Carl’s street tacos. The tango of heat and spice across her tongue had carried her back to her favorite café in Barcelona. Maybe, she should revisit her favorite places.
Maybe, the cafe wouldn’t be there anymore. Her year in Spain had been more than a decade ago.
And she had given herself until New Year’s Day to mend the family rift. She should have specified a year, not a day. Iona sighed. One decade in her nearly four on the planet. Her life was almost as limited as her bank account. She eyed her mug. She’d lost half her drink. She could buy another one, spend a dollar. But that dollar could better serve at a boulangerie in Paris, or a waffle cart in Belgium, or a hazelnut candy shop in Italy. She fisted the soggy napkins and looked around for the ever ambulatory waste bin.
Screw it. She was still eight months away from her deadline. Eight months until she could immerse herself in another culture and find… Heaven only knew what. Whatever she was looking for, she hadn’t found it yet. She was beginning to suspect it wasn’t out there. Money warmed her pocket. Why not enjoy a soda and the illusion of belonging?
“I finally figured it out.” Quentin shifted to his left and plopped his styrofoam container on the table. Two fat burritos rested on a bed of lettuce. Green sauce dripped onto the chipped table.
“Figured what out?” Mae pulled her chair closer to the table as she sat. Sun streaked her black hair as she tucked the long strands behind the shell of her ears.
“Figured out that Iona won’t survive the coming apocalypse.” Quentin folded his arms over his chest and grinned. Muscles played under his short sleeves.
Geez, his boobs were bigger than hers. Iona spied the garbage can by the cafeteria door and quickly crossed to it, soggy napkins in hand. Maybe the conversation would be over when she returned. Maybe Korean barbecued ribs would take up flying. Dumping her napkins, she veered toward the vending machine and watched the last Dr. Pepper tumble free. She’d take the little victories. Picking up the chilled can, she headed back to her table.
“Really, Quentin?” Mae jabbed her fork in the vet’s direction. “Just because Iona spilled her drink, you placed her in the dead category? That’s lame.”
Iona hooked her ankle around her chair and plopped down. Opening and closing her fingers, she stared at them. Gooey and sticky. Maybe she should wash her hands and avoid the bickering. Nah, she’d rather avoid walking past the guard station and the skeevy looks they cast at women. “I don’t know. I think dying is better than surviving just because someone wants to screw you.”
Quentin shrugged. “Women are weaker than men, it’s natural they will be put back in their place. Everyone knows only the strong survive. Besides, we’ll need to repopulate the planet. So young women will have a place in it, and smart men will protect their harem.”
Iona sighed. What kind of apocalypse was it when folks had time to think about sex instead of survival? Not an apocalypse at all. Just a fantasy—like an average, middle-class man marrying a supermodel or a beautiful actress.
“Me? A sex slave or baby factory? That’s not going to happen.” Embarrassment flooded Mae’s cheeks, and she pressed her lips together so tightly a white ring formed around them. With shaking fingers, she peeled back the plastic bag and popped the top on her styrofoam container. Half a pulled pork sandwich and a portion of potato salad filled the partitioned inside.
“You’re the one that complained because I hadn’t decided where Iona belonged.” Quentin uncrossed his arms, then unearthed a plastic knife and fork from the pile of napkins he’d collected.
“It’s a stupid game.” Mae planted her fork in her potato salad then picked up her sandwich.
“No. It isn’t.” Quentin sliced off the end of one burrito and shoveled it into his mouth before the beans, onions, and cheese oozed out. He chewed furiously, no doubt as his brain worked at a feverish pace to formulate an argument.
Iona shook her head. Both brash, twenty-somethings were always on the brink of an argument about the most stupid things—podcasts, Lyft versus Uber, and who could wield Thor’s hammer.
Not that she preferred Quentin’s game of who would survive the end of the world and who wouldn’t. She’d win the survival game thanks to her late fiancé. Still, the stupid debate was a step above Quentin’s patriot, collaborator, and enemy bins into which he sorted their coworkers and random strangers.
A dull ache started at her temple. If she allowed the conversation to degenerate, the end of the day would be far away. And, their supervisor had already told them to expect overtime. She peeled back the lid on her plastic container and removed one triangle of a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich. “Okay, I’ll bite, since it’s not the spilled soda, why am I doomed to die in the coming apocalypse?”
“Quentin finally decided your fate, then?” Marcus Stanislav, the last coworker from first shift’s microbiology section, claimed the seat next to Iona’s. The thicker notes of his Czech heritage mingled freely with his Philadelphia accent. Wiry with smudged readers nestled on his curly hair and the ear pieces disappearing into the gray patches at his temples, he would look more at home in a university than the quality control section of a nutraceutical company. Two wet napkins plopped onto the table.
“Yep. I’m dead.” Setting down her sandwich, Iona scrubbed at the sticky table. Of course, Marcus must have seen the death of her Dr. Pepper. Wasn’t it some universal law that stupid human tricks always had an audience?
Marcus dried the surface after her washing. Dark hair dusted his wrist but thinned around the pale patch in a watch shape. “Interesting. What’s your rationale?”
Quentin chewed, licked a bit of cheese from the corner of his mouth, then swallowed. “Iona’s a vegetarian. And she has no pets. Since she hasn’t been exposed to animal diseases, and the next pandemic will be about a virus that jumps species, Iona won’t have any immunity. Given her age and that she lives alone with no family to take care of her, she’s gonna die.”
Cold air washed over Iona’s teeth. She snapped her mouth shut. That was his rationale? She didn’t know whether to laugh or stab a plastic knife in his eye. Her arm twitched. Killing him would be too easy.
Mae speared a chunk of cucumber and potato. “The Spanish Flu from last century took people our age more than old people.”
Old people? Old people! Iona gurgled as her rebuttal formed a jumble in her throat.
“And, yet, I am five years older than Iona, and I survived.” Marcus tugged the damp napkins from her hand and neatly folded them inside his used ones. Unlatching his mini-cooler, he fished out two moist towelettes then pressed one in her hand. “And Iona is not a vegetarian. She ate beef tacos just a couple weeks ago. And she likes pepperoni and sausage on her pizza.”
Iona blinked. How in the world did he know that? Lunch, of course, but why did he remember? Her skin tingled, and she shifted in her seat. Doh, he was a Ph.D. scientist, trained to observe. Her used towelette joined the other napkins.
Mae squinted at Quentin. “Don’t forget, Iona’s been everywhere on this planet. She’s been exposed to bugs of all sorts, not just from the environment but from things like the cheese she’s eaten. Her immune system is probably better than all of ours put together.”
“I’ve been around the world, too.” Quentin glared back. Color spotted his cheeks. “And, I’ve eaten some pretty weird stuff.”
Life wasn’t a competition but… Food was a better topic then the end of the world. Iona selected a triangle of her sandwich. “I’ve actually eaten bugs. Sautéed, deep-fried, as protein in stir fry.” Her late fiancé had had more recipes for bugs than an Italian had for tomatoes. “I just knew about it, unlike most folks who have them in their food because regulations allow so many bug parts. Worms are soft, and the big beetles have legs that tickle when you swallow. And I’m not alone. I have a sister and her family in Tucson. That’s only an hour away.”
“That’s four hours travel in rush hour traffic.” Quentin inspected his burrito before cutting off another bite. “Okay, fine, maybe you would survive, but only if you were part of a bigger crowd, full of liberals who don’t think about the long term cost of dead weight.”
“Well, at least, I’m not dead.” Iona bit into her sandwich, rolling the rich nutty flavor over her tongue. Small victories.
Marcus choked on his bite of food. “You have an interesting perspective.”
Quentin nodded. “I’ve been trained in survival.”
Silence blanketed the table as Iona and the others ate. Workers from the nutraceutical production floor tossed their white hairnets and blue booties into the wastebasket as they entered. Some headed for the fridges and microwaves on the vintage ’70s avocado-colored counter. Others veered to the double doors, leading to the outdoor smoking area and the day’s selection of food trucks. Despite the carpet tiles lining the walls, voices echoed off the drop tile ceiling and drowned out the buzz of fluorescent lights.
Finished with her sandwich, Iona wet her finger then blotted up the crumbs in her plasticware. She needed to introduce a new topic of conversation before Quentin and Mae finished their meals. Side-eying Marcus, she knew the perfect distraction. “How was the visit with your boys?”
Marcus pushed aside an egg noodle to spear a piece of cabbage and round of sausage. “They really like the pool at my parents’ place and don’t want me to sell.”
Iona rested her hand on Marcus’s forearm, smoothing the hair down. She knew what it was like to lose both parents to cancer. But she hadn’t given up a career, an ex-wife, two kids, and a life back east to relocate to Tempe and battle stage four cancer with hope and chemotherapy.
Marcus cupped his warm palm over hers. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled.
Quinten’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t see why you have to sell the house. You took care of your parents while your sibs went their merry way. You should get the house and the rest.”
After a soft squeeze, Iona slipped her hand out from under Marcus’s. “The house is part of the family estate. It’s always better to split everything evenly than for one person to get more.”
Inheritances caused a lot of family strife. Especially if one person felt they’d not received their fair share. Iona’s sister had spent more years holding that grudge than they’d actually lived together as siblings. Just last month, they’d lunched together. Iona might actually get to see where her sister lived by the end of the year.
Marcus frowned at his meal. “Even with two insurances, there are still bills to be paid. My parents were proud people. They would want to pay for everything. Besides, I have one sister whose kids enter private school this year and another three kids in daycare just to keep their business going.”
He tapered off.
Iona removed a carrot from her lunch box and bit off a piece to stop from offering useless sympathy. Marcus could go on, listing the others’ needed. He had two sisters, and, as the oldest, had helped raise both of them. She would have loved to have that kind of older sibling.
Mae tossed her fork and crumpled napkins into her empty Styrofoam dish. “Aren’t your boys starting college this year? You could use the money.”
Quentin nodded then speared the last bite of burrito. “Dude, your sibs owe you that money.”
Iona stuffed the rest of the carrot into her mouth. The conversation turned a little surreal. Mae and Quentin were getting along. It was a bit like the sun rising in the west—unnatural and a bad omen.
Marcus finished his main dish. “My ex-wife is a tenured professor back east. The kids get free college. My parents worked to build a legacy for all their children, not just one. Besides, I have something my sisters will never have, and that is the memories of my parents for the last five years.”
Iona rolled the edge of her packet of baby carrots. It all came back to memories. She was rich in memories and experience. But not everyone kept their memories. Sometimes having family near was better. She poured her soda into her mug. Maybe she should consider staying here a little longer, give her sister more time.
Mae opened her mouth as if to respond. Her teeth clicked together when she closed her mouth again.
Quentin’s eyes narrowed, and he jerked his chin in the direction of the lunchroom’s entrance. “What’s with the suits?”
Iona glanced to her right.
A woman and man in black power suits and a blood-red slash of color bracketed the manager of the facility. A blue light blinked from the Bluetooth earbud stuffed in her ear. Their presence muffled the conversations in the room. Workers glanced in their direction before turning away and whispering to their companions.
Quentin leaned back in his chair and openly stared. “Got to be some black ops project. No reason for them to dress like that if they were regular civilians.”
Marcus cleared his throat, but the corner of his lip twitched. “Actually, they’re from another nutraceutical company.”
“You met them?” Quentin’s tone brimmed with accusation.
The hair at Iona’s nape stood on edge. She could almost hear Quentin moving Marcus from the friends to the enemy bin in his mental catalog. “That’s why you were late for lunch. That meeting with the supervisor wasn’t about the liquid vitamin run but meeting the suits.”
Marcus nodded. “Indeed. They’re from LifeZone, and they wanted to know the facility’s capabilities.”
“LifeZone.” Color fled Mae’s cheeks. “The only reason they acquire facilities is to shut them down. We’re going to be unemployed in a month.”