(9) No Offense to Chesnet

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As it turns out, our dry goods are still safe. My vague hypothesis about the water seems to hold, and I'm more surprised than anyone. Not because it doesn't make sense, but because it seems I might actually be onto something.

The carrots are half contaminated, just like the garlic. The four of us form something of an assembly line along the kitchen counter, the other three slicing open carrots while I inspect each half for traces of red or the smell of Redding. It hurts me each time a once perfect-looking carrot joins the oozing pile of cans in the sink. We can't afford this kind of waste. It takes us hours a day to find food already.

In the end, we aren't even left with enough carrots for a standalone meal. As the kitchen's order devolves further into piles of kept, suspect, and discarded food, we set aside anything we think might go with the vivid orange vegetables, and end up with something closer to a deep-fry than a stir-fry. I can't smell Redding in our sauces, but most are so pungent on their own, they might be masking it. We decide not to risk it. Calico J cringes almost all the way to the floor as we empty bottles of soy sauce and premade marinades down the drain. Our meals from now on are going to be a lot less flavourful.

Supper that night is a dismal affair. People brood over their bowls in silence, and though she still flounces and hair-tucks as usual, Ditzy looks shaken from her close call. Which makes no sense, because she's one of the toughest people here. Probably the toughest, if I'm being honest. But she doesn't even take up her usual game of knocking ankles with me under the table and then pretending it was an accident. Patrick examines every bite before he nibbles it in half, inspects it again, and finally puts it in his mouth. Calico J just looks gloomy.

I don't think anyone's going to address the elephant in the room, so I clean my bowl and wait for the others to do the same before I do it myself. "So what are we going to do about this?"

Nobody answers. Patrick continues to scrutinize his food, Calico J stares into his empty bowl, and Ditzy turns the same look out the nearest window, for spice.

I press on before the silence becomes uncomfortable. "We know this only started recently, or else someone would have noticed the Redding in the cans we've been using. We were eating more of that creamed corn just last week. So either it was dormant and only just manifested, or it only found its way into the food. J, we didn't have any trouble with vegetables last week, did we? You were the one who used the most of them."

"Not that I noticed." He looks unsure. "But I don't know if I'd have caught it? You have, like, radar eyes."

"The smell is the worst, actually."

"Even more so, then."

I rest my head in my hands and lace my fingers through my wind-tangled hair. The first seed of a headache radiates down my spine and makes a point just south of my nape ache. I slept badly last night. The ache doesn't cease when I lift my head again. "What we really need to know is whether this is just a normal process, or some kind of progression."

"'Normal'?" says Patrick, side-eyeing me.

"You know what I mean."

Silence falls once more. Nobody wants the second option I just proposed to be true. We've been living in fear of it ever since Red Thursday: fear that the tenuously stable equilibrium we've found is temporary, and will give way to something worse. To what, we have no idea.

Then again, I don't know if it can be considered an equilibrium in the first place. We've never gone back to old safe houses to check if the Redding retreated once we left, or whether it lingered along the baseboards or pooled beneath the stairs. If it's the latter, we'll run out of houses eventually. And then there's still the question of what happened last night. It's possible the Red Rain—just Redding from the sky, as far as we can tell—only "spoke" to me because I could finally understand it. It might have been talking to us all along. Or it really was my imagination.

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