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On the morning of December nineteenth, in a tiny apartment ten minutes away from Cumberland College, Erhard Muller wakes up feeling like a very small construction worker is running a jackhammer inside his head. His joints feel sore, like he’s been playing too much Wii Sports, and even contemplating moving seems like too much work. Ugh. Going to school today does not seem like a good idea. He attempts to kick the blankets off, lets out a small groan – ow, okay, bad idea, that hurt – and immediately his younger sister Rosalia is by his side.

“Big brother, come on, wake up, you’re gonna be late for class – oh my gosh, you’re practically burning up!” she exclaims, pressing the back of her hand to his forehead. She withdraws her hand with a frown. “Stay right there, I’m gonna go get Dad!”

Her footsteps echo as she leaves the bedroom that the two of them share, and Erhard is left alone to contemplate how his physical condition went so far downhill overnight. A thought occurs to him as he stares at the ceiling: Jeff, one of the guys in his lab group, had shown the symptoms of flu when they were cultivating bacteria in biology a few days ago, and he’d been out sick for two or three days now. Could it be that he had caught the flu from Jeff? And, even worse, Jeff had sneezed on their petri dish; could they have cultivated the wrong bacteria? Shoot.

Someone shakes his shoulder gently, and he drifts back to reality as his father comes into view, brandishing a thermometer and a cup of the canned chicken noodle soup they keep on hand for whenever someone gets sick. Erhard submits to having his temperature taken; when Albert finishes, he half-heartedly starts to sip at the soup.

“It is almost definitely the flu, my son,” Albert sighs, checking the thermometer with a practiced eye. “You will have to stay home today.”

“Can I stay with him, Dad? Please, please, please?” Rosalia begs, with her hands clasped together in a plea. “Big brother needs someone to take care of him, and today’s only a half day for me. I won’t miss a thing! Pleeeeease?”

“I suppose that you may,” Albert stresses the proper grammar, smiling fondly at his youngest child. “I will try to come home early as well… I have to go now, so be good, you two,” he orders. “I will see you later.” He rumples Erhard’s hair, kisses Rosalia on the forehead, and exits the room. Erhard can hear the sound of Albert’s footsteps echo in their little apartment as he strides down the hallway and leaves.

Rosalia follows him out, then brings her breakfast back into their room – a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with no milk, as per usual – and perches cross-legged at the foot of Erhard’s bed, chattering idly about the Christmas events that are coming up around town. She mentions a boy named Emilio once or twice; normally, Erhard would play the role of the protective older brother and fire off a series of queries regarding this boy and his grades and any other relevant information about him, but today he’s too out of it to even bother. The thought dimly registers that that’s probably why she’s saying this now, rather than when he’s actually well.

As Rosalia goes into great detail explaining a project that she has to do over winter break, Erhard ends up falling asleep for a while. When he wakes up, it’s ten o’clock, and Rosalia has disappeared; the can of soup sits on his nightstand along with a note from Rosalia telling him that she’s in the kitchen, working on her project.

He polishes off the last of his soup, picks up the empty can, and shuffles down the hallway to the kitchen. The radio is playing in the background, and Rosalia’s sitting at the table, gluing pictures on a poster. He puts his can in the sink—he’ll wash it later, he needs ibuprofen stat—and taking a glass from a cupboard, he pours himself some milk and takes a couple of Motrin pills. In fifteen minutes or so, he should feel… well, not exactly pleasant, but a lot better than he does right now. Albert’s left his newspaper behind on the table – today it trumpets the news that Jacob Tillman, a member of the City Council, is going to run for Assistant Secretary of something or other. Rosalia looks up, seeing Erhard, and glancing at the newspaper, observes, “Wow, shouldn’t he retire or something? He looks kinda old. Also, you should grab me the comics.”

“His eyes look slightly yellow,” Erhard mumbles, flicking through a catalog of diseases in his mind. Jaundice, maybe? He probably shouldn’t worry about it – responsible men like Councilman Tillman go to the doctor regularly, don’t they? He puts his diagnosis to the back of his mind and starts to look for the Sudoku puzzle. Setting the comics aside for Rosalia, he finds the puzzles and picks up a pencil, determined to make this puzzle pass from the world.

 “It’s comin’ on Christmas, they’re cuttin’ down trees, they’re puttin’ up reindeer and singin’ songs of joy and peace,” Robert Downey Jr. croons. “Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on…” Rosalia hums along, and taking the comics, she flops down on the couch, putting her feet up on the coffee table. Still worried about the state of his biology team’s petri dish, Erhard puts his puzzle to the side, picks up his laptop from its spot on top of a pile of medical magazines, and fires off a quick message to his groupmates.

To: Jeff Marshall (jeffrey.marshall@cumberlandcollege.edu), Nate Graham (nathaniel.graham@cumberlandcollege.edu), Stephen Bourne (stephen.bourne@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Bacteria growth

Did the bacteria in our biology project grow properly, or did we end up growing the wrong bacteria? We might have; Jeff sneezed on the petri dish and he was out sick yesterday…

--Erhard

P.S. Jeff, now I’m sick. Thanks so much.

He returns to completing the Sudoku puzzle as a new song starts playing on the radio. Rosalia sings along quietly, “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away…

“This one should be a 5 or a 1,” he mumbles to himself, and tentatively penciling in a 1, he turns his attention to another square. Rosalia finishes with the comics and returns to working on her poster; Erhard’s laptop dings, notifying him that he has a new message.

To: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Stephen Bourne (stephen.bourne@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Re: Bacteria growth

Don’t know. Seems probable. Will update you at lunch. Have to put phone away. Being given the stink eye.

Get well soon.

Stephen

With a shrug, Erhard pushes his laptop away and returns to his Sudoku puzzle. About twenty minutes later, when there are only three boxes left to fill in, his laptop dings twice.

To: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Jeff Marshall (jeffrey.marshall@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Re: Bacteria growth

Wow, rude. I guarantee that there are no flu germs on our petri dish. Buuuut you know what? I’ll email you just to confirm after lunch, okay? I’m back at school today! :)

Um, speaking of flu, sorry about that, haha. Feel better soon, or Nate might fail our science test. :P

-Jeff

--

To: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Nate Graham (nathaniel.graham@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Re: Bacteria growth

oh god oh man oh god i really hope we have the right bacteria. do you think shell let us do it over? im barely scraping a b- as is. gonna kill jeff for sneezing on our dish

and where are you???? crap. you better not be sick you ass, wholl study w/me??? get well soon, our test is in 2 days and i need you, dude

uh anyway ill tell you how it goes when i hit the caf

-- nate the great who is not feeling so great now cause SOMEONE decided to get sick all of the sudden

At one o’clock, Rosalia digs a container of deli turkey out of the refrigerator, and the two of them make turkey sandwiches topped with a slice of cheese and a couple of tomato slices.  Rosalia firmly draws the line at carrot sticks, pushing them over toward her brother’s plate. Erhard eats them absentmindedly, periodically checking his phone for a reply from his friends. An hour later, when Rosalia has put the dishes away and retired to the living room for a nap on the couch, he gives up on waiting and sends another message.

To: Jeff Marshall (jeffrey.marshall@cumberlandcollege.edu), Nate Graham (nathaniel.graham@cumberlandcollege.edu), Stephen Bourne (stephen.bourne@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Ha ha. Very funny.

Lunch ended an hour ago. Did you all magically forget? I’m going to guess that the bacteria are all fine and you’re just playing a prank on me.

(Nate, it’s “all of a sudden”.)

--Erhard

--

With that duty out of the way, Erhard returns to his room and reads back issues of Scientific American until he falls asleep. A few hours later, he wakes up feeling hungry. A quick glance at the clock tells him that it’s 5:00—he’d go and have a snack, but Albert should be home soon, and he frowns on people snacking less than an hour before dinner. Maybe he can have some hot chocolate while he waits. He rolls out of bed, shuffles down the hallway, and bumps into Rosalia in the kitchen. “Dad told me before he left that he’s gonna bring some takeout food home, so don’t make dinner!” she chirps.

“Wasn’t planning to. Do you want hot chocolate?” Erhard asks, sidestepping around her and grabbing a can of cocoa powder from a kitchen cabinet. Rosalia nods her assent and starts heating the water for their drinks while Erhard pulls a bag of mini marshmallows out. A few minutes later, they mix their drinks up, top them with the marshmallows, and sit down at the kitchen table to enjoy their drinks.

“Can we watch a movie while we wait for Dad?” Rosalia questions when she has completely finished her mug of hot chocolate. Erhard takes a long swig of his drink and nods. Immediately, she’s off to the DVD rack, poring over the titles like she does every movie night. She picks up several cases before shaking her head and putting them back. She’s not too fond of The Avengers, a joint birthday gift from Erhard’s friends; she just watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban last week; she’s not in a Pocahontas mood today…

“How about Lilo and Stitch?” she suggests.

“Sounds good to me.” Erhard picks up his mug of hot chocolate, grabs a blanket, and joins Rosalia on the couch. The Grand Councilwoman starts to talk and Rosalia stares at the screen, mesmerized. On the other hand, Erhard’s feeling rather tired…

He drifts off for a while, and only awakens at the sound of Nani and Lilo arguing loudly. It’s something about a rabbit which Rosalia can quote nearly word-for-word, but he personally can never remember what is going on. “I hope this never happens to us,” Rosalia comments. “Wouldn’t you hate it, big brother?”

Go to your room!” Nani yells at her younger sister. “I’m already in my room!!!” Lilo retorts. Nani retreats to her room, and both sisters scream into their pillows.

“Hm. I don’t think we need to worry about that,” Erhard thinks out loud. “Neither of us is really the screaming type. Dad’s going to be around for a long time, anyway,” he adds as Lilo confesses to Nani, “I like you better as a sister than a mom.”

“Guess you’re right,” Rosalia replies. The siblings return to watching the movie in silence. The only thing to be heard throughout the apartment for a long time is the sound of the movie playing and the slurping noise of Erhard sucking the dregs of cocoa out of his mug.

Ohana means family. And family means no one gets left behind,” Stitch says, bringing tears to Rosalia’s eyes. Erhard, on the other hand, has dozed off again; his headache has finally receded, leaving in its place a wave of fatigue. He only wakes up when the Grand Councilwoman attempts to bring Stitch back to outer space: “This is my family. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good,” Stitch says. Rosalia snuggles a bit closer to Erhard, and he puts his arm around her, blinking the sleep from his eyes. No matter how old he gets, he’s going to have to admit that he has a soft spot for this part. He and Rosalia have definitely experienced their share of broken, bad families. Having a “little, broken, but still good” family is pretty good, he thinks.

As the ending credits begin to play, the siblings’ silence is broken by a loud growl from Rosalia’s stomach. With surprise, Erhard notices that it’s already 7:30. Their father should have been home hours ago.

--

Text from Erhard Muller (301-501-1984) to Albert Sartre (301-171-7872) at 7:30 PM

Where are you? We’re getting hungry. Making lasagna.

--

His father doesn’t reply promptly, so with a frown, Erhard shoves his phone into his sweatshirt pocket and pulls a lasagna out of the freezer. He and Rosalia put it into the oven, set the table for themselves and Albert, and eat dinner twenty minutes later. There’s still no word from Albert when they finish dinner; Rosalia looks slightly concerned now, and Erhard is really getting worried. He sends Rosalia off to take a bath and change into her pajamas, then dials his father’s phone number and sandwiches the phone between his ear and shoulder. Tapping his fingers impatiently on the counter, he waits for Albert to pick up, but he never does.

By nine o’clock, Erhard and Rosalia are both curled up on the couch again watching TV. Old reruns of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are on, and the two amuse themselves by yelling the answers at the screen before the contestants can get them. Soon, however, the fun starts to fade, and by nine forty-five, Rosalia is fast asleep and drooling on Erhard’s shoulder.

Bored of the game shows, Erhard flips on a whim to the news channel and is greeted by a helicopter view of Cumberland College, where police cars are zooming around, paramedics abound, and red and blue lights illuminate silhouettes of bodies lying all over the campus.

“Wait, what?” he says out loud, and Rosalia shifts in her sleep. He turns the volume down and stares wide-eyed at the screen, where the cameras are zooming in on bodies spotted with very familiar bruises. Image after image of people bleeding, screaming, dying—oh god, he knows that guy, that’s Andrew from his history class—he’s seen all these symptoms before in Dr. Sartre’s lab, but they’re definitely different when viewed on people. He feels like he’s going to throw up.

As if to distract him from the carnage on his screen, he hears the cheery jingle of his cellphone, informing him that he has a new text message. It’s been repeating for a few minutes, he finds, as he checks the message that he’s received.

--

Text from Albert Sartre (301-171-7872) to Erhard Muller (301-501-1984) at 9:55 PM

We’re going to need you to come with us soon. Stay calm and get your sister. Professor Jacobsen will pick you up in five minutes.

--

The doorbell rings, the door opens, and suddenly Erhard is acutely aware that he and his sister are both in pajamas, they still have remnants of hot chocolate mustaches, and their hair is a mess. Blinking sleepily in the glare of the hallway’s bright lights, he sees Professor Jacobsen, flanked by two policemen.

“Erhard, my boy, there’s been… an incident,” Professor Jacobsen says uncomfortably.

“I saw it on the television,” Erhard replies, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the TV, now muted but still flashing images of the devastation on campus.

“Then you’ll understand that we need to investigate your apartment, Mr. Muller,” one of the policemen says, stepping out from behind the professor and flashing a badge at him. “Nothing against you, of course, but they believe that suspicious activity could have been taking place here. They also want you down at the station as soon as possible to answer some questions.”

The symptoms of shock are beginning to set in, but Erhard’s able to analyze the situation pretty well. They suspect his father of causing the deaths of all those people, probably bioterrorism, and by helping with the research, Erhard has effectively made himself a suspect in the eyes of the police. This was not how he was expecting his winter break to go. “Let me… wake my sister up,” he mutters, and turns his back on the policemen to shake his sister awake.

“Nngh, wha’s goin’ on?” Rosalia mumbles, blearily opening her eyes. “Is Dad home?” The policemen melt into the shadows of the hallway leading down to Albert’s room, while the professor stands awkwardly in the doorway.

“We’ve got to go out for a bit, Rose,” Erhard says. “Professor Jacobsen’s going to take us somewhere, okay? Let’s grab our jackets.”

Still bleary-eyed, Rosalia sits up. The TV, which is still displaying pictures of the victims, catches her eye, and she immediately snaps into full consciousness. “Oh,” she whispers. Having donated blood endless times for the sake of her father’s experiments, she knows exactly what happens when “her” virus infects another living being. Like Erhard, however, she’s never seen it affecting anything that isn’t a rat. “Uh, y-yeah, let me go get my…” Another image of someone bleeding from the eye sockets flashes on the screen, and she practically sprints out of the living room. Erhard hears the sound of retching a few moments later and correctly guesses what’s happening.

He shuffles back to their room, picks up Rosalia’s jacket from her bed, slips into his own windbreaker, and paces back to the kitchen to grab a snack for himself and Rosalia. When he meets Rosalia outside the bathroom, he gravely proffers her jacket and a granola bar; blinking back tears, she nods and takes both items. The two of them silently follow Professor Jacobsen out the door to his parked car and sit together in the backseat. The policemen are still searching the apartment, so as the siblings stare up at the window of their apartment, they can see silhouettes of the policemen methodically going through their things.

Rosalia shivers, although her jacket is warm, and curls into Erhard’s side. The car ride is silent for a few minutes, then the professor, apparently unable to stand the quiet, switches on the radio. A cheerful Christmas song plays, completely at odds with Erhard and Rosalia’s moods at the moment. Despite the background music, the car is still uncomfortably quiet, and the exhausted siblings are almost glad to reach the police station.

A friendly-looking female officer greets them; taking in their exhausted faces with a concerned eye, she says, “Hello there. I’m Officer James. We just need to ask you some questions before we send you back home, okay?”

“Is this gonna be like that James Bond movie where you record us and ask us to do psych tests and stuff and M is watching from behind a mirror that’s actually a window?” Rosalia asks, looking anxious.

“We are going to record you, but I promise there won’t be any psychological tests tonight,” Officer James says with a friendly smile, and gestures toward a door a few feet away. Rosalia takes hold of Erhard’s hand and the two of them enter to find a table and a few chairs. The officer picks up a small tape recorder from the table and motions to them to sit down, then becomes all business; she flips a switch on the recorder and starts the interrogation.

“Case S01, Officer Natalie James interrogating. State your names, please.”

“Erhard Muller,” Erhard replies, and Rosalia follows up with “Rosalia Rossellini.”

“You two are Dr. Albert Sartre’s adopted children?”

“Correct.”

“Did you have any knowledge of what was going to happen today?”

“No,” the siblings speak at the same time. Rosalia looks faintly green again. Erhard wishes he’d brought a paper bag or something—he doesn’t think that the Cumberland police department would appreciate an eleven-year-old throwing up on their immaculate floors.

“Was Dr. Sartre acting suspicious at all the last time you saw him?”

“Not really,” Rosalia answers. “He said we could stay home from school ‘cause big brother’s sick”—here she gestures to Erhard, whose headache is returning—“and said he’d buy us takeout food for dinner. But he didn’t get the chance, I guess.”

“I see,” Officer James nods, and looks a little sad. “How were you linked with Dr. Sartre’s research?”

“I donated blood,” Rosalia declares matter-of-factly. When the officer looks confused, she clarifies, “Daddy says there’s a powerful disease inside me, but I’m a-symp-to-matic. And he also says that if you use it right, it’s got the potential to wipe out lots of diseases! And I wanna help him save the world from sickness if I can, so I helped by doing that.”

“I helped him run trials; I injected the rats with different strains of the ‘Rosalia’ virus and observed the results from each,” Erhard adds. “The disease was contained very well within his lab, so I’m not entirely sure how… this happened.”

“I understand,” the officer replies, and shuts off the tape recorder. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Do they think Dad’s guilty?” Rosalia blurts before the officer can dismiss them.

“We’re still gathering evidence,” she discloses hesitantly. “All the labs are being inspected for traces of this ‘Rosalia’ virus. We’ll let you know more when our information has been confirmed.”

Erhard can’t recollect much of what happens next—he thinks Rosalia might have finally thrown up, aided by nerves, and he faintly recalls a police officer steering both of them back into Dr. Jacobsen’s car. Mostly, however, he remembers falling down on the doctor’s couch and thinking “This is only the first day” before blacking out completely.