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Authors: Em Garner

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BOOK: Contaminated
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I think of Mercy Mode, and a shiver rakes its claws down my back. Mrs. Wentling doesn’t look convinced. I’m not surprised. Her truth is what she believes. She’s not interested in any other kind.

“I saw that on the news. But I don’t believe it works!”

“It’s been proven to work. The government’s tested them. And it’s not illegal for me to have her here. I have the papers. They’re trying to get all of the victims out of the labs and back to their homes.”

“Victims?” Her mouth twists. “I guess you would call them that.”

I shoot a glance toward the bedroom, where I can hear Opal talking to Mom, though Mom’s not answering. “You don’t think they’re victims?”

“They … they’re … all crazy.”

“Yeah, because of something some foron put in their drinks. Not because of anything they could help. Do you really think anyone who got Contaminated would’ve chosen what happened to them? Do you think if they’d known the risks, they’d have kept drinking it?”

“People know smoking causes cancer,” Mrs. Wentling says, with a self-righteous sniff. “They still smoke.”

“Because nothing tastes as good as being skinny feels.” I could still hear the commercial. Their spokesperson had been an A-list movie actress, well known for her charitable work with children around the world. She’d been reading stories to children in a public-school kindergarten when the disease hit her. I’d turned the channel before I could hear the rest of the story, but I’m sure it was bad. “I still don’t think you can compare the chance of getting cancer from smoking to losing your mind and becoming homicidal from drinking diet water.”

“They kill people,” she repeats.

I’m sick of the conversation. Sick of the day, the month, the past year and a half. Sick of everything, and I want to curl up under a blanket with my stuffed toys the way I did when I was little and cry myself to sleep, but I can’t. “The president—”

“Vice president!”

“He became the president when the president was killed,” I tell her.

“Well,” she says, with another sniff. “I didn’t vote for him.”

“He’s still the president of the United States, and he’s signed a whole bunch of laws about the Contamination, the Renewal, the Return Initiative, all of that stuff. If the president thinks it’s okay for my mom to come back home, I think you should, too.”

“The president hasn’t seen what I’ve seen,” Mrs. Wentling says in a shaky voice.

I feel a second’s burst of pity for her. “I don’t have any idea what you’ve seen, but since the president’s wife and two teenage daughters were all Contaminated and shot to death right in front of him, I’m pretty sure he’s seen some bad stuff.”

She shakes her head. “I’m still complaining. There should be places for them. Not normal places. Not just any old places where normal people live! They’re dangerous! It’s unsanitary!”

“What do you think is going to happen?” I ask her wearily. “Do you think she’s going to bite the deliveryman and crap all over the yard?”

“She might! She just might! Oh, heavens, oh, mercy, she could do that!” Mrs. Wentling clutches the throat of her coat around her thick neck. “Oh!”

“I’ll tell you what. I promise to make sure my mom doesn’t do that if you promise to keep your stupid little dog from doing it, okay?” I lean in. She backs up. “Because I know Petey’s done both before.”

“You! I! You are a rude, insufferable …” Mrs. Wentling shakes her finger in my face.

I bite at it. My teeth snap down on air. I have no intention of actually putting my mouth on her nasty, dirty finger, but she cries out and jumps away. Her eyes go wild. She stumbles back, hits the doorway with her shoulder, screams. She’s almost cowering.

That second’s pity I felt earlier is totally gone. “Just go home.”

“You … are you …?”

“I’m not Contaminated! No! Just go away!” I can’t hold back the shout. “Go home! Leave us alone!”

I push her out the door with my words and slam it behind her. I lock all the bolts. I’m breathing fast and hard, and for a second or two I feel like I’m going to faint. I sink to the floor and bring my knees up to my chest, where I press my face against them. I breathe in and out, counting slowly to ten.

“Velvet?” Opal says from the bedroom doorway. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine.” I scrub at my face and look at her. “What’s Mom doing?”

Opal’s face twists a little. “Nothing. She’s not doing anything.”

“Why don’t we help her get ready for bed? I bet she’s tired. We all are. And you have school tomorrow.”

“I don’t wanna go to school tomorrow! Can’t I stay home?”

“Not unless you’re sick.”

She coughs and puts the back of her hand to her forehead. Drama queen. “I think I have a fever.”

This gets me to my feet, and I laugh. “Yeah, right. Listen, you can’t stay home tomorrow.”

“But … you get to stay home.”

I haven’t told her I decided to quit school. “Yeah, well, I’m older. I can’t go to school, and work, and take care of you and Mama, too.”

Opal studies me with her brows furrowed. “You’re not going back to school anymore?”

“Not for now. Later, maybe. Besides, I’m almost done.”

She frowns. “Not fair! Not fair! You quit? Why do you get to quit and I still have to go?”

“Because,” I say, “you just do.”

She doesn’t look satisfied by the answer. “I could quit, too. I could help you take care of Mama.”

“No, Opal. You know Mama wouldn’t like that, anyway.”

She sighs, defeated. “Fine. But it’s not fair.”

“C’mon. We have to get ready for bed.”

In the bedroom, my mom’s sitting on the bed. Her wrists are still bound, and she’s placed her hands in her lap primly. Her hair falls forward, over her face, because her head’s drooping.

“I put out a nightgown for her, but she didn’t want to put it on.” Opal shows me the flannel granny gown.

It’s the kind she always wore, though it’s not one of hers. I got it along with all the rest of her “new” clothes at the thrift store. I had to guess at sizes.

“Why don’t you go brush your teeth and read for a little bit while I help her? You have to do your fifteen minutes’ timed reading. Did you study your math facts?”

My education’s been torn all apart, but the elementary schools were able to get back on track a little more easily. Opal’s in fifth grade, doing fourth-grade work, but since everyone’s doing the same thing, it doesn’t matter.

“Yes.” She gives me a heavy sigh. “But I want to help you with Mama.”

I have an entire list of instructions I’m supposed to go through to take care of Mom, and some of them I don’t really want Opal to see. “You can come in and say good night when she’s ready for bed, okay?”

“Okay, fine.” She stomps off and closes the door to our room.

My mom sits and stares at her hands in her lap. I get the kit out of the tote bag and see what’s inside. A tube of some sort of antichafing cream to use in case the restraints rub her skin. Soft cotton swabs. Simple stuff I could buy at any drugstore, but I’m glad they gave me some to start off with.

I tug on my mom’s arm to help her to stand. “Mom, I’m going to take off your wristbands. Okay?”

She says nothing. The training video didn’t make a huge point about how the Connies, most of them, don’t talk. Ever. In the video, the person demonstrating the basic care never spoke once to the patient, either. But I think my mom might be confused and might like to know what’s
going on, and it feels right to tell her what I’m going to do before I do it.

I wouldn’t like someone randomly undressing me, or poking me. Or tying me up. I wouldn’t like someone treating me like a doll, or a pet. So I’m not going to do it to her.

I unstick the restraints and set them aside. She moves her arms like I’ve taken off a weight that lets them suddenly float up. I’m taken off guard, and I flinch, step back, but my mom’s not trying to hit me. She’s reacting. Her arms float at her sides for a second before she lets them fall back.

Her wrists are raw, red. Rubbed from the insides of the restraints. I touch the skin gently, and she doesn’t flinch, but it looks bad. I rub the cream into the angry red patches. Then I pull on her shoulder until she stands.

I unbutton her shirt and slip it off her arms. She’s wearing soft pants with a drawstring, easy to pull off, and I help her do that, too. She’s easy to guide, and when I tell her to lift one leg at a time, she does understand enough to do it. In general, she’s pliable and docile.

I’ve seen my mom in bra and panties plenty of times, but this is different. Her body has changed, first of all. She’s so much thinner, and I chew the inside of my cheek at the irony of how this whole mess started because so many people were obsessed with losing weight. Now she has. I can count her ribs, and the sharp curve of her collarbone stands out. So do her hip bones. They’ve put her in a plain white cotton bra and incontinence panties. She wears plain white socks to match.

She has scars.

One leg has a series of red lines like brush burns, all up one shin. Her knee has a scab on it. Thin white scars that must’ve been there for a while crisscross her thighs. She has more of them on her belly, above the faint pattern of stretch marks she’d always complained kept her from wearing a bikini, even if she did get “skinnitized.”

She puts her hands over herself. One arm over her breasts, the other over her belly, low. Covering the white panties. She makes a noise.


She’s not looking at me. Her skin’s humped into goose pimples, and I want to hurry to cover her with the plaid flannel nightgown so she won’t be cold, but I can’t with her standing that way. She’d never tried to cover herself up in front of me before—I’d always been the one telling her to close the door while she went to the bathroom or took a shower. My mom had always just said, “We have the same parts, Velvet, for gosh sakes.”

Now she covers herself, her head hung, her hair covering her face. I push it away a little so I can see her. She’s not looking at me.

“Mom, it’s me. It’s Velvet. It’s … it’s okay.” I know she wouldn’t want to sleep in her bra, but I don’t try to take it off her. I pull the nightgown over her head and she slowly allows me to fit her arms into the sleeves. “See? Isn’t that better?”

Lots of the old people where I work need help like this, or even more. Some of them can’t even lift their arms to help, or they’re bed bound. This is easy compared to that, and also terribly, horribly harder.

“Do you have to go to the bathroom?”

The training video had made it clear that accidents were to be expected. The Contaminated, for the most part, don’t lose bladder and bowel control, just the impulse to control it. In other words, they’re capable of holding it until they get to a toilet; they just might not care enough to. But they can be taken to a toilet and encouraged to use it.

“Why don’t we go to the bathroom and brush your teeth before bed?”

I sound too bright, too chipper, a little too loud. The way people talk to someone with a hearing aid or a service animal. I force myself to soften and lower my tone.

“I got you a new toothbrush. It’s purple, with sparkles. You’ll like it. C’mon, Mom.”

She says nothing as I take her into the bathroom, flip up the toilet lid, and position her in front of it. I pull her nightgown up past her thighs. She makes that noise again.

She looks at me this time, though I’m not sure she sees me. Her gaze is unfocused, but her eyes are wide. For the first time since she reached out at me through the bars, she moves on her own, without being urged. She puts her hands on mine, pushing them from her without very much force.

“I have to lift this up so you can—”

The noise is louder, a grunt mixed with a groan. A silver strand of drool slides from the corner of her mouth. She pushes at my hands again, struggling.

Before I can step back or do anything, even stop what I’m trying to do, the green light on the collar blinks. In the next second, she jerks. I don’t hear a sound, I don’t smell anything, not even the scent of static electricity. The light blinks again, and my mom goes rigid. Her eyes flutter. The strand of drool separates from her mouth and falls onto the front of her nightgown.

I jump away on instinct, my heart pounding. I don’t know what’s going on. She’s twitching. Her eyes are moving back and forth under her closed lids. Her fingers have curled into claws.

And then in the next second, it all passes. She opens her eyes, blinks rapidly, then leaves them open. Staring. Coming to. Her mouth is still wet, but she closes it.

“Mom? Mommy?” My voice is shaking, hoarse. I’m afraid to touch her.

She stands there without moving. The collar doesn’t blink again. It glows a steady, solid green. Her chest rises and falls with her breath, and she stares at some point far away.

This time when I push the gown up to her hips and help her pull off the diaper, she sits on the toilet and pees. She wipes automatically, something I’m happy I don’t have to help her with. She brushes her teeth, too, though for a lot
longer than the minute or so I usually do. She brushes and brushes until foam fills her mouth and overspills down the front of her chin. I wipe it off and take the toothbrush away from her. She rinses and spits several times. I dry her face with a towel.

My entire body is stiff and shaking now. None of this is like I thought it would be. Jean was right—this is about more than changing a diaper or wiping her mouth or even feeding her. My mom needs complete caretaking. And it’s not only that. You expect to someday have to take care of your parents the way they took care of you. Make sure they’re clean and fed and dressed. I never expected to have to do it when my mom’s not even fifty yet, when I’m not even eighteen. And I never expected to have to do it around wrist and ankle restraints and a shock collar that is supposed to keep her from trying to kill me.

I put her into the single bed I got from the Jubilee Thrift Shop for free because we qualified for one of their relief programs. I know my mom wouldn’t mind the used wooden bed frame, which is plain and in good condition. I think she’d be grossed out by the thought of a used mattress, used sheets, but it’s better than what they’d given her in the kennel. Better than sleeping in the woods on the ground. Or in a lab.

BOOK: Contaminated
12.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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