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Authors: Em Garner

Contaminated (12 page)

BOOK: Contaminated
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Opal and I are staring at her. Opal’s eyes are wide, and I can feel wariness in my own expression. My mom turns, hands out, and knocks the plate of toast off the table. It breaks on the floor.

“Opal! Get the plate!” I scoop up the phone and put it to my ear. “Hello?”

It’s the school, wanting to know where Opal is. I tell them she’s not feeling well, and Opal, in the background, begins to make loud, disgusting barfing noises. She even
takes the rest of her orange juice and tosses it into the sink for effect. I try not to laugh. Besides, I need her to be picking up the pieces of plate before my mom steps in them with her bare feet and cuts herself.

Too late, my mom moves. Her foot comes down on a piece of broken plate. I tell the school secretary I’m sure Opal will be feeling fine soon and hang up, then grab my mom by the arm to keep her from moving again.

“Sit, Mom.” I push her into the chair and lift up her foot, which is cut, but not too bad.

“Is she okay?” Opal bends to look, too. “Mama, does that hurt?”

“Go get the Band-Aids and first-aid cream. Hurry up, c’mon! If you’re not going to school, you’d better make yourself useful!”

Opal scampers off to do as I say. I take a dishcloth from the sink to wipe away the bright red blood from my mom’s foot. She sits still and silent, even when I dab at a piece of ragged skin that has to hurt.

“Sorry.” My apology is automatic, even though I’m not really sure she understands me.

Everyone knows how they figured out Connies do feel pain. Experiments. The ones they didn’t kill and dump in ditches, they took into labs and attached to machines. They cut them open, injected them, whatever they felt necessary. Scientists figured out what was causing the Contamination and eventually the source of it through those experiments,
and nobody protested until afterward. I like to think someone would’ve even during the height of the panic, but it wasn’t until we knew what they were and what was going on that anyone started shouting about rights. By that time, of course, the government had taken control of the media and the only place you’ll find those stories now is on the Internet—if you’re lucky enough to have service, or can actually access anything through all the government roadblocks they put up in the name of homeland security.

My mom shows no reaction when Opal brings back the first-aid supplies. I smooth the cream over the cut and cover it with a bandage. She needs socks. Her feet are cold.

“Mama, are you okay?”

“She’s okay, Opal, she just got a little cut. We should clean up the rest of this mess. Why don’t you go help Mom get dressed and I’ll do that?”

“So … you’re letting me stay home today? Really?” She’s already squeezing me around the gut so hard, I let out an “oof!”

“Yes, Bratty McBratterson.”

“Hooray!” Opal tosses up both arms to make a giant V.

I wish I could be made happy so easily. But then again, I’m glad I’m not a kid like Opal anymore. At least my childhood wasn’t ruined. At least when all this started, I was old enough to take care of myself and her. At least we had that.

Opal and my mom go into the bedroom while I sweep up the shattered plate and get rid of the toast. That was the
last of the bread. I have money in the checking account, but it would be stupid to use that on food when we can wait another few days and use the food stamps we’re entitled to. The assistance checks usually come on Fridays, and today is only Wednesday. Even when they come, they’re not much. They should get a little bigger now, once the paperwork goes through from the shelter saying we took Mom home.

Instead of toast, I make us all bowls of thick, sweet oatmeal flavored with sugar and milk. I have to make it on the stove, in a pot, rather than using the microwave kind that was all I’d ever known growing up. We’re not allotted microwave oatmeal, but every week we can get enough of the cookable kind to last us for months.

I figure they should be finished dressing by the time the oatmeal’s ready, so I go toward the bedroom to find out what’s taking so long. There, I find my mom dressed in an outfit I know for a fact she’d never have picked out on her own—purple leggings with pink fuzzy socks that came from my drawer, and a long-sleeved top patterned with red flowers. She’s sitting on a chair with Opal behind her.

“I hate my teacher,” Opal’s saying as she runs the brush through my mom’s dark hair. “She makes me sit next to that girl Courtney, the one who eats her scabs.”

Hearing that makes me want to hurl. “Gross! Don’t tell her that!”

“Well, she does,” Opal says defensively. “And her boogers!”

“Grossssss!” I shudder at the thought of it. “Why don’t
you tell your teacher you want to move? You shouldn’t have to sit next to someone like that!”

Opal shrugs, then gathers my mom’s hair into a twisted bun and secures it loosely with a scrunchie. “She won’t listen.”

“Why not?”

“Because.” Opal hesitates, then says without looking at me, “My teacher puts all the kids she doesn’t like in the same row.”

I frown. “That’s not right.”

Opal shrugs. “Whatever. There, doesn’t Mama look pretty?”

She looks pale and thin, but I nod. “Sure. Let’s all have something to eat. Then we need to clean this place.”

Opal groans, but she’s smart enough not to argue. She doesn’t want to get sent to school. We take our mom into the kitchen and sit her at the table. Opal and I start eating. My mom holds the spoon and looks at her plate. Opal pauses, chewing and swallowing.

“Velvet?”

“She needs help, I guess.” Some of the Connies are so bad off, they need to have their food prechopped, be fed like babies. Jean had said Mom wasn’t that bad. Watching her, I’m not so sure.

“See, Mama? Like this.” Opal demonstrates, and when my mom doesn’t follow her lead, she lifts the spoon to my mom’s mouth for her. She scrapes the spoon under her
mouth just like you do when you’re feeding a baby. My mom’s mouth moves as she swallows the oatmeal.

I wish I could be as accepting of this as Opal. She doesn’t seem to mind at all that our mom is a dummy, a doll. Patiently, Opal helps her eat while I sit across the table from them and force myself to eat my own oatmeal, even though I don’t have any appetite for it.

We finish breakfast and take my mom to the living room to put her in front of the TV while we sweep the floor and do the dishes. The daytime’s only a little better for shows than the night, but we find her a home-improvement show to watch. They’re demonstrating how to replace glass in windows and putty around nail holes from places where the boards were nailed. The host and hostess are both heavier than the people who used to host this show; they obviously didn’t drink the ThinPro. They’re not ugly, they’re just … average. Average people now get on TV.

Opal and I work together, a good team. I know she’d rather be watching TV or reading than doing chores, but she doesn’t complain. She looks funny, though, running the vacuum that’s just about as tall as she is.

The beds really need to be stripped and the sheets changed, but that means laundry. I’m not sure I’m ready to face the laundry room yet, which I know is stupid, because if I don’t let anything else that happened anywhere stop me from going places and doing things, I shouldn’t let what happened in the laundry room freak me out this much.
Before I can decide, Opal’s calling to me that someone’s at the door.

“Don’t answer it,” I tell her firmly.

I truly don’t think I’ll open the door to find a Connie there, ready to pounce. They’re not really capable of that sort of thing. Not to mention that it might be easy enough for one to hide in a hardly used room, but one wandering around in broad daylight is going to get arrested pretty fast. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be careful when you open a door these days—I’m sure I’m not the only person who remembers it wasn’t the Connies who caused most of the trouble. It was the people smart enough to know they could take advantage of a broken system and bad enough to do it.

I unlock three of the locks but leave the chain on so I can peek out. I’m surprised to see Jerry Wentling on the other side of the door. “What do you want?”

“Is it true?”

“Is what true?” I’m sure I know what he’s talking about, but I’m not going to give him the satisfaction.

“You have one in there?”

“One what?”

Jerry scowls. “You know what I mean. Don’t be so dumb.” “Go away, Jerry.” I move to close the door but he sticks the butt end of something in so I can’t. It’s a baseball bat. “Let me see it.”

“I don’t know—”

He uses the bat for leverage and simply rips the chain
off the door, pushing it all the way open and me out of the way. Opal screams as Jerry jumps through the doorway. He looks toward the noise.

My mom gets up from the couch, also turning toward the sound.

“Holy crap, you really do have one!” Jerry looks both fascinated and disgusted.

“Get out of here! You can’t barge in here like that, it’s not your business!” I jump in front of Jerry.

He barely even looks at me, just pushes me down. Hard. I stumble back and land on my butt on the floor with enough force to bring tears of pain to my eyes. I bite my tongue and the taste of blood makes me choke.

Opal screams, crying, a long, rambling string of words I didn’t know she knew and should yell at her for using. Jerry laughs and ignores her. His gaze is focused on our mom.

“Wow. That’s your mom, huh? You really brought her here? Is it true, they put shock collars on them to keep them from acting crazy?”

I get to my feet, rubbing my butt. “Jerry, go home. This isn’t your business, you jerk!”

“Oh, it’s my business. You bring one of those things in here to our building, you’re right across from me and mom, I say it’s my business.”

When I was a freshman, Jerry was a senior. He’d had the habit of slamming people’s books out of their hands as he passed, then kicking them down the hall before they could
be picked up. He was the sort of guy who’d write your name on the bathroom wall or make up a nickname based on your acne.

He was also the sort of guy who’d kick a person to death. He’d saved me, but I couldn’t make myself be grateful to him for it. Now he was looking at my mom with a gleam in his muddy eyes I didn’t like at all.

“Just let me see it. The collar, I mean.” He put the bat down, at least.

“NO!”

The look he gives me is strangely patient. “Velvet. That’s a stupid name, you know that? Vellll-vet. Why didn’t they call you Cotton, Corduroy, or something like that?”

“You’re a jerk!” Opal shouts. Her tears have subsided. I think she was scared about him breaking in that way, but seeing it’s only Jerry has calmed her. “Jerry Jerk!

That’s you!”

“Ah, shut up, midget.” Jerry’s not paying attention to her. Only to our mom. “Let me see the collar. That’s all.”

“If we do, will you get out of here?” I limp when I walk, that’s how bad my butt hurts. “And I’m complaining to the landlord, too, about the lock. You’re going to pay for that.”

“No, I’m not.” Jerry’s flat gaze fixes on me. His smile doesn’t reach it. “I figure I don’t really owe you anything, do I?”

I don’t like that smile. The way Jerry looks me over, like he’s imagining me naked, gives me the creeps. I don’t want
him to tell Opal about the Connie in the laundry room. I don’t want him to tell anyone. He killed a person, and I was there, and I didn’t call the police.

“Don’t show him, Velvet! Don’t do it!” Opal’s braver than I am. Or younger.

“It’s okay, Opal. He’s going to look and then leave, right?” I fix him with a hard glare.

Jerry shrugs. “Sure, right. I’ll just look and leave. Sure.”

Throughout all of this, my mom had started moving slowly toward Opal, but now she’s stopped a few steps away. It’s easy enough for me to unbutton the first few buttons on her blouse and fold the fabric to the sides so Jerry can get a look at the collar. He pushes me out of the way.

“That’s it?” He sounds disappointed.

“What did you expect? Something with leather and spikes?” He disgusts me.

Jerry reaches out a dirty finger to touch the thin plastic. “That’s, like, nothing. How can that do anything?”

My mom doesn’t flinch at his touch, but just because she can’t react doesn’t mean she should have to put up with his touch. I push Jerry to the side and start to button her blouse again. “You’ve seen it. Now get lost.”

“Where are the wires?”

“It’s wireless, you idiot!” I face him, with my mom behind me. “Like your cell phone. God, you’re a foron. Would you get out of here now?”

“I want to know how it works.” His eyes are gleaming.

“It sends electrical impulses at set intervals into her brain, Jerry.” The words taste bad.

“So it shocks her? Coooooool.” Jerry laughs.

I smack him across the face as hard as I can. So hard, it rocks his head, and he stumbles a few steps back. I advance, my vision going a little hazy in my fury.

“It’s not cool, you jerk! That’s my mom you’re talking about!”

In the movies, Jerry would cower in front of me and slink away. Of course he doesn’t. He’s thirty pounds heavier and six inches taller than me, and he’s a bully. Jerry doesn’t slap my face; he punches it.

I’m ready for it, though. I know enough to expect it. Instead of catching me in the mouth or nose, his punch lands on my cheek hard enough to make me momentarily blind with pain. It passes, though, and I’m turning back to him.

Things always change, no matter whether it’s because the world ends around you or it just moves on. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have known how to hit another person so hard, it splits my knuckles. Now I do.

I also kick him in the nuts, but Jerry’s obviously been kicked in the balls a few too many times, because he’s able to deflect my foot. He grabs it, yanking. I hit the floor.

I become aware that Opal’s screaming and crying again. I hear another sound, too. A low, groaning grunt. Guttural and raw.

Jerry and I both turn to see my mom, fists clenched,
face contorted. She’s still behind the couch and can’t get at him, though she’s making her slow and steady way toward us. She hits the coffee table and knocks it out of place. She keeps coming.

BOOK: Contaminated
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