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Authors: Em Garner

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BOOK: Contaminated
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“Is this the one, hon?” Jean asks from behind me. “Did you find her?”

“Yes,” I say, without looking at her. “Yes. This is my mother.”

TWO

I CAN’T BRING HER HOME RIGHT AWAY. THEY have to take our DNA samples. A swipe with a sponge inside both our cheeks, and it’s done. I wash away the taste of the sponge with water from a bottle Jean gives me. It has the government seal on it that’s supposed to prove it’s clean, but I guess at this point it doesn’t really matter anymore. I don’t think my mom notices or cares.

They have to take the DNA to prove this is my mom. That I’m not some random stranger coming off the street to take her home. I don’t want to think about why anyone would want to claim one of the Contaminated who doesn’t belong to them—it’s hard enough to take the responsibility for a loved one, but a stranger? I shudder, wishing I were still too young to know the reasons why anyone would do something like that.

“The tests usually come back pretty fast.” Jean is smiling. Happy. Maybe just to be rid of one of her charges,
maybe she’s really glad for me, I don’t know. “By next week everything should be cleared, and you can take her home.”

I’m not smiling. I hand her the cash for the test, a crumpled pair of twenties that are all I have to last until payday, which isn’t until next week. It wouldn’t be the first time Opal and I have lived on ramen noodles for a few days. Or weeks. But I’m glad the assistance check is due on Friday.

“She’ll be okay until then, right?” The words drop, hard like stones, from my mouth. “Nothing’s going to happen to her? She won’t be returned before then? I mean, you have the paperwork all settled and stuff.”

I’ve heard rumors that even though some of the Contaminated have been claimed, screwups with the files returned them to the labs before their loved ones could take them home. Or worse, the person claiming them wasn’t a blood relative, which meant the process of proving the Contaminated’s identity took so much longer that they got sent back before it could be finished.

It was supposed to be a good thing, releasing the Contaminated from the labs and letting them go home to their families. When the government announced the claiming procedures for the Return Initiative, they made it sound like it would be so easy. So perfect. But just like most everything else that’s happened since the Contamination, the process is complicated and slow, and it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. People haven’t been stepping forward to claim their lost family members. People who do want them can’t
find them. The posters and the pamphlets and the special announcements on the news haven’t done much to help, either. There are thousands of Contaminated being released into what were supposed to be called “interim shelters” but what everyone calls kennels, and nobody’s claiming them. Where else can they go but back to the laboratories that had already kept them for months? And what happens to them there, after that, when it’s clear nobody wants them … well, that’s something else nobody talks about.

But we all know.

I can’t imagine it, finding my mom after all these months, only to lose her for good. But then … at least I’d know what had happened. At least I’d know she was dead, not just missing. But I shake myself out of that thought. She’s not dead, and she’s not missing anymore. She’s still Contaminated, though. She always will be.

But she’ll also always be my mom.

“She’ll be fine,” Jean says gently as she takes the folder of paperwork out of the
OUT
bin on top of her desk. “I know what you’ve heard about some of those other shelters, but … I care about my girls. I do. I’ll make sure she’s all right. Keep her fed and clean as best we can. Nothing’s going to happen to her while I’m here. I won’t let them take her back before you can get her, I promise.”

I want to cry again at Jean’s kindness. I want to let her hug and rock me, shush-shushing while I press my face into the front of her shirt. She usually smells like laundry detergent,
and I’d like to clean my nostrils of the sickly stink. I don’t cry, though, even if I’m sure Jean is half hoping I will.

“My son Dillon’s about your age,” she says suddenly. She’s never given him a name before. Of course she knows my age because I had to write it down when I filled out all the papers, along with everything else about my life.

I pause, her pen still in my hand as I sign the last form. I look up. “Huh?”

“What school do you go to?”

“Cedar Crest.”

She smiles. “He went to Annville-Cleona. He graduated last year. Dillon Miller?”

I don’t know her son. I shrug, put the pen down. I’m not going to graduate, not on time, anyway. Not unless something changes, and with the way the world’s going, that doesn’t seem likely.

“Sorry,” I say. “I don’t know him.”

“You’re a nice girl, Velvet.”

This startles me into looking at her again. “Huh?”

Jean shrugs. She looks a little sad. “That’s all I’m saying. You’re a nice girl. A good girl. Doing what you’re doing.”

My throat burns the way my eyes did a couple of minutes ago. I swallow hard, but it doesn’t get better. Jean knows everything about me because I had to write it all down on those papers, because I’ve been coming here for months, since the first day they announced the Return Initiative, and because it’s her job to know it. But she doesn’t have to pity me; that’s not part of her job.

I just shrug again, not saying anything. Jean looks like she’s about to say something else, but for the first time in all the months I’ve been following her down gross corridors and looking in cages, she doesn’t say it. She takes the papers and taps them into a neat pile before sliding them into the folder.

“We’ll call you,” Jean tells me.

I back away with a nod. It feels wrong to leave here today with my hands empty, even if it’s the way I’ve left all the other times. But this isn’t all the other times; this time I’m leaving Mom behind. I think about asking to see her one more time before I go, but I can’t. If that makes me a coward, then I’m a big one.

When the door closes behind me, I close my eyes and breathe in air so cold, it burns, but not the way the smell inside did. This burning is good. Gets rid of all the junk in there. It burns away the tears I wasn’t crying, too, and the sour taste on my tongue. I’m shivering in another minute, stupid for standing like this on the sidewalk when I don’t even have a hat or scarf, but I take another minute, anyway, just to breathe.

I found her.

Before I can think too long or hard about whether or not I wish I hadn’t, I turn on my heel and head for home. This means a pretty long and complicated bus ride. If there’s one good thing about what’s happened since the Contamination, it’s that the government put better public transportation into place. Lebanon used to have a pretty crappy bus system that could hardly get you anywhere. I didn’t care back then—I
had my mom and dad to drive me anyplace I needed to go, and eventually my own driver’s license. Now the car’s gone, lost in a way there is no finding—not that I have money to spend on gas even if I knew where the car was and could prove it belonged to me as easily as I hope I can prove my mother does.

Waiting at the bus stop, I watch the traffic crawl by. I count the military trucks and police cars the way Opal and I used to count yellow cars for points, only if I were playing that game right now, I’d win for sure, since there are way more soldiers and cops driving around. None of them slow as they pass me. The days are gone when just being out on the street meant you’d get stopped by soldiers and checked out, but I know if I were doing anything more energetic than bouncing on my toes to keep warm, at least one of them would probably stop to look me over. Knowing this should make me feel safer, but it doesn’t.

Across the street from me is a faded and tattered billboard advertising Shamrock Shakes, and my mouth waters. The local McDonald’s closed about a year ago, and though I’ve heard rumors it might open again, it’s still boarded up, with weeds growing in the parking lot. There are commercials on TV for McDonald’s, so maybe in other parts of the country you can still get a shake and fries, but not anyplace around here. To me that says more about how things really are than any news report about how well the country is recovering.

“Hiya, Velvet,” the bus driver, Deke, says as he opens the
door for me. “How’s it going?”

It’s on the tip of my tongue, ready to spill out. I found her. I found her! Suddenly I want to scream it, dance with it, tell the whole wide world I’ve found my mom! But I don’t know Deke that well, not more than enough to say hi, how are ya, stuff like that. I’ve never even mentioned I’m looking for her, because it’s not his business. He swipes my transit pass and gives me a smile, and he’s always been supernice to me, but I don’t know what he’d say if I tell him the next time I make this trip, it will be to bring her home with me. A Connie.

“It’s going, Deke.”

“Ain’t it always.” Deke laughs.

I take a seat at the back of the bus, where the air from the vents can warm my frozen toes and fingers. The heat’s worth putting up with the bouncing and the smell of exhaust. Plus, it’s my habit to take a seat at the back. This way I can see everyone who gets on after me. It took only one Connie leaping onto a crowded bus through the back door and coming up on the passengers from behind to teach me the importance of that lesson. I lean my head against the cold window glass. My breath fogs it. It makes the world outside the windows fuzzy. It looks better that way.

We pass a row of town houses, and the bus slows to pass by an army truck parked in front of one. The door’s wide open. Soldiers are standing on the sidewalk. I crane my neck to see what’s going on, though of course I’ve seen plenty of
that on the news before. Soldiers carrying out Contaminated, most still screaming and biting. Not that the news shows it any longer. The news doesn’t show much of anything. The bus pulls out of sight before anything happens, which I guess is just as well. I don’t need to be reminded of what the Contaminated can do.

I really want to get home, but first I take the bus to Foodland. The selection in the bakery sucks, but I find a marked-down cake with a frosting clown that’s only a little smeared. Chocolate, for the win! I look with longing at the fresh fruit, my mouth puckering at the memory of strawberries I haven’t tasted in forever. Too expensive, though, and besides, we haven’t had cake in forever, either. The cashier’s not too happy when I pay with change I’ve pulled from my pockets, the depths of my backpack, and a couple of quarters I was lucky to find on the bus floor.

At home, Opal’s at the kitchen table, her feet swinging as she bends over her homework. She used to greet me at the door every time, begging to know if I’d found Mom, but she stopped doing that a few weeks ago. She didn’t say why and I didn’t ask her, but I know it’s because of the TV special we both watched. The one where that movie star, not the one who starred in all the original ThinPro commercials but the one who sort of looks like him, narrated the statistics about the numbers of Contaminated who’d been claimed … with no mention about what happens to the ones who aren’t. It was listed as being TV for mature
audiences, but I let her watch it, anyway. I sort of wish I hadn’t let either of us see it.

“Hey.” I close the door behind me and slip the dead bolts into place. One, two, three. The chain lock sticks, but I manage to shove it closed, too. It wiggles on the screws. I doubt it would keep anyone out if they really tried hard to get in, but it’s important to act like we still believe in locks and doors.

Opal looks up. She has our dad’s face, smaller and more feminine. His hair, too, red curls all around her face. We don’t look a lot like sisters. When I wanted to be mean, a long time ago, I used to tell her she was adopted. I’d never do that now, no matter how bad we fight.

“Hi, Velvet. I’m doing my homework.”

“I see that.” I keep the bag with the cake hidden and shrug out of my coat, hang it on the back of a chair. “Did you eat anything?”

“Peanut butter sandwich.”

“You’re going to turn into a peanut butter sandwich.” It’s what our mom would’ve said, and Opal’s lower lip quivers. “Hey. Guess what.”

“Chicken butt,” she says, sounding resigned.

“Not today. Guess what else.” Now I can’t hold back the excitement in my voice. My hands are shaking, so I make them into fists, shove them deep into the pockets of my jeans, which need washing.

“What?” My little sister looks up at me, her pencil still clutched in one hand.

“I found her.”

Opal stares at me for too long without saying anything, so long, I start to worry. Then she throws down her pencil, leaps from the chair into my arms. We dance together, slipping on the ratty rug. We’re laughing, dancing, crying.

“I found her! I found her!” I say it over and over as we squeeze the breath out of each other.

“You found her! When can she come home? When?”

The top of Opal’s head comes only to the center of my chest. We hold each other tight. I can’t believe that I used to hate her sometimes.

“They have to run the tests to make sure she’s really our mom. They told me it would take about a week.”

Opal pulls away, frowning, brow furrowed. She’s probably thinking of the TV show. “She’ll be okay until then, right, Velvet?”

“They said yes. And the lady who works there is really nice. She’ll make sure Mom’s okay. She promised.”

Opal squeezes me again. “You’re sure it was Mama?”

“I’m sure. She was wearing Mama’s shirt. And it looked like her.” I think again of the times I’d passed her by, and of how she’d reached out a hand to grab at me. Of how I’d have missed her if she hadn’t. “It’s Mama, Opal.”

“Hooray!”

I love that she can still say stuff like that. “Yeah. Hooray. Hey, finish your homework now. Maybe we can play a game after I get something to eat. And guess what I got!”

Opal squeals when I pull out the cake. I have to hold it up high so when she tackles me, I don’t drop it. We dance again around the kitchen while we get plates and forks.

I have my own homework to do, though it feels pointless since I’m taking only three classes now, because I have to work every afternoon at the assisted-living home. There’s an entire basket full of laundry, too, which means a trip to the communal laundry room. And that phone call to Tony to make. It’s already close to five and his mom doesn’t like it when I call after 9 p.m. Or maybe she just doesn’t like me.

BOOK: Contaminated
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