Authors: Em Garner
He looks caught. “There’s always the chance that the other students will be … um …”
“Yeah,” I said. “So what you’re telling me is, you’ll let a kid who eats her scabs stay as part of the class, but you’re kicking my little sister out.”
He grimaces. “Velvet, c’mon, that’s not at all relevant.”
“Isn’t it?” My fingers curl against the wood of his desk.
“It seems to me that someone who eats scabs is pretty disruptive to the class.”
He makes a disgusted noise, and I can’t blame him. Just saying it is turning my stomach. I lean a little more forward, and say it again.
“Scab eating is socially acceptable behavior for fifth grade, but being a Conorphan isn’t?”
“That’s enough,” Mr. Benedict says quietly. “I know you’re upset, Velvet, but this isn’t the way to handle it.”
The problem is, I don’t know how to handle it. Opal’s not even my kid; she’s just my kid sister. I’m not supposed to have, at seventeen, a maternal instinct. I’m still supposed to be getting mothered, not being a mother myself.
“You can’t switch her to another class. It will break her heart. It’s not fair. She won’t do well; it won’t be a good educational opportunity for her. You know it. You’ve been principal here for a long time, Mr. Benedict. You could talk to her teachers from past years. They’ll tell you. Opal’s a good kid—”
“It’s not a question of her being a good or a bad kid,” he interrupts, and I can tell I’ve lost the fight. “It’s a question of what’s best for the class overall. We have to consider the safety of everyone.”
“Do you think someone’s going to hurt her?” I ask, shocked. Bullying’s one thing, but this is something else.
Again, he looks awkward and uncomfortable. Something passes across the desk between us as clearly as if he’d written it on a piece of paper and told me to read it aloud. Again, my fingers scratch against the wood, and
he looks down at my hands with an anxious expression.
“You’re not talking about her safety. Are you?”
“We have to consider—”
“They’re just rumors!” I shout. “Stupid rumors, stupid talk from stupid kids! You handle stuff like that all the time! Why can’t you just stop it? Make them stop talking about my sister!”
“Velvet!” he shouts, leaning back in his chair. “There is no more discussion! She’s being moved, or she’s leaving the school!”
I stand up straight. I don’t want Opal to leave school. She needs it. But I don’t want her to be put in some mishmash classroom of all the kids nobody else wants just because of what happened to our parents, because people are stupid and ignorant and afraid. She already hates school. It would be torture for her to have to leave the friends she still has.
But if she doesn’t go to school, and it’s reported, I could lose my guardianship of her. It’s complicated, I can’t pretend to understand it all, and I know there are cracks in the system we both could fall through and probably have. There is no caseworker following up with us, not for months and months, since we got placed in the apartment. If there are problems with our checks, and there often are, there’s never anybody who knows enough about us to really help.
“Fine. Then she’s leaving school.”
The moment I say it, I wish I could take it back, even though I know it’s the right choice. Just like getting my
mom out of the kennel instead of leaving her there. Just like moving home instead of trying to get into another assisted-housing apartment. Just like breaking up with Tony even though he was my first boyfriend and I sometimes dreamed about marrying him.
“Velvet, the law says she has to go to school.”
“The law says a lot of things that don’t work anymore,” I say.
Mr. Benedict’s face is like stone. I wonder if it’s just the students or the teachers, too, whispering about my sister. Wondering if she’s got the sickness inside her, waiting to burst out. I wonder how many times she’s had to listen to someone digging at her, talking about her behind her back or worse, to her face, while nobody does anything to help her.
“I’m taking her out of school. I’m … I’m going to home-school her. You have books, right? There are requirements. I’ll make sure she meets them.”
“You can’t just—”
“I can. I’ll teach her.”
“Velvet,” Mr. Benedict says in a voice I think he means to sound kind, “you’re just a kid, yourself.”
“The law,” I say with a sneer, “says I’m an adult. Right?”
He sighs again. “I think you’re making a hasty decision.”
“I’m not leaving her here to be bullied. No way. She’s coming home with me. You can’t keep her in the classroom where she deserves to be. You can’t get a bus to take her
back and forth to school.” I shake my head. “No, she’s coming home.”
“I’ll have to report it, you know.”
“You don’t have to. I told you, I’m homeschooling her.” I’m angry again, for different reasons, though they’ve all sort of blended together now. I lean forward across the desk again, looking him right in the eyes. “You won’t report it.”
“I have to.”
I lean in closer. “I know they’re still not sure about the long-term effects on people who only had a little bit of it, and I know there are lots and lots of people who’ve been tested for Contamination. And lots who haven’t. The thing is, right, nobody knows what might happen to those people who maybe just had one or two or ten bottles of contaminated ThinPro. Like, they’re all fine now, but what might happen tomorrow? Next week? Maybe there’s going to be another wave, right? Isn’t that what you’ve heard, too?”
“Yes. Exactly.” He looks uncomfortable, but I’m not finished with him.
“Did you ever have any?”
He swallows. “No. I never did.”
“C’mon, are you sure? Most people had a taste of it. It was so huge. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing it. Are you sure you never had even just the tiniest bit? Not that you should worry if you only had a sip or something, because they’re pretty sure the only way you become a Connie is if you drank massive amounts of the bad batches,
and of course they’re still trying to figure out which were the bad ones.” I emphasize the
I like this, I won’t deny it. Something inside me is twisting and turning with glee, watching his face.
“No. I never had any.”
I think he’s lying about it, but I don’t really care. “I’ll need copies of all her books and the lesson plans, including tests. I’ll make sure she does the work, and I’ll drop it off with you once a week for the teacher to correct. She’s going to finish the year with her class, even if it’s at home.” He shakes his head. “That’s really not possible.” I think my laugh scares him. It scares me a little. “You know, Mr. Benedict, I can tell you for a fact, my little sister is not Contaminated. She never drank any of that protein water, not even a taste. She said it smelled so gross, she’d barf if she drank it.”
He’s staring at me with wide, wide eyes. I lean closer. I’m grinning.
“Opal never had even a drop. But me, Mr. Benedict. I think I had some.” I pause, my smile disappearing. “Once or twice.”
He gives me everything I asked for.
I’M LATE FOR WORK.
I don’t have a place to take Opal, so she comes with me. I give her the scary face, tell her she needs to behave herself and stay quietly in the arts and crafts room. She can pretend to be a grandchild; they’re in there often enough. She just has to stay someplace until I can figure out what to do with her.
I punch in my employee code to prove I’m there. I put on my scrubs in the bathroom. I pause to splash my face with water, run a comb through my hair, swipe my lips with lip balm.
I’m laughing before I realize it. Silently, but shaking with it. My hands grip the sides of the sink, slipping a little because they’re wet. Every time I think of Mr. Benedict’s face, I laugh harder. I bite my tongue and the inside of my cheek to keep from being loud, but the giggles won’t stop coming. It feels so good to laugh, I don’t really want to stop. I’ve been holding on so tight, so long, I’m always sure I
can’t keep my grip even one second longer … but now … suddenly now I think I’ll just keep hanging on. Another minute, another hour, another day. Yeah, life sucks but I’ve been handling it this long, I can keep going. Not just because I have to, because there’s no choice, but because I can actually handle everything.
I feel older, all at once, and search my face in the mirror, but see no sign I’ve magically grown up. I have shadows under my eyes but no wrinkles in the corners. I still have a zit here and there, more noticeable without makeup to cover them. But it’s still my face, the one I’ve gotten out of the habit of seeing. I see a hint of my mom, a shape of my dad, but it’s all me. Right there. Velvet in the mirror.
I can’t hang around admiring myself, not that there’s much to admire, so I dry off my face, and head out to the nurse’s station to get my list of assignments. Before I can get it, Ms. Campbell comes out of her office in the back. She stops for a second when she sees me, then her face creases with determination. She gestures.
“Velvet. My office.”
Another spurt of giggles tries to surge up and out of my mouth, but I manage to hold it back. Being called into an office twice in one day? No problem, I think, ignoring the sympathetic looks from the nurses as I follow her.
Ms. Campbell doesn’t hesitate, but gets right to it. “You got a phone call here today. From Jean at the Conkennel. Apparently your mother’s there.”
“She is? Oh …” Relief washes over me so fiercely, I have to sit or else I might faint.
“You were late to work,” she says in a voice thick with disapproval.
“I’m sorry. There was a problem at my sister’s school. But now my mom …”
“Velvet, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to let you go.”
For a second I don’t get it. “Pick her up?”
Ms. Campbell shakes her head. “Permanently.”
“But …” I shake my own head, not sure what to say.
“I’m sorry,” she repeats. “I need someone who can show up to work when she’s required. Without other—distractions.”
She means Opal, or my mom, or both. She means she wants the job to go to someone who’s not a Conorphan, maybe. Whatever she means, I suddenly don’t care.
I stand. “Okay. Thanks.”
As I’m turning to leave, her voice stops me. She sounds surprised. I don’t know why she would be. “Velvet, wait.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Campbell, but I really have to go pick up my mom now. You fired me, right?” It doesn’t feel bad, saying it out loud. Fired. I should feel scared, but I really feel more relief.
“Yes, but … I thought …”
I wait, but she doesn’t seem to be able to say what she thinks. “That I’d be more upset?”
“Did you want to make me upset?” I’m not trying to be a brat, just asking.
Ms. Campbell looks startled. “No. Of course not. It’s that … you understand, don’t you? I need someone reliable. Someone mature, responsible. Someone who can handle the requirements of a full-time position here. You were fine in your part-time capacity, but I’m not sure you’re ready for more responsibility.”
Once more the giggles hit me. I think about the past year and everything I’ve done, juggling school, a job, my sister, paying bills, buying groceries, cooking meals.
“Yeah, you’re right. This job is too much for me,” I tell her.
She looks surprised again. “So, what will you do?”
“Do you really care?” Again, I’m not trying to be a pain, I’m only asking.
“Of course I do.” She almost convinces me.
I laugh. “There’s a lot going on in the world right now and it’s a lot easier not to care than it used to be. Don’t worry about it. We’ll be fine.”
A flurry of expressions pass over her face, some internal struggle I really couldn’t care less about. I just want to get Opal, get back on the bike, get to the kennel. I’ll worry about the rest of it from there. That’s all I can do, really.
I find Opal in the arts and crafts room, making stars out of strips of paper with Mrs. Goldberg. They’re both
bent over the table, carefully folding and tucking the paper. Beside them is a pile of stars already finished.
“Opal, we have to go. They found Mom.”
She looks up, bright eyed. “Hooray! I told you!”
Mrs. Goldberg looks up, too, her eyes not as bright. “Oh, honey, that’s good news. Your sister here was telling me all about it.”
I’ve always liked Mrs. Goldberg, who has to use a walker but can get around by herself pretty well. She never makes a mess on purpose and sometimes she’s even given me tips we’re not supposed to get. I used to feel bad, until she whispered to me that she doesn’t have any grandchildren to spoil.
“I’m sorry to tell you, Mrs. G., but I won’t be coming back. I got fired.”
“Oh, no!” Mrs. Goldberg shakes her head and thumps a soft fist on the table. “That’s not right!”
I shrug. It’s not a struggle to put on a brave face. I think I’m numb. “It’ll be okay.”
She nods. “You come back and see me, Velvet. They can’t stop you from visiting, can they?”
“Nope. C’mon, Opal. Let’s go.”
“You can keep these,” Opal says and gives Mrs. Goldberg a hug. “They’re pretty.”
I give Mrs. Goldberg a hug, too. She smells like peppermints. She pats my back and tugs my hand, with a smile, before I pull away.
“You take care,” she says.
If nothing else, it’s because of her I don’t want to leave this job. But I don’t have a choice. In the parking lot, Opal doesn’t get in the carrier right away.
“Yeah.” I look over my shoulder, my foot already on the pedal.
“I’m sorry you got fired. Is it because of me?”
“No. Not really. It’s just everything. Get in, c’mon.”
She still hangs back. “Is it because of Mama? Like at school?”
“Yeah. Maybe. It doesn’t matter, Opal, really. I don’t want you to worry about it. I can get another job. What’s important right now is getting Mom home.”
At last, she gets in the carrier, and we’re off to the kennel. Opal’s never been there. I think about telling her to wait outside, but it’s really cold. She doesn’t have to come into the part where the cages are. She can stay in the waiting room.
Jean’s not there behind the desk when I come in. It’s a boy with messy dark hair, instead. It must be Dillon, Jean’s son. The one whose number she gave me and I’ve never called. The room is suddenly too hot after being outside, and I want to unzip my coat, but I’m still wearing the scrubs, which are totally not cool.