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Authors: Em Garner

Contaminated (26 page)

BOOK: Contaminated
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And what would she see if she does? Her big sister carving up our old neighbor like a turkey and rolling him up in pieces of tarp? I laugh harder, though none of this is funny. It’s gruesome and gross and really, ultimately, sad. Craig deserves better than to be sliced and diced and dumped, but …

“I’m sorry, Craig, I really am. I remember the times you gave us Popsicles and you took us for a ride on your four-wheeler. I remember when you used to bring over that cheesy chili dip for our Fourth of July parties.” I don’t mention that I also remember him trying to kill me and my sister.

Craig says nothing.

I have no idea how I’m going to do this. If I can do this. At least I should wait until Opal and Mom are asleep … though the thought of creeping down here in the dark to hack him apart and drag him piece by piece out into the backyard is really too awful to contemplate. But if I wait until the morning, I’ll have to find a way to distract Mom and Opal, not to mention I’ll have to try and sleep all night knowing there’s a dead body in the basement.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve already spent a bunch of nights sleeping with a dead body in the basement. I didn’t know then, and I do now.

I’m not sure how to approach this. My brain hurts. I still want a shower. I’m hungry now, too, and thirsty, and I really just wish all of this would go away.

I’m thinking so hard, the sound of footsteps on the floor doesn’t distract me right away. I hear the patter of feet on the bare wood floor of the kitchen, then more muffled steps in the living room. Then, farther off, some harder steps that sound like they’re coming from closer to the front door. What are they doing up there, playing tag? I can imagine Opal suggesting it, maybe even encouraging my mom to play, but I can’t imagine my mom moving fast enough to be any sort of fun.

As if on cue, there’s a
thump
and a muffled crash. Craig’s forgotten as I stare at the ceiling, ears straining. More footsteps. Heavier. Not Opal. Not my mom.

Someone else is in the house.

TWENTY-TWO

I DON’T EVEN THINK, I JUST GRAB UP THE nearest thing to a weapon I can reach. It’s a hammer. I might get close enough to use it.

All I can think about is Craig slamming his body into the glass. About the woman in the bathrobe. About the Connie in the hallway of the laundry room, and about the dozens, no, hundreds of Connies on the news.

And about my mom.

I push the thought from my mind. My mother would never hurt us. Not even without the collar. Not even without Mercy Mode. Even when she was succumbing to the Contamination, she saved us. She is not up there chasing my sister, trying to hurt her.

I’m at the top of the basement stairs before I know it, but I stop myself from hurtling through. The door opens into the kitchen, but when it’s open, it blocks the doorway into
the dining room, which is the area where I heard the crash and the thumps, close to the front door. If I fling open this door, it will prevent anyone in the dining room from getting to me, but it will also keep me from getting to them. It will also give away my presence.

Connies aren’t subtle. They’re not usually fast, either, but they are relentless, and they’re drawn to noise and motion. It would be easier to sneak up on one than it is to come right at it from the front—and the same would be true if it’s not a Connie, just some random person breaking into our house for whatever reason.

Downstairs, faced with Craig’s body, I thought I couldn’t think anymore. I couldn’t do anything but pant and hold back screams while my mind twisted and turned, trying to make sense of all of this.

I don’t need to make sense now. I’m acting on instinct. The way I did when the Connie came out at me from the door that was supposed to be locked. The way I did when Craig started walking into the sliding glass door.

And the way I did when I killed the man in the woods behind our house. The one I don’t think about, ever, because the memory makes me shake and sweat and want to pass out. I don’t remember the feeling of his hands on me, the sourness of his breath, or the stink of his sweat. I don’t remember the way his blood was hot and sticky on my hands, or the sound he made when I gut-stabbed him. I never think of those things because I don’t want to
remember that once I killed a man, or that I’d do it again if I have to.

With shaking hands I turn the door handle. Slowly. The door creaks, so I open it slowly, too. I’m tensing, listening for the sound of screams or moans, even the shuffle of feet. I can hear the low mutter of voices, one low and deep and therefore not Opal or my mom. A man’s voice. I can’t make out what he’s saying, but it sounds urgent and important.

I slip through the door and stand in the kitchen, breathing hard, listening. They’re still by the front door. If I turn to my left, I can sneak through the family room and come at him from the front. If I turn to my right, it’s a short skip and jump through the dining room to attack from the side. Faster, but potentially more dangerous because I’ll be revealing myself right away, and I can’t remember if the furniture in the dining room’s been moved around. Also, I hear Opal saying something but not what, and I don’t know where she and my mom are.

When I hear my mom cry out, I don’t waste any more time thinking. My mind goes blank. The hammer goes up.

I’m screaming when I round the corner at top speed. I hit a chair, knock it out of the way. Pain bursts into my shins, but I’m not even limping as I cross the room, ready to bust in the face of whoever’s hurting my mom and sister.

I’m moving too fast to stop, even when I see who it is. My socks slide on the floor when I try to slow down.
I stumble, sliding, and bury the hammer into the wall, up to my wrists.

Just about a foot from Dillon’s head. Nobody says a word. The only sound is my harsh breathing and Opal’s small squeak. Dillon seems stunned speechless, eyes wide, jaw dropped. He hasn’t even moved. If I let go of the hammer, I can probably pull myself free of the hole I’ve made in the wall, but my fingers won’t release.

From behind me I hear a low, muttered garble. Not words. Not humming. Not a groan or a grunt, either. It takes me a few mangled seconds to figure out what it is, and when I do, I manage to pull the hammer and my hands from the wall.

My mom’s laughing.

Opal, standing behind her, looks back and forth from me to Dillon. “I thought you liked him, Velvet!”

Dillon lets out the breath he must’ve been holding. “Velvet, are you all right?”

It takes me a few more seconds to realize that I can see everyone and everything because the lights are on. Just one here in the front hall, one in the kitchen, one in the family room. Dillon’s hair has fallen over his eyes and he shakes his head to get it out of the way. I put the hammer on top of the small table where we usually put the mail that needs to be taken down to the mailbox.

“Dillon.” My voice sounds harsh.

My mom’s still laughing gently, her eyes bright. She
shakes her head and reaches for me. She hugs me hard, her hand stroking my hair. When I pull away to look at her, it seems impossible that after everything we’ve been through, I could be annoyed with her, but I am.

“It’s not funny!” I scowl.

My mom shakes her head. Her gaze goes to Dillon, then to me. She doesn’t speak, and her smile’s crooked, drooping on one side, but I get her meaning. She’s echoing what Opal said.

“I do like him,” I say. I look at him. “I just didn’t know it was him. God, you guys. I thought … I thought …”

Then they’re all hugging and patting me. Even Dillon gets pulled into it by my mom, until we’re all in this great group hug that should feel awkward but makes me laugh, too, when I start to see the humor in all of it. Or maybe the only way to react any longer to any of this is to laugh, because if we don’t, we might as well just give up.

“I’m sorry, Dillon.”

He shrugs. “No problem. I guess I should’ve called first, huh?”

I roll my eyes at his joke. My mom backs up, tugging on Opal’s sleeve. Opal’s clearly not ready to leave, her eyes wide as she stares at me and Dillon. Still, she gives in to my mom’s tugging and they head for the family room to leave me and Dillon standing in embarrassed silence at the front door.

“I’m sorry, Velvet. Really. I didn’t know I’d scare you
like that. But … wow.” Dillon lifts the hammer, hefting its weight. “Impressive. You really could’ve taken me out with this.”

“I …”

He shakes his head. “It’s okay. I understand.”

We’ve all had to do things we normally wouldn’t have. Dillon’s seen a lot of Connies at his mom’s work. I’m sure he does understand. And suddenly, I want to tell him my story, the one I’ve never told anyone. Nobody knows.

“There was a man in the woods,” I tell him, blurting it out so I can’t stop myself. “I went out to get some wood for the fire. This was before, before now.”

I’m babbling, but Dillon just nods and takes my elbow with a glance toward the dining room. He seats me at one of the dining room chairs and takes the one across from me. He sits with my knees between his, his hands holding mine. His hands are big and warm.

I look at him. “My mom had gone away. She knew she was getting sick. She left. We didn’t … I thought she’d be back.”

It sounds so stupid now to say it, but Dillon only nods again.

“It was just me and Opal. The power was going on and off, on and off. We could hear sirens and smell smoke. I tried listening to the radio but there wasn’t much, just that emergency warning system thing they had running all the time back then.”

Dillon remembers this, of course. His hands squeeze mine. I’m grateful for the touch.

“Anyway, it was cold. Not like it had been in the summer, when it started. It was starting to get cold, so I went out in the backyard to get some sticks. We had wood from the woodpile, but no kindling. It was getting dark and Opal was inside, watching a movie on her portable DVD player, since the power had gone out again. We thought it would be back on soon. I mean, it usually did come back on. Anyway, I was picking up sticks. And the man came out from behind a tree.”

“A Connie?”

I shook my head. “No. He looked scuffed up, his clothes torn, beard stubble, like that. His hands were rough. I remember that his hands were rough.”

“Did he hurt you, Velvet?” Dillon sounds angry, and he squeezes my hands again.

“He tried.”

“What happened?”

I take a deep breath. This is like pulling off a bandage, or more like a scab. It’s going to hurt, and ugly stuff’s going to come out, but it will heal better in the end. “He grabbed me. He was muttering something about the end of the world. Well, we all thought that, huh? And it didn’t end. I don’t know if he was crazy, or just bad. I didn’t recognize him, anyway, though that doesn’t mean anything. He could’ve lived a few houses down, or he could’ve been from
far away. It doesn’t matter. He put his hands on me, and his voice changed. He called me names.”

Dillon doesn’t ask me to repeat them, and I don’t want to. They’re the names men use to hurt women, but that man didn’t know me. They didn’t matter.

“He started … trying …” I swallow hard and my voice drops to a whisper. “I had a little hand ax with me. To cut the kindling.”

Dillon frowns. He passes his thumbs over the backs of my hands. When he shifts, our knees touch.

“I buried it in his stomach,” I say, and wait for Dillon’s face to twist with disgust.

It doesn’t. “You’re amazing, Velvet, do you know that?”

“Why? Because I killed a man?” My voice is small.

Hard. I turn my hands in his so our palms press together.

“Because you’ve done all this, everything, and you keep going. You’re so brave. And you came out of that doorway with that hammer.…”

“I could’ve hurt you!”

“But you didn’t,” Dillon says. “And if I’d been someone bad, someone trying to hurt your mom and Opal, you’d have protected them. You’re amazing. And beautiful. And brave. And strong.”

I hitch in a breath. Dillon barely knows me, but I can’t deny that what he’s saying feels good. “I killed him and left him out in the woods. When the soldiers came the next day, they found him. They asked me who he was, but they didn’t ask me if I killed him. And I didn’t tell them.”

“I don’t blame you. Listen, Velvet, lots of people had to do things they aren’t proud of. It’s been a bad year and a half.”

“Have you?” I’m not sure what I want him to say. If I want him to be like me, or if I’d rather he has stayed clean.

Dillon frowns. “I’ve had to do bad things, sure.”

“Kill someone?” My voice rasps. “Have you had to do that?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “But I’m not sorry you did it, just sorry you had to do it.”

“It doesn’t just go away,” I tell him. “Even if you pretend it didn’t happen, or you don’t think about it. It doesn’t go away. Not ever. Dillon, I was so angry, so scared, I just hit out at him. I killed him because I could.”

“Because he was attacking you,” Dillon says quietly.

It’s my turn to shake my head. “Because I could. I was able. Because I felt I had no other choice. It’s the way the Connies are. They do what they do because they don’t know how to stop themselves, and they can.”

“You’re not a Connie, Velvet.”

I tell him something else I’ve never shared with anyone. “I drank ThinPro, Dillon. Not a lot of it. I wanted to wear a bikini that summer, because the popular girls did. My parents had cases of it all over the place, even though both of them told me it wasn’t for me, that I didn’t need to lose weight or anything like that. So I snuck some.”

I think we both know what that means, or could mean. It’s a weight I’ve been carrying with me for over a year and it’s only gotten heavier over the past couple of months.

“You’re not a Connie,” Dillon says again. With my hands in his and his eyes staring into mine, I can believe him. At least for those few moments. We both know that could change, possibly at any moment. We just don’t know. Nobody does. But for now he’s right.

“Thanks.”

He smiles. “You’re welcome.”

I remember Craig and hang my head. I sigh. It’s my turn to squeeze Dillon’s fingers. “There’s a body in my basement.”

BOOK: Contaminated
2.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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