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Authors: Em Garner

Contaminated (27 page)

BOOK: Contaminated
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“What?”

I look up. “I found it just a while ago. It’s our neighbor. He’s been dead for a while.”

I can tell by the look on his face that Dillon thinks I’m joking. He doesn’t let go of my hands, though. He just tilts his head like he’s trying to figure me out. “Really?”

“Yeah. Really.” I want to laugh again, though it’s not funny.

“Did you …?”

“No.”

Dillon looks relieved, something I can’t blame him for. “So what are you gonna do?”

“I guess I should call someone.” There will be a lot of questions I don’t want to answer. The police will come and do what? Take him away? Maybe take me and Opal away, too, make us leave. “I don’t want the cops to come.”

“Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t.” He doesn’t make it sound bad.

“Will you help me get him out of there? I don’t want Opal to see.”

He nods after a second, though he still looks wary. “Sure. Of course.”

Again, a weight is lifted. Having Dillon here is more than just tingly and delicious, like a cute boy stopping over to say hi. He’s making me feel better about everything.

“Let me serve them dinner first. Get them settled. Then we can keep them distracted and do it, okay?”

“Okay. What’s for dinner?”

“Spaghetti?” I’m already standing. My legs don’t feel wobbly, but I don’t let go of Dillon’s hands.

He doesn’t let go of me, either. “Enough for one more?”

“Of course.”

We stand there staring at each other like idiots, until Opal shouts, “Hey! What’s for dinner?”

Then we laugh and our hands unlink, not like they’re breaking apart but more like they’re just easing into a separation that could end at any moment, bringing our fingers back together. We work together in the kitchen, and I discover there are lots of things I like about Dillon besides his hair and eyes and smile. He tells good jokes and stories. He keeps Opal occupied. He even figures out how to set up the TV and DVD player so she and my mom can watch a movie, since there’s nothing but snow on the regular channels.

“How long will your genny last?” he asks after we’ve washed the dishes and made our secret way down to the basement.

“I don’t know. I figure a day or so before I have to refill it, but I’m going to turn it off when we go to bed.”

“Good idea. I can bring you some more gas tomorrow,” Dillon says. “It’ll be easier than you riding your bike.”

“You don’t have to.” I pause in front of the workroom.

“I want to. Is he … in there?” Dillon sounds a little nervous.

Craig doesn’t look as scary now that I know what I’m expecting. And there really isn’t much of him left to wrap inside the tarp. We secure it with duct tape. He doesn’t weigh much at all, though I know I’d never have been able to lift him by myself. Together, Dillon and I get the bundle up the stairs and out the garage without Opal even looking up from the TV.

We carry Craig all the way around the house and into the woods, as far back as we can with only the light from the family room to guide us. We settle him against some fallen trees. I have a shovel and we take turns digging a hole. The ground’s rocky, and in the end, it’s very shallow, but we slide him into it and cover him with dirt and rocks and the limbs of fallen trees.

“Do you want to say something?” Dillon sounds out of breath.

“Should we?” I don’t really know what to say. “Umm … Craig was a good neighbor and he deserves
better than this. And … this isn’t how it should’ve happened, but the world’s changed a lot and I guess this is the best we can do.”

I feel like I should recite a poem or something, but nothing comes to mind. The whole situation is entirely bizarre and yet compared to everything else that’s gone on in the world, burying my neighbor in the backyard doesn’t really seem so bad.

We get back in the house just as the movie’s ending. I check on Opal, who’s asleep with her head in my mom’s lap. My mom’s stroking her hair, her eyes heavy lidded, and I leave them both to clean up in the kitchen.

Dillon and I scrub our hands and arms at the sink, glad for hot water and lots of soap. It’s not a shower, but I might still get one later. For now this is good enough.

He blows a handful of suds at me. That seems like a good idea, and I blow one back. Then he splashes me, and I can’t let that go without retaliation.

I’m not sure how it ends up that he’s got me in his arms, but the kiss is everything a first kiss should be. Soft and slow and sweet … and magic.

Dillon pulls away, looking worried. “Sorry, Velvet, is that okay? That I did that?”

I nod, smiling. “Yeah. Definitely.”

He kisses me again, even slower this time, and I know that while I may have thousands of memories I want to forget, this isn’t one of them.

TWENTY-THREE

WE HAVE A COUPLE OF WEEKS TOGETHER, me and Dillon, in which he comes over every day after his work is finished at the Conkennel. He takes me to the post office to pick up the assistance checks and to the bank to cash them, to the store for groceries and gas station to buy gas for the generator. He spends time with my sister like she’s his and my mom as though she’s normal. Dillon makes life normal for me.

I don’t know what I’d do without him.

He helps Opal with her homework. He walks her through the math problems I’d have struggled with. He’s patient with her. He promises her a game of Uno if she finishes on time, without whining, and Opal does the work seriously, nibbling her pencil.

“Hey, Opal,” Dillon says. “Do you think you’d be okay here with your mom while I take Velvet someplace?”

I look up from the pot of beans I’ve been stirring on the
fire. Yeah, we can use the stove, but beans have to cook a long time, and I don’t want to use the generator when I don’t have to. Dillon found me a cast-iron pot that will cook them slowly and makes them taste better. I meet his eyes across the room.

Opal shrugs. “I guess so. Will you be back before it gets dark?”

With spring on the way, the nights take longer to get here, but Opal still doesn’t like to be left alone in the dark, even with Mom. I wouldn’t, either. Even so, I’m surprised she agreed to Dillon’s request.

“I promise.”

“Are you taking her to the store?” Opal asks.

She loves going to the grocery store and I hate taking her, because she always wants to spend our minimal money on junk cereals and candy, no matter how many times I have to tell her that just because the list of foods we’re approved to buy includes them, that doesn’t mean we have to buy them.

“If she needs to go. Velvet?”

I want to say yes, just to get out of the house for a short while, though I know I don’t have any money. “Sure. Mom, I’m going to go with Dillon for a while, okay? You stay here with Opal.”

It’s still hard to know what she hears and understands, though every day there’s a little more glimmer in her eyes. Every day she moves a little less unsteadily. She dresses herself, feeds herself, and uses the bathroom. She doesn’t talk,
though. I know she can—she has a voice, I mean. And she can communicate sometimes, too, though more often than not, she simply does whatever it is we tell her to do. But words seem beyond her.

Right now she’s sitting on the couch, flipping through an ancient home and garden magazine she’s looked at a dozen times already. Maybe more. She studies the pictures, her face blank. She turns the page. Sometimes she turns the page backward to look at it again.

“Opal, you sure you’ll be okay?” I ask.

Opal shrugs. “Sure.”

Things have changed over the past couple of weeks, mostly for the better. I thought it would be harder, making sure she did her schoolwork, making ends meet without a job, but so far it’s all falling into place. I put on my coat and give them both a last look before I follow Dillon out the door.

“Do you really have to go to the store?” he asks.

“No. Where are you taking me?”

“On a date.”

He grins at me as I slide into the passenger seat. We haven’t had anything like a date yet. With curfews and the army patrolling the streets, there’s no place to go, even if either of us did have any money to spend or there were anything datelike to do.

I laugh. “For real? Where? To Foodland?”

“No.” Dillon shakes his head. “You’ll see.”

There are roadblocks set up across the highway, and Dillon frowns as he slows the truck. I look out at the camouflage-painted trucks, and the men and women in their uniforms. They have blank faces and carry guns.

“What’s going on?”

Before Dillon can answer, one of the soldiers raps on his window. Dillon rolls it down. Without saying anything, he tugs open the collar of his jacket and the shirt beneath it to show his bare skin. The soldier nods, then gestures.

“Her, too.”

“Show them your neck, Velvet.”

“What? Why?”

This gets the soldier’s attention. He leans in Dillon’s window to stare at me. “Where’ve you been?”

“Just show him, Velvet,” Dillon says calmly, though I hear a slight tremor in his voice.

I bare my neck for the soldier, who seems satisfied and withdraws. He waves us on. All my good feelings have faded, but I wait until we’ve left the roadblock behind before I turn in the seat to look at Dillon.

“Were they checking for collars?”

He nods, eyes on the road, hands on the wheel. His mouth is thin. I watch him swallow, hard.

“Why?”

At the intersection where we saw the accident not so long ago, Dillon stops for a red light. He looks at me. “There’ve been more outbreaks. A couple in Harrisburg, a whole
bunch in Philly. An entire aerobics class in Ohio someplace. Others, too. They’re saying it’s something called Residual Contamination, that the batches of bad water were more widespread than was first announced.”

“How bad?” I force my voice to not be a whisper.

“There aren’t as many all at once, but they’re more violent when they do fall. They’re not as impaired, either. Not as clumsy.” Dillon, watching the light turn green, puts his foot on the accelerator. “They’re talking about mandatory testing for everyone, not just voluntary for people who used ThinPro.”

“And … then what?”

Dillon bites his lip for a second before answering. “Neutralization.”

“Even if you’re not sick?” I cry, stunned and disgusted.

“Yeah. They’re calling it voluntary preventative measures, but … who’d go in to volunteer to be tested, knowing you’ll end up in a collar? Or worse?”

I look out the window at my town. I’ve lived here my entire life, never known any other place, but it seems like a foreign country to me now. “What do you mean, worse?”

“They’re recalling collars.” Dillon says this in a flat, quiet voice. “There’ve been some reports that they don’t work. That the Connies who wear them are even worse than the ResCons.”

I think of my mom. “That’s ridiculous. Besides, there’s Mercy Mode. How much worse can they be if they’re shocked to death?”

Dillon turns down a side street by Lebanon High School, then another. He stops in front of a yellow house and turns off the ignition, then turns in his seat to face me. “They’re not saying. The news has been strange lately, like they’re keeping a lid on a lot of stuff. And the Net’s been down. Really down.”

I frown. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?”

“I didn’t want to worry you.” Dillon sighs and scrubs at his face. For the first time, I notice how tired he looks. “They’re coming into the kennel and taking away the unclaimed, Velvet. My mom’s worried.”

“What are they doing with them?”

His shrug says it all. “Probably what they did with them before the special interest groups lobbied for the Connies’ release. When they thought the Contamination was over.”

I shudder. “Tests. And experiments.”

“Yes. They say it’s to figure out a vaccine or a cure. But Mom’s convinced they’re just …”

He won’t say it, but I think I know what Jean thinks. “Disposing of them, right? Putting them down?”

He nods again, then reaches out one arm along the back of the seat to pull me toward him. It’s nice, the way Dillon holds me. Still and silent, not needing to say anything to comfort me. His breath ruffles my hair, and I can feel his heartbeat on my cheek when I press against his chest.

We sit that way for a few minutes until he pushes me gently away. “Hey. Listen, don’t worry about that now. I brought you on a date, remember?”

I look around. “I see that. But to where?”

“C’mon, I’ll show you.” Grinning, he kisses me quickly and gets out of the truck to go around and open my door for me. So romantic.

He takes me to the yellow house and opens the door. “Dad! I’m here! And I brought someone, okay? Her name’s Velvet. Remember I told you about Velvet?”

I have only a half minute to wonder why he’s speaking so loud and so slow, with such precision. Then his dad comes around the corner from the hall into the living room, and I understand right away. Dillon’s dad is like my mom. Worse than my mom—he’s not wearing a collar, but he has the shambling step and slack face of someone who’s been neutralized.

“Where’s Mom? Work?”

Dillon’s dad doesn’t respond at first. He’s staring at me. Despite myself, I get a little shiver. He’s not collared but clearly something’s been done to him, and though I know he can’t possibly be dangerous, a flashback of Craig slamming into the glass door streaks through my brain.

“He can’t talk. Just like your mom.”

“Hi, Mr. Miller,” I say. “I’m Velvet. How are you?”

Dillon’s dad shuffles back down the hall and disappears through a doorway. I hear the sound of a TV.

“It’s all he does all day,” Dillon says. “Even though there’s really nothing on.”

He looks cautious and a little scared. He was nervous
about having me meet his dad, I see that. I’m touched. Now I know why Jean was so adamant about encouraging me to call her son, why she thought we’d be a good fit. She was right, even though her reasons really had nothing to do with why I like Dillon.

“You could’ve told me before, you know.” I reach for his hand. “Did you think I’d mind?”

Dillon’s fingers tighten in mine. “I didn’t know, at first. I mean, yeah, your mom and everything, but my dad’s worse off.”

BOOK: Contaminated
10.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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