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Authors: Em Garner

Contaminated (29 page)

BOOK: Contaminated
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The yellow light’s started blinking. I gently take the pen from her grasp and fold my hands around hers.

“You don’t have to do this now,” I say. I think of what Dillon told me. “It’s going to be okay, Mom. It’s all going to be okay.”

Her eyes are bright with tears, but she nods. She gathers us close again. I can shut my eyes and pretend this is like it used to be, but that will only last until I open them. We squeeze one another hard.

I didn’t believe Dillon when he said it, but somehow, I believe myself.

I’m not expecting him the next morning so early, but Dillon shows up before any of us have really even managed to get dressed or brush our teeth. He’s so early and unexpected that I don’t answer the door right away, and we all freeze at the knock. I open it, bracing myself for a uniformed cop or worse, a couple of soldiers. My breath rushes out of me in a whoosh when I see it’s him.

“You scared me, Dillon!”

He tugs my arm to pull me into the small formal living room we never used back then and don’t bother with now, either. “Velvet, get dressed. Get whatever money you have. I think you should come to the store right now.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

Dillon shakes his head. “I’ll tell you on the way there.”

It takes me only a few minutes to get dressed, and we’re on the highway in another five. Then … traffic. Backed up all the way to the entrance to the neighborhood.

“More roadblocks?” I ask.

Dillon nods. “Something’s going down. Nobody is saying anything, nothing on the news. But last night …”

His voice breaks, and I’m glad we’re not moving because there’s no way he could drive with his head against the steering wheel. He’s comforted me so many times and now it’s my turn, but I feel like I’m doing a really bad job of it. I rub his shoulder.

“What?” I ask.

“Last night, my mom didn’t come home from work on time. I thought she was just, you know, staying after to take care of the Connies because she had to fire Carlos—”

“You didn’t tell me that!”

Dillon shudders a sigh. “Yeah. Funding’s been cut. She had to let Carlos go, and the docs who usually help out, volunteering, were suddenly not showing up. She thinks they were told not to.”

“By who?” Ahead of us, the line moves the length of one car.

“She doesn’t know. The government, maybe. Anyway, I thought she was just staying late, and I was going to go in and help her, even, but my dad … I know he can be left alone and stuff, but I don’t want him to be alone for so long. He gets worried.”

“Yeah. I know.” I squeeze his shoulder again.

Dillon’s eyes are rimmed with red. I’m not sure what I’ll do if he starts to cry. “Turns out, she was kept after work because they came and took them all away. All the Connies she had left.”

“All the unclaimed? But … why? What would they be doing with them?”

“Mom doesn’t know. They wouldn’t tell her. Soldiers came and rounded them up, told her she’d be shut down by the end of the week. Velvet, Mom says she thinks this is just the beginning. Those rumors about them rounding up all the Contaminated, even the neutralized ones? She thinks they’re happening. The news isn’t reporting it now, but she’s sure this is just the start.”

I think of what he said about mandatory testing. “She thinks they’re going to start taking people in for testing to see if they have any Residual Contamination?”

Dillon nods. “She saw some paperwork when the sergeant or whoever wasn’t paying attention. That’s what it looks like. Velvet, you had some, right? You drank the water.”

My stomach leaps into my throat. “Yeah.”

“And you never went in for voluntary testing.”

“No.” I shake my head. “Never seemed to be a point in it. They said they can’t do anything about it.”

The line moves again. Our car creeps forward. Nobody passes us going the other way. Dillon stares grimly ahead, then at me.

“They also said, after that third wave, that there wouldn’t be any more outbreaks, that it had all been contained. Now I’m even hearing stuff about how maybe there’s more Contamination, not just in the ThinPro, but other stuff.”

“Like what?” All of this is making my head spin.

“It came from meat the first time,” he says. “Protein. So anything with meat or protein in it.”

“But you’re not sure. It’s just rumors. Maybe they’re just trying to scare people.”

Dillon grips the steering wheel so hard, his fingers turn white. “Maybe.”

“So why are we going to the grocery store?”

Dillon looks fierce. “You have to stock up. Canned stuff, nothing with meat. Dried beans, pasta, stuff like that. Out there where you are, if you stay quiet, they’re not going to come for you. At least not right away, or for a while. And we can figure out what they’re doing.”

“You’re really scared.” This scares me, too.

“Velvet … they haven’t said anything about this on the news. Nothing. Do you remember when it was all happening
the first time? It was all over the news. And when they brought out the collars and started releasing the Connies back to their families, do you remember how much that was all over the place, too?”

“Yeah. But—”

“Nothing. Not a peep,” Dillon says. “That’s not right. And suddenly there are soldiers all over the roads? And closing down the kennels?”

We’re three cars away from the roadblock. I see soldiers on both sides of the cars, not just one. They have guns. “Where’s your mom now, Dillon?”

“Home with Dad. She’s out of a job. Me, too, I guess. She says it’s okay. She wants to stay home with him now until all of this shakes out.” He doesn’t sound as confident as he’s trying to convince me he is.

We make it through the roadblock without trouble. The soldiers looking through the windows don’t look much older than we are. They look scared, too. Are soldiers supposed to look scared?

The grocery store is crowded, but not necessarily more than usual. Certainly nobody seems to be in a panic or anything. Dillon and I each take a cart. He leads me up and down the aisles. I’m used to making good choices, sticking to a budget. Instead of canned ravioli, though, I pick out vegetarian choices. Or kosher—you can tell by the little symbol on the package, and kosher foods will always say if they have meat in them. I stock up on dried beans and rice
and pasta, all of which are plentiful, while the shelves in the cookie and snacks aisles are looking pretty bare.

We don’t buy anything fresh or frozen. Only canned or dried. We fill almost half the cart with ramen noodles, a steal at six for a buck, even if we get only the onion flavored and not my favorite, roast pork. Dillon’s right, we just don’t know. The original ThinPro Contamination came from using animal protein instead of synthetic, but it was all mixed up, and not from just one kind of animal the way mad cow disease was.

Dillon’s stocking up on toilet paper and paper towels. He’s also added batteries, candles, matches, and bottled water to the cart. In this moment, I realize something.

I could love him.

“I can’t afford this, Dillon,” I whisper. “My stamps and assistance only cover food, anyway, and I don’t have much cash.”

“I’ve got some.”

“I can’t let you—”

Dillon stops me right there in the middle of the aisle with a kiss that earns us a few strange looks. “You have to let me. I want to, Velvet, don’t you get it? I want to help you.”

I don’t fight with him about it. He looks too fierce, too determined. Besides, I’m scared he’s right, that something’s going down, and I don’t want to be caught unprepared. I remember too well what that was like the first time, how Opal and I ended up being taken away.

The bill is staggering. The cashier gives us both a funny look. “Stocking up, huh?”

Dillon gives him an entirely false grin and pulls out a wad of cash from his pocket. “We like shopping in bulk. Saves money that way.”

Practically nothing we bought was on sale, but the cashier nods like this makes sense. “Right, right. Paper or plastic?”

“We’re green,” Dillon says with a serious face. “We’ll just put it back in the cart and load it into the car.”

This, too, the cashier accepts without a second look. He rings up the order with a bunch of chatter Dillon fends off while I stand there and look like a moron. I can’t help it. I’m struck as dumb as if I’m collared by everything that’s going on, and I won’t lie, it feels good to have Dillon as my voice.

We’re leaving the store with our carts so heavy, they’re hard to push, when activity explodes in the parking lot. I hadn’t paid much attention to the cop cars when we came in—they’re all over the place, all the time. But the lights weren’t flashing then, and they’re flashing now. Again, not such a strange sight, except that there are four cops standing in a half circle around a man who looks maybe my mom’s age. The woman with him has the slumped shoulders and a hanging head I recognize. Even though I can’t see the collar, I know she’s wearing one.

“Keep moving,” Dillon says from the corner of his mouth, his gaze straight ahead. “Just keep going.”

We push the carts to his truck, which I don’t even think
of as his dad’s anymore, now that I know about his father. We unload them quickly, stacking everything in the plastic bins he has back there, secured with bungee cords. Dillon pulls a tarp over everything and secures that, too.

The police have put the woman in the back of their car. The man isn’t taking this quietly. He’s yelling and shouting, waving his arms. He’s gathered a crowd. The cops look annoyed, but they’re not doing anything until the man pushes one of them. Then he’s on the ground in half a minute, face pressed into the concrete. The crowd steps back with a simultaneous noise of dismay.

“Let’s go,” Dillon says, and I can’t agree more.


THE TRAFFIC’S NOT SO BACKED UP IN THIS direction. When they ask where we’re going, Dillon says Manheim. I lie without hesitation, tell the soldiers I live there, Dillon’s my boyfriend, and he’s driving me home. I don’t even think about why we’re lying about where I actually live, but it makes sense when we get to Spring Lake Commons and the gate’s been shut across the front again. This time it’s locked with a shiny new lock.

“Crap,” Dillon says miserably. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard him curse. I’d have probably said something stronger than that. “Is there another road?”

“One way in, one way out. It’s, like, some big deal for safety. But …” I think. “There’s a hiking trail back by the power lines. It’s not meant for cars.”

“I have four-wheel drive,” Dillon says. “We’ll make it.”

We do, but barely. The scratches in the paint, and the mud splashed up all the way to the windows, don’t seem to
bother him, but they worry me. He managed to get in, but how’s he going to get back out? And why did they lock up the neighborhood again?

We recruit Mom and Opal to unload groceries. My mom seems dim again, or just tired. She moves slowly but follows instructions, though she does seem a little confused. When I tell her to put the beans in the box in the pantry, she puts them in the cupboard, and the cereal I told her to put in the cupboard, under the sink. Opal corrects her patiently, but this worries me. She was doing so good just a few hours ago, and now …

“No, Mama. Here.” Opal takes the cans from her and puts them in the pantry. “Like this, see?”

“I have to get back,” Dillon says. “Check on my mom and dad.”

“Do you think anything’s happened to them?”

“I don’t know. But after what we saw today in the parking lot …,” he says, and stops.

I hug him tight. “Go. We’ll be okay.”

“Don’t turn on the generator,” Dillon warns. “Stay in the house. If you can stay warm enough, Velvet, I wouldn’t even use the fireplace.”

“For how long?”

He stutters at the question. “I … don’t know.”

Dillon looks so bleak, so afraid, I hug him again. I don’t want him to go, but I know he has to. I’d go if I were him. I’d be worried, too.

“Go. Tell your mom I said hi.”

“I will.” He kisses me hard, then lets me go and is out the door before I can say anything else. I hope he makes it.

I don’t hear from Dillon for four agonizing days. I don’t turn on the generator, but we have plenty of flashlights and candles. I turn on the battery-powered radio and listen constantly, but the news reports only list road closings “for construction” and new curfews in effect, nothing about the Contamination at all. That’s scarier than if they ran constant reports on it.

BOOK: Contaminated
13.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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