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Authors: Em Garner

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BOOK: Contaminated
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“Can I invite Carissa to come over?”

Carissa Lee lives a couple of buildings over with her grandma. I think she lived with her grandma even before everything happened, but Opal’s mentioned a few times that her parents are also gone. I like her, even if when she and Opal get together, there’s way too much screeching. I like her grandma, too, and I send Opal off to invite both of them.

She comes back with Carissa and Mrs. Lee, who brings along a platter of sugar cookies. Also the new lady who moved into the place just beneath us. She has a little baby and no husband, and she looks shy when I open the door, like I might tell her to get lost. She holds out a paper sack of apples and a bowl of cream-cheese dip.

“I said she ought to come to the party,” Opal says as everyone shuffles into our tiny apartment. “Carissa, c’mon, let’s put on some music.”

Just like that, it’s a party. I feel a little bad that we’re celebrating finding our mom when the new lady, whose name is Anne-Marie, is still looking for her husband. But she’s laughing and smiling, bouncing her little boy, Hank, on her lap. His mouth is smeared with chocolate cake.

“Thank you for letting us come,” she says as Carissa and Opal perform some sort of dance routine to an old pop song on the radio. “This is really … I need this, Velvet. Thank you.”

I’m not sure what to say, so I nod and offer Hank a cookie. His tiny fingers pluck it from mine, and he stares at it like he’s not sure what to do with it. Then he takes a cautious bite and beams from ear to ear. And drools.

“It gives me hope,” Anne-Marie says quietly. “If you found your mom, I can find Jake. I know it. He’s out there. I’ll keep looking.”

I’m not sure I feel okay with her using me as an example—it’s not like I did anything special other than not give up. Her praise tickles me with warmth, though, because for the first time in a really long time, I don’t feel like I want to go to sleep and never wake up. My stomach stuffed with treats, I watch Opal and her friend shaking their booties until they fall onto the carpet, wriggling with laughter. It’s important to me to hear. When I see my baby sister laughing, it makes me feel like I can smile, too.


WE FINISH THE ENTIRE CAKE AND PLAY Apples to Apples and Connect Four for about an hour, and then it’s time for our guests to leave.

“We should do this every week,” Opal says.

Before I can tell her there’s no way we can party every week, Mrs. Lee nods. “Next week, my house. I’ll make a chicken pot pie.”

“I’ll make a nice salad,” Anne-Marie offers, hitching baby Hank higher on her hip. “Night, Velvet.”

After they’ve gone, I tell Opal it’s time for her to go to bed while I do the laundry. “Lock the door behind me.”

Opal rolls her eyes. She’s had a shower and her hair is tangled. I told her to comb through it, but she’s only made a halfhearted attempt. I should stay here and supervise, but we played too long and it’s getting late. I really want to finish this laundry so I have something clean to wear tomorrow.

“I’m not stupid, ya know.”

I know she isn’t, but she’s also only ten. When I was ten, I still played with my stuffed animals and watched cartoons. Opal has hardly any toys. We left most of them behind. And the cartoons are only on once a week, on Saturdays, the way they were back when my mom was a kid. Like almost everything else, ten’s not the same anymore.

“Sure you are,” I say. “Ugly, too.”

Opal sticks out her tongue and crosses her eyes at me.

“That’s an improvement,” I tell her, and she chases me around the table until I hold her off with one hand on her forehead while she swings her arms, unable to reach me. “Back off, booger brat. I have to go wash these clothes.”

The cake and dancing must’ve mellowed her, because instead of fighting with me about it, she stops flailing. She doesn’t like being alone here, but there’s nothing I can do about it. She has to get to bed so she can be ready for school in the morning. The thought of my bed, my pillow, my warm blankets, is so much better than facing the laundry room. Opal will happily wear the same outfit a week at a time, if I don’t make her change. She doesn’t care about laundry. Or cleaning the toilets or mopping the floor. Those are all grown-up tasks, and she’s still just a kid. I envy that.

I pick up the basket, pushing it against my hip. The detergent usually makes the basket heavy and unbalanced, so I shift it, but tonight it seems lighter than usual. Maybe I’m getting some guns from all the lifting. More likely, Opal hasn’t put all of her dirty clothes in it and I’ll find them later under her bed.

“You put all your dirty stuff in here, right?” I give her the stinkeye.

She gives me puppy face. “Yes!”

I heft the basket again, sorting with one hand through the clothes. She really has. I guess I’m sugared up from the cakes, because instead of making my back hurt almost immediately, I feel like I could carry this for hours.

“Lock the door behind me, Opal. I mean it.”

Only when I hear the bolts slide shut do I head toward the stairs, but before I can move, the door across the landing opens. Mrs. Wentling looks out. She’s got that frowny face on, not that I’ve ever seen her with any other kind.

“What’s all that noise? Haven’t I told you girls to be quiet?”

It makes me want to punch her in the face, her complaining about a little noise when her stupid, yappy dog barks and barks all the time, or when her stupid, delinquent son comes home drunk and pounds up the metal stairs with his heavy boots, talking on his cell phone at the top of his lungs. I don’t like feeling as though I want violence. There’s been too much of that.

“Were you having a party?”

Ah. That’s it. She’s mad about not being invited.

“You hear me?”

“I hear you,” I mutter as I walk away from her, down the rusting metal stairs.

“I told Garcia letting you people in here would run the place down!”

She shouts after me, but I ignore her. She can shout all she wants. It won’t change anything. The landlord had no choice in letting me and Opal come here, because the government fixed all that up. So long as he gets his rent checks on time, he doesn’t care about anything.

To get to the laundry room, I have to walk outside, across the parking lot, and past the pool, which hasn’t been filled the whole time we’ve lived here. There’s supposed to be a lock on the door, but it’s been busted since before we moved in. The door sticks, too, so you have to yank it really hard to get it open. I need to put down my basket to do it and use both hands, but I pull too hard and the door flies open hard enough to bang against the wall.

Inside, there’s a long, dim hall. It’s supposed to be lit by at least six fixtures set into the ceiling, but more than half are broken. One has a burned-out bulb. The other two flicker. On one side of the hall is a door to the maintenance office, locked because nobody’s in there to use it. On the other side is the door to the game room, which is open because there’s nothing inside for anybody to use or to steal. And finally, at the end of the hall, past the restroom doors, also locked to prevent vandalism, is the laundry room. I don’t even pretend I’m not going to scurry down this hall like something might reach out and grab me.

When I was a little kid, maybe six or seven, my parents let me stay up to watch a movie on TV called
Orca: The Killer Whale!
It had been made before I was born, and I
didn’t quite understand all of it, but one scene scared the crap out of me—the killer whale watching from the water, the man who’d killed its mate reflected in its huge eye. For months after watching that movie, even though it was silly, I couldn’t walk down the dark hall past my parents’ bedroom to get to the bathroom. I had to run, like maybe a killer whale was going to jump out at me from the doorway and grab me and eat me the way it had done in the movie.

I’m old enough to know killer whales don’t lurk in bathrooms, but something else might. Things that really could grab and kill and try to eat me. The tenants of the apartment complex had signed a petition to get better lighting and locks in the laundry room, but nothing’s been done, of course. Nobody has the money or anything to force the issue. I guess we’re just lucky to have a laundry room at all, with washers and dryers that work. The complex on the other side of the mall lost theirs to a fire during the Contamination. My friend Lisa lives there with her parents, and they do their wash in the bathtub because it’s too much of a pain to try and drag it anyplace else.

Standing in the doorway here isn’t any better than running down the dim hallway past the rows of doors. My sneakers thump on the tile and my breath whistles. I skid through the doorway into the laundry room, not caring if anyone’s in there to see me acting like a dork. It’s empty, anyway, one lone dryer spinning lazily with something thumping inside it.

I think back before the Contamination, people who did their laundry in places like this probably had to be a little … if not afraid, at least wary. This building’s in a part of town that’s never been too bad, but it’s not a nice, tidy neighborhood like the one we used to live in, out in the woods, with big houses and friendly neighbors. Everything got worse, of course, even if now it’s sort of better. So this part of town is worse than the one I used to live in, but better than anyplace was during the height of the Contamination, when people were defending themselves with shotguns and it didn’t even matter if you were Contaminated or not; you could end up dead just for knocking on someone’s door.

The problem is, I didn’t grow up being afraid. Oh, sure, there were those random scares about someone trying to pull a few middle-school girls into a van, or the rumor that one of our neighbors was a pedophile. And my mom warned me not to talk to strangers or to answer the phone when I was home alone. All of those normal things. But I hadn’t really understood fear the way I do now. Like it lives in my back pocket, hugs me like my shadow.

I have a knife in my pocket. Tony gave it to me a few months after we started going out, even before the Contamination started. He gave it to me because I’d admired it, not because he thought I’d ever really need it. It has a screwdriver and a pair of tweezers and a toothpick on it. He got it because he was a Boy Scout. It’s not a big knife, but
I like having it in my pocket, anyway. I haven’t had to use it … but I know I could. I know I would.

I don’t sort the laundry. I know this will make my whites dingy and maybe even streak them with red or blue from something else, but I don’t feel like making the effort. I pull the clothes from the basket, feeling denim on my palms, the scratch of buttons on my fingers. I have a sudden memory of my mom, her hair twisted on top of her head in the bun she always wore around the house, bending to lift a bunch of clothes from the basket.

“Like this, Velvet. Make sure you check the pockets, turn them right side out. Spray any stains. See?” In the memory she turns, her dark brows furrowed. “It’s important to do it right.”

I want to cry, but nothing comes. My eyes are dry as bone, dry as dirt. Empty. I bury my face in a pile of dirty, stinky clothes and try to sob because I know how disappointed my mom would be if she knew I was shoving everything into the same load. I haven’t checked the pockets, haven’t treated for stains. It’s important, but I’m not doing it right.

I re-sort the laundry, determined to make a fresh start. My nerves are still humming from the party, from thinking about bringing my mom home. I’m so focused on separating my clothes that I don’t hear the sound at first. I feel it, though. A thudding sort of scrape. Instantly I pull my face away from the laundry and swipe at my eyes to clear them. Nothing in the doorway. Nothing around me.

I turn. In the dryer, every second or third revolution, whatever’s in there bangs against something else. I can see something pressing every now and then against the glass. Someone’s sneakers or something, wrapped in a towel to keep them from doing just what they’re doing, banging and thumping.

I need to get this laundry in the washer so I can begin on my homework, which I’d put at the bottom of the basket. I don’t want to be out all night, especially not with Opal home alone. But instead of dumping our clothes into the washer, I go to the dryer. I stand in front of it, knowing it isn’t any of my business, and if the person who put the stuff in there comes back while I’m picking through their undies, they’ll be pretty annoyed.

Something isn’t right.

I have a couple of choices. Choice one, ignore the dryer, which isn’t my business. Just go ahead and do my laundry and get the hell out of here. Choice two, get back to my apartment. I can forget the wash, take it home, and struggle to get it clean in the bathtub or even come back another day when it’s light outside.

Or I can check inside the dryer.

During the worst days of the Contamination, people learned they needed to pay attention when things weren’t right. Not paying attention could lead to bad trouble—Contaminated on your doorstep or on the street, or worse, in your house. In your car. Investigating that noise in
the basement might’ve been something stupid people did in scary movies, but during the Contamination, we’d all learned it was better to be stupid than something worse.

I’m already telling myself I’m stupid as I pull open the dryer door. Inside, the drum slowly stops spinning. Even if there are any unneutralized Connies around here—and the cops all say there aren’t, that it’s all totally safe—one can’t fit in a dryer. I’m already getting ready to laugh at myself when I pull out the bundle from the dryer, and whatever’s inside making the noise falls at my feet.

It’s not a Connie, and it’s not a person.

It’s just part of one.

I don’t even scream. I can’t. Nothing comes out of my mouth but a heave of air, a little whistle, and I stumble back. It’s a foot. A bare, dirty foot. The toenails are painted purple. Some of the toes are missing. The towel it was tangled in is stained rust with blood. The foot itself is dried, sort of rubbery-looking.

Someone’s foot’s in the dryer, someone’s bare and naked foot, and there’s no way of telling if it belonged to someone normal or a Connie, no way of knowing what happened to the rest of the person. Then I’m trying hard to scream again, but nothing’s coming. Now I see blood I didn’t notice before, because it goes around behind the row of washers in the center of the room. Streaks of it, gone brown. Clots and thick puddles of it. The trail leads from the dryer to the door in the back of the laundry room I’ve always thought
led to a supply closet. There’s no way I’m looking inside it. Just because I can defend myself, just because I have in the past, doesn’t mean I want to do it again. I grab my laundry basket, thinking stupid, stupid to care, but knowing it’s all we have, and if I leave it behind, someone will steal it and we’ll have nothing.

BOOK: Contaminated
13.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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