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Authors: Em Garner

Contaminated (31 page)

BOOK: Contaminated
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It’s a risk we have to take. She wants it, and even though I’m not convinced we can do this—if it were that easy to disconnect the collar with a paper clip, wouldn’t more people have done it? I nod at Dillon.

“Hold her still,” he says. “I’m going to go as fast as I can.”

Opal runs out of the kitchen. I think it’s because she can’t bear to watch, but I hear the front door open. She’s back in a minute while I try to find the tiny hole Dillon says is on the collar.

“They’re in trucks,” Opal cries. “They’re across the street, knocking on the door!”

How long? Ten minutes? Five? Maybe only three. Our driveway’s long, but it’s not that long. It’s also nowhere near big enough for a truck, not to mention the tree’s still down
across the bottom. They’ll have to walk up. That gives us some time.

Dillon’s running his fingers over the collar, but he shakes his head. “Can’t feel it. You do it. Your fingers are smaller.”

I take the paper clip. I feel the collar, which is warm to the touch. I run my fingertips back and forth along it … and then I feel it. The tiniest, weeniest hole in the plastic. Just big enough for the tip of a paper clip.

Opal’s run off again; she’s back in seconds, breathless. “They’re coming up the driveway.”

It’s now or never. My mom’s gone quiet, though sweat stands out on her brow, and her mouth is pinched.

“I love you, Mom.”

She closes her eyes.

I slip the metal into the hole. I feel a slight resistance.

“What should I do?”

“Push it in as far as it will go,” Dillon says. “It’s like the reset button on a Wii or a hard drive. Hold it for a few seconds. It should reset.”

Something whirs inside the collar. The light stays red. My mom gasps. Opal cries out, but she’s a good, brave kid, and she runs out of the kitchen again to check on the soldiers. She doesn’t come back this time, but I don’t have time to worry.

My mom’s entire body jerks, every muscle stiff. The collar doesn’t beep this time, it growls. All the lights start blinking. I don’t know what this means.

We can’t hold her still. She thrashes, kicking, and gets Dillon in the stomach. He lets out an “oof,” and doubles over for a second but then comes right back to hold on to her shoulders, trying to keep her still. Her heels drum on the floor. Her hair, the style I just cut, whips in front of her face.

I’m not crying. Not screaming. Not breathing.

I’m watching my mother die.

Then in the next instant, the collar beeps. Something unhinges. It springs open, and Dillon yanks it off her neck. My mom gasps, but goes still. Her eyes are closed, her breathing shallow.

Dillon gets up, takes the collar, disappears into the pantry with it. I hold my mom’s hand and wait for her to wake up. I hear Opal’s voice, high and chattering. The thump of boots.

My mom opens her eyes. Dillon’s there, collar gone. Together we put our hands under her arms and help her sit in one of the kitchen chairs.

“Mom. Can you hear me?”

She nods. Her expression is more clear than I’ve seen it in forever. She looks pale, tired, still in pain, and her hair is damp with sweat, but she looks better. Unbelievably better.

“And I like horses, do you like horses? And my favorite flavor of ice cream is peanut-butter chip, is that what you like?”

I have to hand it to the kid. She knows how to talk someone’s ear off, keeping the soldier’s focus on her and not
what’s going on in our kitchen. My mom’s still shaking a little when I turn to face the soldiers. Four of them in full fatigues. They have guns, but this no longer surprises me.

“Hi,” I say, like we have soldiers in our kitchen every day.

“Ma’am.” He nods at me. Then at my mom. “We’re doing a sweep of the neighborhood.”

“Oh …” I act pleasantly stupid. “Are we not supposed to be here?”

He shakes his head after a second. “This neighborhood’s been closed off and presumed empty, that’s all.”

“Oh. Well, we’ve lived here for a long time.” I shrug. “Are you kicking us out?”

“Our orders are merely to make a sweep of the neighborhood and check the safety of the residents, ma’am.” He’s eyeing my mom, who hasn’t said a word. “We’re looking for Contaminated. Our orders are to bring them all in. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you all to cooperate.”

He looks like he’s had a lot of people not cooperating, and I sort of feel sorry for him and the three others with him, who haven’t said anything. I shrug again. “Sure, okay. But we’re all fine here.”

“Ma’am,” the soldier says to my mom. “I’m going to have to ask you to stand up and show me your neck.”

I don’t look at her. I don’t want to give anything away. My mom stands up slowly, pushing her chair back. From the corner of my eye, I see her fold open her shirt.

The soldier looks relieved. “You, too, sir.”

“Sure.” Dillon does.

So do Opal and I, for good measure. My heart’s pounding so hard in my throat, I’m sure they’re going to see it throbbing through my skin.

The soldier pauses again and focuses on my mom. “Ma’am, is this your house?”

She nods. His face hardens. He points at me. “This your daughter?”

She nods again. Everything’s lost. They’re going to know.

“What’s her name?”

“My name’s Opal,” Opal says.

The soldier’s not a machine. He looks at my sister. I see a struggle on his face, but in the end it doesn’t matter. He looks back at my mom.

“What’s your daughter’s name, ma’am?”

The other three have tightened their grips on their guns. I hear the soft sigh of Dillon’s breath. I think I’m breathing but everything is tipping a little, so maybe I’ve forgotten.

“Her name,” my mother says in a thick and rough but clear voice, “is Velvet.”

AFTERWORD

THE SOLDIERS LEAVE.

My mom blinks and blinks. We help her to the couch, where she lies down and promptly falls asleep. I watch her breathing and wonder if she’ll wake up.

“Turn on the radio,” Dillon says. “Maybe something’s on.”

About an hour later, the president addresses the nation. He sounds tired, and the broadcast isn’t entirely clear. He talks a lot about safety and precautions, and the importance of citizen cooperation. I can’t really follow a lot of what he’s getting at, because all of his words sound like they were written by someone who was more interested in seeing how many syllables they could use than being easy to understand. I think maybe that’s on purpose.

One thing stands out, though. Unlike the first time around, this Contamination isn’t limited to the United States. It’s not limited to the consumption of one single product, either. According to the president, there’s a
pandemic in motion, the source of which is unclear. Possibly terrorism.

“Do you believe him?” I ask Dillon.

We’re huddled under a blanket, listening to the broadcast. Opal has fallen asleep beside Mom. We keep the volume low so they don’t overhear. I wish I didn’t have to listen, but I can’t stop.

“I don’t know. I think … maybe, yeah. But all this other stuff about martial law and the military being here to protect us … from what?” Dillon asks. “The Contaminated? Or each other? Or them?”

I reach for his hand and squeeze it. “Thank you, Dillon. For unlocking the collar.”

“I wasn’t sure it would work. I really wasn’t.”

“But it did.” It’s too early to tell if my mom will be okay, but for the first time, I’m not afraid she’s going to turn Connie on us. That, at least, I believe.

“I was wrong when I said it would all be okay,” Dillon says. “This isn’t okay.”

Under this blanket, it would be easy to forget the world out there. We could pretend we’re just two kids kissing in private. We could pretend a lot of things, none of which is true, and even though I’d like to, I know Dillon and I are going to face the truth.

At least we’re going to face it together.

Neither of us knows what to do or say, so we listen to the president’s speech until the very end. One thing’s clear,
the world as we knew it is gone. The world we’ve grown accustomed to is gone, too. Now we can only wait and see what’s going to happen next.

BOOK: Contaminated
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