Authors: Em Garner
I’m halfway down the hall when the ladies’ room door flies open, outward. It knocks the basket out of my hands. I’m already dropping to my knees to try and stop the clothes from scattering, and that’s what saves me from getting punched in the face by the Connie stumbling out the door that was supposed to be locked.
“Unnnngh,” it says. “Unnggghmmmffff.”
It can’t talk. It can hardly walk, and from my place on the floor, I see why. It’s missing a foot. The other has a sneaker on it, but the bare, shredded stump is dragging behind it as it lurches out of the darkness and slaps at me.
The knife. It’s in my pocket. I can’t reach it, not on my back, with laundry bulked in piles underneath me and my leg twisted behind me so far, it’ll take only another inch before it snaps. The Connie shambles forward on its one good foot and the stump of the other. That’s what they do. They shamble. They moan. They’re like every worst thing anyone ever saw in those old zombie movies. It’s just like that.
Except it’s not undead or reanimated. It doesn’t need a head shot to drop it. A kick to the gut will double it over,
and I give it one, wincing as my sneaker connects with soft tissue, and it lets out another wordless grunt.
If they feel pain, they don’t show it. They don’t react. They just keep moving, keep going after their target. That’s why when the Contamination began, everyone mistakenly assumed the people getting up off the ground after being shot or stabbed or run into by cars were the undead, rising. This one doesn’t even grimace when I kick it again and again. I don’t understand how it can even stand upright on the shredded remains of its ankle, after the loss of all that blood. I roll again, finding my knife and opening the blade, which is laughable. It’s only a few inches long.
It turns out to be long enough.
The Connie’s eye squelches like a grape speared by a fork when I shove the blade into it. It doesn’t scream. It doesn’t stop coming after me, even though its eye is leaking down its cheek and it has to at least be partially blinded. And because I had to get so close in order to stab it, now it’s got me in its stiff-fingered grip. Relentless.
It snaps at me, teeth bared. Spit flies. I know even if it bites me, I won’t get Contaminated, but that doesn’t stop me from screaming. It smells bad, like blood and puke and other things. It’s a nightmare in front of me, all teeth and blood and ooze. Hands that are too strong, desperate enough to pinch and clutch, no matter how hard I try to get away.
It’s going for my throat when Mrs. Wentling’s son, Jerry,
yanks it off me. Its shirt tears down the back, but he’s got a good enough grip to throw it against the wall so hard, its head dents the plaster and leaves a bloody hole. The Connie falls to its knees. The bloody stump has left smears all over the floor. It has a piece of my sweatshirt in its palm, and I put a shaking hand on the hole in the cloth where I can now feel a cold breeze.
Jerry kicks it in the face with one of his huge, steel-toed boots. I might get annoyed when he clomps those boots up and down the stairs, but they turn out to be useful … except I don’t want to watch him kick in the face of the person who’d attacked me.
people, no matter what they’re doing or what they’ve done. They’re just people who can’t control their impulses or the natural aggression every person has inside.
We all have it. Upstairs I wanted to punch Mrs. Wentling in the face because I was angry—I didn’t, because I knew it was wrong. But the Contaminated don’t know it’s wrong. They don’t know anything except the need to grab and reach and kick and bite.
They’re not zombies, they’re just people.
I turn from the sickening crunch of bone and blood. Jerry kicks until the thing on the floor is nothing but a pile of broken bones and rags. He keeps going long after I’d have stopped. Then finally he stops, breathing hard, his greasy hair hanging over his face.
“You okay?” He spits to the side and swipes at his mouth. His jaw’s a little slack, but then, it usually is.
The Connie doesn’t even make a sound. I nod. I never thought I’d have to be grateful to Jerry, or that I’d want to do something so gross, like kiss him, but right then I sort of do. Not because he’s cute or anything, but because if this were a movie, he’d have come to my rescue and I’d fall in love with him.
Thank God it’s not a movie.
Jerry’s eyes are bright. In the old days, before even my mom and dad’s time, he’d have been called a hood. A rebel without a cause. But there’s nothing like James Dean about Jerry, who can’t blame the Contamination as the reason he didn’t graduate from high school or why he always has grease under his fingernails or why he steals cars and sells drugs and kicks puppies. He’d have been that way even if the world hadn’t broken. He reaches a hand to help me up, though, and I take it.
I’m shaky, but not crying. I listen for the sound of sirens. There are always cops around. If not cops, soldiers. And even if they’d handled the situation just like Jerry did, it would be okay for them. Not for us. The civil rights groups, the same ones that rallied for the release of the Connies from the labs, have made that a fact. Jerry seems to know what I’m thinking.
“We’ll take care of it. Me and my buddies.” He jerks a thumb toward the door. “We were just getting home when I heard you scream. We’ll get rid of it.”
Jerry’s been in trouble with the cops more than once. If he wants to take care of things …
“Thanks.” My voice doesn’t sound like mine. I sound old and tired. Creaky.
I bend to gather up my laundry. He doesn’t help. I think he’s checking out my butt, though, and that gives me the creeps. I don’t look at the Connie on the floor. I can’t. I’ll barf or cry or worse, maybe do nothing. Maybe I won’t even be moved to any emotion at all but vicious relief.
“Thanks,” I say again, and edge past him with my still-dirty laundry piled high.
I leave the knife behind.
OPAL ANSWERS THE DOOR WITH SLEEPY eyes and rumpled hair. She doesn’t ask me about the laundry, just stumbles off to the bedroom we share and flops facedown onto her bed. I don’t have the heart to scold her for not asking who was at the door before she opened it. I lock everything up behind us and tuck her in before I take the basket into the bathroom.
I start the shower. The water takes forever to heat, even on the highest setting, and I won’t have enough for anything more than what my dad used to call “pits and privates,” but I’m not turning it on so I can get in. I just want it to mask the sound of my sobs. I’m shaking. Rocking. And I still can’t cry. I want the hitch and burn of my breath in my throat, the salty taste, my eyes to blur and swell, my nose to drip thick snot. Crying makes me ugly. But I don’t care. It’s all right to be ugly every once in a while. I need to just be ugly sometimes.
We killed a person. Okay, Jerry more than me, but still. We both did it. We murdered someone, and even though I know she’d have gladly done the same to me without feeling a second’s regret or shame, it’s for that reason that now I’m swallowed up by both. It would be better if I could cry, or sick this all up. Puke out my guts. Get something out of me.
I try to fall apart and simply can’t.
I remembered to plug the tub, so it’s now half full. I pour in some detergent and set about washing the clothes, one piece at a time to make sure I get all the dirt out. By the time I rinse them, my back’s aching and my eyes are heavy.
I hang the clothes on the rack to dry, then strip off my clothes. I’m afraid to look at myself in the mirror. I have my mom’s dark hair and eyes but my dad’s Irish complexion. I burn, never tan. And I bruise. Now I’m covered with darkening blue-green blotches in places I didn’t even know the Connie got me. But no scratches, nothing I have to clean extra carefully, even if all the pamphlets and public service announcements have said over and over that you can’t get Contaminated through physical contact. Contamination, not contagion. I wash myself, anyway, cold water from the sink, a washcloth, the last bits of several bars of soap I tried to squish together and combine. They fall apart in my fingers as I use them, but it’s enough to get me clean.
I wish I could wash my hair, but don’t have the patience to do it in cold water, bent over the tub. It wouldn’t dry
before morning, either. I pull it up on top of my head. It’s the way my mom used to wear her hair, and I turn from side to side, looking at my reflection and seeing her in myself.
A week, Jean said. A week until I can bring my mom home, here to this crappy two-bedroom apartment the government forced us into during the post-Contamination restructuring. I know we should be glad to have it, to have any place at all. We should be happy they let us stay together, that Opal didn’t have to get shipped off to a group home or something. In other times she would’ve maybe gone into foster care, but there aren’t enough spare families willing to open their arms now, especially not to Contamination orphans. That’s what they call us. Conorphans.
Except orphans are kids without parents, and we have a mother. And I found her. Nobody can change that. None of the protestors who want them all rounded up and sent back to the places where they stuck them with needles, hooked them to tubes, dug around in their brains, can take away the fact she’s my mom.
I change into my pajamas and take my homework into the living room. My grades are bad. I wasn’t ever an all-A student or anything like that, but I did okay. Now, though, it’s hard to stay motivated. I take classes in the mornings, then head out to work, changing bedpans and mopping floors at Cedar Crest Assisted Living Manor from 1 until 5 p.m. The job’s the only reason we have money to do
anything beyond the monthly assistance check we get from the special emergency fund set up to aid kids like us.
We should have money, me and Opal. We have a house less than ten miles out of town, in a neighborhood that used to be considered sort of fancy. We have bank accounts in our parents’ names, but they’re frozen, pending confirmation of their deaths or some other complicated legal reasons. Even though we assume our dad’s dead, they’ll make us wait and wait. Now that I’ve found my mom, I wonder if things will get better. Will I be allowed to take over the accounts? Will we qualify for more assistance from the government to take care of her, or will we have to give up what we get now until the money in the bank’s all gone? I hear rumors all the time there’s money coming to all of us from the protein water company that started the whole mess, but I’m not counting on it.
We’re lucky, I remind myself. As far as I know, our house is still there. Probably trashed, maybe even looted, but it’s not burned down the way some were, with Connies still inside. We have shelter and food, we’re mostly warm, mostly dry. And all of this will pass, I tell myself as I try to get comfortable on the couch’s sagging cushions and stare down at my trigonometry book without really seeing the numbers on the pages.
It’s useless. I missed too many lessons, can’t make it up. And what’s the point? I’m really never going to use this stuff. Because of everything that’s happened, I’m not going
to get my diploma when I should’ve, not so long as I have to keep working, which I have to do if I want to take care of Opal.
Then I remember Tony.
I was supposed to call him. It’s not quite ten. I pick up the phone, check for a dial tone. It’s not guaranteed anymore. Cell service is better, since they determined it was more important to fix the towers than the underground lines. More people have mobiles than landlines. Or they did. I used to have a cell phone, but it got lost—not that I could afford the service now. Everything’s gone twice as expensive. Or it’s rationed. Or simply unavailable.
I get a dial tone, but then hear a fuzzy, fading voice and get a burst of crackling static. I think it’s Mrs. Wentling talking. I recognize her nasally, whining voice. I hang up, try again. Her voice is louder this time. She pauses. Maybe she hears me, too. I try one more time, and finally when I pick it up again, the line’s clear.
I dial Tony’s number, praying he’ll answer and not his mother. I’m in luck. He picks it up in the middle of the first ring, like he’s been waiting for me to call. At the sound of his hello, I let out a long, shaky sigh.
“Velvet! I thought you were going to call me!”
“Yeah, but …” Tony pauses, lowers his voice. “Earlier. You know. Because of my mom.”
Tony’s mom has never liked me, not even before the Contamination changed everything. Tony’s mom worked out like a maniac, running miles and miles in any kind of weather. Every day. She never drank anything but diet cola and water, and she never ate anything but salad. She worked so hard at being skinny, you’d think she’d have been more understanding of the Connies, all people who’d been trying to get skinny, too.
But she wasn’t. Even before the Contamination, I’d heard her make nasty comments about fat people, about anyone who “relied on pills and powders” to diet. I’d heard her make nasty comments about a lot of people, actually. I was sure she made them about me, too, though she was at least nice enough or maybe just not brave enough to say them to my face. During the worst of it, those bad, bad months that summer when the world was ending, I’d taken Opal to their house. I knew Tony would help us.
But his mother wouldn’t.
His dad wanted to, but I think she’d beaten him down long ago. I stood on their front porch, our suitcases at our feet, my little sister crying and clutching at my hand. She was only wearing flip-flops, and later I found blisters all over her feet. We’d walked from the temporary shelter the soldiers had put us in, all the way to Tony’s house. Five miles on hard concrete in the heat of August.
His mother had opened the door only enough to peek out. She was so skinny, she probably could’ve squeezed
through that crack, but nothing else could. I knew she knew who I was, but she asked, anyway.
“Please,” I’d begged. “My sister …”
“No. I can’t, Velvet. Where are your parents?” She should’ve known. If we were there on her porch, it had to be because our parents had been Contaminated. They were Connies. They were danger.