Authors: Em Garner
“All I know is,” Tina says, turning to the other girls, “is that I’m never, never going to be caught unprepared again. Ever.”
She hands the bow to Bethany and jogs away to start the obstacle course over again. Bethany looks to see if our teacher’s watching but she’s not; she’s helping some girl who got tangled in the net. Bethany hands the bow to Veronica, who hands it to me.
“Like this is useful,” Bethany says. “Who keeps bows and arrows around, anyway?”
“What they really should teach us is how to use a gun,” Veronica offers.
I take aim, let fly. I’m not very good. My arrow bounces off the bottom of the target. We’re not allowed to retrieve them, even with their rubber tips, until everyone’s gone through the line.
“You’d still have to
a gun,” I say.
“Oh, well, my dad says we don’t need to worry about this crap, anyway, because all the wild Connies are rounded up, and all the ones that are left have been neutralized, right? My dad says it’s too bad they repealed the Lobo Laws.
He says the shock collars aren’t as reliable.”
“They’re fine,” I say. “They work.”
“I don’t know,” Veronica says doubtfully.
Neither of them knows me that well, though they probably know that I’m a Conorphan. I don’t think it really means anything to them, though. Neither one of them seems very smart.
“I know.” I pass the bow to the girl behind me and go back to my sprints.
Lots of kids look at me with envy when I get out of school early, but I wish I were one of them, sitting in a boring class and daydreaming about my boyfriend. As it is, I spend too much time trying to find Tony when the classes are changing. I don’t see him, but I miss the bus I need to take to work.
I have to run.
Like, literally run, my sneakers slapping the concrete. It used to be I could barely huff and puff for half a mile, but now I can manage to keep up a steady pace for much longer than that. I take shortcuts, too, ducking and weaving through backyards and leaping hedgerows. All those hours of obstacle courses and sprints have come in handy.
Today I run and jump, my backpack banging against my
spine. It feels good to stretch my muscles like this. To push myself. Running, I’m strong and fast, nothing can catch me, nothing can stop me. Nothing can hurt me.
I get to work a few minutes sooner than if I’d ridden the bus. Bonus. I change dirty sheets and help diaper old people who are different from Connies only in that most of them aren’t trying to bite off my face. Most of them. There’s one little old lady who has to be restrained because she’s convinced anyone who comes to help her is really trying to do something bad to her. I don’t know if she had a trauma in her past or if it’s just old age scrambling her brains, but she’s left scars on more than a few of the attendants.
I’m in the middle of changing Mr. Robertson’s bed linens when he speaks up.
“You seen the news lately?”
I pause, my hands full of dirty sheets. “I don’t really watch the news very much.”
He shakes his head, staring with bleary eyes at the television set in the corner of his room. It’s showing some entertainment show. Someone’s singing. I don’t recognize the hostess. I think the old one was Contaminated. Most of Hollywood became Connies, which is why some people call the Contamination the Hollywood virus.
“This girl isn’t the one who said it, but that other fella did. The one who comes on before her. That local fella, with the gray hair. You know the one I mean?”
I have no idea what he means, though I guess it was one of the local news anchors. “What did he say?”
“He said there are still those things roaming around in whatchamacallit … urban areas. Those whattayacallem.”
I shove the sheets into my cart and strip off my latex gloves to toss in the trash. “People call them Connies.”
“Commies?” He looks up at me. “I thought we got rid of all of ’em back in my day!”
“Connies.” I emphasize it. “It’s short for
. It’s just a nickname. Really, they don’t need to be called anything.”
He looks at me harder. “You know what? You’re right. They don’t need to be called anything, poor schmucks. Poor things. They have enough troubles, don’t they?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Fella on the news says they’re passing some new laws. Like them whattayacallem. Robo laws?”
“The Lobo Laws? The ones that said they all had to be lobotomized?”
“It’s when they shove an ice pick into their heads and scramble their brains to keep them from being violent,” I say flatly, not sure his brains are still unscrambled enough to understand.
He shudders. “No, he said they were something else. Some kind of restraining laws. Something like that. Something about containment.”
“Maybe he said
“No,” the old man says, with a shake of his head.
The woman on the screen’s talking about a new movie
that’s due to come out. All the major stars of the film were Contaminated. Most of them are dead. The rest I guarantee are not in cages, and if they are, the bars are made of gold. There’s talk of the movie being nominated for an Oscar.
“I’m sure I’ll hear about it, I guess.” I start putting on the clean sheets while the TV drones behind me.
I think he’s sleeping, until he talks again.
“I think they’re talking about rounding them all up and killing them.”
I’ve just finished putting on his pillowcase and I turn, squeezing it hard between my fists. “What?”
“Just … killing them. I think that’s what he said. All of them.”
“Not just the unclaimed? The ones that don’t belong to anyone? All of them?”
“There’s some senator or congressman. He was talking on the TV about it. That guy was with him, that doctor fella.”
“Doctor … Frank? Philip Frank?” He was the one who’d figured out the link between the protein water and the Contaminated. He’d been all over the TV in those first weeks, but I hadn’t heard much about him lately.
“Don’t know his name, but he had on a lab coat, so I’d say he was a doctor. Sure. Said he thought they should all be put away.” The old man nods, head wobbling under its own weight. “But I think
, that’s what he means. Not put them all away. Put them all down.”
The world spins and I have to lean against the end of the bed to keep from letting it push me down. “No.”
“It ain’t right,” the old man whispers. “It just ain’t right. I know what they done. But … hell, Dunwoody from down the hall’s a lot more of a mess, done a lot worse than some of them, and he’s still kicking around. They ain’t all bad, right? Them Connies. They don’t know any better, I guess, just like some of us old farts. Some of them done bad things, but not all of them.”
“No. Not all of them.”
“But they all could,” he says seriously. “They all could.”
I don’t ever want to know if my mom’s done anything bad. She must’ve. Because he’s right. They all could. They all would, if they’re not stopped. No, they don’t all kill people, but they would. There’s nothing left inside them to stop them, unless they’ve had their brains scrambled up like eggs in a frying pan.
“Maybe it’d be the best thing for them,” he says. “It ain’t like they can ever get better.”
He looks around the room and shrugs. “Heck, it might be better if they did it to all of us in here, too.”
I’m so upset by this conversation that I leave the room and push the linen cart to the end of the hall. I tell my boss, Ms. Campbell, that I feel sick to my stomach and that I need to go home early. I must look pretty convincing, because she just nods and waves me on.
Outside, I run again. I’m sweating, I look gross, but I push
myself harder. Faster. I jump the curb, thinking for one horrible moment I’m going to come down wrong and twist my ankle, break my leg, face-plant on the sidewalk. I catch myself at the last second, arms pinwheeling. It felt for the length of a breath and a heartbeat like I was flying, but then my feet hit the concrete and I’m still firmly anchored to the ground.
I make it to the school before the end of fifth period. That’s when Tony has his free period, and he always gets a pass to hang out in the library. I move through the halls without a pass, not really caring if anyone stops me. What will they do, give me detention? They can’t. Maybe, I think as I pass my locker—empty because I have only one class that needs a book—I’ll just quit. Then I can work full-time. Get my GED sometime later. It’s not like I have college in my future anymore.
The librarian barely looks up as I sign in. She’s supposed to check passes, but she never does. That’s why so many kids come here to hang out when they’re supposed to be studying. It’s kind of like a big party in here some days, but quiet. Being loud will still get you kicked out.
It turns out that kissing isn’t very loud. I know this because when I round the corner into the back section of the library, where the old, outdated computer monitors are, I see Tony making out with some girl who’s not even in our class. It’s like something out of a bad movie.
They’re stupid to be making out in the library in the middle of school. They’re lucky I’m not a teacher. I stand
and I stare, and they just keep going at it until finally Tony pulls away. His mouth is wet. I’m totally grossed out, even though I used to think Tony’s kisses were delicious.
“Velvet!” He looks guilty.
Well, he should.
If this were a movie, I’d spin on my heel and storm out of the library with him following behind, begging me for forgiveness. The whole world has felt like a movie over the past year and a half, and not a romantic comedy, either. This is just another kind of horror flick.
“Velvet?” The girl turns. Talk about trashy. I wonder what his mother will think. “What kind of lame name is that?”
“It’s from a book about a horse,” Tony says.
The only reason he knows is because I told him the same thing when we first started going out. He’d asked the same question, without the “lame” part of it. My mother named me after the heroine of one of her favorite books,
, and it’s true it’s a book about a horse. But the girl who’s been making out with my boyfriend doesn’t seem to have any sort of clue.
“Velvet’s a fabric,” she says with a roll of her eyes.
“Her sister’s name is Opal,” Tony offers, like that helps.
“Shut up,” I whisper, since this is the library.
My hands are clenched at my sides. Tony’s skin is normally pretty tan, but from the sun, not spray, like his mother’s. Now he goes a little pale. He looks back and forth between the two of us. Me and whoever she is.
“Velveeta,” he says, but my look stops him.
“Do not call me that. Ever again.” It was cute when I thought I loved him, but it’s not cute now. “You suck, Tony, you know that?”
“Wow,” says the girl. “I thought you told me she dumped you?”
“Maybe he has a time machine and was just a little early.” It’s a line worthy of a movie, and I’d like to deliver it all cool and bold like a movie heroine would. It comes out sounding shakier than that. “Because I’m dumping him right now.”
“Cool,” she says. “So, like, can you get lost?”
“Velvet!” Tony says this too loudly. He’s going to get kicked out of the library. Maybe get detention.
I don’t care.
I stop. Twist. He looks sorry, but maybe only sorry he got caught. Not sorry he was kissing some other girl. Not sorry I broke up with him.
“I guess your mom will be happy about this.” I flick a glance at his new … whatever she is. “Although good luck with that.”
“Hey!” The other girl puts her hands on her hips. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She moves toward me, her face a storm cloud, and I realize that she’s going to … what? Fight me? Here in the library, the middle of school? I recognize her then. She’s
got a reputation for fighting, for going with lots of boys, for dressing like a skank. Exactly the sort of girl Tony’s mom had always accused me of being and I never was.
Suddenly I’m grinning and laughing. None of this is funny, but I can’t stop. My heart is probably broken and maybe I’m losing my marbles, just a little, but I look at Tony and I look at what he’s replacing me with, and I think, better now than after a wedding ring and a couple of kids.
I’m only seventeen. There will be other boys. Tony’s not such a good guy, after all. And, though it hurts, I start to walk away for good.
She follows me. “Hey!”
Her hand snags the back of my coat, jerking me back a step. “Listen, he’s with me now! You lost out!”
My mother always told me there was no point in fighting over a boy. If he wanted to be with me instead of someone else, he would be. If you have to force someone to want you, she said, it’s not really love.
My impulse control isn’t damaged by a hole in my brain, just by being tired and stressed, and I want to haul off and punch this girl right in her mouth … but I don’t.
This time, I’m glad to say I walk away.
This time, I make my mother proud.
MY DAD WAS A TALL, SKINNY GUY WITH RED hair and freckles. My friends liked to call him Mr. Weasley, and he always laughed when they did. He liked Harry Potter, too.
He worked as a district sales manager for a computer company. He knew a lot about computers. He was always fooling around on his laptop—watching movies, playing games. My dad played
more than I ever did. He knew about computer viruses and how to get broken emails to work, and he knew how to use netspeak properly even though he always told me that if I was going to be writing something, it would behoove me to know how to spell it correctly.
That’s how my dad talked.
. He had red hair but not the temper that’s supposed to go with it. He was usually pretty quiet, even if we were annoying him, which I know we did because we were kids.
My dad was also part of the first wave of the Contamination.
He and my mom had decided it was time to go on a diet. He spent too much time playing computer games and was getting a little potbelly. Her job in an insurance office meant she spent too much time at her desk. My mom joined a gym close to where she worked, but my dad decided to try the popular new diet everyone was raving about. All the talk shows, all the Hollywood stars. All the magazines had ads for it, every TV show had commercials for it.