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Authors: Em Garner

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BOOK: Contaminated
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Craig didn’t come across the street. I don’t know what happened to him. We never saw him again. I do know, though, what happened to my dad.

We watched the local news team filming a riot in downtown Lebanon. The street by my dad’s office. I caught a glimpse of red hair in the crowd, which was surging like some vicious, wild sea into a storefront, bodies crashing like waves into the glass windows. It might have been anyone, could have been anyone. But I knew it was him.

Stores had been broken into—and the people who were trying to run away with whatever they could carry, armfuls of clothes and iPods and watches, they weren’t Contaminated. Connies don’t care about stuff like that. The people who were looting the stores weren’t sick, just greedy and awful.

“What we seem to have here,” said the wild-eyed local police chief, “is a genuine zombie outbreak!”

He sounded more excited than worried. In the
background, Connies staggered around, their clothes sometimes ripped, their bodies bruised and bleeding because nothing seemed to faze them. They’d walk into a brick wall, fall down, and get back up again with bone showing through the cuts on their heads. That was why everyone assumed they were the walking undead, just like in the movies. That’s why the police gunned them down without warning, or ran them over with their cars. That’s why they tossed them by the dozens into the back of trucks and drove them to fields outside of town, where they dug giant ditches and poured the bodies in, covered them with concrete, and pushed dirt over them. They didn’t burn them because they feared “airborne contagion,” but nobody seemed to think about what an undead corpse virus might do to the environment, encased in concrete in a farmer’s field.

People are really, really stupid.

Eventually they’ll make memorials out of those ditches, the ones filled with concrete and bodies. Nothing too fancy. There’s supposed to be money coming, sometime, for that. But for now they built metal rail fences around them and planted flowers on top. Plaques without names on them. Nobody’s really sure who’s in there, and while there’s been a lot of noise about digging them up, nobody’s managed to get the authority to do it yet.

It seems people don’t like the fact their loved ones were dumped in ditches, even if they did try to bite off their faces.

We never got official documentation saying my dad was one of those people killed in the first wave, the one that stretched on through those awful summer months and turned parts of the world into a George A. Romero movie. He never came home. My mom was finally able to get to us the day after Craig slammed himself into the glass door. She took us home from Garry and Hope’s house. She told us not to worry. She told us everything would be okay, and I don’t think she was lying. She didn’t know any better.

My mom was lucky. By the time she fell sick, they’d figured out what was causing the disease. They weren’t automatically killing all the Connies, just capturing them to deal with them the best they could.

We never saw my dad again.

SEVEN

NOW THAT I’M GOING TO GET MY MOM, I SEE them everywhere. Neutralized Connies, with their collars. Regular lobotomies make people calm, but the collars do more than that. Blank faces, slack jaws, dead eyes. There’s one in the grocery store, shuffling along behind a grim-faced woman who must be his wife, their cart stacked high with jars of baby food and adult diapers. One at the post office where I go to pick up the assistance check, standing in front of the display of free shipping boxes and waiting patiently while the man with her buys stamps. It’s not that suddenly there are so many of them, but that I didn’t notice them before.

The worst is the little boy I pass on my way to work every day. The first time I see him, I think he’s hanging out in the backyard, maybe playing with the trucks I see stacked up around him. It’s cold outside, but he’s bundled up pretty warm. Hat, scarf, gloves, boots. It’s more than what I have,
anyway. I wave when I pass by the yard, and he looks at me but doesn’t wave back.

The next day, he’s there again. Same place. I’d think he hadn’t moved at all, but that’s silly, because he had to have gone inside overnight, right? But on the third day, as time is spinning slowly closer to the day when I can pick up my mom and bring her home, I stop and look over the fence at him.

“Hi,” I say.

He’s smaller than Opal. Maybe six, or small for an eight-year-old. His nose and cheeks are red. He’s still staring, but he doesn’t react when I speak.

“Hi, what’s your name?” I don’t know why I’m asking. Why I care. I shouldn’t blame him for not answering; after all, I’m a stranger and any kid these days should know better than to talk to strangers. Even ones like me, who are hopefully not so creepy.

He gets up then. His first step kicks a truck out of the way like he doesn’t even notice. I hear the scrape of chain on concrete. The kid’s moving faster now, heading for the fence at not quite a run.

He doesn’t make it even halfway before he’s jerked off his feet. Flat onto his back. He sprawls, arms and legs out like he’s trying to make a snow angel, though so far, the winter’s been bitterly cold and snowless. The chain is stretched out behind him, attached to a ring set into the concrete.

Horrified, I gasp and cover my mouth with my cold
fingers. Before I can say anything, the back door opens and a woman comes out, with a baby on her hip. She’s barely dressed, wearing only a pair of sagging pajama bottoms and an oversized T-shirt. Slippers. The baby starts to scream and, no wonder, brought out into the frigid air wearing only a diaper. I’d scream, too.

“Oh, God, Tyler. Get up. Get up, get up, get up,” she chants, leaning over the boy on the ground. “Please, get up.”

Her head whips around to stare at me. “What are you looking at? What did you do to him? Don’t you know any better?”

“I’m sorry—”

She ignores me. The little boy on the ground, Tyler, sits up slowly. He doesn’t look at his mom. He doesn’t look at me. He crawls on hands and knees back to the pile of frozen sand and his trucks, where he sits and stares at nothing.

His mother has snot running out of her nose, and it looks frozen, too. “It’s the only place he’s quiet! It’s the only place he’ll stay quiet!”

I hold up my hands and back away from the fence. I’m not judging her. She puts her hand over the baby’s face, kissing its head, and, watching me warily, ducks back into the house. I can see her through the glass even after she closes the door. She’s watching me, making sure I go away.

So I do.

“Okay, hon, I have to go over some paperwork with
you first. And you’ll have to watch a training video, okay?” Jean’s as nice as ever. She smiles at me, and I know I should be smiling back but I can only manage a grimace. “Don’t you worry about anything. It’s real easy to take care of her. The new collars are wonderful, just wonderful. Really.”

“Really?” I shouldn’t be sarcastic. Fortunately, she doesn’t notice, or if she does, she’s too nice to show it.

Jean pats my shoulder. “Really.” She takes me to a small room with a flickering TV, which plays a DVD showing me how to take care of my mom. The narrator’s careful to refer to the Connies as
patients
and I realize this movie was made for hospitals, not civilians, to use.

At any rate, the movie shows me how my mom’s been fitted with a surgically implanted pair of electrodes, connected wirelessly to the collar she’ll always have to wear. The collar takes a dual battery-pack system that has to be recharged at regular intervals. Two batteries guarantees that one will always be working while the other recharges, or in case it needs to be replaced. There’s no information on how long the batteries last or how much they cost to replace. But you do get the charger included, “for free.”

The movie demonstrates with diagrams and close-ups of someone’s hand on how to replace the batteries. The explanation is painfully slow, and I’m sort of afraid to think what sorts of doctors and nurses were so stupid, they weren’t considered smart enough to get this. I’m only seventeen and I figured it out before they even got halfway through the explanation.

The narrator is something else, too. Perky, bubbly, entirely annoying. “Bathing the patient can be accomplished through the use of sponge baths or limited showering. Though the StayCalm collar is waterproof and water-resistant up to four feet, it’s not recommended it be submerged.”

Another diagram. I wonder if the collar will simply stop working underwater, no longer sending its electrical pulses to the parts of the brain they want to damage on purpose to counteract the ones ruined by the disease. The next diagram shows me what happens instead.

“If the collar is submerged in water for more than seven minutes, the unit will be sent into Mercy Mode.”

The diagram shows a Connie underwater with X’s for eyes and lightning bolts shooting out from the collar.

“Likewise,” the narrator says in soothing tones, “Mercy Mode will also be triggered if the collar is removed by anyone other than a licensed technician, if the battery power fails for longer than seven minutes, or if the unit is triggered to fire more than thirty-two times in a twenty-minute time span. Mercy Mode is announced by a single beep from the unit, followed by color-coded lights. Steady green means the unit is functioning appropriately. Flashing green indicates extraneous activity. Yellow indicates unexpected surging, while flashing red indicates the introduction of Mercy Mode.”

The movie demonstrates with a collar not attached to a human, just held in someone’s hand. The narrator’s voice turns from calm to menacing.

“Constant red indicates Mercy Mode has been fully activated.”

I press pause on the remote and go to the door. “Jean?”

“Yes?” She looks up from her desk. She’s put on reading glasses, and the light’s reflected on them so I can’t really see her eyes.

“Can you explain something to me?”

“Sure.” She gets up, comes over.

“Mercy Mode?”

Jean slips off her glasses as her face falls. She looks over her shoulder and then closes the door to the closet where she was showing me the training movie. “You won’t have to worry about it, hon. Your mom’s a good one. She’ll be fine.”

“What do you mean, a good one?”

“I mean she hasn’t given us any trouble, even before she was fitted with her collar. Well, not any more than I’d have expected. She’s a good one. It means she won’t need Mercy Mode.”

“Mercy Mode … kills them?”

Something ripples over her face. “Yes.”

I grip the back of a chair. “Oh, God.”

“It’s the only way we’re allowed to release them. You know what they’ve done, most of them. I mean, not the ones in here. At least not anything anyone knows of.” Jean gives me a serious look. “You know the ones they find that’ve done … things … don’t even get released to the kennels. Mercy Mode’s a way of assuring everyone that
when you take your loved one home, they won’t be able to harm themselves, or you. Or anyone else.”

“What if something goes wrong with the collar?” I gesture at the TV, where the diagram is frozen. “What if the battery packs both die? What if she falls in the tub or a swimming pool? What if it just … breaks?”

“They’re all tested, hon. The battery backup system is designed not to fail. And accidents happen, but they can be prevented by simple home care, some things I’ll go over with you before you go.”

“And what about the other thing? The impulse triggering thing?”

Jean gives me another serious look. I wonder if I’m the only person who’s ever asked about this. Then again, I wonder if I’m the only person who’s claimed someone from this kennel.

“The collar puts out electrical shocks at regular intervals. One every six seconds. This keeps them from becoming agitated. It’s better than the way they did it in the beginning, which caused massive brain damage to many parts of the brain, which wasn’t necessary. The collar is an improvement, believe me.”

I do. “But that thirty-two times in twenty minutes thing? What’s that?”

“The unit is programmed to sense electrical charges in the brain. These charges occur with certain brain activity, hon. Like aggression. Or violence. If those charges are
sensed by the unit, it puts out a double-strength impulse to combat it. This usually calms them right down. But if it doesn’t, if the unit keeps firing …”

“Mercy Mode.” I swallow a thick, sour taste.

“And it would be a mercy, don’t you think? If they can’t be fixed, they can at least be … taken care of. Even if it means being …”

She trails off, unable to say it.
Killed
. She means
killed
.

It’s not Jean’s fault this happened, but I want to blame her because she’s the one telling me. I wonder if my brain’s firing right now. I wonder what it feels like to have electrical shocks pummeling my brain, making me calm.

“But what if the collar malfunctions? What then?”

“They don’t malfunction. They’ve all been fully tested.”

“Everything breaks,” I tell her. “Didn’t you ever buy an iPod or a cell phone that just doesn’t work? My … my dad had a car once he called a lemon because he drove it off the lot and it never worked right. What if there are collars like that? What if you gave one to my mom?”

BOOK: Contaminated
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