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Authors: Em Garner

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BOOK: Contaminated
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Jean’s mouth turns down at the corners. “I can only tell you what they tell me.”

Everything inside me is stiff and brittle, ready to break. “Do you really think none of them ever break?”

“Watch the rest of the movie. And then I’ll go over the rest of the training with you.”

Jean leaves me there in the room. I stare at the TV for a half minute, then sit down and watch the rest. There’s not
much, just a hotline number to call if there’s a problem. I copy it down on a piece of scrap paper, in case.

After the movie, she gives me a thick pile of papers to read and sign. Checklists. Pamphlets printed on yellow paper. Everything’s written in the same bright, sparkly tone Jean herself uses, but I know that’s just how she talks, nothing she picked up from this stuff. The difference is, Jean is that way because she’s a nice person. Whoever wrote the brochures and things thinks other people are idiots.

Then again, that person is probably right.

“And here’s your complimentary care package.” Jean slides a tote bag across the desk to me.

The bag has the name of a big drug company on one side and a big electronics company on the other. Inside is a small sample package of adult-sized diapers, a food chopper, some sample packs of vitamins, and a stack of coupons for baby food. I want to rip them up, but I leave them in the bag. I ate a dog biscuit once. It didn’t taste very good, but it didn’t make me a dog, either.

Also in the bag is a set of wrist restraints, softly padded cuffs that bind with Velcro. They’re made of some smooth, thick fabric that reminds me of what an astronaut would wear. Ankle restraints, too.

“We had to fight to get them included. The companies can afford to pay for them. And this way, we can be sure everyone goes home with something that will work without being … harsh.”

This is the first time I’ve heard Jean’s voice be anything but kind.

“Will I have to use these?”

She sighs. “The law says that when you’re not with her, she’ll have to be restrained. Or if you take her in public. So, yes.”

I put the restraints back in the bag.

“It’s going to be a little overwhelming for you, Velvet. Be ready for that.”

“I think I am.”

Jean pauses to study me. “No, hon. I don’t think you really are. I know you’ve been brave and strong. I can tell you’re a good kid. Responsible. But this isn’t like anything you’ve ever done.”

She knows where I work because I had to write it all down, so I study her right back. “I can change a diaper, I’m okay with it.”

“It’s more to it than that,” Jean says, then hesitates before saying, “She’ll need help with so much. Eating. Bathing.”

I think about them in the cages, eating dog treats and being covered in filth. “But … sometimes … they get better, right? I mean on their own.”

Jean shakes her head. “You shouldn’t get your hopes up.”

“But they do,” I say stubbornly. “Like people who’ve had brain injuries can relearn stuff. They can get better.”

“And sometimes,” Jean says gently, “they keep getting worse.”

I’m silent. Jean shakes her head a little, softly. She takes out a business card, scribbles something on the back, passes it to me. “That’s my home number. Call me if you need to talk about anything. Okay?”

I push the card into my pocket. “Are you just trying to get me to go out with your son?”

Jean laughs. “Maybe. He could use some friends his own age. But … really. Call. If you need to talk, okay?”

“Thanks.” I take a deep breath and stand, gripping the tote bag. “Can I take her home now?”

“Sure. I had Leslie taking care of her. Getting her all ready.”

This time, Jean doesn’t take me down the hall to the kennels. She takes me to a bright, clean room with lots of examination tables and instruments. The smell of disinfectant is strong, but here it’s a clean smell.

Inside, sitting on the edge of one of the tables, is my mom. They’ve cut her hair shorter to just below her shoulders in a style that would be smoother if she hadn’t been running her hands through it. Still, it’s clean. So are her face and body, from what I can see. Her clothes are clean, if a little too big and mismatched. She’s not wearing the daisy blouse.

“Here we are.” Leslie is a short woman with dark curly hair and glasses. She takes my mom’s hand to help her down from the table. “C’mon, honey. It’s time to go.”

I’ve been taller than my mom since I was in seventh grade, but it’s still strange for me to look her in the eye
instead of having to stare up. She’s looking at me, her face blank. She has a scar over one eyebrow she never had before.

“What’s that from? Can you tell me? Is it from the surgery?”

“Oh, no. That’s from something that happened before they brought her in. I can check the records, if you like, but they should be in her file that Jean gave you.”

“It’s okay. It’s not important. Hi, Mom.” I’ll check at home. Right now I’m looking her over.

You can’t see the electrodes, or the scars from where they put them in, unless you’re looking in the right spots. The collar, on the other hand, is impossible to miss.

My mom says nothing. She’s looking at me, but not like she sees me. More like she’s staring at nothing. Just like that little boy. Tyler, I think. He has a name.

“Are you ready, hon? You have everything you need at home?”

I heft the tote bag. “I think so. Yeah.”

“Fine. Then you’re ready to go.”

I hold out the coat I brought for my mom to wear, and the gloves. They’ll cover up the restraints, which Leslie shows me how to slip on to my mom’s thin wrists. She doesn’t even wince when we pull them tight, bringing her hands together so close, she can’t possibly use them for anything.

At the door, Jean stops me. “Are you sure? This is a huge, huge responsibility. And nobody says you have to take her. You’re not required.”

“She’s my mom.” It’s the only answer I can give.

Jean nods. She hugs me before I can stop her, and I’m surprised but I don’t pull away. Beside us, my mom stands quietly, looking off into the distance. Jean lets me go and holds my face for a second or two in her hands while she looks into my eyes.

“You be safe now. You take care.”

“I will.”

Outside, it’s getting dark and colder. February in Pennsylvania can get pretty frigid, and the cold seems worse after the two boiling summers we’ve had in a row. My mom walks a step behind me, kicking my heels, until I step to one side and link my arm through hers.

“Schlemiel, schlemazel,” I say, but of course she doesn’t answer me with the line from one of her favorite childhood shows, the one she had all the DVDs of. No “Hasenpfeffer Incorporated.” No nothing but the sound of her breathing and her boots crunching on the salt someone was smart enough to put down on the sidewalk.

We wait at the bus stop. The bus is late. We’re the only ones waiting. I don’t talk. I guess there’s nothing to say.

The bus pulls up to the stop, and I press my mom forward. Deke, the bus driver who’s seen me a thousand times, frowns and gets out of his seat.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. You can’t bring that on here.”

“What?” My mom’s up one step but I’m halfway in
and out of the door. The heat from the bus is blasting my front, but my back’s still freezing. “What do you mean?

The tote?”

“No. It. That.” He jerks a thumb at my mom’s face. She doesn’t even flinch.

“This is my mother.” I push her forward. She goes another step. Deke doesn’t get out of the way, and when I step up, it’s too crowded for comfort there in the stairwell.

“No. That’s a Connie. You can’t bring it on the bus.

Take it off.”

“She’s neutralized, she’s got a collar—”

“I said no!” Deke’s face turns ugly. “Get it off my bus! I decide who rides the bus! And it’s not getting on!”

Then he pushes her, which pushes me. I’m too surprised to push back. I fall out of the bus. My mom steps back, one of her boots landing on my hand. The tote bag goes sprawling, dumping the contents into the dirty snow.

“Off the bus!” Deke shouts. I can’t believe it, but he comes out and pushes her back again. He looks down at me. “Don’t you ever try to bring that on the bus again, you hear me?”

Then he gets back on the bus, closes the door, and drives away, leaving us on the street in the dark and the cold.

EIGHT

I’D TOLD OPAL I WAS BRINGING HOME OUR mom, so I don’t have the heart to scold her when she flings open the door before I’ve even had a chance to knock more than twice. She’s through the doorway before I can stop her. Her sudden hug knocks Mom back a step, but she doesn’t fall.

“Mama!” Opal squeezes her, face buried against Mom’s belly. “Mama, I missed you so bad!” Our mom doesn’t hug her back.

Opal looks up at her, the bright smile fading. “Mama?”

“She’s tired, Opal. Let’s let her get inside, okay?”

Slowly, slowly, Opal lets her go. Mom stares down at her without expression. Not even curiosity. Her lips are wet and slightly parted.

Opal was there when Craig slammed himself repeatedly into the glass door. She’s seen the news reports, though after the first few, I made sure she didn’t watch them anymore,
since they gave her nightmares. She still has them sometimes. I wouldn’t tell anyone, but so do I. Opal’s seen things and she’s not a stupid little kid, even if I used to like to tease her that she was. She’s seen the Connies doing what they do. Still, I don’t think she knew what to expect when I brought Mom home.

“C’mon, Opal. Move it.” I push her forward into the apartment and take my mom by her wrist, still bound one to the other with the special restraints they gave me at the kennel. “C’mon, Mom.”

As usual, the door across the landing flies open. Mrs. Wentling looks out. She’s bundled up like she’s going out, but she doesn’t leave the doorway, just hovers in it like some big, nosy bird looking for a worm.

“You! Velvet Ellis. What are you doing there? Who’s that with you? You know you’re not supposed to have—”

I turn. “I live here. I’m allowed to have guests, if I want, if that’s what you were going to say. But this isn’t a guest, anyway. It’s my mother.”

My mom hasn’t moved throughout any of this, not even to look toward the sound of Mrs. Wentling’s voice. Her lack of curiosity is disappointing but also comforting. Connies are attracted to loud sounds, particularly shouting voices and things like breaking glass. The sounds of anger and violence. Scientists might know why, but I don’t.

“Your mother? But I thought your mother was dead!”

“I never said my mother was dead. C’mon, Mom, go on in.” I tug her gently, and she follows me over the threshold.

“Anna Jenkins from across the way said your mother was dead,” Mrs. Wentling calls after me.

“Opal, help Mom.” I don’t even give Mrs. Wentling the courtesy of a glance as I move my mom into the center of the room.

She’s probably tired. I know I’m exhausted. I’m just thinking about getting everyone settled into bed, knowing I probably won’t be able to sleep, when the door I’d started closing behind me bumps open. It catches the back of my heel and I turn, surprised. I’ve never seen Mrs. Wentling move at any pace faster than a turtle, but here she is, in my doorway and blocking the door.

“You! You stop what you’re doing right now!”

“We’re not even being loud,” I tell her with a bite in my voice. “You’re the one who’s yelling.”

From her apartment’s still-open door, her yappy dog barks. I give it a pointed look that Mrs. Wentling ignores. She presses forward, looking past me. Her tongue is caught tight between her teeth, her brow furrowed. Maybe once she was pretty and young. Now she’s red-faced and totally unpleasant, a toad in a dress. And she’s pushing me.

I push back, just a little. “What are you doing?”

“What are
you
doing, that’s the question. Your mother?

What is your mother doing here?”

“I brought her home.”

Opal’s staring at both of us with big eyes. I notice she’s taken Mom’s hand, linking their fingers tight together,
even though it must be hard to do that with my mom’s hands restrained. Mrs. Wentling notices, too.

“She’s one of … them.” Her voice drops. Her face twists in disgust. “You brought one of them here? You can’t do that! I’m sure you can’t do it!”

“She lives here. I have the paperwork,” I tell her. “And she’s not a
them
; she’s my mother! Now get out of here so we can all go to bed.”

Mrs. Wentling draws back, but not far enough to satisfy me. She clutches at the front of her coat, which is missing some buttons. Her hands are chapped and look sore, like she’s washed them too much in this cold weather. She smells a little sour, too.

“She can’t live here!”

“Yes, she can. She’s my mother. She’s neutralized, she has a collar, and I have all the papers.” I know I’m repeating myself, but she doesn’t seem to get it, and honestly, I’m so tired and wound up and anxious about everything that’s happened, I can’t really be sure I’m not just thinking the words instead of saying them out loud.

Mrs. Wentling looks at me with a grimace. “She ought to be taken care of!”

“That’s what I’m trying to do. Take care of her. Which I can’t do unless you get out!”

My parents hadn’t raised me to be disrespectful to adults, but the world’s changed and I’ve changed, too. I don’t care if I’m hurting Mrs. Wentling’s feelings, or even if my tone
makes her think I’m a bad kid. I don’t feel like a kid anymore, and she’s sure not acting like a grown-up.

“I’m going to complain to someone.” She hisses the last word, still staring at my mom, who hasn’t even turned around.

“C’mon, Mama, let me show your room. I decorated it and cleaned it up special.” Opal makes a face at Mrs. Wentling and leads Mom into the second bedroom.

Mrs. Wentling stares at me. I stare back. I’m not going to let her intimidate me.

“She’s dangerous! She could kill someone! That’s what they do!”

I try to speak extra clearly and slowly so Mrs. Wentling can understand. “She’s got her collar on.”

Mrs. Wentling flinches at that. “Collar?”

“Don’t you watch the news? They neutralize them with special collars now. They’re not dangerous. They don’t kill anyone. They can’t, actually.”

BOOK: Contaminated
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