Contaminated Excerpt

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They keep them in cages. The unclaimed. Long rows of narrow, filthy cages lined up along dark corridors lit by bare, hanging bulbs. The corridors stink like disinfectant. It’s a harsh, burning smell that hurts the inside of my nose, but it’s better than the reek that wafts up from underneath the odor of cleanser. That smell’s something raw and meaty and moist, something sick. Like dirty wounds. Blood and other things.

“These are our new girls.” Jean, the kennel worker who brought me in here, pauses in the doorway to another long corridor, this one with the added luxury of dripping water and cracks in the cement floor. Something scuttles into the shadows, something I don’t want to see. Her keys jingle against her hip as she turns to look at me. “You know what you’re looking for, right, hon?”

Of course I know. But just in case, I hold up the picture I pulled from an old album. It’s worn and creased from being in my pocket. Warm from my body. I look a lot different in that picture. I was only ten then, and I’ll soon be eighteen. But that’s okay. We all look different now.

“Aww, she’s pretty. Real pretty.” Jean’s eyes say what her mouth keeps a secret.

She won’t be pretty anymore even if I do find her. Not after so much time out there on her own, on the streets. Not after being kept for more than even a single day in this place or one like it, a chance that’s grown more and more unlikely even though I search both of the town’s kennels as often as I can. Every other day, if I can manage it. Even when I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it one more time. Even when I can’t decide if I hope someone found her and brought her in, or if I wish she’d never be found.

“What was her name, again, hon?”

“Her name is Malinda.” I make sure to emphasize that. “It still is Malinda.”

At the force of my reply, Jean gives me a doubtful look, like maybe I should be the one in the cage.

“Well, we don’t have any that came in with that name,” she says, then adds too brightly, “but that’s a real pretty name. Real pretty.”

I stare down the long, long rows of cages. I can’t smell them anymore, which is a disgusting blessing because it means I’ve been here long enough to get used to it. I never want to be here long enough to get used to anything in this place.

“Of course . . . she could still be here,” Jean says. “I mean . . . it’s not like they can tell us their names. Unless they have identification or something . . . but most of them don’t.”

I know this already, the way I know her name is Jean. She introduced herself to me when I came into the kennel the first time, to fill out my paperwork. She has a son who helps out here at the kennel, and a husband named Earl, who can’t work. She’s never said why. It’s not my business, and really, I don’t care. I’m glad she’s never told me, so I don’t have to nod politely and pretend it matters.

“So we give them names,” she says, too brightly, like she’s talking to a toddler. I think it’s my face. People tell me I look younger. “Real pretty ones. And we do our best for them until their people come for them.”

That’s nice. Giving them names. At the other kennel, they call them all Connie.

“If their people come for them,” I say aloud now, because we’ve started down the corridor, between the cages, far enough down the center to keep our heels from any danger of being nipped or scratched.

“If their people come for them,” Jean agrees and falls silent for a moment. When she speaks again, her voice reverent, she says, “And if they don’t, we do our best for them. Until their time’s up.”

Nobody really talks about what happens to the ones who aren’t claimed before the cutoff date, but everyone knows the truth about places like this, these buildings full of cages. There’s not enough room for all of them, not with more unclaimed coming in all the time. The ones nobody can identify, or nobody wants.

But I want her so much, it’s like a pain burning deep in my gut every time I think about how I might already be too late. She’s been missing a long time, well past the cutoff date for shelter here. I know the kennels do their best to hold the unclaimed for as long as they can— nobody admits to wanting to get rid of them, even if there are a lot of people who think extermination is better than reclamation.

“Here, this one we call Sally. She just looks like a Sally, doesn’t she? What a pretty one.” Jean sounds hopeful, as though the picture I showed her could possibly compare to what I see before me in the cage.

I look for a long time, needing to be sure, before I shake my head. “That’s not her.”

We walk the corridor, again looking in every cage. None of them has what I’m looking for, and by the time we reach the end, I’m already counting the minutes until I can get out of here. I’m relieved. I’m disappointed. I’m anxious and tired and stressed; I have to get home to make sure Opal has her dinner, and I’d like to have some time to watch some terrible television after I’ve finished my homework. I might even like to try to catch a conversation with Tony before I go to bed. He complains I don’t have enough time for him, and even though I think he should understand, I know he’s right. And I know that although I don’t need him, I want him. I don’t want him to find someone else, a girl who will give him all her attention, a girl who doesn’t have so much else to do.

Jean stops, finally, at the end of the row. “We’ve had this girl for almost a month. She was in quarantine for the past few weeks, getting taken care of. Had a few nasty infections in her gums and one leg. The doc said it looked like she’d gotten hung up on some barbed wire somewhere along the way. But he fixed her up.”

Jean sounds extra hopeful this time, and I can’t help the surge of anticipation swirling inside me as I move closer, trying to see into the cage’s shadows. Something moves back there. This shadow shifts on the nest of soft blankets they’ve given it, and then it moves toward the bars of the cage.

“Hey, pretty girl,” Jean says, and tosses her a small scrap of some kind of biscuit that smells good over the caustic burn of the disinfectant. “Here, Peaches.”

“That’s what you call her? Peaches?”

Jean gives me that startled look again, like I’ve said something strange. “It’s a pretty name.”

“But . . . it’s a dog’s name.”

Jean puts her hand in the pocket she pulled the treat from and says nothing. I look at the cage and the creature inside. She’s holding the biscuit in both hands, holding it to her mouth, and shoving it inside so the crumbs spray out and slobber drips down her chin onto the dank, dirty floor.

“It’s a dog’s name,” I say again.

My voice breaks. I want to be sick on the floor. I clutch my elbows, pressing my crossed arms to my belly to keep myself from puking. I stare at what they call Peaches, and my heart breaks worse than my voice ever could.

“It’s not a name for a person,” I whisper.

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