I know, I answered myself miserably, and stopped trying to think about anything at all, letting myself fall deeper down into the perfect timelessness of the only place that had always been meant to belong to me.
I woke up with the worst headache I had ever had in my life. I sat up slowly, forcing down the nausea that threatened to rise up in my throat and overwhelm me. A lock of hair fell in my face and I jumped before reaching up with shaky fingers and pulling it in front of my eyes.
“That bastard,” I breathed. It was easier to focus on my hair than on my aching head, or on the bandages wrapped around my wrists and inner elbows. My formerly long hair had been cut into a bob, long enough to get in my mouth and eyes, too short to pull back in anything more elaborate than a ponytail. To add insult to injury, it was also about three shades darker and redder than my original chestnut brown, filled with auburn highlights that made it look like it belonged on someone else’s head. I dropped the lock of hair.
“I’m going to kill him,” I said. Hearing the words made me feel a little better, and so I raised my voice and called, “Do you hear me, Sherman? I’m going to kill you. You can use my body for your fucked-up experiments, but you had no right to cut my hair. It’s not yours.”
“See, he thinks everything about us is his, and that means everything about you, and that means he had every right,” said Ronnie, from off to my left.
I flinched away from the sound of his voice. That was a bad decision. “Ow!” I yelped, clapping my hands over the back of my head. They hit a thick gauze pad, covering the same spot as the incision Nathan and the others had used to repair my faulty arteries. My head spun, filled with a pain so profound that it seemed to be coming from inside and outside at the same exact time. I wanted to throw up. I was afraid my skull would explode if I did.
“Ow,” I repeated, this time almost in a whimper, and collapsed backward onto the mattress, pulling myself into a fetal ball. The pain didn’t subside. I had awoken it, and it was going to have its say before it left me in peace.
Footsteps to my left signaled Ronnie’s approach. There was a small clicking sound as he put something down on the display nightstand next to my current bed. “I brought painkillers and antibiotics,” he said. “Sherman’s proud of his surgical theater, but that doesn’t make it completely sterile. You need to take these pills to make sure you don’t wind up with an infection.”
I said nothing. I just stayed in my curl, clutching my head and fighting the urge to whimper.
Ronnie sighed. “You don’t trust us and you don’t like us and you don’t have to, because we’ve all basically been assholes to you. I’m not going to lecture you on getting along with people who’ve fucked you over. But we need you alive, so if you don’t want to wake up strapped down and attached to half a dozen IVs, you need to take your medicine.”
“Why do you need me alive?” The question was faint and reedy, but I forced it out word by word. The effort left me feeling wrung-out and exhausted. I needed to sleep. I needed to sleep forever.
“You can learn a lot from a necropsy,” said Ronnie. “You sometimes learn even more from a living being.”
This time, I didn’t swallow my whimper. When you dissect a human being, you’re performing an autopsy. When you dissect anything else in the world, intelligent or not, you’re performing a necropsy. By using the word “necropsy,” Ronnie made it clear that he wasn’t talking about cutting up the human body that I inhabited. He was talking about the actual me, the pound and a half of tapeworm that was wedged tight into Sally Mitchell’s skull, like a squatter that had taken over the house while the original owner wasn’t home.
Ronnie sighed. “We’re not the enemy, Sal. Those people out there, all they want to do is wipe us out. Kill us off, even though we’re their creation. We’re part of a healthier, hardier world, and you’re going to help us make that happen. So yeah, we’re going to keep you alive, whether you like it or not. You’re going to be a lot happier if you just go along with things.”
I was silent. A few seconds passed before Ronnie sighed again, louder this time, and I heard his footsteps moving away. I waited until I was sure he was gone before rolling over and opening my eyes. The plastic tray he’d placed on the nightstand contained a bottle of water and a little paper cup of pills. It was only a few feet away from me. It might as well have been a mile.
It took what felt like an hour for me to inch my way across the bed and catch the edge of the tray, pulling it closer to me. For one sickening moment it teetered on the nightstand, seeming to be in danger of crashing to the floor. I swallowed hard and forced myself to keep moving, pulling it inch by agonizing inch into reach. It didn’t fall. I emptied the little paper cup of pills into my mouth, dry-swallowing them one by one, holding the others under my tongue until they were needed. I nearly choked twice, the round edges of the pills seeming to become jagged and sharp as they rasped against the walls of my esophagus. Finally, though, the last of them was inside me, and I collapsed back into limp motionlessness, looking longingly at the water. I wanted it more than I could remember wanting almost anything. I knew that trying to drink it without sitting up would make a mess without slaking my thirst, and sitting up was off the table as long as the pain was raging in my head.
Sherman had cut a hole in my skull. He’d decided to break me open without access to the tools that Nathan and the others had used when they’d done the same thing—only what they did wasn’t the same thing, it wasn’t the same thing at all. They’d acted with my full, informed consent, while Sherman had simply put me under and taken what he wanted. The acts themselves might be virtually indistinguishable, but the motives behind them made all the difference in the world.