I blinked again. “I’m having trouble picturing that,” I admitted.
“I’ll take you for a tour later on,” he said. “Anyway, the place is pretty clever in its use of space. There was a false factory set up for tours, so that people could see candy being made the way it is in the movies—one piece at a time, being hand-wrapped and put into whimsical boxes—and then there was the real factory floor, underneath the rest of the building. That’s where Mom set up her lab. She said it would help her get back to her roots. Also, it’s the only place aside from the cookie garden in the upstairs party rooms that’s fully ADA compliant, and she wanted to be able to get around her own lab.”
“That makes sense.” The elevator arrived, and we stepped inside. I was obscurely relieved to see that it didn’t have glass walls. Our descent into children’s literature was not yet complete.
The elevator counted off the floors: first the lobby we had passed through on our way to the elevator bay—not a very efficient building design—and then two lower floors before it binged reassuringly and opened its doors, revealing the latest incarnation of Dr. Cale’s lab. It was, as always, an oasis of chaos masquerading as calm. The various people who rushed back and forth with quick, meaningful steps all wore lab coats over scruffy jeans and T-shirts. A few of them glanced in our direction, nodding at Nathan before they continued on their way, having apparently written me off as a nonentity. I frowned as I stepped out of the elevator.
“Has there been a total staff turnover?”
“No, but most of the people who’ve been working with Mom for a while have moved on to heading their own research groups rather than doing grunt work,” said Nathan, following me out of the elevator. The doors slid shut behind him. “It’s amazing how many leads we have to follow, and how few of them are leading us anywhere. You’ll see more familiar faces when it gets a little later in the day. There’s not much motivation to keep really normal hours.”
“Right.” I took Nathan’s hand, half automatically, and looked around. This had been the working factory level of the building: as such, industrial gray and sterile hospital white still had a place here, rather than being painted over with a hundred shades of candy swirl. The floor was uncarpeted tile, and posters covered the walls. I couldn’t read most of them, thanks to my dyslexia, but I knew enough to recognize the D. symbogenesis parasite. It was pictured at various stages of its life cycle, which made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, like I was seeing my own naked baby pictures held up for the perusal of strangers.
Other posters blazed safety warnings in large red letters that swam in and out of focus when I squinted at them, accompanied by handy pictograms showing the right way to deal with a chemical spill or put out a lab fire. Still others were printed in blocks of dense text that blurred like fingerprints when I tried to make sense of them. I held tighter to Nathan’s hand, aware of how out of place I felt, and even more aware that this place should have grown up around me. I should have been here from the beginning, influencing the shape of the rooms, helping them hang those posters. I felt like I had missed out on something essential, a chance to finally be at the core of my own story, and I wasn’t sure that was the kind of chance that would ever come around again.
We were halfway across the room when a narrow face topped by a roughly cut shock of disarrayed brown hair poked out from behind a filing cabinet, moving so slowly that it seemed like an attempt not to startle me. I stopped walking. Nathan did the same. I met the face’s eyes, matching their anxious look with an equally anxious expression of my own. The face’s owner inched hesitantly into view: a lanky, underfed young man in a lab coat, T-shirt, and jeans, but without shoes on, which made him seem faintly out of place even though he’d been living in labs like this one for as long as he’d been alive. Like me, he was a stranger even in the space that should have been his own.
He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. In that moment, in that vast, negative space that had opened between us, neither one of us knew how to react.
Nathan let go of my hand.
Untethered, I could have frozen. I would have, once… but I had led an army of sleepwalkers away from the people I cared about. I had made a deal with the devil to escape from USAMRIID, and I had crawled through a vent system to win my freedom. I could do this. I took a step forward. “Hi, Adam,” I said.
“Hi…” He stopped, swallowed, and tried again: “Hi, Sal. Are you really you? You’re not somebody else using you like a car, and I can trust you, and you won’t go away again?”
“I think I’m really me,” I said. “People seem to enjoy cutting my head open these days, but I’m pretty sure I would have noticed if they’d made it so that I turned into somebody else. Is that even a thing that people can do?” Adam was the second person to ask that same question, and it was starting to unnerve me.
Adam’s whole face lit up. “Sal!” he cried, and flung himself bodily across the floor separating us, slamming into me with a force that nearly knocked me off my still-aching legs. I managed to clasp my arms around him, and Nathan put a hand against my back, lending some stability to our little heap of limbs and frantic embraces. Adam pressed his face into the side of my neck. There was nothing romantic about the gesture: it was the blind, desperate struggle of a rescued dog trying to connect with its pack mates. I understood the language his body was speaking, and mine spoke it in return, clinging all the harder as I realized that I had never expected this reunion to occur. Part of me had already mourned for Adam, for this lab, for any chance of having what I considered a normal life ever again.