“Stop messing around with me, or I’m making you drive.”
My smile died. “Not funny, Joyce.”
“Oh, shit, Sal, I’m sorry,” said Joyce, immediately seeing that she had gone too far. She leaned over to touch my shoulder, adding, “I just keep thinking it’s been long enough. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll tell you when it’s been long enough, okay? Just… for right now, please, no more jokes about making me drive.”
Joyce nodded, biting her lip.
I somehow forced myself to smile. “It’s not that bad. Don’t American social norms mean that younger siblings are normally fighting to be the ones behind the wheel?” Not that I was that comfortable having Joyce drive me anywhere. According to her driving history, she’d been in six minor accidents and received eleven speeding tickets since she got her license. It wasn’t the sort of thing that inspired confidence. But if I was going to be a good sister, I was going to let her drive me to the mall.
“Every time I think you’re halfway back to normal, you go and say something like that.” Joyce rolled her eyes, distress forgotten in favor of making sure I realized how weird I was. That had been the idea. “You get your coat. I’ll get the keys.”
“I’m on it,” I said, turning toward my room. Dwelling on my upcoming appointment wasn’t doing me any good, and maybe Joyce was right. Maybe commerce would do the trick.
After an hour at the mall, I was absolutely certain of one thing: Joyce was wrong. My feet hurt, my shoulders ached from carrying Joyce’s bags—something I hadn’t volunteered to do, but seemed to be doing all the same—and I was starting to think longingly of the isolation room back at the shelter. It was hot and snug and always smelled like cats, and it would have been paradise compared to the food court at the San Bruno Mall.
Worst of all, the outing wasn’t doing anything to take my mind off my upcoming visit to SymboGen. If anything, it was making me dwell on it more, since the mall wasn’t giving me anything better to think about. Except for maybe going home.
I’d been sitting by myself for almost fifteen minutes, ostensibly guarding Joyce’s many purchases, when she came flouncing back through the crowd and placed an Orange Julius cup in front of me with a grand flourish. “Ta-da!”
I raised an eyebrow.
“What?” She frowned. “You’re supposed to be overcome with gratitude. I hunted and killed that smoothie for you.”
“My hero,” I deadpanned.
“I think you mean ‘heroine.’ Heroes are male.”
“Whatever.” I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Joyce. I’m not trying to be a spoilsport.”
“Yet somehow, you’re still managing to do an excellent job.” Joyce flopped into a plastic chair, propping her chin on her knuckles. “You wanna tell me why this SymboGen trip has you all f**ked in the head, as opposed to all the other ones?”
I sighed, taking the lid off my smoothie and swirling my straw through the thick orange goo. “I had another fight with Mom.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joyce wince. “The moving out thing?”
“The moving out thing,” I confirmed. “Until SymboGen says I’m both healthy and mentally stable, she’s not going to let me move out.” For most adults, “let” wouldn’t matter. For me… there had been a period following my accident when I wasn’t expected ever to recover the ability to make my own decisions. My parents had been granted conservatorship over me until such time as my doctors judged me fully recovered. Until SymboGen signed the papers to certify that I was both healthy and sane, “let” was the only word that mattered. I couldn’t do anything my parents didn’t want to let me do.
“It could be worse,” Joyce said.
“Sure. They could decide not to let me go to work anymore. Or maybe they’ll decide not to let me see Nathan.” I shoved my smoothie aside. “I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for them. I know that. And I know that I have to let SymboGen keep studying me, because we need to understand why I didn’t die. But sometimes I’m just tired of feeling like this is my life, you know? Like this is all I get, and it’s all because of our parents, and SymboGen.”
I stopped, startled by the venom in my own voice. Even Joyce was staring at me, briefly shocked out of her normal too-cool-for-this attitude.
“I…” She stopped, reaching for the words, and tried again: “I didn’t know you felt that way.”
“Yeah, well.” I shrugged halfheartedly. “It feels like there’s no way out sometimes.”
“You’ve been so much better these last few years. It’s like you’re… it’s like you’re happy for the first time in your life. I thought that meant… I mean, you seemed happy, so I thought you had to be happy.”
“I am happy,” I said. “I’m happy that we’re friends. I know from what you’ve said, and from what everyone who knew me before the accident won’t say, that you and I didn’t always get along. I like my job. I like working with animals.”
“And Nathan?” asked Joyce, a trace of her normal insouciance creeping back.
“And Nathan,” I allowed. “I like him, too. I love him, even. So it’s not that I’m not happy. It’s just that I don’t like feeling trapped.”