“Not with all the animals, maybe, but with the dogs and cats? Absolutely. They need walking and brushing, petting, and to be told, occasionally, that they are good boys and girls, and that someone loves them. It seems to me that this is the job you already do, but now it would come with higher pay, and with the absolute guarantee that your fears about SymboGen deciding to terminate your care would remain unfounded. We don’t leave our employees without health care, ever. That would go against everything that we stand for as a company. I mean, part of the inspiration for the Intestinal Bodyguard was the idea that it would provide truly universal health care—rich or poor, swallow a single tailored capsule and your personal health implant will begin taking care of your every need, for as long as you need it to.”
There were times when I couldn’t tell how much of what Dr. Banks said was sincere, and how much he was reading off some private internal monitor that provided him with a constant feed of the official SymboGen party line. This was definitely one of those times.
“They need me at the shelter,” I said, finally.
“Are you sure?”
The question was mild, and sent another jolt of terror through me. “Yes,” I said, as steadily as I could manage. “If you asked Will, he’d probably tell you I was replaceable, because he’s a good man like that, and he wouldn’t want to stand in the way of an opportunity. But he’d be wrong. The shelter needs me.”
“You know, Sally, I respect your devotion to your responsibilities. It shows just how well you’ve managed to bounce back from your tragic accident.” Dr. Banks leaned back in his seat. He was smiling again. “Maybe it’s time we reconsidered your position on speaking to the press. I don’t know if you’re aware, but Rolling Stone is very interested in interviewing you.”
My mouth went dry. “They… they are?”
“Very interested. You know, they published a profile on me earlier this year,.”
“I know,” I said, in a small voice. The piece in Rolling Stone was called “King of the Worms.” It described Steve Banks as part genius, part entrepreneur, and part savior of mankind. Nathan threw the magazine across the room in disgust the first time he read it, and wouldn’t let me see. I had to download the files myself after I got home, and struggle through reading them on my own. I’d wished almost immediately that I’d left well enough alone. From the way Dr. Banks described me, I was a brain-dead husk preserved only by the Intestinal Bodyguard, a perfect proof of concept for their miracle medical implant. Without the worm, I would have died. That may have been true, but it shouldn’t have been enough to make me a sideshow freak, and that was exactly what Dr. Banks seemed to want me to be.
“You’ve read it?” Dr. Banks looked pleased. I felt sick. “Then you understand why they’d be interested in including your perspective with a follow-up article. It would be wonderful press for SymboGen and the Intestinal Bodyguard. You could help us sway hundreds to the side of getting their implants, finally freeing themselves from the daily routine of medications and worry.” He looked at me expectantly, like there was something I was supposed to say in response.
I couldn’t think of anything. I balled my hands together in my lap and said, in a very small voice, “I’m happy at the shelter. I don’t want to talk to any reporters. They’ve only just stopped trying to call me at the house, and I don’t want to remind them who I am.”
Dr. Banks frowned. For a moment, he looked at me not like I was someone to cajole and convince to come over to his way of thinking, but like I was a science project on the verge of going wrong. “Really, Sally, I hoped you’d be more willing to help the company that has done so much to help you. Don’t you want to help us?”
The part of me that had just been through six years of cognitive therapy and endless psychological tests recognized what he was trying to do. By using the word “help” so many times so closely together, he could make me feel like I was somehow letting down the team by not jumping right in to do my part. It was linguistic reinforcement, and it might have worked six years ago, when I was still less sure of who I really was. It wasn’t going to work on me now.
The other part of me—the small, scared part of me that dreamt of darkness and drums and waited constantly for the next axe to fall—was convinced that refusing to do what Dr. Banks wanted would result in him cutting off all medical support, leaving me to die the next time I went into anaphylactic shock for no discernible reason.
It was the calm part that won out, and I heard myself say, in a much more confident voice, “I do want to help, Dr. Banks. I just don’t think speaking to the press would be a good idea for me right now. I’m at a very fragile place in my recovery. I wouldn’t want to risk losing ground. It would look bad for everyone, and you know the media would be watching to see whether there were any changes in my condition right after I gave an interview. This isn’t the right time.”
Dr. Banks kept frowning… but slowly, he also nodded. “I suppose I can see where you’re coming from, Sally, and I appreciate hearing that you’re so concerned about SymboGen’s image. I still hope that you’ll consider it.”
I managed to force a smile through the cold wall of fear that was wrapped around me. “I’ll try.”
The rest of our “talk”—really a lecture, with me as the sole attending student, and Dr. Banks as the professor who didn’t know when to leave the podium—was the usual generic platitudes about the wonders of SymboGen and the Intestinal Bodyguard, interspersed with the occasional softball question about how I was doing, how Nathan was doing, how Joyce and I were getting along. All the usual pleasantries, all asked with a fake concern that was somehow more insulting than rote disinterest would have been. When he pretended to care, I had to pretend to listen. It didn’t seem like a fair exchange.