Someone’s hands were pressed between my shoulder blades. They weren’t mine. With Nathan and Fishy in the front seat… I realized who was trying to comfort me a bare second before he spoke, and I stiffened, wishing there were any way for me to remove myself from the situation. There wasn’t. With the alarm bells screaming in my head, I would have been doing well to sit up.
“Concentrate, Sally.” Dr. Banks’s voice was low and soft, so close to my ear that he had to have been leaning forward to whisper to me. That went with the presence of his cuffed hands on my back. I could hear Nathan and Fishy shouting at each other. There was no help coming from that quarter, not until they had a chance to breathe and realize what was happening. “She’s distracted right now, and I know you’re in there. I know you’ve always been in there. This is your chance. Take a deep breath, and come back to us.”
I wanted to slap his smug face away from me. I couldn’t bring myself to move. The alarm bells were still ringing, but in their clamor I could also hear an absence of sound: the drums had stopped, leaving the world missing its natural backbeat. That was horrifying, in a way I couldn’t entirely define.
He sounded so sure of himself. Like he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that all he had to do was keep calling her and she would appear. Sally, with her human upbringing and her human ideas about the world. Sally, who wasn’t afraid of riding in cars, and who had never experienced the collapse of civilization, or the discovery that she wasn’t what she believed herself to be. Sally, who was as alien to me as I was to her, but whose body I had taken over without so much as a by-your-leave.
Sally, who had tormented her family to such an extent that her father was willing to let me play cuckoo in his nest, while her sister had never questioned “her” sudden, total change of personality; had, in fact, looked upon it with gratitude and relief. Sally, whose taste in friends was such that her boyfriend hadn’t even been able to stick around to see whether she was going to recover—one hint of difficulty and he was out the door, moving so fast that he might as well have left contrails in his wake. Sally, who had left the mansion of her body empty and waiting for me, because she just couldn’t cope with existence anymore.
Maybe Dr. Banks was right about her memories being locked somewhere in the soft gray folds of the brain that had once belonged to her, but he was wrong about at least one thing: Sally didn’t live here anymore, and no matter how hard he tried to convince me, I was never inviting her to come back.
“Hold on!” shouted Nathan. The van leapt forward. I heard—and felt—the impact of soft bodies against the hood as we slammed into the leading wave of sleepwalkers. Their moans filled the world, drowning out the alarm bells triggered by their presence. I seized on the sound, trying to use it to anchor myself to the real world again. My head was a cacophony of unwanted stimuli. One by one I shunted them aside, looking for the one that would allow me to move again. I wanted Dr. Banks away from me. His hands on my back were a sick, dead weight, more repulsive than the army of sleepwalkers now trying to claw their way inside to reach us.
Their moaning changed pitch and timbre as we rolled forward, forcing the sleepwalkers to either stand aside or be crushed under our wheels. These were the ones who had been smart or canny enough to stay alive in the ruins of San Francisco: more of them seemed to be moving aside than staying in our path. I forced my head up, off my knees, and croaked, “Crack the windows.”
“What?” Nathan’s voice, sounding bewildered and no small bit dismayed.
“I need you to crack the windows.” Forcing my eyes to open came next. I stared down at the mud-smeared floorboards, trying to will myself to keep moving. “The sleepwalkers… if they knew I was here, they might be confused enough to back off. Just a little. I don’t want to hurt them if we don’t have to.”
“You stupid little cunt.” Dr. Banks spoke softly enough that I knew the others wouldn’t hear him, not with the sleepwalkers moaning outside and the van still straining for escape. It didn’t matter: I could hear him, and I wouldn’t forget. He removed his hands from the middle of my back, and it was like a terrible burden being lifted away.
After that, it was almost easy to sit up, turning a glare on Dr. Banks in the process. He shied back, pressing himself against the door. My expression must have been fiercer than I thought. “Get away from me,” I said. “Never touch me again. Nathan? The windows.”
“On it,” said Fishy. The windows in the back rolled down maybe an inch and a half, allowing the moans of the sleepwalkers outside to fill the cab. Beverly’s growls became frantic, full-throated barks, almost drowning out the moaning from outside.
“Shh, Bevvie, it’s okay,” I said, patting her on the head before climbing up onto the seat, kneeling. I leaned forward, pressing my lips against the opening in the window, and took a deep breath. The stench of decay and unwashed human bodies assaulted my nose, almost gagging me. Most of them were ripe with urine, gangrene, and worse. I forced myself to keep inhaling until my lungs began to ache. Then I exhaled, trying to breathe my pheromones into the garage. We were still rolling slowly forward, Nathan struggling with the wheel as he fought to get us out into the open without doing irreparable damage to our only means of transit.
I breathed in again, breathed out again, and kept my eyes on the sleepwalkers surrounding the car, willing them to “listen” to the messages coded into my biochemistry, written in protein and chemical chains on my breath. I was a chimera; I was their social superior, just like a termite queen was superior to the drones that filled her hive. They would listen to me. They would listen to me. They didn’t have a choice.