It was funny, but after a few “days” I started to think I could feel people coming, even started to be able to predict who would walk into view by the tingle at the back of my mind. It wasn’t completely dependable, but it was close enough that I began to wonder if it was real. Sleepwalkers communicated through pheromones. Maybe chimera did too, on some level.
Maybe I was learning.
So I was lonely and isolated, but I wasn’t completely alone. Sherman visited often, even when I wished he wouldn’t, even when it was inappropriate for him to do so, like when I was asleep or giving myself a sponge bath in the employee restroom. My burgeoning sense of “someone is coming” only worked with him about half the time, which made his unannounced arrivals all the more jarring. I would think I was safe and then he would just walk in on me, his eyes crawling across my nakedness in a way that made me profoundly uncomfortable, despite my general lack of a nudity taboo. He looked at me like he was trying to decide whether or not to eat me up. It wasn’t right. I started closing doors and hiding myself in closets, and he still kept coming. He seemed to enjoy the challenge of being forced to track me down.
Ronnie and Kristoph took turns bringing my meals. Apparently, having been the ones to collect me from USAMRIID, they were also cleared to interact with me—or maybe this was a punishment of some sort, and I was a chore they had to complete before they could be considered forgiven. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. All that mattered was that they weren’t Sherman, and every time they brought me a tray or came to draw another vial of blood, it wasn’t Sherman putting his hands on me again.
The meals were the best way I had of keeping track of time. I seemed to get one roughly every four hours, followed by a long period where I was supposed to be sleeping. But even that wasn’t perfect, since the first meal usually arrived about an hour after I woke up in the “morning.” Presumably, they could be feeding me six times a day. I wasn’t gaining weight. I was also running laps around the abandoned department store, which probably burned off as many calories as I was taking in. I’d even started doing push-ups in what used to be the perfume department, letting the acrid burn of the chemicals spilled on the floor motivate me to keep pushing myself away. Maybe if I’d been stronger, I would have done a better job of fighting for my freedom. Maybe I wouldn’t be here now.
I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
They had had me caged up like a lab animal for roughly three weeks, according to my best guess. I was running another lap around the store when someone fell into step beside me, keeping up easily. I turned to see Ronnie jogging next to me, his shorter legs pumping hard as he ran. Despite that, he didn’t look like he was in any distress. I was trying to get into shape. He was already there.
Ronnie caught me looking at him. He frowned, brows beetling together above dark brown eyes, and growled, “What?” He tried to pitch his voice low, but it came out in a soprano squeak, so distinctly feminine that it made me stumble for a moment. I’d been here long enough that I didn’t have a problem viewing Ronnie as male anymore—he said he was, and that was good enough for me. It was no more of a stretch than me saying I was human. But his voice always threw me.
“I was just wondering why you’re here,” I said, recovering from my stumble and continuing to run. “Is it time for more blood? I don’t think I’ve finished making new stuff to replace what you took yesterday.”
“I’m not telling you whether that was yesterday, today, or tomorrow, so you can stop fishing,” he said, with less open malice than he would have harbored at the beginning. He began slowing down. I did the same, continuing to pace him until we were both standing in housewares, facing one another. “I’m not here for blood. I’m here for you.”
I blinked at him. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
“No, you never do, do you?” Ronnie shook his head. “Sherman wants you.” I must have looked as distraught about that idea as I felt, because Ronnie sighed and reached out to touch my elbow reassuringly. “He’s not going to take you apart. He just has some questions, and he’s hoping you can answer them.”
“I’ll go with you quietly if you’ll answer a question for me.” I’d been trying this gambit more and more of late. It didn’t always work—it didn’t even work very often—but when it did, it could teach me important things about the people who were holding me captive. Maybe eventually I’d hit on the right combination of important things, and be able to magically transport myself out of this mall and back into my real life.
Ronnie snorted. “What, this again? Okay, Sal, fire away, but remember, I won’t tell you how long it’s been since we brought you here, where the mall is really located, or what Sherman wants you for. That’s all between you and him. I’m not putting myself in the middle.”
“Why did they have to put you in a different body? I mean. It’s a pretty good body. It seems to work okay, even though I know you don’t like it very much. But if the body you had was working, you should have just kept that one.”
Ronnie didn’t say anything. I grimaced, a thin worm of panic uncurling in my belly. I’d been trying to figure out what the situation was with Ronnie and his current body for days—it seemed like it should connect somehow to what I was doing here. This was the first time I’d been able to work up the courage to ask, and I was suddenly unsure it had been a good idea.