I was bigger than he was, and stronger than he was, but I went without protest.
Sherman was waiting for us in the store that had been converted into his private office, a former photo studio now packed with lab equipment and computer monitors. He was sitting on a wooden stool that had probably come with the studio, peering through a microscope into a Petri dish. He looked up when he heard our footsteps, a wide smile spreading across his face.
“Sal! I’m so delighted that you were able to join me.” He slid down off the stool, stretching as he did. “Ronnie, thank you for passing my invitation along. You can go now; your services are no longer required.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think they would be.” Ronnie let go of my arm. “Later, toots. Try not to piss him off too bad today, okay? I don’t want to have to clean this place up again.”
I blinked. I hadn’t heard anything about needing to clean Sherman’s office. The claim was apparently true, however; Sherman glared at him as he turned and walked away.
“She’s getting ideas above her station,” he said mildly. “I think she likes you. I also think it might be a good idea if I didn’t let you spend any time with her alone for a little while, since you seem bound and determined to play the Disney Princess of this scenario.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Friend to all living things, my sweet Sal; friend to all living things. But what you fail to comprehend is that I don’t want you to be a friend to all living things. I want you to be a friend to me and me alone.” Sherman reached out and tweaked a lock of hair that had fallen in my face. “We need to get you a haircut. Something short and tidy and easy to care for. You’re starting to look a little unkempt, my dear, and we both know how little tolerance I have for that.”
I fought the urge to bat his hand away. He wasn’t touching my skin, which meant that the drums wouldn’t synchronize to his heartbeat, but having him touch any part of me felt like a violation. “I like my hair the way it is.”
“Ah, but appearances must be maintained. You know that. It’s how we fit into the world, snug as a needle fitting into an injection site. Nothing that attracts attention of the wrong sort.” Sherman delivered this little sermon with the pious air of a man who was preaching to the heathens, but knew they would catch on sooner or later. As always, it made me want to scratch his eyes right out of his head.
There was a time when I’d found his little life lessons endearing, attractive even. That was before I knew he was a tapeworm, and before I knew he was on the “kill all humans” side of the program, and most of all, before he was keeping me captive in an abandoned mall, with no way of reaching the people I loved most in all the world. “The only attention I’m attracting here is from you,” I countered. “All the attention I get from you is the wrong kind of attention, now that I know what you are.”
“You still don’t understand, do you?” He grabbed my arm. It was a swift motion: I had no opportunity to dodge or defend myself. Fingers sinking into my skin, he continued: “My attention is the only attention you will ever need. My approval is the only approval you should ever crave. I am your perfect other half, Sal, and the sooner you come to terms with that idea and begin making yourself over in my image, the sooner we’ll be able to move on to the next phase of our relationship.”
“Let me go!” I struggled against his grasp, but he held firm. The drums were pounding in my ears, slowing bit by bit to fall into synch with his pulse. As always, the feeling left me dizzy and confused, like someone was messing with my inner ear. “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to… to…” The sentence seemed to slip away from me. I wobbled.
Sherman tightened his hand a little more. It was starting to hurt, and I would probably have a bruise the next day, something to commemorate our little encounter. “I do have to do this, because you make me do this,” he said apologetically. “Besides, anesthesia is expensive, and you’re so much more pliant when you’ve started seeing things my way. It’s truly a pity that it never seems to last.”
Still holding my wrist tight, he half dragged me across the room to a chair that looked like it had been stolen from a dentist’s office. I made one last feeble attempt to struggle. I knew that chair. It had started to feature prominently in my nightmares, swelling to hellish proportions with every new appearance. The real chair was smaller than the one in my dreams, made of plain green vinyl instead of burning human leather, but their meanings were exactly the same. They both meant pain.
“Down you go,” said Sherman, releasing my wrist as he shoved me into the chair. I tumbled helplessly, unable to resist the pull of my slowed, muddled pulse. Sherman immediately started strapping me down, putting restraints across my wrists, ankles, and chest. He stopped short of making it hard to breathe, but only barely; as long as he didn’t kill me, my comfort was not his concern.
“Still don’t know… how you do that,” I mumbled. My lips felt like they were made of lead, too heavy to operate properly and only technically grafted onto my body.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” he replied, before leaning down to give me a peck on the forehead. “If I tell you how much I am your superior, will you finally cease this pointless attempt to rail against me?”
I couldn’t answer. I just looked at him.
Apparently, Sherman took silence as agreement—that, or he’d been waiting for the chance to tell me all about his brilliance for a while now, and this was enough of an opening that he couldn’t resist. He picked up a drill, giving its trigger an experimental pull. And then, after the sound had passed, he told me.