There were only two things inside my skull: my brain, and my real body, soft and segmented and hiding itself among the cortical folds of the tissue around it. I couldn’t imagine he’d gone in looking for a piece of brain tissue, since there was nothing special about it that he couldn’t also learn from the blood and bone marrow samples he’d been taking since he locked me up. That left only one target for his exploratory surgery: he’d been looking for me. He’d been taking samples from my real body for a change, and not the one I wore.
That was the greatest violation I could imagine. I was small and soft and vulnerable without my human skin to defend me, and he’d cracked open my bony shield and gone into my sanctuary. I didn’t know that he’d taken tissue samples from my tapeworm-self, but I couldn’t imagine that he wouldn’t have, not after he’d gone to the considerable trouble of opening my skull and peering inside. The thought of a piece of me, severed from the whole, identity and intelligence cut off and lost forever, made me want to vomit. Was he going to implant some empty body with another me? Would there be enough epigenetic memory for that little slice of Sal to remember that it liked watermelon juice and walking dogs and learning new words, or would it be someone completely new?
Worst of all, if it worked—if he was able to successfully splice “me” into another body and learn whatever it was he wanted to know about how I’d been able to bond with Sally Mitchell—was he going to take the rest of me apart next? He didn’t need to keep the original. Not when he could make a hundred knockoffs, one little sliver at a time.
The pain in my head wasn’t getting any better, but time was running out. If Sherman had really removed a piece of my primary body, he’d learn what he wanted to know sooner rather than later. I had to get out of here.
I sat up slowly, fighting the spinning in my head every inch of the way, and reached for the bottle of water. Drinking it made me feel a little bit better: I was still in a lot of pain, but at least my mouth didn’t feel like a used litter box anymore. Still moving with the utmost caution, I slid my feet to the floor and stood. The motion was accompanied by another wave of pain that almost sent me crashing back down onto the bed. I gritted my teeth and held my ground until it passed. I needed to get out of here.
Maybe deciding it was finally time to make my escape when I was still dizzy and weak from nonelective surgery was a bad idea, but it was the only way to avoid more nonelective surgery, and so I was going to go with it. Besides, Sherman wasn’t going to be expecting me to try anything right now. I had trouble remembering that he was the enemy when he wasn’t directly in front of me with a scalpel in his hand and a smirk on his face: we’d spent too much time together as allies, and deep down, I wanted him to still be the man that he’d been then. Maybe that was true in both directions. He wouldn’t have hennaed my hair and cut it nicely rather than hacking it all off if he didn’t harbor at least a little genuine affection for me.
The Sal he’d known for years was pliable and obedient, and had no idea that she could ever be allowed to become anything else. So maybe he still thought of me like that. Maybe I could get myself out of here if I stopped thinking like a good little girl, and started thinking like a chimera.
Joyce used to love going shopping, even when neither of us had any intention of buying anything. She’d haul me through malls and department stores with equal enthusiasm, pointing out sales and commenting snarkily on fashions she didn’t think anyone should ever, under any circumstances, wear outside the house. Thanks to her, I knew quite a lot about how stores like the one that had become my prison were constructed.
I started for the escalators, pausing only long enough to grab fresh jeans and a clean, cable-knit sweater from the Lands’ End display. I could get underwear and a tank top to go with it once I was upstairs in the lingerie section. I tried to keep my movements as natural as possible, and allowed myself to wince every time the incision in my head sent another bolt of pain searing through me, which was often. If Sherman or one of his people was watching me through the security cameras, I needed to put on a good enough show that they wouldn’t send anyone in to check on me.
The escalator was slow enough that I was able to peel my shirt off and throw it back down to the first floor before I reached the second. There were bloodstains on the back of the collar, marking the places where the fabric had brushed against my surgical incision. I shuddered, turning my eyes toward my destination.
Most of the lights on the second floor were off, saving power, since I was the only one in here and usually stayed on the first floor. I didn’t bother looking for the switches as I made my way toward the distant glow of the fitting rooms, which were lit independently of everything else. That same glow allowed me to find a bra, tank top, and panties that would actually fit me. There were no non-high-heel shoes left downstairs—all the good running and hiking shoes had been looted by Sherman’s people before they locked me away in here—so I didn’t bother removing my thick, plastic-soled socks. They’d be better than nothing if what I was planning actually succeeded.
This had been a nice department store, and like all nice department stores, they had been more worried about the privacy of their customers than the possibility of shoplifting. I entered the dressing rooms with my armload of fresh clothing, walking along the row of open, slatted doors until I reached the very end and slipped into the private cubicle. It was located closest to what I guessed would be the store’s outside wall, rather than feeding back into the mall proper. Even more important, this dressing room stall boasted a large, white-painted air grate, used to pump in heat during the winter and cold during the summer. It was quiescent now, the California September providing no opportunities to either warm or chill. That was good. I didn’t want to freeze to death in my effort to escape.