The sleepwalker in the corner moaned and shifted again, dislodging several small objects from her nest. One of them hit the floor with a clunk, the light from the window reflecting off its cracked screen. I stared in disbelieving wonder.
It was a cellphone. And it was less than a foot away from a sleepwalker.
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to just let me have that, would you?” I asked, taking a tentative step forward. The sleepwalker’s face swiveled back toward me, and she moaned with weak menace. “No, I didn’t think so.”
I was the only thing in the room that she could eat: because of that, distracting her from my presence wasn’t going to be easy. I cast around until I found one of those long boards that had been broken off from the bed during her destruction of the room. Picking it up, I took another step forward.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said. “If you just let me have the phone, I can get out of your room, and you’ll never have to see me again.” That would mean leaving her to die alone, which might not have been a mercy, but which wouldn’t require me to actually be the one to kill her. I took another step forward.
Sometimes it’s bad to be wrong. I’d assumed that since she hadn’t left her nest, she didn’t have the strength left in her to do anything but shift and moan. As I leaned forward to grab the phone, she lunged, spending the last of her resources in a desperate bid for sustenance. Her hands latched around my wrist, nearly yanking me off my feet as she pulled me toward her frantically working jaws. The light from the window glimmered off her teeth, which seemed too large and too white for her face. Everything had shrunk but those teeth.
Swallowing my scream was one of the hardest things I had ever done. I backpedaled, trying to yank myself away from her. She didn’t let go. I was her last chance at survival, and no matter how reduced her faculties had been by time and trauma, some part of her still knew that getting my flesh into her mouth would save her. Everything she had left was going into the effort of holding on to me. As she pulled, I felt my feet starting to slip. Before long, I would topple, and she would have me.
What happened next was pure panic. I raised the board that I was holding, bringing it down on her skull as hard as I could. There was a brittle splintering sound, and she moaned, and I hit her again. She still didn’t let go, and so I kept on hitting her, hitting her over and over again, while the sound of drums rose in my ears and the world narrowed down to a single point: me, and her, and the sound of wood impacting with her head.
She released my wrist. I didn’t stop hitting her.
It was exhaustion that finally made me pause and take stock of the situation. She wasn’t moving anymore. She had collapsed to the floor in a broken heap, and while there wasn’t much light in the room, what there was allowed me to see the dents in her skull, and the dark stains that were dripping down her skin as she continued to bleed out. The bleeding was already slowing, thanks to coagulation. Bile rose in my throat. I dropped the board, snatched the phone from the floor, and ran out of the room. I didn’t look back.
It was a miracle that I made it down the stairs without tripping and breaking my neck. I stopped in the entryway, where no lights or windows would betray my presence, and tried to turn on the phone in my hands. I had killed for it. I ought to use it.
It didn’t respond. Not even mashing the power button got a flicker of life out of the cracked and blood-spattered screen. I swallowed the panic that was trying to writhe up my throat and take me over, forcing myself to stand perfectly still while I breathed slowly in through my nose and out through my mouth, counting to ten on each exhale. The pounding in my ears began to lessen as my heart rate returned to something closer to normal.
The phone didn’t work because it had been sitting on the floor long enough for its captive owner to wither away to skin and bones. That was all. Even if she’d been a thin girl to start with, she must have been locked in that room for at least a week—probably more like two—before she got to the condition that I’d found her in. Of course the battery was dead. When I no longer felt like I was going to panic or vomit at any moment I walked down the hall to the bathroom, guided by the light that I’d left turned on earlier. There was a socket in the wall next to the sink, one outlet already occupied by a hair dryer. I plugged the phone charger into the other outlet, connected the phone to the charger, and sat down on the toilet to wait.
It was hard to keep track of time sitting alone in a dark house surrounded by sleepwalkers. It felt like it had been an hour when the phone beeped to signal that it was charged enough to use. It had probably been more like fifteen minutes. I left it connected to the charger as I picked it up and carefully pushed the button to activate the screen.
Please don’t be password protected, I prayed silently, unsure of who might be listening and even less sure that I cared. Please just give me that much. Please.
The screen flashed live, displaying the face of a smiling teenage girl wearing lipstick the color of bubble gum. There was no key pad. Relief washed over me. Her parents probably hadn’t allowed her to lock the phone, wanting to keep track of her activities. My parents had done something similar to me, although they had allowed Joyce all the privacy she wanted. That was the difference between adulthood and medical adolescence.
“Thank you,” I whispered, and touched the phone icon.
For one terrifying moment I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to remember Nathan’s number. Why should I? It was stored in my phone after all, and I had better things to remember. But it had been on a piece of paper first, pressed into my hand when we met at the hospital. Everyone kept telling me that I was using Sally Mitchell’s brain like a giant hard drive, storing information on it that couldn’t be contained in my original tapeworm neural system. That meant that everything I’d experienced since taking over had to be stored somewhere, if I just went looking for it.