Bit by bit, the image of a piece of paper formed behind my eyes. The numbers were blurry around the edges, but I could still tell what they were—I thought. I dialed quickly, trying to avoid cutting my fingers on the damaged screen, and raised the phone to my ear. It was ringing. That was a good sign: that meant the cell network was still up. Civilization couldn’t have collapsed completely if the cell network was still up.
The ringing stopped. Silence reigned. I waited a few seconds for the person on the other end to say something, and when they didn’t, I said, “H-hello? This is Sal Mitchell, looking for Nathan Kim. Please, do you know where he is?”
“Sal?” Nathan sounded almost confused, like he couldn’t believe it was really my voice. I didn’t care. Just hearing him say my name was enough to dull the drums that had been hammering in my ears, reducing them to a distant background hum. “Is it… oh, thank God, Sal, is it really you?”
“I think so,” I said, slumping against the cool porcelain of the toilet tank. “I’m really scared.”
“I—” Nathan stopped for a moment. I heard him take a deep breath. Then: “I’m sorry, are you telling me this is Sally Mitchell? Can you confirm your identity?”
Someone else had to be there with him: someone else had to be making sure he checked on me. That was okay. Better safe and making it home than sorry and alone. “I don’t like to be called Sally,” I said. That didn’t seem like enough, so I asked, “Are the broken doors still open? I want to come home.”
Nathan laughed. It was a gasping, unsteady sound, and the only way I knew it was laughter and not tears was because it stopped. “You can’t be serious. You can’t really think we’re that easy to fool.”
“I’m not trying to fool anyone. We went to the hospital to fix the arteries in my head and then we got separated in the parking lot when I ran away to distract the sleepwalkers from eating you—did Daisy and Fang make it to the car okay? I hope they did—and USAMRIID took me and they put me in this big bubble inside the Oakland Coliseum and there were a lot of other people there and Colonel Mitchell wasn’t telling anybody I was a chimera which seemed sort of weird but I didn’t want to call him on it in front of the men with guns and then…” I paused to take a deep breath, having run out of air somewhere in the middle of that long, gasping speech. Once my lungs were full, I continued: “Then Sherman was there and he broke me out and he’s been keeping me prisoner while he took samples from me all sorts of samples like blood and bone marrow and yesterday he cut my head open so I’m afraid he took samples of me, only one of his people helped me get out and I don’t know where I am but there’s sleepwalkers outside and I want to come home. Please come and get me and take me home.”
This time when I stopped talking, Nathan didn’t laugh. He didn’t say anything. I could hear him breathing, and so I stayed quiet, trying not to pant as I waited to see what was going to happen next.
Finally, quietly, Nathan asked, “Why should I believe that you’re still Sal?”
I blinked at the phone. I had a dozen questions, and all of them seemed both equally important and equally frivolous. Finally, I asked, “Can Sherman do that? I know he’s been creating more chimera, and I’m not exactly sure how long he had me captive, but the first time I learned how to talk, it took like, years. Can he scoop people out of their heads and put new people in?” Belatedly I realized that I had just characterized tapeworms as “people.” I didn’t bother correcting myself. I was a person, regardless of my origins, and I was willing to extend that label to the rest of the chimera, regardless of theirs.
“You’ve been gone for over a month, Sal. We had to abandon the bowling alley after USAMRIID quarantined the area. Tansy never came back. Mom’s had Adam under constant surveillance since you disappeared. We didn’t know whether USAMRIID had you or whether you’d escaped, and there was too much chance you’d tell them where he was.”
As the first chimera—and the only one created from a first generation tapeworm—Adam would have been invaluable to anyone trying to figure out how we’d been created. I wanted to be offended, but I couldn’t muster the emotional response. Instead, I asked, “How are the dogs?”
“Beverly howled for about two days, which was a problem, since we were trying to dodge the quarantine vans at the time. Minnie just took it in stride, like she always knew that you were going to abandon her someday.” Nathan’s voice was starting to thaw. “Sal, is that really you?”
“It really is.” I sniffled, relief washing over me and leaving me almost dizzy. I hadn’t realized how afraid I was that Nathan would never accept me for who I claimed to be until the threat was lifting. “I don’t know where I am. Sherman was keeping me in an old mall, and I don’t know where that was either.”
“We’re working on that,” said Nathan. “Fishy started a trace on this call as soon as it came in. Not many people use my private cell number these days.”
“So Fishy’s okay?” I put my hand over my eyes, careful not to unplug the still-charging phone from the wall. “Who else is okay?”
“How about I tell you about the dogs until we have a fix on you, just so I don’t slip up and say something if you’re being monitored by someone else’s people?”
I smiled a little. “I’d like that.”