Always the dark, warm, hot warm, the hot warm dark, and the distant sound of drumming. Always the hot warm dark and the drums, the comforting drums, the drums that define the world. It is comfortable here. I am comfortable here. I do not want to leave again.
Dr. Morrison looked up from my journal and smiled. He always showed too many teeth when he was trying to be reassuring, stretching his lips so wide that he looked like he was getting ready to lean over and take a bite of my throat.
"I wish you wouldn't smile at me like that," I said. My skin was knotting itself into lumps of gooseflesh. I forced myself to sit still, refusing to give him the pleasure of seeing just how uncomfortable he made me.
For a professional therapist, Dr. Morrison seemed to take an unhealthy amount of joy in making me twitch. "Like what, Sally?"
"With the teeth," I said, and shuddered. I don't like teeth. I liked Dr. Morrison's teeth less than most. If he smiled too much, I was going to wind up having another one of those nightmares, the ones where his smile spread all the way around his head and met at the back of his neck. Once that happened, his skull would spread open like a flower, and the mouth hidden behind his smile — his real mouth — would finally be revealed.
Crazy dreams, right? It was only appropriate, I guess. I was seeing him because I was a crazy, crazy girl. At least, that's what the people who would know kept telling me, and it wasn't like I could tell them any different. They were the ones who went to college and got degrees in are-you-crazy. I was just a girl who had to be reminded of her own name.
"We've discussed your odontophobia before, Sally. There's no clinical reason for you to be afraid of teeth."
"I'm not afraid of teeth," I snapped. "I just don't want to look at them."
Dr. Morrison stopped smiling and shook his head, leaning over to jot something on his ever-present notepad. He didn't bother hiding it from me anymore. He knew I couldn't read it without taking a lot more time than I had. "You understand what this dream is telling us, don't you?" His tone was as poisonously warm as his too-wide smile had been.
"I don't know, Dr. Morrison," I answered. "Why don't you tell me, and we'll see if we can come to a mutual conclusion?"
"Now, Sally, you know that dream interpretation doesn't work that way," he said, voice turning lightly chiding. I was being a smart-ass. Again. Dr. Morrison didn't like that, which was fine by me, since I didn't like Dr. Morrison. "Why don't you tell me what the dream means to you?"
"It means I shouldn't eat leftover spaghetti after midnight," I said. "It means I feel guilty about forgetting to save yesterday's bread for the ducks. It means I still don't understand what irony is, even though I keep asking people to explain it. It means — "
He cut me off. "You're dreaming about the coma," he said. "Your mind is trying to cope with the blank places that remain part of your inner landscape. To some degree, you may even be longing to go back to that blankness, to a time when Sally Mitchell could be anything."
The implication that the person Sally Mitchell became — namely, me — wasn't good enough for my subconscious mind stung, but I wasn't going to let him see that. "Wow. You really think that's what the dream's about?"
I didn't answer.
This was my last visit before my six-month check-in with the staff at SymboGen. Dr. Morrison would be turning in his recommendations before that, and the last thing I wanted to do was give him an excuse to recommend we go back to meeting twice a week, or even three times a week, like we had when I first started seeing him. I didn't want to be adjusted to fit some model of the "psychiatric norm" drawn up by doctors who'd never met me and didn't know my situation. I was tired of putting up with Dr. Morrison's clumsy attempts to force me into that mold. We both knew he was only doing it because he hoped to write a book once SymboGen's media blackout on my life was finally lifted. The Curing of Sally Mitchell. He'd make a mint.
Even more, I was tired of the way he always looked at me out of the corner of his eye, like I was going to flip out and start stabbing people. Then again, maybe he was right about that, on some level. There was no time when I felt more like stabbing people than immediately after one of our sessions.
"The imagery is crude, even childish. Clearly, you're regressing in your sleep, returning to a time before you had so many things to worry about. I know it's been hard on you, relearning everything about yourself. So much has changed in the last six years." Dr. Morrison flipped to the next page in my journal, smiling again. It looked more artificial, and more dangerous, than ever. "How are your headaches, Sally? Are they getting any better?"
I bared my own teeth at him as I lied smoothly, saying, "I haven't had a headache in weeks." It helped if I reminded myself that I wasn't totally lying. I wasn't having the real banger migraines anymore, the ones that made me feel like it would have been a blessing if I'd died in the accident. All I got anymore were the little gnawing aches at my temples, the ones where it felt like my skull was shrinking. Those went away if I spent a few hours lying down in a dark room. They were nothing the doctor needed to be concerned about.
"You know, Sally, I can't help you if you won't let me."
He kept using my name because it was supposed to help us build rapport. It was having the opposite effect. "It's Sal now, Doctor," I said, keeping my voice as neutral as I could. "I've been going by Sal for more than three years."
"Ah, yes. Your continued efforts to distance yourself from your pre-coma identity." He flipped to another page in my journal, quickly enough that I could tell he'd been waiting for the opportunity to drop this little bomb into the conversation. I braced myself, and he read:
Had another fight with parents last night. Want to move out, have own space, maybe find out if ready to move in with Nathan. They said wasn't ready. Why not? Because Sally wasn't ready? I am not her. I am me.
I will never be her again.
He lowered the book, looking at me expectantly. I looked back, and for almost a minute the two of us were locked in a battle of wills that had no possible winner, only a different order of losing. He wanted me to ask for his help. He wanted to heal me and turn me back into a woman I had no memory of being. I wanted him to let me be who I was, no matter how different I had become. Neither of us was getting what we wanted.
Finally, he broke. "This shows a worrisome trend toward disassociation, Sally. I'm concerned that — "
"Sal," I said.
Dr. Morrison stopped, frowning at me. "What did you say?"
"I said, Sal, as in, 'my name is.' I'm not Sally anymore. It's not disassociation if I say I'm not her, because I don't remember her at all. I don't even know who she is. No one will tell me the whole story. Everyone tries so hard not to say anything bad about her to me, even though I know better. It's like they're all afraid I'm pretending, like this is some big trick to catch them out."
"Is it?" Dr. Morrison leaned forward. His smile was suddenly gone, replaced by an expression of predatory interest. "We've discussed your amnesia before, Sally. No one can deny that you sustained extensive trauma in the accident, but amnesia as extensive and prolonged as yours is extremely rare. I'm concerned there may be a mental block preventing your accessing your own memories. When this block inevitably degrades — if you've been feigning amnesia this whole time, it would be a great relief in some ways. It would indicate much better chances for your future mental stability."
"Wouldn't faking total memory loss for six years count as a sort of pathological lying, and prove I needed to stay in your care until I stopped doing it?" I asked.
Dr. Morrison frowned, leaning back again. "So you continue to insist that you have no memory prior to the accident."
I shrugged. "We've been over this before. I have no memory of the accident itself. The first thing I remember is waking up in the hospital, surrounded by strangers."
One of them had screamed and fainted when I sat up. I didn't learn until later that she was my mother, or that she had been there — along with my father, my younger sister, and my boyfriend — to talk to my doctors about unplugging the life support systems keeping my body alive. My sister, Joyce, had just stared at me and started to cry. I didn't understand what she was doing. I couldn't remember ever having seen someone cry before. I couldn't remember ever having seen a person before. I was a blank slate.
Then Joyce was throwing herself across me, and the feeling of pressure had been surprising enough that I hadn't pushed her away. My father helped my mother off the floor, and they both joined my sister on the bed, all of them crying and talking at once.
It would be months before I understood English well enough to know what they were saying, much less to answer them. By the time I managed my first sentence — "Who I?" — the boyfriend was long gone, having chosen to run rather than spend the rest of his life with a potentially brain-damaged girlfriend. The fact that I still hadn't recovered my memory six years later implied that he'd made the right decision. Even if he'd decided to stick around, there was no guarantee we'd have liked each other, much less loved each other. Leaving me was the best thing he could have done, for either one of us.
After all, I was a whole new person now.
"We were discussing your family. How are things going?"
"We've been working through some things," I said. Things like their overprotectiveness, and the way they refused to treat me like a normal human being. "I think we're doing pretty good. But thanks for asking."
My mother thought I was a gift from God, since she hadn't expected me to wake up. She also thought I would turn back into Sally any day, and was perpetually, politely confused when I didn't. My father didn't invoke God nearly as much, but he did like to say, frequently, that everything happens for a reason. Apparently, he and Sally hadn't had a very good relationship. He and I were doing substantially better. It helped that we were both trying as hard as we could, because we both knew that things were tenuous.
Joyce was the only one who'd been willing to speak to me candidly, although she only did it when she was drunk. She didn't drink often; I didn't drink at all. "You were a real bitch, Sal," she'd said. "I like you a lot better now. If you start turning into a bitch again, I'll cut your brake lines."
It was totally honest. It was totally sincere. The night she said that to me was the night I realized that I might not remember my sister, but I definitely loved her. On the balance of things, maybe I'd gotten off lightly. Maybe losing my memory was a blessing.
Dr. Morrison's disappointment visibly deepened. Clearing his throat, he flipped to another point in my journal, and read:
Last night I dreamt I was swimming through the hot warm dark, just me and the sound of drums, and there was nothing in the world that could frighten me or hurt me or change the way things were.
Then there was a tearing, ripping sound, and the drums went quiet, and everything was pain, pain, PAIN. I never felt pain like that before, and I tried to scream, but I couldn't scream — something stopped me from screaming. I fled from the pain, and the pain followed me, and the hot warm dark was turning cold and crushing, until it wasn't comfort, it was death. I was going to die. I had to run as fast as I could, had to find a new way to run, and the sound of drums was fading out, fading into silence.
If I didn't get to safety before the drums stopped, I was never going to get to safety at all. I had to save the drums. The drums were everything.
He looked up. "That's an odd amount of importance to place on a sound, don't you think? What do the drums represent to you, Sally?"
"I don't know. It was just a dream I had." It was a dream I had almost every night. I only wrote it down because Nathan said that maybe Dr. Morrison would stop pushing quite so hard if he felt like he had something to interpret. Well, he had something to interpret, and it wasn't making him back off. If anything, it was doing the opposite. I made a mental note to smack my boyfriend next time I saw him.
"Dreams mean things. They're our subconscious trying to communicate with us."
The smug look on his face was too much. "You're about to tell me I'm dreaming about being in the womb, aren't you? That's what you always say when you want to sound impressive."
His smug expression didn't waver.
"Look, I can't be dreaming about being in the womb, since that would require remembering anything before the accident, and I don't." I struggled to keep my tone level. "I'm having nightmares based on the things people have told me about my accident, that's all. Everything is great, and then suddenly everything goes to hell? It doesn't take a genius to guess that the drums are my heart beating. I know they lost me twice in the ambulance, and that the head trauma was so bad they thought I was actually brain-dead. If I hadn't woken up when I did, they would have pulled the plug. I mean, maybe I don't like the girl they say I was, but at least she didn't have to go through physical therapy, or relearn the English language, or relearn everything about living a normal life. Do I feel isolated from her? You bet I do. Lucky bitch died that day, at least as long as her memories stay gone. I'm just the one who has to deal with all the paperwork."
Dr. Morrison raised an eyebrow, looking nonplussed. Then he reached for his notepad. "Interesting," he said.
Somehow I managed not to groan.
The rest of the session was as smooth as any of them ever were. Dr. Morrison asked questions geared to make me blow up again; I dodged them as best as I could, and bit the inside of my lip every time I felt like I might lose my cool. At the end of the hour, we were both disappointed. He was disappointed because I hadn't done more yelling, and I was disappointed because I'd yelled in the first place. I hate losing my temper. Even more, I hate losing it in front of people like Dr. Morrison. Being Sally Mitchell sucks sometimes. There's always another doctor who wants a question answered and thinks the best way to do it is to poke a stick through the bars of my metaphorical cage. I didn't volunteer to be the first person whose life was saved by a tapeworm. It just happened.
I have to remind myself of that whenever things get too ridiculous: I am alive because of a genetically engineered tapeworm. Not a miracle; God was not involved in my survival. They can call it an "implant" or an "Intestinal Bodyguard," with or without that damn trademark, but the fact remains that we're talking about a tapeworm. A big, ugly, blind, parasitic invertebrate that lives in my small intestine, where it naturally secretes a variety of useful chemicals, including — as it turns out — some that both stimulate brain activity and clean toxic byproducts out of blood.
The doctors were as surprised by that as I was. They're still investigating whether the tapeworm's miracle drugs are connected to my memory loss. Frankly, I neither care nor particularly want to know. I'm happy with who I've become since the accident.
Dr. Morrison's receptionist smiled blandly as I signed out. SymboGen required physically-witnessed time stamps for my sessions. I smiled just as blandly back. It was the safest thing to do. I'd tried being friendly during my first six months of sessions, until I learned that I was basically under review from the time I stepped through the door. Anything I did while inside the office could be entered into my file. Since those first six months included more than a few crying jags in the lobby, they were enough to buy me even more therapy.
"Have a nice day, Miss Mitchell," said the receptionist, taking back her clipboard. "See you next week."
I smiled at her again, sincerely this time. "Only if my doctors agree with whatever assessment Dr. Morrison comes up with, instead of agreeing with me. If there is any justice in this world, you'll never be seeing me again."
Maybe the comment was ill-advised, but it still felt good to see her perfectly made-up eyes widen in shock. She was still gaping at me as I turned back to the door and made my way quickly out of the office, into the sweet freedom of the afternoon air.
One good thing about being the first — and thus far, only — person to be saved from certain death by the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard: I wasn't paying for a penny of my medical care, and neither were my parents. Instead, the corporation paid for everything, and got running updates from my various doctors, all of whom had release forms on file making it legal for them to give my medical information to SymboGen. It sucked from a privacy standpoint, but it was better than dying.
SymboGen developed the Intestinal Bodyguard. My father works for the government, but even they don't know enough about what the implants can do to manage my care. So everything went on SymboGen's bill, and the corporation kept learning about what their tapeworms can do, while I kept getting the care I needed if I wanted to keep breathing. Breathing was nice. It was one of the first things I remembered discovering on my own, and I wanted to keep doing it for as long as possible.
Even with SymboGen looking out for me, we'd had our share of close calls. Since my accident I'd gone into full anaphylactic shock multiple times, for reasons I still didn't fully understand. The first time had corresponded with a course of antiparasitics provided by SymboGen. They were intended to help me pass my old implant — a pretty way of saying "they were supposed to kill my tapeworm and force it out of my body" — and they'd nearly killed me, too. The second and third attacks had come out of nowhere, and the attack after that had corresponded with another course of antiparasitics, different ones.
What mattered to me was that I'd nearly died each time. Without SymboGen, I would have died. I needed to remember that. No matter how much I hated the therapists and the tests and everything else, I owed my life to SymboGen.
I looked back at Dr. Morrison's office before walking down the street to the empty bus stop. I sat down on the bench and settled in to wait. I'm patient. I'm rarely in a hurry. And I don't drive.
Patience may be something I have in abundance, but punctuality is not. My shift at the Cause for Paws animal center was supposed to start at four o'clock. Thanks to my missing the bus — again — and having to wait for the next one — again — it was already almost five when I came charging through the door.
"I'm sorry!" I called. I shrugged off my brown leather messenger bag and hung it next to the door, where it looked dull and out of place next to Tasha's rainbow crochet purse and Will's electric red backpack. In an organization made up of eccentrics and chronic do-gooders, the girl with the unique medical history is the boring one.
The door slammed behind me. I flinched.
"I'm sorry," I repeated more quietly to Tasha, who was standing next to the coffee machine with an amused expression on her face.
"You're sorry?" she asked. "Really? You're late, and you're sorry about it? Truly this is unprecedented in the annals of our humble shelter. I'll mark the calendars."
I stuck my tongue out at her.
"Did the bad psychologist try to tell you that you were crazy again?" asked Tasha, seemingly unperturbed. Perturbing Tasha was practically impossible. She was the kind of girl who would probably greet Godzilla while he was attacking downtown by asking whether he'd ever considered adopting a kitten to help him with his obvious stress disorder. "You can tell your Auntie Tasha about it. I swear I'm not a SymboGen plant reporting all your actions back to the corporation."
"You're a jerk," I said mildly, and grabbed my apron. "Come on. Scale of one to murder, how mad is Will over the whole 'late' thing?"
"Will isn't mad at all, because you just volunteered to clean all the cat boxes," said Will. I turned to see the shelter's owner standing in the doorway of the kitten room, a seemingly boneless cat draped across his forearm. "Thanks, Sal!"
I rolled my eyes. "Lateness is not a legally binding promise to scoop shit."
"No, but keeping your job sometimes means doing things you don't want to do. Now go forth and scoop." Will stepped out of the doorway. "Look at it this way. You spent the afternoon feeding metaphorical shit to your therapist, and now you can clean up some literal shit. It'll be symbolically cleansing."
"You just don't want to do the boxes."
"That, too," Will agreed.
I rolled my eyes again and walked past him to the supply cabinet. Will was making a bigger deal of punishing me than was strictly necessary — I had a disability clearance excusing me for all my mandatory medical appointments, and since SymboGen made healthy donations to the shelter in exchange for keeping me on the staff, it wasn't like he was going to argue with them needing a little of my time. I was also making a bigger deal of disliking my punishment than I had to. He was right. I needed a little normal after the day I'd had. I didn't like dwelling on the reality of my situation, or the fact that SymboGen essentially controlled my future, at least for now. They paid for everything. The medical care, the lab work, the classes... everything. Until I was perfectly healthy and finished relearning the world, they held the strings.
The cats chirped, meowed, and hissed their greetings as I came into the room and shut the door behind me. I smiled at them, ignoring the paws that reached for me between the bars of their cages. "Okay, guys," I said. "Let's get to work."
There's one more good thing about being the girl who lived because her genetically engineered tapeworm refused to let her die: I lived. That made everything else possible. Everything else in the world.
From Parasite, by Mira Grant. Copyright 2013 by Mira Grant. Reproduced with permission from Orbit Books, a division of Hachette Book Group.