ONE | Monster
Death was a cocoon. Inside it, he became something else. It was a shield that enveloped him, blotting out the pain and the fear. Then they brought him back, and the cocoon dissipated. Gone. Evaporated, like a drop of water on the scalding metal slats of the heating vent in his cell. But dying was always easy. Coming back tore him to pieces.
A deep, choking breath erupted from his lungs. His heartbeat pounded in his ears.
“We’ve got a pulse,” a voice announced triumphantly.
“Start the IV and hook him back up to the monitors,” the tone of the order was sharp. The voice was familiar, too. Never strained; always clear and unfaltering.
Cold sensors pressed to his bare torso. The little round sticky pads connected through energy to a machine outside the room that monitored his electrical signals. Waves of electricity that couldn’t penetrate the suits the doctors wore. He could hear the beep, beep, beep through the wall of glass. His reflection pulsated. The mirror breathed. Each fragmented particle vibrated to the rhythm of his heart.
Distracted by the boy in the mirror, he jerked when a needle ripped into him and lifted his skin. The beeping turned frantic. His pupils dilated. Liquid poured into his veins, flooding them and stirring his blood. It traveled—not in a steady flow but in bursts—to the chambers of his heart. The metal table shook underneath him. A rattling tremor; his body reacting to rebirth.
It was colder here than inside his cocoon.
Three long blobs floated overhead, blurry around the edges, and blue. “How many fingers am I holding up?” They wiggled.
He moved the same three fingers of his own hand, mimicking the one floating above him. The cuffs around his wrists shifted and clinked.
“Speak,” the man barked.
E7′s white skin looked dark in contrast to the radiating brightness from the overhead light, especially the flesh under his blue eyes. Ash colored veins branched out like naked trees under a scattering of smooth scars. They dotted the creases of his elbows, forming pink and white constellations down his arms. Fingers...how many fingers...the question echoed.
His gaze shifted from the blue hand to the ceiling. Whiteness above him. False clouds. Shapeless and flat. Then back as the cold metal table pressed against the leathery skin of his shaved head. He had seen his reflection before. Blue eyes, angular features. Strange. Different from the people outside the room. None of them had faces; they didn’t have eyes either. Long gray panels across blank masks of the white suits hid their eyes. His slender fingers had never been inside a pair of gloves.
“E7 is verbally unresponsive after resuscitation...” something clinked on the table. It touched the side of his hand and he flinched. It was cold. “Can you check his pupils?”
There was a quick flash of a smaller light just above his eyes. “Reactive.”
“Good. Vitals are decent. His pulse is fast. We should slow it down.”
“He just needs a minute.”
A minute. Sixty seconds. They didn’t mean a minute. They meant a span of time in which they would be comfortable to wait. Less than a minute. He counted by twos and reached forty before they made a move.
One of them took back the slender object beside his hand.
“Get a blood sample and go run it. I want reports on his metabolic rates and cell reconfiguration. I want to see what we’ve accomplished here today.”
“You got it.”
A figure leaned over him, blocking the bright glow hovering near the ceiling. There was a dark shadow on E7′s bare chest. He lay naked atop the table while the figure above him wore a thick, rubbery white suit. Shivers sent the needles under his skin rattling. Pain filled the empty spaces inside him. So many holes. Tremors hijacking his muscles, overtaking him completely. His body was never his own in these moments. It belonged to the serum in his veins. That’s what controlled his arms and legs, twitching the tendons tucked beneath the thin organ of skin. He moaned, agonized by the slightest movement. The sound—a noise, not words—was good enough to please the ones waiting.
“Welcome back.” The man replaced the slender object onto the metal table. It made dark lines on white paper. They called it something, but he couldn’t remember what. A...scribbler? No, that’s what he called it.
A made-up word.
Give them something real.
“I want to see some progress today. How about that. Are you going to give us our answers, or will we be doing this again soon?”
Two times two is four.
Four times two is eight.
Eight times two is...it didn’t matter.
How many seconds left?
Numbers aren’t even real.
Everything in their world had a name. Even the burning white brightness above him, orbs of vacant white. Examination light, he remembered.
They called him E7, but it was a made-up thing, like scribbler, and numbers. He was real—more real than a name would be, even if he had one. He didn’t. Names were for things with purpose. Names were for things that mattered.
“Tell me where you are.”
He blinked. Both eyes shut and peeled open again. His pupils flexed, expanding and constricting. Even those muscles hurt. He opened his mouth to breathe faster, swallowing air before there was none left. He was drowning in the pain. Suffocating.
Death was so much easier than this.
“E7, tell me where you are.”
“...white...room...” said a voice too rough and unsteady to be his own. But it came from him. A hundred muscles worked to form the words. Strips of his throat felt raw, scraped off. Flayed from the inside; a precious instrument transplanted. He didn’t recognize his voice, but he’d felt it claw its way out by force of will. He’d wanted to answer. No, needed to. They would make the pain so much worse if he didn’t give them words.
“And my name?”
Don’t make me talk anymore.
“Answer me. What is my name?”
He would keep asking until E7 finally complied. Always. There was no other way than to answer. “...J-James.”
James adjusted his smooth white face. Smooth and cold. He spoke without a mouth in that calm voice, watching without eyes. The suit crinkled like soft plastic. “Tell me what just happened to you.”
E7 waited to answer. He needed to swallow. To rest.
Water? They wouldn’t give him any even if he asked. That was post-test procedure. No food or drink for hours. Not until he was ready. What did that mean? It wasn’t always clear.
He blinked again. The room was so bright. On his back, he could see nothing other than James and the blurred edges of the ceiling tiles. The rest of his room did not exist. “I...came b-back.” His voice went in and out, too quiet to be clear.
“And before that? What did you feel?”
When there was no pain, no cocoon. James wanted to know about that. About the monster. “I know it was there. I saw it in your eyes. You felt it.” The calm shifted, making room for excitement. It was clear what he really wanted to know.
Had the monster come out to play?
Yes. It was here. It’s always here...but he’d told it to go away. E7 shook his head, a small movement, and clenched his teeth. “No,” he said, the thin space between his lips growing no wider.
The excitement was gone. “I told you to let go. Let it happen.” Anger grasped at James’ calm exterior, choking it. “You’re doing this to yourself.”
The cell lock disengaged. The door opened, creating a suctioning sound that distracted E7. He moved his head in that direction, unnerved by the tone James used. What might be coming next? What did they plan to do with him now? There was a sharp pain at the base of his neck and it shot down his back. Another tremor ran through him and the table rattled. “N-no...st-stop...” he pleaded with himself and shut his eyes. The edges of the room had converged at the movement, closing in on him. He pressed his head back against the metal table. Cold, cold...the cold always helped.
Inside, the monster still burned.
Footsteps approached. A second person entered the white room. Another faceless figure. They spoke with empty spaces. Pauses. They were afraid. James’ head swiveled in their direction.
“Did you hear me, Dr. Crane?”
The featureless mass above E7 looked down at him. “What?” James said.
“I ran the blood. No change.”
“What about a pathway?”
“...No. We’ve got nothing.”
E7 took in a ragged breath. He caught the air with convulsions, sucking and gasping as his lungs heaved. The restraints on his wrists and ankles rattled.
We’ve got nothing, they said.
He knew the word for this. It had a name.
It wasn’t a feeling like the word disappointment. It was an action. Or the result of one.
James said, “give me a minute.”
“He should rest—”
The second figure hovered close by. They started to say something, their voice so familiar. Had they been in his room before? He couldn’t tell. They all looked exactly alike. Except Soto. She wore purple gloves instead of blue ones. E7 tried to look at the new arrival’s hands but was afraid to move his head again.
“We can give him something else.” The new doctor said. “This doesn’t mean we’re screwed. It’s a delay, that’s all—”
“Did you hear me?” James raised his voice and it took on a roughness that scared everyone, even the others. The suits made them feel safe but not when he shouted at them. That’s when they all moved back, wordlessly following his instructions. The suits couldn’t protect them from the anger in James’ voice. “I said. Get. Out.”
Footsteps thumped against the tiles and the door swung open, hitting the wall before it was pulled against the frame and suctioned shut.
James had taught him that word. It wasn’t an object, like hand or strap. It was being small in a cage without a door. It was being tied to a metal gurney with no clothes. Trapped was when he closed his eyes and couldn’t find his cocoon. Trapped was being E7.
“Mice, raccoons, vermin,” James had said, “they go into the cage and they don’t come back out. It’s what happens when you don’t follow the natural order. When we find them in the trap, we kill them. They’re of no use.”
Be of use, be of use, I can be of use.
James made a noise in the back of his throat, a growl.
Angry. James was that. Not an object. Being.
“I’m going to have to give you another injection.”
A shiver, fresh and sharp as needles under his skin.
Was that an object or a way of being?
E7 fought against the dizziness and nausea, trying to get up. He succeeded in doing nothing more than lifting his head before a weight came down on his chest. He didn’t want to lie there anymore, strapped to a table. Not with that word in his head. Trapped. He saw the needle on the tray, waiting to meet his flesh, to become the thing they called it. Injection.
“P-please, no, no d-don’t,” his tongue tripped over the sounds, useless before they’d even emerged. They weren’t the words that James was looking for. He wanted the words that would turn failure into purpose. But E7 had never learned those words.
“Why do you make me do this?” James sighed and ripped the IV line out of E7′s arm, tearing off tape and skin with the embedded needle. E7′s throat rattled as a close-lipped cry burst out of him. His head lifted. The world spun.
James placed the IV and the sensors on the small wheeled table beside E7′s body. The beeping from the outside room stopped. An alarm, high-pitched and loud, went off. The machine thought he was dead, but his cocoon was still empty.
“Why do you always...always...make me do this?” James whispered, the sound muffled by the mask.
Footsteps thumped against the tile floors. He walked around the table, purposeful. His movements slow, calculating. He was allowing E7 time to adjust and follow the movement, wanting him to see. Wanting him to know. To fear him—it. The injection.
“You make me hate myself,” James said as he lifted the syringe from the tray. “But I can’t let my feelings get in the way. We have work to do. And you want to help us, don’t you? You want us to help you get better.”
E7 shifted his head back to look at the door, his mouth open, panting. Maybe she would come back—the one with the purple gloves—to help him. Her voice was warm and she had never ripped E7′s skin with needles like James had. He hadn’t seen her in the room earlier, but the glass...it no longer matched his heartbeat. Someone else’s rhythm pulsed on the other side now. She was there, watching him through the mirror. E7 turned his head toward his own reflection, shaking, moaning, eyes straining to see her through the solid surface. “Please,” the word escaped in a soft, weak cry.
Gulping air, E7 tilted his head back. The door did not open.
No one was coming. He thought of another word. One of the first he’d ever learned.
The syringe cap hit the floor. James flicked the needle, clear liquid spurting out the top. A tiny fraction of skin split as the needle pressed into the crease of his elbow. More liquid coursed through his veins, burning them. It surged up his arm, chemicals thrust into the superior vena cava. Veins and vessels propelled it forward until it finally reached his heart.
It hurts! he sucked in dry, coarse air. The oxygen didn’t seem to go anywhere. It settled, sterile and cold inside his heaving lungs like breath on glass.
Liquid from the syringe traveled further as his pulse sped up. Blood cells absorbed the injection. Twisting, vibrating. The cells shot straight to the ventricles of his brain and beyond it. Their new form abandoned his conquered brain and contaminated the cerebrospinal fluid.
White light faded into gray and...
His heart stopped.
The black of his pupils spilled over blue irises until there was nothing but the stillness of the dark.
Death was a cocoon. Inside it, he was becoming something else. It was a shield that enveloped him until life shattered the dark. Cold faded, heat rising in its place. He might’ve let the monster out this time. It wouldn’t have been a choice. But they brought him back too soon.