The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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ELEVEN | Borders

Steel fingers held him to the gurney, cloth hands wrapping around his chest. He couldn’t move, speak, think. It hurts, someone said. The boy inside the mirror. With black eyes and drooling lips. A melting face who swallowed the glass like liquid as it pooled over his throat, that bobbing pink bulge warped by ripples in the mirror.

Who was that boy?

Why did he stare?

Did he live inside the mirror, or behind it?

They tore at him, pulling his skin, pinching his eyelids. Light bit through the darkness, hungry and desperate to see his eyes which swallowed the brightness and then ached, and ached, and ached...

Voices swirled, condensation gathering in the depths of his ears where they hummed agonizingly high. The ringing would not stop, and the voices added to them in a discordant undertone. His jaw throbbed, neck muscles rigid. They were talking to him as they lifted him from the gurney and into a chair with heavy cloth straps. His feet, not quite healed from the glass, rested flat against the floor, toes curled from an involuntary spasm. The sound pulled at him from every angle, stretching cartilage and bone until the fibers and fragments nearly snapped. When the voices finally ceased, the light still poured into him, aching as it swallowed up his insides, filling him with their eyes, fingers, and words. The doctors could crawl inside and examine every piece of him now that they could see where to place their feet on the way down. He was utterly vulnerable, his body no longer under his control. As the immobility lingered, traces of his mind came back. And fear, the most familiar sensation, crawled back inside of him too.

The boy in the glass continued to eat himself, already up to his chest as the ripples swirled down his throat. But somehow the image never ceased, no matter how wide his mouth became—a gaping hole beneath rivulets of mirror—the boy remained strapped to a chair made of plastic and buckles, the seat hard as bone. He couldn’t move or fight them. His body was an empty suit, pale and hollow. It was a nightmare from which waking was impossible.

The car stopped, and Lisa opened her eyes with a gasp.

“What is it?” her father asked, alarmed.

She blinked uncertainly, her hand a little sticky from the warmth of her cheek where she’d been leaning on her palm while she slept. “Nothing. It was just a dream,” she mumbled, sitting up and peering out the windshield to see where they were. Dr. Crane had been driving for hours, heading north toward the peninsula. They were at a red light, engine idling behind a short line of cars. It was the wrong time of year for people to be heading for the coast.

“The dream with the mirror,” he stated knowingly.

Lisa turned too quickly to look at him and winced from the cramp in her neck. They’d been sitting too long. She needed to get out of the car and stretch. “How did you know that?” she asked, uncomfortable and unnerved.

“You’ve had that dream since you were little. You used to call it the water dream, but then the water turned into a mirror.” He answered, easing the car toward the vehicle in front of them. He tended to follow too closely behind other drivers. Not because he was in a hurry. It was more about intimidation.

Lisa watched his foot press the brake pedal, heart pumping rapidly. She was starting to get worked up—and not from the dream. “I don’t remember that,” she uttered, shaking her head a little. How could she not remember having had the dream before? “How do you remember?” she demanded, feeling somehow cheated by the fact that he knew something that she seemed to have forgotten about herself. What other facts about her were lurking beyond the reach of her cognizance?

He turned and gave her a look, both impatient and resigned. “You used to wake up screaming about the little boy getting eaten by a broken mirror. Sometimes it was a girl. You cried for hours. All night, once. That’s not something one forgets.”

Apparently, it is, she mused silently with a pout of her lips. “Did it happen a lot?” she asked, hesitant.

“Enough that your mother and I brought you to a specialist. You really don’t remember this?” he lifted an eyebrow.

“How old was I?”

“Five or six. Your mother would know.”

“But you don’t remember,” she added bitingly.

“As much as you hate to admit this, I am your parent. I did raise you. But no, I don’t remember every detail.”

Lisa bit her lip, thinking. How could she have forgotten that dream? Bits and pieces of the one she’d just had were still floating across her mind, simultaneously fascinating and terrifying. It was the boy. The one from the hospital. But he was a stranger until yesterday—no, still a stranger. She didn’t even know his name. There had been a moment that she had been tempted to ask her dad about the boy. They were on the way back to the house to pack for the trip north. That ride had been mostly silent—like this one—except for a brief moment when he mentioned that he had come back to his office to find her absent. He wanted an explanation, but she hadn’t been able to give him one. “I took a look around,” was all she said. He seemed surprisingly satisfied with that answer, which meant he had no idea where she had gone. Because if he had known, the questions wouldn’t have stopped. Not until he knew every detail.

It was hard now to sit and wonder what the connection was between her and this boy. Had she really been dreaming about him—specifically this boy in the hospital—since she was small? Or had her mind simply put him in the place of whoever she’d dreamt about before? There was no way to know. The only thing she could be sure of was that the dream was an awful one. Residual pangs of nausea hit her every time she thought about what she had seen in that mirror, compounded by her memories of the room at the hospital. The bloody zip tie, those blue eyes turned empty and black, the way his hand twitched after pee cup guy gave him a shot...

Don’t, she thought. Just stop thinking about it! Lisa rolled down her window and let the cool air hit her face. It smelled like mud and fish and she was grateful to get the remaining layers of hospital air residue from her lungs. Taking several big breaths, she tried to think about where she was going, not where she’d been.

They sat in silence as he guided the car across the intersection and onto the bridge ramp that circled over the highway, stretching out endlessly over a mist-covered bay. The water was barely visible through the fog. If she looked straight ahead, it was as though they were driving on a bridge in the sky, a thousand miles above the surface of the earth. The road and mist filled the horizon. By the time they reached the other end they would be in a different state. Somewhere in the middle, Lisa could’ve straddled the line between Oregon and Washington, one foot on either side; the place she was leaving behind, and the one toward which she was headed.

The peninsula was like its own little island, far away from the rest of the world. There were beaches, and everyone knew when the tide was low or high. If you didn’t know, you could get a little book that would tell you what time of day the bay would be a muddy wasteland and when it would be full of enough water for sailboats.

It was a landscape for sailors and boat-enthusiasts on the outer edge. In the center of the peninsula were forests for hunting deer and elk, but only for those with access to private property. The island was small and most of it had been bought up—one tiny piece belonged to Pamela Dene. She lived just outside of a tiny town with only one grocery store and a ten-minute drive to the beach. Lisa couldn’t remember the name of the town—she hadn’t been there in forever, not since the last family camping trip. They had gone yearly to a town less than an hour away from Pam’s house. A place called Oysterville, located near the tip of the peninsula. It was a little touristy in the summer, so spring was a better time to go. By this time of the year, winter storms were getting a head start on tearing out roofing shingles and knocking down fenceposts. Going back there now felt like a dream—the good kind.

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said suddenly. Her father glanced at her in surprise. “No dad jokes,” she blurted before realizing that it wasn’t necessary. James had never made a dad joke in his life—at least not that she remembered. That brand of deprivation had never seemed like a loss until this moment. Wasn’t he supposed to tease and play a little? Isn’t that what fathers do? The look of surprise on his face subsided, replaced with a slightly upturned scowl, like a grimace but more pained. He stayed silent.

Maybe it was a lack of sleep or the fact that yesterday had been like some kind of disturbing horror film reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s lobotomization in that old movie she’d had to watch in eighth grade. Whatever caused it, Lisa felt driven to abandon her unhappiness—and all the strings of memories attached to it; bitter, painful miseries weighing her down—on the other side of the bridge. She could pick them up where she’d left them on the way home if she found that she couldn’t live without them. Until then, they would be waiting.

“I mean it.” She insisted, sure that he wasn’t taking her seriously. “I’m sorry. About school, and the house...” she risked a glance at his face and felt a jab in her stomach at the blank expression she saw there. “All of it. I was being stupid.”

“I won’t argue.” He said.

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

“But what does this apology mean, exactly?” he asked.

“What does it mean?”

“Have you thought about the significance of repentance?”

Lisa huffed, a burst of air escaping her lungs. “I’m just saying sorry. Isn’t that enough? Do I have to think about it? Jeez,” she grumbled.

“If you want me to accept your apology, you’ll have to.” He responded quietly.

Lisa stared at him, open-mouthed and angry. Of course a simple “I’m sorry” wasn’t enough for him. He needed some kind of weird, religious confession. It was a god-complex. She had studied this in ancient history. All the Roman emperors had the same affliction. Dr. Crane was no different. Saving people’s lives—and having the power to lock some people up in rooms and fill their bodies with drugs that made them twitch and drool—it had all gone to his head. “Forget it,” she snapped, staring out the window. “I take it back. I’m not sorry about anything.”

The side mirror showed where they had come from. An empty road exactly like the one in front. There was nothing different about it. Nothing at all.

“I am.”

Lisa said nothing, turning her body toward the door.

“Sorry, I mean,” he added. “I have to acknowledge my part in all of this. As I said before, I am your parent. Raising you hasn’t always been...easy. But I have done all that I could to give you opportunities to thrive. With our situation...your mother leaving...this difficult position I’ve been put in...” he seemed almost at a loss for words.

Lisa’s eyes widened. He had never drawn a blank when it came to lectures or explanations. He always had a reason for everything. A never-ending stream of clever comebacks and icy, one-worded replies full of authority. And he never apologized.

“Will you look at me when I am speaking? Thank you. Now, I need you to realize something. I’m doing the best I can. As such, I expect you to return the effort. That means—don’t look away—that means that you cannot continue the destructive behavioral patterns that brought us up here. Do you understand?”

Lisa’s eyes were so narrow she could barely see. She hoped the glare burned straight to his core. In a slow, sarcastic drawl, she said: “I’ll do my best.” Rubbing her cheek against the seatbelt, she absentmindedly allowed the rough fabric to slip between her teeth, gnawing it in thought.

“Stop eating my car,” he ordered, reaching across to push the belt away from her mouth. With his hand so close to her face, she flinched at the sharp, familiar scent of hand sanitizer and latex. He’d always smelled that way, she realized. But this was the first time it twisted her stomach into knots. She knew why.

Images from her dream and memories flooded her mind. The boy.

No. She wouldn’t think about that right now. Because then she’d want to ask questions, and bringing it up would only make her father more angry. Not that a little bit of negative energy thrown his way wouldn’t be satisfying. Just not when she had to be trapped in the car with him for any length of time.

Rubbing her nose, Lisa put her feet back up on the dash and stared out the window. They were across the bridge now and the landscape was changing as the car traveled inland, away from the bordering waters. Everything went dark as they passed through a tunnel, the echo of the engine giving her the impression that they had just entered the belly of some great beast.

***

Bayside views reemerged after the tunnel, bordering the road which soon cut through an increasingly dense forest of fir, maple, and ash trees. Evergreens decorated the gravel on either side of the highway with a cushion of pine needles. The scent of fish had faded to mud, then the spicy aroma of sap and rain had overwhelmed everything. It was just starting to drizzle as the car pulled up the steep hill leading to the house where a dark-haired woman was stepping out her front door, a black plastic bag gripped in one yellow-gloved hand. She was bobbing her head, singing to herself. Her shoulder-length hair moved with her, wisps clinging to her forehead as the rain dampened the strands near her face.

“Pam!” Lisa called, shoving the door open while the vehicle was still inching its way forward. Her father shut off the engine as she stumbled out. The sound of the soft ding, ding, ding from the inside of the car joined the gurgle of rain shuttling down the gutters at each corner of the house.

Pamela Dene, looking long-limbed and particularly pale under the present weather conditions, dropped the plastic garbage sack she was holding, spilling old take-out containers, milk and orange juice cartons, and some kind of bird carcass onto the gravel beside the lattice of the porch. She threw out her arms to catch Lisa in a hug as the girl sprinted up the driveway and practically body-slammed her. The force pushed Pam backward, into the trashcan. It fell over, spilling more garbage onto the ground.

“What have you done with my favorite sullen twelve-year-old?” Pam demanded, taking Lisa by the shoulders and holding her back to get a look at her face. ”Who are you?” she whispered at the sight of the girl’s smile.

Lisa laughed and let Pam pull her closer for a second hug. Had it really been that long? “Five years seems like forever,” she mumbled, enjoying the softness of Pam’s sweater on her cheek. She smelled like rosewater and cinnamon and something earthy.

“Not usually. Only when you’re young. But in this case, yes. Forever. And that’s way too long,” Pam’s shoulders lifted as she sucked in a deep breath, then fell with its release. She let Lisa go and bent to pick up the garbage can, shoving as much trash as she could inside of it before pushing it upright. Lisa went to help her, the two of them quickly cleaning up the mess. The sound of the trunk popping open made them both glance at James, who was currently dragging Lisa’s wheelie suitcase toward them.

“What’s this?” Pam’s expression shifted. The smile she’d greeted Lisa with had faded, replaced by a worried line. “I’m confused. I thought the family camping trips were canceled eons ago. I sold my tent on the Peninsula’s virtual garage sale.”

“I tried to call. You never answer your phone,” James replied.

“So, we just show up now? That’s how it is?”

“Can we go inside for a moment. Lisa can finish with the garbage. I need to talk to you privately, Pamela.” He insisted.

“Yeah. I can do the trash. I’m good at trash. It’s almost like I’m one with the trash,” Lisa muttered, knowing neither of them would hear. James and Pam were staring at each other with a kind of intensity that was making her uncomfortable. Like they were having some kind of silent conversation that she wasn’t allowed to be a part of. She hated feeling left out.

“You got my message.” His tone indicated that it wasn’t a question.

“I can’t do this, James,” Pam stated. Her tone was robotic, her voice quiet.

Lisa’s brow furrowed. “You don’t want me to stay?” she asked, suddenly experiencing an intense feeling in her gut—something like sinking and drowning. It was awful. Like all the times her mother would leave her home to go on women’s retreats, or the first time her father stopped taking her to father-daughter-day at work. It was a childish panic. Frantic disappointment stemming from utter powerlessness and total need. She shoved it aside, focusing on picking up a slimy chicken bone with two stay bottle caps. Her feelings didn’t matter. Whining about what she wanted had gotten her this far, but there had to be a limit. The truth was, five years is a long time. Maybe too long.

Pam’s gaze darted in her direction, her expression rapidly softening. “No, that’s not it, Lisa. It’s not you. I’m just—this is just a bad time. You caught me on my way out today. I was heading over to the V and I’ve got loads of work to get done when I come back. I just got this new transcription package and its due in two weeks so I really need to have a zero-distraction environment—”

James put a hand in his pocket, blinking up at the rain. “Give me two minutes,” he entreated. “Inside.” The stipulation was important because the rain was starting to pick up and it was pouring down harder than any of them were comfortable with.

Pam’s gaze moved swiftly from Lisa to James, resting uncomfortably on his eyes. They were cold and gray, determined. “Two minutes.” She agreed. “Leave that mess, kiddo.” She said to Lisa. “Come sit on the porch out of the rain. Your dad will be back out soon.”

Somehow the words brought Lisa no comfort or reassurance. She didn’t want James to come back out if it meant getting in the car with him. Maybe he’d get struck by a falling clay sculpture—the kind Pam had lying all around the house—and die instantly. She could live with Pam and never have to be in the same space as her father again.

But he did come back out. It took longer than two minutes, and they both looked disgruntled and angry. Lisa couldn’t tell who had won and where she stood in the whole thing.

“So...are we going back to Salem or...?” Please say I’m staying, she pleaded silently as James walked around her to the trunk, which had been left open and was now probably damp inside. Instead of closing it, he bent over the edge and grabbed her other bag. Lisa looked hopefully over her shoulder at Pam, who had taken off her yellow gloves and was rubbing bloodshot eyes with the back of her bare hand. Startled by Pam’s teary expression, Lisa drew a blank on what to say next.

“You’re crying,” she uttered quietly.

“So?” Pam sniffed. “Just cleaning out the ducts. You know me. I always cry when it rains.”

“Yeah,” Lisa replied. She did know Pam, even though they hadn’t seen each other in years. She often got teary-eyed at Rom-Coms and when they watched Bambi for the first time, and then whenever she saw a baby deer after that. She even sobbed during the entire last episode of The Office. But the woman had never cried when it rained. In fact, Pam had never cried in front of Lisa for any real-life reason before. Ever. She was lying. And she’d never done that before either.

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