The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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THIRTEEN | Trust

They put him to bed without restraints this time. Soto came in later—he knew it was her by her voice, not just her gloves—and tucked the blanket around him until he was wrapped tightly in white sheets, his head fuzzy from the drugs, his eyelids drooping uncontrollably.

“...told Pete that...not to dose you so high next time...” Soto mumbled, her voice barely audible through the haze in his head. “...no need for that.”

E7 watched her, his chest heaving with heavy breaths. His eyes flickered, unable to hold a steady gaze on her as she moved around the room. Finally, he gave up and looked at the ceiling instead. He tried to count the tiles but couldn’t remember the order of the numbers. The realization made him feel afraid, even though it was hard to feel anything at all. He didn’t want this fog in his head, pushing out all the things he knew. All the things he worked so hard to remember, even after the tests. Some memories never came back.

What else was he forgetting?

His arms twitched as his head turned, shifting the blanket. If Soto was leaving, did that mean that she would come back?

The girl.

The face under the mask. The one who didn’t look like the others, who didn’t look like him...the person who had spoken to him and...touched him...

His body shifted under the blanket as he looked for her, no longer afraid of what he might see. Or the rules he was breaking. The covering slid over the side of the bed and onto the floor. The fluttering noise caught Soto’s attention at the door, causing her to turn back. Suddenly, her hands were on his shoulders, pressing him down again as he tried to get up. He hadn’t even seen her walk over.

“Stay down,” she ordered firmly. “You could hurt yourself.”

He fought hard against her, needing to move, hoping that the blood rushing to his head would wash the numbness away even as it made him dizzy. The room was starting to spin, turning his stomach. E7 mumbled incoherently, trying to speak but finding it impossible to get the words out of his head. His tongue was sludge in his mouth. The girl, he tried to say. Who is she? What is she? Will she come back? Can I see her again? Just to talk, just to touch her hand...just to...to...

Soto sighed in frustration. “What is it?” she asked, allowing him to brace himself against her hands. He was wobbly, his body shaking from the effort, but he managed to sit up and stare at her, jaw a little slack, eyes unfocused. One slow hand reached out to tug on her mask, to tell her what he wanted without the words that were failing him so miserably. Soto gasped and wrenched her head back, out of his reach. “No,” she barked, swatting his hand away.

Hurt by the sharpness in her voice, he grunted and jerked, his movements erratic. Soto fought against him, snapping orders at him, telling him to lie down. She didn’t understand. His face contorted with frustration. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, grasping momentarily at the air before they plopped onto his lap. He finally settled his palms on the edge of his t-shirt, his fingers finding the small knot in the hem to fidget and tug on nervously. Unfocused, babbling, he tried to say he was sorry. To explain. To ask about the girl again.

“Calm down,” she spoke in a gentler tone.

It didn’t change the surge of emotion contorting his mouth. A soft, waning moan came out. Raw, innocent. He didn’t know what he had done wrong.

“You don’t touch us. Not me, not the orderlies, no one. It’s against the rules. You know that.” As she spoke, the blankness momentarily returned to his face.

His body shuddered.

Lunging forward, E7 vomited over the side of the bed. Soto jumped back automatically, no longer bracing him up. He fell to the floor with a dull thud, catching his upper body with his elbows before falling face-first into the puddle of stomach bile.

“Lie still,” she snapped and walked out of the room to get some help. She couldn’t lift him alone when he was like this, all dead weight and incoherency.

There was a terrible smell all around his face, and his forehead hurt from where it had hit the floor. But the cloud in his head was dissipating. He glanced upward at the ceiling tiles and a slow, lopsided smile pulled at the corner of his mouth.

1...2...3...

He remembered.

***

“Follow the light.”

A bright beam caused his pupils to shrink, but he did as he was told. The light clicked off and James held up two gloved fingers instead. “How many?”

E7 held up two of his own fingers, wondering if James had short fingernails under his gloves or long ones like that other doctor. The one who had taken off her mask and her gloves. The one who had touched him. Skin to skin.

She was so soft.

“What’s on your mind?” James asked as he put the flashlight in his pocket. E7 noticed that he didn’t have a clipboard this time and he wasn’t taking notes.

When the question registered, he ducked, shaking his head. “Nothing,” he mumbled, his words still slightly slurred.

“Something’s put the color back in your cheeks.” It sounded like James was...smiling?

E7 peaked up, rubbing his jaw with the back of his hand, jittery now that the drugs were wearing off. “I’m just thinking...about her...” now that the words would come out, he wasn’t sure he wanted to say them. Asking Soto was one thing. Talking to James about the girl was a different thing altogether.

“Dr. Soto told me about what you did,” James said, folding his hands in his lap. The teasing tone was gone from his voice. He was all seriousness now, sitting in a metal chair next to the bed, just him and E7 in the room alone together.

A sharp breath.

Panic.
“I’m s-sorry,” he shook his head, gripping the edge of the bed until his knuckles turned white. “I don’t know why I...I was...stupid...”

“Not stupid. Never stupid, E7.”

“No, I—I—” he shook his head, stuttering, unable to correct himself fast enough.

James raised his voice just enough to silence him. “Because I taught you everything you know, so if you’re stupid, I’m stupid.”

Head lowered and tilted meekly, E7 stared at the floor, his mouth twisting into a grimace.

“Do you think I am stupid, E7?”

E7′s head shot up and he shook it from side to side, a little off-kilter like he was dizzy and couldn’t quite tell which way was up. “No, sir.” He said quickly.

“What then? What was it that made you break the rules?” James pressed, leaning back in his chair. “Think carefully.”

“I—”

“Think carefully,” he repeated. “A quick answer means you’re not thinking.”

E7 bit his lip, hard. After a moment, he tasted blood. “...bad.” He finally said. “I was bad.”

“That’s right. It is bad to break the rules. And you know that because I’ve shown you how a good boy behaves. But you seem to have...momentarily...forgotten. Isn’t that right?” James leaned forward again and placed his cold hand on E7′s bare arm. Without gloves, he would’ve been able to feel the gooseflesh on the boy’s skin.

“I’m sorry,” E7 shuddered.

James lifted his hand away, nodding. “I’m sure you are.”

“I really am,” E7 pressed earnestly, his voice rising an octave and breaking from the panic still lingering in his throat. His head remained tilted to the side as he peered up at James. He wasn’t sure what to expect. Would he be punished again? Nothing had happened. He had only tried to take Soto’s mask off. She hadn’t let him do it. He wasn’t even sure how or why it had happened. He wasn’t there, not really. His head was cloudy. He just wanted to tell her about the girl—

The girl. He couldn’t speak of her now. If James found out that someone came in and took off their mask in front of E7—he’d be so angry. He’d punish her.

“Don’t, don’t,” he began, thinking out loud. Pleading for her. He snapped his mouth shut, terrified of what he might say. What he might cause.

James took in a sharp breath. “I want to believe you...”

E7 froze, waiting.

“But...”

A quick hitch in his breath, followed by a tremor of dread that shook his whole body as he stayed silent, unable to look at James.

“I’m not sure I can trust you anymore, E7.”

Pain etched across his face, E7 rubbed his knuckles against the side of one leg, not sure what to say. “I-I’m sorry,” he choked.

“Sorry doesn’t cut it, these days. You tried to break the rules.”

Unable to control himself, E7 pulled his legs onto the bed and folded himself against his knees, rocking back and forth. Fear and frustration overwhelmed him. He tried to stay strong, to keep himself together. But as James’ words sunk in, E7 felt himself falling apart. Wrapping his arms around his legs, he tried to hold all the pieces in place. Thoughts of the broken mirror pressed in on him.

A soft, guttural cry of frustration escaped his throat. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated, over and over again until he felt a cool hand on his neck.

“I know, I know. Be quiet now. Let me think.” James sounded calm—unexpectedly so.

E7 stilled, turning his head to the side. The hand on his neck moved upward until the gloved fingers were spread across the back of his scalp.

“It’s in here. The problem.” James was speaking softly. “And the solution.”

“What?” E7 breathed, just as quiet.

“You can’t trust yourself, E7. And if you can’t even do that, how do you expect me to trust you?”

E7 stared blankly at the mirror across from the bed. He didn’t have an answer—wasn’t even sure he was supposed to. Sometimes James liked to speak without hearing anyone else talk. Then, other times, he expected a reply. There was no way of knowing which one he wanted—silence, or agreement—at any given time. When he wasn’t sure, there was only one safe thing to do.

E7 waited. For James to decide what he wanted from the conversation. Or for a punishment. The silence—the pressure of not knowing what to do to please James—was too much. He didn’t make a sound, but his body always managed to betray him somehow.

“Hush now,” James moved his hand down and rubbed a tear from E7′s cheek. He bent closer, spoke quieter. “There’s something you can do to make this all better.”

E7 slowly lifted his head, eyes wide and eager, almost hopeful.

“Do you want to make all the bad go away, E7?” he asked, shifting around to face him. There were only inches between them—close enough to hear James’ breath rattle excitedly behind his mask, and the wet sound of his tongue forming words before he even spoke.

E7′s voice was husky with insistence as he said, “I can be good.”

“Of course you can.”

“I can,” he said, a little higher this time.

“And you can follow the rules.”

“Yes,” he nodded emphatically, fingers scraping at his knees through the fabric of his pants.

“You can do everything I tell you. Even the smallest of tasks. The simplest orders. You can follow the rules like a good boy... isn’t that right, E7?”

“I promise you I will, I promise you,” he trembled, unsure if he should be excited or terrified. James had never used this tone before—never spoken in such a low, serious voice. This wasn’t the stern reprimand he was used to. It was something different—something darker.

James placed his hand on E7′s chin, holding his head up just as he tried to duck away. “I will trust you,” he said, “under one condition.”

E7 found himself clenching his jaw. Icy shivers spread all through him. Dread, as familiar as death, filled his insides. It was like he’d swallowed glass.

“Promise me you’ll do everything exactly as I tell you. Because if I can trust you to do everything I say, there’ll be no need for this,” he pointed to his mask, “or this,” a gesture toward the rest of the room, “or these,” he tugged at his gloves. “If I can trust you...I can take you out of here.”

Eyes stretched wide, E7 parted his lips but couldn’t speak a word. The glass in his stomach turned, cutting him. He gasped—a small, weak sound.

“If I can really trust you,” James went on, squeezing E7′s jaw until he winced. “But you have to do everything I say. No matter what. Can you do that?”

E7′s eyes searched the gray mesh, flicking back and forth, his head spinning. Something had happened to him as James spoke. Some kind of hum had started in his ears, masking James’ voice with dull echoes of broken words. He wasn’t sure what he had heard—what was real—and what was just in his mind. “I—I I’m—” he stammered, unable to speak around the grip James had on his jaw. Reaching up, he placed his hands on the doctor’s arm, not to push or pull, but to brace himself.

“Can you do that?” James repeated with emphasis. Unable to speak, E7 did his best to nod, his breathing ragged in his icy chest. A sheen of sweat glistened on his brow. “Very good,” James said, releasing him at last. “Very good boy.”

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