The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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FOURTEEN | Games

Lie still. Very, very still.

Don’t open your eyes.

Don’t move.

Dead.

He knew what that felt like. No room to move. Muscles paralyzed. Weighed down by something heavy, pressing the air out of his lungs. A lingering darkness that fell over his eyes. Blind. Cold. Empty.

E7 opened his mouth to suck in a breath, squinting to force his eyes shut. It’s not real, he thought, breathing louder, anxious. His skin was clammy and cold, a sheen of sweat glistening in the pale buzz of fluorescent lights. It’s not real.

“Think of it as a game,” James had said. “Just between the two of us.”

A little game.

“A trick. No one else can know.”

Trick.

Now James was gone and E7 had to think about his words and try to understand them. Games, tricks, pretending—what did it mean? It means don’t move, he told himself. That was all he knew for sure, and it was the safest thing to do. James wanted everyone to think he was dead. The kind of dead that had never happened before. The one that couldn’t be undone.

E7′s thoughts came out in a burst of air, a breathy gasp shifting into a moan as it scraped up his throat. Quiet! Have to be quiet!

His hands started to shake, fingers twitching uncontrollably. How long had he been laying like this? His stomach growled, loudly. He held his breath for a moment, then opened his eyes wide. Lifting his head, he stared down at his waist like it had betrayed him, his mouth open enough to expel another breath. This wasn’t going to work. No one would think he was dead. James was going to be so angry.

Still breathing heavy, E7 pressed himself against the metal bed and shut his eyes. He had to do this. James had told him what would happen if he failed this test.

“They’re going to take you away. Strap you down. Keep you drugged out of your mind. Not just between tests, so you can heal. They’ll do things to you that I would never do.”

“Who? W-why?”

“Dr. Blair.”

That woman with black gloves.

Thoughts of the rabbit had flitted through his mind, followed by the memory of blood all over his hands. He was thinking about it now, too, and trying not to let his anxiety grow. It was already too heavy on his lungs, forcing him to breathe harder just to get enough oxygen to ward off the dizziness spinning the room.

“She thinks you’re dangerous,” James had said, “that you can’t control yourself. But I know that’s not true, E7. You can control yourself. We’re going to show her that.”

The game was for Dr. Blair. It was supposed to trick her so that she would not want to take E7 away. Panting, he squinted again, trying not to see the images flashing through his mind. But they wouldn’t stop. Seconds into his thoughts, it was like he was actually there.

It was a small, dark room lined with tables, each one covered in metal objects. He saw a few recognizable items like a scribbler, flashlight, a clipboard—and other things—silver objects reflecting light, some flat, others curving and sharp—that he couldn’t name.

In the center of the room was a bright, round light that didn’t flicker. Underneath it, directly in the beam, was a chair with no back on it, just a seat and a thin metal bar on either side that joined and curved at the top to support his head. Two thick straps under his armpits pressed each shoulder to the bars, keeping him upright. His left arm was kept straight out in front of him, held in place by a metal brace that extended up from the leg of the chair and curved over his thigh to his torso. He was drooling and moaning softly, unable to fight back as two doctors with black gloves hovered on each side, needles gripped tightly in their hands.

They put one needle in his left arm. It bit the vein and black liquid flowed out of him, leaving him queasy and unbalanced. He felt his head lull forward, but he could still see, as if a second pair of eyes hovered near the edge of the room.

The second doctor pressed the other needle—this one much larger than the first—into his back, one end embedded deep into bone, the other attached to a large, clear tube which fed into a dark cannister sitting on one of the tables. Whatever was inside the cannister crawled slowly up the tube and into his spine. The thick, pale yellow liquid looked like stomach bile.

A piercing ache in his spine made his back arch, and he cried out in a strange, unrecognizable voice. It was too high; a guttural yet shrill scream. He’d never made a sound like that before in his life.

E7 jerked upright on the metal bed, taking a few breaths before reaching one hand around to feel along the subtle lumps of his spine where he had seen them place the needle. His skin was hot, and tingled. It hurt to touch it.

Confused, he tried to figure out what had just happened. Was it his imagination? A memory? As painful as the tests were that he had endured, they were never like that. His injections never looked like that yellow sludge in the tube. Sometimes they took samples from his spine, but they never put anything in him that way. It couldn’t have been a memory.

But if it wasn’t a memory, what was it?

Still in pain, E7 lowered himself gingerly back onto the bed. Dr. Blair could come in at any moment. James hadn’t told him when she would get there, only that he had to lie still and wait for them to come in. The thought of being around her brought a different kind of pain all over his body, forcing him to tremble. The metal bed creaked underneath him as he shuddered uncontrollably.

“It’s not real, it’s not real,” he whispered, tucking his hands partially underneath him to stop them from shaking. Sweat left dark circles in the fabric under his arms and along the center of his back. He was starting to shake just as hard from cold as from fear. He had to do something to calm himself down and warm up.

Rolling onto his stomach, E7 lifted himself up onto his hands, distributing his weight evenly onto his palms and the upper pads of his feet. His body hovered low over the bed as he bent his arms and then pressed upward, forming as much of a right-angle as he could.

Push-ups were one of his daily exercises. Doing something from his normal routine always helped calm him down. It forced him to concentrate on the movement and his breathing. He gathered air in through his nose as he lowered his body, exhaling through his mouth when he pushed up. E7 counted as he straightened his arms, keeping a steady pace. The muscles in his arms flexed, aching from weeks of disuse. With as many tests as they’d been giving him, he’d been too weak to follow his routine. His feet began to sting and then, after a few minutes, started to slide. E7 paused, curving his body to look behind him at the smear of blood under his right foot.

Turning over, he sat up and brought his foot closer, eyeing the darkened bandages with mild concern. The cuts had reopened, leaking. They hurt a little. He poked at the blood, his finger coming away red. He was glad to see that color and not the thick, yellow puss from the tube. E7 shook his head, putting the images out of his mind and shifting his legs to let them dangle over the edge of the bed, toes touching the floor. He bounced his leg, trying not to think for a while.

Drawing air into his lungs for a deep breath, he rubbed one hand over his velvety scalp. Distracted from previous worries, he realized it had been days since the orderlies had come to disinfect him. Before they could spray him down, they made him shave and cut his nails. Any place where an electrode pad would go had to be smooth. His nails were still short since the last disinfection, but his hair had started to grow back. He brushed his hand over his face, rubbing his jaw. Still smooth.

James had said that E7 would eventually have to shave every day, but ‘eventually’ was taking a very long time. He’d begun to wonder if there was something wrong with him—some kind of malfunction with his body, and not just his mind. Soto had suggested to James that the chemicals in the disinfectant slowed down hair growth. That might’ve been a convincing reason, except that it hadn’t stopped his hair from growing anywhere else.

Turning his head, E7 looked at his reflection in the mirror. He clenched his teeth, examining the curve of his cheekbone, the sharp angle of his lower jaw. Other than losing the cushion of fat from his early developmental stages, he looked exactly the same as he had when he was much smaller. Was he supposed to look different? If so...how different? Was he done growing now? His height hadn’t changed in a while. Would he look like this forever?

E7 drew in a soft breath as thoughts of the girl charged to the front of his mind. She had the same smooth skin as he did, the same cutting jaw, although it was slightly more round in shape than his. And her hair—it was so long, he wondered if she had ever cut it. Did the doctors have to cut their hair? What about her nails. They were longer than his, with flecks of color staining her skin. Was she born that way? He squinted, trying to remember exactly what she looked like. It was so hard to see her clearly when the memories were distorted by sedatives. Everything about her was stuck in a fog, a kind of haze that refused to clear up no matter how hard he tried to drive it away. Only a few things stood out to him. Her hair, her eyes, her hands, the way she spoke softly to him, the way she was looking at him...she wasn’t scared like the others. She had looked at him then the same way he was looking at himself now. Confused, and curious.

E7 bit his lip absentmindedly, his face openly mirroring the desire he felt to see her again.

To speak to her.

But...hadn’t he spoken to her already?

Heat flew to his cheeks as he remembered the way he’d slurred and begged. She’d think he was a child. One who barely knew any words at all. He’d looked so weak, so broken.

Slipping off the bed, E7 began pacing the room, his fingers absently twisting the bottom of his shirt. If she could see him now, he could speak to her and show her that he wasn’t like that all the time. He was just...having a bad day.

I would ask her name, he thought. Dr...something. Unless she was an orderly. But she’d been arguing with Pete. Orderlies don’t argue. Doctors do.

E7 thought about what he might call her. Soft hands...oatmeal hair...honey eyes...pretty.

He would definitely call her pretty.

Soto had taught him that word when she showed him a flashlight for the first time. ”Look at the pretty light,” she’d said. The girl was like a pretty light. E7 paused for a moment, his mouth working into a smile. Pretty wasn’t a name, but it was a start. He could think of something else later. And if he ever saw her again, he’d ask what to call her.

Nervous, he resumed pacing. Maybe, when the game was over and Dr. Blair was gone, James and the other doctors would all take off their masks and he’d get to see their faces. They could show him their rooms where they slept and...and he could ask them if they had books like the one James had destroyed, or a leaf like the one Soto had brought him from the Outside Place, and maybe he could stop shaving his head and have hair like when he was small because maybe...maybe the tests would go away like the masks and the gloves. Maybe everything would be different if he played the game right.

Behind him, the door shifted and began to un-suction. E7 whirled around to see it opening, his breath catching in his throat. A blue-gloved hand came around to grip the side of the door and it paused its motion. James’ voice, a soft, insistent rumble, came drifting into the room. “You can have five minutes. Then I want you and everyone you brought with you, gone."

E7 stared open-mouthed at the door, head spinning. What was he supposed to do? He couldn’t remember, couldn’t think. Everything James had told him seemed to have fallen out of his head the moment the door began to open. He stood frozen in place, body twisted toward the door. He’d forgotten everything—even how to breathe.

But he wasn’t supposed to breathe.

He was supposed to be dead.

The memory of the plan brought with it a burst of energy. He bolted for the bed, jumping and rolling onto its surface soundlessly. He was careful not to make any noise or allow the metal to creak underneath him. Taking one last deep breath, he let all his air out through his nose and began taking shallow, deliberate breathes to prevent movement in his chest. James had shown him how to breathe so that he would look dead.

The door swung open. Footsteps thudded dully against the tile floor as people entered the room. He wasn’t sure how many there were, but it sounded like three or four. E7 opened his eyes wide and stared at the ceiling tile directly above his head. James had made him practice it so much that his eyes had become bloodshot and tears had formed. But at least he knew how to do it. The panic he’d felt earlier at the thought of pretending to be dead was gone now. This was nothing like the real thing. It really was like a game.

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