SEVENTEEN | Masks
He felt himself drifting again. It happened sometimes when everything became too much. Voices changed, warping until they were a blended mess of strung-together sounds that didn’t mean anything at all. His eyes became unfocused, his surroundings blurring like the voices. Everything was a haze on the outside of his head as if the room was injected with a drug, instead of him.
But then there was always that thing that pulled him back. A word, a clap, a scraping chair leg, a door opening...
Both E7 and James turned at the same time to see someone enter in a white suit. The person pushed a wheelchair and there was someone else sitting in it, covered in a sheet. Their head had fallen forward, long hair covering their face. They weren’t wearing a suit or a mask. Just a gown with green spots. E7 stared, unsure if he was really seeing this or if he was just...confused. When he looked back at James for an answer, the doctor was already getting to his feet. “You found it.”
The doctor pushing the wheelchair came around the side, revealing a pair of purple gloves. They carried a black plastic bag in one hand. E7′s head rushed with questions. Was this Soto, or the girl? Had they come to help with the game? Was it still going, or had his mistake ended it?
James began examining the person in the wheelchair, leaning over him and tugging on the sheet to remove it. As he worked, the other doctor crossed the room, approaching E7. Bending at the knees, they lowered themselves onto the floor in front of him, partially blocking the sight of Dr. Blair’s body. He hugged the table leg tighter, shutting his eyes, wishing he could just disappear.
“Are you okay?” Soto’s soft, reassuring voice made him open his eyes again. “How do you feel?” she reached out to touch his forehead. He let her gloved hand rest on his skin for a moment, his fingers scratching at metal, knuckles white. Part of him wanted to sink into the floor and get away from all the people in suits, all the doctors, and orderlies, and needles. But another part—an overwhelming part of him wanted to reach out and grab onto Soto as if he was drowning. As if he was falling and he needed her to stop it from happening.
Soto turned to look over her shoulder at James. “He’s burning up,” she said. “We need to get him some ice or something.”
“No time,” James mumbled, grunting as he lifted the person off of the chair and onto the floor. E7 watched their bare heels slide over the tiles, heart hammering out of his chest. What was going on? What were they doing? He didn’t dare ask, didn’t dare make them look at him. E7 hadn’t forgotten that he had ruined the game when he moved. His eyes drifted to Dr. Blair’s body. That was his fault. This was all his fault.
“How did he do?” Soto asked, getting to her feet. The black bag twisted in her hand until she dropped it, plop, right next to E7, who flinched. She noticed his reaction. “I think he’s in shock. Maybe we should give him something.” Her voice wasn’t sad anymore, like when James made her leave the room before the blood samples and the biopsy. Now she sounded calm, as none of that had even happened.
“He’ll be fine,” James came around to stand next to Soto, apparently finished with whatever he was doing to the body. “He can control himself.”
E7 squirmed. They were both looking at him. Staring.
“Did you get it?” James asked, glancing at Soto through his mask, which had twisted slightly around in his struggle with Dr. Blair but was now facing forward again. Like it had never happened.
“You’re really doing this?” Soto demanded, disbelief coloring her voice.
“Obviously,” was James’ curt reply.
“You want to do it in front of him?” she gestured to E7.
“I don’t have the patience for your questions. Did you get me what I asked you for?”
Soto reached into her pocket and pulled out a small black square. “It’s Pete’s. He won’t realize it’s gone until tomorrow, but he’s already lost it three times this year. No one will be the wiser.”
“And the thug?”
“He left ten minutes ago.”
“What about the samples?”
Soto shook her head. “I couldn’t get them. I offered to test them in our labs, said we could have the results sent to their hotel,” she shrugged. “No dice.”
“That shouldn’t be an issue. An inconvenience, but only if I can’t get him out of here,” he pointed at E7. “Did you get the other things?”
Soto nudged the bag with her foot.
“Good,” James nodded, turning around. “Get him ready. You have twenty minutes.”
Soto sighed, scratching her head through her mask. “Put the room on lockdown,” she called to James, who was already at the door. “I don’t want anyone walking in on this mess.”
He had never noticed it before, but there was a spot on the ceiling near the light. It could have been blood, but from the floor, it just looked like a black dot amidst the white. E7 stared vacantly at it while Soto removed his pants. She didn’t ask about the blood on his shirt, she didn’t dress his wound, she barely said anything to him at all other than quiet, insistent orders. Stand up. Lift your foot. Now the other one. Pull them up. Lift your arms.
She dressed him in new clothes that smelled like armpit sweat, and vomit. He wrinkled his nose but didn’t resist as she helped him into a pair of pants and a baggy sweatshirt. She’d wanted to remove the bloody t-shirt he was already wearing, but he had closed his fingers around the knot in the hem, pulling it down in silent refusal while she tugged. She’d finally given up and let him wear it underneath the larger one. The pants had a button in the front, which he struggled with for several seconds before she took pity on him and fastened them closed herself. She seemed used to buttons. He’d never seen one before.
When he was dressed, Soto grabbed something else from the bag. It was a wad of black hair, tangled and balled up in her hand. His eyes widened when he saw it, his feet scuffling backward so that he slammed into the table, causing it to scrape loudly against the floor. It looked like some dead thing draped over her purple gloves. Some dead, hairy thing.
“It’s a wig.” Soto reached out and took hold of his arm, pulling him closer. “Stop moving your head,” she ordered as he ducked to avoid touching any part of the dead thing. “Stop that—hold still E7!”
He froze, feeling a jolt run through his whole body. Soto never yelled at him. His face crumpled and he let out a soft cry—almost a whine. It was a short burst of sound followed by silence. He felt confused and afraid of what was happening. Not just inside his head, but on the outside. Everything was wrong. James had never hurt another doctor before. And who was the person near Dr. Blair—the one Soto brought in the wheelchair? Whatever was happening, it was totally outside of any routine they had ever observed. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do, or how he should feel.
Soto waited for him to get control of himself, her hand still firmly gripping his arm. “Calm down,” she ordered. “You’re not in trouble.”
E7 sucked in a breath and clenched his teeth to silence himself. Emotions weighed heavily on him, dragging him to a place of incoherency. Fear, dread, guilt—if he gave in to any of it, he would be little more than a puddle on the floor.
Soto sighed heavily and released his arm. He quickly reached up and rubbed the spot where her fingers had been. “I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to pay attention.” Her hand found his chin and she lifted his face so that she could look at him. His gaze fell somewhere behind her as he refused to look at the mesh panel of her mask. “What’s happening right now is going to seem really scary for a while. You’re going to want to panic and resist. But you have to stay calm. You’re going to have to take care of yourself. It’ll be hard at first, but you’ll learn.”
E7′s gaze slowly drifted to Soto’s mask. His eyes were bloodshot as if he’d been crying, but there were no tears. Brow furrowed, mouth slightly open, he bore a look of total helplessness. He was listening to her words but couldn’t yet comprehend what she was saying.
“Everything we’re doing is to keep you safe. So you have to survive, E7. You have to do whatever it takes. That means wearing this,” she held up the wad of hair. “And it means doing what Dr. Crane tells you to do. He’s going to take you out of this place.”
“...What?” he breathed, eyes wide.
“You’re going to leave here, E7. It’s the only way to keep you alive.”
"L-leave?” he croaked.
“What did you think was happening?” she asked incredulously.
He shook his head. “No, no I-I don’t want to go.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
He felt his knees give out, forcing him to grab the table to keep himself upright. Soto used the distraction to put the wig firmly on his head, followed by a dirty red baseball cap. The last thing she pulled from the bag was a pair of shoes. “Go over there and sit down,” she said. When he didn’t move, she took his arm and pulled him to the metal bed. Both hands on his shoulders, she pushed him into a sitting position before bending down and grabbing one of his feet. He didn’t resist as she placed the ratty athletic shoes—silver duct tape on each end—over one foot, then the other. They pressed against the bandages on the bottoms of his feet, but that pain did little to pull him from the lull that he’d fallen into.
“E7,” Soto said, leaning over to grab his arms again. “Hey.” She shook him a little, snapping her fingers in front of his face. He blinked and reached for her hand, grabbing onto it faster than she could pull away. He stared at her glove, mouth agape, and began to tug at the rubber.
“What are you d—stop it, E7,” she ordered, trying to pull away. But his grip was surprisingly strong. In seconds, he had ripped off her glove and was touching her hand. Her skin was sweaty, swirling patterns standing out on each of her fingers. He noticed the color was much darker than his own skin, except for her fingernails, which were a soft pink just like his.
E7 stared at her hand, gripping it harder each time she tried to pull away.
“Let go of me,” she said, grunting and twisting away from him.
There were tiny hairs on the back of her hand. Soft, like the rabbit.
“You’re hurting me,” Soto said through gritted teeth.
E7′s head snapped up. He immediately released her, pulling his hands to his chest. “I didn’t mean to,” he whispered, shaking his head at her, not knowing what else to say.
The door opened.
“Thank god,” Soto snapped, turning toward James, who was sliding the black keycard into his pocket as he stepped into the room. Soto crossed the room and slammed the door shut with her gloved hand, bending close to whisper something to James.
They spoke like that for less than a minute. E7 trembled on the bed, convinced that he was about to be punished. He would’ve apologized again if it would change anything. But they didn’t listen. They never listened.
The dead thing on his head itched.
“Interesting,” James finally said, speaking at a normal volume. He stepped around Soto and extended his hand toward E7. “Let’s go.”
E7 didn’t move.
“I said let’s go,” James repeated, his voice firm.
Slowly, E7 slid off the bed and stood. He’d never worn shoes before. They were like cages for his feet. He dragged them over to the door, crossing the room like a child who hadn’t yet learned how to walk. He had to put out his arms several times to balance, tripping over his own feet before finally reaching James and Soto.
“Maybe you should use this,” Soto touched the wheelchair.
“He can walk,” James insisted. “Lift your feet as you step—yes, like that. Just don’t bend your knees so much.”
E7 walked closer, managing to keep his balance. The shoes felt wrong, but he didn’t think he would fall over if he could just concentrate on what his feet were doing. It’s just that he kept getting distracted by the thoughts running through his head, and the fear biting at his throat.
“You’re really doing this,” Soto said again, shaking her head.
“I’ve done my part. Now you do yours,” James replied, his voice lower than usual. It almost sounded like a threat when he spoke like that.
“I’ll take care of it,” she replied stiffly.
The door’s suction broke as James pulled it open, revealing the room on the other side. E7 had never been close enough to get a good look at it before, but he’d always been curious about what was in there. As James guided him through the door, one hand on his arm, E7 found himself too scared to look.
“Keep your head down just like that,” James said. “Don’t speak, don’t look at anyone, and stay close to me.” They made their way to the other side of the outer room. Before opening the door, James reached up and pulled off his mask.
E7 gasped and threw both hands up to cover his eyes.
“There are no masks out there,” James said. “You’ll get used to it. In fact,” he added, pushing the door open, “you’ll probably start to miss them.”