The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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Blue tile.

White tile.

Blue tile touching a white tile.

White tile touching three other white tiles.

No more blue tiles at all.

E7 stopped in the middle of the hallway, his eyes glued to the floor. What happened to the blue tiles? Where did they go? Did someone take them? The tiles in his room were all white, but now he was wondering if some of them might have been a different color. Had all the scrubbing and the bleach made them fade and become colorless? The thought that there might be something he didn’t know about his room made him anxious—more than he was already. E7 sucked in a breath, still staring at the floor and thinking about what other things he might not know.

“Excuse me,” someone knocked into him and he fell forward, throwing out his arms to catch himself. His hands found the back of James’ suit and he clawed at it, desperately trying to stay on his feet.

“Aah!” E7 hissed, the pain from the incision piercing under his ribs.

“What are you doing?” James demanded, turning around and taking him by the shoulder, helping E7 steady himself before guiding him over to the elevators, which filled a bright purple corridor and mirrored each other.

“I’m sorry,” E7 backed away too quickly from James’ grip, his arm hitting two round buttons on a silver panel as he slammed into the drywall next to them.

“Watch what you’re doing,” James said, pulling him away from the buttons, which had both turned orange. “Just stand here.” He pointed to the floor an arm’s length away. E7 shifted to the side, the open space of hallway at his back making his spine stiffen with anxiety. He could hear people—so many people—walking behind him, passing around him. No longer limited to the antiseptic smell of his room, he could detect different kinds of odors, some sweet, some bitter, all of them strong enough to make him choke. He coughed as some sort of potent fruity odor trailed behind a woman in a pair of green scrubs. James was looking at him with narrowed eyes. Keep your head down, E7 remembered, lowering his gaze immediately to the floor.

A green, down-facing triangle lit up above one of the elevators. Ding. The doors peeled open with a jostling screech in front of them. E7 moved behind James, peeking over his shoulder at the gaping hole in the wall.

A tall man stepped into the elevator corridor, a cellphone is his hand. He tucked it into a pocket while smiling politely at James. “Going down, Crane?”

“Not today, Eckles.” James replied and they both gave a chuckle.

“I see you’re coming from the east wing,” he gestured at the white suit James was still wearing. E7 suddenly noticed that the clothes Eckles wore were different underneath his white suit—which was actually a lab coat that didn’t even close in the front. “How’s Soto these days? And Delacorte?” Eckles asked, making conversation.

“Demanding and fired, respectively,” James answered.

“Oh. What happened?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know? I’m not giving you her number, if that’s why you’re interested.” James said. They both chuckled again.

“How many is that, anyway? Three or four doctors you’ve fired in the past twelve months? I gotta hand it to you, Crane. You sure can pick ’em.”

“Delacorte was an RA and the others were not a good fit.”

“Oof,” Eckles put his hand to his chest. “I’ve been fed that line a few times in my career. That hurts. Got any plans for replacements?”

“Soto and the lower tiers have everything under control at the moment. There’s no need for an addition to our team.”

“Oh yeah? I heard the board sent for Blair.”

E7 risked a glance at James, taking in the subtle change in his face from calm to agitated. There was something about the lines on his forehead...they got deeper, and his eyes darker, when he was upset. E7 suddenly realized what he was doing and looking away, sucking in a sharp, scared breath. The feeling that he was doing something bad when he looked at the faces around him—as if punishment were imminent—wouldn’t go away.

The silence stretched on for too long. The elevator doors slid shut.

Eckles backpedaled. “I don’t want to pick at old wounds. I’m just curious about how you and your team are handling the intrusion. It must be...uncomfortable. I know how I would feel if my ex got sent up to cardiology.”

“It’s all been very professional,” James answered after a long pause, during which the tension was so thick, E7 began to squirm. The incision under his rib continued to burn, joined by the needle mark in his thigh, which was throbbing harder the longer they stood in the corridor. He wondered why they were there. What were they waiting for?

“That’s good, that’s good,” Eckles repeated himself, obviously at a loss for words. “And what about all the drama in the psych ward this morning?”

James narrowed his eyes into slits. “What?” he said, his voice clipped.

“You know what I’m talking about,” Eckles raised an eyebrow. “Don’t try to pretend nothing happened.”

“You’ll have to be more specific,” cold, calm. James looked as if nothing was amiss in this conversation at all.

They know, E7 thought. They know about Blair, about the man in the wheelchair, about these clothes—they’re not mine, he panicked, holding his arms out to look at the stained sleeves of the sweatshirt.

“The mops and buckets up and down the hallway all day yesterday and today? Did the whole floor have a collective accident or were you all cleaning up a body?” Eckles barked out a laugh. E7 flinched at the sound but didn’t move from the spot James had told him to stand.

“A pipe burst,” James explained, pausing for a fraction of a second.

“Is that all?” Eckles responded. “Huh. Disappointing.”

“It was hectic, but no accidents. No bodies.”

“I suppose that’s something to be grateful for.”

“Absolutely.” James agreed.

The second set of elevator doors slid open, preceded by the loud ding and upward-facing green arrow. Another gaping hole in the wall, revealing a tiny room of mirrors. E7 stepped toward it, eyes wide.

“Go ahead,” Eckles gestured toward the elevator. It took E7 several seconds to realize that the man was talking to him. When he did, he shook his head vehemently and took several steps back, retreating behind James to hide his face in the man’s back.

“Claustrophobic?” Eckles inquired, looking mildly concerned.

James shook his off and shot E7 a look, but the boy didn’t see it. His gaze was pinned to the toes of his shoes, which he pressed together awkwardly, heels apart. “I think we’ll take the next one,” James said quietly, his tone flat, emotionless.

E7′s hands started to tremble. He picked at the hem of the sweatshirt, breathing faster.

“Alright then,” Eckles said after a minute, confusion coloring his tone. “Have a good one.”

Eckles stepped into the elevator. When he turned around, the look of confusion had been replaced with a polite smile. He reached out, pressed a button on the panel inside the elevator, and then waved toward James. E7 could feel the Eckles’ eyes on him, sizing him up. Lifting one shoulder higher than the other, he tried to lower his head even more. A few seconds later, the doors slid closed again, and the man was gone.

Behind them, another set of doors opened. E7 barely had time to flinch before James planted a hand firmly on the back of his neck, gripping him painfully hard as they walked toward the elevator. James shoved him inside at the threshold. He stumbled forward, catching himself on the bar with a wince. This elevator had no mirrors in it, just a thick, dark fabric on the walls. It made him want to turn around and run right back out.

“You cannot behave that way,” James hissed, keeping his voice low while the doors were open. “People will only see you if you behave strangely. If you act like them, you are invisible. Do you understand?” he was still holding E7 by the nape, fingernails biting into flesh. “You need to behave. I won’t tell you again.” He reached out and slammed a finger against the button panel, lighting several up at once. When he pushed them again, the little orange lights switched off, leaving only one button illuminated.

“I-I’ll be good,” E7 whimpered, shoulders hunched, arms hanging awkwardly in front of his chest like an animal held by its scruff.

"Normal,” James said. “That’s how this is going to work. There is no other way.”

E7 wanted to know what this was. Another game? He was tired of playing. Before he could reply, the elevator doors slid shut, the whole carriage shifting as it began to move up the shaft. Terrified, E7 let out a short, clipped cry and grabbed onto the metal bar to keep from falling over.

"Look at me,” James ordered.

Slowly, with an expression of dread, E7 lifted his head. He saw dark eyes and stern features—angular but wilting with age. The line of his mouth pulled down at the corners and his forehead was a series of crinkles in the skin, as if he never stopped frowning. His hair, barely longer than the tip of a finger, was mostly an ashy brown but peppered with white strands around his face and ears. Seeing him now, putting a face to the voice after all this time, didn’t feel real. It felt wrong.

“This is your last chance—ours. Both of us...” his hand slowly released E7′s neck and dropped to his side. “We have an opportunity. Do not screw it up.”

Hands gripping the bar, shoulders still hiked up to his ears, E7 didn’t move. I’m sorry, he wanted to say. I didn’t mean to, I’m trying—I’m really trying. I just don’t know what you want me to do!

E7 said nothing.

James began pulling at his suit, unsealing it at the side and peeling it off. He shed the pale, plastic skin and wadded it up into a ball, holding it under his arm while adjusting the clothes he wore underneath it. He tugged at each cuff of the plain, off-white shirt he wore, checking each button down the front until they stopped, tucked into the waist of a pair of dark blue pants. Black shoes that glistened in the light of the elevator caught E7′s attention. He stared at them, refusing to look at James’ face again.

“When we get to the fifth floor, there’s going to be a lot of people. I don’t want you to look at them or speak to them. You will stay near me—but don’t touch me,” James said, pointing a finger at E7 for emphasis, who stared at it with wide eyes. “Follow me and do everything I tell you to do. Do not make this more difficult for me or, so help me, there will be consequences.”

E7 nodded, his eyes shifting from the finger in his face to the floor. “I’ll be good,” he repeated quietly. “I promise.”

The word “consequences” made him feel instantly sick. Stomach turning sour, he closed his eyes and tried not to think about how the room he was in hadn’t stopped moving. James seemed to have nothing more to say. Content with silence, he stood there and watched the numbers change on the digital panel above the elevator doors. When the number 5 appeared, he shifted on his feet and motioned for E7 to get closer.

Careful not to touch him, E7 stood as close to James as he could and waited. The elevator finally stopped, doors sliding open with grating, metallic shriek. A group of people appeared, ready to enter the carriage.

“Stay close,” James ordered in a low voice as the strangers moved forward, pushing their way into the elevator.

Panic jolted E7 into action. Terrified of getting lost in the crowd of people, he jostled his way through them, arms pinned to his sides to avoid touching any of them directly. Once free of their bodies, he bolted to catch up with James, who was already out of the corridor and heading down the hallway. As he ran, E7 felt the incision under his rib tear, warm blood soaking into his shirt. He stopped to put a hand over the top of the wound, wincing.

James turned around and, noticing the expression of pain contorting E7′s features, turned back. He approached him with long strides, hiding his irritation. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly.

“M-my side,” E7 whispered, unable to stop himself from flinching with surprise at each person who passed by close enough to touch. He had never seen this many people in one place before. Their presence—and proximity—was too much to handle. He could feel himself breaking down as his heart sped up. The pain in his side was just another component to all of this. Just another thing to pull at his attention.

“Did you hurt yourself?” James demanded.

E7 shook his head, closing his eyes against the pain. “D-doctor Blair,” he mumbled, “b-biopsy.” The words came out stuttered. He was nervous. They were supposed to be moving, going somewhere. James had a plan. E7 was holding him up, getting in the way. “It’s better now,” he breathed, forcing the pain out of his mind. It still hurt, but the sharp, stabbing sensation had faded enough to start walking again.

James peered at him for a moment, then looked away. He seemed to be searching for something. Finally, he took E7′s arm and pulled him in a new direction. They walked down a long, stark hallway to a room with a picture on the door. It looked like a person in a white suit, but with a perfectly round head. James pushed open the door and guided him inside, replacing his earlier forcefulness with careful pressure.

The room was made up of yellow and gray tiles, with sinks lining an entire wall. Urinals hung from the other wall, two faded yellow stalls standing in the corner. James pushed open the stall closest to the bathroom door and gestured inside it. “Wait in here,” he said, his voice tracing the room in a watery echo.

E7 swallowed, staring at the toilet, then observing the rest of the stall. It was small, cold. “Is this my room now?” he asked quietly. He glanced up when there was no answer.

James was frowning. “No,” he said after a long pause. “Just wait. I’ll be back in a minute.” With that, he pulled the door shut. “Slide the bar so that the door locks. Don’t open it again unless you hear my voice.”

E7 looked for a bar and saw one the size of his finger next to an empty latch. Pushing it to the left, he guided the lock into place. “I did it,” he said, but there was no answer from the other side. Only silence, interrupted occasionally by the sound of water dripping somewhere behind the wall. Stepping around the side of the toilet, E7 leaned his body against the tiles, pressing his face onto the cold surface with an unexpected sense of relief. It was good to be in this small space, without any people, safe behind a door. The gap of open space around the bottom of the stall caused some concern, but mostly he was happy to be alone, untouched, no needles, even if it would only be for a little while. Slowly, his heart found a gentler rhythm in his chest, relieving some of the ache in his ribs. The biopsy wound continued to bleed and his thigh still burned from the needle mark, but it was all much more bearable now.

Bending at the knees, E7 allowed his body to slide down the wall, folding himself into the corner of the stall next to the toilet. His legs pressed against the bowl, wedging him into the space. Folding his arms over his chest, he let his eyes close for a second, hoping to relieve the dryness that hadn’t completely gone away since the game.

Thinking about it made his stomach twist, so he concentrated on the sound of the water dripping in the wall, counting the drops until he ran out of numbers and then started over again. As the rhythm lulled him into deeper sense of calm, E7 felt his body grow heavier, and sunk against the tiles for support.

Now there was no sound at all, just a subtle hum in the back of his mind. A gentle buzz that made his head feel light. Eyes still closed, he leaned into the sound, drawing it closer, letting it near him. Until he realized it was coming from inside of him somewhere—a place he’d never felt before. Not his chest, where fire burned ice cold, but the corners of his mind where the flames had never touched. A good place, he knew. A trusted place. He let the sound and its feeling envelope him until there was nothing else. Just quiet, and sleep.

The silence was broken by a sharp banging sound.

E7 jolted awake, gasping. Someone was pounding on the door of the stall. He shrunk further into the corner, terrified.

“Open the door,” a familiar voice ordered in a low, dangerous tone.

“James,” E7 breathed, scrambling to his feet. Stepping around the toilet toward the door, he reached to unlock it. That’s when he saw that the bar was no longer in the latch. E7 pulled the door open slowly, backing up to make room. James wasn’t there. But the reflection in the mirrors above the sink revealed Dr. Crane was only a few feet away, pounding on the stall closest to the bathroom door. The one he’d left E7 in minutes ago. The one now empty.

E7 stepped out, trembling.

James caught the movement and turned, his face twisted in confusion. “What are you doing? I told you to stay put,” he snapped angrily as he stalked forward.

“James, I-I—” E7 stuttered, confused, unable to speak. He shook his head wordlessly instead, quickly realizing that waking up in the other stall wasn’t the only thing wrong. The dead wad of hair and the red hat were no longer on his head, leaving his shaven scalp cold, light, and open to the air. The itching was gone too, but that didn’t make him feel better. He searched his memory, trying to figure out what had happened. “I didn’t do anything,” he blurted, holding his sides. “I-I was good, I didn’t move—”

“Be quiet,” James ordered, walking over to the sink. His hands were full. E7 peered closer, recognizing the white gauze and medical tape. “Lift up your shirt,” came next, to which he responded with instant obedience. James reached over and ripped several paper towels from a dispenser, wetting them at the sink before using them to dab the slow leakage of blood that had stained E7′s pale skin around the incision.

James cleaned the wound with precision before taking two small white strips from his pocket and placing them in such a way that they held the incision together. That done, he folded the gauze and tucked it against E7′s skin, taping it in place. “Don’t twist and try not to lift your arm because those things can tear it open.” He turned and began gathering the blood-soaked paper towels, throwing them in the trashcan. “It should’ve healed already,” he mumbled to himself.

E7 felt like he should apologize, but didn’t, working his shirts carefully back down over the bandage instead.

Turning, James stared him down. “Where is the wig?” he snapped.

E7 opened his mouth but nothing came out.

Exhaling through his nose, James swiped a hand over his face and into his hair. “We’re not getting off to a great start here,” he said, an edge to his voice. E7 couldn’t tell if it was anger, confusion, or exasperation. “I know there are a lot of things that you don’t understand—a lot of things I haven’t ever told you. But I’m going to tell you something right now and you had better understand this.”

E7′s jaw quivered, his shoulders rising as he readied himself for whatever James was about to say. There was no way to know what it would be, only that he’d need to remember it forever.

“Your only job in the whole world,” he began in a surprisingly gentle voice, “is to do as I say. That’s it. You don’t have to know everything, just that what I tell you is absolute. It’s final.”

“...Final...” E7 repeated softly.

“Don’t speak.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, eyes wide.

“You do,” James stepped closer, “what I tell you to do,” closer, “and nothing else.” He took E7′s face in both his hands, squeezing his jaw closed to prevent him from speaking. His grip was tight enough to bruise. ”Nothing else,” he said again.

E7 moved back, resisting the hold because of how much it was starting to hurt.

“No,” James said. “Don’t move.”

E7 stopped resisting. “I’m sorry,” he repeated without thinking.

“I don’t know any other way to get through to you, boy,” the last word sent spit into the air. James gritted his teeth and squeezed harder. “Pain seems to be one of the few things you respond to—on so many levels—and I’m tired,” James pressed harder, until E7 let out a cry and squeezed his eyes shut, “so tired of trying to make you understand words when this primitive, instinctual language is the only thing that makes an impact. It’s the only thing you truly understand. Like an animal.”

E7′s hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. He knew better than to try and pull James’ hands away, but everything inside of him was screaming to try—something, anything—to make James stop hurting him. He thought about how relieved he had been to see James after the biopsy, and how that relief was like a distant memory now. Dr. Blair wasn’t the only one who knew how to hurt people.

“This is only a taste of what you’re going to get if you defy me one more time. Do you understand?” James asked, his grip on E7′s head tightening as he waited.

Tears spilling from his eyes, E7 said nothing, unsure if he was allowed to speak.

James lifted an eyebrow. “Answer me.”

“I understand,” he blurted through gritted teeth.

James released E7′s head and watched him stumble back against the stall, hitting the locked door before turning away to hide his face against the wall. E7 wrapped his arms around himself and ducked his head, too scared to say or do anything without an order. He stood in the corner, shaking, waiting, heart pounding out of his chest. James had never treated him that way before—never spoken to him like that, never used those words, never hurt him without a reason. E7 choked back a sob, wondering guiltily if James did have a reason, and if it was a good one.

“Turn around,” James said.

E7 had no choice. He shifted so that his body was facing James, but refused to look at him, too ashamed of the tears streaming down his face.

“Look at me.”

E7 groaned—the only sign of resistance—and lifted his head. James nodded, a slow smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

“If you can do that, exactly like you just did, everything will be fine.” James took a step forward, reaching out. E7′s hands flew up to cover his face, his fingers hovering at his chin. He froze as James reached around him, took hold of the back of E7′s sweatshirt, and pulled the hood up and over his head. “Keep this on,” James said, ignoring E7′s hunched shoulders and open-mouthed stare as he patted him repeatedly on the top of his head.

E7 held completely still, his eyes locked on the lump in the middle of James’ throat.

That’s it,” James said, a look of satisfaction bleeding into his eyes. “Good boy.”

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