The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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NINETEEN | Code Red

They walked down the hallway, James in front, the boy following closely behind. The flow of people only seemed to increase the longer they walked. It felt like there was someone passing them every few seconds.

E7 kept his head down and his hood up, watching the tiles flow underneath him as if his feet weren’t even there. He shut out the footsteps all around him, the flowery and sour smells, the hundreds of voices that wanted to enter his head all at the same time.

Some small part of him wanted to look up when he heard a voice he recognized—which happened only twice—but a bigger part remembered that James had told him to keep his head down. He would obey. It was better that way.

Fear of the strangers surrounding him was almost as powerful a deterrent as his fear of James. Both worked together to keep his eyes down and his feet moving.

“This way,” James said over his shoulder, turning a corner. E7 didn’t miss a beat, picking up his pace to catch up and stay close. The shoes, which were too big for his feet and flopped loosely whenever he lifted his heels, made it very difficult to run. But he had learned that sliding them a little against the floor kept him from tripping, so he did that most of the time. It made him seem awkward, but it was barely noticeable. James hadn’t said anything about it, which must’ve meant that it was okay.

They walked through another elevator corridor but didn’t stop to ride. James led him through it to another short hall on the other side. This passage was narrow, with machines lining one wall and a set of doors at the end. “Almost there,” James said quietly, pushing the door open without using a keycard.

The sounds of the hospital were suddenly overpowered by the blasting of car horns and the rumble of traffic. Wind carried new smells that were bitter and dry. E7 froze, glancing up only long enough to see that James had already gone through the door and was walking ahead, expecting him to follow. I can’t, he thought, panicking, I can’t go out there!

The door was slowly closing, barely wide enough to admit him. Beyond it was another hallway, but with windows for walls and a floor that was made of smooth gray concrete and no tiles. Dim, bleary light drifted through the glass, a soft blue color that he’d never seen before. It wasn’t coming from any kind of fluorescent bulbs he’d ever seen.

The urge to obey, to follow James out into that strange hall, tugged at him. It was only stifled by the rising panic which threatened to cripple him at the knees. One hand shot out to catch the door against his will, holding it open. I can’t, he thought. I can’t.

“What are you still doing over there?” James was staring at him.

E7 opened his mouth to answer but found himself stepping forward instead, inching through the door, timid, hesitant. He looked from side to side, through the glass at the movement down below. Everything looked so small. He stared at the little moving, honking boxes zipping by with tiny people inside of them and suddenly felt very sick.

“I think I’m going to throw up,” he said, bracing one hand against the window. James walked back, his stride long but not hurried.

“We’re almost there,” he said when he got to E7′s side. As if trying to reassure him, James put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Nodding, E7 followed him. He kept his steps small but fast, hurrying to pass through the tunnel of windows without looking down again. He could feel the concrete moving under his feet, the glass vibrating. Overhead, orange and red lights began to flash. E7 jerked, ducking his head and ramming his hands against his ears to block out the alarm wailing from the speaker system.

“Code red,” someone announced in a shrill, authoritative voice. “Code red. All unauthorized personnel evacuate the second floor immediately. Code red.”

James was staring at the lights with a smile. “She did it,” he muttered, surprise coloring the pleasure in his voice.

E7′s breath came out in panicked bursts. The room was spinning. He closed his eyes to block out the lights and the voice, unsure what it meant and terrified of it at the same time. A hand gripped his elbow and pulled him forward. His eyes shot open in time to watch James pass through the doorway at the end of the tunnel, stepping into a dark, concrete space. The boxes that E7 had seen through the windows were here, only they were much larger. Each one was parked between thick white lines, side by side.

James pulled E7 down rows of cars, searching. “We don’t have much time. They can’t know I was here when it started. They’ll wonder why I didn’t go back inside. It’ll look suspicious—walk faster!” he barked over his shoulder. The alarm continued to sound at their backs as they rushed down the aisle, looking for something. “Where did I—ah,” James paused in relief, then kept walking in a more pointed direction.

E7′s eyes flicked over the surroundings, taking in the giant concrete pillars on the ground and enormous blocks on the ceiling, the big yellow signs, the small green ones, and the fat lumps in the middle of the path that caught the tips of his shoes and caused him to stumble behind James, who had finally released his arm. “James,” he coughed, out of breath and aching. He could feel the wound under his rib bleeding again. “W-wait, James,” he said as the doctor turned the corner ahead of him, no longer in sight.

E7 tried to walk faster, his stomach twisting with dread. What if James disappeared in this place and left him behind? How would he ever get out—what would he do? Panting, he began grabbing the ends of the cars, dragging himself along. His clammy skin squeaked against the shiny paint, sliding across the surface of the dirtier vehicles. As his hand came down on a shiny black car near the end of a row, the alarm blared and chirped, lights flashing. Terrified, E7 threw his hands up and jumped back, tripping on the laces of his right shoe, which had come undone.

He hit the ground with a thud behind the car as it flashed and wailed. E7 covered his ears, too stunned to get off the ground. A shoe lay several feet away, his right foot bare. Pulling his knees to his chest, he stared at the car, watching its lights with a blank expression. He could feel something burning in his chest—a rising heat that crawled under his skin.

The windows popped.

Glass flew everywhere.

The alarm cut off abruptly, but the lights continued to flash. E7 stared down at the shards surrounding him. They quivered as if the ground was shaking. But there was no movement in the ground itself, only in the glass.

The heat in his chest subsided.

The glass lay still.

Around the corner, a white car sped down the lane, tires squealing. It stopped in front of E7, lights blinding him. A door opened and James stepped out. “Get up,” he said, dragging E7 to his feet. He stopped briefly to look at the shattered glass and then kept moving, dragging the boy around the side of the white car to the very back. A hatch opened, revealing a small, dark space. “Climb in,” he ordered.

E7 felt his body go numb. His limbs wouldn’t move.

“What did I say?” James snarled, shoving him toward the trunk. “Get in!”

E7 felt the darkness enveloping him as if he was already in the trunk, already swallowed whole by a dark place in the big white box. His body moved accordingly, folding him into the space. Something that felt like terror began to claw at his throat.

James closed the trunk.

Someone screamed in the dark, but no one could hear it over the cry of the fire alarm still blaring over the hospital speakers.

The dark had eyes. Two red eyes that flared up every time the movement stopped. When the box quit bouncing him, the eyes opened. E7 reached out to touch them, his fingers finding nothing but smooth, cold metal.

The car jostled him forward, then back. He searched with his hands for something solid to hold onto, but there was nothing. He found objects in the trunk with him—a square thing with a place for his fingers to grip it. A metal rod with four arms. Something small and made of paper. The thought crossed his mind that it was a book, but any excitement that dared rear its head was quickly killed by the realization this it was too dark to look at it. Too dark to see anything. Too dark to sleep.

“James,” he cried, slapping his hand on the roof of the trunk. “I’ll be good, James, I promise!” his voice shook, sobs escaping in bursts. It was because of the broken glass. No, it was that he lost the shoe. It was the thing that happened in the bathroom with the stalls. No. When he flinched and ruined the game. It was the rabbit. The book. The leaf.

“I’m sorry!” he screamed, his body trembling in the dark.

The darkness remained. The red eyes kept blinking.

He wondered how long it had been. He tried counting, but that didn’t tell him anything. Only that he didn’t know very many numbers. He grew desperate, kicking and hitting at the walls, twisting his body to try and find a way out.

There was no way out.

He sobbed, but soon his throat felt dry so that he choked, and his voice was hoarse enough that talking was painful. He couldn’t cry or scream or call out. All he could do was lie in the dark, his hands pressing against the cold metal, trying to get to the light.

E7 closed his eyes, clenching his muscles as the car came to another abrupt stop, throwing him forward and then jerking him back again. His stomach turned, nauseous from the movement and the sharp, sickeningly sweet smell wafting through the seal of the trunk every few minutes. E7 felt saliva pour onto his tongue as his stomach went sour. He opened his mouth and gagged, abdomen hardening as he dry-heaved into the dark trunk. Nothing came out afterward but a soft, weak cry. Pain in his stomach moved upward into his chest, compressing his ribs and making it hard to breathe. He gasped, sucking in air only to expel it with a cough. Something was wrong. The air was getting thicker, hotter, harder to inhale.

The car finally stopped, and E7 heard voices outside. The urge to call out was strong enough that he began to yell, only managing to silence himself by putting both hands over his mouth. He couldn’t let people know he was in there. He was supposed to be invisible. That’s what James told him. To go unnoticed. Screaming would make someone notice.

The voices continued, too muffled to be understood.

“Taking a road trip?” someone shouted right next to the trunk.

“Going home.” James’ voice was unmistakable.

Lifting his head, E7 pulled himself closer to the hatch and tapped gently on the metal. Please, he begged silently, please answer me.

Something knocked twice on the trunk.

Relief washed over him, his head flopping to rest on the soft interior of the trunk. There was material covering the floor and some of the roof as well. It was a carpet-like fabric, the thick but short fibers. E7 pressed his face into it, trying not to speak. He wanted to beg to be let out, to plead for James to take him out of the dark. But he knew that if James wanted him out of the trunk, he’d open it and let him climb out. When the car began moving again, E7 didn’t scream or pound on the trunk, or kick or cry or sob.

This was obviously how it was supposed to go.

This was the way James played the game.

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