The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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TWO | Mirror

“He’s stabilizing,” they said, bringing him back from the edge. The doctors had learned how to snip open his cocoon and pull him from the membrane of death. It was never a pleasant feeling, sliding out of the dark. It bruised like a needle after blood had been drawn.

The good thing about dying was that it was never permanent. With every blackout came a burst of light that brought with it a sense of change—the only change he knew. And change, the opposite of finality, was comforting. It told him that, one day, things could be different.

“I want to see his numbers. I want to see progress.” The words sounded familiar. James had spoken them earlier—the last time E7 had slipped into the cocoon. Was that...today?

High-pitched ringing flooded his head, bright light pinching through his tightly-shut eyes. He couldn’t make out any figures other than white upon white upon white. Layers of suits and walls and ceiling—everything was made up of light and it blazed through his eyelids, burning. Wrists pulled against cuffs as he tried to raise his hand to cover his face. He felt rubber against his flesh, holding him down.

“Get him fully stabilized and then bring me the results,” James’ voice grew softer and more distant. He was going out of the room. “I don’t want to see another failure today.”

Failure.

The word rattled around in E7′s head, echoing. Had it been different this time? What would happen when he saw the results of the last test? Had James found the answers he was looking for? Or was it about to start all over again?

E7′s jaw slackened, and he pushed out the loudest sound he could make. It was small and weak compared to the voices around him, but someone heard.

“Ssh,” they breathed softly, the voice muffled by their mask and the ringing in his ears. “It’s alright now. Everything’s going to be okay. We’re just going to get you settled on the bed and then you can rest. Take slow, deep breaths. That’s it...just relax...”

The quick gasps of air he was gulping in were dizzying, and it felt good to let oxygen fill his lungs even though it hurt his ribs to expand his chest fully. The act of breathing gave his mind something to concentrate on—other than the gloved hands that were pushing and pulling at him, checking his pulse, removing his IVs, and pressing cold metal instruments against his skin. He let her voice soothe his panic while he tried again to open his eyes. They seemed stuck together, as though sleep and exhaustion had sealed them shut.

E7 let out a sharp cry of pain as his body was picked up off the gurney by several sets of hands and placed on a cold slab of metal. The jarring motion made him feel as though he was being torn in half, though he knew as he lay there that he was intact. The feeling was only on the inside, where James’ needle had introduced chemicals that had eaten away at him. He would heal soon enough but the feeling left behind—the pain—would last for days.

He began to shiver from the cold, moaning in imperceptible decibels that were barely louder than the sound of heavy breaths. E7 could be quiet when there were doctors in the room. He didn’t like to make noise in front of them, knowing they would be watching him. His pain would only give them more questions; ones he didn’t have the strength to answer.

Someone placed a warm blanket over him, abruptly ending the cold all over the front of his body. Bare skin pressed against the metal bed. E7 could not get warm entirely. But the blanket, heavy and constricting in a comforting way, was the best thing he’d ever felt. Under the fabric, a warm hand took hold of his fingers and squeezed gently. The air caught in his throat at the contact. A hot tear slid silently down his cheek and he finally managed to open his eyes. One of the doctors stood above him, a mask covering their features. His gaze moved swiftly downward until he spotted the hand hovering at their side. They wore a purple glove.

“Don’t spoil him, Soto,” a deep voice warned from behind her. She turned briefly toward them and motioned at the door.

“Get going, Baker. Crane wants that report ASAP and it’s your week to do paperwork.”

“Why? You hoping for some alone time with the freak?” Baker, the only other suit in the room, gave a snort as he made a strange gesture with his fist. It was a secret code between doctors, one E7 had seen before but still did not know the meaning of. “God knows he’d thank you for it later.”

“Get out,” Soto’s voice became ragged—the way it did when she was really upset.

“Screw you, Soto.” Another mysterious gesture with his hand and one finger.

“Out.”

E7′s eyelids fluttered, his mouth agape as he fought to stay conscious amidst the stress of pain. The heated conversation ended, and the door suctioned shut behind Baker. E7 understood little of what they were saying—only that Soto was mad at Baker over something he’d said. Some alone time with the freak...was that it? The thing that upset her so that her voice shook?

Her hand still in his, E7 pressed his thumb against her glove to remind himself that she hadn’t let go. She glanced back down at him, the suit crinkling like soft plastic at the movement. She squeezed his hand again, tilting her head to the side. He longed for her to speak to him—her soft voice always brought him comfort—but she stayed silent. Maybe she was afraid. Not of Baker...but of being alone.

Being alone...with him.

He shuddered unwillingly under the blanket, exhaustion pulling the darkness closer. It was a battle to keep his eyes open, but he tried. He wanted to look at her, to know that she was looking at him through the mask of her suit. E7 wanted to believe that she wasn’t afraid. But it was fear that made them wear the suits and gloves. It was fear that kept him in the white room, behind the mirror. It was their terror of him and the monster inside that brought him pain and pulled him in and out of life and death.

He, too, was terrified. Of himself, and of the things he could do. Those moments of pure fire that the monster fed off of—moments of agony that spiked the signal to the machine that beeped on the other side of the glass. They brought more fear to E7 than any needle ever could.

Though they had many questions, there was one thing that James and the other doctors had learned a long time ago. Pain fed the monster, and a well-fed monster played harder than a hungry one. Played with objects by coursing through them like electricity through wires, lifting and constricting everything in the room that wasn’t bolted down or covered in the doctors’ special suits. Even the mirror would shift at times, warbling to a vibration that could be heard as a low hum. That’s what happened when the tests were successful. But that result had to be coaxed out of him.

The monster inside of E7 was a shy, starving little thing whenever he was off the medication they had created for him. They needed the monster to play so that they could study it. Learn how it worked, what it could do, and what made it weak. Until they knew those things, all of the doctors would be afraid. Even Soto. Afraid of the monster, and the body that held it.

E7 was scared too—not just of the monster but of the medicine in the syringes; the burning liquid that fed whatever dark thing lived inside of him. He wasn’t sure what it was either, only that the games it liked were not the kind E7 wanted to play.

There had been other games like that when he was small. Toys that would change their shape when he looked at them. Colors that grew brighter under his gaze. He remembered clearly the smooth silver stones that shifted in circles when his hands came near. James had called these games preliminary tests. They were the reason the doctors first put on safety suits and gloves. Strapped him to a table. Put a needle in his arm. Told him to let the monster come out.

The tests, these experiments that pushed and pulled at his very life would not end until James had the answers he wanted. Soto and the other doctors were only trying to help him find those answers. E7 had no bad feelings about them, nor did he feel anything good. Like the emptiness of death, E7 felt the shadow of a void hovering over him long after the tests were over. Only Soto had ever tried to pull him out of it, to bring him back from the emptiness and the pain. Her efforts did not extend beyond gentle words and hand holding and even those simple gestures were criticized by the other doctors. Baker’s attitude of ridicule was the kind of reaction she received from her colleagues. But E7′s rapidly calming heartrate was enough to reassure her that she was doing the right thing for the experiment, if not for her own moral code. Though the lines dividing morality and her involvement in E7′s life were often blurred beyond recognition. Every painful wrong far outweighed the smallest kind of right.

In the agonizing first hour after the tests, E7 saw only her kindness. It was as consumptive as the pain she had inflicted on him moments before while she assisted James in his latest round of tests. E7 was growing more fearful of the monster with every new approach. The latest cocktails of medication had been far stronger than the ones previously injected. That fear of pain and what it meant—that the monster was close at hand—had extended to the doctors now too. His heart raced when they entered his room with the gurney. But fear made him tired. He was exhausted. Sleep, like death, seemed to be the only way out.

“Calm down now,” she told him, releasing his hand to pull the blanket around his shoulders. “You’re breathing too fast.”

“I-I c-can’t...” he struggled to raise his voice to be heard and breathe at the same time. “It h-hurts—”

“The pain is only in your mind. Your body is already healing.” She moved the blanket aside and ran a finger over the crease of his elbow. He looked. The dark purple bruises from the injection site were already fading.

E7 watched the purple shift to blue, then a sickly yellow-green, now gone. It was the same for the rest of the bruises across his chest where one of the doctors had performed compressions after losing his pulse. Dark patches faded to a pale flesh tone, leaving nothing behind but the light pattern of freckles and minor imperfections.

Most of his injuries were gone within ten minutes but Soto lingered. She wasn’t hovering simply to watch him heal; any of the doctors could’ve done that from the other side of the glass. There was another reason she didn’t want to leave the room.

“That’s it, nice deep breaths. Good job,” there was a smile in her voice as her gloved hand stroked his arm. “Do you think you can sit up?”

E7 struggled to answer. He wanted to say yes, because the pain had subsided to a dull, subdermal throbbing. But the exhaustion was still there—increased, in fact, after healing so suddenly. He felt his eyes closing even after he mumbled a weak confirmation.

“I’ll help you,” she tucked her hands under his arms and guided him into a sitting position, helping swing his legs over the edge and lean his back against the cold, concrete wall. Bare feet dangled over a tiled floor. There were drops of blood down there, already beginning to turn black as they dried. He looked at them, then at his pale legs and arms. That’s when he saw the smears of red on his skin from a deep cut just below his elbow. Soto saw it at the same time and sucked in a breath. “I’ll be right back,” she said, turning toward the door.

“No,” E7 blinked away the tiredness from his eyes, determined to stay awake. He wanted to know why she had stayed for so long. She must want to say something to him, to tell him something. He was desperate for the distraction that came with a fierce curiosity. It was enough to keep him awake despite his condition.

Soto paused. “I need to put a bandage on that,” she pointed to his arm and then stopped, realizing the blood was no longer running from the cut. “Oh. I guess it’s already healing.” She laughed under her breath.

E7 nodded slowly. “Is that funny?” he asked, confused.

“A little bit. I just saw the blood and reacted. I think it’s funny that I still forget what you are sometimes.”

“What...I am...” he repeated, tasting the words.

“I mean...what you can do.”

E7′s eyes told her he understood, though he was silent. The more exhausted he felt, the darker blue they turned. He could see it himself in the mirror across from the metal bed. Dark eyes, with dark circles, and a mouth thinned from pain. He could feel his body slowly slipping down the wall.

Soto walked over and climbed onto the metal slab to sit next to him—something she’d only done twice before. “You did really well today, you know.” She told him, her hands folded on her lap. He watched her purple fingers intertwine, the sound of the rubber unusually loud in his ears. She smelled like plastic and antiseptic, as did he. The odor was so intense that it filled his lungs and his mouth until it was all he could taste. Once again, a strong thirst came over him and he was tempted to ask for water.

“M-my mouth is really, um,” he took a slow breath in and exhaled sharply, wishing she could see what was in his mind. Water. “Dry,” he finished, swallowing hard.

“I’ll bring you some ice chips in a minute.” Soto turned to look at him through her mask. He could feel her watching. He was used to the scrutiny. The doctors were always staring at him, waiting to see what he would do next. He no longer felt uncomfortable under the gaze of gray mesh. The thought of ice chips gave him something to look forward to.

“Thank you,” he said, his eyes returning to the blood on the floor. It must have come from his arm when James ripped out the IV. The recollection of that moment brought a sting to his skin as if it were happening again. The needle breaking open flesh, freeing blood from its eternal tunnels of veins and organs, muscle and tissue. If cells were not mindless, they would be so bored.

E7 knew about the networks of the body, the circulatory system, the purpose of each organ. He had learned a lot from the doctors, though no one but Soto and James had ever taught him anything intentionally. He wanted to understand his own body, at least. Especially as he grew and things began to change.

“It’s better that you don’t know. I’ll tell you if something is wrong. Unless I say so, just assume it’s normal. I have my eye on you, E7. I know your body better than you do.” James had explained. Somehow his words had not completely soothed E7′s unease about the changes he was beginning to experience.

“It’s normal,” James had said as he’d shown E7 how to use a plastic razor. The cold blade had nicked the flesh on the curve of his jawline, causing him to flinch away. James had placed his hand on the back of E7′s neck, holding him close to the mirror. “Every man learns how to shave eventually. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

But the blade was sharp, and all it took was a bit of extra pressure to cut open his skin and leave him bleeding. E7 still hadn’t gotten the hang of it. He hadn’t figured out the mechanics of his own body, either.

The strange sensations that felt like fear but had a different effect on him remained a mystery. It was an excitement of sorts, and it only happened when he was alone. The feeling was so strong. There were times when he didn’t know whether he wanted to burst into laughter or tears. These changes in his mood and the physical sensations he had begun experiencing were what James called puberty, but that word didn’t seem complicated enough to suit all of the new and challenging feelings surrounding the changes. E7 was sure he would call it something else if he knew all the words James did.

Beside him, Soto adjusted her position on the metal bed. “You seem lost in thought. I almost hate to interrupt, but I have something I want to give you.”

E7 looked over at her quickly, his eyes narrowed. He instinctively moved away. “I-I thought the tests were over for today,” he cringed as his voice broke, wanting to sound strong. His chest moved up and down as his heart rate quickened. “Please, I just want to sleep, okay?” E7 let himself slide onto his side, pulling the blanket up to his chin. He couldn’t stop staring at his own face in the mirror, sheer panic etched there. He couldn’t take any more tests today. He was so tired, so unbelievably tired...

“Calm down, E7. There isn’t going to be a new test.”

He closed his eyes, relief falling over him like a second blanket.

“I went for a walk on my break today, and this was on the path,” the creak of her suit told him she had moved again. He slowly opened one eye to see her purple fingers delicately clutching some sort of brown paper. It was oddly shaped, with points and curves and tiny lines spreading out from a central stem.

“What is it?” he breathed, both eyes open wide now.

“It’s a leaf.” She told him, the smile returning to her voice. “Here. Take it.” She held it closer, waiting.

E7′s hand slowly moved out from under the blanket. He hesitated to take it, unsure how fragile it was. The thought of breaking it was agonizing. “Is it alive?” he asked in awe.

“Not anymore. Leaves die after they fall off the tree.”

“...Tree?” he repeated the word, tasting it. It reminded him of the sound of a chair being pulled across the tile floor. Movement. He wondered what it looked like and smelled like. Sitting up on his elbow, he held out his hand and Soto placed the leaf on his palm. E7 brought it close to his face and took a small sniff. One corner of his mouth lifted and he glanced at her with a lopsided smile. “It smells like water...and...” he sniffed again, “something else...something...” another sniff, “rich, like the tea you bring me sometimes.”

“Earthy.” Soto nodded.

“Earthy?” E7 stared at the leaf, wide-eyed and infinitely curious. A surge of renewed energy coursing through him, he managed to sit up and take the leaf in his other hand, twisting it around and peering at both sides with an excited urgency. “What is it made of?” he asked after a moment, pinching it between two fingers. “Feels like paper.”

“I’m not a botanist,” Soto laughed. “It’s made out of leaf. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

“Are there more?” he inquired suddenly, glancing up at her.

“Millions. This one blew in from the Maple trees up the street in the park. There are piles of them in front lawns all across America. I thought you should see one at least once before you leave this place.”

E7 had been stroking the leaf gently with the tip of his index finger, admiring its silky quality when Soto’s words sunk in. All movement ceased. He kept staring at the leaf, though his eyes had glazed over, unseeing. He was too deep in thought for any of his senses to intrude.

I thought you should see one at least once before you leave this place.

Before you leave this place.

Leave this place.

Leave

This

Place

“What does that mean?” the words escaped before he could stop them, afraid of knowing the answer.

“You didn’t think you would stay in this room forever, did you?” Soto asked quietly, the smile gone from her voice. She was serious now, which only made E7′s fear more intense.

“I-I don’t u-understand,” he shook his head, his hands beginning to tremble.

“I didn’t expect you to understand, E7.” Soto reached out and touched his shoulder. He flinched automatically, curling his hands into fists with sudden panic. There was a loud CRUNCH. They both looked down to see flecks of brown falling onto the blanket.

E7 let out a soft moan of dread as he uncurled his fists and saw the remains of the leaf, now broken into a thousand pieces. He had crushed it without meaning to. Heart in his throat, he could barely breathe.

Soto gasped in surprise, pulling back. She stared at him and the broken leaf for a moment, quiet. When she spoke, her voice was rough, stern. She wanted him to pay attention but all he could think about was the broken leaf in his hand. “You don’t have to be afraid of me,” she said. “I’m not like the others. I don’t enjoy hurting people. I’m not capable of that.”

“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t—I’m just tired, I—”

“You’re right. You should rest before you get upset and break something else.” Soto slipped off the bed and walked swiftly to the door.

“Wait, please,” E7′s voice was small behind her. She turned to look at him. “Can you fix it?” he held out his hands, cradling the pieces of leaf.

Soto shook her head. “Once you break something, it can’t be fixed,” she said, pulling open the door and stepping through. It closed behind her with a suctioning sound, telling E7 he was sealed in. No way out. Trapped again.

Tears welling in his bloodshot eyes, E7 stroked what was left of the leaf with his thumb, mumbling how sorry he was. He bit down on the inside of his cheek, trying hard to distract himself from the panic building in his stomach.

“I didn’t mean to,” he whispered, voice quivering. The leaf rustled under the gust of his breath, a wind made of toothpaste and blood. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”

He hadn’t forgotten Soto’s words, and the fact that she left without explaining what she meant only made things worse. He bit down harder, concentrating on the pain instead of the fear. He wanted to lay down and sleep, but nothing could shake the terror spreading through him at the thought of leaving his room. Breath catching in his throat, E7 realized not every change brought comfort. Dying and coming back were the two changes he was used to. In all of the journeys he’d made between life and death, he had never once left his room. Fear tasted bitter, like failure. E7 closed his eyes, still holding what was left of Soto’s leaf. He didn’t want to be afraid anymore. But fear, like the void that followed him from his very first death, never left. And with it came the sinking feeling that the panic and terror corrupting his bones were medicines strong enough to wake up the monster inside of him.

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