The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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FIVE | Test

Soto’s uncertain promise echoed for days. An obsession. It wasn’t unusual for E7 to focus on certain words or phrases, repeating them in his head. The doctors never said anything more than once, so if there was something he wanted to learn from them he would have to pick it up fast.

“Take your fork. Eat.”

Fork. Not food-poker as he’d called it. Fork. Fork.

“Stop pulling on your IV before I strap you down.”

IV. Strap. IV. Strap. IV. Strap.

Each word made a picture in his mind of an object or a sound. He felt them more than anything else because it was easier to remember them that way than to memorize vocabulary. To feel something was to experience it without words or descriptions.

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

Those words brought on all kinds of feelings—most of them the sort of emotions E7 worked to suppress. Fear, anxiety, frustration. He wanted to understand why she had told him he would leave. Did she mean it? Was she trying to give him hope, only to change her mind later? It had happened before. Promises to leave were not unheard of. When he was much younger the other doctors would tell him that they would take him outside if he did things for them and cooperated in all of their tests. E7 would do as they asked but when the test was over the door would close and he would still be in his room. He had never left. Not once. Was Soto’s promise any different?

E7 sat up on the metal bed at the sound of the door lock disengaging. It suctioned open and a suit entered the room. They held a clipboard in one hand and a white cloth sack in the other. Their gloves were blue. Disappointed, he laid his head down and went back to twisting the blanket between his fingers.

“I have a new test for you today, E7.” It was James. His voice sounded steadier now than during their last encounter. He was in a better mood.

E7 peaked up at him from the bed, nervously glancing at the clipboard. He’d seen one of those before. It had dark marks all over it from a scribbler—no, pen. Pen. Pen. Pen.

The door opened, and another suit stepped inside carrying a folded square table under one arm and two chairs under the other. They leaned them up against the mirror and began unfolding each item. Metal table legs clanged loudly as the person in the suit hit them into the locked position. E7 flinched each time the noise rang out.

It had been quiet in his room for days. No one had come there since the last test except to bring him food and take blood. But the people who did that never spoke to him other than simple, quiet orders. They were the doctors who seemed most afraid of him. They never stayed longer than they had to, leaving as soon as the food tray was empty or enough blood had been collected. The doctors who came to disinfect him stayed longer, although they too had an aversion to being near him. They kept him at bay with the hose, using water pressure to hold him in the corner of the room until they deemed him “clean enough” and then proceeded to dump powder over his head and toss him a towel. They would talk to each other sometimes, laughing and pointing and making jokes about things he didn’t understand. Even though he wasn’t sure what they meant, he could always tell when they were talking about him. Something about his body was funny to them. Maybe it looked different from theirs. He’d tried to ask them once, but questions only made them go silent, and they’d pack up quickly and leave. E7 preferred to listen to their voices. He hated to be laughed at, but it was better than the silence.

“All set up, Dr. Crane. Did you need anything else?” the second doctor inquired, inching closer to the door. They were obviously a food bringer, or a blood drawer.

“You can go,” James replied. E7 watched the doctor leave, and then turned his attention to James, who was already seated on the chair facing the door. James turned to look at him through the gray mesh panel on his mask. “Sit here,” he motioned to the empty chair.

Slowly, E7 pushed the blanket aside and got off the bed. He hobbled forward, muscles stiff from lying in bed for hours. Though his body had almost fully recovered from the last test, he still felt twinges of pain in his abdomen and along his spine, especially between his shoulder blades and neck. Soto sometimes massaged his muscles to help him recover faster, but he hadn’t seen her since the leaf incident. Thinking about it brought back the memory of her words, which halted him in his tracks.

“What is it?” James asked, noticing the pause.

E7 glanced nervously at the floor, dying to ask. But what if Soto’s promise to leave was just what all the others had been—lies to make him cooperate? James would laugh in his face if that were the case. E7′s cheeks turned a pale shade of pink at the thought. He didn’t want the doctors to think he was stupid. E7 tried very hard not to be stupid. He listened to them and obeyed them as best he knew how. Sometimes he simply didn’t understand something—like now. Was it worth it to ask?

“It’s time for the test, E7. You can tell me what’s on your mind later,” James said. The opportunity to ask him about Soto’s words slipped away.

Letting out a quiet sigh, E7 lowered himself onto the chair, gripping the sides of the seat with his fingers. He wasn’t sure what kind of test this would be, but he was grateful it wouldn’t be conducted on a gurney. A quick survey showed no sign of needles or small glass bottles filled with tinted liquid. He didn’t feel safe, but he saw no sign of danger.

The clipboard clunked onto the tabletop. It held a thick stack of papers, not all of them white. The bottom half looked red and were fused together at one end. He stared at it curiously, wondering what it was. He’d never seen paper like that before. Movement made him look over at James, who had placed a small black box on the table along with a glass tray. His eyes widened and his hold on the chair loosened as he felt a very strong desire to reach out and touch them.

“I’m going to show you something you’ve never seen before,” James told him.

You already have, E7 was tempted to say, but didn’t. James hated to be interrupted. He squirmed instead, finding it difficult to stay quiet. Days of silence always put him on edge and made him talk too much when the opportunity arose.

“This is something you’ll like,” James reached over and pulled the red papers from the bottom of the clipboard, revealing a picture, bright with color on the first page.

E7 felt his eyes go wide, stinging at the corners. He stared open-mouthed at the pictures, trying to figure out what they were. Shapes made up of reds, blues, greens and yellow. It wasn’t like looking at a photograph. This was a mass of colors with no clear lines, just shapes. The texture of the paper intrigued him, the shades tantalizing his senses as if they were trying to tell him something new with every shape. His hand snaked out and grabbed the object before James could say anything, pulling it closer and touching the picture on the front. He traced a finger lightly over the thick yellow curve and looked down at his hand, sure that the colors would rub off onto his skin. They didn’t. “What is it?” he asked breathlessly, unaware that his breathing had sped up so much.

“It’s a book.”

E7 looked up at James momentarily, then back down at Book. Book. Book. “...Book...” he repeated, thinking the word sounded clumsy compared to the actual object, which was delicate and thin, and full of color.

“It belonged to me when I was very young.” James reached out and pulled it back. “Let me show you how it works.” E7 wanted to grab it, his fingers stretching out to keep touching it for as long as he could. He made a reluctant sound in the back of his throat as it slid out of reach. Blue fingers pressed against the book, then took hold of the edge and lifted, revealing a second page with new colors and a different picture.

E7 sucked in a breath, unable to hide his smile. “There’s more?” he asked excitedly, leaning forward to get a closer look. He wondered how many papers were inside, and what each of them looked like. The joy he’d felt at seeing the leaf was increased ten-fold. This was like being presented with a pile of leaves; some red, some yellow, others gold and brown and green.

“You have to turn the page like this,” James showed him, lifting the next paper and folding it over, revealing a new picture. “My mother read it to me, but I don’t think you would be able to appreciate the nuances of literature. Art, on the other hand, is something even the most...primitive...minds can grasp. Do you like the colors?”

He couldn’t stop staring at the pictures—not just the colors but the shapes they were making. There was a person in the drawing. A small person, like a child, in red clothes with little white socks. It reminded him of the picture James had once shown him of a little boy—the same little boy E7 used to see in the mirror. But this child was different. They had long hair and something white on their head—clothes? For their hair?

“Who is that?” E7 asked, pointing at the child.

“Her name is Lisa.” James replied.

E7′s gaze shot upward. She had a name? “Is she real?” he asked suddenly. He was stretched over the table, trying to stay close to the pictures.

“It’s just a storybook,” James answered slowly. “Nothing in it is real.”

E7′s brow furrowed, and he looked back down at the book. Not real? But he could see it and touch it—how could it not be real?

“We pretend a story is real, to distract ourselves from life. Parents tell their children about a little girl who wants to buy a bear to teach them about desire, and hope. But the bear is flawed, and so children learn to accept imperfections. Like all books, this is a teaching tool,” James explained. “Are you listening to me, E7?”

“Mm...” E7 nodded, trying out the page-turning technique James had shown him. A new set of colors, with the same little girl. She looked sad. The corners of his mouth turned downward, his throat closing around a lump of emotion. She looked like she was about to cry. What made her sad? He touched her face gently. He understood that feeling.

“I don’t expect you to comprehend what I’m telling you,” James went on. “I have a different lesson in mind anyway.” he reached out and grabbed the book, holding it up next to his face. E7 followed it with his eyes, which widened in surprise at first, only to narrow with frustration as James held the book away from him. “Do you like what I brought you today?”

E7 gave a slow nod, swallowing hard. “Can I see it again?” he asked, his voice a little rough.

James tilted his head to the side. “What if I told you that I will never let you see this book again?”

E7 stared at him, breathing faster.

“Would that upset you?”

Eyes searching for answers, E7 tried to figure out why James was doing this. Was he teasing him, as some of the other doctors had done when he was small? Was he trying to make him angry, make him lose control?

“How about this?” James took hold of the book and pulled several pages downward. There was a loud ripping sound—like tearing off a piece of medical tape—and suddenly the pages were no longer fused together. E7 was too shocked to move at first. James gave another tug, ripping the pages again and again.

“No!” E7 reached out to grab the book but James got up from the chair to keep it out of reach. “P-please don’t hurt it,” he begged, voice breaking. Not from tears. He had cried when the leaf had been destroyed, but that was an accident. He hadn’t meant to break anything. James was doing this on purpose, and that made E7 feel a different kind of sadness. The kind that made him want to knock over the table and make as much noise as he could. He pulled at his shirt, a low growl in his throat as he fought for control.

James pushed the chair aside with his foot, backing away. He still held the papers in his hand and gave another strong pull. Rrrrrip.

“Stop!” E7 slammed his fists against the table, shocking himself with the force of his emotions. The black box and glass tray rattled against the metal surface. Ashamed, E7 sat back down in his chair, wrapping his arms around himself. “I’m s-sorry,” he mumbled, knowing it was the right thing to say. He was supposed to apologize when he did something bad. But James should be the one who was sorry for destroying something so...something that was so...he couldn’t think of the right word.

James placed what was left of the book on the glass tray and picked up the black box. E7 watched him, rocking slightly in his chair. The gentle back and forth motion used to help keep him calm, but it wasn’t working. He rocked harder. The chair squeaked. He couldn’t lose control like that. It was too dangerous. He looked away from the table, trying to keep his eyes focused on anything but the broken pages. Maybe, after James left, E7 could take the pages and piece them back together...

“I have something else to show you today,” James said, flicking open the top of the black box. His thumb pressed forcefully against the side of it until something clicked, burning sparks and igniting a bright orange triangle. “You’ve never seen this before either.” He held it out. “It’s called fire.”

E7 didn’t move, watching the flame flickering from the black box. He might’ve tried to touch it earlier, but now he felt closed off. He didn’t want to get excited only to see James destroy the little orange triangle next.

“Don’t look so sullen. I know you’re curious. Let me show you what this does.” James carried the flame closer to the glass tray and all the torn papers. When the orange triangle—which looked very bright next to the black box that carried it—touched the book, everything began to change color. E7 couldn’t help but watch, curiosity increasing as the light grew. He began to feel excited, until he noticed that the papers were not holding their shape. They were starting to curl and turn black as the flame licked over them. It was as if they were being eaten—consumed by fire.

“Stop,” E7 whispered, realizing that the flame was as cruel to the book as James had been. “Stop, don’t do that!”

“Fire destroys. That’s what it’s made to do. No one can stop it.” James told him calmly as he flicked the black box closed, hiding the original flame from view.

“It’s—it’s hurting the book, please, don’t let it—”

“Yes, it’s destroying the book.”

“Why won’t you stop it?” E7 cried, tears running down his face despite the intense anger biting at his throat.

“If you don’t like it, do something about it. Don’t just sit there. Do something!” James shouted, coming around the table to stand behind E7′s chair. “Before it’s too late!”

E7 lunged forward out of his seat, hands reaching toward the flames. Heat brushed his fingertips, curling against his skin. James placed an arm around his neck and pulled him away. “Let me go,” he shouted, struggling. The flames were getting bigger, the paper curling into small twists of black ash.

“Don’t waste time fighting me, E7. Save your precious book.”

Choking back a sob, E7 stopped moving and shut his eyes. Air burst from his mouth as he exhaled shakily. He was beginning to feel a familiar, dreaded sensation awakening in his chest. There was no medicine in his veins this time; nothing but the potency of his own intense emotions to call up the monster from its resting place. It wasn’t his body which died to bring it out, but something else. Something precious, as James had called it, that was passing away in the mouth of an unforgiving flame.

Without warning, the table flew against the mirror, shattering the glass and spraying tiny shards at both E7 and James as they stood together in the center of the room. Though broken, the wall remained intact. Pieces of charred paper floated in the air, smoke twisting upward toward the vent in the ceiling. The fire disappeared, blown out by the table’s sudden turbulence. The glass dish had shattered at the same time as the mirror, leaving huge broken pieces scattered over the tiles.

Feeling James’ arm slide from his neck, E7 bolted forward. Bare feet crunched broken glass, piercing deep into his flesh. Blood left a trail to the center of the room where he knelt to gather up what was left of the book. The shards sunk deeper into his feet and he winced, but otherwise ignored the pain, grabbing handfuls of burnt pages and retreating to his metal bed. Crawling underneath it, E7 huddled against the wall, trembling. Blood dripped from his feet, wounds held open by pieces of glass still embedded in his skin. He kept the burnt papers clutched in his hands and rocked back and forth. Calm down, calm down, he thought. “Two times two is four. Four times two is eight. Eight times two is sixteen...” he mumbled, counting until James had finally left the room. E7 knew someone would be back soon to take a blood sample, but he didn’t want to think about that.

Finally alone, he brushed his face against his shoulder, using his t-shirt to clear away the tears from his eyes before slowly uncurling his fingers. There was little left of the pages he’d managed to save, some pieces so small they were no more than dark smears on the palms of his hands. Most of the paper had turned black with a few spots in the middle that still resembled the pictures he’d seen. Only one piece seemed to have been untouched by the flames. It was the red page from the cover of the book. Three yellow letters were all that was left.

Flakes of burnt paper fluttered onto his legs. Hands trembling, E7 folded up the red piece and rolled it into his t-shirt, tying a small knot in the fabric to enclose the page securely. He would have to remember to take it out and hide it somewhere else before the next decontamination, or the doctors would take it away from him. Even the pieces of the broken leaf had been removed by the suits who came to clean his room. They never let him keep anything. But he wouldn’t let them take this away.

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