The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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SIX | Consequence

Everyone pays for their mistakes. He learned that very early on. When the doctors would give him something he wasn’t supposed to have—extra fruit on his breakfast tray, a shiny new paperclip to distract him from the work they were doing, or an overly detailed answer to a question—he would be punished. Half-rations. No disinfection for a week. Or the worst punishment, and the thing he fought hardest to avoid; the silent tests. This was done not just to teach him a lesson, but to show the doctors what would happen if James wasn’t obeyed.

As the team leader, Dr. Crane had to be respected. Unquestioned. It was just as important to follow the rules set by the company as it was to obey him. But...E7 had always wondered...how did James pay for his mistakes? Was it possible that he never made any?

Ashes and blood were still smeared all over the tiles when the door opened again. James came back with two other doctors, each holding objects used for cleaning up the room. “Get the table and chairs out of here and then get rid of this glass. I want the room spotless within the next twenty minutes, and then I want both of you out of here.” James said to the suits, who got to work right away. The table clanged loudly as it was folded into a two-dimensional shape, just a flat metal square reflecting a small white room. E7 caught his own reflection as the doctor carried it passed, revealing how small he looked huddled under the bed.

“Get up.” James was looking at him.

E7 felt the air catch in his throat. Trembling, he hesitated. He didn’t want to move. Blood still trickled from his nose, tracking dark red over pale skin. His clothes were damp with sweat and clung uncomfortably to his body. Everything felt tight. The room was so small. There was nowhere to hide from James or the mirror. They saw everything.

“Must I repeat myself?” James inquired hotly.

E7 gave a quick shake of his head. “No,” he mumbled, and shifted, trying to force himself out from under the shadow of the metal bed. The shards of glass still embedded in the bottoms of his feet gave him trouble, the sharp pain forcing him to crawl into the open space. E7 rested on his knees in front of James, shaking.

The doctor heaved a muffled sigh. “You cut yourself.”

E7 dropped his head submissively. “I’m s-sorry,” he quickly apologized, fearfully taking in the mess he’d made. The two other doctors were sweeping up the broken glass, smearing some of the blood across the ash-stained tiles. “I didn’t mean to—”

“To what?” James interrupted, crouching down so that his face was almost level with E7′s. ”Destroy things? Why, that’s what you do best, E7. You’re like fire, you and your monster. You’d burn up the whole world if I let you out of here, wouldn’t you?”

Tears stung E7′s eyes, his lower lip trembling as he fought a sudden burst of emotion. “N-no, I—” he started to shake his head but then froze.

“Hush now,” James interrupted, reaching out and brushing his fingers over E7′s scalp, causing him to flinch. “There’s no reason to be afraid of me. I’m only doing what is best for everyone. You mean a...great deal to me. That’s why I push you so hard,” he said, pulling back. He clapped his hands together with a startlingly quick motion. “I have to find out all I can about the fire in you before someone else comes along and extinguishes it."

Hot tears escaped, followed by a quick breath. E7 held himself tightly, unable to control his trembling muscles. James put his hand out again, resting it on E7′s shoulder and giving him a soft pat. The trembling grew more intense, forcing him to clench his teeth. A soft noise escaped his throat, sounding resistant and fearful at the same time. “I’m sorry I—I know I did something wrong, I didn’t mean to hide it from you, I—”

“On the contrary,” James dropped his hand, leaning his arm on one knee. “You behaved exactly as I had hoped. Your obedience was a little hesitant, but overall you did exactly as instructed. The damage is minimal, and the test was successful.”

E7 risked a glance at James. “S-successful?” he repeated.

“Overall, yes.”

“You mean...I won’t be punished?” he held himself a little tighter as he waited for the reply. There was a short period of silence. Then...

“Actually, I was thinking that you should have a reward.”

“A...a r-reward?” he stammered, eyes pinned to the floor. He didn’t understand the word. It wasn’t one he’d heard before.

“Something nice. A consequence of your obedience,” James explained. “There are bad consequences and good ones. Two sides to every coin. Life is often two-sided, E7. Remember that.”

E7 swallowed hard. Something nice. That was good. But a consequence had always been bad. No one had ever mentioned any other kind, or that it could ever be considered ‘good.’ Puzzled, he tried to decide if he really wanted it or not. Good or bad, the word gave him a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “You don’t have to give me anything,” he mumbled carefully.

James stood, knees popping as he rose. “That’s very gracious of you.”

Gracious? Another word he didn’t know.

“But it isn’t your decision,” James pointed out. “I’ve already chosen your reward.”

E7 used the back of his hand to wipe at the blood drying on his upper lip, lowering himself onto the floor as his body grew weaker from the tension. His knees and the wounds on his feet had begun to ache. Perhaps the reward would be the removal of glass from his skin, with clean bandages to cover the cuts until they healed. He looked down at the wounds and winced at the thick blood still oozing from them. He’d already tried to remove the glass himself and had gotten most of it out, but the pain from the deeper shards made him dizzy and sick. Not knowing when James would return, he resolved to stay conscious until then. Now he wished he had passed out and slept through whatever consequence James had chosen to bestow.

“You don’t seem very happy about this, E7,” James noted, unsatisfied. “But you’ll change your mind when you see it.”

The doctors finished sweeping up the last of the glass and poured it all into a sack before leaving the room, taking the table and chairs with them. Only James, E7, and the broken mirror remained. Their reflections were distorted in the glass, fractured and cast into a thousand pieces. Fragmented. Most of the shards remained crammed next to each other on the wall, upright even after their shattering. The fallen pieces left a blank space that looked like concrete or something chalky, yet solid. E7 thought about how strong the glass must be to stay in place even after being broken into so many pieces. How strong could a person be in the face of that much destruction? Inside, he felt like the broken mirror. Some pieces carried away by the doctors, others still clinging to what was left. That desire—that need—to remain whole; it was all he could think about when James spoke to him again. The words were fuzzy and muffled, not just by the suit but by the waves of exhaustion crashing against him. He could feel himself drifting, eyelids heavy, body wilting.

“Just wait here,” James turned to go.

“I’m not...I don’t...I just want to sleep,” E7 mumbled, leaning heavily on his hand, his wrist strained from resting in that position so long. But James was already gone. He returned a moment later with something tucked in the cradle of his arm. It was a small brown ball made of something soft, like hair. No, not like hair.

It was hair.

And it looked softer than anything E7 had ever touched.

James held it out to him with both hands. The desire to sleep all but disappeared as E7 peered closer at the little brown thing. He gasped when it turned around, the movement revealing a tiny face with dark eyes and a nose that never stopped wiggling. “What is it?” he asked, wanting to touch it but afraid of what might happen if he did. The last thing he touched had ended up in flames.

“It’s called a rabbit,” James answered, rubbing the tiny thing with his gloved thumbs. “It’s a very soft little animal. Touch it.”

Rabbit. Soft...

E7 started to reach out but stopped, hand shaking. His expression contorted as confliction reigned. “I don’t want to hurt it,” he confessed. “Please don’t make me hurt it,” he wanted to feel its softness more than anything. But satisfying his curiosity over something new wasn’t worth destroying whatever he touched.

“Take the rabbit, E7,” James ordered.

“I don’t want to,” E7 pleaded with him, shaking his head.

James grabbed his arm and held on tightly, placing the rabbit in his hand and then letting go. E7 scrambled to support the tiny body with both hands as it wriggled, nearly tumbling onto the hard tile floor. He braced it against his chest, tucking the furry mass under his chin for extra support. Little brown hairs tickled his neck. It felt so light and small, more fragile than glass or even the book. Paper didn’t breathe, but E7 could feel the rabbit’s heartbeat fluttering against his palm. It was alive.

Panic burned in his chest, aching like an old wound. “Take it back,” he begged, holding it out to James. “Please, take it back!”

“You can control yourself, can’t you?” James asked, stepping away. “It’s still alive, isn’t it?”

“D-don’t do this,” E7 whimpered, terrified of what might happen if he continued holding the rabbit. He thought of the leaf, and how a sudden wave of emotion had caused him to unthinkingly destroy a fragile gift. “It’s not safe with me,” he said. The rabbit moved, and he held it away from his chest for a moment, watching it, gaze pinned to its tiny face, waiting. Its round sides sunk in and pooched out when it breathed, brown hairs rippling with the movement. The little brown eyes stared back intently, nose still wiggling. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said softly. When he looked up, James was standing beside the door.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes to remove the glass from your feet. Until then,” he pulled open the door. “Enjoy your reward.”

“Wait, James, w-wait!” E7 cried, but the door was already closed. He looked back down at the rabbit, eyes wide. Then it moved, kicking at his hands to hop forward. E7 yelped worriedly and tucked it back under his chin where it would be safe from a fall. He held it tight enough to keep it nestled safely against his chest, but not so much that his grip constricted its breathing. Shutting his eyes, he focused on the rapid fluttering heartbeat and the tiny bursts of air from each breath that brushed his skin. The rabbit made no sound other than the scuffle of its feet against his shirt. Carefully, E7 ran one finger along the rabbit’s back, flattening a trail through its fur. It felt warm and nestled closer to his neck, growing still.

“Um...a-are you sleeping?” he whispered, tilting his head back awkwardly to try and see if its eyes were closed. When he realized that a glimpse was impossible without moving it away from the safety of his chest, he stopped trying, paying attention instead to the feel of its little body pressing close to him for warmth. Then he looked up and saw the rabbit in the mirror. It looked relaxed and happy. E7 couldn’t hide the smile on his lips. “You like me,” he said, quiet but excited. The rabbit wasn’t afraid like everyone else. It trusted him.

E7 stayed in the same position, afraid to move or try to get up. He wasn’t sure what would happen if the pain in his feet worsened and the monster awoke—what it might do to the fragile creature in his hands. He had to keep himself calm. He couldn’t let himself get upset, no matter what. “I won’t hurt you,” he whispered determinedly, taking in a deep breath. It was easier to be calm now that he was alone.

James didn’t come back for what seemed like hours. E7 had no idea how much time had passed when the door finally opened, and a suit entered the room. They brought supplies in a small red case to treat his wounds. Bandages. Tape. Disinfectant. A syringe with clear liquid and a short needle. He closed his eyes, concentrating only on the rabbit and its soft fur, ignoring the panic gnawing at his attention. He didn’t even remember to check the color of their gloves until they uncapped the needle and brought it close to his feet. That’s when he saw that this doctor didn’t wear blue gloves or purple ones. These gloves were black and thick. A kind he’d never seen before.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, shifting away from the needle.

Their head tilted upward to look at him, the mesh panel at eye-level. They didn’t say anything, just stared straight ahead.

E7 looked back down at their gloves, fear pricking his skin. “Y-you’re not James...” he mumbled, shaking his head. “Who are you?”

The doctor was still looking at him, staring through the gray. “You don’t remember me, do you E7?” they asked.

He blinked, surprised by the conflicting sensation of a familiar voice made strange by the distance of time. He knew that voice, with its gentle lilt and slight nasal quality, as if words poured right out of their mind without traveling up the throat first. In his confusion, he forgot to answer.

Mistaking silence for confirmation, the doctor looked back down and pushed the needle into E7′s foot. He winced, sucking in a sharp breath. The rabbit squirmed.

“Don’t do that,” E7 cried, scrambling backward until he felt the edge of the bed press against his shoulder blades. His foot began to feel numb after only a few seconds, the glass no longer causing him any pain there. Ignoring the pressure of shards digging deeper into the wounds, he pulled himself upright and stood. Still pressing the rabbit to his chest with one hand, he limped over to the wall.

“You were so small when I saw you last. Just a little boy in a big empty room.” The doctor said as she placed the needle back into the small red case. “Look how you’ve grown,” her voice sounded proud as she gestured toward him.

E7 glanced at the door, eyes wide. Where was James? He’d said he would come back. Why had he sent this doctor instead? What was he trying to do? It felt like another test—a scheme to frighten E7 into some kind of volatile reaction. Well...he couldn’t let that happen. The rabbit wiggled in his hand, startled by E7′s sudden movements. He clutched it tightly, backing away from the doctor as she moved toward him. “Don’t,” he said warily, raising his free hand.

The doctor tsked and shook her head. “But still so frightened of everyone.” She paused, then glanced over her shoulder, peering at his reflection in the mirror. “Even himself,” she added.

E7′s gaze shifted from the doctor to the mirror, his jaw twitching as he clenched his teeth. Panic gripped him by the throat as she took another step toward him. He had nowhere to run. His only hiding place was wide open. He could do nothing but allow her to back him into a corner—and then what? The rabbit felt so soft even as his hands became clammy from fear, causing the fur to cling to his skin. Frustration welled up inside him. Why was he so scared of this doctor? Strangers had been sent into his room before, but none of them had ever made him feel instant panic. What was it about her that sent his pulse racing. And where was James?

“Why are you so scared, little one?” she asked, coming closer.

E7 sucked in a breath, his ears starting to ring. The noise was sharp and painful, prompting him to press his palm against his forehead as if resisting a headache. He winced as the sound grew louder in response to his rapid heartbeat.

“Is it because you do remember me?” she sounded pleased and surprised.

“I don’t know you,” E7 admitted, shaking his head.

“Oh, but you do.”

“No, I—”

“Don’t lie to me.” She warned, tilting her head. “You know better than that.” E7 took another step back, slipping on the slick blood that had gathered under his feet. Throwing his arm out, he caught himself on the wall. She came forward then and placed her hand on his arm, squeezing him tight. “What’s this little creature?” she reached for the rabbit

“No,” he shook his head vehemently as he tried to pull his arm from her grip, shying away to keep the rabbit out of reach. “Please let me go,” he mumbled, head down. He didn’t want to look at that gray mask anymore. There was something eerie about staring at nothing when the nothing stared back.

She relented, backing off. “I suppose it has been a long time. You were always so shy, weren’t you? I had forgotten.” She folded her hands in front of her body, her head still tilted to the side. “Why don’t we play a game?” she suggested lightly and took a step back.

E7 peeked up at her. “A game?”

“You tell me something about yourself, and I’ll tell you about me. That way we’ll get to know each other better.”

He hesitated, stroking the rabbit protectively. “...Okay...” he mumbled after a moment’s hesitation.

“Wonderful. You start.” She said.

“Me?” he blinked worriedly, unable to think of what to say.

“Tell me something about you.”

“Um...I...I don’t know...”

“Oh come now. You know more about yourself than anyone ever could. Only you’ve been inside there,” she pointed at his head. “That brain of yours holds plenty of secrets, I’m sure.”

“N-no it doesn’t,” E7 protested urgently. “I’m not allowed to keep secrets from James. He says I have to be honest if I ever want to get better—”

“Get better?” she repeated, surprised. “Are you ill?”

E7 shifted on his feet, the pressure of the glass growing more uncomfortable. He tried not to look at her as he thought of an answer. He didn’t feel like he was sick. But James always said that he needed to cooperate so that the doctors could make him better. What else could it mean? “I...I have something...bad...in me. James and the others, they want to make it come out, but I don’t...I don’t want to hurt anyone,” he insisted, feeling nervous at the thought of James’ wishes coming true.

“Something...bad?” the doctor placed her hands behind her back and shifted, bending one knee in a more relaxed posture. “A virus?” she asked.

“A monster,” he quickly replied.

“Ah...” her chin lifted. “And Dr. Crane—James, as you call him—wants to eradicate the monster? Is that it?”

E7 hesitated. “...I don’t know what ‘eradicate’ means,” he mumbled, cheeks tinged pink. He cringed at his lack of understanding, feeling stupid. The more the woman talked, the more uneasy he felt. The sound of her voice was grating on him, wearing down what little sense of calm he had left.

“Actually, I would like to meet the monster. Face-to-face.” James said, stepping into the room. E7 shot a glance at him in surprise. He hadn’t heard the door open, but maybe the woman had never closed it. He hadn’t really noticed.

The woman seemed just as surprised to see James. “I requested time alone with the subject.” She said, clearly annoyed.

“And I gave you time.” He responded calmly.

E7′s eyes shifted from mask to mask, wondering what their faces looked like at that moment. Did the woman have a wrinkled brow from frustration? Was James smiling at her, as his tone implied? There was no way to tell.

“This is a violation of a direct order, Dr. Crane. I insist that you observe, not interfere.” She was calm but authoritative. E7 was surprised that she was trying to tell James what to do. No one could do that—he was the team leader. He gave the orders.

“That’s what I’m here to do. Observe.” James said happily.

The doctors faced each other wordlessly. Her hands were clenched at her sides, but James showed no sign of agitation whatsoever. He appeared calmer than E7 had ever seen him. Why wasn’t he angry? No one else was allowed to speak to him so boldly, yet he didn’t seem bothered by it at all. Maybe she was the one in charge. E7 swallowed hard at the thought. That meant that she could tell him what to do, and he would have no choice but to obey. His thoughts distorted his expression. Thoughts of confusion, and inexplicable fear.

“Are you feeling alright, E7?” James asked, turning slightly to look at him. “You seem nervous.”

“He doesn’t recognize me,” the doctor said quietly.

“Well, he’s never actually seen you, has he?”

“My voice is recognizable, isn’t it?” she retorted. “Besides, he did see me once. He was a baby, many years ago. Are you sure you don’t remember, E7?” she turned to face him. They were both looking at him now, waiting. “I’ve been told that you have an excellent memory for things like that. Or have I been misled?” the tone in her voice shifted, revealing a hint of aggravation.

The ringing in his ears had subsided when James entered the room, but now it came back even louder than before. His heart thumped wildly in his chest. The pressure of their expectations was overwhelming. He wasn’t sure how to answer the question, or what would happen if the answer he gave wasn’t the one they wanted. Clenching his jaw, E7 ducked away from them, keeping his head down.

“It seems like he isn’t sure,” James commented.

“Hmm...” she crossed her arms. “Perhaps I should jog his memory.”

E7′s gaze shot up. Jog his memory...what did that mean? Did they expect him to run with shards of glass still stuck in his feet? He limped backward, hoping he was just misunderstanding their words.

“Perhaps you should treat his lacerations first,” James suggested.

“No, I don’t want you to do it,” E7 cried, holding up one hand to stop the doctor from coming closer. He looked up at James pleadingly, but couldn’t say anything.

“Actually, there is something I would like to discuss with you before you complete your assessment, Doctor.” James reached out and placed a hand on her arm. She tilted her head toward him in an impatient manner.

“What might that be, Dr. Crane?”

“If you would be so kind as to step outside for a moment...”

“No, I don’t think I will.” She pulled away from James and started walking in E7′s direction, her pace quick and determined. She closed the distance between them in a few seconds and reached toward him without hesitation. “Come with me, now E7—”

“Don’t—don’t touch me,” he cried, shutting his eyes tightly as the buildup of pressure at the base of his neck threatened to burst. His eyes throbbed in their sockets as he fought for control. The fear that this doctor inspired was so powerful—yet he didn’t even know why he was scared. She hadn’t hurt him or threatened him. She had merely offered to treat his wounds. Despite the seemingly passive façade, there was something about her voice that sent shivers of panic running up and down his spine. Somewhere in the back of his mind, E7 did remember the doctor. Not who she was, but what she had done to him a very, very long time ago when he was so much smaller that his head barely reached above her knees. She was right; he did have an excellent memory for certain things. E7 remembered every second of the pain the doctors had inflicted on him. He held traces of memories from every scar on his body. But sometimes the worst wounds never left that kind of mark.

Come with me, now...

The words echoed deafeningly loud in his mind.

It’s time for your consequence.

“No!” he shouted, shaking his head. The rabbit squirmed, fighting to get away. Its heart was beating a thousand times a second, so fast it could burst.

“E7, calm down,” she ordered, still squeezing his arm.

“Get away from me,” he spat, voice trembling. His jaw was clenched so tight that he feared his teeth might shatter.

James stood several feet away, watching. He took one slow step back, then another, putting distance between them.

“James,” E7 mumbled, blinking through the haze of sound filling his head. “Help,” he whispered. The plea received no reply.

One hand extended behind him, James reached for the door handle. It rattled when his fingers latched onto it, pushing the bar down and breaking the seal. The door suctioned open and James slipped outside, pulling it shut behind him.

“James—no!” E7 cried, voice breaking. The rabbit wiggled again, working its front legs free. He felt its little claws begin to cut at his skin as it tried to dig its way out of his grip. E7 winced, not from the rabbit’s claws, but from the doctor’s hand on his arm. She pulled, trying to drag him away from the wall and over to the bed.

“Just as stubborn as you’ve always been, aren’t you?” she muttered, pulling hard.

E7 stumbled forward, crying out with pain from his feet. The glass felt like it had sunk deep enough to touch his bones and cut them too. Fighting her hold, he slammed his body back against the wall and nearly dropped the rabbit, needing both hands to catch it.

“Come with me, E7. Or there will be consequences,” the doctor snapped, her masked face only inches from his. He could hear her quick, shallow breaths behind the gray mesh. Her words made the air in his lungs grow thick and heavy, as if he’d breathed in the concrete walls of his room. It felt impossible to exhale.

Eyes wide with terror, E7 began to shake uncontrollably. Heat spread out from behind his ribs as if all the blood in his heart was trying to escape his chest. It was happening.

It was waking up.

The monster.

No, E7 thought stubbornly. No, I won’t let it happen. I won’t hurt anyone! He closed his eyes, fighting harder than ever before. The rabbit jerked, kicking and scratching, clawing to get free. Fearing for its life, it fought hard to get away. Sensing the danger, the smell of sweat and terror, the rabbit sunk its teeth deep into E7′s hand.

The bite felt like the sting of a needle.

Eyes flying open, E7 let out a sharp cry—not from the bite, but from the pain of knowing what would happen next. The pressure at the base of his neck traveled into his spine and ribs, squeezing and choking him. Air burst from his lungs, tearing and shattering flesh and bone on its way out.

The doctor gasped as something warm splattered between them, a spray of red scattering across her mask. She released E7 and swiped at the gray panel with the tips of her fingers, smearing bits of fur and bone.

A moan escaped E7′s throat as he looked down at his empty, trembling hands. They were covered in blood, as if he wore a pair of shiny red gloves.

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