The boy wanted for nothing. Toys and books littered his spacious room, all of them old and recycled, but still in good enough condition for a five-year-old to play with. He crashed toy cars into one another, barely noticing that most had chipped paint or missing wheels. His mischievous laughter echoed throughout the room, a gleeful sound that brought a smile to his mother’s face.
But only for a moment. Her eyes instinctively turned to the door, as if happiness might cause them to come rushing in. Whenever that door opened, she assumed the worst, despite five years passing with their only visitors bringing food, often as many as three meals per day. A tray of half-eaten potatoes and mushrooms sat by the door, waiting to be switched out when the next meal arrived. The mother kept glancing toward the tray, guilt building inside of her as she thought of the food being wasted.
The boy abandoned the cars and moved onto tiny, colorful building blocks. His mother often showed him how to build objects with the blocks, but when left alone, he would only snap a few together before smashing them back into smaller pieces. His mother smiled again—boys will be boys—but her eyes returned to the tray. She finally stood from her bed—the smaller of the two in the room—and started toward the food.
“Why don’t we start cleaning up now, my love?” she asked.
The boy ignored her and continued to play. One of his building blocks suddenly skittered across the floor. The boy bent forward to grab it and the back of his clothing nearly pulled free from his body. But as his mother often reminded him, the boy sat up straight and his shirt loosened against his tiny frame.
Instead of forcing him to clean, she picked up his discarded toys and returned them to their appropriate bins, all while reminding herself that her duty was to care for her child and keep this room as pristine as possible. Once done, she retrieved the tray of food and brought it to the boy.
“My love, please eat a little more,” she said. “Don’t you want to grow up big and strong?”
The boy stopped playing and turned to her. He pushed aside his long brown curls, revealing his perfectly round face. Though he didn’t eat much, his cheeks were still full. His mother loved to pinch those cheeks, a move that often earned her a glare from his usually warm brown eyes.
“Yes,” he said. “But not if it means eating that disgusting food every day. I’m so bored with it.”
The boy’s insolence seemed to grow with every passing day, but she had to fight the urge to smile. He’s healthy, he’s well fed, he’s been living in this paradise for years. Even his clothes appear new. What could be better?
The mother couldn’t say the same for the old rags adorning her body. She wondered how many women had worn them before her, how many women had shivered within the thin fabric. She dared not complain or ask for replacements, though she often found herself staring at the heavy fabrics covering her son. It shamed her to consider removing some of his clothes to use for herself, but she never did it. He was always warm, which helped stave off the sicknesses that claimed so many others.
Plus, I don’t have to constantly see what’s underneath those clothes, she thought with a chill that had nothing to do with the ever-present cold. She saw his… deformity… whenever she changed or bathed him, but it was nice to forget about it when he was all covered up. Unfortunately, the small hump on his upper back was hard to miss, even beneath the clothes…
“You don’t realize how lucky you are to have so much food,” she told the boy. “When I was your age, I’d go days between eating.”
The boy stopped playing and looked up at his mother. His brow furrowed, a hint of a smile curling at the corner of his mouth.
“And yet you grew to be big and strong,” he said, turning back to his toys. “You can eat the food if you want it because I sure don’t.”
“You’re too smart for your own good,” she said.
When the boy’s mind was made up, there was no changing it. She cherished his young mind and the way it worked, his ability to think logically. She also worried that they would not appreciate his problem with following orders…
She’d known few children with such personality at so young an age. She liked to imagine that under different circumstances, the boy’s mind would’ve served him well in life, though she knew little about most of what happened beyond the room’s door. Neither of them had stepped outside since his birth, and the mother wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable moment they’d be forced out of their small piece of paradise.
She ate the rest of his food, as was often the case. Her sole purpose in life was to keep the boy’s mind sharp and his body strong. Sending back anything but an empty plate could only bring unwanted attention, an inevitability the mother hoped to put off as long as possible. She returned the empty tray to its place near the door, shivering as she felt cold seeping in. She often shoved blankets into the crack beneath the door, but the boy would complain it was getting too hot and she didn’t want him taking off any clothing.
With her son still preoccupied by toys, the mother started back toward her bed, hoping to crawl beneath the blankets. She didn’t make it more than a few steps before hearing noise outside. It wasn’t rare to hear the distant crying of babies—or squeaky wheels of the carts bringing food—but this noise was different, these footsteps were different. They were heavy and fast, footsteps made by men walking with a purpose, footsteps that could only mean one thing.
She stayed by the door, her ear pressed against it, listening as the footsteps stopped. Nearby doors opened. The boy continued to play as if nothing was wrong. She glanced at him, wishing his mind was smart enough to figure out how to avoid the savages coming for him. The boy wasn’t her first child, but he was the first to last this long. Those footsteps could only mean his time was coming to an end.
She rushed from the door, frantically searching the room for anything to use as a weapon. She’d had other children taken before, but none had had the same spark of life as her son now, none had the intelligence or the physical maturity. Most had been deemed failures the moment they were pulled from her womb. But this boy was different, and she knew that did not bode well for their future together.
She found nothing that could be used to defend him. If she could trade her life for his, she would not hesitate to do so. But she could only cooperate with the powers-that-be and hope the boy’s uniqueness might prove worthy of keeping them together.
Outside, she heard the squeak of another door, followed soon by a female’s scream. The mother had made that noise several times herself and knew what it meant for the children of those women. That scream wasn’t the first she would hear on this day, and she had an awful feeling it wouldn’t be the last.
“Mother?” the boy asked, his eyebrows lowered.
It wasn’t often he looked to her for answers, which made the situation more heartbreaking. She felt a tingling burn in her sinuses, but fought back the tears, fought to keep her face free from fear or sadness. She forced a smile, not sure it would convince either of them that everything would be okay.
“Come to me, my love,” she said, holding out her hand.
It wasn’t long ago that the boy’s hand never left hers, that the two spent hour after hour, day after day, week after week, their hands almost always intertwined. Age had already started to pull him away from her, though he didn’t hesitate to rush to her side now. Another banging door and more screaming—this time much closer—made him squeeze her hand tightly. When she tried to speak, the words became stuck in her throat. She swallowed hard to push away panic.
“How about I read you a book?” she asked.
She’d read each book to him countless times, and it had been months since he’d begged to hear one of the stories. This time, he nodded solemnly. She could tell the boy realized his impending fate, though neither mentioned how he could’ve known.
“How about I pick this time?” she asked.
He nodded again, but did not let go of her hand. She led him to the old bookshelf that tilted dangerously to one side. Knowing she was short on time, the woman quickly scanned the books, some of which no longer had covers or had spines that were ripped beyond recognition. He liked to hear about trees and plants and anything green that once grew on the earth, but those books didn’t seem appropriate at the moment. She finally found the one she was looking for and pulled it out for the boy to see.
“We haven’t read that one in a long time,” he said.
The woman smiled, turning away so he wouldn’t see the tears escaping her eyes. “I know, my love, not since you were a little boy. Would it be okay if I read it to you now?”
The boy nodded. She opened to the first page, where there was a picture of two animals, one big and one small.
“What are they called again?” the boy asked.
“Elephants,” the mother said. “That’s the mother with her baby.”
“Are they real?”
The woman shrugged. “I’ve never seen one, and I don’t know anyone who has. We’ve seen elephants in other books though, so maybe they existed once. I doubt we’ll ever know. But that doesn’t matter now.”
She pointed to the mother elephant with her baby next to her, the two of them eating long strands of green growing out of the ground, a large yellow ball hanging in the bright blue above. It was a scene that neither reader fully understood.
“One day, Baby Elephant was walking through the grassy plains with his mother,” she began. “‘Mother, will we always be happy?’ Baby Elephant asked. ‘As long as we are together,’ Mother Elephant answered. ‘Mother, will we always be safe, even though there are tigers and lions that mean us harm?’ Baby Elephant wondered.”
“Are tigers and lions real, too?” the boy interrupted, his voice barely a whisper. “Is there really… mean things out there?”
As if on cue, screams echoed closer than before. The mother slowly nodded. “I wish it were not so, my love, but there is much beyond these walls that I hope you’ll never have to see.”
She prayed the boy wouldn’t ask for examples. Those were memories she hadn’t faced for years, memories she did not want to sully his mind with. Luckily, the boy remained silent, pressing himself closer against her as she pointed to the book.
“‘Do not fret, my love. As long as I breathe, my only job will be keeping you safe,’ Mother Elephant promised.”
Footsteps approached. Mother and son looked toward the door, both knowing it would open at any moment. The mother quickly flipped through page after page, where evil predators threatened to attack the baby elephant. She finally stopped at the last page, where Mother Elephant lay on the ground, blood pouring out of several wounds, her big round eyes threatening to close forever. She was surrounded by nearly a dozen dead tigers and just as many lions. No other threat was in sight. Baby Elephant wrapped his trunk around Mother Elephant’s, the two of them gazing upon each other’s faces.
“‘Go now, my love. Go free and enjoy this life I’ve given you,’ Mother Elephant said,” the mother continued, reading each word faster than the last. She didn’t stop, even as she heard the rattling of a key in their door. She held her son tightly as she finished the words on the final page. “‘I would give my life a hundred times over if it meant keeping you safe,’ Mother Elephant said before closing her eyes one last time.”
The door swung open. A cold breeze swirled through the room. The book slipped from the mother’s hand as she wrapped both arms around the boy. A pair of tall men in dirty white lab coats hurried inside. One of them pushed a metal cart, which squealed so loudly it nearly drowned out the hollow wind howling through the open doorway. Though the room was bright, the hallway outside was shrouded in darkness.
The men were so similarly ugly that they could’ve been related. Dingy patches of beard covered their faces, grimy gray hair hung in stringy strands atop their heads. They didn’t say a word as they crossed the room and yanked the boy from his mother’s grasp.
“Mommy…” the boy moaned as he squirmed to escape.
The man carrying the boy gave him a quick shake. “Yeah, yeah, you want your mommy, just like the rest of ‘em. We don’t have time for this, kid.”
The mother leapt from the bed and rushed across the room, nearly reaching the boy, before the second man struck her with the back of his hand. Her legs gave out and she collapsed to the floor. Five years of steady meals hadn’t made her as strong as she’d thought. She tried standing, but the man shoved his boot against her chest, pinning her down.
“Don’t even think about it,” he growled at her. He pulled a clipboard off of the cart and flipped through a few pages. “This ain’t the first time you been through this process. Don’t act surprised.”
“You know what we can do to both of you,” the other man warned.
“You wouldn’t dare hurt the boy,” she spat back.
The two men looked at each other and laughed. “Like any of these kids ain’t as replaceable as the next.”
“Seen this happen plenty of times,” the other man said. “They get stuck in these rooms too long and start losing their minds.” He looked down at the mother and loosened his boot from her chest. She sat up and squirmed a few feet back, but she didn’t try to stand. “Keep acting like this and you’ll be put down once we’re through with the boy.”
“Don’t be so sure of that,” she said.
The first man lost his grip on the boy, who wiggled so hard that he nearly freed himself. The second man rushed to grab the boy’s legs, and the two slammed him onto the metal cart, struggling to turn him onto his back.
“Strong,” the first man said. The men glanced toward the woman, who fought the tiniest of grins. They no longer appeared so bored. “What ain’t you telling us?”
The boy continued thrashing, knocking one man back and then the other.
“Should we call for help?” the first man asked.
The second man shook his head and pulled out a dagger, leveling it at the back of the boy’s neck. Streaks of red stained the sharp blade.
“No!” the mother said, jumping to her feet.
The second man sneered at the woman. “Then tell him to stop.”
For a moment, she readied herself to leap at them. If she could distract them—even if it meant the dagger being turned on her—the boy might have a chance to escape. But she’d never gone over an escape plan with him, which was suddenly an obvious oversight. Despite the boy’s strength and recent bouts of independence, he wasn’t old enough to survive on his own. The woman knew he was special—and she was certain the two men were figuring that out—but she also knew these men wouldn’t hesitate to attack. They weren’t important enough to realize the boy’s full potential.
“Calm down, my love,” the mother said. The boy immediately stopped fighting. “These men won’t hurt us as long as you let them examine you. They only want to make sure you’re healthy.”
“That’s right, kid,” the first man said. “Listen to her and this’ll all be over real quick. If not, we’re gonna have to hurt your mom real bad.”
The boy lay on his back, his eyes turning toward his mother. Tears streamed down his face. The sight broke his mother’s heart.
“It’ll be okay, my love,” she said soothingly. “Just let them do their job and it will all be over soon.”
She started toward him, hoping to hold his hand, but the man with the dagger kept it pointed toward her. “Stay back,” he growled.
The woman nodded. The man put the dagger away and retrieved his fallen clipboard. Together, the two men ran down a checklist of observations about the boy.
“Height and weight seem consistent with his age,” the first man said. “No skin irritations or visible decompositions.”
“Had enough of those today,” the second man added, making another mark on the paperwork.
The first man nodded and continued the examination. “Facial features appear properly formed and wholly intact. Now to the mouth. Open up, kid.”
The boy looked to his mother, who nodded. He opened wide. The first man started to reach a gloved hand toward the mouth but suddenly stopped.
“What is it? He have the black tooth thing?”
The first man shook his head. “What if his jaws are as strong as the rest of him? I’m not risking a finger. Give me one of them sticks.”
The first man shoved a tongue depressor into the boy’s mouth, moving it from cheek to cheek, thoroughly inspecting him. After several minutes, he finally removed it.
“All in one piece,” he said breathlessly. “Do you really think he could be…”
“Don’t get excited yet,” the second man said. “We still got plenty to check.”
The first man turned to the mother. “Anything you want to tell us about the boy’s health? Or his mental development?”
“You could ask me,” the boy said.
The two men took a step back and looked at him. “Didn’t realize he could say more than just Mommy,” the first man said. “Most of them figure that word out, but not much else.”
“Most of who?” the boy asked.
“The others… like you,” the second man said. “Not that there’s many like you. You like living here?”
The boy shrugged. “It’s fine, I guess. A bit boring. I wish I had more toys, or at least some new books.”
“You like books?” the first man asked. The boy nodded. “You read them?”
“Not all of them,” the boy said, turning away as his cheeks burned red. “I only know the words in about half of them.”
“I didn’t mean if you read them, I meant if your mother… wait, you learned to read some of the words?” the second man asked.
The boy nodded. The man began to write furiously on the pages of his clipboard.
“His speech is incredible, his mental acumen among the best I’ve ever seen. And an ability to read at a young age? Nothing short of incredible,” the man said when he finally looked up.
The first man lifted the boy and sat him up, turning him around on the table. The boy no longer fought them. “I need you to bend over at the waist.”
The boy looked to his mother, who nodded. He did as he was told. As soon as he arched his back forward, the fabric at the back of his clothing bulged, becoming so tight it threatened to rip. The boy squirmed, but did not move. The first man ran his finger along the curvature of the boy’s spine.
“Does that hurt?” he whispered in awe.
The boy shook his head. “It feels… weird. Mommy always reminds me to sit up straight so I don’t rip more shirts.”
The first man nodded to his companion, who shook his head in disbelief while scribbling more notes. “Could it finally be?”
“Could what finally be?” the boy asked.
Instead of answering him, the second man turned to the mother, his eyes narrowing when they met hers. “You’ve known about his gifts the entire time and you’ve said nothing?”
“Who should I have said something to?” the mother asked. “The woman who brings our meals?”
The men gave no indication that they heard her. “You didn’t forget what we’re doing here? What the goal for all of us is? The goal you agreed to when volunteering for this assignment?” he snapped. “You haven’t forgotten what the boy is being used for?”
The boy’s head turned toward her and their eyes locked. For the first time in his life, he gazed upon her with distrust. A fire erupted in the pit of her stomach and she walked closer to the exam table, consequences be damned.
“He’s not just a boy,” she growled with maternal rage. “He’s my son. And I would give my life a hundred times if it meant keeping him safe.”
Without warning, the second man dropped the clipboard and lunged toward her. She had no time to react before his fist connected with the side of her jaw. She felt her teeth crunch and her mouth fill with warmth. The metallic tang of blood made her want to vomit. She tried to stand firm, but her legs gave out beneath her. The boy cried as she collapsed to the floor. The second man joined his partner in holding the boy down, a struggle even for two of them.
“This is why we should get rid of the hosts as early as possible,” the second man complained through gritted teeth. “We can’t have them becoming so attached.”
The two men leaned their combined weight atop the boy, who still writhed within their grasp. He arched his back, trying to buck them off. The effort caused his clothing to start ripping.
“Can’t believe he’s so powerful,” the first man said between gasps of breath. “Good thing we got here when we did. He mighta been too strong if we waited longer. The time to test is now.”
The boy calmed for a few seconds before finding another burst of strength. He shoved both men away, but they quickly dove on him before he could climb off the metal cart.
“Shouldn’t we take him to them before doing anything drastic?” the first man groaned. “He’s a unique specimen, if nothing else. They might want to study him—and study her—” He motioned his head toward the downed woman, who spit blood while struggling to stand. “—to find out how things turned out different.”
“They got enough problems without studying another freak,” the second man said. “Besides, the kid ain’t worth nothing if he can’t do the one thing they been breeding them for.”
“Even if he can…” The first man grabbed the back of the boy’s head and slammed it against the metal cart, momentarily stifling his fight. “Even if he’s successful, his mind might be too far developed to alter for our needs.”
“They can worry about that part later,” the second man said. “We ain’t had a chance to test a good candidate in a long time. I think we deserve it.”
The first man frowned and looked down at the kid. “You’re right. Imagine how shocked they’ll be if we bring them one that actually works. And if it don’t?” He shrugged. “Let’s go kid, we’re going for a walk.”
The men dragged the boy off the cart, each holding him by an arm. They pulled him toward the open doorway and the darkness beyond. Another burst of strength shot through the boy. He started to pull them back, deeper into his room.
“No, I’m not going out there,” he groaned. “Don’t make me, I don’t want to leave my room. I don’t want to leave my mommy.”
The more he struggled, the more his bulging back tore away his clothing. The sight excited the two men, who fought to drag him outside. They struggled to keep their grip on him.
“He’s never left his room,” the mother said. “He’s never left me.”
“What are you doing on the floor then?” the first man asked. “Get up and come if it’ll make things easier. Don’t even think about trying to stop us, though.”
The woman stood on wobbly legs. Her eyes remained watery with tears, her vision blurred. “Do as they say, my love,” she told the boy, “and this will all be over soon.”
“They hurt you,” the boy said.
She wiped away blood trickling from the side of her mouth. She forced a smile, not expecting the boy to believe it. “This is nothing, my love, a tiny scratch. Come, the four of us will walk together.”
“But you told me never to leave the room,” he said. “Never to try escaping, to always stay back from the door.”
“That’s because I never wanted you far from me,” she said. “I won’t leave your side now, right?”
The men nodded and stepped aside. The woman was first to walk through the doorway, the first time she’d left the room in more than five years. The hallway was just as she remembered, darkness hiding jagged rock walls surrounding her. A few fiery torches hung on the walls, casting long shadows in front and behind her. She shivered as a stiff breeze engulfed her. She hadn’t missed such cold.
Moans and cries emerged from doorways down the right side of the hallway. She couldn’t forget the second man’s bloody knife, nor could she ignore what he’d probably done to the ‘failed’ children in other rooms. The mother’s womb had hosted several failed children in the past, failed children who’d been taken away from her, never to be seen again. The woman had understood their ultimate fate, but those in charge had had the decency to take the children away before doling out their sentences. Apparently, sending two examiners with knives was the way things were handled now.
The mother desperately tried to remember the layout beyond this hallway, to figure out where she might be able to hide her son. She’d been brought to the room from the right end of the hall, and knew there was no place where she could hide the boy down there. In reality, she had no expectation for success no matter where she went. But she couldn’t stop thinking of the boy’s favorite book or the predators that had threatened Baby Elephant.
“Turn left,” the second man said. “And be quick about it.”
The mother did as he commanded. She walked a few steps ahead, glancing back at the men dragging her boy. He didn’t put up a fight when he saw that she was safe. The cries faded the farther they walked, though the wind grew stronger and colder. During her early life, the mother had heard rumors of an ‘outside,’ of a place with no rock walls and no ceilings and so much empty space that people didn’t need to live jammed together in confined rooms. She had a feeling that this ‘outside’ was just ahead, and that this would be her only chance to escape with her son.
He was special in so many ways, but she suddenly wished mind-reading was one of his talents. His forehead was wrinkled with worry, his eyes wide, darting from side to side. There wasn’t much to see, though anything different from his room was a new experience. He finally locked eyes with his mother, who stared at his beautiful face.
“Watch where you’re going,” the second man warned.
She slowed down and the others got closer. The mother knew what was about to happen—and knew the likely consequences—but she didn’t care.
“You’re hurting him, can’t you see?” she said.
For a moment, both men looked at the boy. That distraction was all she needed. Though her mouth still tasted of blood and her knees felt like rubber, the mother sprung toward the two men.
“He seems okay to—” the first man began, but he never had a chance to finish.
The mother crashed into him, knocking his grip from the boy’s arm. She crashed atop the man and aimed for his face, trying to dig her fingernails into his eyes. Their limbs became tangled. She could hardly see in the dark hallway, but she squeezed her fingers around any soft flesh of his face. She wasn’t sure what part of him she’d grabbed, but his howls of pain told her enough.
The second man wasn’t as slow to react. He pushed the boy aside and took out his dagger, descending on the downed woman as she scrambled to her feet. The downed man grabbed her legs, stopping her escape. The dagger flashed toward her face and she raised her arm. Pain erupted from her forearm as the blade sliced into flesh, spraying blood against the nearby wall. The mother cried out, but she did not wither. She lunged toward the second man as he readied the dagger for another strike.
He was stronger than he appeared. With a swing of his free arm, he knocked her aside before she reached him. His forearm connected with the side of her head, causing her vision to go black for a second. Her body hit the rocky floor, jarring her painfully back to consciousness. Her senses felt distant. The howling winds seemed farther away, the bitter cold not quite so bothersome. The first man continued to groan, while the second man’s footsteps sounded deep and booming. His entire body was a blur of movement stalking toward her, but she had no trouble seeing the glint of his metallic blade…
She didn’t see that blade for long. Another blur of movement—this one smaller and faster—launched toward the man. The thud of pounded flesh was immediately followed by his grunt as the second man joined his friend on the floor. The boy hurried to his mother and reached down for her.
“Leave me,” the woman groaned when she realized what he was doing. “Escape these men, escape this place.”
“Not without you,” he said, his voice defiant. She knew better than to argue with that tone.
She struggled to pull herself up; the boy had no such struggle. He pulled her to her feet with ease. She swayed on weak legs, but the boy reached up and wrapped his tiny arm around her waist, steadying her. Together, they shuffled down the hallway, heading toward stronger winds and increasing cold. The men’s yelling echoed behind them, but the mother did not dare look back.
She hoped her strength would return—that adrenaline from the chase would push her to safety—but her legs felt weaker with each step, her breathing more labored. She felt blood flowing out of the gash on her arm. Energy drained from her body and her steps became sluggish and clumsy. Several times, she stumbled and nearly took them both down. She wanted to be strong for her son, but one thought swirled around the fog of her mind.
I’m slowing him down… he won’t escape as long as I’m with him…
“Please… my love…” she wheezed.
“I’m not going anywhere without you,” he said, tightening his grip on her.
“Let me help you,” she pleaded. “Turn me around, let me stand in their way. I promise I’ll slow them down. Let me stop the tigers and lions so you can—”
“I’m not an elephant,” the boy snapped, “and neither are you. Whatever happens to you, happens to us both.”
Despite her weakness and fear and panic, the mother smiled. She flopped her head to the side and saw the narrow-eyed determination in her son’s eyes. She never expected to see this from a boy of five years. It saddened her to realize how much she’d underappreciated his recent maturity…
“My love,” she whispered. “You are extraordinary…”
Her vision flashed to black and her feet stopped moving. Her sight returned after a moment, just in time to witness their fall. Her head smashed against the floor, causing her son’s cries to fade into the distance. Her head lolled to the side and she saw bright shining whiteness at the end of the hallway. It was unlike any light she’d ever seen…
The boy’s words finally reached her mind. “We’re almost there. Please, Mommy, just a little farther…”
“Go,” she said weakly. Angry yelling and pounding footsteps approached, but the boy did not abandon his mother. “Please… go…”
She didn’t have the energy to yell or push the boy away. He dragged her back up, but they only made it a few more feet when he was shoved from behind. The boy crashed into a wall and crumpled to the floor. His head spun and he wanted to cry. But all he could think about was his mother in danger, about how he wanted to take her away from this place forever. He pushed away the pain and forced himself to stand.
The boy expected to find his mother on the floor, but he turned and saw her still standing. The second man was just behind her, his left arm wrapped around her waist, holding her upright. The first man loomed beside them, shaking his head as he glared down at the boy.
“That was not wise,” he said.