Leo rushed into the bathroom, his head buzzing loudly. He was late for school. He looked in the mirror at himself. His short, spiky hair was especially messy that morning. He tried to smooth it out as well as he could, but it was pointless. The buzzing picked up, and he grabbed at the side of his head with both hands, fingers clutching the rounded edge of his implant. He wished he could take the regulator out of his head, but he had lost that ability two years ago when the government issued him the implanted version to help soothe Leo’s nervous tendencies.
He walked out of his room and into the hallway, looking at the framed pictures on either side of him as the stark fluorescent lights flickered on. Each picture was of him. His parents said there was no point in documenting them in their family photographs because they never changed. Leo didn’t want to change either, but he was a person with skin, and he couldn’t do anything about that.
He could hear bacon sizzling before he smelled it. He smiled despite the buzzing. Leo liked bacon and eggs the most out of all the breakfasts his mother could make. He walked out of the hall and into the open kitchen, sitting at the small table. There was only one chair. His parents didn’t eat, so there was no point in having chairs for them here.
He readjusted in his seat. “Good morning, Mother.”
She turned, her red eyes glowing faintly and her symmetrical face plating curving down to her slit-like mouth. “Good morning, Leopald.” She turned back to the stove, her eyes scanning the food like a printer scanning paper.
“Where’s Father?” Leo asked curiously, glancing at the door. He should have been there.
“He’s at work, dear.” She didn’t turn away from the frying pan, just poked at the glistening meat.
Leo nodded, vaguely remembering that he was two and a half hours behind their usual schedule, distractedly raising his hand to cover his left ear.
“You’re late for school,” his mother informed him.
Leo nodded, looking down. “I know.”
She placed the spatula down on the spotless counter, grease splattering over its surface. “Does that not bother you, Leopald?”
He furrowed his brow slightly. The buzzing grew worse.
“Sorry,” he muttered finally, doing his best to ignore the intense sensation.
He could hear the sizzling of the bacon again, and his face relaxed. He looked back at his mother. She was wearing her pink dress today. It was one of her prettier dresses. But her black apron was tied crookedly around her waist. It bothered him.
“Mom,” Leo began.
She turned to him slowly. Her sterling silver plating glinted in the light as her eyes moved over to him. “What was that, sweetheart?”
He licked his lips before speaking. “Your apron.”
She cocked her head.
She looked down at her black apron. It was spattered in grease. Leo felt a sudden urge to scoot away from her. Something was off.
She retied it in the back, letting the stiff fabric come to rest evenly over her hollow chest. She looked up at him sharply. “Is that better, dear?”
He nodded, trying to smile before staring down at the table. Something was making him feel strange.
He clenched his jaw. He was acting neurotic again. But that was impossible; he had his implant. Was it broken? It was buzzing an awful lot. He rubbed his finger on the table, sliding it against the grain of wood, getting lost in his thoughts.
He sat up a little stiffer. He looked down at his hand. The table didn’t have a grain. It wasn’t wood. Nothing in their house was. He blinked.
A plate of bright yellow eggs and perfectly cooked bacon was slid in front of him, interrupting his focus.
His mother offered him a fork. “Hurry up, you don’t want to be late.”
Leo smiled at his mother’s joke, taking the utensil from her hand before frowning again. Had she meant that as a joke? Could she even make one?
His mother walked back to the stove where she watched him.
He felt along the fork's smooth handle.
“Right,” he said, too quickly. “R-right.” He took a bite. He didn’t like it, but he hurriedly ate it all anyway to get it over with. He picked up his dishes and took them to the sink.
His mother placed a silver hand on his shoulder, making him tense up.
“You’re a growing boy.” She held a glass of milk in her other hand.
Leo took it, nodding. “Thank you, Mother.”
He chugged the milk. It tasted worse than the eggs. He did his best to not make a face as he placed the glass in the sink basin. He listened as his mother’s feet clunked down the tiled hall. She was probably going to get her keys. Leo knew she could drive, but he had never actually seen her do it. His father usually drove Leo wherever he needed. He felt a little unpleasant flutter in his stomach. His mother driving was new. And strange. Everything was strange today.
Leo walked away from the sink and past the table to the front door. He took his backpack off the single peg that protruded from the wall and slung it over his shoulders, adjusting the right strap to the left until they were the same length on each side. He stood by the door, clutching the straps, stock still and waiting.
His arms grew tired as he stood there, waiting for his mother to come back. He glanced at the darkened hallway. She wasn’t coming through. He knew he should just stand there and wait, but it was so hard to focus with the incessant buzzing and his stomach flipping. He couldn’t take it anymore. He walked towards the hall, determined to see if his mother was coming at all.
She almost plowed right into him.
Leo jumped back, clutching his chest as if to stop his heart from bursting out of him. He felt so strange. This wasn’t right. He wasn’t supposed to feel this way anymore.
His mother cocked her head to the side, looking down at him. “Why didn’t you wait by the door?”
Leo forced himself to let go of his chest and appear as normal as he could. “I was just . . .” he couldn’t think of anything. He didn’t know why he hadn’t waited in the first place.
There was the buzzing.
She put her cold hand on his shoulder, her fingers curling mechanically to get a firm grip. “Were you worried?”
He felt a spike of old, familiar panic. “No.”
She stared at him for a small piece of eternity. Leo tried to stay still, to convince himself that he was fine and insist that he wasn’t neurotic, just tired. Despite his efforts, the buzzing only grew worse as the seconds passed.
She let go of his shoulder, walking to the door. “It’s time for school,” she announced.
Leo stood there, left with the buzzing. He followed her with a start.
He couldn’t remember much of the car ride. She had asked him a question, but that was all he knew.
“Have a good day, sweetheart,” his mother called, the car door closing as he waved back to her.
He walked up to the building, trying to recall what had just happened. He could still feel the residual cold from her icy fingers around his implant. It was pumping now, so he couldn’t bring himself to care too much about the missing time.
He let it go.
He walked through the building to the very end where his English class was held. He walked in and looked at the other students. There were four of them. He had known them all his life. They all had skin like him.
He sat down at his desk, looking down at the screen embedded in its surface. He wasn’t paying too much attention to the questions or the short paragraphs he had to read, dragging pre-written answers into their boxes. He was relaxed now. Almost asleep. Maybe he was sleepwalking.
When the bell rang and the teacher dismissed them, he stood up much slower than everyone else. Beatrice was looking at him. She opened her mouth to say something but was cut off by a loud clang in the hall.
Someone was yelling.
Everyone rushed out the door, Leo bringing up the rear.
It was Allan. He was screaming on the floor, his arm pinned behind his back by his math teacher. Allan’s regulator, a silver-threaded necktie, was on the ground beside him. Leo squinted. It looked like the injector was missing. His implant couldn’t work without it.
“Let me go!”
The math teacher pressed Allan’s face harder into the floor. He picked up the discarded regulator, bringing his dented face down to Allan’s ear. “You have damaged government property.”
Allan choked on his tears, his arm still twisted behind his back.
Beatrice’s hand floated up to her headband.
Leo looked over at his other classmates who were doing similar things with their chokers, ties, and headbands. It was odd. Everyone was so odd today.
“The rest of school has been canceled for today,” the civics teacher announced. “Your fathers will be here soon.”
Everyone made their way past Allan, who was still crying on the floor. Leo felt bad for him. He was completely neurotic.
Leo hadn’t been waiting long when his father’s car pulled up to the school. Leo got into the car, placing his bag at his feet as he closed the door behind him. His father shifted gears as soon as Leo fastened his seatbelt.
“How was your day, son?”
Leo looked up into his father’s eyes. He wasn’t watching the road.
“It was strange,” he said. “Allan’s regulator was damaged, and we were sent home early.”
His father turned his eyes towards the road but kept his face towards his Leo. “Yes, we heard about that at the office and came right away to check on you kids. When someone doesn’t have a regulator, drastic things can happen.”
Leo nodded. “Everyone looked worried.”
“And they should be. Promise me you’ll never try to destroy your regulator, Leopald.”
Leo nodded. “I won’t.”
His father looked back at him, his eyes rotating in and out of focus. He kept staring at him.
Leo felt his heartbeat rising. He leaned back against the seat of the car. He wondered why his implant wasn’t pumping, then the buzzing erupted at the base of his left ear. He flinched, and his father’s artificial brow knit together.
“Are you alright, son?”
“Yeah, I—” He hissed through his teeth, palming the side of his head. “I’m fine, thank you.”
He didn’t understand. He wasn’t supposed to be like this anymore. He was supposed to be more like his parents.
“Are you sure, son?”
He looked his father in the eyes. “Yeah, just thinking about Allan.”
His father cocked his head.
“I hope he can get an implant like mine. I think it would be good for him.”
His father, apparently satisfied with the answer, turned his attention back to the road. “I think so too.”
Leo sank a little in his seat, silently relieved.
They were home now. Leo was glad. He hoped he’d be able to go up to his room and figure out how to stop the buzzing. He followed his father up the steps and waited for him to open the door. Leo stayed by his peg, watching as his father and mother embraced each other before touching their mouths together.
They did this every day, but today was different. Leo felt his lips twitch as he watched them pull away. Something stirred in the recesses of his mind, but he couldn’t place it.
His father turned back to him. “Why don’t you go and play, son?”
Leo nodded, the elusive memory dancing on his lips, laughing at him as he tried to catch it.
He hung his bag up before walking to the hall. He took a few steps, watching his feet as he trod through the darkness. His pace slowed, and he looked up at the unlit light bulbs.
His torso suddenly slammed into smooth, hard metal. He stumbled back and looked around frantically before recognizing his father’s looming silhouette.
“Do you have anything to tell me, Leopald?”
Leo shook his head slightly. He could feel his face contorting with a strained smile. He was being strange again. “I don’t know what you mean.”
His father’s hands crashed down on his shoulders, pressing him into the ground.
“You can tell me, son.”
Leo grunted, trying to stay on his feet. He closed his eyes and took a breath, slowly looking back up at him. “I’m fine.”
His father cocked his head, then let him go. “Run along now.” The inflection in his phrase was cheery.
Leo didn’t feel the same.
He turned into his bedroom, tempted to close the door behind him. He resisted the urge, distracted by the state of his bed. He had neglected to make it that morning. He walked to it, then paused, his hands hovering over the covers. Was it too late to make his bed? If he didn’t, surely his mother would notice. Would she be angry? He didn’t think so; Mother was never angry with him. His hands still hovered. He couldn’t decide what to do.
“Maybe I’m hungry,” he muttered, his voice shaking. He smiled to himself, trying to keep his composure. “Yeah, that’s it. I’m a growing boy, after all.”
He stepped back out into the hallway, which illuminated for him this time. He walked back to the kitchen, looking at his mother, who was cleaning his dishes again like she had been all day.
He felt a little lost, looking around the kitchen. It was the same as it had always been. The granite countertops, the cream, tiled floor, the sterling silver cupboards were all wiped down evenly, looking sleek and elegant. Sterile.
He hated it.
“Leopald, how are you, sweetheart?”
Leo whipped his head around to look at his mother, wondering how long she'd known he was there. “I’m a growing boy,” he said on impulse.
She cocked her head.
He smiled sheepishly. “May I have some food?” he amended.
She tilted her head back to center. “Of course, sweetheart. What would you like?”
He didn’t know.
She opened the refrigerator door, then looked back at him.
He still didn’t know.
“A sandwich—” It was the first thing he could think of. “—Please.”
“Of course, dear.”
He guided himself to the table, sitting down shakily.
He felt along the grain of the table’s surface again. No, it still wasn’t a grain. He looked down at the warped metal surface. He traced his finger against it, the one imperfection in the whole room. An indent where his hand naturally fell.
Why was he thinking of wood? When had he even felt wood in the first place? That memory eluded his grasp too, itching at his fingertips.
His plate slid into his view—a peanut butter and jelly sandwich placed perfectly in the center.
He looked up at his mother. Her head was cocked.
“Leopald, are you alright?”
“Yes! Yes. Thank you. For the sandwich.” He took a bite, but it did nothing to settle his stomach. He kept eating.
She reached a slender hand towards his face.
He watched her carefully as her stiff, cold fingers rifled through his hair.
He looked up at her expressionless face curiously.
She nudged his implant, and it immediately began pumping again.
He felt his shoulders fall, fingers twitching as his sandwich hit the table top with a spongy thud.
“Is that better?” his mother asked, her hand still placed on his head.
“Yes.” He blinked, nodding sluggishly. “Thank you.”
She retracted her hand, taking his plate and walking back to the sink.
Leo looked down at his hands, then his sandwich, still balancing on the edge of the table. He stared at it.
He sat at the table, feeling his body sag, breathing heavily.
A rapid knocking reverberated off the faces of the metal cupboards. Leo tried to look at the door, his head bobbing up and down as he lifted his gaze.
“Would you get the door please, Leopald?” his mother asked from the sink, washing his plate.
“Yes, mother.” His knees buckled as he pulled himself to his feet. He blinked a couple times before making his way to the door. He turned the knob, leaning on it heavily as he opened the door.
His eyes widened, and he found himself suddenly relying solely on the door knob for support.
A person with skin, like him. He wore a silver choker. He was breathing heavily. He shouldn’t have been running. He had terrible lungs.
“Did you get back okay?” the boy asked, running out of breath mid-sentence.
Leo knew that voice. He knew those lips. Those honey-infused doe eyes.
Something snapped inside of him. He rushed towards him, fixing the boy’s messy curls and wiping the sweat off his brow. His parents couldn’t see him like this.
“Leo, what are you doing?” he hissed, grabbing Leo’s wrists.
Leo froze. That wasn’t his name. But it was.
“Leopald, who is it?” his mother called from the kitchen.
Leo didn’t know what to do. He looked back inside. His mother was still stooped over the sink.
The boy slipped his hand into Leo’s.
Leo stared down at their hands, their fingers lacing together. The boy’s hand was cold, but not in the way his mother’s hands were cold.
“Leo, we have to go,” he said quietly, pleadingly.
Leo looked at him.
The boy’s hand shook.
“May I play outside for a while, Mother?” Leo asked.
The boy peered inside of the house, then looked at Leo. He was scared. Neurotic.
But Leo didn’t care.
“I won’t be long.”
The boy squeezed his hand. Leo adjusted his grip.
“Alright, sweetheart,” his mother said. “See you soon.”
The boy closed the door for Leo. He got close enough for Leo to feel his shaky breath on his skin. As soon as the door clicked into place, the boy embraced him, burying his face in Leo’s neck.
Leo held him carefully, pulling him in closer. Cradling him in his arms. He knew this scent.
“Harvey?” he said softly, tears stinging his eyes as recognition pierced through the haze.
Harvey drew away from him, his face frozen.
Leo watched him carefully, taking in the details of his face. He had missed him. How long had it been?
Harvey gently tilted Leo’s head to the side, his hand searching through his hair. His fingers nudged Leo’s implant, making his head buzz again.
“They got you.” Harvey’s face was white as a sheet.
“Who got me?” Leo asked, confused. “What are you talking—”
Harvey pulled on Leo’s implant.
Leo cried out, the buzzing skyrocketing.
“I’m sorry,” Harvey said, tears rolling down his face.
Leo felt that cold hand clamp over his mouth before Harvey pulled at his implant again.
Leo screamed against Harvey’s hand, biting down.
Harvey grunted, whimpering as he tugged at the implant over and over again.
Leo clawed at his back, pulling him in frantically.
Sweet scents filled the air. Harvey let him go, tears streaming down his face too. He looked down at his dripping hand. Leo did too.
Leo lifted his hand to the back of his head. There were exposed wires where the regulator was supposed to be. His breath got caught in his throat. “What did—what did you do?”
Harvey shook his head, still crying. “We have to go.”
The door opened behind them. “Leopald?” It was his father.
They froze. Leo felt a rush of adrenaline kick in. “Run,” he said. Then he shouted it. “Run!”
Harvey stumbled to his feet. Leo shoved Harvey forward, making sure he was ahead of him. He was bad at running. If they were both going to get away, Harvey had to go first. Leo felt the color draining from his face.
He couldn’t go with him. His implant was working again. They’d get caught. He’d get everyone caught.
He stopped running.
Harvey kept going.
“Harv!” Leo shouted.
Harvey looked back, almost coming to a complete stop.
Leo was tackled to the ground. His mother’s arms cinched around him. He grunted, straining to lift his head, trying to see where Harvey was. “Run!”
His mother lifted him up, squeezing him so tight he was sure his ribs would crack. Then his father put a hand down on his left shoulder, slamming it into the road.
“Don’t worry,” his father said. “We’ll get you fixed as many times as it takes.”