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Project E.R.I.C.

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Oxygen buzzes through tubes of malleable plastic.

The first time Kyle sees him, he knows he has the wrong place. He backs out of the room, almost stumbling on his heel, but keeping himself upright. His footsteps hollow the nurse’s station out like something from far away. His eyes buzz and his brain shakes with every step. He places a hand on the nurse’s desk and smiles at her. She smiles back and asks, “How can I help you?”

That oxygen and those tubes are everywhere.

Kyle, swallowing through a dry mouth, says, “Hi, I’m looking for Stan.” Kyle is shaking. His legs feel alright, but his hands won’t stop in their tremor. He squeezes his fists, curling his nails and fingers into the surface of the nurse’s desk. The nurse gives him the number, except it’s the wrong one again. The smile on his face widens painfully. He takes in a breath. “No, he’s not in there, I need to see Stan Marsh.”

The nurse frowns. Her eyebrows knit together on her forehead, dark brown and barely visible beneath her swaths of curly hair. Kyle would have thought there’d be a requirement for doctors and nurses to wear their hair back. The nurse taps something into the computer on her desk and checks the patient records and repeats, “Stan Marsh is in forty-two sixty-eight.”

It’s funny.

Kyle lets go of the surface of the desk. He rubs his hands over his face and through his hair, curses when his hat falls off, picks it up. His fingers refuse to close over the fabric. The item feels bigger than it is. His grip is loose. He takes a breath, but it’s empty. Less than whole. A demi-breath. Demi-oxygen. Demi-air. People don’t even breathe in pure oxygen, most of the time, it’s a mix of different chemicals and those chemicals are a majority of everything but oxygen, oxygen is just a small part of the air we breathe, isn’t that funny? Isn’t that funny?

Kyle gasps. He goes back over to the wrong room, the room the nurses are lying about, the room they say Stan is in but he isn’t, he isn’t, because that isn’t him. It isn’t. He gasps again when he sees Kenny emerge from that wrong room. He doesn’t think about where he came from, though. He doesn’t think. He grabs Kenny’s orange parka, but his fingers are still shaking and his hold isn’t tight enough, and he slips into Kenny’s chest and buries his face into the fabric.

It’s so funny.

After a second, because he can spare only so much time, Kyle pulls back. He’s still smiling. His cheeks hurt. When he breathes in, his lungs make a whining noise. Kenny is holding him up, but Kyle doesn’t need it. He fights the hold. “Tell them, Kenny,” Kyle says. “Tell them they have the wrong room number. We need to see Stan, okay? We need to find him, okay?”

“Kyle—”

“They’re telling us the wrong room number, how are we supposed to find him if they won’t tell us the room?” Kyle drops his hat. He crouches down to retrieve it. Kenny doesn’t let go of his shoulders. Kenny shakes Kyle. Kyle wrings his hat between his hands. Kenny’s eyes are blue. Did you know that? They’re blue. They’re blue. They’re blue. Stan’s are blue, too. Kenny keeps staring at Kyle. “Kenny?”

“Kyle, that’s the room,” Kenny says. Kyle doesn’t do anything for a second. Slowly, he shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “No, it’s not—”

“That’s the room,” Kenny repeats. The oxygen buzzes. Kyle breathes. It’s funny. Kyle gasps. Kenny speaks. “That’s him, Kyle, Stan’s in the room.”

“No,” Kyle says. He scratches his fingernails into the threads of his hat. Something scrapes. There are buttons. Kyle feels his face contort as he sobs. He hits Kenny’s chest: once, twice, thrice, until he forgets. Kyle drops his hat again. He doesn’t pick it up.

It’s funny.

It’s so funny.

The oxygen is buzzing everywhere, and yet Kyle can’t breathe.