Something Strange About Him
Take, for example, that he never took a breath out of turn. He would sit there quite obediently, his legs straight in front of him (not a millimeter off!) and his hands folded plaintively in his lap. He would stare ahead and pretend that there was no world besides him—a statue, a symbol of perfection. No one dared to violate his bubble of absolute flawlessness—they would stay back, far back, and talk about him like one would a god (with fear and bemused admiration). Their questions were asked at a distance, their observations were hushed to a level too low for his ears to detect, their cruel comments were loud, but never too loud for him to hear.
He was quite the strange fellow.
But he didn't mind everything they said about him. Malicious as they may have been, they were, for better or for worse, relatively true. He did sit there in quite the unmoving posture. He did stare ahead like there was nothing else in the world to see. He did respond to all questions like a robot, his voice pre-recorded so that there was no chance for mistake. That was him, the robot, the android, the machine—he didn't mind.
He would just stare on.
"Something wrong with him," they would say. "He's got no spirit—no soul. 'Bet a kid could die right in front of him and he wouldn't flinch."
He would, but he wouldn't cry in front of them.
"I bet his parents never hugged him."
They did, but not as often as he would have wanted.
"I hear that serial killers are like him—all self-contained and waiting to strike. I think he listens to everything we say and waits for the chance to strike—the chance to use our words against us. Don't mention your phone number around him; he'll use it to track you down and kill you in your sleep."
Now, that wasn't nice. He didn't stalk people—he didn't even go to people's houses when he was invited to, rare though that was. He didn't need to stalk people, since they didn't interest them. After staring ahead and listening for so long, he had come to the conclusion that all people were mean and cold—not worth stalking at all.
"Bet he doesn't even sleep."
Oh, he slept. Seven hours every night, and not a second off. He would set an alarm for when he went to bed and for when he woke up. Everything was strictly regulated—there was a specific slot of time for which every activity was allotted. Sleep had seven hours; the phone hadn't even a minute.
Then a different kind of voice caught his ear. It was strange—not like the rest. He had heard voices close to it before, but nothing completely similar. There was no malice in the voice—not even the slightest hint. All he heard was curiosity, and not even the ignorant kind that is so often found in the character of the type to frequent freak shows. It was real curiosity, and it quite nearly flattered him.
"Don't you ever wonder, though?" the curious voice asked.
A partner to the curious voice, a mild voice with no real feeling in it, replied with, "Wonder about what?"
"You know, statue boy." She wasn't in his line of sight, but he could feel her pointing in his general direction.
"Mmh, what's to wonder about? He's boring, that's all."
"No, that's not what I mean," she told her friend. "There's more to it. I mean, no one's born that way."
"You've never met his quote-unquote parents. They could be robots too. I bet he was born that way." She was malicious like the rest, but he didn't hold that against her. That was the image he put forth, and it was completely within reason for her to perceive him that way. The words didn't even hurt—they fell through him like a heavy weight, and he had forgotten them shortly after.
Honestly, he forgot them.
"I don't think so. I mean, that's not how it works. See, I knew him as a kid—he was different, sure, but not like this. Organized, which was odd for someone his age, but not like he is now. He was just, I don't know, careful. But he would play like everyone else—he would go out and be normal. His grades weren't as good as they used to be, but he did well. He was alive."
"Hard to imagine."
"Yeah, hard to imagine. I see him now, and I wonder what went wrong. Maybe something happened to him, you know. Maybe he's afraid to let himself be, you know, human. He's so preoccupied with being rigid that he's not let anything loose come out," she said, and while she spoke, he silently worked his jaw.
He chewed at his cheek in a very imperfect way, but nobody noticed—they never noticed the minor ripples beneath the surface, since they weren't looking that hard. They saw what they wanted to see, what they expected to see.
But not her. She was different, strange, unusual—she was a break in the pattern.
But she wasn't the first. He didn't have to worry too much, since she wouldn't catch on. No one had yet—they always got close, but they never got too close to make him uncomfortable. His bubble of protection had yet to be burst, and that made him feel safe, secure.
"Eh, probably just got that way over time. One thing led the other, and the next thing he knew, he was cutting his hair strand by strand and measuring the thickness of the fabric in his shirts. He's probably just like that, you know. I doubt something happened. Things don't happen to boring people like him."
How wonderfully true.
"I still don't think so," the curious one said with a discontented sigh. "Sometimes I look at him, and I see a flicker of something strange in him—something different. Like, underneath all that stiffness, he's comfortable and casual. Or at least he wants to be—it's just that no one's ever given him the chance."
"Yeah, I can so imagine him in khaki shorts and flip-flops. I bet he doesn't even wear a belt when he's being casual," her uncurious friend said with a laugh.
"No, not like that. Like he's not always so…rigid."
Her friend snorted through her nose. "Oh, come on. You're full of it."
"Then what the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about him! There's just no way that he's like that for no reason."
"There's a reason all right—he's got a stick up his butt. He's got no sense of self. He doesn't like to live. Who the hell knows what else—but, I'm telling you, it's not like he's suffered some profound tragedy to turn him away from having wrinkled clothes!" Her friend laughed, and, though she was not within his line of sight, he could imagine her shaking her head with disbelief, perhaps even making some sort of unkind face. "No, no," she said, "it's not that tragic."
"How would you even know?" the curious one demanded. "You've never spoken to him before!"
"Neither have you!"
"I'm not the one making bad judgments about him!"
"Well, then, fine—tell me what's made him that way. Tell me what's made him so 'rigid'," her friend said in quite the challenging tone.
She sighed. "Fine. I'll tell you. I'll to you right now." She gestured to him indignantly and told her friend, "He's like that because there's something about him he doesn't want you to know. He's like that because he hopes you'll notice that he's stiff and rigid and fake, because he doesn't want you to see what he really is. Obviously he's so afraid of the truth that he's willing to be seen as an android or a freak show. He's not strict or miserable—he just pretends to be that way so that no one notices."
"I don't know! It could be any number of things!"
"Well, see, you
don't even know!"
"I know I don't know!" she said impatiently. "Honestly. I mean, maybe he's gay or something."
"Come on, who would hide something that boring?"
"I guess him."
He took a deep breath, an obvious breath, which was very much unlike him, and let his, for once, stray from their preordained straight line. He looked at her and saw that she was very much a normal girl, with a normal face and normal hair, but he perceived her differently. She excited him because she scared him.
She caught his gaze (her friend was blind to all of this) and nodded toward him with a faint smile. He allowed himself, quite cautiously, to nod back.
And then he went back to staring—always staring—and sitting quite stiffly.