He heard it first in his dreams. The drip-dripping of water from an unknown source flooded his mind with thoughts of dank dungeons like the cell he called home for the last twenty-two years. His face perceived a dampness from a mist. The spray grew heavier until, finally, he bolted upright from his drowning sleep to expunge the water from his lungs. He drew an arm across his face to wipe away the moisture. It wasn’t thick like sweat; it was fresh and light. It was just water, but he had no idea where it came from.
As he sat on his thin mattress still gasping for air, the tapping of footsteps outside his small room grew closer. Suddenly, a dark shadow blocked the soft light from the hallway. Though no features showed through the blackness, he easily recognized his visitor. Doctor Judithe Bexley headed the study that tormented him since before his memory allowed.
“Subject 349,” the sweet, feminine voice held a tone of indifference. “Quickly now.” He didn’t question it. The customary curt order told him all he needed to know.
Without hesitation, he sprung from the cot and slipped on the beige pants and shirt that lay on a small table nearby. Once he was dressed, he approached the doctor and waited for her to unlock the door, gently resting a hand on the bars. Light glinted off the jangling keys as she slid one into the lock and turned it with a resounding clank.
349 stepped out of the cell. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he noticed water droplets trickling down the bar where he momentarily laid his hand. It didn’t matter; he had no time to look again. He rushed to catch up with Doctor Bexley already halfway down the corridor.
They soon entered a large, brightly lit room. Equipment and tables laden with various tools surrounded a single surgical bed in the center. 349’s heart skipped a beat every time he walked into that room. Nothing good ever happened there. Despite his fear, he obediently climbed onto the bed and lay flat, mentally preparing himself for the barrage of tests and painful procedures to come. He mastered the strength of concentration to block most of it out, escaping to the safety of his own mind, though his thoughts never allowed him to leave the research facility. He didn’t know what existed outside the walls, but they did give him a quiet, safe corner with an extra warm blanket. Nobody prodded, poked, or cut into him there.
The scientists bustled around him, getting their equipment ready and scanning the results of earlier tests. Locked away in his mind, 349 barely paid attention to them, but something wasn’t right. Instead of the warm room he should have seen, the floor and walls dripped with moisture. He tried harder to re-imagine the familiar, dry area he invented, but water gushed into the room. Waterfalls spilled from the ceiling and inched its way over his feet and ankles.
Raised voices from the room outside slipped into his consciousness and his eyelids popped open. The team watched him with alarmed expressions. A few ran back and forth in a panic while others barked commands at them. Nobody was listening.
349’s body undulated as though he floated in a pool. When he raised his hand to his face, his jaw dropped. A thin liquid coat enveloped him. It flowed about his fingers and into his flesh, leaving him unable to differentiate between the horror and the fascination that battled to take refuge in his brain.
As he moved to sit up, two of the scientists reached out to grab him, but their hands plunged right through his torso. They pulled back in shock, their arms dripping wet from their contact with him. He stood up and focused on his body for a moment. With a sliver of concentration, he realized he had the ability to become solid or liquid on demand. With all the experiments done to him over the years, he realized the scientists certainly didn’t expect this kind of result and basked in the glow of irony.
349 grinned and casually walked out. They didn’t try to stop him, but they followed from a safe distance, curious about what he intended to do. A locked door at the end of the passageway halted his stroll. The door wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard he pulled at it, so he stuck a toe under it and pushed. His foot emerged on the other side. He could feel his toes wiggling. With little effort, he continued to force himself through the tiny space and soon pulled himself back into form on the opposite side.
He took a deep breath and stared at the surrounding forest. For the first time, he was seeing things that were only known to him in pictures. The wonder of seeing it all with his own eyes was hard to contain. Laughter bubbled up inside him and he ran into the forest as fast as his legs could carry him. Without a care about where he ended up, his only path was far away from his lifelong imprisonment. After living more than two decades in isolation and agony, 349 finally earned his freedom.