The Boy Who Turned to Stone

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Jerome's after-school routine was simple, efficient, and mechanical. As soon as he stepped off the bus, he was already unzipping his coat so that he could slip out of it by the time he reached the front door of his home. One arm cradled his jacket and backpack against his chest, leaving the other hand free to get working on the front door's two keyholes. There were subtle black scuffs on the lower half of the door left by Jerome's sneakers that he often used to kick the door's locking mechanisms into alignment. It was usually around 3:45 when Jerome burst through the door and sprinted up the steps to his room.
The day of the incident was no different in most ways. It was 3:40, and from the kitchen, Jerome's mother could hear the frustrated thuds on the front door. That day, she was only mildly bothered by Jerome's impatience. She had crafted a plan to spend some quality time with her son that day, and if he had to kick down the door to come home, so be it.
Just as his mother had started to head over and open the door herself, it swung open, and Jerome launched his jacket over the living room couch.
"Hey, son. How was school?"
"Can't talk now. Got stuff to do." He was already halfway up the stairs and had begun to kick off his shoes. They tumbled behind him in succession like an adolescent slinky.
"But Jerome, I made your favorite," she called up the stairs. "Chicken and dumplings!"
"Maybe later, Mom." The door shut quickly but without slamming. He knew for a fact that he wouldn't be eating any chicken and dumplings that night.
His mother knew this fact too, but she set his bowl in the microwave, covering it with a paper napkin anyway. Her tenth-grade son would be indisposed for the rest of the night, just like every other night. He had entered into a zone that was next to impossible to exit. She didn't need to see into her son's room to know that he had already placed his laptop on the charger and was currently logging into one of his favorite online streaming services.
Jerome had become particularly adept at the art of binge-watching, which he believed (and quite unequivocally so) was simply the best way to experience television. There was no need for any pesky commercials, nor did one have to suffer through the inconvenient week-long breaks between episodes or month-long hiatuses between seasons.
The art of binge-watching lied primarily in one's strategy used to minimize the amount of time spent away from the screen. For Jerome, it was the eating, drinking, and toileting that took away from his precious screen time, and he placed little priority on such nagging bodily necessities. He only succumbed to their urges when they were eminently pressing, two of which were appeased by the half-eaten bag of chips to his right and water bottle to his left.
The monitor flickered and flashed its pixilated algorithm, and Jerome's eyes darted across every inch and corner of the screen. He watched the shows as if in a trance, indiscriminately switching between genres. Occasionally, he felt a gentle tug at his stomach and he would stuff a handful of chips into his mouth. And when he felt a tug at his bladder, he simply reached to the left and grabbed his miniature porta potty.
He had breezed through an entire season of some vampire show, when he realized that his eyes were unusually dry. They itched, throbbed, and burned all at once, and it occurred to him that it must have been several minutes since he had last blinked. Feeling betrayed by whatever portion of the brain was responsible for regulating this bodily function, he angrily squeezed his eyelids shut, and let out a pubescent screech. Closing his eyes produced an excruciating pain that could best be described as rubbing a splintery slab of wood over his corneas.
It was then that he noticed that his throat was experiencing a similar dryness. He coughed, emitting a faint powdery substance. He reached for his water bottle, raised it to his mouth, and let out a second, much dryer screech when the smell of urea stung his nostrils. He had sabotaged himself with his ingenious repurposing. He sucked in his cheeks and swallowed a small drop of spit. His taste buds felt like sharp needles scratching across the roof of his mouth.
He desperately needed water, and he knew that he should cross the hall into the upstairs bathroom so that he could shovel handfuls of water into his mouth with his hand. He attempted to move his arms to lift himself out of his swivel chair, and his elbows creaked as the bones swiveled ever so slightly on the joint. He couldn't move, and despite this disturbing realization, he couldn't fix his face to show any semblance of shock. His jaw was frozen partially open and he could only muster papery thin grunts that barely traveled past a three feet radius.
It was nearly 10 pm, and Jerome's mother rapped lightly on his door. She waited for a response, and receiving none, she knocked again. "Romie? Romie, dear? I just wanted to say goodnight?"
Still nothing. She craned her neck, pressing her ear to the door. She couldn't hear any noise from his computer as she usually would on any other night. She quietly cracked open the door, hoping to see Jerome asleep in his bed for a change.
But what she saw was even more unexpected. Jerome's desk faced away from his bedroom door, so at first, his mother could only see the top of his head peeking over the back of his chair.
"Romie?" She approached his desk and was puzzled to see that his computer was on the sleep screen.
Her heartbeat quickened with confusion and fear, "Romie?" She swiveled his chair around 180 degrees and let out a quick piercing scream.
Jerome was stiff, sitting straight up in his chair. His arms were still slightly raised, as they would be if he still had his hands on the keyboard and mouse pad. Red veins clawing at the whites of his eyes that were open as wide as they could go. His Adam's apple bulged and moved up and down, but he made no noise. His chest was seemingly stuck in a deep inhale, but Jerome's mother could still feel his breath hit her cheek as cool air passed through his slightly open mouth.
Now fully alarmed, his mother shook him with fervent desperation. "Jerome!"
He slid out of his chair and landed on his side, knees and arms still bent at the same ninety-degree angles. "ROMIEEEE!"
It was a full month before Jerome was cleared to go back to school. His case confounded all his physicians, and despite their best efforts, they were never able to give him a complete diagnosis. This was no textbook dehydration. Whatever this was had affected the functioning of his entire body, including the lubrication of his joints. They blindly inserted a series of IV fluids, and they saw a gradual slackening of his arms and legs.
The subsequent weeks consisted of meetings with physical therapists and nutritionists yielded only one medical regimen: more water and less screen time. These orders were devastating for Jerome, but he begrudgingly complied.
Jerome's mother waited in the kitchen, listening for her son's kicks at the door on his first day back from school. They were right on time at 3:42.
Jerome opened the door, hung up his coat, and kissed his mother on the cheek before hopping up the stairs to his room.
She received no response that night when she knocked on his door. She swung open the door, feeling dread and déjà vu when she saw her son sitting at his desk, just as he had been a month before.
"Jerome?" She swung around the chair and was shocked to see that he had a book resting in his lap.
Jerome looked up, startled. "Sorry, Mom. I just got so wrapped up in this new book I borrowed from the library today."
His mother let out a sigh of relief. "It's okay, Romie. Just wanted to say goodnight." She kissed him on his forehead and turned to leave.
"Yes, dear?"
"Do you think we could have chicken and dumplings for dinner tomorrow?"
"Of course we can, Romie." She turned and nearly floated down the stairs, wiping away one stunned, happy tear.