The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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TWENTY | Wet

The painting in the shed had morphed into something ...otherworldly. The boy had begun to look like a creature. The very human pain she’d put in his eyes had faded as the paint dried, leaving nothing but a dull ache and a flat portrait of a stranger. Put off by the way it turned out, she’d selected a different canvas and started again. Her brush strokes revealed another stranger, this one a girl, but with the same tortured eyes. What is going on? It wasn’t like Lisa normally painted happy things. But everything she touched lately seemed to turn out depressing and weird.

As the sun faded behind the tops of the trees, she searched for a light switch. A bare bulb swung from the center of the ceiling, wires crawling down the wall to a plastic box. Flipping on the light, she spent another hour or so trying to create something less disturbing, but her efforts failed.

“Shit,” she breathed, staring down at five different paintings, each one looking progressively less human. Resigned, she grabbed her brushes and went outside to rinse them off with the hose. It might have been years since she’d been to Pam’s house, but she still remembered where everything was. It helped that Pam wasn’t a fan of change—one of the characteristics they shared. Despite being completely unrelated by blood, Lisa had always felt a strong kinship with the woman. If they had been related, Pam would feel like a second mother, or a very close aunt.

Running her fingers under the stream of water, Lisa pressed the bristles gently to ease the paint out. Behind her, the lights in the shed started to flicker. Off, on, off, on. Night was falling, blackening the windows in the absence of artificial light. Cutting off the water supply to the hose, Lisa stepped in front of the tall glass siding, peering through the inky darkness of the shed. The light bulb sparked. There was a blinding surge of light, and then it popped. Startled, she covered her eyes and took a step back. Her body turned toward the house, an instinctive need to get to safety pulling against the unsettling—yet powerful—desire to stand exactly where she was.

Lisa peered, eyes narrowed into slits, at the dark. Something moved in the dark. The faint throb in her chest became a tremulous pounding, an angry drum without rhythm. Thump thump, thump thump thump, thumpthumpthump.

The outline of a person, barely there at first, became solid before her eyes. “What the hell.” Her breath turned gray on the cold window. The apparition remained still and semi-translucent—nothing more than a trick of the eye in the dark. Her own reflection on the glass. She laughed.

THUMP. A hand smacked against the inside of the window.

Lisa was on the ground in an instant, rocks cutting at the backs of her legs as she skittered away, kicking up dirt. The hand slipped from the glass as she watched. The unmistakable outline of a hand left behind. Lisa couldn’t take her eyes off the window, even as the brightness of the lightbulb practically blinded her with its sudden luminance. The shattered darkness left no trace of the figure in the shed, or the handprint on the glass. It was clear after half a second of terrified searching that the room—aside from art pieces and supplies—was totally empty.

Wooden-handled paintbrushes clicking together in her trembling hands, Lisa pushed the door aside and cautiously stuck the toe of her shoe inside, followed by a hand on the inner frame of the entrance. Her face slowly peeked into the room, throat bobbing as she swallowed, hard. Still no figure. Nothing to explain what she had just seen. Dropping the brushes on the table, she approached the window and slowly reached up to touch where the pale, white skin had pressed through the darkness. Rivulets of water rolled down the surface of the glass, originating from where the hand had hit the window. It could have been her imagination. Lack of sleep. Any number of rational explanations. Or it could have been a ghost.

“This is crazy,” Lisa breathed, pulling her own hand away from the window. Blazing light glistened off of her glossy, damp palm. Lisa rubbed her finger and thumb together, then brought them close enough to take a hesitant sniff. There was no sticky texture, no detectible color or smell. Just the feintest hint of...salt.

***

Inside the black box still. Cold sides, hard floor; it shook him. His stomach turned uselessly, unable to vomit anything up and aching—just aching. He had stopped calling out hours ago. There was nothing now but the growl of the box and the red eyes flashing at him. Blinking. Seeing right through him. This was his room. This awful-smelling, stomach-punching, restless box.

Small.

Cramped.

Can’t get out.

He needed to stretch his legs so badly that his knees felt full of needles. A groan escaped him, too small and resigned to be heard outside of his own head. The fire in his chest that had once been so hot and strong remained cold, just like when he was inside the cocoon. He shivered in the dark, teeth chattering. He could see his breath.

E7 trembled and moaned as his lower abdomen became tight with pressure. The sound of panicked breaths filled his head. He needed to relieve himself immediately. It had been hours since he had been in the white room with access to a toilet. Even longer since he’d needed to use it. He could try to call out again, but it was already too late. His whole body tensed, every muscle engaged to hold himself still. Pressure swiftly became pain, followed by an urgency he’d never felt before. Warmth—hot enough to sting his icy skin—spread across his pants. He groaned against his hands, covering his face even in the dark. Humiliation burned hotly under his skin

A sudden jolt sent him rolling onto his belly, fingers digging into the fabric of the trunk. He pushed himself up again, only to hit his head. “Ow,” he exclaimed, voice raspy and rough. The blow made him dizzy, blurring what little he could see inside the trunk. Then, as suddenly as the motion and the darkness had fallen over him, it stopped. The rumble cut out and the red eyes shut. The ceiling above opened, ready to swallow him whole.

"Ugh.” James threw up his arm, covering his face as he stared down at the boy in the trunk. “What did you do?”

E7 lay in the fetal position, knees to his chest, both hands curled against his mouth. He trembled from the sudden cold. His eyes shifted beyond James, to the open sky. It was blue up there. Very dark blue, like his t-shirt. He stared at it with his mouth open, fear welling up so deep in the pit of his stomach that it started to send jolts of pain outward, coiling his body and shaking him so hard that he couldn’t hold his head up.

E7 felt the fabric of the sweatshirt pull him upward before he realized James had reached a hand into the trunk, a fistful of hoodie clutched in his strong fingers. Panic surged in his blood, pumping fear throughout his body. Without thinking, he resisted, squirming. His muscles felt stiff and sore from being in the cramped box for too long. He needed space to stretch, to breathe. But the openness behind James sent E7′s stomach into his throat. He didn’t want to go out there. Trees stood like rusty pipes in the distance, spider-like branches spreading in all directions, narrow trunks casting spindly shadows. They were in the woods, the car parked at the edge of a steep drop off. The road—if it could be called that—was nothing more than tightly packed gravel, barely wide enough for one car. James had managed to drag E7 halfway out of the trunk by the sleeves of his hoodie but stopped short when the boy threw his arms out and around James’s waist. Fussing like a frightened child, E7 hid his face in the folds of the man’s jacket.

“Get off.” James pushed him back.

No words came out. Just a small, gasping croak.

“Let go.” James took hold of E7′s shoulders and shoved him away. Arms flailing to latch onto James again, E7 tumbled out of the trunk and onto the ground.

THUD.

E7 coughed, lungs emptied of air on impact. Rocks bit his palms and scraped his cheek, peeling back his skin and drawing blood as he scrambled forward. The gravel crunched underneath him while he crawled, one arm stretched toward James.

“Stop that!” James stepped away again, and again, until he’d had enough. “Get up,” he growled, taking hold of E7′s hoodie with both hands and dragging the boy to his feet. They staggered back together, James righting himself by pushing against his struggling captive for balance. “Stop moving. Pay attention—I said pay attention!"

E7′s fingers clawed at James’s wrists as he tried to hold on. His mouth opened and closed like a fish, drowning in his fear of this new, terrifying landscape. His knees shook and buckled. Clinging to James was the only thing keeping him on his feet now. If the man let go, E7 would be on the ground again, in the gravel and the dirt, lost to the wide open mouth above them. Sweat and tears clouded his eyes, forcing them closed again. He expelled a breath, some sort of jumbled plea intermixed with his next inhale. Words escaped the tatters of his mind, but not the right way. The sounds he was making were wrong, confused, a jumble of grunts and half-formed sentences that didn’t make any sense. James shook him, but he kept trying to speak anyway, unable to stop himself. I want to go back, he kept thinking. Take me back to my room!

A hand collided with E7′s cheek, forcing him to gasp. He opened his eyes to see what had hit him. James’s hand was still raised, ready to strike a second blow. All around them, the sky and the trees and the open space stretched its maw and made ready to swallow them whole. E7′s mouth opened too, ready to yell and scream in fear. All that came out was a sharp, empty whine, like a dog pleading with its last breath for some sort of comfort.

The silence came to an abrupt end. His face crumpled into a grimace as his ears began to ring. The sound—higher than any pitch he’d heard before—shot straight through his head like a needle in his brain. He covered his ears and moaned, the pain only getting worse.

“E7,” James said, releasing the hoodie to pry the boy’s hands away from his head.

“It hurts,” E7 gasped, his brows arching as his eyes rolled back.

“You need to calm down.”

Something sharper than the sound in his head pierced E7′s neck. Eyes flying open, he stared at the syringe in James’s free hand, the other one tucked under the boy’s arm to hold him up. The world inside his head started to spin. He felt himself falling to the ground before James shifted, supporting his body long enough to lower him safely onto the gravel. He stayed upright, head lulling from side to side as the drugs took over his body. The ringing pain was beginning to fade, replaced by an aching dullness, like too many wads of cotton had been stuffed inside his skull. The pressure in his head pulsed, relief lasting only seconds before bone-shattering pain returned. He would have cried, but air was scarce as his lungs heaved for the smallest breath.

“You are experiencing sensory overload.” James grabbed E7′s chin, forcing their gazes to meet. There were two of him now. Two sets of eyes, glaring, angry. “I gave you a mild sedative. It will wear off in an hour or so. Right now, you need to listen to me. I’m taking you to a safe place.”

“Safe...place?” it felt like there was cotton in his mouth, too. All over his tongue. The words he’d been struggling to say were coming out now, but they were slow and slurred.

“A place where no one will hurt you.”

“My...room...”

“No. No, you can never go back there. Everything is different now. But you must do as I tell you. That is the same. That will always be the same. Do you understand?”

E7 swallowed dryly. He watched James’s two faces become three, then four, then two again. He couldn’t speak. Someone had propped open his mouth and paralyzed his tongue. Something burned under his skin, tingling and aching and weighing him down. He could do nothing to help as James dragged him to his feet once again and led him—limping unsteadily on numb legs—toward the drop-off at the edge of the road.

***

“I’m going crazy.”

“Join the club.”

“No, I mean it. I’m losing my mind. I saw a...something out in the shed. A hand on the glass, and a person in the dark.”

“Wow.” Pam nodded, impressed. “Your art is really starting to come to life.”

“What?” Lisa squinted, annoyed. “No. It wasn’t that. It was—”

“A ghost?” Pam smiled slyly. “I wish.”

Lisa crossed her arms over the table and leaned forward, pushing her plate of salad aside. “No, you don’t. At least you wouldn’t if you had seen it. Talk about nightmare-fuel.”

Pam’s eyes lit up. She was actually excited about this. “Are you serious? What did they look like? Was it a boy? A girl? Were they from our time? That shed is probably a hundred years old.”

Lisa’s brow furrowed and she picked up her fork once again just to push the lettuce around on her plate. “I feel like you’re mocking me.”

“Me?” Pam made a face. That one where her lip twisted up and she’d squint one eye, leaving the other one open stare accusingly at Lisa. “I would never.”

“You would. You and dad both. You think I’m stupid.”

Pam was all seriousness. “I do not think you’re stupid. Neither does your dad.”

Lisa rolled her eyes and pushed her chair back a little. “That’s what people always say. You’re trying to reassure me, but it won’t work. Even if I believed you, there’s no way you could speak for him. Nobody knows what goes on inside his head.”

Pam pursed her lips, shrugging. “I guess you’re right. And so smart. He’d have to be an idiot not to see that. Anyone would.”

“Well, then I guess there are a lot of idiots. All my teachers, principal Reinert, the school administration, my classmates...” Lisa thought of Amber—the only person she’d ever hung out with outside of school. Even if it was just once, it had felt nice. There had to be a reason people stayed away. Lisa had never been invisible, per se, but she certainly hadn’t been popular. Maybe not because they thought she was stupid, though. Maybe they avoided her for a different reason. She had a history of being unapproachable. More so than the goth kids, or the metal heads, or even the jocks.

Lisa’s thoughts were interrupted by movement across the table. “What are you doing?”

“This?” Pam rubbed her finger and thumb together slowly. “I’m playing a tiny violin. Your pity party needed a classical score.”

“You suck,” Lisa said, laughter bursting out against her will. Pam smiled broadly, lowering her hand to pick up her fork. “Is that how you comfort people? Making fun of them?”

“Absolutely.” Pam raised an eyebrow. “Did it work?”

“No,” Lisa bit her lip, smiling a little.

“Suuure,” Pam laughed. “That’s why you want to laugh.”

“I’m not going to encourage you!” Lisa said, pushing away from the table. She grabbed her plate and brought it over to the sink, opening the cupboard and dumping uneaten lettuce into the garbage.

“You could just toss that outside, you know. Food for the raccoons,” Pam said while she chewed. “They will chirp their thanks outside your window in the middle of the night.”

Lisa scoffed as she rinsed her plate. “No thanks.”

Half turning to catch Lisa’s expression, Pam frowned. “You used to love the raccoons.”

“They’re vermin,” Lisa said. “They’re dirty. They carry diseases. You really shouldn’t feed them.”

The look of surprise on Pam’s face made Lisa hesitate to say more. “I see,” Pam mumbled as she turned back around.

“What?” Lisa demanded, feeling defensive. “It’s true.”

The chair scraped against the wood floor as Pam got up and joined Lisa at the sink. She bumped the girl’s arm with her elbow. “Pass the sponge,” she said. Lisa handed it over and remained beside her, watching suds slip across the flowery surface. Neither of them said anything. The silence felt awkward. Lisa could feel how badly Pam wanted to say something and wondered anxiously why she was holding back.

“Are you going to argue?” Lisa demanded when she couldn’t stand the quiet any longer. “Defend the raccoons? Say the hippy mantra: all animals are worthy of our protection, blah-blah-blah?”

“Seems like you already know that one.”

“Yeah, I do,” Lisa replied. “Maybe it’s like that out here, but the city is different. People are mean. They kill everything. Rats, mice, bugs, raccoons, squirrels...dogs and cats too, if no one adopts them.”

“People kill out here, too.” Pam shrugged. “Just not in this house.”

“Well, I mean...god. I didn’t say I was going to kill anything.” Lisa leaned her hands on the edge of the counter. “I just think that if you feed the raccoons, they might assume that every human is going to feed them. They might not be scared of people anymore. And then...someone will hurt them.”

Pam paused, water running up her arm as she touched her chin. “So, you really just want to help the raccoons. Is that what I’m hearing?”

“No...I mean...yeah. I guess. I’m not a psycho. I don’t hurt things.”

Pam smiled, nodding a little. “I know.”

“Good,” Lisa mumbled, pushing away from the counter. “It’s late. I’m going upstairs. To bed.” Walking over to the door, she grabbed her bags and dragged them to the foot of the stairs. She paused there to send Pam a questioning glance. “Is my room still at the end of the hall?”

“Of course. Where else would I have put all your drawings and pinecone art?” Pam asked, smirking. “There’s a whole wall dedicated to your artistic endeavors.”

“Great,” Lisa rolled her eyes. “Can’t wait to see that.”

“There are clean sheets in the closet.”

“Cool.”

"Goodnight, Lisa.” She stopped halfway up the stairs to turn back around and stare at Pam, who had come to the bottom of the steps. She was drying her hands off with a towel and smiling brightly. Lisa smiled back slowly, awkwardly.

“Night,” she said, and hurried to the top. Lisa didn’t turn around again, afraid that Pam would see the tears forming in her eyes. She wiped at them with the back of her arm, dragging her suitcases toward the honey-colored door at the end of the short hallway. Emotion had struck her like a hand across the face and she couldn’t make the sting go away. Don’t be stupid, she thought, sniffing hard and reaching for the doorknob.

Staring at the room laid out before her, Lisa took a breath. She hadn’t expected it to look so...different. The walls were the same pale yellow she remembered, but the furniture was different. The old creaky, metal, twin-sized bed frame had been swapped out for a queen. The closet doors had been repainted, no longer that dark wood she’d stared at for hours before sleeping every night. And the curtains in front of the window were sheer now instead of the dark, heavy blanket-like monstrosities that had hung there before. Everything felt...lighter.

Hot tears hit the fuzzy round carpet under hersocked feet. She could blame her sudden weepiness on the lack of sleep, thestress of the last couple of days, the experience she’d had in the hospital,the ride up the peninsula with her father—that alone was enough to make a regularperson have an emotional breakdown—but none of those things explained hertears. Honestly, Lisa was fully aware of why she was crying, and it had nothingto do with any of those things. She hadn’t realized it until Pam was at the bottomof the stairs, smiling at her, seeing her, that this was the first timein months that there had been someone to say goodnight to. She could blame the lack of sleep, the stress of the last couple of days, the experience she’d had in the hospital room, the ride up the peninsula with her father—that alone was enough to make a regular person have an emotional breakdown. But none of those things explained her tears. Honestly, Lisa was fully aware of why she was crying, and it had nothing to do with any of those things. She hadn’t realized it until Pam was at the bottom of the stairs, smiling at her, seeing her, that this was the first time in months that there had been someone to say goodnight to.

Remembering her promise to herself—the one she’d made on the bridge hours ago—Lisa forced her emotions into the pit of her mind that they’d crawled out of. This place was a sanctuary. She didn’t have to feel any of the negative things anymore. She was free now to be happy, at least until James came back. Knowing him, it’d be days before she even heard anything. He’d get caught up in work, lose track of time. Lisa smiled as she tucked the clean sheets under each corner of the mattress. If she could count on James for anything, it was his inability to prioritize her over his work. Even if that meant leaving her here for a month—maybe longer. And that, she thought without any hesitation, would be just fine with me.

***

James dragged E7 into the trees and down the steep decline, holding him back whenever the boy’s foot caught on a rock or his wobbly frame began to slide faster than James could walk. With his hand tightly gripping E7′s arm, James pulled and nudged him deeper into the woods, stopping only to catch his breath once. E7 shook and panted at his side. Too dizzy to move on his own without falling, he clung to James all the way down, releasing him only when the man pried E7′s fingers from his jacket. With nothing to hold onto, the boy collapsed onto the ground next to a wet, moss-covered log. It smelled like dirt and grass. To E7, who had never smelled either of those things before, it was an overpoweringly rich scent. Mixed with the sounds of the night—the bugs, the wind against the trees, the distant snap of a branch underfoot of some wild animal—it was too much.

“Quiet—stop whining. Look at me. Look at me," James snapped, dragging E7 by the chin to face him. He held him there with a firm grip, ignoring the gentle tug as the boy tried uselessly to tuck his face back into his arms. “I’m going back up that hill now.”

E7 moaned at the thought of walking again, tired and numb. He wouldn’t be able to get up from the ground without rest, no matter how hard James pulled. The man would have to carry him back up. But he wouldn’t have to. Not yet.

“You’re going to stay right here and wait for my return.”

Stay, rest. That was a relief.

“I’ll be back soon. If you move from this spot, there will be consequences. Do you understand? Look at me—” James wrenched E7′s jaw forward again as his head began to lull to one side. His eyes were only half open. “Do you understand?” he asked again.

“Okay,” E7 uttered softly.

“Good. Good boy.” James sounded pleased, despite the annoyance still present in his voice. “No one will find you. You’ll be safe for now. But only if you stay right here.”

“Stay...” E7 slurred, the meaning lost on him as he stared blindly up at James, waiting for him to say something else. A large, icy drop of water fell onto E7′s cheek. He opened his mouth in surprise, worry creasing an otherwise blank expression. “Don’t cry...” he said softly to James and reached out to touch him. Another drop hit E7′s chin, then his hand. So many of them, falling all at once.

Straightening, James removed his jacket and placed it over E7′s shoulders. “It’s going to get cold, but you aren’t going to move. Right?” More drops fell—icy and clear—wetting the top of his shaved head and rolling down his face and neck. E7 blinked at the moisture, unable to see anything more than a blur of shadows as the pounding in his head concentrated all of the pressure behind his eyes.

“I-I can’t see,” he mumbled.

“Just go to sleep. I’ll wake you up when I come back,” James said.

When he comes back, E7 thought, panic rising as realization dawned. I stay...he goes... James turned, heading back up the hill. He stopped when something latched onto his pant leg and held on. “Don’t,” E7 choked, “don’t go!” James shook him off, watching as the boy fell face-first into the dirt. Bending over, he yanked E7 up by his shoulders and shoved him back against the log.

“Stay,” James commanded. “You’ll be fine.”

“Don’t leave me!” E7 leaned forward, grabbing at the air. He kept calling out at the darkness until his voice became nothing more than a broken gasp. As the sky darkened, he could no longer see at all. James was gone, but somehow his tears kept falling.

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