The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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TWENTY-TWO | Secrets

Lisa’s hands balled into fists as she turned to face Chuck. “My what?” she said, voice higher in pitch than she’d intended. She wasn’t scared. In fact, the heat rising in her cheeks was from anger.

Realizing what he’d said, Chuck waved his hands emphatically. “No, no not like that!” he said and took a step back. “I just meant that I wanted...I kinda need customers at the moment. I got a big one the other day, but I could use a few more to make the rent, you know?”

Lisa shook her head and squinted at him. “What are you talking about?”

Chuck blinked. “I’m a driver. You know, like a taxi. But local, and...there’s just me, not a whole fleet of cars or anything.”

“Like Uber?” Lisa asked.

“Yeah...but not, because I charge more.”

“Really?” Lisa scoffed and crossed her arms, shoulders relaxing a bit. “I thought you were going to rob me.”

“I don’t charge that much more,” Chuck laughed. “Just enough to keep ol’ Rusty running like she does.” He jutted his thumb over his shoulder once again. Lisa followed it with her eyes this time. A filthy brown truck sat in front of the bait shop, taking up two-thirds of the lot. It had one blue door on the driver’s side. Around the back, duct tape held a busted taillight in place.

Lisa’s eyes widened. She recognized that heap of metal. “You gave my dad a ride,” she stated. “In that hunk of junk!” Laughter burst from her chest and she covered her mouth to cut it short. Chuck smiled despite his confusion.

“I knew I’d seen you before!”

“You didn’t see me,” Lisa insisted, swallowing the last of her amusement. “I wasn’t out there.”

“You were at the window, watching. I saw you from the front seat of my truck when I picked up that prickly older guy.”

Lisa smiled wryly at his description of her father. He was prickly.

Like an angry cactus.

“I know everybody around here, but I sure as heck didn’t know who you were. I wanted to,” he added, kicking a rock. “Hey, what’s your name? I know it’s not ‘nobody’ like you said in there.”

She watched his movements, the way he stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned on one leg. Very casual and confident in a way that she wasn’t used to. Chuck seemed comfortable in his own skin, and that was a rare thing to see in someone their age. Then again, maybe he was older than he looked...

“How old are you?” she asked.

“You first,” he nodded at her.

“I’m eighteen,” she lied.

“Same.”

A pause.

“Did my dad have fun in that thing?” she waved a hand at the truck. She hoped Chuck had played country music on full-blast and hit every single pothole in the road. “Doesn’t look like it’d be a smooth ride,” she noted, amused.

“He didn’t seem to mind it the first time, but he wasn’t too keen on it last night.”

Lisa jerked around to stare at him. “You took my dad somewhere last night?”

“Yeah. I picked him up someplace down the road...not too far from here, actually. Then I brought him to your house. I guess you were asleep or something.”

“When?” she asked, stepping closer. “When did you pick him up?”

He leaned away, his posture oozing with self-assurance. “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know...after you tell me your name.”

“It’s...Marie,” she lied again. There was no reason Chuck should know anything about her. Not even her name. Especially if he was going to be this annoying every time she saw him. Not that she would probably ever see him again after this.

“That’s pretty,” he smirked.

“What time?” she asked again.

“Oh...um...” he glanced at the sky, then the ground, thinking. “After one, I guess. Two? Maybe three...yeah. Three.”

Lisa did the math quickly. Chuck picked James up at three, drove him to Pam’s house, at which point he must have taken his own car and left, only to return again at four in the morning when she woke up. Where was he going? “How long did it take you to drive from here to the house?” she asked.

Chuck pursed his lips, thinking. “Fifteen minutes, I guess. Twenty tops.”

Fifteen minutes away. “And how long does it take to get into town?”

“From here?” he raised his eyebrows. “Just under an hour, I’d say. Why?”

“That’s what I thought,” she mumbled, ignoring his question. There was nothing but forest in either direction. So, what was her father doing in the woods in the middle of the night? “Did you see anything weird? Was there anyone with him?”

“No...he was alone. Said his car ran out of gas, but I didn’t see where it was parked,” Chuck answered, seemingly unconcerned.

“You didn’t see anything strange?” she asked, trying to piece together an answer. Chuck just shook his head. She wasn’t sure why it mattered, other than the fact that James had lied to her. Again. Maybe he never intended to leave her with Pam for very long. Perhaps there was some other reason he came all the way out to the peninsula. Whatever it was, she wanted to know. As often as she bent the truth, Lisa hated being lied to. Especially by her own father.

“I can take you out there if you want,” Chuck offered after a stretch of awkward silence had passed between them.

Brow knitted together in thought, Lisa nodded without looking at him. “Okay,” she said, marching toward his truck. She didn’t see his face light up as she passed, but she heard his hurried footsteps crunching gravel behind her.

He overtook her and trotted up to the passenger door, pulling it open before she had a chance to grab the handle. “I know a lot of cool hideaways. I could give you a tour—”

“Just take me where you went last night,” she said, hopping nimbly into the truck.

“Alright then,” Chuck agreed. The door swung shut with a loud CLANG of metal. Gravel skittered as he jogged to the driver’s side and got in, shoving the key into the ignition and starting the engine up. The radio turned on as it roared to life, some teen pop song with too much autotune crooning as he pulled away from the bait shop. “We’ll be there in a couple of minutes,” he promised, turning down the music.

“Awesome,” Lisa nodded unenthusiastically. Reaching out, she turned the radio back up and switched the dial to a different station. Queen came on and she withdrew her hand. Chuck glanced at her in surprise, but she was already staring out the window.

“You like the classics, huh?” he asked.

“I like whatever doesn’t annoy me at the moment,” she said. Hint, hint.

“I listen to lots of stuff too. I like all kinds of music—”

Before he could finish, Lisa turned up the radio once again, Freddie Mercury’s vibrato filling the cab of the truck. It was impossible to talk over that. Chuck glanced at her as he drove. “Not a big one for conversation, are you?” he shouted.

Rolling her eyes, she stared out the window and watched the trees go by.

The truck bounced and then slowed as Chuck guided it onto the side of the road. “This is it,” he said, switching off the engine. The music stopped too, a sudden void of silence all around. He pointed ahead. “He was standing right there. Got in. I drove him to your house, and...” he held up his hands. “That was it.”

Without saying a word, Lisa pushed the door open and climbed out. The shoulder of the road was narrow, barely big enough for a small car let alone Chuck’s truck, which was stopped in the middle of the lane. There was a sharp curve down the road a ways, and a steep drop-off on either side. “How did he get here?” she asked, confused.

“Must’ve walked,” Chuck offered.

“From where?” she mumbled, then started down the road.

“What are you doing?”

“He said his car ran out of gas. So...where’s the car?” she asked, her pace fast. Behind her, the truck roared to life once again. She whirled around, expecting to see Chuck drive off without her. Maybe she’d been a little too grumpy with him.

The truck rolled slowly toward her, stopping at her side. Chuck leaned over the seat and opened the passenger door from the inside. One corner of his mouth lifted into a smile. “Get in.”

Lisa climbed inside and shut the door. “Why are you so helpful?” she demanded suspiciously.

“It’s kind of my job,” he answered.

“If you’re trying to get a big tip, you can stop. I’ll give you whatever is fair,” she said, expecting him to drop the act.

“Uh...” Chuck glanced at her.

“What?”

“I don’t want your money,” he said, smirking at the look of confusion on her face. “I mean, you can pay me if you want,” he added, “but there’s something else you could do instead.”

Her body tensed as she stared at him. “Excuse me?”

He hesitated, the first sign of doubt melting his confidence. “There’s this thing at the coast tonight. Some friends just hanging out and stuff.”

Lisa looked away, relief flooding her. She wasn’t expecting that. “A party,” she said and frowned. “You’re inviting me to a party?”

“Yeah—I mean no, it’s not a party. It’s just a thing...a hanging out kind of thing...there’s food and music. It’s fun.” He was really struggling. “You could come with me, and then we’d call this even. Deal?”

Lisa turned away to look out the window. She needed to focus on the task at hand. Doubt suddenly hit her in waves. Why was she even doing this? If she found the car, what would that tell her about her father’s motive behind the lies? And if she didn’t, would it really make a difference anyway?

Go back.

The pull to return to Pam’s house was so strong she felt it in her bones. “Forget it,” she said suddenly. “Just take me home.”

“What?” Chuck asked, surprised. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Lisa replied. “There aren’t any answers here.”

“We could keep looking for a few more minutes. The car has to be here somewhere—”

Go back now!

“No,” Lisa shook her head, feeling dizzy. She reached a hand up to touch her forehead, surprised at the heat of her skin. “Take me home. I-I need to go back.”

“Are you okay?” Chuck asked, his voice sounding strangely hollow.

“I’m fine,” she lied. The dizziness faded when she closed her eyes, but the burning under her skin wouldn’t go away. She touched her throat, palm resting against her collarbone, surprised by the coolness of her hand against the skin of her neck. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to run away at four in the morning and walk for three hours without a jacket. I’m coming down with something, she thought. It’s just a cold or the flu.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Chuck pressed, worried.

Lisa hesitated, taking a deep breath. “Please,” she finally said. “Just bring me home.”

As Chuck drove, Lisa’s temperature began to drop. The closer they got to Pam’s house, the better she felt. The dizziness went away too, and she started to wonder if it wasn’t a cold or the flu that had made her feel so awful fifteen minutes earlier. Maybe she’d had a panic attack.

There was a kid at school who had to take medication to deal with his anxiety, and she’d overheard him talk about it a few times to his friends when they were near his locker, which happened to be next to hers. She hadn’t paid much attention at the time, but if she’d had her phone now, she would have googled the symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety disorders. Without it, all she could do was wonder if the things she’d just experienced were real, or if her brain had manufactured them. Not being able to trust her own head was the scariest thing of all, yet her heart didn’t even skip a beat at the prospect. So, why had she felt so afraid earlier?

Afraid? Was that what it was—fear?

But what had scared her? Was it being in the middle of nowhere with a guy she just met? Or did it have something to do with the fact that she had uncovered a lie—not just a broken promise, like she was used to, but a big lie. A secret. Her father was keeping something from her; something she wasn’t sure she even wanted to know about.

“We’re five minutes out,” Chuck said, nudging her out of her own head and back to reality for a bit. “Are you feeling any better?”

“Yeah,” she nodded reassuringly at him, then looked back out the window. She was starting to recognize the landscape again. Familiar trees, stumps, and little wooden signs that read PRIVATE PROPERTY in spray-painted letters passed one at a time until she knew exactly where they were. The road curved sharply up ahead. Around the bend, they would see Pam’s house at the top of the hill, all red siding with green shingles and a slanted, angular roof. But first, the shed. It stood to the right of the long driveway, close enough for gravel from the tires to ping off the windows if someone drove too fast. Home, Lisa thought. Not an empty tomb like the house James owned. A place where people actually lived.

“Looks like nobody’s home,” Chuck said as they approached the house.

“What?” Lisa followed his gaze, avoiding the shed. Didn’t want to look that way. Not after the thing that happened last night. Who knows when another hand might slam against the glass and scare the sh—

“Yeah, see. No cars. Ms. Dene must’ve gone to town.”

“You know Pam?” Lisa asked, surprised.

“I know everybody.” Chuck gave a stiff nod, turned, and winked at her. He actually winked.

As annoying as it was to admit, Chuck was right. Pam’s car was gone and so was James’s sleek, black, overcompensation. There was no one home. They just...left. Had they even realized she was missing? Did they even check? Hopping out of the truck, Lisa stomped toward the porch, purse bouncing against her hip.

“Hey,” Chuck called out.

Turning on her heel, Lisa sent him an annoyed glare. “What?”

“Is that a yes for the party?” he asked hopefully, brows drawn together in a half-cringe. He was expecting her to say no. She paused. Lisa never liked to meet people’s expectations.

“Fine.”

“Really?” Chuck grinned and pumped a fist, punching the ceiling. “Alright!”

Rolling her eyes, Lisa turned back around and headed into the house.

“Bye, Marie!” Chuck called. “I’ll pick you up at five!”

Raising her hand over her head, she waved him off without looking. The truck engine roared as he backed down the driveway. Lisa stomped across the porch and pulled the door open, stepping inside the kitchen. The lights were off. The house was empty. After a quick search, she found a note stuck to the refrigerator with a dog magnet.

Gone to the V. Back at six-ish. See ya later.

There was the answer to her question. They had no idea she was gone. They probably thought she was sleeping and left without saying goodbye. Frustration welled up inside of her as she leaned against the fridge. She expected this kind of behavior from James. Her dad was usually gone when she woke up, and still at work when she’d go to bed. But Pam...she was supposed to be the one who gave a damn.

“Whatever,” Lisa huffed and grabbed the coat hanging next to the kitchen door. “Screw all of you.”

The door slammed against the side of the house. Lisa pushed passed it and clomped down the steps, her feet starting to feel numb from the cold. Fat raindrops hit her head as she walked down the hill, arms out for balance. The shed looked dark and mysterious without the sun. Gray clouds covered every inch of the sky, pouring rain faster and faster as she approached. Ten minutes ago she had been afraid to go back down there. Now she was too upset to feel scared.

Wiping the rain from her nose with one hand, Lisa reached out the other to yank the door aside. It didn’t budge. “What the...” she grimaced at the sight of a shiny silver lock attached to a chain. The chain was threaded through the handle of the door and attached to a board that was recently nailed to the wall. Someone had made these changes while she was gone...but to what end? Why would they lock the shed? Pam hadn’t seemed at all concerned about Lisa’s experience yesterday afternoon. She’d seemed excited about the prospect of a ghost. And she never would have put a lock on her art shed. She’d read into it as a prison for creativity or something, call it bad juju or karma or whatever she believed in. No, this wasn’t Pam—which only left one other person.

Without even stopping to think about the myriad of reasons as to why it was suddenly locked up tight, Lisa charged around the side of the shed to where the hose was coiled. She’d seen a bucket with gardening tools and a hammer leaning against it yesterday. They were still there. Lisa grabbed the hammer and came back around, wielding it like a baseball bat. Aiming beyond the lock, she swung the tool in a downward arch, making contact with the board that was freshly nailed to the front of the shed. It made a loud BANG the first few times, and then a sharp CRACK as the wood came loose. Using the other end of the hammer, she wedged it behind the board and pulled, bracing her foot against the door for added strength and balance. The nails creaked from friction as they slowly detached from the wall.

One nail popped, then the next. The board came flying off and Lisa fell backward, the force of the pull no longer concentrated on anything but air. The hammer spun away, landing in the dirt. Getting up, she marched over to the door and threw it aside with a flourish, giving a triumphant sigh as she stood in the open entryway. Whatever James had been trying to do—no doubt some kind of punishment—had failed. He couldn’t keep her out of this shed any more than he could keep her in school.

“You don’t control me,” she muttered, proudly wandering inside to assess which supplies she might use next. She was sick of painting and drawing...so, maybe some sculpting today? It had been a while since she’d made anything out of clay, but it wasn’t exactly something one forgets. Besides, Pam needed a new sculpture around the place, to remind her of Lisa. Something that looked a little less monstrous than the ones scattered all over the shed. A lot of them were gargoyle-like; all angular and disproportionate. Except for that one over by the window, toward the back of the shed. She couldn’t see most of it, almost like it was hiding. She hadn’t noticed it yesterday. Lisa wondered how she could have missed it. The thing actually looked pretty real. Lifelike.

Wait a second, she thought. Something was familiar about it. Lisa peered closer and reached for the light switch. Her hand froze in midair, heart pounding. Those eyes...dark...and incredibly blue. Her memory finally clicked.

“Oh god,” she breathed. “You.”

The sculpture blinked.

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