The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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TWENTY-FOUR | Clay

Lisa covered her head as the sculptures exploded around her. At the same time, the worktable slid from the center of the shed to the outer edge, slamming against the windows with an ear-splitting CRACK as wood splintered from the table legs. Pieces of pottery that didn’t break on impact flew off the surface and landed on the floor, shattering into hundreds of jagged clumps.

Peeking through her hair, she watched lines, like branches, spread across the glass windows. At least eight of the panes were broken but they all remained intact. Lisa stared at them, then looked at the boy. He was on his side with his head hidden under his arms, shaking like a leaf.

What the actual f—

“Stop—make it stop!” the boy shouted, his voice breaking. He started saying something else, quieter and less coherent. He kept mumbling unintelligibly, talking to himself. She couldn’t make out what he was saying. Lisa watched him as he lifted his head to look at the disaster. He was covered in mud, streaks running down his face from tears and snot. His eyes—blue, blue eyes—were bloodshot. Exhausted: that’s what he was. And terrified.

A POP made her look at the windows again. Another crack ran up one of the panes, branching off at the center. A hitch in her breath, Lisa slowly approached the glass, leaning over the table to get close enough to exhale warm air onto the window. Her breath poured fog over the pane, clouding up everything but the shape of a hand.

Fear, terror, panic—every emotion that makes a person want to run away—filled her head at that moment. It took all her strength and composure to remain standing beside the table as she tried to figure out what to do.

The person she’d seen in the shed, the one who had left the handprint, it was sending her a message. The ghost, or spirit—the thing she believed had been nothing but a trick of the eye in the dark—had just destroyed almost every sculpture in the shed. It had to have been that. What else could it be? She shook her head, refusing to believe what she had just seen. There was no way... “This can’t be happening.” She shook her head.

“...I’ll fix it,” the boy muttered in an empty voice. He was sitting up now and dragging shards of broken clay toward him. She noticed the blood before she saw the cuts on his arms and hands. Fat red drops hit the floor as he reached for each piece of broken sculpture.

She walked over and knelt beside him. He froze the moment he realized how close she was. “You should go home,” she said. “I’ll explain everything when my...uh...James gets back.”

He shook his head violently, rubbing his bloody palms against his pants. “Stay,” he said in a throaty, tired voice. “Not go, stay. He wants me to stay. I do what he says...good boy...I obey...good boy...” he nodded to himself, still rubbing his hands back and forth on his legs. Red smears stained the fabric, getting darker as the friction tore the cuts open even more.

Lisa’s eyes widened as she watched. There was something very wrong with him. Maybe he was on drugs, or hadn’t slept in a few days, or had a mental illness. Maybe it was all of those things combined. She wasn’t sure—all she knew was that this boy was the reason her father had put a chain on the door to the shed.

You’re a fucking moron, Lisa Marie Crane. She blew out a breath, shifting the hair that was still hanging in her face. A real ‘disappointment’ as the parents say these days.

The boy suddenly stopped moving. “It’s okay,” he said as he got to his feet. “It’s okay, I can fix this.” He shuffled back and forth across the room, grabbing handfuls of debris and dumping them on the worktable. Lisa winced as the broken pieces crunched under his bare foot—where’s his other shoe?!—but he didn’t seem to notice at all. She wanted to say something, to stop him. He was acting...well, crazy. But he wheeled on her before she got the chance. “You won’t tell him, will you?” he asked, wide-eyed and fearful. He was looking right at her for the first time in a while. She didn’t know what to do under that pleading gaze. “Please, please don’t tell him!” he said in a deep, strained voice. He took a step toward her and then stopped, holding himself back.

Lisa stared at him, confused. “Who? My d—I mean, um, James?”

He nodded quickly. She noticed his hands tugging nervously at his hoodie, lifting it up and pulling it down again. He didn’t seem to be conscious of the movement. “I won’t do anything bad ever again—I promise—I’ll be good a-and I’ll clean everything,” he looked around the room, then back at Lisa.

“You can’t,” she shook her head, one eyebrow raised. Was this guy totally insane? He couldn’t fix this disaster, and neither could she. There was no point in even trying. “Everything is broken—look at the windows. He’s going to notice that.”

The look on his face shifted from hopeful to forlorn the second he looked at the broken glass. It was like he hadn’t noticed it until just then, and now knew that there was no hope in his plan at all. Raising a hand to his head, he scratched at his scalp compulsively. His eyes seemed unfocused. After a moment, his expression crumpled. He groaned softly and clutched his stomach with his other hand as if he had suddenly become violently ill.

“Hey,” Lisa’s voice was firm but gentle. “Just go home. I can say you left before any of this happened. I’ll say...there was an earthquake, or that someone broke in and—” she stopped talking as he began to shake his head.

“It’s bad to break the rules,” the boy groaned. He wasn’t crying, but she could tell from the roughness of his voice that he was close to tears. “He’ll know I was bad.”

“You don’t have to do what he says,” Lisa stated suddenly, annoyed that the boy cared so much about what her father would think. “He doesn’t own you. He can’t hurt you.”

The boy looked up at her, his eyes shifting timidly from the floor to her face. Disbelief clouded his features and for a second, Lisa wondered if there was something she didn’t know—something he wanted to say, but couldn’t.

“Look, I don’t know why James brought you here, or why you seem to think he’s some kind of god,” she said the word with disgust, “but you don’t have to stay. He can only control you if you let him.”

The boy’s lips were pale and spotted with bits of mud. They parted. “He wants...to help me.”

“Help you?” Lisa’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you sick?”

He sighed, blowing air out through his lips, and didn’t answer.

Lisa frowned at him and he shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. “If you’re sick, why would he bring you here?”

And why would he try to keep it a secret by locking a sick boy up in a drafty old shed? It didn’t make any sense. Lisa wondered if this had anything to do with her father’s lie about going back to the city, or the mysterious car that supposedly ran out of gas. But she remembered the way this boy looked when he was in the hospital. Pale, drooling, half-dead. He probably was sick. But that made his being there with her all the more improbable. She was sure the pieces connected somehow, but it would take her a while to figure it out. Especially if the boy stayed silent. She needed to get him to talk. “If you don’t want to tell me, then just go home!” maybe an ultimatum would have a bigger impact than the standard honesty plea.

“Can’t go...home...” He mumbled and shifted again under her gaze, rubbing his arms and tugging his hoodie. It seemed like he couldn’t stay still for very long. He needed to move, to keep his hands busy. He didn’t seem to like eye contact either—at least not for more than a few seconds. The longer the silence stretched on, the more nervous he got. He kept looking around the room and holding his stomach like he was sick. His hands, thin and gray from the cold, shook violently.

“Why not?” she asked, a weird sensation creeping up her neck. Was it dread? Annoyance? She could sense his vulnerability; she knew he needed help. I’m no hero, she thought. I’m not the right person to deal with this. This boy needed a doctor. One that wasn’t going to lock him in a shed, of course.

“Can’t go,” he repeated in a deeper, stronger voice. His eyes still looked glassy and unfocused. She noticed he was avoiding her face, looking anywhere else.

A sinking feeling hit Lisa in the stomach faster than she could process it. “A-are you lost?” she asked suddenly. “Do you know where you are?”

He looked at her then. Blue eyes. Vibrant. Cool, and somehow still terrified, they sucked her breath away. She felt her chest lock, lungs frozen, and blinked to break the spell. Turning away, she walked quickly out of the shed without saying another word. Air, fresh air, she thought, gulping it in as soon as she was outside. Behind her, shards of broken clay clinked together as he tried to “clean” the mess. What had caused that disaster was still a mystery. Lisa would be more inclined to believe the weird boy in there had magically done something to the sculptures and the windows rather than think it was some kind of apparition.

Maybe, she glanced briefly over her shoulder to see him one-shoed and limping. He could be possessed...? No. That stuff wasn’t real. There was some other explanation. She looked back again. He was now forlornly gazing down at the pile of broken clay, unsure what to do next. Blood continued to trickle down his pale arms.

Shit, Lisa rolled her eyes and pressed two fingers firmly above the bridge of her nose. “Hey, Unishoe,” she called. He jumped at the sound of her raised voice. “You’ve got two choices. Stay here and wait for my d—um, for James to kick your ass for this mess...” she raised both eyebrows when he flinched at the mention of her father’s name. “Or you could come with me like it never happened.” A storm was forming in her head.

Thunder, lightning, strong winds—a big one.

“It happened...a thing can not un-happen...” he said softly to the stale air of the shed.

“After tonight, he won’t even care about this anymore,” Lisa promised. She knew what to do. Something that could get her answers and satisfaction. She just needed hospital boy to help her out for a hot minute. It would all be so easy if she could just get him to play along...and it wouldn’t hurt his cause either. Like she told him, after tonight, the mess in the shed would be the least of James’s problems.

He shook his head.

Of course. It would’ve been too easy otherwise.

“Look at yourself, dude.” She shook her head in disgust. “You look like you just crawled out of somebody’s toilet. And you’re bleeding. Look—look at the mess. That shit stains, you know.”

He glanced down as she spoke, chest heaving when he saw the blood. “Mine?” he threw his arms up to examine them before his gaze shot upward, eyes roaming Lisa’s body. After a second, his breathing slowed. “Mine,” he sighed, relieved. He looked around again at the shattered clay and broken glass, his mouth a pale, thin line. Lisa watched as he backed away from it all unsteadily, his hands clasping at the air like he was trying to catch himself. She stepped closer, peering at his face. His eyes were tightly shut as he grimaced.

“Hey, are you okay?” she demanded. Worry made her aggressive, and this boy spooked easily. She didn’t want to scare him or anything. Again. Not when she was by herself, at least. Who knew what might happen? Sick in the head or somewhere else, the boy was clearly not right. “You should sit down before you f—” he was already swaying unsteadily before she could get the rest of her words out. Without thinking, Lisa crossed the room in a few strides to clasp his arm. He shuffled his feet in a vain attempt at catching himself on the edge of the worktable, which was too far away to reach. His body fell heavily against her and it took both arms, one around his waist, to hold him up. He was slightly taller than her but thin and not as heavy as she expected him to be.

Lisa tightened her grip as he leaned against her, his head rolling back, eyes still closed. Now that he was pressed against her, she could feel his body trembling. He smelled of rich, wet earth, sharp pine sap, sour car exhaust, and...something else. She couldn’t place it.

Glancing over her shoulder at the door, Lisa caught sight of the house. She needed to get him up there before he passed out completely. And then she should probably call an ambulance or something. She didn’t like how light and weak he was, or the way his entire body shook like a leaf or the other thing she smelled when he turned in her arms. It was a sharp, musky odor. Like ammonia. The dark stain down his pants told her more than she wanted to know. Some of the fabric had begun to dry, while a portion of the stain appeared fresh and dark. Lisa cringed, quickly realizing what it meant.

“I need you to come with me,” she said, carefully directing him around to face the door. They were halfway there when he moaned softly in an exhale of breath, eyes shooting open. Lurching forward, he stumbled away from her, yanking his arm out of her grip. He fell, his chin thumping painfully against the edge of the worktable on the way down. Clasping his jaw, he let out a cry of pain and curled in on himself, forming a ball on the floor. The table started to shake, then the windows. Lisa’s eyes widened, then shut as a cloud of dust cascaded downward from somewhere above. The entire shed quaked. Crouching down, she touched the floor with her fingertips. It was a stuttering sort of tremble, just like the boy when he had leaned against her.

“Hey,” Lisa crawled over to the stranger. She reached toward his arm, startled by the way he jerked violently at her touch. A window cracked loudly, dragging a moan from the boy as he reached up to cover his ears. “Get up,” she said, pulling on him. The walls were beginning to groan, more dust falling from the ceiling. “We have to get out of here, now!” Lisa snapped, dragging him up suddenly. If the shaking didn’t stop, the shed would collapse on top of them. She could get out now if she ran. Survival of the fittest, she mused. But explaining why she left the crazy boy behind would be way too much work. “Let’s go!”

Lisa used all her strength to drag him to his knees. He half-crawled with her toward the door, too out of it to resist her efforts at first. The closer they got to the outside, the more he struggled against her. Short, dirt-encrusted fingernails started to claw at her hands as he fought her grip on his arms. She could hear his ragged breathing turn to strangled gulps for air. “Stop it,” she ordered, releasing his arm to avoid another scratch only to grab him again before he had time to drag himself back into the shed. As they neared the threshold, he started to kick and grab at the doorway. Above them, another cloud of dust fell from the ceiling, followed by a spark as the lightbulb shattered over their heads. Lisa screamed and jumped, clinging tighter to the squirming stranger as she stumbled out the door and onto the grass, unintentionally dragging him on top of her as she fell to the ground. He stopped moving immediately, his shaved head heavy on her stomach. No longer shaking, she could feel his shoulders twitching against her side as if he was trying to get up but couldn’t move. Raising her head to look at him, she caught his wide-eyed look of terror. He was staring up at the sky, mouth moving to mumble unintelligibly.

Before Lisa knew what was happening, he had turned over, his arms shooting out and around her waist, his face pressing against her abdomen, holding her so tight it started to hurt. Frozen, she raised her arms up and away from him as he curled closer, pulling his knees to his chest, heaving with frantic, broken breaths. She couldn’t see his face, so she wasn’t sure, but something told her that he was crying. Not the normal sobs she’d heard a few times from injured kids at school or broken-hearted girls in the bathroom stalls. This was a near-silent, fearful kind of cry like an animal makes when it’s caught in a trap. Quiet, desperate, hopeless.

Lisa wanted to tell him to get off. The tempest of emotions occurring on her lap at the moment was more than uncomfortable. She could barely handle her own shit. This boy had way more issues than she knew how to deal with. And he wouldn’t move, which made it worse. “Get off of me,” she said, trying to maneuver out of his grip. He kicked at the ground to follow, holding fast. “What is wrong with you?” she snapped, pushing at his head. Her hand left a red smear on his scalp and she looked down in fear, noticing the blood all over her hands and arms for the first time. The realization brought her out of her confusion and back to reality. Crazy boy wasn’t just sick in the head, he was bleeding. Really badly. If she didn’t get him off her lap and up to the house soon, things could get a lot more serious. Deadly, even.

“Hey,” she said, softer this time. She put her hand on him again, feeling the rigidness of his shoulders and back. He was frozen on top of her and, for half a second, she was worried it was too late. But then he sucked in another broken breath, still alive even though he was as stiff as a corpse. “It’s okay,” she soothed, her fingers pulling gently at his shoulders. They were hiked up to his ears, probably to protect him from the sky. That mean, evil sky with its sinister clouds and murdering blue gaze.

The boy pressed even closer to her. She felt every angle of his body across her lap, his hips and ribs sharp even through his clothes. Oh god, his clothes, she thought, swallowing her disgust. He didn’t smell any better outside, just slightly less pungent. The only people she’d encountered who smelled as bad as this boy were homeless vagrants in the city, who cared more about their next meal than their next shower. Focus, Lisa, she told herself with a quick shake of the head. Boy’s bleeding out on your lap and you’re complaining about how he smells? Such a bitch.

“I-I’m gonna help you.” Lisa let her fingers rest on his back, then both hands, until she was holding him awkwardly. “Everything is going to be fine. You just need a little first-aid and...a bath...and then you can chill.”

Based on the amount of blood all over her hands and arms, he’d probably need more than a little first-aid. But she had to start somewhere. She’d barely been able to get him out of the shed. Something told her he probably wouldn’t want to go back to the hospital, even if he was bleeding to death. Not that he had a choice. He should definitely go back. She just wasn’t going to mention that she felt that way until Pam returned and could help her get crazy boy on the crazy bus back to crazy town.

“Stay,” he suddenly mumbled. “Stay here.”

Lisa blinked in surprise. “You can’t stay. Not here. We have to go to the house.”

He took in another breath, then, “James said...good boy...stay...” his voice was so low it was almost impossible to hear.

“James didn’t know the shed was going to crumble around you. So, you need to do what I say now.” Lisa pulled on him again. This time, his grip loosened ever-so-slightly. “Do you want to be a good boy?” she felt stupid for talking to him like this. But, much to her surprise and confusion, he was responding. Lifting his head, he peered up at her briefly with exhausted, bloodshot eyes. “Do what I say and I’ll tell James you were a really, really good boy.”

He held her gaze for a millisecond before nodding very, very slowly. He released his hold on her long enough for Lisa to get to her feet and help him up as well. But before they could take a step toward the house, he had his arms around her again, his eyes tightly shut. I can work with this, she thought, guiding him blindly toward safety and warmth.

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