The Boy in the Gray Hoodie

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Lisa could tell he was under the influence of some kind of medication before they even made to the front steps of Pam’s house. Strong stuff, too. Whatever it was made him dangerously unsteady. He tripped over his feet in the grass, forcing her to catch and support him more than once. She might’ve blamed blood loss and the missing shoe if it weren’t for the few brief glances she managed to steal at his glassy, vacant eyes. The incoherent and monotoned mumbling only seemed to confirm what she already knew; he was drugged. And not by cold medicine, or an average sleeping pill.

Halfway up the steps, he slipped again, pulling her down too. She landed hard on the edge of the wood, her head slamming back against the railing. He slid down the stairs on his side, arms flailing, and grabbed her leg. Gingerly poking at her scalp, Lisa felt a bump forming on the back of her head. It was a little one—smaller than the one she’d gotten when she fell off the bleachers at school—and barely hurt. “Are you okay?” she asked, pushing herself up to a sitting position. Kicking at the ground, he clung to her for dear life, panting, then rested his cheek against her knee. His hoodie had hiked itself up to his ribs, but he didn’t seem to notice, too busy kicking the ground with his bare foot, pushing himself up momentarily before sliding back down again. He continued to do this, stuck in a loop of motion as if he had no control over his body at all.

“Here, let me—” she stopped, sliding her arm under his to pull him up so that his other foot—the one with a shoe on it—could get traction and support him. It worked. Sprawled on the stairs next to her, he locked his knee to stay still and sucked in air as if he’d forgotten how to breathe. When he exhaled, a soft noise accompanied it. Half moan, half cry, he seemed not to know which sound was more appropriate.

“Are you hurt?” Lisa reached out when she saw a long red scratch running up his side. She pushed his hoodie up further and noticed the scratch connect to a scar just under his ribs. Her fingertips brushed lightly over the white line, the skin around it smooth and milky. When she touched the edge of the scar, a sharp pain in her stomach made her gasp. She pulled her hand away and curled her fingers into a fist, fear cascading down her spine like a frozen waterfall.

Reaching both arms out to the railing, the boy pressed his face into the side of her leg and grunted, trying to leverage himself up the stairs without having to get to his feet. He was, apparently, oblivious to what had just happened. Despite the fear she’d felt a second ago, Lisa cracked a smile at the sight of him. He almost seemed drunk, but very determined. Crawling backward up the steps, she got to her feet at the top and came back down to help him, easily breaking his weak grip on the railing in order to drag him carefully to the porch. He helped a little, kicking and crawling until they made it to the top. With his legs still hanging over the steps, she released him so they could both catch their breath. As thin as he was, the task hadn’t been an easy one. And it wasn’t over yet.

“Just a bit further,” she said, tapping his elbow. He’d thrown both arms over his head to breathe easier. “On your feet, soldier,” she joked, nudging him. That’s when she felt the first few drops of rain hit the top of her head. She looked up at the sky, dark rainclouds blocking out the light and the blue.

“Don’t cry.”

Lisa looked down at the boy, confused. “What?” she said, watching the rain hit his cheek as he rested on his side, still panting.

“...don’t...cry...” he said again as another drop landed on his chin. His eyes were wide open, staring at nothing.

“It’s just rain,” she muttered and held out her hand to catch a few fat droplets. Leaning over him, she put her palm in front of his face. “See. It’s rain.”

He blinked, eyebrows lifting as he struggled to focus on her palm. She could feel his warm breath on her wrist and shuddered—not from pain this time, but from...something else. “Rain,” she said again, her voice gentler than before.

“...rain...” he repeated in a small, timid voice.

“Exactly.” Lisa stared at him, trying to figure out why he was so...weird. She gave up and dried her hand on her shirt before getting back to the task at hand. “Come on, let’s get you inside before you get soaked.” Not that his pants weren’t already wet. But something told her he’d smell worse if she left things up to the rain.

Luckily, it was a short trip from the steps to the front door. Lisa managed to get him inside quickly, forcing him to go faster for his own good. It was getting colder outside, and she could already feel him shuddering against her. While his breath may have been warm against her skin, the rest of his body felt icy and rigid. She could tell from the dried mud and dampness of his clothes that he had probably spent last night outside. As rickety as the shed was, it would keep a person dry at the very least. He hadn’t been there for very long, she determined. And wherever he’d been before had afforded him little warmth.

The front door swung open with a loud CLANG, hitting the table next to it and chipping the paint. Technically this was the back door since it opened directly into the kitchen. But the real front door was too far away and was on the other side of the house, furthest from the driveway. Some architect clearly hadn’t thought that through.

“Easy, easy,” she said, helping him stumble around the little yellow Formica table to the sink. Knowing rest was near, he had suddenly sped up, reaching for the counter just as his legs buckled, forcing him to slide awkwardly to the floor. Lisa tried to catch him but missed, too slow from supporting him all the way up to the house. Locking his elbow, he held himself up with one hand and swung his head around to look at her. He couldn’t keep his head up or his eyes locked on her for long, quickly giving in to his exhaustion and letting his chin fall to his chest.

Eyeing him worriedly, Lisa tore some paper towels from the roll next to the sink and turned on the faucet. The sound of the water startled the boy awake, his body jerking violently as he searched with half-lidded eyes for the source of the sound. “What’s that?” he gasped, “what is that?” the words were slurred with panic.

Slamming the handle down, Lisa shut off the water and crouched beside him. He searched her face, repeating the question as she carefully held his arm and began wiping at the blood. He stilled immediately at her touch, distracted by the contact and the warmth of the water against his cold skin.

“Tell me if this hurts,” she said, searching for the source of the blood. She found a deep cut just below his elbow, and several smaller ones on the palm of his hand. They were already clotting though and probably wouldn’t need stitches.

When she looked up, she caught him staring at her with his mouth open. “What?” she demanded, annoyed. “Does it hurt? It shouldn’t. I’m being careful.”

“You’re a...a doctor...” he seemed awe-struck.

Lisa furrowed her brow. “You’re funny,” she said sarcastically, not sure if she should be annoyed or amused. Although, if he was telling jokes, that had to be a good sign, right? Maybe he wouldn’t need to go to the hospital. Maybe that storm in her head could actually make itself useful—to both of them. She looked at him again to find him smiling, one side of his mouth a little higher than the other. “What now?” she asked, laughing despite herself and the insanity of the situation. It took him a second to answer. Whatever meds he was on had him lagging a second or two behind reality.

“I’m funny,” he mumbled, pleased with himself.

Lisa folded the towel over and took his other arm, gently smearing blood away to uncover more cuts and gashes. This one was worse than the other. A lump formed in her throat and she frowned. “This is probably going to hurt,” she warned and started to clean the deepest wound. It oozed a little, and she felt him pull away. “Sorry,” she said, holding his arm so she could finish the job. “It’s almost done,” she promised.

“Ow,” he sucked in a breath.

“Sorry,” she repeated.

Letting his head roll back, he closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, groaning through his teeth. “It’s’s’s...okay...” he chanted the words to himself while she finished cleaning the wounds, laying fresh, warm paper towels over them before getting up to find a first-aid kit. She could hear him saying the same words to himself as she walked away, and he was still speaking them when she came back with bandages.

Seeing that his eyes were still closed, Lisa laid her hand on his chest. “Hey,” she said softly, getting his attention. “The hard part is over,” she promised. “This won’t hurt.” She noticed his eyes brimmed with unshed tears that spilled over onto his cheeks as she spoke gently to him. Despite this, he went silent, jaw still clenched so hard his teeth must have been aching.

Lisa carefully unwrapped the first bandage and placed it over the deepest gash first. His body had gone rigid as he tried to ignore the pain. She watched him, reluctant to hurt him. She wasn’t a monster. Yes, he was annoying, weird, and inconvenient. But she didn’t wish pain on anyone. Especially not someone who couldn’t help being...whatever he was.

Now covered in bandages instead of blood, the boy didn’t look any better. His skin was so pale it was nearly gray, and the dark circles under his eyes made him appear bruised and zombie-like, especially when he stared off at nothing like he was doing right then.

“Hey, zombie boy,” she said, a little less gentle than she’d been for the past ten minutes. His head slowly turned in her direction, but his eyes avoided her gaze. He was taking shallow breaths and blinking very slowly. “How are you doing?” she asked after a few seconds of watching him look everywhere but at her face.

He pressed his hand to his stomach and winced. “Hurts,” he grunted.

She bit her lip, thinking. “When was the last time you ate?”

He shook his head.

“Okaaaay...” she rolled her eyes and got up. “I don’t know why I expected a straight answer. I’ll just make you something.”

She kept an eye on him as she moved around the kitchen and quickly noticed that he was doing the same to her. His gaze—as unfocused and tired as it was—clumsily followed her everywhere. More than simply watchful, he seemed curious. She noticed an audible gasp when she opened up the refrigerator, the moment made more humorous as the light from the fridge shined directly in his eyes, making him squint. Lisa quickly grabbed what she needed and shut the door, catching him stare open-mouthed at it for a solid ten seconds before finding her again. It was like watching a cat or a dog, one that had never been in a house or around people. Which was crazy, because of course he had done both before. But...there was something wild about him. Something abnormal, for sure. She just hadn’t figured out what it was yet. Other than the obvious.

“I hope you like peanut butter and jelly because that’s all Pam has in the kitchen.” She handed him the sandwich and waited for him to take it. He just stared at her hands like she had nothing in them. “Are you hungry or not?” she demanded, grabbing his hand and placing the sandwich on his bandaged palm.

He looked down, mouth open, and stared.

“Eat,” Lisa urged, pushing it closer to his face. Before he could take a bite, is arm dropped, the sandwich hitting the floor between his legs. His head lulled forward and he exhaled. “Hey,” she squeaked, frantically holding his head up by his chin with one hand while she checked his neck for a pulse with the other. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was doing, but she’d seen people in movies do the same thing to make sure someone was alive. Right now, the stranger was looking very much...not alive.

The gentle pulse thumped timidly against her fingers and she sighed with relief. “Thank god,” she breathed. Not that she believed in that sort of thing. Then again, she didn’t not believe, either. Right now, god looked a lot like the boy’s blue eyes staring at her in fear.

“I’m sorry,” he swallowed and tried to sit up a little higher, wincing from the pain in his hands as he pushed against the floor.

“Sorry?” Lisa repeated, confused. “I think you passed out.”

He nodded, taking a shuddering breath. “I w-won’t do it again,” he promised and reached for the sandwich. Picking it up he shoved it in his mouth and proceeded to eat half of it at once. Lisa watched, confused as ever, as he chewed with bulging cheeks. The chewing suddenly slowed, and his eyes began to close.

“Hey, hey!” Lisa reached out grabbed his shoulders, shaking him awake. “You’re going to choke,” she said, scrambling to her feet to get some water. He was out again by the time she crouched beside him. His mouth was still full, breathing as shallow as ever. “Open your eyes,” she ordered, tapping his cheek with the back of her hand. He jerked awake, sucking in too big a breath and coughed, spitting out pieces of sandwich. It took him a moment to clear his lungs. When he could finally breathe, she handed him the water, which he drank too quickly and fell into another fit of coughs. Pulling him forward, Lisa smacked his back a few times, trying to help.

“Breathe,” she said, feeling the weight of him press fully against her as he managed to inhale normally for the first time in several minutes. His chest moved up and down, his shoulders rigid, then relaxed. Tilting her head back she tried to see if he was asleep, but his face was turned away.

“...sorry...” she heard him mumble weakly as he leaned against her.

Not asleep, she thought and began to push him away. It was the sound he made that stopped her. Just a soft, gentle whimper, like a child that doesn’t want to be put on the floor after you’ve picked them up. Surprise and pity held her in place. He wasn’t aware of what he was doing, that was clear enough. He was barely conscious and hadn’t resisted her push. Then she felt his hand tug on her shirt, and his arms wrap around her body, and she felt frozen in place.

Heart racing, Lisa struggled to figure out if she should shove him away or let him stay like that for a little while longer. This is so fucking weird, she thought. And that was true. But was it hurting anyone?

Almost without thinking, Lisa let her cheek press lightly against his head, just to see what it would feel like. That’s when she realized he wasn’t cold anymore. And neither was she.

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