It was over a week before the strange kid returned to the abandoned building. Danny had gone every evening since his night in the hospital, hoping to run into him again. He wasn’t entirely sure why. He told himself it was to thank him, since passing out in a less-than-safe neighborhood could have turned out poorly. But deep down, he knew there was something else pulling him there.
Each day, he waited, sometimes a couple of hours, sometimes longer. To pass the time, he stared at the mural. The more he looked, the more miserable the picture became, yet the better he began to feel. It was ridiculous that this dark, unfinished piece of art could do something six months of therapy could not, but the world worked in mysterious ways. Or some other cliché like that.
The ninth evening, he was brought out of his daze by a barely familiar voice.
“Well, shit. The prissy old man isn’t dead.”
The corner of Danny’s mouth rose as he turned to see the kid approaching, this time completely clear in his vision. It was amazing how nine days of sobriety could improve the brain’s ability to process images.
The kid was definitely twelve and definitely still short. He had a curly mop of dusty blond hair that hung into his face, and it looked like he had cut it himself in the mirror. Dark circles underlined barely visible dark blue eyes and he was thinner than someone with his frame should be. Over his shoulder was a battered messenger bag, only slightly more worn than his t-shirt and jeans, but in better shape than his ragged sneakers.
“Thanks to you,” Danny replied, but the kid just shrugged and tossed the bag against the wall.
After a moment of awkward silence, the kid crouched and began pulling out cans of spray paint. “That why you’re here? To thank me?”
“No.” When faced with the question, no matter what he had convinced himself of earlier, that wasn’t the reason he kept coming back.
The boy just nodded and stood, turned, and casually walked away. A handful of minutes later, he returned with a large ladder, unfolding it and positioning it against the wall. It was clearly new and looked expensive.
“Nice ladder,” Danny commented with a smirk.
The response was so blunt, Danny could only snort out a laugh. “Yeah, I guessed that.”
Then there was quiet except for the sound of aerosol spray and the occasional clank of the ladder or clink of the cans. Danny stayed and watched, mesmerized by the kid and his mural. There were a few more colors today – blues and whites and browns – but the kid was slow, meticulous, and he couldn’t tell what he was drawing. After a long while, the kid groaned and scowled down at him.
“You gonna stand there and stare at me all night?”
Danny just nodded absentmindedly, then pointed at the wall. “You’re really talented.”
That just received a bitter huff in response and the kid turned his attention back to the wall.
“You have a name, kid?”
“Of course I have a name, old man,” the kid grumbled, annoyed by the multiple interruptions. “Who doesn’t have a fucking name?”
“Congratulations. Your parents gave you a douche name.”
That put an end to any conversation for the evening. They both stayed another hour, Danny watching the kid spray on the building while the kid ignored his existence. It was the calmest Danny had felt in months.
The calm continued that way for another two months. Every evening, Danny went to the abandoned building and unless it was raining, as if on a schedule, the kid would show a half-hour later. The mural grew, the second panel slowly becoming a blue sky, then the roof of a quaint house, then the second story, then part of the first. Then the black smoke from the mangled mass of children swirled its way down into an open window, weaving from room to room until the house began to darken, the bottom crumbling and melting into a black nothingness that seeped out onto the sidewalk.
As the mural grew, so did their conversations. They were only there for a few hours, and Danny always did most of the talking, but eventually the kid started to actually respond. Even if it was just short quips, insults, or annoyed comments, Danny didn’t care. If he was being honest with himself, he enjoyed it. It had been a long time since someone spoke to him with such unrestrained disregard. It was refreshing.
It was also mostly fake. Over the weeks, Danny noticed multiple things about this kid. The biggest was that a lot of emotion hid under that intentionally cold expression. Nobody with as much indifference as this kid showed could create images as powerful as the ones on this brick wall. And no matter how he acted, he wanted to be there, and he wanted Danny to be there with him. With his antisocial personality, the kid would have already run off, or run Danny off.
Still, Danny didn’t want to scare him away, so he never pushed. Week by week, he spoke a little more and asked a few more questions.
“So, you’re really not going to tell me your name?”
The kid huffed from his ladder. “What’s it matter to you?”
“It would be nice to know what to call you.”
“You don’t have to call me anything,” the kid snapped back. “We’re not friends. You’re just some creepy old man staring at me while I paint.”
Danny nodded at that. It was a true statement and he knew he had lost the conversation.
Score one for the kid.
“You’re gonna ruin your Gucci pants.”
Danny snorted at the comment, both at how obvious it was that this kid had never seen the pants Gucci made and the fact that this was the first time the kid had initiated a conversation.
“You clearly haven’t seen Gucci pants. That’s probably the worst insult you’ve given me so far.”
The kid huffed on cue, his automatic reaction to everything, but Danny was sure he saw his cheeks turn a little pink. “Whatever. Like I care who made your rich-ass pants.”
“Aww, you’re embarrassed. Cute.” When the kid huffed again, Danny raised his shoulders. “It doesn't really matter. I have other pants.”
“Easy to say when you’re rich.”
It was an unexpected moment of vulnerability and Danny stared, but the kid had already turned away, painting as if the exchange had never happened.
“You brush it off, but to be able to create something like this at only twelve is really impressive.”
Danny had continued to compliment the kid on his art and only ever received apathy in return, which was unfortunate because he really was talented. This time, though, the kid spun on his ladder, almost falling in his shock.
“What the fuck, old man.” The reply was growled loudly at him, or louder than the kid’s voice had gone before. “You think I’m twelve?”
“I’m fucking fourteen, you rich douchebag.”
Ah. Guess it was the underdeveloped fourteen.
Danny just shrugged, not fazed by the language or the insults anymore. “I don’t spend much time with kids.”
“So that makes you...” He paused to do the math. “A freshman in high school? Damn. That’s a rough age.”
There was the slightest hesitation in the kid’s movement but no response. Danny tried to think of something a fourteen-year-old kid would be interested in.
“Got a girlfriend?”
“Tch. Yeah right.”
That wasn’t it and Danny smirked.
The kid hesitated again, a little longer this time, but then quickly collected himself. “No.”
Well, that hit a nerve.
It wasn’t his goal to make the kid uncomfortable, so he let the conversation die there and spread his legs out a bit more on the concrete sidewalk, turning his attention back to the mural.
“You’re this old but you still don’t have kids?”
Yet another follow up to the twelve-fourteen conversation. Danny had been indirectly picked on for that mistake going on a week now. He didn’t care, though, because the kid had been initiating conversation more often since then.
“Nope. No kids.” He kept the disappointment out of his tone, even though the question pierced him and made his chest painfully tight. “I guess I was always too focused on work.”
“Better not to have ‘em. They just get in the way.”
There was that vulnerability again, and again Danny wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I always wanted kids, then I always thought there would be time...” He drifted off, taking a breath to try and loosen his tight chest. “Then time passes, and all of a sudden it’s too late.”
That clearly made the kid uncomfortable, so he smiled and let out a little laugh. “I’ve got a cat though. Black. Named her Omen.”
The kid laughed back. Danny counted it as a laugh, even though it was really just a huff, but this particular huff seemed lighter than usual.
“You would have a cat. Rich douchebag with a cat.”
Danny nodded. None of that was inaccurate and he smiled a little wider as the kid went back to his painting.
“It’s Zack. But people call me Z.”
It was said in passing, with no emotion connected, but Danny struggled to hold in an excited shout. Two months later and he had a name. There was a long pause while he tried to think of an appropriately indifferent response and he could tell the kid was growing tense.
“Do you actually want to be called Z, or is that just what people call you?”
The signature huff blew out at him and the kid said, “Why the fuck would I care what they call me?”
Shit. Wrong response.
“Then I’ll call you Zack.”
There was the tiniest twitch in Zack’s lips and Danny blinked, thinking it was too much to believe the kid had actually almost smiled. It didn’t matter. That was clearly the right response, and he was happy to finally have a name.