“Well, if it isn’t our little Z,” said an older, higher-pitched and condescending voice.
Danny halted next to the building. He wasn’t sure, but he guessed the kid didn’t want him involved in his personal affairs, and he didn’t want to do anything that might scare him away.
“Mom’s looking for you. Is this where you’ve been sneaking off to every night?” The second voice was a little deeper and a little younger, but no less arrogant. “Drawing your pictures out here?”
There was a snort in response, then a small groan from Zack. “Such a mouth on you.” The words were followed by the crash of spray cans. “Pretty sure mom said not to waste her money on this shit.”
“It’s my money. I’ll spend it on whatever the hell I want.”
There was another snort, this time from the first voice. “Yours? None of this is yours. You’re just here for the monthly check.”
Danny couldn’t listen anymore, his face growing hot, and he stepped around the corner, pretending to casually stroll by. A large teenager, definitely older but probably still in high school, had his arm wrapped tight around Zack’s neck. Another, maybe in his early twenties, stood near the tipped over cans. They were both muscular and wore new clothes.
Danny barely made eye contact with Zack as he just happened to notice the mural and stared, then just happened to notice the spray cans.
“This your work?” he asked, as if nothing was going on. Zack nodded slowly and he smiled. “It’s really good.”
The two older boys looked at him like he was crazy, but Zack frowned and pulled himself out of the hold. Shuffling over to his bag, he tossed the cans in, then turned away.
“Come on, let’s go.” He pushed his way past the boys and headed down the sidewalk, leaving his ladder and Danny behind. The others just raised an eyebrow and followed.
That was the last Danny saw of him. He came back every day for the next three weeks, but there was no sign of the kid and the mural hadn’t changed. After all that, he had scared him away.
“So, you found the kid that called nine-one-one and met him every evening to have something that can’t count as a conversation and watch him graffiti an old building?”
Jay was staring at him from across the small café table, brow scrunched in confusion. Listening to someone else say it out loud, it sounded as if he had lost his mind. It didn’t seem that crazy at the time.
“And then some older kids came and started to bully him, so you pretended to walk by and commented on his art.”
“And he packed up and left. And hasn’t come back since. But you still go every evening to check anyway.”
He nodded again. Now he sounded like an obsessed stalker.
“And it’s been three weeks.”
“Yeah,” said Danny, letting out a frustrated sigh. “Is that insane?”
Jay had been grinning like a fool, as usual, but now he laughed. “Jesus, Danny. Of course it’s insane. You’re almost forty-fucking-years-old.”
“Age has nothing to do with it.” Danny groaned, knowing it was strange, but he really missed that grumpy, detached kid. And more than that, he was worried. “Do you think he’s okay?”
His friend shrugged and took a swig of his beer. “How the hell would I know? What is your attachment to this kid?”
It was Danny’s turn to shrug, but he didn’t have anything except a glass of water, so he just folded his hands and stretched them behind his head. At first, he went because it calmed him. It was something entirely new that didn’t remind him of his life. But recently, even when their conversations drifted toward becoming personal, he didn’t panic. His lungs didn’t tense until he couldn’t breathe. His heart didn’t feel like someone was crushing it with their bare hands. He didn’t want to completely shut down. And now, all that came to mind was What if that kid is hurt? What if those guys bullied him? What if something worse has happened?
There was a hard knock on the table, breaking him out of his daze.
“Look, man.” Jay had his rare serious face on. “I don’t know what this is, and I can’t say it isn’t weird. But I haven’t been called to the hospital in three months. You haven’t had a drink in three months. I’ve seen you smile more in the past couple of months than in the previous seven combined. Whatever it is, it’s good for you.”
Danny nodded, then sighed. “So, what you’re saying is I’m a selfish asshole. What kind of person uses a child to make themselves feel better?”
“A selfish asshole.”
He nodded again and slumped forward.
“But, just because you started as an asshole-” Jay continued with a grin. “-doesn’t mean you need to stay an asshole.”
For once in his superficial life, Jay had said something intelligent and helpful, even as he grinned like a fool. Suddenly, Danny shot up from his seat.
“I’ve gotta go. You got this, right?”
“What?” Jay held his hands out in disbelief. “You were supposed to be taking me on a date.”
Danny had already stopped listening. “Thanks. Next time, I promise.”
He didn’t see Jay roll his eyes and slouch back in his seat, beer bottle back to his lips as he watched his crazy friend rush off the patio to his car.
Twenty minutes later, Danny was at the corner, staring up at the abandoned building, and now equally abandoned mural. Pulling out his phone, he scrolled through quickly, dialed, and then bit at his thumbnail as it rang.
“Larry, can you do me a favor?”
There was a sigh on the other end and Danny knew what the man was thinking. He was wrong.
“Danny, I thought you were moving forward.”
“It has nothing to do with that. I need you to look up a deed for me.”
There was a pause. “What?”
Danny looked at the street signs on the corner, wondering why he had never bothered to read them before.
“There’s an abandoned warehouse or factory or something at the corner of Oak and Church. Can you find out who owns it?”
Another pause, this one longer. “...Why?”
“I want to buy it.”
There was no wait for that reaction. He knew it sounded crazy – it was crazy – but he had this feeling in the pit of his stomach that he should do this. It wasn’t like he had anything else to spend his money on. He had discovered too late that money was worthless without something, or someone, to spend it on.
“Can you find out for me? It would take me forever to track down on my own.”
Another short pause. “Have you been going to counseling? Maybe you should talk this out with someone.”
“Oh, stop trying to fucking analyze me, Larry. If you can help me, great. If not, I’ll do it myself.”
The next pause was long. So long he had to check the screen to see if the call was still connected. Finally, there was another sigh, this one in defeat.
“Give me a couple of days.”
A click told him the man had hung up and he let out his own sigh as his hand dropped from his ear. He turned to look at the mural, then reached out to trace one of the mangled figures with his fingers.
Dammit, kid. Where did you go?
He backed into the brick and slid to the concrete.
You’re gonna ruin your Gucci pants.
He let out a loud snort at the voice in his head, then laughed. It was the most he had laughed in a long time. When he finally stopped, he let out a long breath and wiped a tear from the corner of his eye.
Ah... I’ve lost my fucking mind. Again.
following day he left on a business trip. He had wanted to leave a note in case
the kid showed up while he was gone, but in the end decided against it. He
didn’t want someone else to find the note first. Judging from the way those
older boys spoke to him, he was picked on regularly. Danny didn’t need to be
another opportunity for the kid to get hurt.
While he was gone, Larry sent him the info of the building owner and he had easily purchased it at a low price. Over the phone, it sounded like the man was ready to give it away, but Danny wanted the exchange to be official. Now he was the proud owner of a completely worthless shell of a building and an incomplete but priceless mural.
He had also convinced Jay to check every evening to see if the kid came back. It was less of an argument than he expected, but he was pretty sure his friend was resigned to the fact that he was crazy. There was no use fighting a crazy person.
Five days into his trip, the kid returned, and he had brought his bag of spray paint with him. He was painting again. The news made Danny as happy as when he had learned his name. And he was even happier the next day, then the next, then the next after that, when the kid continued to return and paint. And in a few more days he would be home, and could see the progress himself.