“You came back.”
Zack seemed genuinely surprised, staring sideways at him through blond hair as he crouched over his bag. It wasn’t the reaction he expected.
“I never left,” Danny said with a small smile. “I should be saying that to you.”
The kid hesitated, his head hanging over the bag, curls covering his face. “You haven’t been here the past week and a half.”
“Yeah.” He wanted to approach but the mood was different today. Tense, awkward, and there was something in the kid’s voice that made him hold back. “I had a work conference and training. Out of state.” After a pause, he took a chance. “You disappeared for three weeks. I was worried about you.”
There was a long period of silence and he thought maybe he had made a mistake, but then Zack tilted his head slightly in his direction.
“Why did you come back?”
His voice was low and cracked a bit. Danny wasn’t entirely sure how to answer, since he had already told him why he had been away, but then he realized that wasn’t really what he was asking, so he stayed quiet.
After a moment, Zack spoke again, this time a little softer. “People don’t ever come back.”
And there it was. Danny looked at the mural and understood it, then looked back at the kid and understood him. He hadn’t disappeared for three weeks. It had been a test, and he had failed by leaving. With his doubts confirmed, there was no reason for the kid to hide anymore.
Danny took a few steps, getting just close enough for his face to be clearly seen, and crouched to Zack’s level. “I’m sorry I had to leave, Zack, but I was always coming back.”
There was a light sniffle from the kid, but Danny didn’t move. If Zack was crying, there was no way he would want anyone to notice. Instead, he let him be and spun on his heels to look at the mural. He hadn’t paid much attention before, but it didn’t appear to have changed at all. Then he caught a spot of white in the corner of his eye and glanced down toward the sidewalk. A black cat had been added, walking calmly along the bottom of the wall. Through the mass of deformed people, then through the black ooze that was once a house, the cat left white prints as it traveled. The prints were easy to see, contrasting against the dark greys and blacks, but the cat was hard to distinguish. Past the remains of the house, the cat stood out in front of the plain brick, lazily licking the white from its paws.
A smile spread across Danny’s face. “Oh,” he said casually, pretending the addition meant nothing. “It’s Omen.”
Zack barely nodded, then quickly cleared his throat. “It’s just a cat.”
“Ah.” It was difficult to keep his stupid grin contained. “All this time I was away and you only managed to paint a cat?”
“Fuck off, old man. I’d like to see you try and paint a cat.”
Danny chuckled and shifted with a groan to sit, spreading out his legs and ruining yet another pair of expensive pants. Surprisingly, Zack followed, leaning back and propping himself onto his palms.
“I heard they’re gonna tear this building down.” The kid tried not to sound upset, but his throat was tight saying it.
“Where did you hear that?”
Zack shook his head, curls still covering most of his face. “The guys said the owner sold it to some rich developer.”
Rich developer? Not even close.
“Never thought of myself that way. Not sure what I’m developing.”
It took a moment for the kid to process, then his head snapped around, his thin features and blue eyes finally clear.
“I bought this building. Last week.”
Those blue eyes squinted at him in anger and Danny finally saw it – bruises, a black eye, and a swollen lip. He scrambled up, crawling over to get a closer look.
“What the hell happened to you?” he asked, now filled with his own anger. He tried to reach out and push some hair away, but Zack slapped his hand aside.
“What the fuck! Why the fuck would you buy this building?”
With his personality, Danny had assumed the kid would be mad, but he didn’t expect this much emotion. He didn’t care, though, because that wasn’t important right now. There were bruises on the kid's neck and shoulder, and he could imagine what it looked like under those ratty clothes. Reaching out, he grabbed Zack’s arm.
“We’re going to the hospital.”
His hand was swiped away again. “Fuck that. I’m not going anywhere with you, old man.”
“You’re a fucking mess,” Danny growled. He couldn’t remember when he had been so angry and the kid wasn’t getting away this time. “You’re going to the hospital.”
He grabbed Zack’s wrist and began to drag him, but then he felt an equally strong grip on his own wrist and halted.
“I can’t go to the hospital.” The kid was still upset, but his voice was quieter. Danny turned to see fear in his eyes and immediately released him. “They’ll ask questions.”
Letting out a long sigh, Danny held his hands up in surrender. “Then we won’t go. But something needs to be done.” The kid didn’t move and Danny sighed again. “Come home with me. I have a first aid kit at least.”
Zack’s head shot up and Danny was afraid he would yell again, but he just looked confused. Taking advantage, he started walking, gesturing for the kid to follow. Surprisingly, without a snarky comment or complaint - without a single word - he did.
“There. That’s the best I can do with what I’ve got.” Danny crouched down and stared up at the bare-chested Zack sitting on his couch. The kid had multiple bruises, some large, and the one around his skinny arm had the distinct shape of fingers. His lip was swollen, but not bleeding anymore, and Danny pointed to his puffy eye. “Keep those peas on there for the next twenty minutes. Gently. Don’t press.”
“What, you’re a fucking doctor now?” the kid grumbled, but he still followed the directions given.
Danny smiled and stood, giving him a quick pat on the knee before heading into the kitchen. “You think I’ve never been in a fight before?” he asked as he poured a glass of water.
There was no response to that, so he walked back and handed Zack the glass. “Drink.”
They sat in silence for a while, occasionally glancing at the clock to check the minutes. Every once in a while, Omen would wander by to check the newcomer out, eventually deciding after a few nudges that she liked him, settling onto his lap. Zack pretended to be annoyed, but Danny caught him petting her a few times, which only made him smile wider.
After a very long fifteen minutes, Danny broke the silence. “Are you still mad? That I bought the building?”
Zack frowned. “What the fuck business’s it of yours? Nobody just buys a shitty, old building.”
“If you think I bought it for you, you’re wrong.”
Danny stood and walked over to a low bookshelf. Taking a framed picture in his hand, he took a moment to look it over, then handed it to Zack. The kid glanced at it, then looked up at him, unsure of what this was supposed to mean.
After a deep breath, Danny said, “That’s my wife, Maddie. She died, nine months ago. Cancer.”
It was the first time he had said it out loud on his own. The therapist had made him say it, but those didn’t feel like his words. He knew it was true, he was there when it happened and went to the funeral, but some crazy part of him thought that if he didn’t admit it, if he didn’t acknowledge it, it might not be real. It had all gone so fast, maybe it was a mistake. And if he drowned himself in alcohol and apathy, he wouldn’t have to think about how ridiculous those thoughts were.
Zack stared at him, obviously feeling awkward and unsure of how to respond, so Danny managed the smallest smile. There was still nothing okay about losing her and it still felt like his heart was being ripped from his chest, but it was survivable. This pain wasn’t the only thing that existed anymore.
“That night was normal for me. Getting drunk, wandering, and hoping to pass out somewhere no one could find me.” He continued speaking but kept his distance. This might frighten the kid, but he needed him to know. “Then I saw your mural on that building. Something about staring at that horror made me feel better. Then talking to you made me feel good, and getting to know you made me happy. You saved my life, Zack.”
“You don’t know a fucking thing about me,” the kid growled out, and Danny could tell he was nervous and uncomfortable, but not angry.
“I know what I need to know.” Danny slowly went over to sit beside him on the couch. Zack didn’t make eye contact, but he didn’t move away either. “For whatever reason, your real family is gone or can’t take care of you. You’re living in foster care, with people who obviously don’t treat you well, and it probably isn’t the first foster home you’ve been in.” He had to pause and take a breath before saying what came next, the horrible images in the mural flashing into his mind. “And you think all of it is your fault.”