How many times did I have to see Wild Boy before someone else saw him too? He was perched on the street corner, crouched down on his knees, staring. Rude green eyes. Clothed in the rotting leaves of fall, crumbling from his stooped neck to the sidewalk. Quit bugging me, I said with a middle finger as I drove by.
Once I saw him at the grocery store, pressed flat against the inside of the Frozen Novelties refrigerator. Between popsicles and ice cream sandwiches. I was on the phone with my sister, who lived on the other side of the country. She couldn’t afford to pay for her son’s seizure medication and was fighting with her ex again. I tried to comfort her, but all I could see was his ugly breath staining the refrigerator door in tiny stars of condensation.
One time he touched me as I left the hair salon. Marcia had done a fantastic job with the layers. As I pulled on my jacket against November, there he was—hair like a million twigs, footsteps like the angled lope of a buck, full spread of dirt-fingers on my elbow. I looked at him, uncertain—as always—if he was real. His touch was gentle in the way moss is kind to trees. My phone vibrated. It was my sister.
At night sometimes he peered through my windows. I let him look because I knew he was lonely. The world outside was crowded and full of weather and people were usually mean. Sometimes I watched DVDs from when I played a small part on a sitcom about a vet clinic in Appalachia. It only ran for a season. I was the receptionist, Tawny, a role I had been casted in because I looked like I could play a dumb blonde even though I was brunette. I knew that because that’s what the casting director told me. I never figured out how I felt about that.
Wild Boy’s head looked like it was floating in the window next to the TV. I always wondered if he could hear or not. Sometimes I turned up the volume, just in case.
Often I asked another person if they saw who I saw. At a coffee shop I noticed Wild Boy sitting cross-legged at a table in the corner, sipping something full of foam. His cloud-caught chest hair fell in clumps to the floor. Do you see that guy over there, with the forest written all over his body? I asked an older man behind me. His face was lined in years and car payments. Maybe his kids were all disappointments. Whatever it was, he told me he wasn’t in the habit of answering strange questions.
Another time I asked an airline employee while checking my luggage. I was on my way to see my sister and her son, a kid so terrifyingly tall and well-meaning that it pinched my heart just to think of him. I could see Wild Boy in line at security. He always knew where I was going. How would he get through the checkpoint with all that grass sticking out of his ears?
Ma’am, I said, Can you tell me honestly if you see over there a disturbing figure? Placing his loose petals in that security bin? The airline employee was tired of being a human being. She didn’t look up from the monitor. Do you have a question pertaining to this airline?
Now it is late December and the windowpanes shiver. I am weak on the solitude of winter when I find him standing on my porch, hand raised as if to knock. Come in, I say. It is snowing as I let Wild Boy into my home.
I make him some tea, because I am not sure what else he would like. He takes it graciously. Perhaps for the first time I can see the whole shape of him, and he isn’t composed of clumps of dirt or the half-shadows of dusk. He is made of strong solid edges, the way bright midday emphasizes the tall angles of trees.
Wild Boy stands and goes to look at a photo of my sister and I when we were kids. It was taken at some beach I can’t remember the name of. Our smiles, sunsoaked. We were kids, just happy to be somewhere new. Wild Boy turns and holds the photo out. I shake my head. I don’t know who they are.
I take Wild Boy into my bed and he lays down on top of the covers. I whisper that I think he lives in a crack he found between this world and the next. Maybe some of that will rub off on me. As I fall asleep, I can hear his even breaths rustling the leaves up and down his arms. I hear the same wind outside, shaking through the trees.
Emma Stough is a Midwestern writer living in South Carolina, where she teaches beginning creative writing. She has work out in Third Coast, Quarterly West, and Jellyfish Review.
Lead image: “window” (via Flickr user Marco / Zak)