“Oh my, look at the two of you,” said Mrs. Hayes to the two boys, all spick and span, as they stepped down the stairs.
Adam didn’t even look like himself anymore. It wasn’t just that he was clean. He was wearing real clothes. And despite the fact that they were merely sweats and a t-shirt, he had undergone a complete transformation. The result was astronomical. Adam now looked like a normal, modern day boy, with the slight exception of a comb that had mangled itself in his hair at the top of his head.
“Ouch,” Adam said in a deep, grumbly tone as he stepped into the kitchen, fidgeting with the comb. “Help me, Dennis.”
Dennis’s mother smiled in surprise. “He knows your name?”
Dennis grinned and nodded. “Guess so,” he said with a shrug, trying to look nonchalant, as he looked over at Adam and then back at his dad. “So now what?” he asked nervously. “You’re not calling family services, are you?”
“I don’t know what we’re doing, Dennis,” Mr. Hayes replied honestly. “There isn’t a manual for our situation,” he explained while glancing at his wife to try and read her thoughts. “What do you think, Hun?”
Mrs. Hayes joined in on the shrugging. “I’m just as lost as the rest of you. Legally, we should call the police and let them know. I just—the more I think about it, the less it feels like the right thing to do.”
“So…” Dennis looked from one parent to the next, “He’s spending the night?”
“Yeah, Mom!” Keegan seemed to appear out of nowhere. “We’ll have a sleepover, with movies and chocolate and popcorn and fizzy drinks!”
“Hold on.” Mrs. Hayes prodded her fingers between her eyebrows as she sat down to think. “How about we play it by ear for now. We’ll give it until after dinner. If Adam seems to be adjusting okay, and we know for certain that everything will be all right, we’ll hold off on the call until the morning. I just…”
Dennis practically threw himself at his mother and wrapped his arms around her. “Thanks, Mom. You won’t regret it. Honest.”
“I hope not.” Dennis’s mom forced a smile and hugged her son. “Now help that poor boy with his hair.”
Dennis turned around to see Adam struggling with the comb in his hair. It had become impossibly tangled, and the more Adam tried to remove it the worse it got. Adam looked up at Dennis, his eyes glossy from the pain. “Dennis, please.”
“Okay, don’t move,” Dennis urged the boy as he gently took hold of the comb. “This might hurt a bit, okay?”
Adam’s eyes looked up at Dennis, without his head moving an inch. “Oh kay.”
Dennis carefully pinched away the hair from the comb, strand by agonizing strand. The knots had become so tangled and twisted that, if Dennis hadn’t been looking at the mess with his own two eyes, he wouldn’t have thought it was possible.
“Sorry.” Dennis winced every time he’d remove another knot. “Almost done, okay?”
“Oh… kay.” Adam closed his eyes. “Dennis. Ouch, Dennis. Please.”
“One more second, Adam.” Dennis turned the comb over and unknotted a final tangle. “There!” he said in triumph. “You’re free, Adam!”
Adam carefully turned his head and looked up at the comb to ensure that it was gone, then jumped up from his seat and threw both of his hands straight up in the air. “YAY, Dennis!” he celebrated in an excited squeal with his arms still pointed out like a ‘V’ above his head. “Dennis is good!”
Dennis grinned and moved closer. “Now all we gotta do is finish up.”
Adam’s arms dropped, his hands slapped against the top of his head and he backed up. “No Dennis, please.” He frowned and held his arms out in front of him. “Is bad, ouch, Dennis.”
“It’s okay, Adam. I’ll be careful, promise.”
“Please no, Dennis.”
“It’ll only get worse if you leave it. Trust me, Adam. Please?”
Adam stopped backing away and stared skeptically at Dennis. “Is good?”
“No, Dennis. Not good. Necessary.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Ness-ess-airy?”
“Yeah, like something you have to do. Like put on shoes or poop.”
Dennis giggled. “Yeah. Everybody poops…” Adam curled his lip and wrinkled his nose as if he were actually smelling it. “…Just like everybody has to comb their hair.”
Adam shook his head. “Is not good, Dennis.”
“Yeah, I know. It hurts, but if you don’t start combing your hair it’ll get worse. And then soon you’ll have so many knots that we’ll have to shave your head. You’ll be bald, Adam!”
Adam cocked an eyebrow and moved closer. “Is bald good?”
“No,” Dennis shook his head. “Bald is really not good.”
“Oh,” Adam sat down on a chair, grabbed Dennis by the wrist and directed the comb to his head. “Kay.”
As Dennis attempted to comb Adam’s hair without hurting him too much, Keegan walked into the living room and flopped on the couch. A few seconds later the television turned on and its speakers sounded with explosions and a heroic call-to-arms. Adam jumped up from his seat, his eyes wild with confusion, and ran across the room to stand in front of Keegan as he faced the TV.
Gun fire and screams filled the room as Adam assumed a defensive stance and yelled back at the television. Keegan jumped back and sat up as his widened eyes searched toward the kitchen for someone to come and help. Adam, however, had his arms out at his sides, as if he were protecting the younger boy. And with every gun shot, shout or scream, Adam would lunge forward and swipe his arm through the air, like trying to prevent an attacker from passing.
Suddenly, the screen went black and the noise stop. Adam grunted and jumped back then quickly looked back at Keegan and then over at Dennis.
“It’s not real, dummy!” Keegan tried to explain. “It’s just a movie.”
Dennis walked over to Adam and put his hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Adam. It’s just pretend.”
Adam stared at the television as he slowly stepped closer with his right hand out in front of him, reaching out toward the centre of the screen. “Dennis?” he looked back at him then pointed to TV. “Is not good, Dennis.”
“Maybe you should turn to a cartoon, Keegan,” suggested Dennis’s mother. “Something that’s not so violent.”
Keegan nodded and turned the channel on the PVR box to the Cartoon Network before powering up the television again. The black square slowly lit up, causing Adam to take a step back, as a large, blue creature appeared on the screen and screamed.
Adam jumped back in a fright. The blue creature’s mouth was massive, and its tongue was long and rippling from the vibration of the noise. Adam’s eyebrow raised and he stepped closer, putting his hands on the screen. “Dennis?” he said curiously.
“It’s a cartoon.”
The blue creature started running around in circles, it’s stubby little arms flailing in the air as it crashed into everything it passed, tripped over a fallen lamp and face-planted itself on the floor with a heavy thud.
Adam poked at the screen where the blue creature laid, unmoving, then looked back at Dennis and started to laugh. “Dennis, look!” he shouted excitedly. “Ouch, Dennis!” he laughed even louder and sat down on the floor.
“Good call, Mom,” Dennis said in relief and sat down beside Adam.
Adam didn’t budge for the next three hours. In fact, he would have continued watching until the end of time, if Mrs. Hayes hadn’t turned off the television to call the boys to the table for dinner.
When the TV went blank, Adam looked worried and gasped and rushed toward it, placing his hands on the screen and tried to peer inside. “Gone, Dennis,” he said with a frown. “Dennis, help. Please, Dennis.”
“Later, Adam. It’s time for dinner,” Dennis tried to explain. “Besides, I can’t sit on the floor anymore. My legs are cramped and my butt’s sore.”
“Come on.” Dennis held out his hands to Adam. “Are you hungry? Mom made spaghetti and meatballs.”
“Meat?” Adam stood up and reached for Dennis’s hand. “Balls?”
“Yeah, it’s good. Want some?”
“Oh,” Adam grinned and followed Dennis, “kay.”
Everyone sat around the table. Dennis’s parents were on either end and Keegan sat across from him and Adam. In the centre of the table was a large bowl of pasta that had already been mixed with sauce. Beside that was marinated meatballs and, further down the table, was a bottle of lemon-lime soda.
Dennis stood and took Adam’s plate in one hand and the spaghetti ladle in the other. “You’re gonna love this, Adam. It’s really yummy,” he said while dropping a large helping of pasta, followed by a few meatballs, onto Adam’s dish. “Want to try some pop, too?”
“Pop?” asked Adam in a curious squeak.
“Yeah, it has bubbles.”
Dennis giggled and reached for the soda. “Yeah, and it tastes good, too.”
“Oh!” Adam grinned. “Kay!”
Dennis filled Adam’s glass before serving himself and passing the ladle to his dad then sat down. “Go ahead,” he urged mischievously. “Try some.”
Adam eyed the plate of food then glanced at the glass beside it, as Dennis nudged it closer. He then leaned down and positioned his nose barely an inch from the pasta and inhaled a long, hard sniff. “Mmmmm!” Adam sat and looked at everyone around the table, smiling widely with a small, red dot of sauce on the tip of his nose. “Is good!” he said and leaned forward to sniff it again. “Really, real good! Dennis, yum!”
Barely able to contain his laughter, Dennis picked up Adam’s fork and offered for him to take it. “You should taste it. It’s even better than it smells.”
Adam grabbed the fork from Dennis and looked it over, brought it closer to his face and poked his tongue out to taste it. “No, Dennis,” Adam frowned. “This no good,” he said and put the fork back down to continue sniffing the spaghetti.
“No, silly,” Dennis grabbed his own fork and stuck it in the centre of the pasta. “Look, like this,” he said and began twirling the fork in his food to collect the long strands of spaghetti. “And then you put it in your mouth,” he continued and then scooped the pasta off his fork and in his mouth.
Adam stared at Dennis, then at the fork, then back at Dennis. “Oh!” he said in the same curious high-to-low pitch, as if his voice had cracked, and retrieved his fork. “This good, Dennis.”
Adam’s fork stabbed down into the pasta, clanking hard against the plate and he began to spin it slowly. The sound of the metal scratching against the plate was a bit like nails on a chalkboard, which caused everyone to wince and Keegan to cover his ears. Fortunately, Adam quickly filled his fork and shoved a large morsel into his mouth. Several long strands of spaghetti hung from his lips and bounced back and forth on his chin as he chewed.
Across the table, he watched as Keegan slurped a long strand of pasta into his mouth and attempted to do the same. Several strands of spaghetti broke and fell back down to his plate, as the remaining two fought with each other and lashed about in all directions. And to Adam’s surprise, the victor of the two violently whipped from side to side and somehow managed to slap him just below his left eye.
Adam looked stunned, like his food had betrayed him, and wiped the saucy splatter from his face.
“Yeah,” Dennis said in a chuckle, “you gotta be careful, huh?”
“Try some of your drink. It’s good.”
Dennis slid Adam’s glass closer to him and Adam eyed it skeptically. “Is good?”
“Yeah,” Dennis nodded. “It’s really good.”
“Oh!” Adam picked up the glass and examined the liquid. “Kay!” he said and took a sip.
Adam’s face lost all trace of expression as his lips parted and the lemon-lime soda dribbled from his mouth, down his chin, and onto his nice, clean shirt. He looked at Dennis with confusion in his eyes, then around the table at everyone as they laughed at his reaction.
“Dennis?” he said plainly and licked his lips. “Dennis, please?”
Dennis grabbed a napkin and handed it to Adam. “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”
“Dennis, no… I don’t know, Dennis,” he said and took the napkin from Dennis’s hand.
“I’m sorry, Adam. I’ll get you some water, okay?”
“Oh!” Adam put the napkin down on the table and used his shirt to wipe his chin. “That good, Dennis, please!”
“Okay, I’ll be right back.” Just as Dennis got up to get the water, the phone rang. “Should I get that?” he asked, as on most days they didn’t answer the phone during dinner. But things have been different lately.
“No, I’ll get it,” decided Dennis’s father, and he stood up and went for the phone. “Hello? …Speaking …Uh-huh, yeah. …I see. I don’t know about that. We’ve just sat down for… Really?”
Everyone’s attention was focused on Mr. Hayes, with the exception of Adam, who was slurping up his spaghetti one strand at a time.
“…and you found this where? …That close? Really? …Well, okay. At 7:30 then? …Yeah, all right. We’ll see you then, Sheriff,” he said and hung up the phone.
“Sheriff?” asked Dennis’s mother. “What’s happening?”
Mr. Hayes looked at the clock and double-checked his watch. “We have to hide him,” he said, gesturing his eyes toward Adam. “Sheriff Wolseley and some of the search party are on their way. They found a shelter in the woods, about three kilometers west of here.”
“They think it’s Adam’s?” asked Dennis.
“No,” his father shook his head. “They know it’s Adam’s. We need to clean this place up and figure out what to do with Adam.”
“So… we’re not telling them?”
“No, Dennis. Not tonight,” his father assured him. “Now get him upstairs, okay? They’ll be here in twenty minutes. Probably sooner, knowing Sheriff Wolseley.”
Dennis rushed back to Adam’s side put his hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Adam. Let’s go finish eating upstairs, okay?” he said and picked up Adam’s plate.
“Dennis, no. Please, Dennis,” said Adam as he reached for his plate. “Dennis, it’s good.”
“We need to hide, Adam. Okay?”
Adam looked Dennis in the eyes and stood up. “Is oh kay, Dennis?” he asked and put his hand on Dennis’s shoulder.
“Only if we go now. We can’t let anyone find you here.”
“Oh,” Adam frowned. “Kay.” And he started following Dennis, and his spaghetti, toward the stairs.
As Dennis’s mother rushed to clean the table and get rid of any evidence that they had a guest, Keegan skipped to his father’s side. “Dad,” he said, tugging on his father’s sleeve. “Dad, can I stay?”
“No, Keegan. Go upstairs with your brother.”
“But…” Keegan frowned. “I wanna hear, too.”
“We need you upstairs to help Dennis.”
“But Dad!” Keegan whined and stomped his foot.
Mr. Hayes stopped what he was doing and crouched down in front of his son. “We need you to help Dennis. If you’re down here and Sheriff Wolseley hears Dennis talking to himself, he’s going to know that something’s up. If you’re up there, he’ll just think that you and Dennis are being silly.”
Keegan frowned but nodded. “Okay then. But we still get dessert after, right?”
Mr. Hayes smiled and nodded back. “Of course. We can’t let a good pie go to waste now, can we?”
“Kay then,” Keegan grinned and ran after Dennis and Adam. “And we can stay up late and watch a movie!”
“A scary one!”
“Not in this lifetime,” said Keegan’s mother, ending the negotiation. “Just try to be as quiet as possible, okay?”
* * *
Sheriff Wolseley sat at the head of the Hayes’ kitchen table. His eyes looked tired and his face was rough and unshaven. He looked around the table, at the crowd of people arguing, as he rubbed his hands against his temples then smeared his right palm across his mouth and down his chin. “All right, enough,” he said. Not yelling, but stern enough to let everyone know he had heard enough. “We’ve been searching for this boy for weeks now. Everyone’s tired and wants to get back to their families. I get that. But this is the closest we’ve come. We finally have something solid, tangible. Something that tells us that this boy is real.”
Sheriff Wolseley stood up, eyed his surroundings, noted everyone’s tentative stares, and frowned. He stepped back, pointed with his right hand toward the trees through the window and straightened his stance. “Somewhere in those trees is a boy. He’s alone, probably has been for most of his life. He’s never known people, probably doesn’t trust them. But that also means he’s never known love. Never known what it’s like to have a home, a warm place to sleep at night, three meals a day. Friends. Family. Then I look around this table, and although I understand—‘cause Lord knows I’ve been thinking the same thing—but we can’t give up now. Not when we’re this close. Not when there’s a life out there who needs us.
“We found his shelter tonight. Everything he knows is in that little hut. He’ll return to it, and we’ll be waiting.”
“But Sheriff,” interrupted one of the men from the search party. “We’ve been looking for him for days now. He doesn’t want to be found.”
Sheriff Wolseley shook his head in disappointment. “Your daughter ran away a few months ago, Ben. She didn’t want to be found either.”
“Yeah, but that’s different. She’s too young to…”
“Stop right there, Mr. Sutherland,” Sheriff Wolseley held out his hand and shook his head. “I’m not asking you to do anything you don’t want to do. In fact, that goes for everyone. All I’m asking is for a few people to take shifts near that shelter. No more searches. We just need to wait. He’ll show up.”
“And what if he doesn’t?”
“He will.” Sheriff Wolseley sat back down, picked up his coffee from the table and held it in his hands. “Whether it takes a day, a month or more. He’ll come back. And when he does, we’ll be waiting for him.”