It was a cold winter and it was late, so when the headlights cut through the blinds and put those dull streaks of light up on the wall, I got up to see who it was. The truck came rolling and cracking in close, and when it shut off, a woman, real tall woman, got out and walked to the other side. When she came back around she was leading the little boy along by the hand.
My own boy died at eight—got pneumonia that rotted him right out—and seeing that boy walking along with his breath smoking in the air made me move quicker than I’d moved in a long time. Cold and late as it was, I knew there was trouble. When they got on my porch I was there with the door open, ready to do what I could. She stomped the snow off her boots and looked down at him, then at me.
She said the problem was he wouldn’t talk. Not a word. Just stared at things, pointed at the food he wanted. “More than a week now,” she said. There was a quiver in her voice that made her words bubble all together, and I could tell she was worn down tired.
I told them to come on out of the cold and walked straight to the kitchen to heat some water. When I turned on the light, I remember how much it surprised us. We probably all would have rather stayed in the dark.
But I got a good look at the boy. Those eyes of his are maybe the only ones I remember. I can still see them like they’re looking at me, like drunk, tired muscles trying to lift something hard and heavy. There was a grown up look to him, too far along for how grown he actually was.
She stood behind him and was grabbing up bits of his hair and letting them fall between her fingers. Then she kneeled down and took off his hat and gloves and his jacket. She kept her voice hushed and said, “I want you to let us see, okay?” and held both her arms up to show him what she wanted him to do. He saw her even though he wasn’t really looking at her, and he put his arms up straight, like she wanted. She pulled his shirt up over his head and over his arms slow and gentle. Even with his bare, thin little body out in the cold like that, he didn’t seem to sober up much.
I got in close and made them out right away as bites. Maybe five or six in all, too big to be from children. They were snaked along his ribs and the backs of his arms. Some old, some fresh. The skin was broke in places, turned shades of brown and purple and orange like dried up paint.
Bites from people are worse than animals, I told her. I said they didn’t look to be infected, least not yet. What she really needed was the kind of medicine I didn’t have. But she stiffened up and asked real simple if there was anything I could do.
The air hissed in underneath the door and I was thankful for the noise to break up the quiet. I looked at the boy hard as I could, trying to see into him, but he was choked up so bad. There wasn’t much in his eyes but emptiness.
They sat and waited while I went down in the cellar and got two eggs from the icebox. We moved the table and swept a small clearing on the floor. I got out the warmest blanket in the house, my boy’s old blanket, and spread it out flat.
I wanted him to lie on his stomach, and I remember I didn’t have to tell him that. Once the blanket was ready, that’s just what he did, with his little arms flat at his sides.
The eggs were so cold they burned my hands, and while I waited for them to warm I closed my eyes and took in big breaths. I cracked the first egg on the floor, held it up high and let the white drip onto the small of his back. It pooled some, then ran down his side. When the dripping finished I let the yolk slip out. It slapped between his shoulders and started to run, but he didn’t flinch, stayed solid as a plank.
When I broke the second egg, he turned to watch me. Those brown eyes came to rest on me like birds landing in the trees. Then he turned away, lying there calm as a body can be.
I wetted a washcloth and cleaned him off and when he was dry she stuffed him back into his coat and hat. They left just as fast as they came. I don’t think I slept much that night, thinking about those bites and how they must have felt.
A few days later I stepped out to get the mail and found her sneaking off down the porch steps. Didn’t want to disturb me, she said. But the boy had started up talking again. She cried some, said how grateful she was, and pointed at the pie she’d set on the railing, said I could keep the dish. There was a note taped to it that said, “Thanks for helping my boy.”
Nobody much comes to see me anymore. There’s a big strip of storefronts that’s gone up not far from town, and I guess people must be able to find whatever it is they’re looking for in those places. But that boy, he came back. He knocked on my door just before sunset and I knew who he was just as soon as I seen him, could see the boy in him even though he was all grown. He didn’t ask to come inside. He stayed right on the porch.
I hadn’t ever heard that voice of his, but it was strong and real deep. There wasn’t any hello. “What was it?” was all he said. And when I told him I didn’t know what he meant, he said, “I know I seen something.” He told me he looked up that night, while I was opening the eggs over him, said there was a big red glow coming from my hands.
“What was it?” He tried looking at me, but he hadn’t grown to be the kind of man that could look people strong in the eye.
I told him it was a long time ago, that I sure didn’t remember any red light. I told him light sometimes plays tricks, that it was late and he must have been half in and out of sleep. He stayed quiet a while, kept his eyes down. I could see his fists going tight and his arms flexing tense like he was trying to hold something down inside himself.
I stood there with him in the quiet, knowing something was wrong, but neither of us spoke up. He turned to walk to his truck and I took a deep breath and didn’t move. I watched the whole time as he hoisted himself into the seat and started the engine. He hung his arm around the empty passenger seat and used the other to work the wheel. I didn’t take my eyes off him until the truck disappeared and the foamed up dust settled back on the road.
It used to be a lot of people would come here for help. I told them things to say, places they shouldn’t go to, told them to bury stones and just about everything in between. With time, most things got better. But sometimes things do more harm than they do good, even if they got the right intentions. I don’t think anything ever helped that boy. He had gone down to some awful place, and I’m not sure any remedy could bring him up.
“Helping the Boy” was finalist in The Coffin Factory’s Very Short Story Contest