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A Hometown Hero

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Lloyd thinks that he knows what to expect when he hears footsteps on the roof: the janitor’s already been up here today and it’s too early for a teacher to force him out, so it has to be one of the kids looking to knock his trashcan sideways and then roll him down the steps. Lloyd could try climbing out, if only to spare him the injuries that he’ll inevitably acquire when his fragile body bangs against metal, but at this point it’s preferable to the verbal humiliation that he’ll be subjected to if he shows his face. Plus, all that rattling blocks out whatever taunts and insults they hurl while he’s falling, and then the buzz in his eardrums distorts any leftover laughter.

Lloyd sits on the floor of the trashcan, face lowered so his knees can touch his temples. His arms are draped over his head while his hands grip his shoulders. Experience has taught him that this is the safest position. Some of the worst incidents have involved his nostrils spurting blood for hours and a couple of fractured fingers. People talk about collecting proof, showing adults inarguable signs that he’s being abused, but they know without needing to be told and, clearest of all, they know he knows that they know, and that everyone else knows, too. Bruises are easy to hide but a caste draws everyone’s attention like moths to headlights, except Lloyd is the one about to get run over when the other students decide to rub salt into any and all visible wounds. That, along with his bruised nature – his tendency to agree with others regardless of their intentions, to treat every interaction as a predecessor to violence, to yelp when brushed as if whole of him is in the process of healing but not much can be accomplished when all the scabs keep being ripped open –, are invitations to escalate the abuse. His mother might insist that they’re evidence of his resilience, but to everyone else they just show how easy he falls apart – and who isn’t tempted to blow down a stack of precariously suspended cards? So it’s best to avoid those as much as possible.

The footsteps stop, Lloyd estimates, on the opposite end of the roof. “Where is he?” a voice murmurs, a fraction baffled while the rest’s awed. It sounds young and unfamiliar, vague enough to be anyone that Lloyd’s had to try to run away from before yet nothing he can pinpoint. Time transpires as tepid as a summer spent underneath covers with a fever.

The season is indeed summer and there is a heat wave traveling through Thanksgiving. Breathing becomes difficult in a lead casket. Panic makes him bite his nails, which are already ugly, uneven terrain. Finally he swallows so much sweat that the taste is not just salty but metallic. He confuses it for blood, unnerving him enough to uncoil himself and lift the lid. His lungs expand while his eyes squeeze shut, so the glimpse he gets of the stranger is about as blurred as the photographs he shows his classmates as proof of UFO sightings.

Ninten’s gazing in the direction of the mountains but he turns with the velocity of someone that’s used to catching rats with his bare hands. Lloyd tries to hide but dropping the lid triggers a noise that’s impossible to ignore. On the ground he tries not to hyperventilate, kicking his feet against the can because he knows he’s already been caught.

Ninten gawks. A shiver runs across his spine like when his sisters tell a really good ghost story (in fact, he’s feeling as if he’s in the midst of one right now). The baseball bat in his fist rocks uncertainly against his shoe.

He coughs into his surgical mask, then pulls it down so he can call out, “W, who’s there?”

There’s less conviction in it than a few weeks ago, when he ran freely through the dark woods near his house and didn’t care about hearing strange sounds at night because he could climb into his mother’s bed and feel safe again. Ever since a lamp sprang to life to attack him, however, he’s been on edge over the most ordinary of extraordinary events. Anything that he can’t immediately explain sends him into the first stage of mortal fear.

He can expect a trashcan to take a swing at him, too. Heck, he can expect the whole building to develop sentience and try crushing him. Who can tell when his enemies are poltergeists and aliens and - let’s not forget - trucks with weirdly realistic faces (can trash trigger an asthma attack? He better hope that there are no more toxic fumes in his future).

Lloyd hears the shout but fails to react. His brain’s hardwired for the worst, his muscles braced for a blow. Language enters his ears and gets translated into a menacing garble, stripped of its meaning and intention. He hears the footsteps start again, a body drawing closer that towers in his mind like a skyscraper about to collapse. He’s already pictured himself buried by the rubble of another assault.

“Is… is there someone there?” Ninten asks, back to mumbling.

He fiddles with the bill of his cap for a bit, then sucks in a deep breath and places his hand on the trashcan lid. The echo is so sharp inside that Lloyd winces and covers his ears with his sweating palms. Ninten lowers one knee to the ground so he can grab the trashcan from underneath. He’s surprised by how heavy it is, but only teeters for a moment, catching his balance before he trips. Up it goes, into the air and over his head. Lloyd whimpers because now he’s sure he’s in for it.

Nothing really happens, however. Ninten holds the trashcan without moving. He, too, is waiting for something to happen - something that’s about as impossible as the idea of Ninten bullying someone.

It takes about thirty seconds for Ninten to start trembling. His cheeks are inflated like he planned a speech but lost his nerve and tried to swallow it instead. He lets his face relax, straightening his eyebrows and draining the extra blood.

Fear has been dried by an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. He was so ready to fight and now he wants to slam the gears of his metabolism into flight instead. He’s at least grateful that no one’s around to witness his blunder (it’ll be remembered well by someone, though).

Just in case, he shakes the trashcan, which leads to Lloyd banging against the lid a little too hard. Then falling out.

Ninten screams, flinging the trashcan backwards while Lloyd takes a dive for the concrete. Luckily Ninten has reflexes honed by eight years of playing baseball (and, yes, catching rats – his household lacks a cat). Ninten reaches for Lloyd but it’s a clumsy, awkward attempt: an arm wraps around Lloyd’s leg that nearly knocks his shoe off; the other grabs Lloyd’s head and hugs it to Ninten’s chest. Nonetheless, it’s a safe.

Ninten realizes quickly that what he’s holding is a human boy and loosens his grip so he can set Lloyd on the floor, nice and gentle to avoid startling him further. Lloyd stares at the stranger with wide eyes. Besides the shock, there’s an awe in his features that suggests he’s seen something remarkable, alien to his life up until now. It’s captivating.

“Are you okay?” asks Ninten. His vision won’t settle: it flickers between his hands and Lloyd’s face, as if attempting to make eye contact but unable to maintain it for long.

Lloyd squints. He dropped his glasses during the fall, without which the world might as well be conformed of low resolution computer pixels.

“Oh,” Ninten says, then lifts the lenses from the floor and hands them to Lloyd. They’re smudged but not cracked. A miracle.

His vision resorted, Lloyd can take inspect Ninten. Everything about him suggests that he’s a boy on some kind of journey - like an actor that just stepped out of the set filming Stand By Me. Lloyd thought that such adventurous and courageous characters only existed in fiction. Yet somehow he’s real, wearing a patchwork bandana around his neck that smells of homemade meals and daisies, carrying a half open fanny pack stashed with an assortment of stones, rings, capsules, herbs, and who knows what else. His socks are mismatched - was his escape from home a hasty one? -, his overalls are only half in usage, the upper part hanging over his legs. The stripes on his shirt seem to have been bright once but the sun has dried them into shades of mustard, salmon, and baby blue. For some reason, he has a surgical mask that appears in desperate need of a replacement.

Lloyd frowns. Not with displeasure, but as a reflex - because of wonder, because of pent up anxiety, because of the absurdity of the situation. Laughter builds up in his throat that makes his shoulders shake. He always laughs when he has no idea how else he should react. Ninten notices and backs away, looking dejected.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Lloyd says between giggles, “I’m fine - I mean, does any part of me look broken? I don’t feel hurt. But that could just be the shock.”

Lloyd’s face turns serious.

“I’m not bleeding, am I?” he asks.

Ninten shakes his head.

“I thought you were going to throw me down the stairs,” Lloyd says, “when you picked me up, I was so, so sure that you’d-”

His voice breaks off with a snort. Then tears form around his eyes and his entire body trembles.

“I, I’ve dealt with wo, worse, don’t worry a, about it,” Lloyd mumbles.

He’s not sure why he insists on speaking. This resolve is strange and unfamiliar. But he forms a shivering fist and knocks it against Ninten’s shoulder, slow and weak. His teeth are gritted, more of a grimace than a smile.

Ninten grabs Lloyd’s hand. His eyebrows are scrunched but wavering. Opening his mouth as if he were going to scream, his throat instead coughs up a squeak. His eyes start to glisten like constellations and suddenly all the little stars that were clustered around his pupils are falling out.

Ninten is loud and unapologetic when he cries. Unlike Lloyd, who tries to subdue himself by biting his tongue and banging his fists into his chest. Ninten holds Lloyd’s hand so tight that it starts to hurt a little but Lloyd can’t complain when he’s watching this stranger burst into blubbering because of him. Lloyd’s never met an empath before so all he can think of is that, without intending, he’s done something terribly offensive.

Ninten doesn’t know exactly what prompted Lloyd to cry but their handful of awkward and disastrous interactions have been enough to strike a chord with his heartstrings. They aren’t quite acquaintances but neither are they strangers. Lloyd’s a face that Ninten would stop on the street to greet.

“What’s, what’s going on?” Lloyd asks, but the gesture has already overwhelmed him: his own tears have multiplied and his face has flushed red. Try as he might, he can’t stop the whine that slithers between his teeth. Like the trigger to start a film, everything else crumples, exposing a contour of raw distress.

It’s not exactly grief, or fear, or frustration. It’s an expression of all-around emotional overload, magnified by the compassion that they’ve mirrored back to each other. Recent accidents and regrets have piled outside their doorstep and one of them, without quite realizing it, suggested they do a bit of spring cleaning. Now the trash is really being taken out.

They have a good, long cry.

Lloyd does not know how to structure conversations. His therapist has tried explaining several times but instructions and rules aren’t what should come to mind when he’s talking to someone he’s just met that could potentially become his friend. Lloyd is aware of the fact that he’s not very interesting, or engaging, or, well, appealing to listen to. At least, that’s what he’s learned from trying to entertain others. So he usually lets others lead. The harder he tries to succeed at something, the more disappointed he’ll be when he fails, so putting in a mediocre effort when a mediocre result is expected anyway feels about right.

They’re already in such an unconventional situation, however, that such notions don’t even occur to Lloyd. Nothing that he was encouraged or discouraged to do makes a difference. Once their crying fit is concluded, Lloyd squeezes in a quick, “I’m Lloyd,” to which Ninten responds with, “I’m Ninten! Nice to meet you Lloyd!” It’s sunshine and rainbows as far as Ninten is concerned - his voice is hoarse from wailing, but he’s all sunshine and rainbows now.

There’s an aura surrounding him, like a flashlight’s just been turned on, like the sun burnt his silhouette so it’d glow. Lloyd doesn’t know it but the feeling he’s experiencing is called “trust.”

They talk about their interests. It’s easy: they’re both naturals at rambling and neither mind when the other goes off the rails on a topic. It’s mostly comic books and television shows, a lot of science fiction stuff. Lloyd reveals his passion for chemistry and construction within his first ten sentences, which Ninten admits he knows little about but is eager to hear more of. Lloyd has explained things to people lots of times but he’s never been listened to with the attentiveness that Ninten displays. He forgets to be anxious for a solid ten minutes.

Later Ninten mentions visiting a factory near Thanksgiving. Lloyd bounces his legs with excitement, saying he knows which one, and did Ninten find anything interesting there? Ninten is about to remove his backpack so he can reveal what he found while rummaging through a trashcan there - “I sure am discovering a lot of surprises in trashcans today,” Ninten says - when Lloyd emits a wince. Ninten stops and looks at him with concern.

“I see, seem to be hurt after all,” Lloyd stammers, embarrassed.

Ninten removes his bandana - the patchwork mess, sown over and over again by the hands of his mother because he simply can’t give up on it -, ties it around Lloyd’s ankle, and places his hands under Lloyd’s armpits. Despite how Ninten seems to throw Lloyd over his shoulder, he’s actually quite gentle. With his free hand, he grabs Lloyd’s injured leg to ensure that it doesn’t move around and cause him more pain.

“You should let the nurse take a look at that,” Ninten says. He inherited that seriousness when it comes to injuries attitude from his mother.

Lloyd emits a befuddled sound but doesn’t really protest.

As Ninten starts climbing down the stairs, Lloyd mumbles, “d, d, don’t drop me this time.”

Ninten looks genuinely appalled.

“Golly gee willikers! That was an accident, Lloyd! I really do feel terrible about it, though, so let me make it up to you somehow…”

The bottle rocket will do.