As we pulled up my driveway, he appeared at my bedroom window and pulled back. I knew why he’d come. But I didn’t want the kid driving me home to see him and think it was weird.
“Thanks for the ride,” I mumbled. Not many kids were willing to drive this far to take me home, but the carpool had been planned by our moms and he said he wanted to play pick-up football over the hill.
I climbed the steps to my front door, my cheeks hot with embarrassment.
He jumped out, startling me, and did that thing with his eyebrows under blunt-cut bangs. Then he made gurgling noises.
I softened. “It’s okay, come on,” I told him. I gently directed him to the back door. He walked agreeably, as usual, out the door and across the yard toward the familiar wooded trail we’d traversed many times. Lou was fond of us, his friends on the outside. My family had moved around often, and growing up with a need to belong helped my brother and I to understand things we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Lou’s gurgling used to scare me. The first time was at an amusement park with my brother. Lou had approached a concession stand, leaned on one elbow, and waved his eyebrows up and down. His guttural sounds followed speech patterns, pauses and inflections, but his words were lost. Like a different language. The pimple-faced teens scooping fries and powdering funnel cakes paused to stare at us.
“He’d like a Coke,” I translated.
The Coke hadn’t been a great idea for Lou, as it turned out, even though he patted my back vigorously, his eyes half moons of happiness. When we reached the first ride, an employee told Lou he wasn’t permitted to have a beverage beyond the gate. That’s when Lou started guzzling. He guzzled so fast that his Coke spilled onto his t-shirt. He kept going. The employee called someone. Then Lou gurgled and I thought he was choking, but he smiled at me. After that, the park manager gave us fluorescent bracelets so we could jump to the front of every line.
But today was not a permissible outing. A twig snapped under my shoe as we walked along the wooded trail. I’d take the blame for Lou’s escape. But I had to caution him.
“You can’t do this anymore you know,” I said.
He made some noises and shrugged. In the beginning, it had been hard to tell what Lou understood. Now I suspected he understood more than people thought.
“They’ll be worried. It’s for your own safety.”
He slumped his shoulders like a scolded child even though he was years older than me, graying at the temples.
“We’ll have you over for dinner soon, but we have to sign you out. So they know where you are. Okay?”
He stared at the ground. His silence almost killed me. We passed the various cottages on the grounds and the stable where I volunteered for riding therapy on the weekends. Lou loved riding therapy. Smoke curled into the sky from the groundskeeper’s cottage.
A golf cart zoomed by carrying a director talking on his radio. I hoped it wasn’t about Lou. I watched as a trio of white-clad workers huddled outside a cottage to smoke. In the distance, I saw a group of guys playing football. The kid who gave me a ride home loped across the field to join them. Lou watched them, too.
I didn’t want to take Lou back and leave him. But what else could I do? It was where he had the best care. And his family was paying dearly for it. We reached his cottage on the far side.
“Time for your dinner.” I was grateful since I preferred to leave after he’d started a meal. It was easier that way.
Lou didn’t respond.
“See you at the stable?” I asked.
We paused in the alcove of the front door. He studied the doorknob without any expression. No eyebrow wave or gurgle goodbye. His arms hung by his sides.
I heard the television blaring inside Lou’s cottage. A nurse walked by the window, helping Lou’s roommate to the bathroom, probably wondering why Lou hadn’t returned from the main house yet. I followed Lou’s gaze to the unattended golf cart in the driveway. The reflective strip on a key chain dangled from the ignition.
At last he made eye contact and I saw that familiar glint in his eye.
“Ever play football?”