Dave came home on a cold, drizzly Tuesday afternoon, having already survived being shouted at by his boss, being stuck in traffic, being harangued by his mother yet again for not being married yet, being shortchanged by the fast food restaurant he'd bought dinner from on the way home, and found that a stranger was doing laundry in his apartment.
His first reaction was, Well, it's that sort of a day.
"Hey, you," he said weakly. "What are you doing in here?"
"Laundry," said the stranger matter-of-factly. "Don't worry, I'm almost done."
"Look, this is my house. You can't just walk into other people's houses and do your laundry! Do it at your own house," said Dave.
The boy - for it was a boy, he realized, not yet out of his teens - seemed to consider that reasonable request.
"Well, I guess I could," he said, "but it would be an awful lot of trouble. And then I'd just have to turn around and come back."
Come back? Dave wondered. For what? It occurred to him that the person he was dealing with was possibly not sane. He certainly didn't look very reputable. The clothing he wore was liberally begrimed with sweat, mud, grass stains, and other marks of indeterminate origin. The knees of his jeans were worn to a loose mesh of strings, and the cuffs had been worn down to nonexistence. He was barefoot at the moment, but the pair of shoes that rested near the door were surely his, as they were in worse shape even than the jeans. They had probably been red once, but travel had stained them a grungy brown, and the soles looked ready to fall off at the slightest provocation. The boy's hair had obviously not met a pair of scissors anytime in the recent past, and hung in uneven locks to brush his shoulders or fall across his eyes. He was shirtless at the moment, showing the lean, rangy body of someone who worked hard and ate irregularly. He didn't look like someone who regularly slept in a bed, or who owned a washing machine of his own.
"Did you run away from home or something?" he asked, feeling a creeping sense of civic obligation. When you encountered people like this, you were supposed to report them to social services, or something.
"Kinda. Not exactly," said the boy. "I mean, I'm running, and I'm away from home, but I'm not exactly trying to get away from anything at home. Home's fine. I go there every few months to unload my stuff." He prodded a fat duffel bag that sat near his feet. "I just don't want to live there, that's all."
"Well, you can't live here," said Dave, "so take your stuff and get out."
"Can't," said the stranger reasonably. "It's still wet. You can wait until I'm done."
"What makes you so sure," Dave said, trying for belligerence, "that I'm going to hang around and wait for you to finish your laundry?"
The boy grinned. "You haven't called the police yet. If you really weren't going to let me stay, you'd have kicked me out by now."
Dave frowned. "How much time do you spend breaking into other people's houses, anyway?"
"I don't break in," said the boy, plainly offended. "I just visit."
"How did you even get in here, anyway? The door was locked."
The boy raised his eyes to the ceiling and tapped a finger to his cheek, mulling the question over.
"You know anyplace around here that has good Chinese food?" he said. "I could really go for some of those little wonton things with the cream cheese and crab in them."
"No, seriously, how did you do it?" Dave persisted.
This time there was no thinking it over, just a sudden bright grin.
"And fried shrimp," he said. "Those kinds of places usually have fried shrimp, right?"
Dave sighed. "Try the one on South Mason Street."
"Thanks!" said the boy. "I'll go there next, then."
"At least you aren't planning to stay the night," Dave grumbled.
He felt ridiculous. He knew that by rights he ought to be able to just order this freeloader out of his house. He ought to call the police and have him arrested for breaking and entering. He definitely shouldn't have been recommending dining establishments to him. There was just something about the boy that got to him - an air of confidence that put him off-guard. He had the feeling that it had never crossed the young man's mind that he wouldn't be allowed to do laundry here, any more than he doubted that he'd get wet in the rain or cold in the snow. He was obviously the kind of person who got away with things. Dave was not the kind of person who got away with things at all.
"Of course not," said the boy. "That would be rude."
"But it's okay to use my washer?"
"Don't worry, I'll pay you for it."
So I'm running a laundromat now? Dave wondered. He had to admit, it might be a better job than what he was doing. Just sit around all day watching people chunk quarters into the machines. He could live with that.
"Just don't use up all the soap," he said, and stomped off to eat his dinner.
After he had eaten, he debated a while and finally decided to see how his uninvited guest was doing. He looked into the laundry room and found it empty of human life and dirty laundry. All that remained of the intruder was a bottle of detergent sitting on top of the dryer, and a small folded paper parcel. When he unfolded it, he found a green and purple crystal, several large scales that shimmed blue and were larger than any fish scales he'd ever seen, and two small coins made of strange greenish-yellow metal stamped with letters unlike any writing he'd ever heard of.
"What in the hell," he muttered. He tapped one of the coins against the side of the washer. It made a pleasant chiming sound.
It was some time after he had put his "payment" away that it occurred to him that he had never heard the boy leave the room.
Four months later, there was a party at Dave's office. One of Dave's co-workers was having a birthday. She'd also just been promoted to a higher level, and everyone seemed to think that she deserved a party. She'd been working at the office only a year, while Dave had been there for three. He had showed her the ropes, and she'd promptly climbed them while he was left wondering just what he'd done wrong. He wondered why nobody ever threw parties on his birthday.
He came home carrying a paper plate with a piece of leftover cake on it.
"Hi," said a voice as he entered the house. "Welcome back! I was wondering when you'd show up."
It was the same mysterious boy. He was wearing a newer, slightly less weatherbeaten red jacket, and it looked like someone had given him a haircut sometime recently, but otherwise he looked the same as always.
"Let me guess," said Dave. "Laundry day?"
The boy blinked. "How'd you know?"
"Lucky guess," said Dave.
"Hey," said the boy, "is that cake?"
Dave silently handed him the plate. The boy flashed him a grin before attacking the cake with a complete lack of table manners and shame. Dave watched him and didn't feel as annoyed as he thought he would, watching someone else eat his food. Instead, he wondered just when this boy's last meal was.
You'd think he didn't have a home to go back to, he mused, but he acts so... so happy....
"Boy, that was good," said the boy, licking the last of the icing from his fingers. "Almost as good as the cake Ms. Tome made me last time I went back. That was a good party. She made this huge cake and a huge pile of fried shrimp and everything."
"Who's Ms. Tome?" Dave wondered.
"She owns the card shop," said the boy. "And a bunch of the others were there too. It's fun to go home and see all you friends, isn't it? Hey, was today your birthday? Is that why you have cake?"
"Actually, it's-" Dave began, but his guest wasn't listening.
"I forgot to get you a present!" said the boy, looking as chagrined as if Dave was his oldest and dearest friend. "Hang on a sec. I'm bound to have something..."
He made a dive for his duffel bag and opened it. Surprisingly, he pulled out an enormously fat tabby cat, which he set down on the floor next to him. It scratched its ear disinterestedly, curled up in a ball, and went back to sleep. While Dave stared at it, the boy rummaged through his bag, considering and discarding various mysterious objects, before finally producing one that seemed to suit him. With a proud smile, he turned around and handed it to Dave. It was an octagonal chunk of metal, about the size of a saucer, and it had a round window in the front. Something behind the window was swirling around and around in a never-ending spiral of blues, greens, and purples, mixed in with silver twinkling bits like small stars.
"Here you go! Happy birthday!" he said.
Dave accepted the object. It felt warm in his hands. "Thanks... what is it?"
"No idea," the boy admitted. "Pretty cool, though, isn't it?"
Dave had to admit that he'd never seen anything else quite like it.
"Where did you get it?" he asked.
A shrug. "Around."
"You didn't steal it, did you?"
The boy looked scandalized. "I wouldn't do that! I always pay for my stuff. I paid you, didn't I?"
"Well, I guess..." said Dave.
"Right. So that's okay."
"What do you do, anyway?" Dave asked him. "You don't just... wander around, do you?"
"Nah," said the boy. "I go places, and I help people."
"And that's different from just wandering around?"
"All the difference in the world."
Dave found himself saying, "Why don't you help me?"
The boy just grinned. "I am helping you."
"By doing my laundry."
Dave stared at him, more convinced than ever that there was something mentally off about this boy. "How are you helping me by..."
The dryer buzzed.
"Oops, my stuff's done," said the boy. "Gotta go! Lots to do."
He bounded over to the dryer and began pulling out shirts and jeans and a rainbow of socks. He shoved them all in his bag without bothering with niceties like folding. He put the cat on top of it all and closed the bag again.
"See ya," said the boy with a cheerful salute. He began heading for the door.
"Hey, wait," Dave called. "Have you at least got a name?"
"Juudai," the boy called back. "Juudai Yuuki!"
Then he rounded a corner, passing out of sight. When Dave leaned out the door to look for him, to ask him more questions, he discovered that the boy was gone.
Over the next few months, several other odd items found their way into Dave's collection. Some of them were so unworldly he couldn't figure out even what to call them (he was still trying to figure out what the spiral-shaped knife on a revolving handle was for), while others were as mundane as postcards from odd corners of the world or bits of cloth with attractive patterns on them. Sometimes they were simply left where he might find them, with the only other sign that someone had been there being a scattering of cat hairs and a few drops of spilled detergent. If it hadn't been for that, he would have thought that the boy in red was nothing more than a figment of his imagination. As things stood, he still didn't know what he was - perhaps a roaming, laundry-washing ghost, or some form of alien life form that had learned human culture by abducting and interviewing all the lost socks of the world.
Even so, Dave always looked forward to the days when Juudai would show up again. He never told anyone else it happened. Part of him thought the rest of the world would think he was crazy if he said that a mysterious boy kept breaking into his house to do laundry and then disappearing. That was the reason he told himself, but deep down, he felt as though telling other people about Juudai would be like telling a wish - that if he said something, he'd break the spell and Juudai would never come back. He wouldn't have wanted that. In a world that seemed to consist of nothing but an endless round of paperwork and bills to pay, those visits were something magical.
Some days, in particular, he felt like he could really use one of those visits. Dave came home depressed, checked his mailbox, and flinched as he saw the bills piled up there. He never really liked them, but today they hit him particularly hard. He began to reach for them, changed his mind, and slammed the mailbox shut. He went inside.
"Hello?" he called.
There was no answer. Dave waited a while longer anyway, before finally giving up and dropping with a sigh into a living room chair. It figured. The one day he could have used a friend...
That morning, his boss had taken him aside and explained to him gently that the company was downsizing, and that several people were going to have to be let go. Sadly, Dave was not one of the people who was going to stay. He was going to get a reasonable severance package and a nice recommendation to whoever he decided to work for next. And that was all.
After a few minutes of sitting and feeling sorry for himself, he got up and went to the kitchen to see if there was anything to eat. He stared at the leftovers and frozen dinners in there before slamming the fridge door shut. Feeling reckless, he picked up the phone book in one hand and the phone in the other. He was already out of luck - how much worse could he make it ordering dinner?
"Hello, Panda Den? Yes, I'll have a carton of beef and broccoli, two egg rolls, and, um... the sweet and sour shrimp," he finished, thinking of Juudai and his constant chatter about fried shrimp. He remember recommending the restaurant to him a long time ago. He wondered if the food had come up to the boy's expectations.
While he waited for his delivery, he wandered back into the living room, and his gaze fell on a newspaper lying on the coffee table. It took him a moment to realize why looked out of place. He'd been reading that paper at breakfast that morning, and had left it on the kitchen table. Now it was in the living room. With a rising sense of hope, he picked it up, and a scrap of paper fluttered out of its folds and landed on the floor. He picked it up,
Hi, the note read. Sorry I missed you, but I had some stuff to do today. I did read the paper, though. Take a risk. What have you got to lose? - J.
Dave pondered that cryptic remark for a little while. Then he set the letter aside, and he read his paper. He read until he reached the classified ads, where someone had circled one of the advertisements several times with a red pen, with a few asterisks next to it for good measure. He read it over carefully. Then he put down the paper and leaned back in his chair, gazing up at the shelf where he had propped his birthday present. The sparkling blue lights continued to swirl around and around.
"What have I got to lose?" he asked himself.
The doorbell rang. Dave got up and opened the door to the Chinese food delivery man, and paid for his meal. He waited until the delivery man was out of sight before gently placing the carton of sweet and sour shrimp on the front doorstep, in case his mysterious benefactor decided to turn up. Then he piled everything else on the kitchen counter next to the phone. With the receiver in one hand and an egg roll in the other, he began to make some calls.
It took all of Dave's severance check, plus most of the money in his bank account and a few loans besides, but he found it didn't bother him very well. After all, what did he really need money for? He knew a guy who got by just fine wandering the world and doing his laundry in other people's houses.
At any rate, it turned out that he had no reason to worry. He bought the empty building that had been advertised in the paper with a minimum of bother, and after a few weeks of reconstruction, all the washers and dryers were installed and running smoothly. Within a few months of losing his job, Dave had a tidy little laundromat of his own. He spent his days contentedly watching people chunk quarters into the machines, and chatting with whoever came along. Lately, he'd been chatting a lot with a particular patron named Lydia, who had long black hair and the longest, thickest eyelashes he'd ever seen. Right now, she was leaning against an unused washer with a paperback book dangling from her fingers. She had stopped reading it a long time ago, and was instead holding forth in a spirited debate with Dave regarding whether or not it was better or worse than the one she had been reading last week. After he'd seen her reading it, he'd checked it out from the library himself, so he would be able to discuss it properly. Half his mind was occupied with this, while the other half was toying with the notion of asking if she had anything to do this evening, and if she'd like to go to dinner somewhere.
Then he suddenly stopped talking.
"Dave?" asked Lydia. "Is something wrong?"
"No, no," he assured her hastily. "It's just... I just saw an old friend, that's all."
Standing in front of one of the dryers was Juudai himself, cat and all, piling his threadbare old jeans into his bag. Once he had the last sock stowed away, he plopped the cat back into the sack, hoisted the whole thing over his shoulder, and began heading out of the laundromat.
"Hey," Dave called to him. "When did you get here?"
"A while ago," said Juudai. "You were just busy talking, that's all, so I figured I'd leave you alone."
"Well, it's good to see you... You look well."
Juudai grinned. He cast his eyes around the building, examining it as though he'd never seen it before, and then studied Lydia intently. Dave thought he was going to ask who she was, but instead Juudai turned back to him and smiled again.
"Looks like you're doing well too," he said. "That's good. I'm really glad everything worked out right. And hey - thanks for the sweet-and-sour shrimp. They were just what I needed."
Then the tossed off a parting salute, bowed his head to Lydia, and headed for the exit. For the first and last time, Dave watched him leave.