The truck glided down the gravel, earthy road. There was nothing to see except rugged fences and bucolic fields all around. The windows were rolled down and Jack Johnson played on the radio while the wind whistled past. A breeze grazed across his face. Yep - Max picked a good day to take the scenic route home.
He then noticed a car with its’ hazards blinking, off to the side of the road. He slowed down his speed to get a better look. Two women were looking concernedly around the vehicle, then as soon as he passed by they perked up like two rabbits in a field.
One flailed her arms, “Hey!”
He pulled off a few feet in front of them and got out.
“Thanks for stopping!” the girl said with relief, “Our car has a flat tire and we have no idea on how to fix it! Not to mention our cell phones are dead. Some luck, right?”
“It’s no problem, I’ll take a look at it.”, Max answered. He knelt down by the back deflated tire. “Do you have a spare? If so, I can change it for you.”
“Yes!” the other girl chimed as she skipped back to the trunk.
Max walked over to the bed of his truck and pulled out a jack and a wrench, then came back.
“I’m Celine, by the way, and that’s my sister, Charlotte!” she said, extending her hand to him.
Max shifted the jack to his other hand. “I’m Max.” He walked over to the flat, and placed two rocks behind the tire. “So, where are you ladies heading?”
“We’re meeting our brother out in Humbleton. We just wanted to take it easy for a few days.”
He unscrewed the hubcap. “I’m from there actually and was just heading back myself. Who’s your brother? I might know him.”
“I would be surprised if you did! He’s visiting Humbleton and isn’t very social. I doubt that he’s been going out into town meeting people”, she laughed. “So, what do you do for a living Max?”
He placed the spare on the hub. “I’m a firefighter/EMT. I also work part-time with my dad at a small carpentry shop. How about yourselves?”
Celine looked over at her sister who shrugged, “I guess you can say we’re just looking for work right now.”
He replaced the hubcap, and stood up with the old tire. He put it into their trunk; remembering to feign a little bit of effort.
“Thanks Max!”, Celine smiled, “I have one more favor to ask: Could you tell us how to get to the Downey Inn? It’s where we’re staying with our brother.”
He closed the trunk door. “If you want you can just follow me there. I don’t mind.”
“We don’t want to hold you up any longer. I’m actually very good with directions!”, Charlotte added.
“Alright then”, he scribbled on a crumpled piece of paper. “When you get in on Main Street, at the second light, you’re going to take a left onto 5th Avenue North. Take that down until you see a gas station on the right. There’s a 4-way stop there; turn right. Just take that road down until you see the Inn on your left.”
“Got it. Just look for the gas station!”, Charlotte teased. “Thank you for all of your help!”
Max closed the lid to his toolbox and opened his driver’s door. “No trouble at all. I hope you both have a wonderful day and enjoy your time in Humbleton - I promise it’s not as boring as the rumors say!”, he smiled politely.
“Thanks, Max!” they waved as he drove off.
Celine then turned to Charlotte, moving a short strand of blond hair behind her ear. “Well, he’s a lot nicer than I expected!”
‘Just two more...’ he thought to himself as he curled his body towards his knees, trying to ignore the burns running through his muscles. Lee finally gave in and let his body fall against the hard floor, sweat falling down his brow, his muscles relaxing in relief.
Taking a deep breath, he sat up and reached over to his gym bag for his phone. He flipped it open and saw the words “1 New Voicemail” flashing across the screen.
He held the phone to his ear as he picked up his bag and started walking over to the locker rooms.
“Hey, it’s Max. I guess I caught you at a busy time, I’ll try again later. Um, I’m sorry for being kind of MIA lately; things are just...busy. I promise we’ll hang out agin soon, man.”
Lee sighed and tossed the phone back into his bag. He rubbed the tips of his fingers over his eyes and then through his damp hair. Max had not been himself lately, and Lee was starting to feel like the guy might have even been avoiding him.
Lee can’t remember a time where he didn’t know Maxwell Trenton. He was just always there. They used to build bike ramps out of old plywood in their backyards and take turns seeing who could get the most air. As teenagers, they would play basketball at the park; nine times out of ten Max would win, and he would always be so damn humble about it. He never bragged. Hell, when Max finally landed a first date in high school, Lee was the one who prepped him and gave him tips (half of which Max ended up not listening to).
As good as friends as they had been for all these years, Max and Lee couldn’t be any more opposite of one another. If Lee suddenly decided to go out at 10 o’clock at night for an outing, Max probably wouldn’t go. While Max would sweat just at the thought of driving ten miles over the speed limit, Lee gave no second thought to driving twenty. Max waited years until he had the courage to ask Alicia out on a date while Lee couldn’t wait more than a few hours if he spotted a girl he wanted to take out. Alicia was Max’s only real romantic relationship and Lee has lost count of how many girls he’s felt strongly about.
Their differences caused tension and disagreements many times, but their differences also brought out the best in one another. Lee looked up to Max’s quiet integrity, and Max always admired Lee’s honesty and courage. Lee seriously believed his whole life that no matter what, him and Max would always be friends until they were old and had grandkids that would play together.
Lately though, Lee has been doubting this for the first time.
Max has always been the guy you can depend on. He may not say much, but if you needed him, he was there. Whether it was something as minor as a dead car battery or as serious as your own mother threatening suicide, Lee would always call Max first. Always. For some reason though, Lee hasn’t been able to depend on Max lately. Nothing major happened. It was all a bunch of little things, really. He just stopped seeing Max in the places that he was supposed to be.
Lee took out his phone once again.
“Hey, it’s Max. I guess I caught you - Message erased. You have no new messages in your mailbox.”
“The party train’s arrived!”
Remus looked up, unfazed. “What took you both so long to get here?”, he asked begrudgingly.
“Well our car broke down on the way in”, Charlotte piped in, “Thankfully, we were helped by a Good Samaritan! It was interesting; he was actually-”
“I don’t have the time or the patience right now to listen to your silly stories.”
Charlotte shrugged. “Suite yourself!” She looked over at Celine and gave her a wink. Celine smiled in return.
“Well, all that matters is we’re here now - all three of us. We’ll do what we do best and work together as a team to bring Oden home!”, Celine reassured.
“It’s not that simple, Aelia. He’s stubborn; he doesn’t wish to live as one of us. He wants to be human.”
“Well duh, Remy! How would you like it if some random dude came up to you one day and kept trying to tell you to forget about your Tymorrean existence and start living like a human!”, Charlotte lectured him.
Remus merely grunted in response.
Celine sighed and sat down next to him. “How about this: You take it easy for a couple of days, and Emera and I will take a stab at talking to Oden. If our way doesn’t work, we’ll come back together and form another plan. Deal?”
Remus sighed. “Fine”.
The two women looked to one another and smiled triumphantly.
“Max, tell me a story about Mom!” Abby demanded innocently.
Max choked a little bit on the red potatoes he just put into his mouth. The dinner table topic just quickly changed from Black Labrador puppies to their deceased mother. There was an emergency at the carpentry shop, so it was just Max and Abby tonight.
He cleared his throat. “Well, what kind of story do you want to hear?”
“Hmmm... A funny one! That involves Daddy!”
“Alright, let me think of a good one!”, Max chuckled. “I got it; you’re going to love this one!” He set his fork down on his plate and clapped his palms together.
“When I was about your age; we had this dog that lived behind us named Bubba-”
“What’s so funny? I’m being serious!” he said, pretending ignorance to which the girl laughed even louder.
“Well anyways, one day Mom was out running errands. It was a beautiful day out, so Dad decided to keep the back door open. Dad and I were playing cards right here in the kitchen; when suddenly we heard a dog barking.”
“Was it Bubba?”
“It sure was! And before Dad could stop him, Bubba ran through the house with a big stick in his mouth, leaving his grimy paw prints all over the floor!”
Abby giggled. “What happened next?”
“Well, Dad chased him all over the house! Bubba thought he was playing, so he never slowed down! He finally ran out the back door and Dad immediately shut it, all out of breath!” Max found himself laughing at the memory. “I stayed at the kitchen table the whole time because I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breath! And can you guess what happened next?”
“Mommy came home!”, the girl exclaimed.
“She sure did. And she couldn’t believe it! She demanded to know why there were dirty paw prints all over the house; Dad took one look at her and busted out laughing!”
Abby laughed, “And what did you do?”
“I laughed too! Mom was so angry and confused; the look on her face was priceless!”, Max explained as he made a face.
“Did Daddy ever explain to her what happened?”
“He did but she wouldn’t believe him at first; she thought we were outside and came in with muddy shoes! She finally believed us later on when we cleaned up the house and all was well in the world again.”
“I bet deep down; Mommy found it funny too!”
Max smiled, “I think you’re right Abby”.
An easy silence fell around them as the siblings ate away at their meal.
Abby took a drink from her cup of water and set it down. “Max, you need to smile like this more!”
He looked at her quizzically, “What do you mean?”
“You’ve been so sad! That’s why I asked you to tell a funny story; because I wanted to see you laugh! What have you been sad about?”
Max looked at her, amazed by her innocent perceptiveness. He thought for a few moments before answering.
“Abby, when we get older we start learning about the kind of person we are and will be for the rest of our lives. Sometimes we think we know exactly who that person is already and that everything’s already figured out.” Max looked down at the table, noticing the speckles of old stains against the cloudy white cloth. “Then one day, you look in the mirror and realize you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. To the point where it’s even scary at times.”
“Why is it scary?”, she asked innocently.
He looked up at her and smiled for a moment, “Because there’s so much you don’t know. You don’t know... who you are, what you can really do, and how other people - people you care about - will see you if they found out about who you really are.”
Abby smiled at him, “Max, I’ll always like you! You’ll never change my mind!”
“Ah, you’re just saying that because I’m your brother!”, Max joked.
“No!” Abby exclaimed seriously as she jumped off her chair. She ran over to Max and jumped onto his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck, catching him off-guard. “It’s because you’re the best brother in the whole world”, she quietly explained, squeezing her arms around him tighter.
It was 6:30 AM at the station. Max couldn’t sleep last night, so he came downstairs to get a head start on the equipment inspection. He was lost in his clipboard of charts and checklists when he suddenly heard a female voice from behind.
Max jumped and quickly turned around to face the smiling familiar young woman standing five feet away.
“Uh good morning...Celine, was it?”
She smiled, “You sure do have a good memory, Max!”
“You sure do get up early in the morning! How did you find me anyways?”, he asked.
She shrugged. “It’s a small town.”
“Right.” He looked down at his clipboard and flipped over the top page. “So what can I do for you Celine?”
“On behalf of my sister and I, we wanted to thank you once again! It was so kind of you to stop everything you were doing just to help us.”
“It was no trouble at all; really.”
Celine nervously wrung her hands together. “Max I do have to admit though; I have another reason for coming out here so early in the morning.”
“Really...what is it?”
She paused for just a moment. “Max, I...know who you are.”
He stopped. “...What do you mean?”
“Max, I know that a man named Remus has been trying to get you to leave. He’s probably been telling you a lot of things that don’t make sense, either.”
Max looked at her, speechless.
She sighed, “The look on your face tells me I’m right.”
He suddenly became defensive, “Why should I listen to you?”. He then dropped his pen and it rolled under one of the vehicles. He walked over and stuck half his body under to retrieve it.
Celine walked over to the other side and kneeled down to look at him. When he looked up he saw her hand extended out.
“Because”, a brilliant light suddenly burst up from her palm, “I’m just like you.”