Max has learned a lot over the past month; not only about himself, but also the three individuals who have been sent to bring him back to the Guardians. He’s learned that Celine Johnson is actually Aelia Fionn; he witnessed both of her abilities when they initially met. Celine can heal and produce light from her hands that she can make bright enough to nearly blind someone. Charlotte Smith is Emera Dei; she can manipulate wind and teleport herself. Remus Zar - who rarely went by his human identity, Ramon Zimmerman - could light objects on fire with his hands as well as make his flesh as hard as stone. That last ability was very limited; Remus became immobilized whenever he used it.
All three were part of the same Wave that came to Earth twenty years ago as Max did; and they too were orphaned shortly afterwards. They were all raised together, sort of like a foster family. Remus was nearly ten years older than the girls and has always been an older brother to them. When each of them reached a certain age, they were told of the mission they were going to be entrusted with, which ultimately led them to where they are now.
“We’re going to try this again and this time don’t flinch”, Remus said.
“Don’t flinch when you hurl the flaming rocks toward me? Got it”, Max replied sarcastically.
Remus just scoffed as he picked up a large stone and held it between his hands for a moment as flames escaped onto the rocky surface. He then threw it with a superhuman force straight towards Max.
Max caught it firmly between his palms, ignoring his instinct to drop the burning rock. Instead he allowed the flames to slowly dance around his hands, touching his flesh but not going beneath the surface. He felt the heat; but it was nothing more than holding your palm over a warm stove for him.
This is what he needed to learn; to change his human instincts to run away from potential harm. If a fire was becoming too hot and intense, he needed to run towards it. If a roof came down, he needed to be underneath it. If a gun went off, he needed to step in front of the bullets. Because in the end; he’s the only one who can survive against all this and other people’s lives were going to depend on this fact.
When the flames finally burned themselves out, Max let the stone drop back onto the ground.
“Good, that was much better this time”, Remus said, “I think that’s it for today, Oden. I’m tired and I can’t produce any more flames anyways.”
“Sounds good to me”, Max replied, “But I wish you would stop calling me ‘Oden’”, he added as Remus was walking past him.
Remus stopped, “Well I wish you would man up and accept your destiny already but I guess we can’t get what we all want, can we?”
“Remus!”, Celine scolded as her and Charlotte walked up.
“You promised us you would go along with this!”, Charlotte added.
Remus scoffed as he walked off past all of them.
“I’ll go with him”, Charlotte said, “Catch you later Max!”
When she left Celine turned towards Max, “I’m sorry about Remus.”
“Don’t be. He’s actually pretty helpful when he’s not being…himself.”
“I think you’ve been making excellent progress”, she smiled, “The next big step is controlling your invisibility. At least we figured out that it was extreme emotion that triggered it that one time... now we just need to know how to control that switch I guess.”
Celine tilted her head, “You OK with calling it quits for today?”
Max nodded, “Yeah, that’s fine. I have some other things to take care of for my dad anyways.”
Celine smiled, “See you tomorrow then.”
Max returned her smile before she left, “See you tomorrow.”
Celine turned around one more time before leaving, “And Max? Don’t worry; none of this is going to happen overnight. We’ve all gone through this before with our abilities; you’ll be a master of your own self before you know it!”
Max nodded in reply, hoping she was right.
Jackson was nearly finished with closing up the shop when Max arrived.
“Hey Son! How was your day?”, he asked looking up from sweeping.
“It was fine.”
“How’s your training going?”
“Well, that’s actually why I stopped by. I was hoping to catch you here before you left.”
Jackson set the broom aside, “What is it, Max?”
“Dad, you’re the only one I completely trust. Do you have any time to spare before picking up Abby? There’s something I needed your help on.”
Twenty minutes later; they were on the edge of town along a long, empty road that barely saw any traffic. Max got out of the truck and walked over to the driver’s side where his father was.
“You ready, Dad?”
“I’m not sure about this Max...”
“Dad”, he replied firmly, “Do you trust me?”
Jackson sighed, “Well of course I do but that’s not-”
“Then you have nothing to worry about!”, he grinned. “When I’m ready I’ll give you the signal to go. Sound good?”
“I guess... If this is what you really need me to do Max, I’ll do it.”
Max slapped the side of the truck, “Alright then!”
He then sprinted several yards down the road. He knew his father wasn’t comfortable with doing this; but Max really needed to put himself to the test. There was still a level of discomfort he had with Celine, Charlotte and Remus; his father was the only person he felt comfortable being his complete self around.
He then put his hand up into the air to signal his father to go. Jackson put the truck into drive and pressed down on the gas. The vehicle quickly climbed to over 80 miles per hour. Max kept his entire focus on the truck that was speeding towards him. A surge of fear immediately spread through his body but he ignored it. He dug his heels into the ground as he braced himself for impact. When the truck came within ten feet, Max felt an adrenaline rush he never had before; he felt invincible.
Before the truck could collide with him he suddenly grabbed the front bumper from underneath and lifted it over his head. He climbed his hands further down the undercarriage until he was holding the entire vehicle above his body.
When the truck reached a stable balance, Max looked around and realized what he had just accomplished. He finally let out a laugh; he felt in control for the first time of the power he really had.
Meanwhile, Jackson sat in the cab of the truck in a state of surrealism and awe as he realized who his son really was and what he was becoming. What hurt the most though, was knowing that the day where he could no longer be there to guide his son was coming sooner than he wanted it to.
“This is so exciting!”, Charlotte exclaimed as her, Celine and Max walked down the frigid, December streets of downtown Humbleton.
“Yes, we heard you - for the fifth time!”, Celine teased, “But I’m excited too!”
“It’s just a karaoke night in small-town coffee shop. I can’t guarantee anything more than that”, Max added.
“But that’s not the point!”, Charlotte said.
“Yeah she’s right! It’s about getting to see you in your... human life!”
Max sighed, “Do you really think people are going to believe me when I introduce you both as my cousins?”
“You’re adopted. You can get away with saying stuff like that without people questioning you!”
“If it makes you feel better, you can just say that we’re ‘distant cousins’. It’s technically not too far from the truth!”, Celine added.
They finally made it to Beans & Berries. There was a Christmas Karaoke Night going on and Alicia invited Max to come out. Max wasn’t really into these sorts of activities but he saw it as a good opportunity to introduce Celine and Charlotte to his other life; his normal one. Besides, Max could never pass up an opportunity to be around Alicia Anderson.
When they walked in they were greeted by the thick aroma of peppermint and cinnamon. The place was packed; every table was filled and ready to burst as people pulled up additional chairs to squeeze in. Conversations and chatter filled the air as two people sang ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ on-stage in the background.
“You made it!”, Alicia said as she came up to the trio.
“Of course! It’s not Christmas in Humbleton until you attend the infamous Karaoke Night at B & Bs!”, Max smiled.
Alicia returned the smile then noticed the two, blond women standing just behind him.
“Oh? Did you bring friends?”
“I’m sorry these two ladies are my um..cousins”, he said gesturing behind him. “Alicia, I’d like you to meet Celine and Charlotte. Celine and Charlotte, this is my good friend, Alicia.”
“Nice to meet you!”, the two women chimed as they shook hands with Alicia.
“So you’re Max’s cousins?”
“Distant cousins!”, Celine added.
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you both!”
“Did you just get off work?”, Max asked.
“Yes! Kyra just did too, she should be around here some-”
“If I hear one more preppy, blond girl go on and on about how much she loves these damned Peppermint Mocha Lattes. I’m going to drive myself into a building!”, Kyra complained as she joined Alicia.
“Kyra, Max is here and he brought his cousins!”, Alicia explained.
Kyra turned towards the group, “Hi”, she said forging a smile.
“Kyra, tell me something”, Max started, “How are you going to drive yourself into a building when you don’t have a car?”
“Shut up”, she scowled, “I’ll just drive yours!”
“Are you going to sing tonight, Kyra?”, Alicia asked.
The other girl shook her head, “Probably not. I think I might go home soon actually.”
“Oh, that’s too bad!”, Alicia lamented.
“Yeah. Too bad”, Max added dryly.
Kyra looked at him, “I’m sure you’ll get over it, Max”, she said sarcastically.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re in for a real treat! The star of last year’s big musical, Humbleton High’s own Maggie Johansson is next up to sing! Let’s give her a big round of applause!”, the host exclaimed as Maggie joined the stage.
“Are you serious”, Kyra muttered to herself while the room filled with applause.
A few of the conversations in the back picked back up while Maggie began her rendition of ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’.
“So, Alicia”, Celine asked, “How long have you known Max?”
Alicia turned and smiled, “Our whole lives! I don’t think I even have a memory where I didn’t know him. Do you Max?”
“Nope”, he smiled.
Kyra cringed as Maggie’s voice reached too high and went off-key. She wasn’t a bad singer actually; but she sounded more like a Disney character. If she took it down one octave, she would sound a lot better.
“Kyra, are you OK?”, Charlotte asked.
“Oh, I’m fine!”, she said dismissively, “Just a small headache, that’s all!”
As Charlotte turned back to listening to Alicia tell them a cute story from when her and Max were eight, Kyra looked across the room and saw Melissa, Omar and Jamie sitting together. When they saw her, they threw their hands up as if to say, “What the hell?”
Kyra smiled and shook her head in response.
The room cheered and applauded as Maggie finished and left the stage. Kyra looked over at her three acquaintances again. They all gestured towards the stage and kept mouthing the word, “Go!”
“All right, who’s next?”, the host asked.
Kyra looked towards the stage again and smiled to herself.
“Maybe I’ll just sing one song”, she said to no one in particular.
The group of four beside her stopped their conversation for a moment as they watched her move towards the stage.
“Any takers? Oh look! Seems like Beans and Berries’ own Kyra Hadley is taking the stage! Let’s give her a supportive round of applause folks!”
A few people clapped as Kyra joined the stage.
“What song do you want?”, the host asked from behind the machine.
“Oh I don’t know. Surprise me!”
He looked unsure as to what to do. Maggie then leaned over and whispered something into his ear.
“That’s a tough one though...”, he muttered.
She whispered something again which seemed to make him give in.
As a synthetic piano introduction to ‘O Holy Night’ played, everyone in the room immediately fell back into their conversations. Kyra was just another mediocre who finally gave into her friends’ dare to sing one song, they all assumed.
After the four bar intro, Kyra closed her eyes and let the song flow past her lips. As she began the first verse, everyone sitting directly in-front of the stage stopped their conversations to listen to the smooth, soft voice coming from this girl before them.
As she began her crescendo into the chorus, like a ripple, one-by-one each table in the shop stopped their chatter to listen.
When she reached the climax of the chorus the entire shop went silent, as Kyra’s full rich voice filled the room in perfect key. Alicia, Celine and Charlotte were memorized by the melody and listened with admiration for the girl. Even Max found himself suddenly transfixed by this young woman who sang with such grace.
When she repeated the chorus, Kyra finally opened her eyes and allowed herself just this one moment to enjoy being in front of an audience again. Even though it was just a small-town hang-out, it still gave her that certain kind of rush she always got whenever she performed. When she was on that stage, she was untouchable; invincible.
She finished the song and the entire place exploded with cheers and applause. She gave a slight bow and walked off-stage quietly, back towards Alicia and company.
“I think I’m going to call it a night now. I’ll see you next shift!”, she spoke with confidence to Alicia. She turned to the still-awestruck Charlotte and Celine,“It was nice meeting you both.”
“Wait!”, Alicia exclaimed as she grabbed Kyra’s sleeve. “Do you need a lift home?”
“I’m fine! I’ll just walk.”
“In the dark by yourself? No, I’ll drive you; it’s freezing out anyways!”, Alicia insisted.
“I wanted to talk you about something anyways”, Alicia said in a lowered-voice.
Kyra looked from her to the three standing behind her as if making a connection. “Well er ... OK! If you insist! I’ll just wait outside.”
When she left Alicia turned back around. “Sorry to bail out early; I don’t like the thought of her walking by herself.”
“You’re not coming back then?”, Max asked disappointingly.
Alicia looked at him. “...I’m really tired. I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow actually”, she explained apologetically.
“I understand”, Max said. “It was still good to see you!”, he smiled.
When she smiled back there was a look in Max’s eyes that Celine couldn’t help but notice. She exchanged looks with Charlotte, who seemed to be thinking the same thing.
“It was nice meeting both of you. I hope you enjoy your time with family here!”, Alicia said politely.
“Thanks! You too”, they waved as the young woman left.
When Max’s gaze lingered on the doorway, Celine nudged him.
“She’s a nice girl.”
“Pretty too”, Charlotte added.
Max looked at both of them and knew what they were thinking. “Yeah. We’re friends; just friends.”
Charlotte was about to say something when Celine’s phone went off.
“It’s Remus; I should take this. Be right back!”, she said walking out the door.
Max and Charlotte leaned back against the bar, quietly watching a guy sing ‘Winter Wonderland.’
“So, will we be treated with the voice talents of Max Trenton tonight?”
“No. I think I’ll spare everyone in the room the pain of listening to that.”
“Especially after the performance your friend gave; that was incredible! I’ve never heard any...being sing so beautifully!”
“Yeah, that was... surprising.”
“Charlotte, we need to get going”, Celine said upon returning.
“Is something wrong?”
“No... Remus is just a bit antsy right now...”
“Do you need me to go with you?”, Max asked.
“Actually, that’s probably not the best idea right now.”, Celine explained.
“Yeah, just stay here and enjoy the night! I’m sorry we have to cut out early. I was having a good time!”
“I’m sorry Max. We’ll contact you tomorrow some time.”
“It’s fine”, he said, “I understand.”
“Good night!”, they waved.
Max turned back towards the bar and sighed. This was not how he expected tonight to go; he looked forward to this all week too.
“Ladies and gentlemen, give a round of applause to our next singer!”
A few people clapped as an older man took the stage. When the familiar tune of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” came on, Max thought it was about time for him to leave too.
“Kyra, that was incredible! I had no idea you could sing so well!”, Alicia exclaimed.
Kyra smiled. “Thanks! Those years of boarding school paid off in a way. They had really good music programs that helped me over the years.”
“So are you applying to schools like that for college?”
Kyra shook her head. “No.”
“Why not? You should!”
“... Wasn’t there something you wanted to talk to me about?”, Kyra asked, changing the topic, “I have a hard time believing that you insisted on driving me home just to boast my singing.”
Alicia sighed, “I’m sorry... The truth is, I just wanted to get out of there.”
“...Is it because of Max and his two blond-shell cousins?”
They remained silent as Alicia paused, sifting through her thoughts.
“I can’t explain it; there was just something different going on that I can’t figure out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Kyra, I’ve met Max’s cousins. All of them. He doesn’t have that many to begin with.”
“So you think those two weren’t actually his cousins?”
“I don’t know.” She looked over to Kyra. “This stays between you and me... See, Max is adopted-”
“Really? Why didn’t he tell me? That’s so-”
“Sorry! I interrupted. That’s so rude of me! Please, continue.”
“Anyways, Max is adopted and for his whole life he didn’t know too much about his biological family. The only thing he knew was that his mother died shortly after he was born.” They reached a stop light. “A couple months ago, I get a call from Max asking me to meet him five miles outside of town. He had a fight with his dad and walked all the way out there; it was unusual. He said the fight was over something related to his biological family; I guess his dad was keeping something from him for all these years.”
“What was it?”
“That’s the thing; he never told me. And he’s been acting different ever since then. He’s been so... distant. It’s not like him.”
“So you’re bothered by the fact that he’s not being open with you?”
“It’s not that exactly, it’s just... I want to be there for him. He’s clearly going through something right now and I just want to help!”
The girls stayed silent as Alicia turned onto Kyra’s street and pulled up in front of her house.
Kyra unbuckled her seatbelt but didn’t get out. “Alicia, I don’t know Max very well but I’m sure in time he’ll come to you when he’s ready.”
“...What makes you so sure?”
Kyra shrugged. “Anyone with vision can see how close the two of you are. Just give it some time; you probably knew that already!”
Alicia smiled. “Thanks Kyra... I appreciate it.”
Kyra opened the door and returned the smile. “I should be thanking you!”
“For what?”, she asked as Kyra stepped out.
Kyra turned around before shutting the door. “Just... everything! Look, I’m not the most... easiest person to get along with. I know that. And you’re the only one who’s welcomed and completely accepted me... so thank you!”
Alicia watched Kyra walk to her front door, feeling a little less burdened.
“I think I’m really starting to understand why he’s hesitating so much”, Celine said.
“Yeah; It starts with ‘A’ and ends with ‘licia’”, Charlotte giggled.
“I’m being serious!”, Celine scolded.
“I know... I understand what you’re trying to say, though.”
“It’s so easy for us Charlotte; this is our life! Max already has own life that’s he’s grown up with; a life that he’s happy with. How can we expect him to walk away from all that?”
“I don’t know”, Charlotte said as they knocked on Remus’ hotel door, “But I have a feeling that Remy isn’t going to know any better than we do.”
“Know better about what?”, Remus asked sternly upon opening the door.
The two women stepped in behind him as he closed the door.
“Remus, what’s wrong? You sounded really stressed over the phone”, Celine asked.
“Stressed? That’s one way of putting it.”
“Remus; just spit it out”, Charlotte insisted.
Remus sat down and pushed his palms over his scalp. “What are we doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean Emera! Our whole mission is depending on Oden returning with us. And what are the two of you doing? Hanging out at the coffee shop, making new friends over karaoke? This isn’t high school!”
“And meanwhile, I’m stuck throwing rocks just to see if this is all a ‘good fit’ for him! We’re wasting our time! We can’t continue doing things like this anymore.”
“Remus”, Celine started, “You don’t understand. Max has a different life than we do; he wasn’t raised with our people. We can’t just rip him away from that!”
“I do understand!”, Remus exclaimed as he suddenly stood on his feet. He walked over to the bathroom sink for a glass of water. “You think I don’t know what it’s like to lose everything familiar to you?”. He took a swig.
“...I’m sorry Remus...Look, let me just talk with him-”
“Talk? You’ve already done enough of that, Aelia! We need to take action. Now.”
Celine surrendered her hands up. “OK look. Let me talk to him just one more time. If nothing changes, we can start doing things your way. Deal?”
Remus finished his water and looked at her. “You better make something happen, Aelia. Or I will.”
Max was about to call it a night when he bumped into an old friend, so he put up with a couple of bad background karaoke songs as he took the time to catch up.
As he was listening, he spotted something out of the corner of his eye; something across the street. It was Lee.
“Mike, you know what, I just realized that I gotta take care of something at home. It was good seeing you!”, he waved.
“Good to see you too Max!”, the friend shouted as Max left the cafe’.
“Lee!”, Max yelled while waving his hand.
Lee looked up from where he was. “Max? What a surprise”, he said dryly.
Max jogged over to where he was. “I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch lately. How have you been?”
“I feel like I should be asking you that”, Lee answered sarcastically.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Mad? Now why would I be mad? Is it because my best friend, who hasn’t missed a weekly race since we were fourteen, has suddenly been finding excuses to get out of them for the last three months? Or not having time to answer his phone just once, or even check-in to say hi at least every once in a while?”
“Lee. I know I’ve been busy-”
“Busy? Doing what? I know you Max! We’ve lived in the same back-water town our whole lives where nothing happens. You’ve been a firefighter for two years and the most you guys have to deal with the occasional fender bender or some old lady who forgot to take her meds one morning!”
“Meanwhile, you’re still working in the same carpentry shop for the sixth year in a row; fixing people’s cabinets, delivering tables around town. Not to mention that you’re still living in the same house you’ve grown up in; you’re twenty years old!”
“Calm down for a sec-”
“Max; from what I can see nothing in your life has changed! So tell me, tell me what it is that’s keeping you so ‘busy’ these days where you have to avoid all your friends! Because I’m just not understanding it!”
Max stood there feeling as if someone just punched him in the gut and knocked all the air out of his body. It wasn’t what Lee said or even how he said these things that bothered him; it was the fact that it was all true.
Max has never left Humbleton or even had a desire to leave it. If it were up to him, he would be content with staying exactly where he was for the rest of his life. He was content with his two jobs; but they weren’t challenging. Max has only seen two fires in his entire career. He’s been to a number of car accidents outside town, but each time the people he helped had minor injuries. He spent more time washing fire trucks or fixing the same leaky pipe over and over again, than he did saving lives. He stayed in his job at the carpentry shop and hasn’t moved out of his parents’ house because of money; or so he said. Really, it was because he couldn’t stand the thought of being away from his father even for just one day.
He’s discovered that he holds an incredible power inside his body. It scares him, so he keeps pushing it away. He just wants to stay right here in all that’s familiar to him; but now he can see how in trying to hold onto what he holds dear, he’s losing it all. Lee isn’t going to stick around for a friend who’s ignoring him. Alicia has bigger dreams than working in a coffee shop to pay her way through community college. His father has reached a point where he can’t give his son the guidance he needs anymore.
Right now in this moment, Max can see it: A bigger picture where he can use his power to save people’s lives and maybe even stop a war from tearing the whole world apart. He can briefly see a time in his life where he can step out of his father’s house and not come back; going out into the world beyond Humbleton. It’s raw, scary, and exciting all at once. Finally, Max has realized that perhaps he’s wasting his life away through the choices he’s made.
“Lee”, he started, “I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t help anything, but I’m sorry. I’ve been a terrible friend; especially to you and Alicia. I shouldn’t have pushed you two away. I have no reasons for it, that’s the best I can give you.”
Lee crossed his arms. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that... things are different. I’m different. I want to go back and be that friend that you knew, but I can’t. There’s just some things that I can’t change. Ever.”
Lee didn’t respond. He just took a deep breath and sighed in disappointment. “Well, it was good seeing you Max. Give my regards to your family”, he said stiffly while turning his back and walking away.
“Save it Max; I’ve heard enough for tonight”, he said, not turning around.
Max watched his old friend walking away from him. A light snow starting to fall from the black December skies, but he didn’t feel any of it.