Max was sitting just outside the house on an old, wooden chair his father had made many years ago. The winter air was nippy but it would soon be making way for the warm renewal of spring. It was just past eleven o’clock and his father and sister had already gone to bed.
He was sitting out here waiting for Alicia. Ever since he told her of his plans to go away, they had spent every free moment they had with one another. She had taken a day-trip to Grandeur City and was on her way back. She had messaged him several hours ago asking him if he’d wait up for her - she seemed eager to tell him all about her day and Max was more than happy to oblige.
But now he was starting to get a little worried; even with traffic Alicia should have been back by now and if she was running late she would have called him. He gave her a quick call about ten minutes ago but there was no answer. He decided to try again.
Still no answer.
His heart sank. Maybe he was getting worried over nothing but he couldn’t shake off this bad feeling he was starting to have. He got up and walked around to the back yard where it was more private. He knew that she had taken the backroads to save some time on her trip. Max tried to rationalize to himself that there was no real reason to worry, but all he wanted was to make sure she was OK.
He leaned back against the wall of the house and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. He shut out everything around him except for the thoughts of no longer being seen. As he focused, Max could feel a subtle change in his body. He opened his eyes and looked down at his hands but saw nothing; he had done it again!
Without hesitation, he then sped off on foot to retrace the path his friend was taking to get home.
Alicia screamed and struggled inside her crushed, burning car. The flames were quickly approaching the broken windshield and smoke seeped into the cab. Her vision started to become blurry and she felt light-headed. She thought of her parents, her friends, Max, the life that was waiting for her in the city. Tears came to her eyes as she thought of never getting to live that life or seeing her loved ones again.
She suddenly felt tired and gave up struggling against the flames. It was then that she heard a deep voice cut through her thick fog of near-death.
She then heard her back window being blown open; the cool night air quickly rushed in. Someone emerged from behind her and in one swift motion, lifted the burning dash off her trapped legs and picked her up with a strong pair of arms. She was then carried out through the large opening in the back of her car. She felt the person hold her closer to their chest, then a fierce wind came making her close her eyes.
The wind stopped and she opened her eyes back up. They were back by the side of the road. A small moment of clarity came to her; the person looking back at her was Max whose face was filled with concern and had his warm hand cupping her cheek. She remembered how easily he freed her and how unaffected he was by the harsh flames.
“Alicia, can you hear me?”
She then slipped into darkness.
Max was still panting from the events that had just transpired; seeing the smoke off in the forest, hearing her desperate screams and cries for help, ripping open the car and freeing her as fast as he could.
He jumped a little as he heard a small explosion in the clearing behind them. The fire must have completely engulfed the car just then. He looked down at the unconscious woman in his arms. Her breathing was shallow and her pulse was faint but still just strong enough to pull through.
He did a quick assessment on her condition; her arm was broken, her legs were bruised and bloodied, and she had various first-degree burns throughout her body. She wasn’t knocking on death’s door but he still needed to act quickly.
Max was now in a bit of a predicament. Alicia needed to get to a hospital fast but he also had to come up with an explanation for how he found her in the first place. He quickly thought of a plan. He would run (literally) her to the hospital and take her to the emergency room. He wouldn’t be asked for a long explanation which would give him a good opportunity to leave quickly. Then he would return home to get his truck and to notify her parents. He would tell them the truth the best that he could; he started to get worried so he drove on the path he knew she took to get home and that was when he found her. He would just have to let the car burn itself out; he couldn’t let others see the evidence he left behind of the ripped back window on the car.
The only thing he would have to figure out later was convincing Alicia that she escaped the car herself. But he couldn’t shake off that look in her eyes just before she fell unconscious. There was no denying it; the way she looked at him as if she was seeing him for the first time. As if she knew exactly who he really was.
Kyra hesitated in front of the door leading to her uncle’s study. They were the only two people home; her aunt and cousins would be gone out for several more hours, running errands. Her heart pounded and her body shook with nerves and anger over what she was about to do.
She then opened the door without knocking and stepped in. Kenneth looked up from his desk and looked glad to see her. Kyra let the door close behind her.
“Hey Kyra! What’s going on?”, he smiled.
She didn’t answer.
His face dropped a little, looking concerned.
“Is everything OK?”, he asked.
She took a deep breath.
“How did my mom die?”, she asked plainly.
He looked puzzled at her first and then gently replied, “Kyra... we both know what happened to her.”
Something in Kyra snapped just then.
“I know”, she started, “She killed herself, right? But do you know how she killed herself?”
She continued, her voice rising to a crescendo. “Did she blow her brains out? Did she slit her wrists? Did she hang herself? Did she overdose? How did she die Uncle Ken?”
He got up from his desk and took slow steps towards her, wanting to calm her.
“Kyra, why are you asking me this?”, he asked softly.
“Just tell me!”, she yelled, “I need to hear from you how you think she died!”
Kenneth stopped and thought for a moment. He didn’t understand her angry questions but obliged her anyways.
“She... she shot herself”, he said slowly, not looking at her.
Kyra saw the hesitation in his voice and knew he was lying to her. Angry tears clouded her vision as she reached underneath her jacket and threw down the papers she had hidden.
“Then why was she shot in the chest? Why was there no gun powder on her hands? Where was a suicide note?”, she cried; her voice was strained with hard anger.
Kenneth took a step towards her, reaching his arms out to hold her.
“No!”, she screamed, “You stay away from me!”
“I went through my whole life, believing I wasn’t enough for my mom to stay alive”, she sobbed, “And you let me believe that while all this time you knew that someone else killed her.”
Those words hung in the air, bringing in a thick silence between them as Kyra’s hurt and anger echoed throughout the room.
Kenneth looked into her eyes and saw the lifetime of hurt and confusion she had grown up with. His heart wrenched inside, wanting to take it all away.
“Kyra, your mom’s death was a...complicated matter. But I want you to know that she loved you with her whole being. You were the best thing that had ever happened to her; she lived for you!”
Kyra continued, ignoring these words of comfort from her uncle, “And then you sent me away. You and Aunt Alaina were the only family I had ever known and you sent me away!”
Tears were rolling down her cheeks now. She had exhausted the built-up rage she had within her and only had sadness left. Tears started to come to Kenneth’s own eyes as he remembered the day he had to send his little eight-year old niece away. The way she looked at him as she is now; confused and hurt over not understanding why she couldn’t stay in the happy, warm home she had grown up in.
“Kyra”, his voice breaking, “I didn’t want to send you away. But-”
“Then why did you?”, she sobbed.
But before he could answer, she left the room in a hurry. Leaving him alone with his own sadness and the scattered pages on the floor that told the grim tale of his sister’s death.
Max stayed at the hospital with Alicia’s parents all night as they waited for updates on their daughter’s condition. Thankfully by morning, all of her injuries were successfully treated and she was given a good prognosis for a full recovery. Max felt relief as he left the hospital but he still had the knot in his stomach over Alicia seeing his abilities and not knowing if she would remember it all or not.
This was something he would potentially have to deal with, so he started to drive over to the hotel where Celine and Charlotte were staying at, to discuss the issue with them.
But as he came up to a stoplight he had second-thoughts. This was unknown territory to him right now and there was only one other person he trusted more than Celine and Charlotte. He then made a U-turn at the light and drove back home to talk to his father.
When Max opened the front door to the house, he was glad to see his father already up, quietly reading the morning paper and sipping on his coffee.
Jackson looked up in surprise when he heard the front door close.
“Max, were you out this morning?”
Max nodded in reply. “All night actually... Alicia got into a car accident and I stayed at the hospital with her parents.”
“Will she be alright?”
“Yeah, thankfully. She’ll be in the hospital for at least a few days though.”
“That’s a relief!”, Jackson replied as Max pulled up a chair beside him.
“But Dad there’s something else I need to talk to you about.”
Max then explained in detail what happened the night before. About how he ran at full-speed while invisible, the impossible rescue he made, and how Alicia saw it all.
“I told her parents that Alicia had escaped the car already by the time I found her... but I don’t know what Alicia is going to remember when she wakes up. Her and I both know that it would have been impossible for her to escape on her own from that car.”
Jackson sighed as he put his coffee down, thinking about what Max just told him.
“Have you told the others yet?”, he asked.
Max shook his head. “I was about to, but I felt better talking to you about it first.”
Jackson cleared his throat and looked over at his son.
“Max, I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you. It looks like your options are to either stick with your story and hope Alicia believes it, or tell her the truth. If you stick to your story she might just accept it without any question, but if she’s sure about what she saw you might be risking your friendship with her if you put all this effort into telling her a lie.”
Max looked back at his father, “I don’t think she’d believe the truth though either.”
“Well Max”, Jackson said while lifting his coffee mug, “At the end of the day this is your secret and you’re in charge of who knows it and who doesn’t.”
For the first time, Max considered the possibility of actually telling Alicia the truth but his heart clenched with fear.
“What if she rejects me Dad? What if she thinks I’m crazy?”
Jackson gave him a brief smile, “You’ve known Alicia your whole life; something tells me you already know exactly how she’s going to react to any of the possibilities you have to tell her.”
Alicia sat up in her hospital bed, blankly watching ‘The Price is Right’ on the small TV in the corner of the room. She still felt sore and achey all over her body from the accident three days ago, and her mind was slightly dulled from the pain medication she was on. But what was more vivid to her than anything else from that night was Max and what she saw him do.
When she had first woken up in the hospital, she found her parents in the room with her. They were ecstatic and relieved to hear her voice. She was still a bit disoriented at that time so they had quickly explained what had happened. Everything they learned came from Max. He told them that he had found her and brought her to the hospital. He also told them that she had escaped the car by herself.
Alicia knew for sure, even in her foggy state then, that this was not true. She could never forget the hot flames, her unfeeling legs, and the despair that she was about to die in that car. But after she heard this story from her parents, something inside told her to go along with it for now. She at least wanted to hear Max’s side of the story.
Apparently he had stayed with her parents all night so she assumed he would come visit as soon as he was able. But it had been three days now and he still has not visited. Not even a phone call or a text message. She had been visited by many others including Max’s father and sister. Jackson told her at the time that his son sent his regards and he would try to visit soon but things had gotten busy for him over the last few days.
Alicia could tell that Jackson seemed to be covering something up, but she didn’t press it and politely thanked him. When she was awake and didn’t have visitors, all she thought of was what happened with Max that night.
She remembered distinctly not seeing his truck anywhere along the road. She was over twenty miles away from home by that point; how had he gotten there so quickly without his truck? When he had carried her out, he carried her out through a wide opening in the back of her car. She could see the jagged metal edges of the twisted car frame; no tool could have made those marks. It was almost as if the car was ripped open like a tin can. Then there was her actual rescue. Max had no protective clothing on whatsoever, and yet the flames didn’t seem to affect him. She was impossibly pinned beneath that dash, but he somehow managed to lift it off of her with no effort.
Alicia didn’t understand what she saw, but she couldn’t deny it. She thought of all those months ago when Max called her over ten miles out of town after having an unusual argument with his father. He didn’t have his truck then either. The only thing Max revealed about that mysterious argument was that it had something to do with Max’s biological family. He never mentioned it again since then, but something about him had clearly changed. And now there were these two mysterious cousins of his and his sudden decision to leave with them and never return to Humbleton.
All of these things were connected somehow, but the connection was mysterious and unclear to Alicia.
She then heard a small knocking on her door and smiled when she saw Kyra Hadley carefully peeking in.
The other girl smiled back and stepped in. “I’m so glad you’re OK, Alicia!” Kyra hugged her and handed her a card. “All of us at B&B’s signed it!”
Alicia opened the card and looked fondly over the scribbled messages of “Get Well Soons” and “We Miss Yous” that filled up the space of the card in different colors of ink.
“Thank you for bringing this Kyra. It really means a lot to me!”
Kyra smiled and sat down in a nearby chair.
“How are you feeling?”, she asked.
“Oh still a little sore, but mostly just bored. I feel so trapped in this hospital room!”
Kyra looked at her sympathetically. “Gosh that must suck... Do they at least have you on any good pain meds?”
Alicia chuckled. Kyra was always so refreshing to be around; she always said things as she saw them. Some people might perceive it as rudeness or crassness, but Alicia saw it as pure honesty. She then noticed that Kyra seemed distracted, even sad.
“Is everything OK, Kyra?”, she asked softly.
Kyra looked at her for a moment. “Nah don’t worry about it”, she replied waving her hand in the air in a dismissive manner, “You have much bigger problems to worry about right now!”
Alicia pressed her gently, “Kyra, you’re my friend! If there’s something that’s bothering you I’d be so happy to listen if it would bring you some comfort.”
Kyra hesitated and looked again at Alicia; she was so genuine and so caring. Even as she laid there helpless in a hospital bed, she still had that strong compassionate heart to offer to her friends.
“Well OK”, Kyra started, “But this is something that will need to stay between you and me.”
Alicia nodded in agreement, allowing Kyra to continue.
“Do you remember when I told you that my mom died when I was young?”
“Yes I do”, Alicia replied softly, “You lived with your aunt and uncle and then got sent away to boarding school.”
Kyra continued, “I didn’t tell you how she died though... She committed suicide when I was two years old. At least that’s what I’ve been told.”
Alicia had a slight look of dismay and sadness in her eyes for Kyra but remained quiet, encouraging her to continue.
“Now this might sound weird or... disturbing, but a few months ago I stumbled upon my mother’s death certificate. It listed her cause of death as suicide... but it said that she died from a gunshot wound to her chest. I mean... it’s not impossible for someone to kill themselves that way, but it’s unusual.”
Kyra took a brief glance at Alicia who appeared to be listening very intently to her.
“I can’t explain it; I just started having this feeling. Like something wasn’t right; things weren’t what they appeared to be, you know? So... and this is weird I know... but I got my mother’s autopsy report.”
Kyra swallowed and remembered that night when she first read through the report; it’s jumbled words and cold scientific words mixing with her uneasiness and fears.
“I didn’t quite understand it all but there were some things on there that didn’t make sense. Like not finding any gunshot powder on her hands, bruises on her face and scratches on her arms, they even found scrapings under her fingernails but didn’t say what they were.”
Kyra hugged herself, pushing away the slight feelings of shame she had over what she was about to reveal next.
“And then a couple days ago I confronted my uncle about all this. I was just so angry and didn’t know who to be angry at or who to blame - so I took everything out on him. I accused him of lying to me all these years and of abandoning me when he sent me off to boarding school. I even threw my mom’s death certificate and autopsy report onto the floor in his office and just left it all there!”
Kyra could feel the tears forming in the corner of her eyes now.
“Maybe this is all just crazy or maybe I’m desperate to not have a mother who killed herself, but I grew up with this Alicia! I grew up carrying around this resentment towards my mom for leaving me behind - I always believed she didn’t love me enough! And to think that maybe all this time... I was wrong about her, about everything. If there’s a possibility that my mother didn’t leave me willingly, then I need to find that out!”
Alicia quietly handed Kyra a tissue and that was when Kyra realized a few tears had escaped down her cheeks. She carefully dabbed them away.
“Thank you for listening”, she sniffled, “And you’re the one who’s laying half-crippled in a hospital bed!”
Alicia smiled and reached her hand out towards her friend.
“Oh Kyra... I can’t imagine living through a day of what you’ve carried around for sixteen years. It’s only natural that you want some closure over how your mother died and there’s nothing to be ashamed of about that!”
Kyra took her hand and gave a small smile.
“And your uncle; he loves you. Maybe he’s made some mistakes in your life, but I know that he cares for you”, Alicia continued.
Kyra didn’t say anything in response; there were no words. She had suppressed them down along with her hopes and feelings in regards to the possibility of once again being part of that family from so long ago.
Kyra slowly let go of Alicia’s hand and looked at the time.
“I should get going”, she said quietly.
Alicia nodded and smiled.
“Tell Marge that I plan on being back there next week as her one-armed waitress!”
Kyra chuckled, “I will!”
The door then shut behind her, and Alicia was alone once again in her hospital room. It was just her and everyone else secrets.
Only two more days. Two more days until Max’s life would change forever. He had already done his last shift at the fire station; it was hard to say goodbye to the men and women he had worked alongside there for the past two years. He didn’t know if he would ever get to serve alongside them again.
He had been helping out at the carpentry shop when he could, but his time was pretty much done there. He had said all his goodbyes and either gave away his belongings or packed them away in storage.
There was only one unresolved matter left to attend to.
Max talked to Celine and Charlotte about what happened with Alicia nearly a week ago. They advised him to avoid telling her the truth as much as possible, but if she was confident about what she saw then nothing could be done about that. If he did end up telling her, she would need to be brought to Celine and Charlotte as well.
Alicia was discharged from the hospital yesterday. He felt guilty about not going to visit her but he also wanted her to recover in peace. He was currently debating whether or not he should go pay her a visit at home or wait for her to come to him. That debate was settled when he heard a knock at the door.
He walked down the stairs and opened the door, not surprised to see Alicia standing there.
Her left arm was bound up and resting in a sling over her shoulder. Her light brown hair was neatly tied up behind her head; keeping it away from the pink burns that blotched her face and hands. It was her eyes though that remained unchanged; her eyes still carried that familiar glimmer of gentle compassion. She never looked more beautiful to Max.
“Hey”, he smiled.
“Hey”, she replied back with her own smile, “Can I come in?”
“Of course”, he said stepping aside.
She turned back around to face him as he closed the door.
“I don’t know how to thank you Max... If you hadn’t come I would have died out there.”
Max smiled slightly, “I’m just glad you’re OK”, he said softly.
Alicia looked at him skeptically.
“And I’m really sorry I never visited you in the hospital”, Max continued, “I wanted to but something just kept getting in the way.” He cringed inwardly as he spoke such a lie.
She looked at him and then smiled once again but had this look about her like she knew he wasn’t telling the truth.
A tense silence then fell between them. Alicia thought of her words carefully before speaking them.
“Max... I think we both know why we’re here.”
Max’s heart started to pound but his expression remained unchanged.
“I don’t actually”, he responded.
“Max”, she gently continued, “Why did you tell everyone that I escaped from that car?”
Max looked her in the eye.
“Because that’s what happened”, he said matter-of-factly.
“No”, she whispered, “No Max you know that’s not true.”
Max didn’t respond.
“I will never forget that moment where I thought I was going to die; because I knew that I would not escape that car on my own”, she spoke softly as tears started to well up in her eyes, “so Max please... please don’t lie to me.”
Max gazed at her and saw the hurt and the compassion she had for him. He realized then it wasn’t all just from this one moment; it was from all the other moments too. The moments that had been happening ever since his argument with his dad all those months ago. The moments where she could see his struggle and offered him her compassion, only to be turned down each time.
As Max looked into this woman’s eyes, he knew that he couldn’t lie to her anymore.
“Let’s go for a drive”, he said softly.
It had taken them about half an hour to get there. Their drive was quiet. Alicia had no idea where Max was taking her or what he was about to reveal - or not reveal - to her. But she trusted him and waited on his timing.
He had driven them out to a wide empty field just outside of town. Spring was close by and the field had looked rather beautiful with its’ light green grass patches taking over the yellowed ground, along with brightly colored flowers dotting the landscape. They walked a little ways before Max started talking.
“We can stop here”, he said. He looked around nervously for a moment. “Ah.. we should probably sit down. It’s going to be a while.”
They then sat down on the cool grass and he began.
“Alicia... I know that you saw things that night that I rescued you. Things you probably don’t understand. But let me say right now that what you saw was entirely real.”
She looked at him confusedly.
“Let me go farther back”, he said. “I’m sure you remember many months ago when I called you early in the morning, asking you to meet me. I had an argument with my father the night before and the only thing I told you about it was it had to do with my biological parents. I told you that he lied to me about something for many years. Then I never brought it up again.”
He took a deep breath; what was about to be said next could never be undone.
“Alicia, the lie that he had told me all my life was about where my biological parents were actually from. They were from... another world.”
She turned her head, “...What do you mean?”
“I mean... another planet.”
Her eyes widened with skepticism.
“I know... I know this sounds crazy Alicia but hear me out. I didn’t believe it myself at first either”, Max explained in a rush.
Then he told her everything. From the many months ago when it all began with those strange incidents that were happening with his body to just a few weeks back where he officially decided to leave behind his old life to search for answers. He told her the story of a world called Tymorre and the extraordinary beings it housed and how they ultimately destroyed their own home. He talked of his mother - Celeste - and the choice she made over twenty years ago to leave her surviving son with Jackson and Eve Trenton. And he revealed the truth over who Celine and Charlotte really were and their mission to bring him back to the Guardians.
When Max had finished he found himself letting out a breath; as if he had been holding it all this time. His heart which had been beating rapidly when they first came out here was now back at a calm, steady pace. He felt lighter; relieved. When he looked over at Alicia he saw that she was no longer looking back at him. She had her legs bent in towards her chest with her good arm wrapped around them and her chin resting on her knees. Her gaze was cast downward as if she was studying a small bug crawling through the grass below them instead of listening to Max’s words.
He did not know what to make of this so he continued.
“Alicia...”, he spoke softly, “I’m so sorry for everything that’s happened: I’m sorry for pushing you away all those times and for lying to you. I never wanted to hurt you… I only wanted to protect you from this strange truth that’s now my life.”
She looked up at him then, her eyes unreadable. She opened her mouth to say something but the words must have stayed choked in her throat for nothing came out.
Max searched his mind for something else to say as if he were trying to delay hearing Alicia’s thoughts and feelings about what he had just told her.
“There is one thing you’ll have to do now; Celine and Charlotte will want to speak with you. It’ll be helpful though; they’ll give you some advice and guidelines to follow for keeping this all a secret. We can go over there now if you’d like.”
She finally spoke with a raspy voice, “I’d rather wait until tomorrow... if that’s OK.”
Max nodded, “Of course.”
“I’d like to go home now.”
He stood up and offered his hand to help her up. She took it as he pulled her up in one, easy motion. Then they walked back to his truck in silence.
Alicia sat down on the edge of her bed, looking at herself in the mirror hanging off the opposite wall. Her mind couldn’t stop turning over itself. The drive back home with Max was uncomfortably silent. She felt so many things in her heart and kept trying to say something to him but the words were too entangled in her mixed-up emotions. In the span of less than two hours, her whole reality had dramatically shifted.
There was always a mystery to Max. She had once heard her parents talking about his adoption and how sudden and quick it had happened. No details were known about the boy’s family or where he came from. But the whisperings over the Trenton’s unexpected adoption died down to give way to other small-town gossip and the boy eventually became part of the town’s normal routine.
Looking back at everything, Alicia could see something she always knew was there but couldn’t articulate it until now. When they were children, Alicia had thought that she had known everything there was to know about Max. All of his likes, dislikes, and personality quirks. He was like a familiar blanket to her, soft and close. But then something changed during their adolescence. Something about Max became hardened and distant. If was as if he would subconsciously break away from the world around him, trying to figure out this part of him he didn’t understand. Perhaps that was why Alicia broke up with him two years ago; she knew deep down that there was a part of Max she could never reach.
Now here she was with a broken arm, the trauma of a near-death experience, and the memory of her best friend telling her that he was not human.
Alicia still didn’t know what to make of Max’s story. On-paper it sounded crazy and delusional, but Alicia also couldn’t forget that night when Max had rescued her. The way he grasped the hot, impossibly entangled dash that had trapped her and pushed it up with ease. Most of all though, she knew Max. She knew that he was a rational and careful man; never being quick to believe anything he was just told. He always took the time to find the answers and evidence to come to his own conclusions. It would have been grossly uncharacteristic of Max to have blindly believed that he was a powerful being born on another planet and to have risked his entire friendship with Alicia to tell her so.
Alicia now had two options facing her: She could believe that Max was living in a delusion, or she could simply trust him.
Max stood in the middle of his bedroom looking around. The place had gone through several transformations over the years. When he was a child he had loved to play with race cars so his parents bought him a plastic bed-frame shaped as a bright blue car of his own. On the nights he was too wound-up to sleep, he would often scoot to the edge and stick his arms and legs out to grasp the imaginary steering wheel and push on the invisible floor pedals. He would make mimic the vibrating sounds of the engine and turn his body side to side as he imagined himself racing down this fantasy track.
When he was a teenager, his legos and toy cars gradually gave way to Linkin Park CDs and comic books. His beloved race car bed seemingly turned into an embarrassment overnight.
In recent years, the room turned into a space occupied by a young man. A simple desk was placed up against the wall holding a laptop computer along with scattered papers and books. Clothes lay on the floor by an overflowing laundry hamper in the closet. And the neatly-made bed stood over cardboard boxes filled with the random trinkets that made up old memories.
Now the room lay empty with its’ bare furniture. The only evidence remaining that Max had ever lived here was the electric blue walls his father had let him paint when he was fifteen years old. Max took a final look around and then carefully picked up his black duffel bag that laid on the floor. He shut the door behind him and went downstairs.
He set his bag down by the front door and walked into the dining room where his father and sister were sitting, still in their night clothes eating breakfast. Abby immediately turned around and gazed affectionately at him with her hazel eyes - the same color as their father’s. Max smiled and squatted down to open his arms toward her.
She bounded off her chair and ran straight into his warm chest. His strong arms wrapped around her small frame as her delicate arms flew over his neck. He turned his face to carefully place his lips against her hair, taking in the scent of strawberries and vanilla.
Abby pulled away a little to look up at him.
“You’re coming back soon, right?”, she asked anxiously.
Max and Jackson decided not to tell Abby all at once about Max’s leaving. Instead they revealed small bits at a time over the last month. It started out as brief, vague mentions of Max going away on a trip soon then became more detailed with the reality that Max would be leaving and not coming back to live with them. He would visit of course when he could, but things were going to be different from now on.
Max didn’t answer her question right away. In her head she knew what was happening, but didn’t fully understand what it all meant. He glanced up at his father who had stopped eating his breakfast and was now staring intently down at the table, thinking about something distant.
“Let’s go outside for a minute, Abby”, Max said softly.
He picked her up off the ground and walked over to the sliding glass door leading out to the backyard. He stepped out into the misty spring morning and closed the door behind them, still carrying his little sister.
Max and Abby did not have a typical sibling relationship. Between their eleven-year age difference and the absence of their mother, Max had filled in more as a caretaker for Abby. A guardian. Over the years he had fed her, changed her diaper and bathed her as an infant, helped her with her homework, drove her to school; all things that a parent would normally do. But he did not have the same authority over her as their father did, which made Abby see him more as a companion. He was a safe place for her; she could tell him things without getting into real trouble. She could ask him questions about her mom that their father was too pained to answer. Now Abby would have to learn how to live her daily life without her older brother around.
“Abby?”, he started. The young girl turned in his arms to look at him.
“You know I’m going away right? I’m going away for a long time”, he explained.
“How long?”, she asked innocently.
“That’s the thing Abby, I don’t actually know. It will probably be many months until we’ll see each other again.”
“But you’ll come back though”, she said matter-of-factly.
He smiled faintly at her, admiring her innocent oblivion to the reality of the world she lived in. Not having any idea of the enormous secret her own family carried.
“Yes Abby, but only to visit. That’s the other thing, remember? I’m not going to be living here with you and Dad anymore. I’ll be living in another city or town altogether.”
A slightly hurt and surprised expression appeared on her face. It was like the time she was petting their neighbor’s friendly cat and then it suddenly hissed at her and ran away.
Small tears came over her eyes.
“But why?”, she asked weakly.
Max’s heart tugged inside as he stroked down the frizzy, brown hair around her head, still matted from the night’s sleep.
“Because”, he said affectionately, “This is what people do. They grow up and they move away from their parents to build a new life of their own. We don’t do it because we didn’t like the life we had with them; we do it because life is about taking risks and growing into the person we’re meant to be.”
He knew Abby didn’t fully understand what he was saying, but she did understand the finality of what was about to happen.
She pushed her face into his shoulder and started to sob.
“I’m going to miss you!”, she cried.
Max hugged her closer and for the first time in the past month, felt a familiar sharp pain in his throat.
He pushed it down though and said, “I’m going to miss you too Abby. More than you’ll ever know.”
They stood there together like that for a moment. Abby continued to cry into Max’s shoulder as he gently swayed back and forth, just like he used to do with her as a baby.
Time continued on though and Max knew he couldn’t delay much longer. He quietly walked back into the house and sat Abby back down at the table. Her crying had slowed down a little and she wiped away some of the tears from her cheeks.
Max looked over at his father once again whose concentrated expression had remained unchanged.
“Abby are you done with your breakfast?”, Jackson asked.
The girl quietly nodded; her plate was only half-eaten.
“How about you say goodbye to your brother now and go upstairs to get dressed. I’ll be up in a little while to check on you.”
Abby slide off her chair and gave Max one last hug around his waist, then ran upstairs without saying another word.
Max stood there in silence as his father remained sitting at the dining room table. He didn’t know how to say goodbye to this man; there were too many things he could say. He searched his mind trying to find the exact words but was interrupted by his father’s raspy voice.
“I know you probably need to get going, Max. I’ll walk out with you.”
Jackson then scooted his chair out from the table and walked towards the front door with his son. Max picked the bag he had left there back up.
Together they walked quietly through the door and down the driveway. Max took a glance at his old, burgundy truck. He would be leaving it here for now and would instead walk across town to meet Celine and Charlotte at the motel they’d been staying at.
The two came to a stop where the driveway met the neighborhood sidewalk. Jackson then turned to look one more time at his son.
“Max”, he began, “There’s so many things a man can say to his son as he leaves to go off into the world for the first time. But I’m finding myself not knowing what’s left I can say to you.”
His voice choked then and he brought his palm up towards his mouth, a sharp exhale of breath escaped.
“Your mom would be very proud of you if she were standing next to me today. Not just because of your decision, but because of the man she raised you to be.”
Jackson paused once again to hold back his tears as Max stood quietly rooted to the ground.
“Max, no matter what happens from now on I want you to remember that this is who you are. Right now in this moment, the compassion and the integrity you carry in your heart is part of who you are. Promise me you’ll never forget that, alright?”
Max nodded quietly, “Alright, Dad.”
Max could then see the tears in his father’s eyes as Jackson reached out and pulled Max down into a tight embrace.
“You were our miracle child, our answered prayer”, Jackson’s voice broke, “You have no idea how much I’ll always love you, Son.”
Max returned his father’s embrace and felt that sharp pain in his throat once again.
“I love you too, Dad.”
Max then loosened his grip on his father, signaling Jackson to let go of his own.
“I’ll be in touch as soon as I can - I have no idea when that will be though”, Max said.
Jackson just simply nodded and he pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his face with.
“Dad... Thank you for everything. I’ll never forget everything you’ve done and the sacrifices you’ve made for me. You and Mom gave me a good and happy childhood and nothing can ever take that away”, he said confidently.
Jackson smiled at him through his tears and gave him a playful slap on the shoulder.
“Now it’s your turn to get out there and find your own good and happy life.”
Max had reached the town square where some of Humbleton’s major shops and stores were located. It was quiet this morning. It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet on a Sunday and most of the stores either wouldn’t open until past noon or even not at all. There were a few other early risers taking a morning stroll through town, but Max was otherwise alone.
He was nearly half-way to his destination but his mind had been on Alicia the whole time. They still hadn’t spoken since he revealed everything to her. She did speak with Celine and Charlotte yesterday but he didn’t know what they talked about. The only advice they gave him was to give Alicia some space.
It disappointed him to have not talked to her one more time; even just to say goodbye.
He turned around looking for the source of the voice.
“MAX!”, he heard again.
Then there she was, running towards him with her arm swinging awkwardly beside her. By the time she reached him she was completely out of breath. He dropped his bag and took two strides towards her, putting his hand on her arm to steady her.
“What are you doing out here?”, he asked.
“I...I needed...to talk...to you”, she said between pants.
“Let’s sit down first”, he said leading them to a nearby bench.
“I spoke to...your dad and he told me that...that you had left already. I borrowed my parents car and...found you so... here I am!”, she continued.
He didn’t say anything back. His hand was still firm on her shoulder and her hands had fallen onto his forearms for support. She looked up at him with those warm, brown eyes of hers.
Her breathing finally slowed down to a normal pace.
“I wanted to tell you that... I trust you. I believe you.”
Max’s expression stayed unchanged but a warmth started to glow in his chest.
“I don’t know what that means still”, she continued, “But I wanted you to know before you leave that I’m here for you. I always will be.”
He smiled at her then, it was the biggest smile she had seen on his face in a long time.
He pulled her into an embrace, laughing softly with relief. She brought her arm up around his shoulder and felt warm, happy tears stream down her cheeks.
“You have no idea how happy you’ve just made me”, he breathed.
They remained that way for what seemed like a while and then they pulled apart a little.
Max, no longer being able to contain all of the affection he had for her, brought his hands up to hold either side of her face. His thumb gently brushed away a tear from her eye as he gazed lovingly back at her.
“I promise you, that I’ll come back”, he said firmly, “I’ll come back to you.”
She smiled at him, “I know you will.”
He wanted to kiss her then but restrained himself by letting his palms slide gently off her face instead. He needed to get going.
They got up from the bench together and walked a few steps. Max picked his bag back up and turned to face her one more time.
“I guess this is goodbye”, he said.
She smiled warmly again, “But not for long.”
They hugged one more time and then Max started to walk away. He stopped for a moment and glanced back.
“Thank you for always being there for me, Alicia.”
She smiled in response and waved goodbye. Then watched him as he walked away from her, disappearing into the streets leading him to the other side of town. He would meet Celine and Charlotte there, and then leave with them to start their journey into the unknown where his new life lay waiting for him.End of Part One... To Be Continued
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