Dooley Downs

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IV Max the Axe

IV Max the Axe

Max sat hunched over the handle bars of his 18-speed Giant brand mountain bike, arms dangling, with a wryly malicious smile pasted on his face. His long black hair was plastered back over his wide skull and lay in a greasy swish upon his shoulders. Max was a pituitary nightmare. Unlike Skeeter McFly, who was held back in school and simply older than the others, Max towered over other kids his age and was twice Skeeter’s girth. His black t-shirt stretched across his meaty torso and his hands looked like sledgehammers. Hidden beneath his loose khaki cargo pants, which were secured to his waste by a thick, black, metal-studded leather belt, two giant tree trunk legs ended in wide feet laden with black canvas shoes. He wore studded leather wrist bands that matched his belt, one with a watch embedded in it, and the effect seemed to heighten his overall intimidating presence. Completing his ensemble, perched on his shoulder and secured by a long thin silver chain attached to its collar and Max’s other wrist band, was Monkey, Max’s pet spider monkey. Max’s imagination fell short when it came to naming his pets.

Ownership of a spider monkey probably drew into people’s minds questions of legality. However, any concerns over the matter never arrived on people’s tongues, with the possible exception of behind closed doors. Max’s father, also named Max but who went by the elongated version of Maximilian, was the Mayor of Prudence, a man who could be as sinister as his son was mean. But, unlike his son, he kept his demeanor under guard behind a friendly smile and a pleasant personality… until it served him to do otherwise. Max, on the other hand, outwardly displayed his brutish nature, perhaps to as yet experience the lessons that may force a change of behavior, if they would ever come to him at all. Unlike some kids, who turned to bullying others as a way to cope with the insecurity they developed from abusive parents, Max’s insecurity and consequent bullying derived from a position of wealth and privilege, and the underlying fear of its disappearance.

Max carried little responsibility, if any at all, so he cared little about anything, other than that his position in life not change. His grades were slightly above average and could probably be somewhat exceptional if he cared to apply himself, but he didn’t. He never ditched, though, because school attendance remained one of very few demands his father placed on him. Max received a sizable weekly allowance from his father, one that even a working adult might envy, but through no labor of his own. Maids and caretakers handled the mundane and menial drudgery of home-bound tasks such as dusting, cleaning dishes, emptying the trash, washing and folding clothes, mowing the lawn, etc. In addition, Max usually got whatever he asked for. If he had any friends his collection of comics, video games, sports equipment, movies, action figures, models, and other assorted adolescent accoutrement would keep them entertained indefinitely. However, Max soon lost interest in what he did not share, apparently not understanding or appreciating the concept, or even friendship for that matter, and most of his possessions sat around unused, or relegated to overstuffed closets or garage boxes.

If there existed one thing resembling a positive emotion, a care for Max, one might identify it as his affinity for animals, which he shared with his mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Shraeter. Because of the senior Maximilian Shraeter’s mayoral compensation, shrewd investment strategies, and land holdings, Mrs. Shraeter had little need to work and instead spent her days in the spa, sunning by the pool, flirting with the pool boy, receiving pampering from beauticians, hosting socialite gatherings, ignoring her son, and collecting animals. Their vast estate at the northern edge of Prudence contained a few house cats, several German Sheppard dogs that served as guards, a Pug (Mrs. Shraeter’s “baby” which she often donned in pink frill), two turtles, an aviary with numerous species of birds, and of course Max’s beloved monkey: Monkey.

Unfortunately, what Max loved most about Monkey was the enhanced intimidation factor the primate offered to his presence. As such, he encouraged Monkey’s aggression and allegiance, rewarding it with edible treats to the animal’s liking. The chain Monkey was attached to served as little more than an illusion rather than a real restraint. Max often unleashed the vicious little beast on hapless kids who, under victimization and duress, cowered helplessly and promised vehemently to do Max’s bidding. Additionally, Max used his impressive bulk, his aggressive tendencies, and his willingness to exact cruel punishment on the undeserved to make his name known and feared above and below his peer base. Grades below him celebrated at his departure while those ahead of him feared his arrival. However, outside of school, everyone was fair game. The final arsenal at his disposal gave him his ominous and dreadful nickname: Max the Axe.

Max wore a black canvas backpack that, in addition to carrying his books and school supplies, harbored what people feared most about the bully: a shiny bladed, wood handled hand axe. He had it positioned in his pack in such a way as to be easily accessible by reaching behind him. He rarely showed it or threatened anyone with it. He didn’t need to. Most kids knew it was there and that was sufficient. Along with his family connections and his presence of mind to exercise consideration and politeness to adults, Max virtually ran the adolescent portion of Prudence much as his father ran the adult population, albeit by rather different methods. Most school age children of Prudence practiced the art of invisibility, disappearance, or otherwise making like a wallflower whenever Max approached their vicinity. It also helped if one made it a point to hang close to adults, as long as the appearance of such a tactic didn’t look too obvious.

“What’s he doing here, Peter?” Priscilla whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

“I don’t have the foggiest idea.”

“Hi babies, did I interrupt your baby party?” Max chuckled at his own remarkable wit. Monkey screeched in approval and clapped his hands rapidly together.

“Look, Max,” Bug intoned, “we aren’t looking for any trouble here, okay?”

“Can it, crud face,” Max ordered. “Trouble is what you got you geeky piece of shit. Trouble is what you all got. HA!” He pointed a beefy finger at them, emphasizing his point by stabbing it forward a couple times.

Peter clenched his fists. He couldn’t help it, despite the enormity in both name and presence of the bully perched on the bike before him. He had expected possibly being thwarted by adults in town, but not by the one-boy town goon squad so soon in their quest. It brewed anger inside his chest. He remembered the Roman numeral ‘VI’ Priscilla had made with the Sooth Jewels back at Kramer’s Kompound and the subsequent interpretation Doodle offered up just recently. It must be another sign, he thought.

“There’re six of us, Max. What’re you gonna do?” He tried to look tough, but a slight shake in his voice betrayed his veneer of confidence.

“Well, well, big man,” Max sneered wickedly, “I may need to thin out the numbers a little.” With one smooth move, he reached behind him into his backpack and retrieved his seldom seen axe. It gleamed dangerously in the sunshine. He rested the weapon on his knee.

Everyone got very still and quiet. Peter’s anger subsided into fear, matching the dread felt amongst his friends. Bo Bo hunched down on Doodle’s back and narrowed his eyes at Monkey. Monkey returned the sentiment.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. You’re all probably wondering why I’m here. Well, I’m not gonna beat around the bush, though I may have to beat around all of you. I’m here to… discuss a certain matter with the Dooley twins. I don’t have any beef at the moment with you other basket cases. So you little spazoids can geek your way home now. Go on, go cry home to mama.” Max shooed his axe in their direction.

“Friends,” Doodle protested. Peter was surprised Doodle spoke first, especially in response to Max.

“What’d you say, you little dip wad?”

“Yeah,” Bug supported, “we stick by our friends. You would know what that means, if you had any.”

“Oh, I’ll take you first, scarecrow.” Max made like he was going to get off his bike. Bug desperately fought the urge to flee.

“All of us.” Leela stepped forward in front of Peter and Priscilla, folding her arms across her chest. However, her legs felt weak and threatened to buckle. Peter gently pushed her behind him.

“It’s okay,” Peter said. “Whatever you’ve got to say, you can say it in front of my friends.” Peter’s renewed confidence belied the terror trembling inside. He knew they were all bluffing, united by their camaraderie, hoping Max wouldn’t notice the dilation of their eyes, the beads of sweat breaking across their brows, the slight tremor in their hands and legs. He hoped that the she sheer bulk of their numbers provided a counter intimidation to Max’s own. But mostly, Peter hoped the Sooth Jewels contained power; that the ‘VI’ they showed them was a portent, a sign that they would win. It emboldened him.

Max watched them closely for a few seconds then grunted. “Fine, if that’s the way you want it. You can all go down together, if it comes to that. I guess I’ll be getting a good workout today.”

Quietly from behind, Leela slipped her fingers into Peter’s and Priscilla’s hands and gripped tightly. Her scooter still leaned between her legs. Everyone else remained poised on their transportation, except for Bug, who rolled his skateboard back and forth nervously with one foot, and Doodle, who still struggled with how to right his bike while Bo Bo stayed glued to his hunched back with his claws. He kept making silent expressions of pain whenever the cat shifted its weight. Peter’s hand moved to the flap of his book bag then traveled down along the bottom of it where he felt the sturdy bulk and weight of the combat survival knife Kramer had given him. Then he felt the thin shape of the metal arrow, the assembled Sooth Jewels. He needed a clear sign of what to do, but all the choices before him seemed overwhelmingly difficult.

Max stepped off his bike and popped the kick stand. Gripping his axe in his right hand, he unlatched Monkey’s chain leash from his wrist band with his teeth and wrapped it twice around his left hand without taking his eyes off of Peter.

“Gimme that sack, diaper Dooley.”

Peter’s heart began thumping heavily in his chest and he started feeling dizzy. Every ounce of his frame wanted to run, but his legs and feet had become lead weights. He squeezed Leela’s hand back, trying to gain strength from her grip but finding little. He wanted to say something clever, something to send Max and his stupid monkey packing, but his tongue had grown thick and pasty, stuck to the roof of his mouth. If Max blew on him right now, he would fall over dead for sure. If the rest of his friends felt the way he did right now, then there was no hope.

“I’m not going to ask you again, Dooley.” Max finished wrapping Monkey’s chain leash around his ham hock hand and then unclipped it from the primate’s collar.

“Oh, breck,” Bug muttered.

™ Ÿ ˜

Peter never could fight. It was something he hated about himself. Up until now, he and his friends had never experienced much confrontation with Max, or anyone else for that matter, aside from the random teasing or hallway shove. Sometimes they crossed paths with the older teens in the park or on the streets. They might have water balloons, spit wads, or Frisbees tossed their way as they fled, but these resulted in mainly minor incidents, not prolonged torture or stalking. But for a period of a few months in 3rd Grade, Peter had been one of Max’s targets, one of the many that Max eventually got bored of terrorizing.

The events happened so far in the past for Max that he would be hard pressed to remember Peter’s first name, much less his sister’s or any of their friends. To Max they were just the random babies, geeks, pleebs, or any other number of disparaging insults, but to Peter, it was like it all happened yesterday.

Peter remembered eating lunch one day with his sister and friends in the cafeteria, which multi-purposed as a gym, an arena, an auditorium, a dance hall, and a theater. During lunch, the stage was curtained off on one end and a metal roll-up window opened up on the other, exposing the kitchen beyond. Long tables and benches folded out from their wall alcoves to form two rows of seating, ten tables deep, with a throughway between them. Their favorite spot was on the end of the table by the aisle near the food dispensary and one of the four main hall entrances. They saw Max come in to eat everyday like all the others, and like all the others they all tried to act natural and not bring undue attention to themselves.

The first incident happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly, Peter almost thought it might’ve been an accident. Max walked by their table carrying his cafeteria tray in his left hand while casually swinging his right arm. As he passed by, his right hand hit Peter’s tray, spilling chicken soup, lime Jell-O, and two-percent milk all over Peter’s shirt and lap. Max just kept on walking as if oblivious to the incident. Peter watched as Max found an end seat at a bench a few rows back. He sat down, adjusted his tray before him, then looked at Peter and winked, a little smirk on his lips. Peter turned to his sister and friends with a dread expression.

“Oh no,” he said weakly, looking down at the mess soaking into his clothes. He knew it was the beginning.

Two more incidents occurred with the cafeteria and Peter tried futilely to prepare for each one. But they didn’t occur the next day, or the next day, or even the day after that. Each time Max walked by, tray in his left hand, right arm swinging, Peter placed both hands firmly on his own tray, pressing it down against the table’s surface. Sometimes Max walked by and glanced at him, a wink and a smile sparking his brutish face. Sometimes he just walked by as if Peter didn’t exist. Then, about a week after the first food tray incident, Max walked by, as usual, and Peter locked his hands on his tray, as usual, and as Max reached the table the left arm holding his cafeteria tray came across and dumped chili cheese fries and root beer all down Peter’s front.

“Oh, pardon me,” Max said with saccharin sincerity, putting his fingers against his lips as if surprised and embarrassed by his own clumsiness, “how careless.”

There emanated from the surrounding grade scholars a sprinkling of laughter peppered with some hoots. This was more out of pressure of expectation rather than genuine humor regarding the matter. But it still added insult to injury for Peter and his friends just looked solemnly and helplessly at the situation. Instead of helping to clean Peter up, as if he would ever offer such a gesture of politeness, Max just returned to the cafeteria line to get another tray of food. Peter was on the verge of tears, more out of anger than anything else, and Priscilla shed a few for him.

The third incident happened three days later. Bug and Doodle shifted their places up near the end of the table so that Peter could shift two places down. That way Max wouldn’t be able to reach Peter’s tray and had a barrier of friends from Max’s tray “accidently” tipping over onto him. They knew the pattern from Max’s stalking of other kids. He wouldn’t touch anyone else until his plan of humiliation came to full fruition. So Max came casually strolling along as usual with his food tray and suddenly stopped in front of the end of their table. He quickly darted his head around the cafeteria to make sure adult eyes were averted and, before anyone could react, he fast-balled half a squashed grapefruit smack dab into Peter’s stunned face. As Peter sputtered at the citrus sting of juices in his eyes and nose, Max followed it up with a piece of banana cream pie. As Max walked away, pleased by the results of his latest act of mean spiritedness, Peter quickly wiped his face with a napkin, threw it down on the table, and stood up, fuming.

“No, Peter,” Priscilla implored, grabbing at his shirt.

Peter pulled away, stepping into the aisle between the cafeteria tables. A wave of quietness spread amongst the assembled youthful diners with the anticipation of a fight brewing. With fists clenched, Peter stood his ground in the aisle fifteen feet behind Max and yelled out his name. Max stopped in his tracks, cocking his head to one side. Then slowly, he turned around and faced Peter, folding his arms. Although the smile on his face had faded, it remained as a spark in his eyes. His manner appeared condescending.

“What? What do you want little diaper Dooley?” He gradually approached Peter with exaggerated posture, holding one hand to his ear, openly mocking Peter’s anger and any seriousness of a threat being posed. “Look at you. You’re a mess. You can barely feed yourself. You’ve got food all over your face and shirt like a baby. You’re just a little baby retard that needs a bib and his mommy.”

Max stood in front of Peter, towering over him. Peter was extremely angry. But instead of emboldening him further, a weakness descended from his head into his belly where it expanded into a cloud of butterflies that traveled down both legs, making them feel wobbly. He became painfully aware of his situation, of the entirety of the surrounding kids watching events unfold, events for which Peter now felt a complete lack of control over. He had never been in a situation like this and had absolutely no idea how to handle it. Max’s meanness had provoked anger in him and he had acted without thinking.

“Little baby retard, little baby retard,” Max taunted, staring down at Peter with mirthful malevolence. Scared, but even more fearful of backing down, Peter threw a fist at Max’s belly. There arose a roar of mixed exclamations at the gesture, which quickly subsided as Max effortlessly batted Peter’s arm away, swung his right leg around Peter’s right leg, and forcefully pushed the smaller boy’s chest with two cannon arms. Peter landed flat on his back and all the air expelled from his lungs. He feebly attempted to get up, coughing and choking as he tried to catch his breath. Priscilla rushed over to help him up as one of the Cafeteria Monitors (who doubled as Yard Duty Officers) rushed over to break it up.

“Okay, break this up you two! Who started this? Max?”

“It was an accident,” Max explained, putting on his innocent face. “Peter here slipped and I tried to catch him, but I guess I missed and ended up pushing him.”

“That what happened, Peter?” the Cafeteria Monitor asked.

Peter spoke before Priscilla could object, “Yes. I’m alright.” Although it was a lie, Peter knew it would make matters worse to try and get Max into trouble. He shouldn’t have challenged Max to begin with.

“Get back to your seats and finish your lunches.” The Cafeteria Monitor waved her arms at the rest of the students. “Back to your seats, everyone! It’s all over; nothing to see here!”

Everyone returned to their seats, mumbling excitedly at what had just transpired. But the multitudinous lines of conversation over the confrontation soon waned to more standard frivolous kid fare. Before turning away to take his seat, Max shot a dagger look of warning into Peter’s eyes. Peter knew it wasn’t over between them, although he desperately wished it would be. Later that evening, Peter brought up the incident at the dinner table with Dad.

“I got in a fight today, Dad.”

“Is that so? Looks like you won,” Dad said absently, examining what remained on his plate as if it had changed into something else between mouthfuls. Sarah’s death was only a couple years old and he was still trying to get the hang of the culinary arts. His children were a little more forgiving.

“Not exactly.”

“Really?” Dad looked at Peter over his glasses carefully. “I don’t see any bruises.”

“Well, it got stopped after he pushed me down.” Peter proceeded to explain what Max had been doing to him in the cafeteria. Priscilla interjected a few times to support Peter’s story, which he told fairly objectively.

“Wow,” Dad observed, “the kid sounds like a jerk.”

“He’s the Mayor’s son,” Priscilla revealed.

Dad’s left eyebrow raised while the right eyebrow lowered. Peter had always admired the facial gesture, but never could copy it himself. Whenever he tried, his eyebrows merely went up and down together and he supposed any observers might surmise he had a facial tick or some other disturbing characteristic.

“Well, since the Mayor himself is somewhat of a jerk, too, it would stand to reason. Uh, don’t tell anyone I said that, please.” Dad tucked in another mouthful of food, chewing slowly and contemplating the scenario.

“I wanted to show him up in front of the other kids. But I got scared.”

“Naturally,” Dad said.

“He’s a bully,” Priscilla added. “He picks on a different kid each month. He’s big, too.”

“What do you mean ‘naturally’?” Peter wondered if Dad’s comment was a poke at fun.

“I mean naturally you would be scared. Most people don’t have the stomach for fighting and only severely disturbed individuals draw any pleasure from it. You see, conflict causes the body to produce adrenaline, a chemical that fills you with a bunch of energy. It’s kind of like drinking a two liter bottle of sugar soda all at once. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s designed to give you a ‘fight or flight’ response.” Dad put down his fork and brought up both hands with his index and middle finger curved into hooks, wiggling them for effect. Peter contemplated the gesture but drew few conclusions from it.

“Fight or flight?”

“Yeah, fight or flight,” Dad confirmed, bouncing his curved fingers up and down in the air to emphasize his point. “The adrenaline is designed to help you fight and win the conflict or run away from it very fast. Most people fear for their safety and run. It’s a primary biological function of sorts.”

“But I didn’t do either. I got all weak inside.”

“Well, you said you swung at the kid.”

“Yeah, but it was lame. I wanted to run. I really didn’t know what to do. He knocked my arm away and pushed me over before I could think. He knew what to do.”

“You were caught up in a dilemma. As I see it, this bully knew what to do because he’s done it before and maybe even received instruction on it at some point in time. It sounds like he might pass for a decent Brown Belt in Karate. You, on the other hand, have not been in a fight before, not like this. Most people don’t know what to do in new situations. That’s how we learn. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, though that hardly makes it any better. You’re probably worried that the other kids saw your weakness.”

“Yeah,” Peter confirmed sullenly, head drooping.

“Here’s a tip about life… for both of you. You are in your own experience so what you feel inside you is powerful. But hardly any of what is on your insides shows on your outsides. Sure, there are common facial expressions that everyone more or less agrees mean certain emotions, but much of it is also open to various interpretations, especially if a person doesn’t confirm the expression with something verbal.”

“You lost me, Dad.”

“Ok, look at my face and tell me what I’m feeling.” Dad stretched his mouth into a huge toothy grin while narrowing his brow around wide bulging eyes.

“Yeah, Dad, that’s kinda freaky,” Peter noted.

“You look like an axe murderer,” Priscilla giggled. “How many axes have you killed?” The twins busted up laughing.

Keeping his face contorted, Dad continued, “But what does my expression say about what I’m feeling?”

“That you’re angry?” Priscilla offered.

“Or insane,” Peter observed, breaking out in a fresh round of laughter.

“Maybe I’m happy,” Dad put out.

“Happy to be insane,” Priscilla added. She leaned in close to Peter, putting her head against his as they giggled together. Dad turned his head back and forth, moving his lips open and closed around his creepy grin, adding a new element to the lesson. Finally, he couldn’t hold it any longer and he relaxed his face, joining in with his kids’ jocularity.

“I think I understand, Dad,” Peter said.

“The point is that the other kids saw your angry face as you threw a punch at the big slob. Even though he deflected you, you probably looked cooler to everyone else than you felt inside. Besides, nobody will remember the incident after a few months. If you fight to defend yourself, I’ll support your decision, but I would just as soon see you stay clear of trouble and not get yourself hurt. I can show you a few moves, if you want. If this kid keeps making your life miserable and you don’t know what to do, let me know and I’ll help you out.”

“That’s okay, Dad. I think I like the idea of staying out of trouble.”

Dad reached over and mussed up Peter’s hair with his hand. “You’re a good kid, Peter. You are both good kids.”

There developed a few more incidents between Max and Peter, but Peter got good at evading the bully, and Max eventually got bored with him. Another fight between them never broke out and Max forgot about Peter almost entirely.

Until now…

™ Ÿ ˜

Standing now among his friends, weak-kneed and facing down Max again, the events of a few grades ago came rushing back to Peter freshly. As such, some of Peter’s insecurity over the matter re-emerged, as well. Just a few years dramatically alters kids both physically and mentally, but the passage of time had not prepared Peter any for another confrontation with Max. Once again, he felt scared. Max was no less intimidating and, in fact, seemed more so, especially with his devilish spider monkey and his axe. Peter’s adrenaline wanted him to run and Peter wanted to oblige. But Peter wanted to fight and the current stand-off was just him biding his time to alter the nature of his fear, trying to turn it into a purpose other than fleeing. He was losing the war.

“Okay,” Max broke in, “I’m done fooling around with you little pleebs. Monkey… BAG!” As he said this, he raised the arm with the axe in it, holding the weapon sideways, and pointed at Peter.

If there were ever a time in Peter’s life when events seemed to progress in slow motion, this moment was representative. The spider monkey launched itself off of Max’s sturdy shoulder. Any other mortal would have flinched at the claws and pressure of Monkey’s lift-off, but Max just stood there motionless, pointing the axe at Peter and smiling. In the space of a few seconds, Peter saw everything, every little movement, like slowing down a storm and watching every individual raindrop descend. Strands of Max’s long hair played against his forehead in the soft breeze. There emanated from the surrounding trees and shrubbery a dalliance of applause, as if they cheered the break in tension. Peter’s own heartbeat thudded dully, even though it was racing unheeded in real time. Monkey floated through the air, lips peeled back over bared teeth screeching, with claws outstretched.

Monkey didn’t cross the fifteen or so feet between Max and Peter in one jump. He landed on the soft dirt after about five feet and launched himself again, sending up tufts of top soil powder from his back claws. He made another leap while Peter’s breath quickened in slow motion. Instinctively, Peter extended his arms and tried to corral his friend behind him. Monkey landed five feet away from Peter and again poised himself for the final leap between them, beady eyes targeted on the boy’s book bag.

It seemed to Peter that he possessed all the time in the world to concoct an appropriate defensive stature, but instead he remained frozen, holding his arms out to protect his friends despite the fact that he was the animal’s target. As much as Peter wanted to be the hero, he reverted to the same scared 3rd Grader of yore.

Peter’s ears barely registered the groan from Doodle behind him as Monkey made his final leap towards the book bag, which hung ripe for the snatching over his shoulder with his arms outstretched. During mid-jump, Monkey’s eyes flicked to his right and suddenly bulged in surprise. Bo Bo’s nimble body flashed in front of everyone’s vision and slammed into the spider monkey at a right angle, sending Monkey rolling across the Flats while the cat landed squarely on all fours. Max let out a cry of surprise and concern as he ran over to see if his pet was injured.

“Now,” cried Peter, “the Loose Drop!” His paralysis finally broke now that the first move on their side had been cast by Bo Bo.

The Loose Drop was a little known pathway that clung to the cliff-like drop off the edge of Beer Can Flats looking out at the town. It was a steep path coated with loose rocks and dirt. Those that navigated its treachery successfully had a fairly clear shot to town across the Wooded Fields, a relatively flat, oak sprinkled valley.

It was a gut decision for Peter that none of his friends questioned, but it was already a break in the plan that they concocted not ten minutes ago. However, Shady Lane hardly remained a viable option since Max arrived on a far superior bike compared to their modes of transportation. Max didn’t spend a lot of time outside of town, so he would be taking a gamble trying to navigate the Loose Drop, especially considering his size.

The group of friends garnered the surprise advantage over Max. All of them were still poised on or against their rides, while Max had ditched his transportation to check on monkey. They all scrambled towards the Loose Drop and then plowed down it with utter abandon. It was a reckless move, but fear of Max the Axe and his evil cohort, Monkey, had finally overtaken their sensibilities and they simply followed Peter’s lead.

The edge of the narrow path crumbled away in their wake. Peter became vaguely aware that everyone, including himself, was joined in a chorus of a long continuous yell. Near the bottom they all jammed up together and landed in a rumpled pile in the long dry grass of Wooded Fields.

Banged up but not broken, the crew slowly disassembled themselves from their rides and each other. Standing up with a groan, Peter chanced a glance up at the lip of the Beer Can Flats drop off. Max stood looking over down at them, Monkey secured back on his shoulder. The distance made Max look small and the spider monkey nothing more than a dot. Peter wished it was that easy, to just make Max something small and insignificant, or to at least keep the distance now between them permanent.

Max disappeared from the edge. He would take his 18-speed mountain bike to the limit down Shady Lane. He would not let this incident go unresolved. This was not over. They needed to get a move on and regroup at Fast Eddie’s Last Gas before entering town.

Peter urged the troops up onto their feet. “C’mon, guys. Max is hitting it hard right now down Shady Lane. We need to hurry.”

“My back tire is flat,” Priscilla said disappointedly, looking sorrowfully at the tire’s deflated condition. In their hurry down the Loose Drop, it had snagged upon a jagged rock.

“Shoot, mine is, too,” Peter acknowledged.

“Scooter’s fine,” Leela said, examining it thoroughly.

“Okay here,” said Doodle.

“Yeah, my board is rockin’ still,” Bug confirmed. “We’re gonna have to hoof it over these digs anyway. The board and the scooter are hardly going to fly over this turf.”

They all started walking at a quickened pace towards Fast Eddie’s Last Gas. Peter felt tousled and sore from their final tumble at the end of the Loose Drop, but it was nothing he hadn’t felt before countless times from falling out of a tree or off of a bike. He looked at his sister and friends. They all seemed none the worse for wear, as well.

“How the brear does Max fit into this?” Priscilla asked. “He was way out of his territory. He seemed to think your bag contained something that he wanted.”

“It contains that weird metal compass-arrow-thing,” Bug observed.

“But how can Max know anything about that?” Peter wondered.

“Maybe someone let on to him about your situation,” Leela offered. “I mean, why was Aunt Gretchen at the school not too long after you two fled your home?”

“Why would she have any interest in Max?” Peter shook his head over the thought, unable to fathom any reason for their connection.

“Minion!” Doodle exclaimed. Peter registered surprise at Doodle’s use of such a sophisticated word, but then realized there wasn’t any reason his friend shouldn’t know it. He was the same age and even though he rarely attended school, Doodle seemed to possess a fairly developed underlying intelligence. It was just sometimes easier to overlook since the kid rarely formed complete sentences.

Bug caught on to the idea. “Yeah, right! Your aunt hired Max and his evil Monkey as minions to do her nefarious bidding! Oh, wow, this is intense!”

“We don’t know that,” Peter warned. “It could just be a coincidence.”

“Aunt Gretchen is likely to get other people involved, either through lies or other deviousness to complete her agenda.” Leela looked over cautiously at Peter, hoping that her offering of another explanation didn’t jeopardize whatever perceived feelings she thought he might have towards her.

Peter closed the discussion with: “We are all still in the dark. Everything is happening too fast. Forces may be conspiring against us, but right now it’s all just jibber jabber. We can jaw jack all day long about it, but unless we find out more information, we’re just filling our domes with guess work.”

They trudged on through the high grass, dodging ancient oak trees as each kid pushed their useless vehicle, except for Bug, who carried his skate board against his hip, bouncing it with every step.

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