Our Story Begins...
MAX LAY STILL, his muscles taut as a steel spring under Grandma’s ancient wool blankets. It seemed like only dead people should lay under so much weight. The itchy wool tickled his upper lip and smelled like almond hand-cream. His fingers were fists, holding clumps of starchy sheet.
Some sound in the night must have woken Max because his heart was thudding in his ears.
His eyes drifted up at the three square windows over the twin bed in the quiet dark. The farmhouse groaned like it was tired of sitting there on its foundation for so long. The handcrafted windows normally looked like portals in a spaceship—but at night, the glass washed out into dark sky and stars and Max thought someone might reach in from outside the two-story house, in and down at his neck with an unending, rubbery long arm.
But it was just a crazy fear, and Max knew better. Fears were only for children. Anyway, men didn’t have extra long arms in real life. Not even in the few days left before Halloween.
Beyond the windows of the still cornbread-warm farmhouse, the early night crept over the walnut orchard and dried-up berry rows and cornfields, pushing a harvest breeze and wiggling the bare branches of the persimmon tree. It looked like a monster with one solid trunk of a leg and five hundred stick arms signaling the far off stars. It was a friendly monster. Yes, some monsters were friendly.
But not all of them.
A person could look like a monster on the outside, but actually be nice on the inside. To know the difference, you needed a good eye. An eagle’s eye. The kind of eye that saw deeper than just skin and clothes—the kind of eye that saw things best when it was looking away a little bit.
And the kind of ear that didn’t need to know the exact meanings of big words. Because even if you didn’t know the full meaning of a word, you could still tell if it was a laughing word, or an angry word, or a time to run-fast-and-hide word.
Max could run real fast.
One of the persimmon branches scraped the siding on the house. Max thought he heard dry leaves crinkle across the driveway. And there was something else. A tiny whimper.
Now Max sat straight up in bed, his steel string muscles fighting the wool blankets which doubled in weight. Was there an animal at the back door? One that was cold and scared and needed help?
There were five people in the other bedrooms of the farmhouse, but Max was in the extra guest bed pushed up next to the laundry room near the back door.
The leaves scratched across the driveway outside again, except they weren’t leaves, they were the soft claws of a puppy trying to get into the house. It wouldn’t have any luck, the deadbolt was on. The puppy might freeze to death outside if no one helped it.
Max dropped back to his elbows and the stubborn wool blankets pushed him the rest of the way onto his back on the mattress. His head sank into the center of the feather pillow that seemed to be made not from feathers, but a tricky cotton-type quicksand.
Maybe it was Grandma’s way of saying once children get into bed, children stay in bed. Well, what did she know about children?
He quickly slid his feet out from under the bedding, his steel spring muscles now oozing like an overstretched toy Slinky as he dropped barefoot to the tile floor, silent as a whisper.
Cold air swept up from under the bed and flowed across the skin of his feet, pooling at his ankles. The heat escaping the bedding explored his cheek, suggesting he climb back into the warm cocoon and stay put. Almost demanding it.
Instead, Max crept on hands and feet closer to the back door, a fine grit rolling under the pads of his fingers against the tiles. Now the cold air pooled over his hands, too.
The rectangular shoulders of the back door rose up beside the space portal windows like a robot with a lopsided chain-link grin and a squeaky hinge as its red alert. It was an old enemy, that’s why it smiled. The door knew Max had it beat.
Max just waited. Waited to know what to do.
In the kitchen, the refrigerator gurgled with its normal drowning sound.
Far away, Grandpa started up his choked snoring.
And there it was again, the puppy outside, trying to scratch at the corner of the back door. Desperate to get in because it was cold outside, bitter cold, a dying-type cold.
Max stood up, the coils in his legs lengthening. The hunchback coat rack hunched beside the door in the murky gloom, offering a jacket but secretly ready to dump them all on the floor in exchange for better posture. Max gently tugged at his flannel and it slipped away without disturbing the delicate imbalance.
Pulling the flannel sleeves over his favorite two-piece Kermit the Frog pajamas, he Max padded a few barefoot steps to the back door. It wasn’t that Kermit the Frog was cool, it was just that these pajamas were pond scum brown, and double-thick. Just about every kind of smear instantly disappeared into the fabric like it had never been there. The fabric could keep secrets—and Kermit knew mum was the word.
Max placed one hand on the glass knob. The other hand slid the chain off its lock and let it hang, then unbolted the deadbolt.