He heard the call over the music and turned. His grandpa stood in the doorway, peering through the darker interior. Max turned the radio off.
“Oh, here you are,” his grandfather continued.
Max tried to ignore the relief in his grandfather’s voice, ignore the tension easing from his shoulders. It had been four years since he’d disappeared for two days and it still seemed like everyone was waiting for it to happen again.
“What’s up?” Max asked shoving his resentment aside.
“The women are all in there, fussing over Damion,” he waved a hand towards the house. “I figured I’d come find you for some male company. What are you making?” he peered at the boards half assembled.
“A bookcase, I hope,” Max said ruefully. “I was thinking for Damian’s birthday.” His brother would be turning three next month and he thought something handmade would mean more in the long run.
His grandfather picked up the pile of drawings and notes Max had been working off of. Pulling his glasses out of his pocket to read. Max waited. He trusted his grandfather’s opinion. Hank had practically rebuilt the house from floor to ceiling over the years and so he knew a thing or three about building things. In fact, he’d gotten Max into woodworking.
Back when Mum had been sick. Hank and Max had spent hours back here. He still remembered how proud he’d been presenting Bre with his first creation: a bed tray for her computer for the days she had been too tired to leave her bed. He was pretty sure it was still upstairs although she hadn’t needed to use it in years.
His grandfather picked up the pencil and Max leaned forward, he still had a lot to learn.
“Mom, Mum?” Max said as they were finishing dinner.
The table conversation stilled and he cringed. Bre paused taco half-raised. The whole room turned its attention to him. Even Damian shut up. Shit. He’d wanted to ask casually, not make a big production. He should have waited till after dinner. Or better yet, just forgotten the whole thing. He’d already practically told Mason no, but then he promised he’d at least ask.
“What is it, honey?” Julia asked. Max swallowed.
“Mason was wondering if I could come over on Friday? He’s got the new REFUGE game…” Max trailed off. It sounded so stupid coming out of his mouth. There was no way they’d say yes that. Not to a game. He should have said they were working on homework, or studying for test, or something.
“I don’t see why not,” Bre mused.
Max looked up at his mum, shocked. “Really? “
“Sure,” Bre continued with a smile. “I can’t see why not. Will you want one of us to pick you up?”
There it was, Max’s heart fell. He knew there was no way they’d just let him go without checking in on him. Not after what he’d done four years ago.
“I bet he wants to stay the night,” Grandpa’s voice cut across the table. Max felt his parents’ gaze turn toward him. He flushed and looked down at his plate.
Max tensed, then nodded. “But it’s okay,” he mumbled. He didn’t need to stay the night. He would come home whenever they said to.
“Don’t be silly,” Julia said, “of course you can spend the night.”
Max let out his breath. They were really going to let him? Wow. “T-thanks!” he stammered, suddenly too excited. He had to text Mason and let him know. Wow. He’d really expected them to say no. He looked up as a strange expression passed between his parents, but it wasn’t one of worry, they were both smiling.
Although Max hadn’t been to the forest in four years, it hadn’t changed. The trees crowded close, branches reaching out to entangle or protect, he wasn’t sure. The air hummed, the wind was still and watchful. He arrived at the lake as a large fish lept from the surface. The splash as it hit the surface was the only sound. The waterfall behind it was silent.
Max waited for the laughter to break the silence as it had so many years ago.
“Teehehehe,” but the sound never game. He could feel eyes on him though, all around him. Blinking from the bushes, glowing in the dark crevices, the shadowy corners of the forest beyond the clearing.
He could hear whispers, many whispers, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Like the buzzing of bees, the noise grew in his ears until he shook his head to make the sound stop.
Max stood up and opened his mouth.
“There you are,”
Eyes, dark whirling pits, surrounded him. Watching him. The whispers stopped at the sound of her voice. Briar.
Max woke to a muffled shout. His own. His heart was pounding and he forced himself to breathe slowly. The forest around him slowly bled away revealing his own bedroom. Dreaming again.
“Max?” I said tentatively drawn by his shout. He blinked slowly, his eyes moving until they came to rest slowly where I stood. But I wasn’t sure he saw me yet. This wasn’t the first time he’d awoke suddenly in the middle of the night. “Are you -?”
“Just a dream,” he said, shaking his head. “Just a fucking dream,” he laid back down, eyes closed, but I could tell he wasn’t going back to sleep.
He shook his head. I had to bite back a sigh. There was a time when Max would have told me everything. When he looked up to me. But once again, like Julia, he’d outgrown me. Grown up while I remained “just” a kid. And I’d learned that there were things you didn’t tell kids. Like what was bothering you. Even if the kid was dead and waaay older than you were.
“It was about the forest, wasn’t it.”
He sat up quickly, seeking me out in the darkness. But I was just a pale shimmer. A trick I’d learned with Julia. If they couldn’t see me, sometimes, sometimes they forgot I was a kid.
I knew I was right. He hadn’t had nightmares until he returned from the forest. Still didn’t have them often, but they seemed to have been increasing recently.
“N-not really,” he started, hesitant. But the dark was in my favor. It’s easier to be honest in the dark. “It’s not a bad dream, just -”
I waited, would he finally tell me what happened? But he doesn’t say anything more. If I speak now will he speak again? Or shut up completely.
“It’s stupid really, I’m in the woods and then there’s this lake. It’s beautiful, the whole area. Warm, safe. And there’s some really big fish in there. Weird ones that I’ve never seen before. And I’m waiting.”
“Waiting?” I could have kicked myself if I could. But he kept talking.
“Yeah,” he smiles as he says it, eyes still closed. Then his smile stills. “But nothing happens. I’m waiting there and…” he shrugs. “Nothing.”
“That doesn’t sound very unpleasant,” I frown. There has to be more to it. If that was it, why the shout? Not that he was loud enough for anyone else to hear. And I could tell it bothered him. His heart pounded after those dreams.
“It’s not unpleasant, really,” he said. Max has opened his eyes again.
“Is it a memory?” I finally ask.
Max scowls at me. Touched a nerve, but I had to ask.
“No,” he growls.
He thinks I am asking about when he disappeared four years ago. Thinks that I’m saying I think there’s more to the story than he told us. That there was someone else involved. The police definitely thought so. They didn’t believe he’d just gotten lost for two days. They’d combed those woods, they’d said. If he’d just been lost, the would have found him so he had to be hiding. He’s been sensitive to the subject ever since.
“I mean – not a real memory, but like a memory?” I persist, trying to explain. I didn’t mean it the way he thinks I do. Max’s dream reminds me of the boy, James. His memories that I watched in the Darkness before now. I could never explain them properly, the images seemed peaceful and nice, but there was an underlying fear. Perhaps a sense of what was to come.
But the moment of confidence had broken. “No,” Max growls and sits up angrily. He pushes off the covers. “It’s not a fucking memory.”
This time I don’t press it.
“I’m going to go take a shower.”
“I’m not going to fall back asleep now.”
It’s too early in the morning for him to slam his door, but I could tell he wanted to. When he left, I finally let out the sigh I’d been holding in. It was a start?
When I go to type this piece up, I always realize that I need to update my cc-list.