I walk to the playground, looking for Max. He’s not on the swings anymore.
“Max! Come on, let’s go.”
No reply. I scan the playground, I don’t see his big round glasses anywhere. Shit.
“Max!” I trot over to the swings, like maybe he’s still there but I just can’t see him. “Max!” The rusted hinges creak as the swing sways under my hand. It’s still warm.
The playground spins around me and all the noises are sucked away. My heartbeat is the only sound in my ears. My eyes sting, growing wet. I couldn’t have lost him.
I catch a glimpse of something red melting into the tall hedges that surround the playground and somehow I hear her voice—that airy giggle. “Wait!” I chase after her. It’s too coincidental that she just comes up and talks to me and now my brother is gone. “What game? Do you know—” I push between the hedges and trip over something small, sending me flying face first into the sidewalk.
The girl in the red jacket vanishes around the corner. I turn to face the offending object—a pair of small glasses, I’d recognize those coke-bottle lenses anywhere.
“The game, Joshua.” Her voice is a whisper in my ears. “Four hours. Shh…”
I don’t want to play her stupid game. I want my little brother. “Where’s Max?” I don’t get an answer.
I lay on the sidewalk for what feels like forever staring up at an empty sky, not seeing anything. I know I have to find him, but it just feels so hopeless. Like somebody told my brain to shut off and forget about him.
“Joshua?” I turn to the sound of Max’s voice, still in a state of stupor. For a second I don’t believe he’s real. His face looks like plastic and his eyes seem too small and too dark. He bends over me and takes his glasses. One of the lenses falls to the ground and shatters.
Max frowns, a too-grown-up expression on his little kid face. “You broke them.”
“Uh. Sorry?” I pull myself up off the cement and when I tower above him, my big brother mode kicks in. “Where were you?”
“I was here, Joshua. Looking at this.” Max holds up a dead bird by its foot. Its black wings fall lifelessly toward the ground, revealing a flash of red feathers underneath.
“Gross! Put it down.”
Max shrugs and drops the bird on the sidewalk. I cringe, about to yell at him, but then I remember his Asperger’s and let it slide.
“C’mon. Let’s go home.”
“I don’t want to go home. I want you to play some more.” Max looks over his shoulder at the playground.
I’ve had enough playing. “No.”
“But the girl said you have to keep playing, and I’m supposed to make sure you do.”
A small shudder runs through me. “What girl?” She was just some random crazy chick, and Max was here all along.
“The girl in the red jacket.”
I grit my teeth. “What ever happened to not talking to strangers?”
“You talked to her.”
I run a hand down my face and draw a breath. “Fine.” Mom says it’s best to indulge him sometimes, because it helps with his social skills. “What did she say we--I had to do?”
“Find the red things,” he says, like it’s the most informative direction he’s ever given and I’m a dolt for not already knowing.
“The red things? Like what?”
“I’ll show you.” Max takes my hand. His fingers are icy and sort of blue. I need to get him home soon. “But it’s a secret.” He holds one skinny finger up to his lips. “Shh!” And then he leads me back into the playground.
My eyes skirt around the hedges waiting to see her or some other snobby bitches giggling behind them. Why do girls get so much power? Thinking about how bad I wanted to kiss her and the tickle of her voice in my ear makes me want to puke.
Max leads me past the swing set and over toward this tree-house thing that has a rock wall and a slide on the back. I used to love that thing. I was king of the rock wall in second grade.
Max scuttles up the wall like a little spider monkey and a sad smile tugs at my cheeks. If he had friends who actually noticed him, he’d be rock-wall king of the 21st century.
It’s not so much fun now when I can climb the whole thing in one step. I duck into the tree-house. Max is standing there, staring down at the floor, the suggestion of a smile on his face.
“Okay, little dude. What’s so—Oh!” Shit.
Come back Friday when Natalie brings us the final chapter!
Welcome to Tangled Fiction, where three YA writers collaborate to complete one story!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one TF writer will post a piece of the same story. Each of us will be responsible for one beginning, middle, and end in a single month. The fourth week will be full of surprises, we're sure, and we'll share them with you when we know what they are.