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.
I just sort of stare because it’s so dim in here that there’s a chance it might not be real, but then the smell slams the back of my throat and I have to battle with the violent urge to toss my cookies. I press a hand over my mouth and try to keep it all in.
“What is it?” Max asks and I realize that he’s squinting, not smiling, because his glasses are more than a little broken. It’s probably a hell of a lot better that he can’t see. I don’t know how he’d react if he could and the last thing I need is to take him home with fresh trauma in tact.
A dark red pool sits like oil on the floor. Its edges are thick and tall and form an uneven circle around what I’m way too certain is a heart. It’s not big enough to be a cow heart like the ones we cut up in bio. This one is small, the size of my fist, which means it could be human. It looks odd, though, not that I want to take the time to figure out why. More and more this feels like some elaborate prank. I’ll probably be on YouTube before I get home with some catchy title like ‘Playground Puker!’
I reach out and tug Max back toward me. “Looks like old steak or something. It’s gross whatever it is. Don’t touch it.”
A gust of wind funnels through the little window of the tree house and for a moment the air is clear. Max shivers and I remember how cold his fingers were and how seriously messed up this game is.
“Max, we need to go home. Mom will be worried if we’re out too long.” It’s pretty much blatant manipulation, but sometimes that’s best.
“No, Joshua, listen to me. She said we have to play. We must find the red things. The red things must be found.” He shifts his weight on his feet, back and forth. Rocking himself to stay calm. “It’s important because it’s a puzzle and there are pieces missing.”
I think, you’re the one with pieces missing. Somewhere outside and behind me, a crow barks and it’s like he’s barking at me, chastising. I grind my teeth and remind myself Max is a good kid and this isn’t his fault.
“Please, Joshua, it’s important.” He says, trying to focus on my face.
“Okay, Max.” I stand away from the door. As long as I can get him out of here and away from the bleeding heart on the floor, it’s a partial victory. “Where to next?”
He springs into action, diving down the metal slide on his belly. He sort of sticks at the end and inches to the bottom like a worm. I’m sure I’d get stuck one foot from the top if I tried. I hop down the way I got in and find Max dusting his hands on his jeans. “C’mon!” He calls, racing off into the field we just left.
I don’t know how he’s picking his directions, but I follow as he heads toward a whole pile of crows. They erupt in front of him and he crouches over whatever god-awful thing they were tearing apart while they scream their displeasure from seven feet away.
“Look! Look! What is it?”
The smell is strong, so strong that I know what I’ll see before I get there. It’s half buried in dying grass, and the blood is a soggy mess in the dirt, but it’s exactly what I was expecting. Or, almost exactly.
It’s not a whole heart, but half a heart with all the chambers open to the sky above. With another vicious twist of my guts, I realize that’s why the other appeared so small. It was missing a piece.
“That’s it.” I say standing up. “We’re going home. Now.” I say the last just as mom would when she’s at her most terrifying.
Max lowers his head and speaks in a small voice. “But there’s one more piece. Just listen to me. You never listen to me. She said four and we’ve only found three.”
“She said four hours, Max, not four pieces and she was clearly a psycho. You just can’t tell because you – because she was nice to you and you can’t tell the difference between nice and evil, psycho bi-“ I stop because he’s looking away and rocking on his feet. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell the difference either. C’mon.”
He follows now and I feel bad because I can tell he’s trying not to cry. I hate upsetting him. It makes me feel like a total dick.
We’re halfway home when the skin on the back of my neck prickles. Red flashes in the corner of my eye and I turn to find her standing next to a streetlight. It’s not dark enough to be on, but her dark curls are edged with orange light. It’s gotta be coming from the sun, but it looks more like it’s coming straight out of her hair in a Hi!-I’m-the-devil sort of way.
“I wouldn’t give up, if I were you.” She sings because that’s what crazy, hot chicks do.
“I’m not giving up.” I say without stopping. “I’m not playing.”
“You don’t have a choice. The game’s started and you’re in it.” Her voice follows us down the road. “And you’re running out of time. Remember what I told you, Max.”
The whole trip home is less than fifteen minutes, but it feels like it takes an hour. When we get there, I go straight up to my room. All I want is for this four-hour time limit to pass so I can start to forget this stupid game.
With five minutes still on the clock, I think, Max walks into my room. He knocks and enters all in one movement, which is something we’ve talked about without successful changes. It’s not usually a problem. I was only doing bio homework. This time.
He sits on the bed next to me. “Joshua, please don’t be mad, but I know where the fourth pieces is.”
“Max,” I start, but he raises his hands to stop me. They’re still pale and blue and I realize he still looks cold.
He lays back and lifts his black shirt over his torso revealing a flash of red underneath. For just a second, I don’t understand what I’m looking at, but then all of the pieces slide into place and cold spills over my shoulders and down my back.
In his chest is a dark, blood-black hole where is heart should be and all I can think is that I’ve lost.
Next week is an (un)Tangled week with individual shorts from each of us! Valerie will post on Monday, Lacey on Wednesday, and Natalie on Friday.
Photo by i_yudai via Flickr creative commons.