idol friends and rivals | week 2 | 1806 words
It started with spoons.
Max was about three at the time, or so his mother always said. It was her story—he was just a character in it. He couldn't actually remember that far back.
His mother said she realized one day that half the kitchen spoons were missing. She had no idea where they'd gone until she uncovered a stash of them in the back of Max's closet, hidden behind stuffed animals and winter shoes.
"Why on earth did you take these?" she asked him, and he told her it was because they were smooth and shiny.
She put the spoons back in the kitchen, and told him to leave them there.
Max didn't remember any of it, but he knew he used to visit the kitchen when he was little and take spoons out of the silverware drawer to roll across his hands and to tilt this way and that to catch the light. It was hard not to keep them, but he had promised he wouldn't.
He added other things to his collection, instead.
There were marbles, a toy sheriff's badge, a whistle, new dimes—nobody cared about those. Keys from the laundry-room junk drawer, or a ring his sister never wore, or the silver ball from the wooden maze game in the rec room… those got him in trouble.
"If no one's using them, why can't I have 'em?" he asked. He was the only one who loved them just for what they were. "Why do we have all those extra keys anyway? And why can't the maze game use a different ball?"
As he got older, he understood better about the things other people thought were important, even if it sometimes seemed like they were just making it all up. Anything unclaimed that he found could be his, so he started to wander, looking through parks and playgrounds, digging holes. Dented bottle caps weren't worth saving anymore, but a small makeup mirror lying under a picnic table was a good find. He spent hours and hours walking around town, searching for new treasures. Sometimes, it wasn't until it started getting dark that he realized how late it had become.
"Don't you ever play with Jack and Billy anymore?" his mother asked him in fourth grade, and again in fifth.
"At lunch," Max said. "But they're busy after school." Max was busy too, examining his collection, hunting for more to add to it, and sometimes just stopping along the way and staring off at the colors shifting and blurring in the distance. He'd started liking that feeling of just "tuning out," of letting sounds or colors wash over him while he drifted inside them, not trying to figure them out, just experiencing them as a kind of haze. He could get as lost in that as in his wanderings.
He didn’t seem to have much in common with his friends anymore. Soon he was in high school, either buried in homework or out walking and letting his mind drift and then randomly latch onto something interesting. He felt overwhelmed sometimes, like thinking was too much effort. He needed that mental time off to rebuild his strength.
Max started college right after high school, even though he had no idea what he was interested in. Geology seemed a good fit at first, but by the end of his freshman year he just couldn't see the point of any of it. Classes and more classes, tests, and arbitrary schedules… Who needed it?
Getting a job at a neighborhood supermarket wasn't hard, and the job was routine enough that he could tune out now and then if he wanted to. The rules, though—there were so many rules. When to show up, when to take breaks, calling breaks lunch even though it was three in the afternoon, having to wear the company apron, how and when to fill out inventory forms, how exactly to stock the shelves, remembering to log his time in and out. Max got more and more irritated with it all, and three months later he was fired.
He tried working at a Burger King next, which turned out to have as many rules as the supermarket, lots of them practically the same. After that, it was a car wash. Max enjoyed that, with the machines and the moving water, and then drying the cars off with towels at the end. He lasted two months there before he was fired for not showing up for work twice in the same week.
By then, Max wasn't sure he even wanted a job anymore. Watching television, or lying in his room staring at the ceiling, or roaming the town looking for more additions to his collection was about all he was good for. Then he stopped watching television, because it seemed like the television was watching him. His mother wasn't happy with Max's choices, but then she died and the house was put up for sale. Max was sent to Phoenix to live with his older brother, Luke.
Phoenix was big, and it was too easy to get lost. Luke wanted Max to get a job, but that didn't work out any better than before. One day, while Max was out wandering, he decided it would just be easier to stay lost.
He had his backpack with him that day, and his favorite treasures. He figured that was enough. The first night was okay—he found a good park bench to sleep on. The second, the police moved him along, and later he found himself arguing with a man in a ratty blanket over whether it was possible to "own" a specific bench or other sleeping spot. Max got used to how life on the streets worked, though. It had rules of its own, but schedules were mostly optional.
Max was living outside time. He'd done it before, here and there, but it now was the rule rather than the exception.
He couldn't say how many years passed like that. Luke might have come looking for him a few times, it was hard to remember, but Max didn't want to go back to Luke's world so it was better that way. Once in a long while Max caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, and he always thought it was someone else at first—some raggedy man with a gray beard and wild hair. He'd catch on soon enough, but sometimes he'd look around the back to see whether it was really a mirror or some special machine where someone mimicked his every move.
He knew about those, about things that stole your thoughts and knew what you were going to do before you did it.
There were places that gave homeless people food or blankets or shoes, and Max went there sometimes—not often, because he didn't like being that predictable. He knew a lot of the other people on the streets, too, some of them friendly, some to watch out for. Mostly, he walked the streets and looked for interesting objects.
He found a silver dollar just lying next to a vending machine one day. He hadn't seen one in years, and this one was nice—new looking.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jericho coming over. Jericho was another one of the street people, gaunt and grizzled and not all there some days. "What's that?" Jericho asked, always too interested in Max's stuff for his own good.
"Nothing," Max said, shoving it in his pocket. For his own part, he couldn't keep from wanting the tin-foil hat Jericho was wearing—even though it didn't do anything, nothing, he knew 'cause he'd had one himself, but maybe he just hadn't found a good one yet.
"Lemme see," Jericho said. He leaned in too close, like always, and Max thought Jericho was about to roll him for everything he had. But then he remembered the lady at the clinic telling him that was all in his head, that taking his pills would help stop it. Max often forgot to take his pills, and then that became a regular thing, because who knew what was in them anyway? Maybe it was just a method for controlling him, making it easier for other people to take his stuff.
Max shrugged Jericho off, and crossed over the street and up a back alleyway toward the middle of town. He searched as he went, until it got dark. He slept under a bush at the edge of a school that night, the kind of place Jericho never went.
When he woke up, he felt through his jacket, looking for the key he kept in the front pocket. He didn't know what the key opened, but there would be new places to try it later in the day.
Something was wrong—the pocket was empty, as if someone had gone through it. No, no, no! Max checked the other pockets. His money was gone too, and the gold necklace he'd found next to a garbage can. All the thieves had left him was lint, an old penny, and a bent paperclip. Max sighed. He'd been through it all before.
He checked for his most valued possession, the pocket watch he'd had since he was twelve. It was still there, pinned to his undershirt under layers of clothes. He grinned in relief. It was funny that he loved a watch so much, when he hated being bound to time, but the watch was beautiful. Not real silver, he thought, because it didn't tarnish, but that was even better. All he had to do was rub it with his sleeve, and it gleamed as good as new.
Max felt better, then. He got up and gathered up his stuff, slowly beginning another day. He headed toward the Guiding Light Mission, where they served breakfast and dinner for free. It was only a few blocks away, and the weather was nice. That was the kind of walking he liked best.
Crossing the parking lot toward the mission, something glinted in the sunlight, catching his eye. He went over to see what it was. A long earring sat on the ground, silver metal with blue glass beads woven through in a pretty design.
It was even more beautiful than the watch. Max picked it up and ran his fingers over it, turning it and watching it sparkle in the sun. Magical. He couldn't believe his luck.
He put the earring in his pocket, and stood up, shaking out his legs. He lifted his face toward the sun for a moment—so bright and wonderfully warm, like those days when he was a boy. Then he lifted his pack up onto his shoulder and walked over to the mission to see what kind of breakfast was waiting inside.
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