There was another Max standing beneath the stone windmill. He had the same face, he wore the same clothes, and he walked in the exact same way.
At first, Max hadn’t even noticed him. He had been looking past the windmill, down the hill and across the broad field. Far away, there was a narrow river traveling through the grass. And just in front of the river, there was a little white building, a simple box jutting out of the field.
“What’s in that box?” Max asked aloud.
“It’s a prison,” the Other Max answered, their voices identical.
Above them, the windmill clicked and clacked, some sort of machinery working hard inside of it. The windmill spun, but there was no wind. Max looked at the Other Max. “Who are you?”
“I’m you,” he answered.
Max frowned. “Then who am I?”
“Oh,” Max said, though he felt that things weren’t any more clear. “Why is there a prison here?”
The Other Max shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re the one who put it there.”
“But you’re me,” Max pointed out. “So didn’t you put it there?”
The Other Max smiled, a smile that looked exactly like Max’s. “I suppose I did. But you already know why it’s here.”
Max looked down the hill, down at the narrow river that flowed towards the prison. “I honestly don’t know what’s inside.”
“That’s only because you haven’t decided yet.”
“Tell me who’s in there,” Max insisted.
The Other Max raised an eyebrow. “Who? It sounds like you’ve already decided that a person is inside.”
“It’s a prison,” Max sneered, feeling impatient.
The Other Max widened his smile. “Well, I am you. Which means that if you don’t know who’s in the prison, then how could I?”
Max looked back at the prison, and he wondered if it was a prison at all. Maybe the Other Max was lying. Or perhaps Max could simply change his mind about what it was.
He turned back to the Other Max. “This is all happening in my head.”
“That’s right,” the Other Max nodded.
Max shook his head slowly. “Am I dying? Am I in a coma?”
“I think not,” the Other Max responded. “Perhaps you are only dreaming.”
And Max looked over the field again. If he wanted, he could make something, anything, appear out of thin air. But that wasn’t fair. He had built the world this way for a reason. The windmill. The endless grass. The river. The prison. To change anything would be cheating.
“Who’s in the prison?” he asked again.
“That’s up to you to decide.”
Max lowered his voice. “A prison is for bad people. You don’t suppose that there’s a Third Max in there, do you?”
The Other Max laughed. “A prison isn’t just for bad people. Maybe it’s for people that you don’t want to let go of.”
“Why is there a windmill? It’s spinning, but there isn’t any wind.”
“Maybe that’s the point,” the Other Max suggested. “You built this place. You already know how I’m going to answer your questions.”
And Max knew that. He’d known it all along. “What’s in the windmill?” he questioned. There was an arching doorway leading inside that he hadn’t noticed until just now. Maybe it hadn’t even been there before.
“Let me show you what’s inside,” the Other Max smiled. As he turned to walk towards the foot of the windmill, Max noticed that he was hiding something behind his back.
“What are you holding?” Max asked.
“You’ll see soon,” the Other Max answered.
When they entered the windmill, Max didn’t see any machinery. It was only a hollow, stone structure. It was very dark inside, but for some reason that didn’t stop Max from seeing. The stone climbed all the way up to the top, curving inward. Numerous stones were jutting out of the wall, as if they were making a pattern.
“What’s on top of the windmill?” Max wondered, staring upward.
The Other Max chuckled. “So the windmill is intended to be climbed,” he concluded.
Max set his hand on the stone. It was cool and bumpy. He placed his feet on the stones below and started to climb.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the Other Max recommended.
Max stopped, only a few feet off of the ground. “Why not?”
“What if you were to fall?”
At first, Max wanted to continue climbing. But he changed his mind, and he dropped back down to the ground. “Does that matter in this place?”
“It’s hard to tell what matters here and what doesn’t,” the Other Max commented. “I’d like to think that all of it matters.”
And as Max moved away from the wall, he caught another glimpse of what the Other Max held behind his back. It was made of metal. “What is that?” he pointed.
To his surprise, the Other Max held it out in front of him, but would not show its face. “It’s a license plate,” he replied.
“Let me see that,” Max insisted. “What does it say? Show me the front.”
“No,” the Other Max said nonchalantly.
Max lunged forward, but the Other Max moved backwards at the exact same moment. “Give me the license plate!”
“This is all happening in your head!” the Other Max reminded him loudly. “If I won’t show you the license plate, that means that you don’t want to see it!”
“I was in a car accident,” Max decided. “I was hit by a car, and now I’m in a coma!”
“Do not lie to yourself!” the Other Max boomed, his rising voice echoing off of the stone wall around them. “You know what this license plate is, and you know why I can’t show it to you.”
“Why am I here!?” Max shouted.
“That’s up to you, isn’t it?” the Other Max leered. Casually, he moved the license plate away, hiding it behind his back again.
“I don’t want to be here!” Max complained. “How do I wake up?”
The Other Max rolled his eyes. “You’re missing the point. You can wake up whenever you want. Actually, let me correct myself. You aren’t missing the point. You’re just stubborn. You came here because you wanted to come here. Now do what it is that you intended to do.”
Max’s eyes wandered to the archway leading out of the windmill. “I have to go to the prison,” he decided.
“Good,” the Other Max nodded. “Now you’re talking some sense.”
Outside of the windmill, the sun seemed brighter, and the colors more vibrant. The breezeless air carried Max down the hill, across the grass, and towards the narrow river. The closer that he got to the prison, the smaller it appeared to be.
It was a white box, flat and wide. On one side there was a set of bars, beyond which was only a dark chamber. No furniture. No lights. Nothing.
“Hello?” Max called into the darkness from the other side of the bars.
There were faint footsteps, and suddenly Simon was standing before him.
“Simon?” Max glared. “Simon? Of all people? Why would you be in my prison? I was expecting an enemy, an ex-girlfriend, or maybe even myself! What are you doing in there?”
“You put me here,” Simon shrugged.
“But you’re… you’re nobody! You sold me weed for a couple years, and that’s it,” Max grumbled.
“You’re almost done with high school,” Simon pointed out. “You’ll need a new drug dealer.”
Max rolled his eyes. “Shut up. Why isn’t anybody important in my prison?”
“This was your choice,” Simon reiterated irritably. “Besides, why did you stop buying weed from me, anyway?”
“Because my parents caught me,” Max frowned. He added, “You know that.”
“Are you sure that’s why?” Simon challenged. Except he never said that. What he had actually said was, “You put me in here for a reason. What’s the reason?”
Max shrugged. “You’re a drug dealer. You belong in prison.”
“Come on!” Simon cackled. “We’re supposed to be pals, aren’t we? I bet you were supposed to put somebody else in this prison, but you chickened out!”
“No, that’s not true!” Max argued. “You’ve caused me a lot of problems! More than I can count!”
Simon shook his head. “You are such a liar, Max.”
Max glared. “That doesn’t sound like something you would say.”
“This is your world,” Simon teased. “You’re the one putting words in my mouth. I guess you’re just doing a crappy job at it.”
Frustrated, Max turned away from him. The field and the river both seemed to go on forever.
“Come back here!” Simon urged. “We aren’t done talking!”
Looking back, Max moaned, “If you aren’t supposed to be in the prison, then who is?”
“You know,” Simon stared.
Max shook his head. “You’ve been such a problem in my life.”
Simon commented, “You could let me out, you know.”
Max looked over the bars that separated them. There was a little lock that he hadn’t noticed before. “I don’t have the key.”
“If anybody knows where the key is, it’s you,” Simon droned.
Max glanced over his shoulder, at the river. “Did I put it in the river?”
Simon smiled. “I don’t know. Did you?”
“What is the river? Why is it here?”
“It probably means something to you,” Simon shrugged.
“I know,” Max acknowledged. “But what?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Max sighed, guessing, “The passing of time?”
“Correct,” Simon confirmed instantly.
“Time!?” Max exclaimed. “That’s it? Time? That’s ridiculous! That’s so… trivial! So stupid!”
Simon explained, “It means whatever you want it to mean. That’s how it works. That’s how everything here works. You said time, so it represents time. You always have a chance to change your mind.”
“I don’t want to change things here,” Max said quietly. “It feels like it would be cheating somehow. I made this place for a reason, and I need to preserve that reason.”
“You already have changed things,” Simon told him. “You’ve been here ten minutes or less, and you’ve changed plenty.”
Max shouted, “So what if I have?”
“Calm down,” Simon winced, lifting his hands defensively. “You can do whatever you want. You’re the one putting words in my mouth. You’re only getting angry at yourself, not your stupid former drug dealer.”
Clenching his fists, Max tried to calm himself. Eventually, he asked, “What am I supposed to do?”
Simon folded his arms. “You came to the prison expecting somebody significant, and you ended up with me. You have to find somebody else, and this time you’d better make sure that it’s the right person.”
“Where will I look? There’s only the windmill, the prison, and the river.”
“Then I suggest that you look in the river,” Simon instructed.
Max turned away from the bars, towards the water. “There’s somebody at the bottom of the river,” he concluded.
“The bottom of the river holds your memories. The base of time is always memory,” Simon explained. “There’s something that you’re hiding in there.”
“The current is strong,” Max noticed. “I’ll get swept away.”
Simon smiled. “And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? How can you get to the buried memories when time keeps passing?”
“What else is at the bottom of the river?”
Simon smirked. “You don’t want to go to the bottom of the river. That’s a place that you don’t want to get stuck. If you swim too deep, you might never come back up. I wouldn’t recommend drowning, either. I know that none of this is real, but you can still end up in places that you don’t want to be.”
Max swallowed as he stared at the flowing water. “What happens if I fail?”
Simon grinned. “If you want to know, you could always find out.”