Max gazed into the river, but he couldn’t see anything. The water was a perfect blue, clear and rippling, but it flowed too quickly. Everything beneath the surface was obscured in the motion. Somebody was hidden down there, at the very bottom. How deep did time flow? How many memories would he have to cross before he found what he was looking for?
In a way, Max wished that he didn’t understand all of this so perfectly. The river was time. The memories were buried at the bottom. To reach the memories, he had to fight the flow of time. Who was the one person that he would bury in his memories?
He knew the answer, but at the same time, he didn’t.
Max knelt by the river, and he ran his hand through the surface. The water wasn’t cold. It was almost as if it wasn’t there at all. The water was more like a shell, a thin membrane, protecting what lied beneath it. When he put his arm in, he could feel the pull of the current, and there was a weight under the water. It was a weight that threatened to swallow him and never let him back up.
He stood, staring into the water. No matter how long he looked, he couldn’t discern any of the shapes at the bottom.
Before Max could give himself a chance to hesitate, he leapt into the river.
He was sinking too quickly, and he couldn’t swim fast enough to fight the pull of the current. The water tugged at his clothes, but he didn’t feel wet. When he opened his eyes, he could see clearly.
Max had been unable to see the bottom of the river because the river had no bottom. There was an endless black void beneath him. You don’t want to go to the bottom of the river. That’s a place that you don’t want to get stuck.
He swam, and he pushed and kicked with all of his might, but the flow of time was dragging him away. And down he sunk.
He thought of the license plate that the Other Max had been holding. In that moment, Max knew who would be at the bottom of the river. At least, until he changed his mind.
Max reached out his hand, and hers was there to greet him.
It was difficult to pull her out of the void. She was trying to bring him down, helping the lure of memory, but he fought it. He pulled, and she rose from the darkness. She came out of the void and swam with him, back towards the surface.
But the flow of time did not stop.
Feeling exhausted, oddly exhausted, Max swam with her, and after a long time, or perhaps no time at all, they broke through the surface.
Her hair was still long, as it had been in eleventh grade. She wore that smile that almost looked like a smirk. As soon as they were out of the water, Max noticed that both of them were completely dry.
“It’s you,” Max said.
She smiled faintly. “It’s me.”
“Alyssa,” he nodded.
“You chose the wrong person, you know,” Alyssa told him.
“No, I didn’t,” Max answered with certainty.
But she shook her head. “Me? How could I be the one that you’d buried in your memories? I’m just a girl from your high school. I’m nobody. You’ve hardly spoken to me!”
“But I have spoken to you,” Max reminded her. “We’ve talked once before. You’re the one that I’m looking for.”
“This can’t be what you’re repressed,” Alyssa disagreed. “You first saw me in tenth grade, thought that I was attractive, spoke to me over a year later, and then you gave up on me. I’m nobody.”
“For over a year I wanted to talk to you, to meet you,” Max glared. “You meant something to me. And then after we talked, we had nothing in common. I gave up on you. That was my mistake.”
Alyssa folded her arms and smirked. “You create a whole world for yourself, a world designed to help you, and you keep avoiding the problem. Why would you build a world for me? For one girl that isn’t worth pursuing?”
“I should’ve pursued you!” Max insisted. “I shouldn’t have given up! That was the point of coming here!”
She rolled her eyes. Max didn’t remember her being so sassy, but it was too late to change her. “What does your drug dealer have to do with me?”
“Nothing!” Max exclaimed. “You were the one who was supposed to be in the prison! You were the one that I couldn’t let go of!”
“Okay, fine. Suppose that you are right,” she conceded willingly. “Then what is it that the Other Max hid on top of the windmill?”
Max turned and looked up the hill. The windmill kept spinning, yet there was still no wind. If there ever was wind in this place, what would happen? “I can find out,” Max decided. “I’m going to climb the windmill. I’m ready.”
Alyssa smirked again. “What happens when you fall?”
“I won’t fall. This is my world! I can do whatever I want! And even if I do fall, I can change my fate. I can decide what happens next.”
“Unless part of you doesn’t want that. Part of you might want you to fall and suffer for it,” she reasoned.
Max shook his head. “There’s only one way to find out.”
He turned his back on her and started the trek back up the hill, without throwing a single glance to the prison.
The air was still. The sky was clear. The hill was steep, but Max didn’t feel tired as he climbed it. At the top, standing near the windmill, was the Other Max.
“What are you doing?” the Other Max asked him.
“I’m climbing the windmill,” Max replied calmly.
“So soon?” the Other Max frowned.
“That’s right. I’ve figured out why I’m here.”
The Other Max folded his arms. “Did you really?”
Suddenly, Max frowned. “Where’s that license plate that you were holding?”
Mockingly, the Other Max teased, “I thought that you didn’t care about the license plate anymore. I thought that this was all about some stupid girl.”
“Alyssa isn’t stupid,” Max mumbled.
“Her name isn’t Alyssa,” the Other Max moaned.
“Sure it is,” Max shrugged.
“No, you have no idea what her name is. You made that name up. You never found out what it really was. You’ve been calling her Alyssa for years, but for all you know, she’s Anna, or Katie.”
Max grumbled, “It doesn’t matter. Now what did you do with the license plate?”
The Other Max smiled. “Why do you want to see it so badly?”
“Because…” Max started, but then he hesitated. “That’s why I’m really here. It isn’t about the girl. I was lying to myself. It’s about what the license plate says.”
The Other Max chuckled. It was infuriating. “You don’t know what the license plate says. You never did.”
“That’s the point! I need to find out!” Max argued.
“You can’t! You never remembered it!”
“I have to remember it!”
But the Other Max shook his head. “Why did you put Simon in the prison? Why did you put that girl in the river? What do they have to do with the license plate?”
“I was avoiding the problem, okay?” Max admitted. “I’ve been straying further and further since I got here. It’s the license plate. That’s what I need. I have to remember what it says. So where is it?”
Reluctantly, the Other Max pointed over his shoulder, towards the windmill. “It’s inside.”
“You didn’t… You didn’t put it on top of the windmill, did you?” Max questioned. It seemed so perfect. He had to work to get to it.
“Of course not. You know what’s on top of the windmill,” the Other Max told him in a belittling tone.
Max pursed his lips and pushed past the Other Max. The license plate was what he needed. Why hadn’t he put it on the top? What was the point of climbing the windmill when the license plate could be so easily reached? Was the Other Max lying to him? But if the Other Max was lying, he would know it. He was only lying to himself.
The windmill was dark on the inside, and for an instant, Max feared that he wouldn’t be able to see what the plate read. But there it was, plain to see, lying facedown on the stone floor.
Before he lifted it, he looked up the walls, gauging the jutting rocks. Climbing to the top wouldn’t be difficult. Perhaps it would be strenuous, but in this world, Max could simply choose to not get tired. This was the flaw in the game. Max could do whatever he wanted. He didn’t have to play by the rules, even if he had set them himself.
When he did reach down and lift the license plate, it only made him furious.
He had expected three letters and three numbers. He knew that much would be on it. SEK? SFK? Was it 471 or 174? But this didn’t have any numbers on it. The license plate was three repeated letters.
“I warned you,” the Other Max sighed.
Max spun around to see him standing in the archway. “But you didn’t! You didn’t warn me of anything!”
“I told you that you won’t remember the license plate. You can only remember your sister.”
“I don’t have a sister!” Max yelled. His voice bounced off of the stone walls, climbing up to the top. His face burning, he asked, “She’s at the top, isn’t she?”
“That’s right,” the Other Max nodded.
“She knows what the license plate said.”
The Other Max shook his head. “Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. In this place, she would only know what you know.”
Max dropped the license plate with a clang. The six letters stared up at him, and he forced himself to turn away. His hands landed on the stone wall, grasping a jutting piece, preparing himself to climb.
“You’re really going up there?” the Other Max raised an eyebrow.
“Of course I am.”
“You were only supposed to climb it when you were ready,” he commented.
“I am ready. I know who’s up there. I know why I’m here.”
And the Other Max laughed. “You really think that the lies have stopped? You’ve been lying to yourself ever since you came here and you know it.”
“I’ll climb it,” Max said again. “I’ll get to the top.”
“And if you fall?”
“I won’t. This is my world. I’m going to make it.”
The Other Max sneered, “Not if you change your mind.”
Max heaved his feet off of the ground, setting them on a wide stone. “I won’t change my mind. I will find the real license plate. I have to know it.”
“You’re never going to be sure,” the Other Max lectured. “Even if you find something here that looks right, you might only be lying to yourself again.”
“I’ll know it if I’m right,” Max refuted.
“Did your swim in the river teach you nothing? Your memories aren’t stable. The flow of time changes them, and they can’t be recovered once they’re lost.”
Max lifted his hand, grabbing another stone. He pulled himself higher. The Other Max watched him climb, shaking his head.
Left hand. Right hand. Left foot. Right foot. Max could feel the cold stone cutting into his fingertips, but he decided not to feel it. In fact, the stone had never been hurting him at all. Left hand. Right hand. Left foot. Right foot.
“You’re really sure about this?” the Other Max asked. He was much further down that Max had realized. Had he really climbed so high, or did space make no sense in this world? It didn’t matter either way. He was almost halfway to the top.
The ceiling was shrouded in blackness, but Max convinced himself that there was a doorway, a sort of opening, somewhere up there. Right hand. Left hand. Right foot. Left foot.
What if your sister doesn’t have the real license plate?
What if you’re wrong?
What if it isn’t about the car at all?
What if you aren’t ready?
Max’s foot slipped.