“Come on! Hurry up!”
Max didn’t hurry up. But his sister was getting impatient.
“Come on!” she protested again. She was walking faster, half a block ahead of him. “I’m hungry!”
“Where are we going for dinner, anyway?” Max asked her.
“I don’t care! Where does Simon live? We’ve been walking forever!”
“It’s not much further,” Max droned. As they reached the end of the block, his foot caught on a raised bit of sidewalk, and he almost tripped. This neighborhood hadn’t been repaved in decades.
His sister skipped across the street, ignoring the crosswalk signal. “Hurry up!” she begged again. “I’m so hungry!”
“Well we could’ve stopped to pick up my weed on the way back from dinner, but at this point we’re only four blocks away from Simon’s,” Max pointed out.
“Whatever!” his sister yelled back at him. She was walking even faster now.
Shaking his head, Max considered slowing down just a little bit, to tease her. “Where are we going to eat?”
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
Max shrugged, “There’s a Taco Bell near here. McDonalds too.”
“There’s a Red Robin, right?”
“I don’t have money for that,” Max shot her down.
His sister moaned, “How? Mom just gave you your allowance!”
“And I’m spending it on weed!” Max laughed.
She turned around, walking backwards while sneering at him. “The sole reason that I don’t smoke is because it costs too much.”
“Yeah, that’s why neither of us has gotten drunk in two months.”
“How much further is it?” his sister complained.
“Like, three blocks,” Max answered impatiently.
Still walking backwards, she stepped off of the sidewalk and into the street. Max remembered that there used to be a traffic light here, but it had been replaced by a four-way stop. The city was too lazy to fix anything in this neighborhood.
Just as Max stepped into the street, he heard the roar of an engine coming from up the block.
The car spun around the corner, going three times the speed limit.
It was a red car, old with chipping paint.
With a sickening crunch, it collided with her, and she flew into the air, a graceful flip over the roof of the car.
Max thought that she would fall in slow motion, but she hit the ground instantly, the car skidding in a panic. It didn’t decelerate. The driver sped up, a fresh crack in the windshield.
He was standing over her without realizing that he’d started moving. There was blood in her mouth, and her leg was bent at an odd angle.
And then Max remembered too late, remembered to turn his head and look at the car.
SFK-471. No, SEK. Was it 471 or 174? FEK? 184? FSK?
If he had turned his head just a second earlier, he could’ve read it. But the car was too far away. He couldn’t see.
A red car, old with chipping paint.
His sister wasn’t moving. Her eyes were open, but they showed no trace of life.
He stared at her for too long. His hands trembling, he pulled out his phone.
He couldn’t call an ambulance. That would make it real. It wasn’t real yet. Maybe it hadn’t happened.
The phone met his ear, but he didn’t remember dialing. Those two rings sounded like they had come from far away.
“911. What is your emergency?”
“My… my sister got hit by a car. It was a hit and run… And I think… I think she’s dead, but…”
“What is your current location?”
He looked up at the street signs, but his eyes were too wet to read. “Oak,” he said, pulling the word out of the air. “Oak and… um…” He stared at the signs again. “Springfield. Oak and Springfield.”
“Can you describe the vehicle?”
“It was a red car. It was old, with chipping paint.”
“Did you see the license plate, by any chance?”
He couldn’t let that little two-letter word out of his mouth. He had seen it. He had. SEK? SFK?
The street was dissolving around him.
His sister’s body faded away.
Max was lying on the pavement, but it wasn’t pavement. He was in a dark chamber.
When he looked up, he saw the Other Max watching him through the bars of the prison.
“I warned you about falling,” he said mockingly.
Max stood, watching the ground as if his sister’s body were still there. “Why am I here? Why am I in the prison?”
“Because you fell,” the Other Max responded testily.
“But why the prison?” he groaned, feeling exhausted.
The Other Max paced outside of the bars. “The prison is for bad people. You’ve been bad, Max. You’ve been avoiding your problems for too long, and now you have to take responsibility for your actions. This is why you couldn’t climb the windmill. You weren’t ready. You were still telling lies.”
“This is my world,” Max glared. “I can break free if I want to.”
“And yet you haven’t already,” the Other Max pointed out. “You’re only punishing yourself.”
Max shook his head. “This is just another distraction.”
“Is it? You didn’t do what you were supposed to, so now things have to get more serious. You’re stuck here, in this prison, until you’re ready to leave. You can’t leave until you stop lying.”
“I’m here to remember the license plate!” Max insisted.
The Other Max complained, “Max, how many times do I have to tell you that you’re never going to remember it?”
“I have to!” Max bellowed. “I have to remember it! I need to catch the guy who killed my sister! He’s the one who deserves to be punished, not me!”
“Is that what this is all about?” the Other Max asked doubtfully. “Revenge? You sister died over a month ago. The police have been checking every old, red car on the streets, but they won’t find it. When the police asked you for the license plate, you must have listed a million possibilities. You clearly have no idea what it said. The car drove away too quickly.”
“And that’s why I need to climb the windmill!” Max argued. “I need to talk to her! She might have seen the license plate before the car hit her!”
He could see that fraction of a second repeating in his mind over and over. Her head turning, the car spinning around the corner, the front bumper slamming her legs. Again and again he watched it. Her head turning. The car screeching. The impact.
“You still don’t get it, do you?” the Other Max griped. “That isn’t how this place works! Your sister isn’t on top of the windmill, and you aren’t in a prison. This is all in your head! The girl on the top didn’t see what your sister saw! She can only tell you what you want her to say!”
“I have to talk to her!” Max yelled.
The Other Max tilted his head. “Is it the license plate? Or is it her?”
“Well I guess it must be her, because apparently the real license plate isn’t anywhere here!”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” the Other Max smiled. “Why would you need to talk to her?”
“Because… because…” Max stammered. “Because it was my fault that we were in that sketchy neighborhood. She just wanted to go out for dinner, but I insisted on picking up weed from Simon first.”
The Other Max nodded slowly. “You blame yourself.”
“I could have done so many things to stop it from ever happening! I could’ve gone to Simon’s later! I could’ve decided to walk on Castle street instead of Oak street! Maybe I shouldn’t have been buying weed in the first place!”
“Of course, of course,” the Other Max said sarcastically. “It’s entirely your fault. The lunatic driving that car had nothing to do with your sister’s death.”
“That isn’t what I mean,” Max moaned.
“Then what do you mean?” the Other Max challenged.
“I could have done things differently.”
The Other Max scoffed, “The same could be said of your sister. If she hadn’t been so impatient, not looking where she was walking, not paying attention to the cars on the road…”
“Don’t say that!” Max shouted.
The Other Max lifted a key. “Do you want my help you or not? I could let you out of this prison. I could do it as soon as I think that you’re ready. As soon as you think that you’re ready.”
Max looked at his surroundings. The cell almost had no content, no existence. It was just a dark space in which to stand, to stay. Opposite of the windmill, it felt much smaller on the inside than it had appeared on the outside.
“I guess I deserve to be stuck here,” Max stated.
The Other Max put his hands on his hips. “Is that really how you’re going to act? You can leave as soon as you’ve accepted why you’re here. It’s not that difficult.”
“It’s incredibly difficult,” Max griped. “I just… I don’t like all of this feeling. I want it to stop. I want to stop missing her. I want to stop feeling guilty about her. I want to stop feeling angry at the driver, at myself, and my memory…”
The Other Max smiled. “You just want to forget, don’t you?”
“No” Max shook his head. “If that was what I wanted, I would’ve stayed in that river. My choices resulted in the death of my sister. I don’t deserve to forget.”
“I feel like you’re thinking about this all wrong,” the Other Max commented, wiggling the key between his fingers.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Max pointed. “This isn’t about punishing myself. This is about fixing, about making me… better.”
The Other Max chuckled, “Then why are you in a prison?”
“Because I trusted you with the key. I trust you more than I trust myself.”
The Other Max glanced at the key in his fingers. “Yet I’m you, aren’t I?”
Max smiled. “If this isn’t real, then what’s the point of a key, anyway?”
“It isn’t about unlocking doors. It’s about the meaning of a key. I have the key. You don’t.”
Still smiling, Max raised an eyebrow. “But you’re me, so I do have the key.” He looked down into his own open palm, expecting to see the key sitting there. It wasn’t.
“Enough games,” the Other Max said sternly. “Do you want to get out of here, or not?”
“Why should I let you go?”
“Because I need to climb the windmill.”
“You’ll fall,” the Other Max reminded him.
“Not if I climb it for the right reason.”
He chuckled again. “What’s the reason this time?”
Max pursed his lips. “To stop feeling guilty. I can forget the license plate.”
The Other Max stuck the key into the lock. “Good. You’re ready.”