Something had changed since Max had fallen from the windmill. It was blustery outside, and there was a chill in the air. The windmill was still spinning, but it was a true, tangible force that was moving it now. The sun felt brighter, as if it were threatening to wash away the whole world on a moment’s notice.
The Other Max was following close behind, climbing the hill. “What are you going to say to her?”
“I don’t know,” Max replied honestly. “Maybe I’ll let her do the talking.”
“She’s an image made by you, a recreation,” the Other Max pointed out. “So technically you’ll be doing the talking either way.”
“But it will be her voice, and that’s what matters.”
The Other Max tried, “What will she say to you?”
“She’s going to tell me that it isn’t my fault, I suppose. Maybe she’ll say that she forgives me,” Max guessed.
The Other Max chuckled. “It sounds a bit… cliché when you put it that way, doesn’t it? You want forgiveness, so you built a recreation of her to forgive you.”
“It’s what I want,” Max shrugged.
“Maybe you’ll surprise yourself.”
Max looked over the top of the hill, the windmill growing before him. “If I do surprise myself, I hope that it’ll be a good surprise.”
The wind was getting stronger, and the sun was becoming brighter. As he got closer, the windmill seemed to have changed its height, though Max couldn’t be certain if it had gotten taller or shorter. Nothing was constant anymore. The world was compressing into a single thought. It was almost over. It was almost time to leave.
“You can’t change your mind,” the Other Max told him. “If you lie to yourself, you will fall.”
“Where would I go if I fell? Back to the prison?”
“I’m not sure,” he shook his head. “I suppose it’s up to you. Maybe you’d go somewhere even worse.”
To fall at this point would deserve a much greater punishment than the prison. Perhaps Max would send himself into the river. It was odd that he wouldn’t be sure until the last moment.
He moved through the archway, into the dark interior of the windmill. But it wasn’t so dark this time. Looking up, Max saw that there was an opening at the top, letting the light shine in. He laughed to himself, as if it were some sort of joke. When he had been climbing the windmill before, there hadn’t even been a way onto the top. He’d been keeping the exit closed until the right moment.
This was the right moment.
“Good luck,” the Other Max said from beneath the archway.
“I don’t need it,” Max disregarded him. He set his hands on the jutting stones, and he began to climb.
Left hand. Right hand. Left foot. Right foot. It was easier to move upwards now that the light from above was illuminating the stones. Every rock, every movement, Max could feel the air getting warmer above him. The wind whistled outside, and he could sense that a sort of storm was coming. But without a cloud in the sky, what kind of storm would it be?
Right hand. Left hand. Right foot. Left foot. Max knew that the Other Max was no longer watching from below. He had moved on. He had fulfilled his purpose. Max didn’t need him anymore. He’d left the windmill, walked out to the great field, and disappeared into the wind and sun.
The circle of light above Max was growing wider the further that he climbed. What would he say to her when he saw her? What would she say to him? Though he controlled this place, the future was strangely uncertain.
What if she wasn’t on the top at all?
His foot slipped.
But he caught himself.
She’ll be there. You’ve known it from the start.
Left hand. Right hand. Left foot. Right foot. His fingers knew no weakness, and Max was so close to the top. He could see the sky above him. He could feel the sunlight. He could feel the prison crumbling and the river flowing faster. He could feel the world stirring with rapt attention.
His hand reached up, out into the sky, and it landed on the top of the windmill.
She stood with her back to him, staring out at the endless field, and the flowing river. “You broke it,” she commented.
Max moved to her side, following her gaze. The prison was no longer a little box on the side of the river. It was a pile of white rubble, collapsed in on itself. “I did,” he confirmed.
“I was supposed to be in there,” she said.
“You don’t deserve to be in a place like that.”
She smiled. “Neither do you. But you went into the cell anyway.”
“I wasn’t happy with myself,” Max sighed.
“I know. But things are better now.”
He shook his head. “Do you really believe that?”
“Yes.” In that moment, Max noticed that she was crying.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her.
“I didn’t want to die.”
“I didn’t want you to die either.”
She told him, “It wasn’t your fault.”
Max nodded, just barely. “It means a lot to me to hear you say that.”
“Is that why you’ve come all this way?”
Max shrugged. “I wanted to talk to you.”
She whispered, “But you can never talk to me again. You’ll never see me after this. I’ll be sent back into the river, sinking all the way to the bottom. I’ll only be a memory, ever-changing. Even if you come back here to see me again, I’ll be different.”
Max looked out at the field, across the grass. It didn’t seem to reach infinitely far anymore. Though he could see no end, he knew that it only went so far. “I’m okay with losing you. I’m over it.”
“You’re not over it,” she disagreed. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. “You still miss me. That’s why you’re here.”
“That isn’t why I’m here,” Max shook his head. “I’m here because I thought I’d killed you. We shouldn’t have gone to Simon’s house.”
“Our parents blamed you,” she reminded him.
“They didn’t mean to. They didn’t try to.”
She sighed, “It was wrong of them to do that, whether they wanted to or not. They made you hate yourself.”
“I thought that I deserved it,” Max shrugged.
“You didn’t. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Max could have said that he should have changed things, that he wanted to go back and undo everything, but it was pointless to say it aloud. His sister already knew.
Behind them, the windmill spun faster, much faster than before. Somehow Max hadn’t remembered the wind until now. “Why must we feel?” he asked.
“We feel because we want to,” she answered.
“Then why must we feel loss?”
“Because we want to,” she answered again.
Max watched the narrow river, the permanent, unstoppable flow. “Humans are strange creatures.”
She smiled, her tears drying in the sun. “And a human who has lost is one of the strangest creatures of all.”
“I have to leave this place,” Max remembered. “There’s a whole world outside that I’ve been avoiding. That’s why I came here. That’s the truth of it. I didn’t want to deal with a world without you.”
“You came here to hide,” she acknowledged.
“And that’s why I was avoiding you,” Max nodded. “If I was hiding from your memory, why would I seek you out in this place? I kept changing my mind. I did want to talk to you, because I knew that I could while I was here, but that meant remembering what happened.”
“You can’t hide forever,” she nodded. “And now that you’ve found me, you can move on.”
“What if I can’t?” Max wondered. “What if I return to the real world and still miss you, still hate myself?”
“You’re allowed to miss me,” she folded her arms. “But you aren’t allowed to hate yourself. I’m here to forgive you. You know that.”
Max looked her in the eyes. “I do deserve to be forgiven. It wasn’t my fault.”
The wind grew stronger, threatening to blow the world away in a swirl of color. But the windmill held on, stayed strong. This place stayed alive so he could speak to her for just a moment longer.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she repeated back to him. “You can let me die.”
“What about the license plate?” Max questioned. “Is it here?”
Her smile suddenly changed into a frown. “Forget the license plate.”
“Don’t you want to know who it was that did this to you?”
She shook her head. “I’d still be dead. What does it matter? You want revenge, and I understand that. But you need to move on. Revenge won’t bring me back to life.”
“I keep seeing it,” Max said quietly. “I have to watch that car hitting you over and over again. But I can never quite read the license plate.”
“In your position, nobody would have been able to. The car drove away too quickly, and you were shocked, you were terrified, you were horrified, and you were distraught! You made no mistakes. You understand that now, don’t you?”
Max nodded silently. The wind pulled at him. The sunlight intensified, washing out the colors and the field and the world.
“Can you let me go?” she asked him. “Can you move on?”
He nodded again. “I can. I’m letting you go.”
For a long second, she faced the wide field, watching over it, taking it in. And then she took one step forward, and she plunged off the edge, off of the windmill.
Max didn’t watch her fall. The moment that she hit the ground, the world disappeared.