For Maurice Sendak, an unspeakably brave and beautiful man
Matching Stumpy pant for pant, Max chased his cloud-white dog through the upstairs hallway,down the wooden stairs, and into the cold open foyer. Max and Stumpy did this often, runningand wrestling through the house, though Max’s mother and sister, the two other occupants ofthe home, didn’t appreciate the volume and violence of the game. Max’s dad lived in the cityand phoned on Wednesdays and Sundays but sometimes did not.
Max lunged toward Stumpy, missed, barreled into the front door, and knocked the doorknob-basketoff. The doorknob-basket was a small wicker vessel that Max thought was stupid but Max’s mominsisted on having on the front doorknob for good luck. The main thing the basket was good forwas getting knocked off, and landing on the floor, where it was often stepped on. So Maxknocked the basket off, and then Stumpy stepped on it, putting his foot through the bottom withan unfortunate wicker-ripping sound. Max was worried for a second, but then his worry waseclipsed by the sight of Stumpy trying to walk around the house with a basket stuck to hisfoot. Max laughed and laughed. Any reasonable person would see the humor in it.
“Are you going to be a freak all day?” Claire asked, suddenly standing over Max. “You’veonly been home for ten minutes.”
His sister Claire was fourteen, almost fifteen, and was no longer interested in Max, not on aconsistent basis at least. Claire was a freshman now and the things they always liked to dotogether — including Wolf and Master, a game Max still thought worthy — were no longer soappealing to her. She had adopted a tone of perpetual dissatisfaction and annoyance with
everything Max did, and with most things that existed in the world.
Max didn’t answer Claire’s question; any response would be problematic. If he said “No,”then it would imply he had been acting freakish, and if he said “Yes,” it would mean that not
being aonly had he been a freak, and he was admitting it, but that he intended to continue
“You better make yourself scarce,” Claire said, repeating one of their dad’s favoriteexpressions. “I’m having people over.”
If Claire had been thinking clearly, she would have known that to tell Max to become scarce
would only make him want to be more prominent, and to tell him that she was having people over
would only make him more committed to being present. “Is Meika coming?” he asked. Meika washis favorite among Claire’s friends, the rest of whom were imbeciles. Meika paid attention tohim, actually talked to him, asked him questions, had one time even come into his room to playLegos and admire the wolf suit he kept on his closet door. She had not forgotten what was fun.
“None of your business,” Claire said. “Just leave us alone, okay? Don’t ask them to playwith your blocks or whatever lame crap you want them to do.”
Max knew that watching and annoying Claire and her friends would be better with someone else,so he went outside, got on his bike, and rode down the street to Clay’s. Clay was a new kid;he lived in one of the just-built houses down the street. And though he was pale and his headtoo big, Max was giving him a chance.
Max rode down the sidewalk serpentine-style, his head full of possibilities for what he andClay might do with or, barring that, to Claire’s friends. It was December and the snow, dry
and powdery just a few days earlier, was now melting, leaving slush on the roads and sidewalks,a patchy cover on the lawns.
Something was happening in Max’s neighborhood. The old houses were being taken down, and intheir place, new, bigger and louder houses were rising. There were fourteen homes on his block,and in the last two years, six of them, all of them smallish, one-story ranches, had beenleveled. In each case the same thing had happened: the owners had left or had died of old age,and the new owners had decided that they liked the location of the house, but wanted a farlarger one where it stood. It brought to the neighborhood the constant sound of construction,and, thankfully for Max, a near-endless supply of castoff materials — nails, wood, wire,insulation, and tile. With it all he’d been assembling a sort-of home of his own, in a tree,in the woods by the lake.
Max pedaled up, dropped his bike, and knocked on the door of Clay Mahoney. He bent down to tiehis shoes, and as he finished the second knot on his left shoe, the door flew open.
“Max?” Clay’s mother stood over him, wearing tight black pants and a small white T-shirt —TODAY! YES! it said — over a black lycra top; she was dressed like a competitive downhillskier. Behind her, an exercise video had been paused on the television. On the screen, threemuscular women were reaching upward and rightward, desperate and grimacing, for something farbeyond the frame.
“Is Clay home?” Max asked, standing up.
“No, I’m sorry Max, he’s not.”
She was holding a large, silver canister with a black handle — some sort of coffee mug — andwhile taking a sip from it, she looked around the front porch.
“Are you here alone?” she asked.
Max thought a second about this question, looking for a second meaning. Of course he was herealone.
“Yup,” he said.
She had a face, Max had noticed, that always seemed surprised. Her posture and voice aimed atknowingness, but her eyes said Really? What? How is that possible?
“How’d you get here?” she asked.
Another odd question. Max’s bike was lying no more than four feet behind him, in plain sight.Could she not see it?
“I rode,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
“Alone?” she asked.
“Yup,” he said. This lady, Max thought.
“Alone?” she repeated. Her eyes had gone wide. Poor Clay. His mom was nuts. Max knew heshould be careful about what he might say to a crazy person. Didn’t crazy people need to betreated with great care? He decided to be very polite.
“Yes, Mrs. Mahoney. I … am … alone.” He said the words slowly, carefully, maintaining eyecontact all the while.
“Your parents let you ride around on your own? In December? Without a helmet?”
This lady definitely had a problem grasping the obvious. It was obvious that Max was alone, andobvious that he had ridden his bike. And there was nothing on his head, so why ask about thehelmet? She was delusional on top of it all. Or maybe functionally blind?
“Yes, Mrs. Mahoney. I don’t need a helmet. I live just down the block. I rode here on thesidewalk.”
He pointed down the street to his own house, which was visible from her door. Mrs. Mahoney puther hand on her forehead and squinted, like a castaway searching the horizon for a rescuevessel. She dropped her hand, returned her eyes to Max, and sighed.
“Well, Clay is at his quilting class,” she said. Max didn’t know what a quilting class was,but it sounded a lot less fun than making icicle-spears and throwing them at birds, which hadbeen on Max’s mind.
“Well, okay. Thanks, Mrs. Mahoney. Tell him I came by,” he said. He waved goodbye to Clay’scrazy mom, turned, and got on his bike. He heard the Mahoney’s door shut as he coasted away.But when he turned onto the sidewalk and toward his house, he found Mrs. Mahoney next to him,striding purposefully, still holding her silver drink canister.
“I can’t let you go alone,” she said, striding briskly alongside him.
“Thanks, Mrs. Mahoney, but I ride alone every day,” he said, pedaling cautiously and againmaintaining steady eye contact. Her weirdness had tripled and his heartbeat had doubled.
“Not today you don’t,” she said, grabbing for the seat of Max’s bike.
Now he was getting scared. This woman was not only nuts, but she was following him, grabbing athim. He picked up speed. He figured he could ride faster than she could walk, and he intendedto do so. He was now standing on his pedals.
She picked up her pace — still walking! Her elbows were flying left and right, her mouth aquick slash of determination. Was she smiling?
“Ha!” she giggled. “Fun!”
It was always the nuttiest people who smiled while doing the nuttiest things. This lady was fargone.
“Please,” he said, now pedaling as fast as he possibly could. He almost hit a mailbox, theChungs’, the one bearing a large peace sign; this had caused great controversy in theneighborhood. “Just let me go,” he begged.
“Don’t worry,” she huffed, now at a full jog. “I’ll be right here the whole way.”
How could he shake her? Would she follow him inside his own house? She was no doubt waiting toget him alone and indoors, so she could do something to him. She could knock him cold with thecoffee canister. Or maybe she’d grab a pillow, pin him down, and suffocate him? That seemedmore her style. She had the clear-eyed, efficient look of a murderous nurse.
Now there was barking. Max turned to see that the Scolas’ dog had joined them, barking at Mrs.Mahoney and nipping her ankles. Mrs. Mahoney took little notice. Her eyes were bigger thanever. The exertion seemed to make her ever-more gleeful.
“Endorphins!” she sang. “Thanks, Max!”
“Please,” he said. “What are you gonna do to me?” It was about ten houses until his own.
“Keep you safe,” she said, “from all this.”
She waved her arm around, indicating the neighborhood that Max was born into and in which he’dbeen raised. It was a quiet street of tall elms and oaks, ending in a cul-de-sac. Beyond thecul-de-sac was a wooded few acres, then the lake. Nothing nefarious or of note had everhappened on this street, or in their town, or, for that matter, within four hundred miles.
Max swerved suddenly, leaving the sidewalk. He jumped the curb into the road.
“The road!” Mrs. Mahoney gasped, as if he’d steered his bike into a river of molten lava.The road was empty now and was always empty. But soon she was right behind him, now running,again reaching for his seat.
Max decided it was silly to go home; that’s where she wanted him. He’d be trapped and she’dfinish him for sure. His only chance of escape would be the forest.
He sped up again, giving himself enough room to turn around. He did a quick 180 and headed backtoward the dead-end, hoping to make it to the woods.
“Where are you going?” she wailed.
Max almost laughed. She wouldn’t follow him into the woods, would she? He looked back, andthough she’d lost a step or two, it wasn’t long before she was sprinting at him. Man, she wasfast! He was close to the road’s end, almost at the trees.
“I won’t let you out of my sight!” she falsettoed. “Don’t worry!”
He jumped the curb again — eliciting a terrified howl from Mrs. Mahoney — and jumbled overthe rough grass and snow. Soon he was quickly ducking under the first low branches of the tallwhite-mustached pines, weaving between the trunks.
“MAAAAAX!” she wailed. “Not the woods!”
He entered the forest and headed toward the ravine.
“Molesters! Drugs! Homeless! Needles!” she gasped.
The ravine was up ahead, about twenty feet deep and twelve feet wide. A month earlier, over thegap he’d put a wide bridge of plywood. If he could get to the gap, cross the bridge, and thenpull the plank away in time, he might finally be free.
“Stop!” she yelled.
He swung his bike underneath him, left and right. He’d never ridden so fast. Even the Scoladog was having trouble keeping up; he was still yapping at the lady’s heels.
“Look out!” she screamed. “The what-do-you-call-it! The gorge!”
Duh, he thought. He made it to the bridge and again came a howl of incalculable terror.“Nooooooo!”
He rumbled quickly over the plank. On the other side, he spun out, dropped his bike, andgrabbed the plywood. She was almost upon him when he pulled the board free. The bridge fellinto the ravine and crashed against the rocks below.
She stopped short. “Dammit!” she yelled. She stood for a second, hands on hips, heaving.“How do you expect me to protect you when you’re all the way over there?”
Max thought of a few clever answers to this question, but instead said nothing. He mounted hisbike again, in case Mrs. Mahoney decided to leap over the gap. She was far stronger and fasterthan he would have guessed, so he couldn’t rule it out.
At that moment, the Scolas’ dog, still running at full speed, chose to pass Mrs. Mahoney, jumpover the ravine, and join Max. He flew, effortlessly, and landed on Max’s side. He turned back
to face her, then looked up to Max with a toothy grin and happy eyes, as if the two of them hadtogether vanquished a common enemy. Max laughed, and when the dog began barking at the womandoubled over on the edge of the ravine, Max barked, too. They both barked and barked andbarked.
“Hey Claire!” Max yelled into the house. No answer.
He couldn’t wait to tell her about Mrs. Mahoney, that lunatic. Claire wasn’t alwaysinterested in what Max was interested in, but she always liked stories about crazy people. Thisone was going to knock her flat.
“Anyone here?” he asked, hoping only for his sister. Gary, his mom’s boyfriend with a chinas soft as cake, sometimes came over early after work and napped on the couch. He stained anyroom he spilled himself into.
Max looked in the kitchen, the living room, the basement. No sign of Claire. He walked upstairsand finally heard her.
“I didn’t show him. That’s the point,” she was saying.
She was on the phone when Max entered her room, the first words of his story about to leave hismouth. Before he could begin, though, she fixed him with a look of great venom. He tiptoed outquickly.
“But why would she say that? She’s totally lying!”
He waited outside her door. When she was finished, he’d tell her all about Mrs. Mahoney, histriumph, and together they’d plan some kind of prank on the loony lady.
But then again, why wait? Max knew Claire would want to hear this right away, and would thankhim — for saving her from that troublesome conversation and delivering her into a much betterone — just as soon as she heard Max’s tale. He walked back into her room and—
“Get out, goddammit!” she screamed.
He stood for a moment, so shocked he couldn’t move or speak. This wasn’t at all the way he’dpictured things happening.
“Get out!” she screamed again, twice as loud as before, and kicked the door closed in hisface.
His rage was fathomless, and was directed, with all its awesome power, at Claire. What had hedone? He’d walked into her room. He’d wanted to talk to her. It wasn’t right or fair for herto treat him like she did, and she knew it.
And now she was going to pay the price.
There was still enough snow for effective construction, so he decided to carve a fort, state ofthe art, out of the snowbank across the street. And when her friends showed up, Max would beready, and all would be avenged. It would be ugly, but she’d asked for it.
He put on his snow clothes and ran across the street. Using his mom’s gardening trowel, he dugand dug into the snowmass, soon finishing the main inner chamber. It was big enough to fit himand maybe one other person his size, and with a roof high enough that he could sit up inside.With the trowel, he carved a long deep shelf in the inner wall of the cave, to hold snowballsand maybe food or books. If he could get an extension cord long and sturdy enough, he figured,he could set up a TV. But that would have to wait until later.
Into the wall facing his house he dug a narrow peephole. Now he had a perfect view of thedriveway and the front door of his house. He would be ready when Claire’s friends showed upand did their usual thing of standing in the driveway, talking and pretending to know how tochew tobacco and then spitting and drooling the brown juice into the grey snow.
Max looked at his watch, noting that it was 4:15, which meant that he probably had anotherfifteen minutes before they arrived. Claire’s friends showed up — when they did show up,because sometimes they didn’t, though they said they would — at 4:30 or so every day, becauseone of the boys who always came, bed-headed and called Finn, had to do after-school detentionevery day of the year. Who would pick a guy like that up from detention just to enjoy hiscompany? Claire and her idiot friends. They all waited at school for the fumbler named Finn,then came to Max’s house for some reason.
Max used the time to amass a vast arsenal. The snow was a perfect texture, just wet enough tobe sticky. All he needed to do was grab a handful and it was already a snowball — snowballsthat almost made themselves. Each one he would pack tight from all sides, smooth over, packagain, smooth over again, and then put on the shelf. In ten minutes he had packed thirty-onesnowballs and had run out of room on his shelf.
So he built another shelf.
With the remaining five minutes, Max decided he needed a flag on top of his fort, so he leftthe cave and stood and searched around the surrounding woods for a stick, and found one aboutfour feet tall and as straight as a flagpole. He stuck it into the roof of the fort and thentied his hat onto it. He backed up and was satisfied that it truly almost looked like a flag —a flag raised for a great nation and before a glorious and morally necessary battle.
At 4:30 he was back in the cool comfort of his fort, peering through the peephole, watching forany movement at his house. No, he wasn’t cold. One might think that a boy who was out in thesnow for so long would get cold, but Max was not. He was warm, partly because he had on manylayers, and partly because boys who are part wolf and part wind do not get cold.
At 4:38, a station wagon pulled into his driveway. It was a car he knew well, an ancient redstation wagon one of the boys who came around drove. Two boys and a girl got out. One boy wasthe bed-headed one named Finn. Another always wore black; this was Carlos. The girl was namedMeika, and Max loved her without boundary.
Max could make out parts of a conversation as they walked into his house.
“Did Tonya tell you she didn’t do it?” Meika said.
“Yeah, she did,” Carlos said.
“That doesn’t mean we believe her,” Finn said.
The front door opened and Claire emerged.
“Speak of the devil,” Carlos said.
“What?” Claire said, and they all laughed.
Claire pretended to laugh, too, and they all filed past her and into the house. A minute laterthey emerged again. They probably wanted to chew tobacco, and Claire knew not to allow it inthe house; their mom could always tell, hours or days later. As the boys, and Claire, begantheir disgusting coughing and spitting, Max knew the stage was set. He knew what he had to do.“Okay. Okay,” he said to himself. “Okay.”
He snaked out of the fort’s entrance, making sure he was undetected by the four targets acrossthe street. Now standing across the street, he looked closely at Claire and her friends andconfirmed that he had not been detected. He reached back into the fort for his ammunition. Hegathered the snowballs carefully into all of his available pockets. When his pockets were full,he placed the rest kangaroo-style in the front of his coat. He left twenty snowballs in thefort, in case he needed to replenish his supply later.
Now he had to get closer. He needed to cross the street and position himself in the neighbor’syard. There, he would have a fence to protect himself from the enemy fire. But it was a longway across the street, and surely they would see him running no more than forty feet away.
Then he had an idea.
He took one of his smaller snowballs and threw it as far as he could. He could throw far — hecould throw a baseball forty-four miles an hour, according to the radar thing at the batting
cages — so the snowball, a small one, sailed over the heads of Claire and her friends and intothe far-neighbor’s yard. When it landed, it made a loud scratchy sound and the four teenagersall turned to see where the sound had come from. While they were distracted, Max darted acrossthe street and dove behind the other neighbor’s fence.
The plan worked. He was smarter than he could stand. He advanced quickly.
He was now only about twenty feet away from the enemy, with the neighbor’s fence obscuringthem. The four teenagers were doing their business with the chewing tobacco, the boys puttingit in their mouths, the girls saying, “That stuff’s nasty,” and then saying other thingsthat were stupid and were not worth saying. All the while, none of them had any idea that theywere about to endure a devastating assault.
Max dropped all his snowballs onto the ground below him, and placed a line of ammunition on thelower beam of the fence. He kept seven snowballs in his various pockets, in case he needed toadvance on the enemy and finish them off.
Finally he was ready. He took a long breath, heaving out something like dragon steam, and hebegan.
He unleashed a barrage of five snowballs, one after the other, throwing them faster than evenhe thought possible. His arm was some kind of machine, like a tennis-ball cannon.
One hit the bed-headed kid in the chest. The sound was incredible, a hollow pop against hispuffy jacket.
“What the hell?” he yelled.
Another smacked Meika in the thigh.
“Ah! What the!” she gasped.
One thumped onto the station wagon’s windshield; again the sound was great. Two missed theirtargets completely but it didn’t matter — Max was already unloading another barrage. Fourmore left his cannon-arm, and these hit Claire’s shoulder, the car’s roof and door, andCarlos, right in the groin. He doubled over. Fantastic.
“Who is that?” Claire yelled.
Max ducked behind the fence but not before the boys deduced that Max was the source of theassault. They had figured out his position. Max got another arsenal ready, but when he peekedover the fence again — “There’s the little bastard!” one said — he was met by an avalancheof snow, which fell upon his head and back with great force and speed. The boys had been fast,and deposited a boulder of snow over the fence and onto Max. The fight was moving beyondartillery and into hand-to-hand combat sooner than Max had expected.
“How’s that feel, wuss?”
“You hit me in the balls, idiot.”
If Max could run across the street, he would be safe. Even if they followed him across thestreet, they would never be able to find his well-hidden fort, much less penetrate hisdefenses. He took off.
“Run, little grasshopper! Run!” they said.
“Look at his little legs go!”
As he began running, he launched one last snowball, arcing it so high it disappeared into thesun before Max could see where it would land.
He ran, and was across the street before the boys had even decided to follow. He zig-zaggedthrough the pines to throw them off the scent, and then heard the last snowball land with anicy smack.
“Max, you freak!” he could hear Claire saying. “You hit Meika in the face!”
That was a shame, Meika was the one he hadn’t wanted to hit at all. Maybe she would think himmore muscular because he’d hit her in the face? Did it ever work that way? He thought maybe.Max grinned as he reached the entrance to the fort. Maybe Meika would kiss him and touch hisneck because he hit her in the face with snow.
He looked out his peephole, and could see Claire helping Meika, who was crying, her face redand raw. Why would anyone cry about getting hit in the face with a ball of ice and snow fallingfrom the sky after almost hitting the sun?
Max was disappointed in her. Girls were such girls. Pretty soon Meika would be crying all thetime, about everything, which is what Max’s mom seemed to do. A few years ago Max had said“What’s wrong?” and “Don’t cry, Mom,” but now there didn’t seem to be a point.
“Where’d he go?” one of the boys said. Max could hear the voice, but couldn’t find itssource through his peephole.
“Wait. Check out the flag,” said the other boy.
Max made a mental note: next time, no flag.
He heard the footsteps of the two boys very close to his fort. Man, they were fast. Now theywere behind him. He turned around and could see their feet just beyond the entrance to thecave.
“He’s in there,” one said. “I can see his stupid boots.”
“Hey kid, you in there?” the other asked.
“He’s in there,” the first said again. “The boots, dude.”
“Come out, or we’ll get you out.”
Max was starting to worry. It really did seem like they knew where Max’s fort was, and that hewas inside it. He was stuck if he stayed in the fort, and would probably be slaughtered if heleft it. His options seemed few.
Now a hand was inside the fort. One of the boys had shoved his arm through the roof. How’d hedo that? Max kicked it, hard, and it retreated.
“Ow! Now you’re dead, kid,” a voice said.
Then it was very quiet for a moment.
And Max could no longer see their feet.
He heard some giggling, then some shushing.
Then it was quiet for a very long moment.
Now footsteps on the roof. A bit of snow-dust fell from the ceiling. Max felt safe, though,knowing that there were many layers of well-packed snow between the roof and his chamber. Theystepped and stepped. So what, Max thought. Step all you want.
Then they jumped.
The sound was like a low, loud cough.
They jumped again.
More snowdust fell from the ceiling. The roof drew closer to Max’s head. He shrunk down, nowlaying flat. But still the ceiling seemed to be falling.
The crunch of earth swallowing earth.
They jumped once more.
Then white. All was white.
And the cold, the cold! It was in his jacket, in his eyes, his nose, his pants. He couldn’tbreathe. He could hear almost nothing. He was drowning.
Then he heard the laughing. The boys were laughing.
“Nice fort,” one said.
“Come out,” the other said.
Max couldn’t move. He wasn’t sure he was alive.
“Get up, little grasshopper,” a voice said.
Was he alive?Max couldn’t move.
“Oh crap,” said a voice.
The sounds of digging. Furious scratching above.
The weight on Max’s back lightened and he found himself being lifted out of the white. Theboys were pulling him up, and soon he was in the air again, breathing the light air. But he hadno strength. He couldn’t stand. He fell to the ground like a puppet.
Laying on the snow, he coughed and coughed. His eyes were soaked, his skin scorched. His eyesdidn’t work, his mouth would not open. His lungs heaved, his throat burned.
“You okay?” one of them asked.
Max rose to his knees, but couldn’t speak. He choked on snow and phlegm. His heart seemed tohave split itself, migrated northward, and was now beating in each of his ears.
Where was Claire? She should have been with him by now. Holding his shoulder. Rubbing his neck.Cupping her hands around his ears, blowing hotly to warm him as she did just a year ago, whenhe had fallen through the ice in the creek after the blizzard.
But Claire was not near. Max stood up and the snow in his jacket drained down his back. Heshuddered and shook. He looked to his sister, but she was attending to Meika, and seemed readyto let Max, her brother, die in the middle of this colorless afternoon in December.
“You hurt, kid?” one of the boys said. The other one had already walked back to the car.
The horn honked. Now the second boy shrugged, left Max, and ran to it. Claire lingered on thedriveway for a second, glancing Max’s way. For that brief moment Max held out hope that shewould come to him, that she would take him inside, draw him a bath, stay with him and curse theboys and never see them again. That she would be his sister again.
“Your brother’s kind of sensitive, huh?” a face said from the car’s open window. It wasFinn, the wild-haired kid.
“You have no idea,” Claire said. She turned away from Max, ducked into the back seat, andclosed the door. The car backed out and drove off.
Max no longer had a sister.
He walked back to the house, and before he knew exactly what he was doing, he found himself inthe kitchen, where he looked under the sink and retrieved a large pail. He turned the pailover, emptying it of its cleaners and sprays and brushes. He brought the pail upstairs, to thebathroom he shared with Claire.
He turned on the bathtub’s faucet and placed the bucket below. As it filled with water, hecaught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. He was soaked, every part of his body waswet, and his face was red, feral. He liked how he looked.
The bucket was full and he reached down to lift it. Too heavy, so he emptied the top third. Hetook the bucket, sloshing to and fro, and brought it to Claire’s room.
It was a room in transition. She had always had a frilly bed of pink and powder blue, a canopyabove, but now over the bed was an ugly crocheted blanket, something she had bought in theparking lot of some concert in the city.
Before he thought one way or the other about it, he dumped his bucket on her bed, where thewater made a loud splash and instantly spread over the surface of the mattress.