Once you touch poison ivy, its effect is left on your skin.
The door was open. The pathway was clear, unobstructed. But she couldn't leave. The walls were closing in, like a deathtrap with spears protruding to stab its occupant to be left bleeding until dead. Max was trapped. Batman's silhouette appeared through the fog this time, but she didn't call out to him. She let him walk by, not letting him see her trembling form as she hid, awaiting her fate. She didn't cry out. She let him go. And then, the path closed, dark shrubbery swallowed the once open doorway. A muscle-ripped hand emerged through the darkness, clenching her neck between its fingers. Unrelenting, it squeezed, until she was gasping for air.
Max was jolted awake, shuttled back to consciousness by her own shout. She sat up, slapping a hand to her chest. Her pulse was hammering, her heartbeat thumping so much that it almost hurt. And her ribcage was still in agony.
Searing pain blinded her vision for a moment, both psychological and physical. She looked around her. She was in her bed, the room was dark. Max rose, not touching the light switch. By memory, she walked along to the door, feeling the walls as she moved. Her bedroom was just off of the den. Outside, she found him, still on the sofa, channel-surfing on her TV with a deadened sort of look on his face. It was evening now, and the all-white room had assumed the blue hue from the TV's glow.
Max remembered when Terry used to do that, but only for a moment. She turned to go back into her room.
"About time you got up. I've been sitting here starving half to death for hours."
Max paused with her palm pressed to the door, her back turned.
She didn't linger for long before she changed direction and walked dutifully to the kitchen. She dropped the steak into the skillet, watching it pop and sizzle. The aroma wafted up her nose, and her stomach sawed in half with yearning.
The channel surfing seemed to have paused on a loud network, and she guessed it to be his favorite wrestling program. She turned from the stove to fetch some sauce from the fridge, leaving it open as she returned to marinade the meat. But when she went back to put the jar away, he was suddenly there, rummaging through the drawers of the refrigerator. He straightened and nudged the door closed with his foot, clutching a sack of bread in one hand and salami in the other.
"I do get sick of the usual steak sometimes, you know," he muttered while tossing the meat and bread onto the counter, then proceeding to brush past Max to the skillet. With one hand, he picked up the pan, extended it over the trash can, and dumped the almost finished steak.
Max watched the entire display, stone-faced. Part of her wanted to bend over, into the trash, salvage the meat and devour it. After all, she would only be eating the usual salad and fruit (if she was lucky).
He stalked back into the den, but not before grasping a secret stash of junk food he kept hidden in her kitchen.
Max sighed dryly once he was gone. She reached for the salami and began to prepare his favorite sandwich.
She never had mastered guessing what he wanted for dinner, but tonight her ribcage was apt to remind her to try harder from now on.
Three Months Prior
"Yeah, I guess."
"You don't sound too enthusiastic."
Max smiled at Lydia's skepticism.
"Oh I don't know… I just…feel kind of stupid, or maybe offended. Embarrassed?" Max was chuckling now, but she settled into a distracted sigh.
Lydia nodded knowingly. "Still hasn't shown any signs of recognition yet, has he?"
"No, and I really wish it wouldn't bother me. I shouldn't be preoccupied with this."
Lydia pressed the down elevator button as she and Max arrived at a stop in the office hallway.
"Well, he was only someone you went to high school with and were pretty good friends with."
Max smirked just a little. "Yeah." She sighed. "He remembered you, though, didn't he?"
"Um…" Lydia tilted her head in thought. "No, I think he just remembers names quickly."
"Oh." Max's tone was dim as they strode into the elevator. She folded her arms over her purse, pressed against her stomach.
The elevator began to descend, and Lydia yawned.
"Am I really that forgettable?" Max inquired suddenly. "I mean, I'm not trying to dwell on this so much but I just--"
"Max, I wouldn't even worry about it. If the guy wants to be a jerk and act as though he never knew you, then that's his problem," Lydia encouraged, tapping one heel on the marble floor. "He always struck me as a bit of a loner in high school, and even now. You know, the whole 'I'm too good for normal people's company' emo kid style."
"I guess," Max agreed softly, tracing her index finger down a crease in the elevator wall. "But we were friends. I mean, I had met his family and all. I felt like he trusted me. Some of the girls thought I was 'unschway' to even be talking to him…especially Blade."
At this, Lydia let out a giggle, which caused Max to laugh as well.
"I'll let it go," Max sighed, combing her fingers through her pink hair to ruffle it some. "You're right. If he wants to pretend he never knew me, then two can play at that game."
The elevator halted, and out the doors the two went, into the parking garage.
"Such a shame, though," Lydia was musing as they approached her car.
Max glanced over, frowning. "What is?"
Lydia shrugged while removing her keycard from her purse. "Another punk-turned-jerk via gym membership and a hairstylist."
"Sounds familiar, doesn't it?" Max returned cynically, smirking again.
"Oh yeah. Can we say 'Willie Watt'?"
Lydia slid into her car, waving goodbye to Max before she drove off.
Max continued to her own convertible, parked several spaces away. She was only a few paces from her car, eyes down on the gray pavement, when she heard a sound from up ahead.
"Ms. Gibson, is it?"
Max's gaze trailed up. Donny Grasso, in the flesh, was waiting near her car.
"Oh," she said quickly, surprised. "Yes - Max; Max is fine."
"Hi, Max," he replied with a disarming smile. "I'm glad I caught up with you."
It was then that Max noticed he was leaning against the car beside hers, a sleek red sports model - just a few hues brighter than her own maroon car.
"I wanted to ask you a question, and I hope you won't think I'm crazy."
Max, who was thoroughly confused now, merely shrugged with a short laugh. She didn't know what to make of him now, standing here asking what her first name was. She couldn't help but feel slightly offended, but she decided to hear him out.
Donny chuckled, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck. "Well, I was wondering if…" he lifted his shoulders and laughed lightly. "Either way, you'll think I'm nuts, or maybe just a jerk. I'm not sure which is worse," he was rambling now. "Did we go to high school together?" he finally spilled, sounding unsure.
Max's eyebrows lifted after a stunned delay. She was beginning to wonder if there was a hidden camera set up somewhere now, as well as beginning to think twice about not letting him have it from the beginning of their conversation.
Donny, seeing the bewildered expression on her face, swiftly spoke up.
"I had an accident when I was a high school senior and I can't really remember everyone from that time. A lot of times I can place names and faces, but I can't always put them together."
And then it all made perfect sense, to Max. The VR Room incident, Spellbinder's machine. Donny had practically disappeared from school after the ordeal. Rumors circulated that he had left town. But Max hadn't considered his former VR addiction as being associated with his disregard for her. Obviously he'd had a tougher time than she had.
She sucked in a deep breath. "Oh… Yes, we did go to school together," she spoke gently, suddenly feeling ashamed of her thoughts of him from moments earlier. "We were friends, actually."
Donny's jaw dropped. He puffed a sigh while dragging his hands through his hair. "Oh no. You must really think terribly of me. I mean, I've been here for a whole week and I never said anything and…" his voice drifted, he offered an apologetic smile. "To think I didn't even recognize you that day when you showed me to Mr. Jemison's office."
Max grinned. "It's okay, really. I understand."
"Seriously?" He looked doubtful.
Max chuckled. "Well, I was a little…confused," she swerved away from the fact that she had actually been quite offended. "But I understand."
Donny smiled in appreciation. "Thanks, Max. We'll have to catch up and reminisce sometime."
"Sure. Wouldn't exactly be too tough to accomplish, either, what with you getting along so well with Mr. Jemison," she noted with sincerity.
"You think so? I just hope he doesn't think I'm trying too hard."
"Well, if it gives you any relief, I liked your idea," Max began slowly. "I've always thought Jemison needed a program that was exclusively for mental health research."
"Really?" Donny asked with a smile.
Donny chewed his lip after staring at her for a moment. "Sorry, I'm totally keeping you. I didn't mean to take up your time."
Max laughed gently. "Not really. I'm parked right here," she said while gesturing to her car beside his.
Donny stood up straighter, smiling. "Oh, okay. Look how that worked out!"
"Is yours a 2042?" Max asked while eyeing his ride.
"It is," he hesitated. "2039?" he asked about her car.
Max nodded, smiling sheepishly. "Yeah, it's kind of my gift to myself for surviving grad school. It was the car I always wanted in high school."
"Awesome. I almost got that model myself."
The usual pesky awkward pause arrived, lingering until Max cleared her throat. "Well, have a good rest of the day."
"Oh, thanks. You as well, Max. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow" blossomed into the next day, the day after that, and the rest of the week. And by the time Max was soon to graduate, her friendship with Donny had been restored.
"Any particular reason why this is the umpteenth cup of coffee you've had for the day?"
Max chuckled. "I counted."
Donny sighed blithely as he opened his wallet for creds to pay for the dinner.
"And don't tell me it's that presentation tomorrow. You've moved up to being sales manager. No need to get into Mr. Jemison's good graces or anything," she said with playful sarcasm.
Donny laughed off Max's flattery after passing the cred through the card-reader the waiter had just left behind.
"Well, to be honest, work isn't what's got me so nervous," he responded with an enigmatic grin. "Ready to go?"
Max didn't answer at once, still trying to ascertain his statement. She nodded. "Yeah, I'm stuffed," she said with a light yawn, pushing away her once-full plate of baked salmon.
Donny and Max left the low-key restaurant, stepping out into the nearly empty parking lot.
"It's late," Max noted while breathing in the refreshing suburban air. They weren't far from where she had just moved in to her cottage on Marigold Avenue. Max had suggested dinner at a local eatery to finish off a busy workday.
"Good thing it's the weekend," Donny added as they walked first to Max's car, which was waiting beside his.
"Got plans tomorrow?" Donny asked with a glance over.
Donny blinked, stunned by the revelation. "Max, that's great! I didn't realize it was coming up so soon," he paused with a mildly accusatory smirk. "And you neglected to tell me."
Max offered a coy smile. "Yeah, I know. But it's all so…mediocre, compared with work. And I'm sure you've got millions of more important things to do…"
"Am I sensing that I'm invited?"
Max looked innocently skeptical for a moment. "Do you want to come?"
Donny only laughed before opening Max's car door for her and closing it behind her once she was inside.
He followed her home in his own car, stepping out to meet her in the driveway once they had arrived.
"I guess it is a little weird to be 'driving you home' in two separate cars," Donny chuckled while strolling up to where Max was standing beneath the street lamppost.
Max laughed. "But it's gentlemanly," she pointed out, then cleared her throat. "And I do appreciate it."
Donny studied her face for a moment, the clueless, habitually friendly smile. She was comfortable around him. He liked that.
Donny sighed, lowering his head to stare at the concrete edge between the grassy lawn and cobblestone path.
"You know, I really wish you wouldn't have to ask if I want to come to your graduation," he began quietly. "I guess I just haven't made myself clear enough yet."
"What do you mean?" Max tilted her head in confusion.
Donny tugged his hands through his glossy brown hair, lifting his eyes to hers.
"I mean that I've always liked you, Max. Before, in high school, you were the only girl to give me a second glance or acknowledge that I was alive. And now, even after I've come back only to act like a jerk by not remembering you at first…here you are, still so friendly to me." He leaned a shoulder against the lamppost, shrugging as he gazed around the serene surroundings of the neighborhood, his eyes finally locking onto her. "You've got to know how crazy that can make me feel…how much I want to be more than just someone you're willing to befriend."
Max pulled her hair over her shoulder, trying to allow his words to sink in and figure out how to handle them. "I never befriended you out of pity, Donny. I know what other people said - about you, about me for reaching out to you… But I'm not the biggest fan of listening to general opinion."
"Honestly, I don't really care why you were there, just that you were at all," Donny was laughing, temporarily lifting the mood.
The unanswered question remained suspended, blending with the casual singing of crickets and the calm night gusts.
Donny scooped up the conversation, shrugging his shoulders once more.
"I had a lot of issues back then. I changed myself, my look, to get away from it all and to be taken more seriously," revealed, both of them knowing all too well what "it" he was referring to. "And when I got out of the correctional school my parents put me in, I went right into college. I've been working my way to the top since. But Max," he hesitated, "when I saw you again, when I remembered who you were and it all came back to me…it was kind of like a reality check," he explained. "And I have to say I don't honestly feel all that different from the blue-haired, anti-social kid - standing with you now."
"But that's okay," Max supplied quicker and with more emphasis than she was meaning to. "I mean, that's what I was trying to say…that those things don't matter to me. The superficial things…while even they themselves possess uniqueness and beauty. What's wrong with some blue hair?" Max laughed disarmingly.
Donny smiled slowly, sliding his hands into his pockets as he looked upon her with a bit of awe.
"And that's why I'm asking if there's enough luck floating around in this harsh world for me to be with you, as more than a friend," he spoke softly, just loudly enough to be heard.
Max's eyes slid away from his yearning face. As fortuitously sweet as this moment with Donny was, she wasn't unwise enough to overlook the potential explosion beneath the hardened layers of high school drama. Though a perfectly sensitive, kind, caring and attractive man stood before her, baring his soul and asking for her to be his, her thoughts were on someone else. For her, there was no denying that.
Donny, seeing the cloud that suddenly masked Max's usually expressive eyes, dipped his head with a dejected sort of smile. "But perhaps my luck has run out...this time."
Thank you for the reviews! I've been trying to finish this chapter for a long time. I've just been so busy with school and other things, but I try to write whenever I have the energy and spare time. Makes for some slow writing, though. I cannot believe people are still interested in this story! Thank you.
(About the ending of the last chapter - I know I'm known for being a suspense/action/thriller romance writer, and you'll find that in high-intensity stories like the Guardian Angel series I wrote, I had plenty of in-your-face cliffhangers to close out chapters. But (for this piece especially) it's not my desire to write in that same manner. The plot of this story is much more subtle than GA's, and it's one where I'll disclose information little by little, until it climaxes and you're all fully aware of what's going on. In some ways, you could think of this story as more of a mystery.)
I'll be back soon with more! And yes, I'll be returning to Terry's POV some more in this story.