"Oh, look who it is," Judith griped. "The king who isn't, back again from his travels. I thought maybe he'd got lost and been eaten."
"I told you once," Max said calmly, stepping out of the boat, "nothing can eat me."
It had been a long time since he'd run to the island. The need for it had grown less over the years. There had been occasions -- a teacher giving him a hard time over undone homework, his mother shouting at him when he came home after a fight. Time and age brought coping mechanisms though, and there had been less times when he needed to escape, less times when he ended with excess energy which could only be exercised in a wild romp.
Sometimes, though, Max just needed to get away. There had been an argument with his girlfriend, Sarah, earlier which had spiralled out of control. She'd called him selfish, jealous, aggressive. He'd stormed at her, furious at the accusations. It wasn't as though she were perfect. She'd turned away, flinched when he grabbed at her arm, screamed at him.
He'd stomped off. What else was there to do? She would call him when she'd calmed down, he was certain of it. The creeping fear that she might not was not something to be thought or voiced aloud.
So, he came here, to the island where no-one had cause to say that he was too aggressive or badly-behaved. Even if the welcome might make him wonder why he bothered.
"Where's Carol?" he asked, noticing his absence, "and KW?"
A crashing in the distance answered his question, and he sighed. "Fighting, again?"
"I think maybe it would be better if they just stopped speaking to each other," Alexander said mournfully. "Then maybe they would get over it in the end."
As usual, nobody seemed to hear him.
"Maybe they wouldn't fight if we had a proper king," Judith said pointedly. "One who stuck around for more than five minutes before running away overseas at the drop of a hat."
"We could just stop rebuilding the huts," Ira observed. "It's not as though they stay up for more than a week at a time in any case."
Max sighed. It was true that, however often he returned to try to make peace between KW and Carol, he always seemed to find them apart and unhappy again. Still, if he couldn't fix the holes in his own relationship, perhaps at least he could help them. "I suppose I better go find Carol."
"I'll come with you," Douglas offered, and matched Max's pace as he turned towards the sounds of destruction.
Max glanced at him sideways. The bird-like Wild Thing had never been properly balanced since that one awful fight so long ago, a stick making an uncomfortable substitute for what had once been an arm. "Don't you mind having only one arm?" he asked softly.
Douglas shrugged. "He didn't mean to," he said, as though that excused everything.
They found Carol, as expected, at the huts, smashing into them with all the considerable force he could manage. Pieces of broken wood were scattered about, the huts sporting gaping holes.
"Carol!" Max called. "Carol, this has to stop!"
"Tell KW it has to stop then," Carol's voice replied sullenly, and there was another crash. "I don't see why we should have all these huts for living in together, if no-one even cares if we stay together."
"I care," Alexander said softly, and Max wondered how long he had been following them.
"We'll sort it out," Max said, "but we can't sort it out if you keep smashing things. Carol, come on. We can help you."
Carol stomped out of the huts towards him, still gripping a large branch between his claws. Once Max had been intimidated, but Max was bigger now, almost of a height with the Wild Thing.
"If you wanted to help me," he said angrily, "you shouldn't have left."
Max stood his ground. "I had to leave," he said. "I told you that. I have... other things to do. It's part of being an explorer."
"Other friends?" Carol's voice was a snarl of hurt and anger. "Friends you love better than me?"
"It's nothing to do with that," Max said wearily. It was difficult to explain to Carol that beyond the world of the Wild Things there was another world, one where he had a real life to lead. "Carol, I told you."
Carol swung the branch, and for a moment Max thought it would come crashing down on his head. It hit a hut instead, the wood splintering. "You leave, KW leaves, everybody leaves!" he said. "If people aren't going to stay here, they don't need anywhere to live, do they?"
"I've always stayed," Alexander said, his voice small. "I never went anywhere."
"We all need somewhere to live," Douglas said. "And not all of us are leaving, Carol."
"Tell them that," Carol said, and brought the branch down again hard. "They're the ones making this happen."
It sounded wrong, felt wrong suddenly, and Max shook his head. "No," he said. "You're the one making this happen, Carol."
Carol glared at him, uncertain for a moment and then all the more angry. "You're the ones who left!"
"I left because I had to," Max said quietly. "But you can't make people stay by breaking their things, Carol. If you make them unhappy then why should they want to stay -- or come back?"
"It's not my fault!" Carol reverted to angry defensiveness, voice raised to a roar.
"Yes," Max said, suddenly understanding, "it is."
He turned suddenly, and started to walk away. Douglas and Alexander followed uncertainly.
"Shouldn't we try to help him?" Douglas asked softly.
"No," Max said, his voice low and regretful. "At some point he needs to learn how to help himself."
"I'll smash things!" Carol called to their backs, "I'll... I'll gnaw my feet off!"
Max just kept walking, his heart heavy. When it seemed as though Alexander might turn and head back to Carol, he reached to take the goat-like creature's wrist, holding it tightly until Carol was left in the distance.
He found KW by the beach, watching Bob and Terry circle above her. "You've come to ask me to go back," she said without turning to look at Max.
"No," Max said, and sat down on the sand, staring out at the sea. "I shouldn't have asked you before, should I?"
"No." And now she turned her face to him, sadness in her great eyes. "But you were only a boy. It was natural that you should want people together. No matter the price."
"He is afraid," Max said softly, remembering the defense of Carol he had once used. "But.. so are you. Aren't you?"
Slowly, KW nodded. "Sometimes," she admitted quietly. "When he's angry, or upset, or threatening to hurt someone. Or hurt himself." She shook her head. "Carol has a way of making you feel as though you are the one to blame, even when he's breaking things. It makes it hard to know what to do for the best."
"So you go back, because it seems to make everyone happy," Max said, and remembered what Judith had said long ago. "But I guess happiness really isn't always the best way to be happy, after all." He shook his head. "Will you go back?"
"Do you think I should?"
Max hesitated, and then shook his head. "It teaches him that it's right, doesn't it?" he said. "Every time you do, and no-one tells him he was wrong in case he gets angry again. And he's unhappy because he never understands that he did wrong, so he never says sorry, and he doesn't understand why it keeps happening."
"Now you understand," KW said, a note of sadness in her voice. "And you are not a boy any more."
They sat together for a while in silence as the owls flew and called to each other in the dimming light.
"Are you staying?" KW asked finally. "Bob and Terry say that you would be welcome."
Max hesitated. It would be easy to stay here, where he always seemed so reasonable in comparison to everyone else.
But he thought again of Carol's behaviour, and of his own behaviour earlier that day, and flushed deep red in sudden shame. Sarah had been angry, and he had been afraid that she would leave. But perhaps, just perhaps, he had not been the only one afraid. Perhaps, even, he had given her more cause to be.
Perhaps you had to accept you had been wrong before you could prevent something happening again.
"Are you staying?" KW asked again. "I have a hut still that Carol has not found to smash."
"No," Max said regretfully. "I think I have to go say sorry."
It wasn't a magical cure. Perhaps she would forgive him, and perhaps she would not, but love shouldn't depend on staying quiet through fear of a temper, or feeling too guilty not to return. At some point Max had to learn to say sorry, and mean it, and try not to lose his temper any more.
At some point Max had to grow up.