The alley was so dark it was like being at the bottom of the sea on a moonless, overcast night after the heat death of the universe. For Sam, every step was a feat of willpower he'd never known he was capable of.
"Come on, Sam!" called Max, from somewhere in the murk. "Quit being such a wuss!"
Sam focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Max was right. He did have to stop being such a wuss. According to Max, playing in dark, ominous alleys was really fun. He said he did it all the time, and nothing bad had happened to him even once. Maybe Sam's mother was just being overprotective, like the time she'd got angry just because he'd eaten two gallons of ice cream and thrown up all over the TV. That hadn't even been his fault. Anybody would have got sick from camera work that shaky.
Now it was so dark it was like being at the bottom of the sea on a moonless, overcast night after the heat death of the universe, and also with a blindfold on. Sam's heart began to race. But he wasn't a wuss. He wasn't. He could have fun. He would have fun.
He tried to speak, but it come out as a squeak. He cleared his throat tried again. "O... Okay. I'll be a cop, and you be a mugger." If there was a more perfect game to play in a dark alley, Sam didn't know it.
"Oh boy!" said Max, in what Sam considered to be an inappropriately loud voice.
Sam closed his eyes for a second to give Max a chance to hide. When he opened them, all he could see was darkness. This was fun! It was a lot of fun! What was he, a little girl?
Somehow, his heart wouldn't stop trying to beat out of his chest.
"Ooga booga!" yelled Max, leaping at him from behind.
Sam only just managed to dodge out of the way. He spun around, held his fingers in a gun position, and said "You're under arrest, evil doer!"
There was a loud burst of profanity from very close by, and Sam froze. There was somebody else there. An adult. Who swore.
"It's the cops!" said another voice.
"Run!" said Max.
Sam started to back away. He hit something alive and froze again, which gave the something the chance to grab him.
"Hey!" It was the person who'd sworn. "It's just a little dog kid!"
Sam tried to pull away. "Max!" he called.
"Let's take him with us!" said the other voice. "Kid could come in handy for, uh... Hey, stop that!"
"Max, help me out here!" yelled Sam. He struggled as hard as he could, but he couldn't get free.
Max didn't answer.
Out of desperation, Sam bit the hand that was holding him. He'd be embarrassed about how stereotypical it was later, when he wasn't being kidnapped.
The person dropped him. "Ow! You... stupid mutt!"
Sam ran straight into the other adult, who grabbed him and forced his mouth shut. "Hey, give me some of that rope."
"Let me go!" Sam tried to say through his closed mouth.
The man holding him began wrapping a rope around his muzzle. "This'll keep you quiet."
Sam tried to hit them somewhere tender, but he was too scared to put much force behind it. This was exactly the kind of thing he'd been afraid of. Max never listened to him. And now he might never see Max again.
His mother had told him a lot of stories about why he didn't want to be kidnapped by crooks. So had his brother, and his had been even more gory and interesting. He'd seemed to have a new one every time Sam asked.
Every single one of the stories was now running through his head. What was going to happen to him? The men weren't even talking anymore, probably because of how tight they had to hold him to keep him from escaping.
They dragged him out of the alley, and threw him in the trunk of a car. Sam managed to fight back the terror and the minor head injury long enough to push on the door, but it wouldn't budge. He scooted into the back, where he could sit without crinking his neck too much, and blinked fiercely. He wasn't going to cry. He'd look stupid if he was crying when he escaped.
He tried to think, but all the stories kept popping back up in his mind. He was pretty sure you couldn't really turn a person inside out, and he didn't know why anyone would want to do that anyway, but he'd given it a lot of thought back before, and now the mental image wouldn't go away.
Why had he gone into that alley? His mother was right. It was stupid. He'd been stupid and it was all Max's fault.
Sam flew into the wall as the car screeched to a halt. Outside, he could hear screaming and gunshots. He felt a sudden surge of hope. What if the people kidnapping him got shot? Then he wouldn't be kidnapped anymore!
But his kidnappers were the only ones who even knew he was there. Sam fought back tears again. What if he was stuck in here forever? Being buried alive was on his list of top 50 worst ways to die, and being trapped in the trunk of a car with his mouth tied shut was sort of similar.
He made muffled noises as loud as he could.
It must have worked, because the trunk opened and someone shone a flashlight inside.
Sam blinked in the dazzling light, tried to stand up, and stumbled and fell backwards.
Great. Now he looked like an idiot in front of the flashlight person.
Strong hands lifted him out. "There you go, kid."
Sam stared up at his rescuer, but all he could see was a shadow.
"Now go run along and play, or do drugs, or whatever kids your age do," said the man. It was definitely a man. He sounded like a man, and he smelt like one too. He also smelled like scotch.
There was a loud gunshot from very close by, and Sam's rescuer dropped the flashlight and leapt over the car.
Sam squinted, and could just about make out a man, who was probably in his twenties, punching and shooting and being the best person in the world. He didn't know how long he'd been staring before the man turned around and said "Are you still here? Go on, go back home!"
Oh yeah. He was still in danger. Sam ran in a random direction until the sounds of fighting faded into the normal night-time cacophony.
His terror slowly faded, to be replaced by a slightly different terror. It was so dark he could barely read the graffiti on the street signs. The sun had obviously gone down long ago. How much time had he spent that car? His mother was going to kill him. He almost wished that he hadn't been rescued, but not very hard.
Sam slowed down to get his bearings, and gulped. He had no idea where he was. He stared up at the nearby buildings for a few seconds, then started walking again. There was nothing to do but walk. Maybe he'd end up somewhere familiar if he walked enough.
Or maybe he'd end up upstate. The city had to end somewhere.
He walked and walked, and walked some more. He walked past 24-hour convenience stores, erotic massage parlours, and unconvincing fronts for criminal gangs. He walked past muggings, shootings, and more than one deadly game of hopscotch. He still had no idea where he was, or what time it was. His mother was going to double kill him.
An endless stream of cars zoomed by on the road. They all knew where they going. Sam wished he was a car.
One of the cars braked hard and pulled up next to him. An hour ago, Sam would have backed away, but now he just didn't care. Let him get kidnapped again. At least he wouldn't have to walk.
"Sarah?" He recognised that voice!
His older sister jumped out of the car. "Sam! What are you doing out here?"
Again, Sam tried not to cry. This time he failed.
Sarah patted him on the back. "Hey now, don't cry, you little dweeb." She was probably trying to be nice to him. She'd never been very good at that.
"Me and Max were in an alley and I got kidnapped and now I don't know how to get home," Sam managed, between swallowed sobs.
Sarah turned back to the car and called, "My little brother needs a ride. Can you take him to the subway?"
"Sure," said a male voice that Sam didn't recognise. It sounded a lot older than Sarah. Their mother probably would not have approved.
Sarah pulled Sam into the car. "Come on, Katie's boyfriend is gonna take you to the subway."
Sam found himself sandwiched between two pre-teen girls who reeked of perfume and make-up.
"Don't upset him, he's crying," Sarah instructed her friends.
"I... I'm not crying," said Sam, who really wasn't anymore. His fur was only a little damp.
"What were you even doing in an alley?" said Sarah. "Mom's gonna kill you! You never listen to her!"
"It was Max's idea," muttered Sam. Also, he was pretty sure that Sarah wasn't supposed to be in a car with someone so old they could drive, but he didn't say so. He didn't want to seem ungrateful.
"Typical," said Sarah. "I don't know why you even hang around with that little psychopath."
"He's my friend," said Sam.
"Mom thinks he's a bad influence," said Sarah.
"He's my friend," repeated Sam.
His mother was probably right.
Max was a little disappointed. Who would have thought that real criminals liked to hang out in dark alleys? It looked like Sam had run away in a different direction or something, because he hadn't seen him all night. He'd looked, too. He'd wandered around calling Sam's name for seconds, maybe even minutes, until somebody had shot at him.
They'd missed. Maybe. He wasn't good at telling stuff like that.
Sam would be able to figure it out, when Max saw him. Usually they met up on the way to school, but today Max was nearly there and he hadn't seen him at all. Max thought that was weird, until he discovered a squashed rat on the road and forgot all about it.
He found Sam sitting alone in the school playground, near the monkey bars. He looked like he was fidgeting or nervous or crying or one of those emotions. One of his eyes was swollen shut again.
Max slid up to him with his best slide. "Hey, Sam! What happened to you last night?"
Sam stared at the ground and mumbled something.
That was as good an answer as any. "Come on, let's see if we can make the first-graders think they're the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust!" suggested Max. He grabbed Sam by the arm.
Sam pulled away, still looking at the ground. "Mom says..." Max missed the rest of whatever he was trying to say because he was talking so quiet.
"She says a lot of things!" said Max, in his best tough guy voice. "Come on!"
"Mom says we can't hang out anymore," repeated Sam, a little louder.
"Okay," said Max. Who cared what she said? "Let's go find some red goggles and spent ammo!"
Sam didn't move. "I can't. Mom won't let me."
"You're not gonna listen to her, are you?" said Max. This was disgusting. He'd thought Sam was getting less wussy. This was practically the opposite.
"They tried to kidnap me last night," said Sam.
"And?" said Max. He obviously wasn't kidnapped anymore, or he wouldn't be there. One of the good things about being kidnapped was that you didn't have to go to school.
Sam kicked the dirt. "I didn't even wanna go in there. I got kidnapped because of you."
Max was mystified. "So what?"
Sam started to smile slightly, then stopped himself. "Mom... mom thinks I shouldn't hang out with someone who gets me kidnapped."
"Huh?" said Max. He'd spaced out a little.
"We can't be friends anymore," said Sam, more forcefully than usual.
What? What? Max could never tell where a conversation was going in any case, but he especially hadn't been expecting that. "Huh?" Sam was his best friend. They'd been best friends since Max had transferred to their school and saved him from those kindergarten bullies. That was the way things were.
Sam hesitated. "Sorry."
Max spent the rest of the day in a stupor. That wasn't unusual, but what was unusual was how little fun he had. Every time he tried to sit near Sam, Sam would get up and go somewhere else. At lunch he even sat with Tris and Paul. Tris and Paul! Those jerks.
Max hid under their table. That'd show them.
"Hey Sam, what happened to your eye?" he heard Paul say.
Max never asked Sam why he was hurt. Half the time he'd been there with him, the wuss. Paul was such a jerk.
"I... fell down the stairs," Sam mumbled.
Well that was a huge lie. "Was that before or after your mom hit you?" said Max.
Wait, wasn't he supposed to be hiding or something? Oh well.
Sam ducked down and stared. "Max!"
"What?" said Max. "She does." It wasn't like it was a secret.
Tris ducked after Sam and grabbed Max. "Get out of here, you furry freak!" He slapped him a couple of times. "No offence, Sam."
Max wriggled out of his grip and bent back Tris's fingers. "Sam, hold him down so I can..."
He trailed off. Sam was just looking at him. He wasn't moving, or even smiling. Just looking. "Sorry, Max."
Max stared at him pathetically while Tris struggled. He was still staring when a teacher forcibly separated them and gave them both detention.
Max didn't notice the rest of class. He didn't notice detention. He didn't notice walking home. He didn't even notice the daily battle for the limited supply of after-school snacks.
He was sitting on the floor, absently picking stuff out of his bellybutton, when his older brother Robbie approached, a toddler rabbit hanging off his arm by the teeth. "Max, are you okay?"
Max looked up at him. "Huh?"
"You look kinda out of it," said Robbie. "And I think someone followed you home." He pointed behind Max.
Max looked around excitedly, only to see someone who wasn't Sam. "Jennie?"
Jennie smiled at him annoyingly."I hear you and Sam aren't friends anymore. You made the right choice, Max. The right choice."
For some reason, Robbie stopped him from throwing her out the window. He was such a wet blanket sometimes.
Once she'd been sent home, via the door, Robbie sat down next to Max and said "So you and Sam had a fight, huh?"
Max nodded, his eyes on the floor. "He said... uh... He said something."
Robbie patted him on the back.
"This sucks," Max mumbled. "I wish I was never born." What was the point of being born when you couldn't have fun with your friends?
Robbie jumped up and grabbed Max by the shoulders. "What did you say? Never say that!"
What was this, school? "But it does suck!" It was barely even a swear.
"Not that!" said Robbie. He shook Max so hard that the toddler fell off. "The thing about not being born! What month is this?"
"Uh..." said Max. He couldn't remember. They kept changing it. That was another thing that sucked.
"It's December," said Robbie. "The one thing you should never do in December is wish you'd never been born! Do you know what happens if you do?"
"No..." muttered Max. His foot itched.
Robbie leaned in close. "An angel will come to you in the night, and teach you corny lessons about the value of life. You don't want that, do you?"
"No," muttered Max again, but he almost didn't care.
Max couldn't sleep. He'd got the hard spot on the carpet, the one with all the dried pasta sauce. He hadn't been stuck with the pasta sauce spot since he was six.
But that wasn't why he couldn't sleep.
Max sat up. Someone had said his name, but nobody else seemed to be awake. Who would say his name in their sleep? He was going to beat them up once he figured out who they were.
"Max... Can you hear me?"
"Yeah!" said Max, then lowered his voice. Some of his siblings got really angry and punchy if they were woken up in the middle of the night. Actually, most of them did. "Yeah, and shut up!"
"Max, listen to me," said the unseen voice.
Max looked around the darkened room. He could see his siblings, sleeping on couches and armchairs and kitchen chairs and the TV and the floor and the ceiling. He couldn't see who he was talking to. "Where are you? Let me hit you!"
"Oh. My apologies."
A slightly transparent rabbit of about Max's age materialised in front of him.
Max squinted. "Bennie?" he said at last. He couldn't figure out which brother this kid was, or why he was see-through. He'd always wanted to be see-through. He and Sam should...
"I'm not Bennie," said the rabbit irritably. He flapped his wings a bit.
Max couldn't remember whether Bennie had wings or not. "Are you sure?"
"I am an angel!" said the rabbit. He flapped harder.
Max wrinkled his forehead. There was something about angels he'd heard recently... Something important... But it probably didn't matter.
The angel laid an incorporeal hand on Max's shoulder. "So you wish you were never born, huh?"
"I do?" said Max. He didn't remember saying anything like that.
"Then let me show you a future in which you were never born..." said the angel mystically.
He wasn't sure why, but that seemed wrong, somehow. "Aren't you supposed to show me the present?"
"Max, you're still in elementary school," said the angel. "Do you honestly think that the world would be at all affected by your absence?"
Max scratched his head. This guy used too many words.
"Now take my hand, and I'll show you a future without Max," intoned the angel, grabbing Max by the wrist.
The room dissolved.
"Cool!" said Max. Could he do that do, or was it just for angels? He wanted to learn how to do that!
They appeared in a grocery store that smelled of overripe fruit and stale cereal. The lights were dimmed, and the moans of tortured souls emanated from all sides.
The angel waved his hands. "An innocent supermarket, terrorised by a ghostly beast from the realm of the damned."
"Wow!" said Max, as a family ran past screaming. "And what is it like without me?"
"This is what it's like without you," said the angel, sounding annoyed. And also annoying.
The room dissolved again. Now they were standing on a barren, rocky planet. The sun was shining, but the sky was black. Nothing moved, not even the wind.
"Do I stop this from happening too?" said Max. What was wrong with his future self? This version of Earth was awesome!
The angel rolled his eyes, and the view of the dead planet dissolved. "Look," he said. "A horror from the dark dimensions rampages through the streets. It's the end of civilisation as we know it. Don't you want to stop that, even a little bit?"
Max shrugged. The city looked really cool in all the firelight. "I dunno. Am I the horror from the dark dimensions?"
"No!" snapped the angel. "You don't exist, remember?"
Max scratched himself. "Oh yeah. I'm gonna go back to sleep, okay?"
He lay down in the middle of the street as all the nearby buildings collapsed on top of him.
"Max! Max! Max! Max!"
"Leave me alone," Max mumbled. He batted at the air. Stupid angel. He needed to hurry up and leave him alone. Angels were so stupid, he hated them!
"Max! Max! Max! Max! Max!"
Max felt something shake him. "Go away!"
"Come on Max, you promised her," said Robbie's voice.
Max rolled over. "I did not." He opened his eyes so he could glare better.
But it wasn't the angel. It was his little sister, Liza. He'd been wondering why he sounded so much like a girl all of a sudden.
"You promised me you'd show me how to suplex!" said Liza.
Max didn't remember that, but if Robbie said so, then it must be true. He sat up and said "I had the weirdest dream. There was an angel... Oh no."
The angel was floating behind them, smiling.
"Look!" said Max, pointing. "The angel! He's over there!"
"Everybody get down!" yelled Robbie. He drew his gun and fired wildly in the direction Max had pointed.
"He's over there!" yelled Max. "There! Are you blind?"
Robbie reloaded his gun. "He's your angel. That means you're the only one who can see him."
Max glared. "That sucks."
Sam made sure he wasn't sitting too close to Max at recess. He wasn't with him. He wasn't allowed to talk to him, and besides, he was mad at him.
He also made sure he wasn't sitting too far from him. He was so bored. He wanted to run around, and maybe try to figure out how to turn semi-transparent like Max had tried to tell him about.
He sat with his hands on his chin. He was so, so bored. He had to find a new friend who was as awesome as Max, but who got him kidnapped a little less. That would be ideal.
He wasn't listening to what Max was saying, either. It seemed like Max missed Sam as much as Sam missed Max. He didn't normally talk to himself.
Not that Sam actually missed him or anything. Good riddance. Tris and Paul and whatever other boys where in his class were way cooler, even if they didn't like shaking trees to see if horrible monsters fell out, and even if they did call him Rover all the time.
"If you don't go away right now, my big brother's gonna shoot you!" said Max, pointing his fingers like a gun. He paused like he was listening, then added "I don't care, he'll be here!"
Was he talking to someone? There was nobody nearby except Sam. There usually wasn't, around Max.
"I don't care!" said Max again. "Hey, show me that cool desolate Earth future again." He paused. "Man, I thought Sam was a goody-two-shoes."
Sam looked where Max was looking. There was nothing there that he could see, but Max was really getting upset by something. So Sam picked up a rock.
"Yeah? Well why don't you go back to heaven?" said Max, in his tough guy voice.
Sam threw the rock, and it bounced off thin air with a satisfying crack.
Max looked around. "Sam!" he said happily. "You killed it!"
Sam walked over to him, trying to see what it was. "Now we're even," he said, trying to sound nonchalant.
That was Max. He never knew what anyone was talking about, ever. "You saved me from bullies when we met, remember?"
"Uh..." said Max.
"And I saved you from the invisible guy you were arguing with," said Sam. "That means I repaid my debt." He kind of wished he hadn't, though. Now he had no excuse to hang around.
"You're... indebted to me?" said Max, beginning to smile.
Sam was surprised that he knew that word. "Not anymore."
Max snorted. "You are so. What about the time I saved you from that meteor that was gonna crash on your head?"
"That never happened!" said Sam, beginning to smile a bit. "That's not even what meteor means!" By definition, meteors burned up in the atmosphere before they could hit anything. Max was thinking of meteorites.
"I remember it differently," said Max, a little smugly. "And what about that giant killer tree?"
"Oh yeah." He'd give Max that one.
"And the time I saved you from those bullies in third grade," added Max.
Sam resisted a grin. Then he stopped resisting. "I guess I owe you for a lot of stuff, huh?"
"Yes," said Max in a serious tone that was ruined by his wide smile.
Sam guessed that Max had protected him more times than he'd put him in danger. The times he'd put in him in danger and then protected him from it counted as protection, he decided. He'd tell his mother that, and maybe she'd listen. Maybe.
"That means you have to be my friend again," said Max.
Sam pretended to think it over. "Uh, okay."
"And also my slave," Max added.
Sam chuckled. Max always made him laugh. Even when he couldn't tell if he was serious.