I browse through the shirt racks at the Gap, a shopping store not up to my standards, but the only one I can afford since Aunt Broom-Hilda stole all the credit cards in my wallet. She left me with nothing but six thousand dollars cash. Better spend this money wisely until I – gulp – find a job. Goofy said something about his neighbor owning a used-car dealership, maybe I can find something doable there. By doable, I mean easy and little work, 'cause if this guy is supposed to be Goofy's best friend, then I'm assuming he's as dumb. I can probably sway him with a "love thy neighbor" line and earn my money by slacking off all day.
Nodding my head to a very old Nirvana song rocking the shop – which I'm aware, is the newest hit in this timeline – I shake my head in disgust at the grunge look dominating the clothes around me. All these flannel shirts and acid wash denim jackets and jeans, damn the fashion in the early nineties is horrid.
I jump back when a pair of torn jeans starts shaking and a creepy voice shrieks, "Pick me! Pick me!"
I roll my eyes. "Very mature, moron. Quit it or I'll rip your dangling ear off. Both of them."
Max's head pops out from between the clothes. "Is that what I get for helping you out?"
"You can help out by standing still and shutting the hell up." Lips twisting with disgust, I use the tips of my fingers to hold the pair of jeans by the waistband. "Show me the nutjob who's gonna waste his money on this crap."
Max jumps out of the clothing rack and lands on my foot. I let out a pained grunt and force down the urge to throw him across my lap and spank his tooshie, it's not worth it to get in trouble for publically disciplining a child. The sight of his sneakers makes me slap my forehead and groan in exhaustion. "Would you please tie your shoes? You think you're going for a rebellious look, but all you do is increasing your chances of falling on your face."
"Aw, I love how much you care about me."
I yank a hair out of his head, children rights be damned. "Your shoestring could get stuck in the escalator's conveyor for all I care. Just stand still beside me so I can pick some clothes."
"Fine," he grumbles, stuffing his hands in his pockets and sulking quietly next to me.
I heave a sigh of relief and start flipping through the clothes in frustration. It's been an hour since we arrived to the only decent mall in this tiny town and I haven't bought a thing. Kid brothers are a lot of work! There's no prank in the book this kid didn't do – I particularly didn't enjoy the one with the Whoopee Cushion.
He's rocking back and forth in his place, whistling the Ninja Turtles theme song. When he notices me looking at him, he flashes his white teeth at me, forming a not-so-innocent smile. At least he's not doing anything. Time to focus on the mission at hand.
Okay, clothes, let's see. Dinner with the neighbors tonight, what type of clothes should I wear? Looking at their house from outside earlier – not to mention the giant boat and fancy car – I can tell they're doing better than us. I need the appropriate outfit for tonight, not too fancy and not too casual, and obviously the Gap is the wrong place to go.
A kid bumped into me by mistake trying to run away from the other kid chasing him. He doesn't even apologize as he continues fleeing from his giggling little buddy. Which reminds me, I whip my head to the spot Max "was" standing in, and big surprise, he's not there. Where the heck did he go?
I notice a shiny coin on the floor and let out an unimpressed scoff, not gonna fool me with an old trick like this. I step over the coin and walk toward the next shirt rack – more ugly flannel, I need to get out of this store.
All of a sudden, heaven sends an attractive brunette my way. She brushes against me as she walks, and all thoughts about leaving the store vanish from my mind. She bends over – oh, yeah! – and picks up the un-glued coin from the floor. What?Someone actually dropped a coin on the floor?
Her beautiful curls swing as she turns around and holds up the coin to my line of sight. "Is this yours, sir?"
Ignoring the coin, I look at her closely, feeling the suspicion inside me growing strong. Could this be the prank? Did Max team up with this woman to make a fool out of me? Or maybe there's no prank to begin with. Maybe Max has run off to a toy store or something. Maybe he's lost in this tiny mall – he's eleven you idiot, not three.But still, maybe this is a real ticket to heavenly bliss. A chance to get something out of this hellish experience.
A poke on my arm distracts me from the angelic face of a possible date. I turn to the poker about to rip him in half, except my tongue tangles on itself when I see the grim face of the security officer.
"Sir, may I search your pockets?"
I glance at the woman with a nervous chuckle, mentally raging at the man for busting my one chance at a true happiness. "Is something wrong, officer?" I ask with a cool, confident voice.
"I've been told you snuck a bra into your pocket."
The pretty woman giggles, turns around and swings her hips away. I try calling after her, but the cat bites my tongue when I catch the little monster snickering outside the store.
The officer's hand goes into my pocket and pulls out a lacy orange bra. "Sir, you're gonna have to pay for this."
"I did NOT take it! It was th…" I point at the glass but, conveniently, Max has already disappeared. That damn little weasel!
After paying for a bra I would never wish on my worst enemies, I search around for the brat. How the hell did he sneak that bra into my pocket without me feeling it? And can we please stop it with the practical jokes? I get it. Lying to him last night was probably a little cruel, and the two pranks on the way to the mall were uncalled for, and maybe shoving him against the old lady who swatted him with her purse was pushing it too far, butnone of that compares to what he just did. I vowed to spend my money wisely, and that was a hundred and thirty dollars gone to waste.
Oh, there he is, giggling quietly behind the ATM machine. I march toward him and pull on his ear to get his attention.
He yelps in shock, but bursts into a full blown laugh when he sees my face.
"You dweeb! I should have known you'd sink this low, pulling a Dodger on me. Only in reverse."
"Of course. How could someone like you know a thing about a famous Charles Dickens novel?" I crouch in front of him until we're face to face and fix my hard stare on him. "If you pull another prank, I'll mail you to China where they still have child labor, do you understand?"
I don't know if it's the angry look in my eyes or my firm tone or even my lame threat, but his eyes widen with fear and he gives a quick nod. Pleased, I straighten my back and frown down at him. "I've got some shopping to do. And you're carrying my bags."
Max stares in fascination at his clean bedroom and neglects to thank my hard work, of course. It had taken me hours to turn this dump into a decent room, which to Max must look like a five stars hotel room. For my troubles, the kid tosses the bags that contain my new clothes in his trashcan and rushes toward his desk.
I get them out and glare at him as he takes one of the sharpened pencils out of the Number One Son cup. He tests the sharp tip with his gloved finger and nods in satisfaction, putting the pencil back in the cup. Then, he brushes a finger on the shiny surface of his desk and holds it up to his eyes, giving another nod of approval. I roll my eyes at his Miss Minchin impression – I won't be shocked if he doesn't know who that is either. What do they teach these kids in these rotting public schools? A kid who doesn't know Oliver Twist, is this what our generation has come to?
I open the empty closet and sit cross-legged on the floor in front of it, taking out the few clothes I bought from the bags. Since Max isn't using his closet, I decide to make it my own. I hear the brat's impressed whistle and glance at him, sitting on his bed and admiring the arranged books on the shelf.
He jumps down the ladder and strolls toward his wooden chest. Reaching to pull out a drawer, he skips back when his clothes burst out like a blast of confetti in an unwanted surprise birthday party.
"I jammed your junk in there," I explain casually, "You don't expect me to fold them and arrange them inside the drawers, do you?"
Max puts his fists on his hips and lifts an eyebrow at me. "You could've at least not let them suffocate in there."
I hold up a shirt in front of him to see. "Watch me as I fold my new clothes and place them very neatly in the closet. The trick is to put the folded shirts on top of each other. Just like this." I demonstrate with the couple of shirts I bought, point at them and throw him a charming smile.
"Haha, I'm sure I'll pass out from laughter any minute now," his voice drips icicles, but he starts collecting his clothes from the floor. I should be awarded for being such a good influence.
I take out my new boxers and tank tops and touch them with undying affection, mentally singing goodbye to Goofy's fluffy pajamas. I haven't bought much and in a way I feel a sense of pride for spending less than a thousand dollars today. These clothes may not be hot quality, but I can live on them for the time being.
"Check this out." Max pulls out a shiny object from the baths of rumbled clothes. "How much money do you think it's worth?"
My heart almost gives out as I stare at the circle-shaped gold in Max's hand covered with small, strange engravings. I draw out the necklace hidden inside the shirt I'm wearing and realize that Max is holding the gold sun, my only way to escape this timeline.
"Give me that!" I leap at him like a lion onto his prey, but my prey jumps back and holds on tightly to the key to my freedom.
"It's mine. I found it in my room."
"Our room," I correct, tackling him again.
Max slips between my parted legs and climbs up to his bed. "Hey, finders keepers!"
"It's mine, but I lost it." I crane my neck to look up at him, desperation clear in my voice.
"It wasn't in your clothes."
"I lost it when I was cleaning your crap!"
"So, you really want this, huh?" That glint in his eye, that son of a bitch thinks he owns me now. Unfortunately for me, he does. The jerk places the gold sun between his fingers, blowing on it and wiping it with his thumb. "How much would you pay for it?"
Nothing, you scum! I've only got five thousand dollars and I'm not wasting them on this elf. Besides, who knows where I'll end up next? That is, ifI get my hands on the gold sun.
"Max, quit playing around and give it to me."
"But it's mine."
"Yeah, right! See this?" I show him my necklace. "They go together."
Max looks between the sun and the moon, noting the similar engravings. Feeling the knot of frustration in my chest loosening up, I take a couple of careful steps forward. "It fell off my necklace into your drawer while I was cleaning," I say slowly, as if talking to a wild animal that may bite if I approach it too fast.
"I saw your necklace yesterday when we changed your clothes and there was no sun in it."
He smirks. I fume, resisting the strong urge to stomp my foot. "Obviously it's mine. It goes with the necklace."
"How would I know you didn't steal the necklace like you stole my skateboard yesterday?"
We narrow our eyes at each other before I let out an exasperated growl and jump on my bed, boosting myself up to his bed. We wrestle on his bed for a minute, then drop down to my bed. Pinning him down, I try to free the sun from his death grip, realizing that I'm fighting a losing battle.
"Give it to me, Max!"
"I'm telling your dad!"
Goofy whistles his way into our room, but stops in place when he sees the cat fight. A question mark pops on the top of his head.
I point at Max and poke his nose hard. "He took my sun!"
Another question mark pops on top of Goofy's head. "Your sun?"
"Yeah, it goes with the necklace. See? Every moon needs a sun."
Goofy crosses his arms and gives his son a stern stare. "Maxie, give him back his sun."
"Sun?" Max blinks in fake innocence. "What are you talking about?"
I punch his head. "The gold sun, you dolt! Give it now!"
"Bradley, violence isn't the right way to get what you want. And there's no need to use that sort of language."
"But he took it!"
"I didn't take anything, Dad. That's not how you raised me."
I grab him by the collar and blow dragon breath on his face. "You hid it, right? Where is it?" I search his pockets, under his shirt, in his hair. "Is it here? Or there?"
Strong hands clasp my shoulders and drag me back away from Max. "Bradley, calm down. I saw your moon necklace yesterday and it had no sun."
I point at Max, struggling to free myself from his father's grip. "That's because he took it!"
Max blinks his puppy dog eyes at Goofy. "I don't know what he's talking about."
I try my best not to explode, counting from one to ten and feeling myself relaxing. I pry Goofy's hands off of me and slap my forehead. "I just remembered that I'd packed it in my luggage. God knows where it is now."
"Oh, that's unfortunate, Bradley. C'mon, maybe helping me step on tomatoes would lift your spirits."
I follow him out of the room, and then peek inside to see if Max will bring out the gold sun. Still sitting on my bed, he's whistling innocently.
"This isn't over," I grit my teeth.
I strut down the stairs like some dashing supermodel, rocking a white polo shirt and a pair of khaki shorts. To keep with the nineties fashion, I tied a blue sweater around my neck. I have no clue if what I'm wearing is appropriate enough for our neighbors, but at least it's the closest thing to normal. Max thought the look was boring and suggested chain wallets and mood rings. I'm sorry, Maxo, but looking at what you'rewearing I won't be caught dead taking fashion advises from you.
My peacock walk gets interrupted by a sleeping Waffles that appears out of nowhere. I step on the stupid animal and my walk of pride turns into the fall of shame.
"Are you all right, Bradley?" Goofy jumps to my side in an instant, slapping my cheeks to numbness.
I push him away, trying my best to muster a polite smile. "I'm all right. You don't need to fuss over me like a mother hen."
He gives me that warm smile again, so I clear my throat and look around. "Uh, where's the kid?"
"At PJ's." Goofy springs to his feet and extends a hand for me.
I let him help me up. "At our guests' house?"
"Oh, Bradley, they're family." The doorbell rings, and Goofy twirls around in happiness. "Oh, they're here. Let them in, would ya, Bradley?"
I nod, wincing at the sight of a grown man skipping as he dances toward the kitchen. I head for the door, and before I get a chance to open it, Max and PJ burst inside and knock me down to the floor. They miss my intense glare as the race up the stairs.
I turn to face the little girl I saw yesterday outside the kitchen window, her big blue eyes flicker over me in dissatisfaction. "I'm Pistol. I was so excited when I heard that Maxie has a brother but I see now that you're too big to be fun. I wanted a little brother to play Dolly, Dolly, who's got the Dolly with me, 'cause PJ is getting too big for everything in my room. So, excuse my dis-point-mint."
I blink throughout her babble-fest. "Your what?"
"Pistol-kens, why don't you go and help Goofy in the kitchen?" I turn my gaze toward the woman speaking, but it freezes at the stunning sight of the curviest hips I've ever seen. "Hi, Bradley, is it?"
I try my best to unfreeze my focused gaze on the woman's hips and turn it up toward her face. "Um-uh, the, uh, whoa…" I blink my eyes several times and succeed in breaking the ice, only to have my gaze freeze again at the woman's full breasts.
I let out a helpless groan, squeeze my eyes shut and then spring to my feet exactly the same way Goofy did earlier. I open my eyes and cast a bashful smile at the gorgeous woman before me. "Hi… this is the sound I was going for."
She rolls her eyes – she must come across a lot of perverts like me – and hands me a glass platter filled with pastries. "Nice to meet you. I'm Peg, Goofy's neighbor."
"The pleasure is all mine." I do my gentleman part and carry the platter toward the kitchen, but out of the blue, Goofy's arms fly out of nowhere and knock it out of my hands. It spins in the air, spraying the delicious pasties all over the place. The platter falls on Goofy's head and he wears it as a hat with a laugh.
"Ah-yuck! Hi-ya, Peg."
Peg giggles with delight as if her hard work hasn't gone scattered all over the living room.
Goofy searches around and scratches his head. "Where's Pete?"
She sighs. "It's one of those days, Goofy."
"Oh, how low did he stoop this time?"
"Not as low as the time before last time."
"Your husband won't be joining us?" Now it's my turn to feel some dis-point-mint. I was looking forward to discuss business with the only business man I know in this timeline.
She smiles at me like I'm nothing but a naïve little boy who knows jack about the world. "It's a bliss. Trust me."
Goofy drapes his arm around her shoulders and leads her to the kitchen, grinning at me. "Why don't you call the boys, Bradley? Dinner is ready."
I hang my head in boredom and drag my legs upstairs, hearing the idiots' prattle inside the bedroom. I kick the door open and clap my hands like a kindergarten teacher collecting children after recess time is over. "Move it, you bozos…"
I eat my words when I see Max flipping the gold sun sloppily to PJ who flips it back as carelessly. Face boiling with anger, I rush toward the smaller goofball and grab him by his thick hair. "What the hell are you doing with my gold sun?"
He kicks me in the nads. "Mygold sun, until you pay for it."
My face twists up as an excruciating pain explodes in my manhood; the idiots' scornful laughter isn't helping at all. I kneel on the floor and try to breathe, feeling the pain wearing off gradually. Suddenly, tiny feet jump on my head and knock it down, and the most irritating voice exclaims, "Gold sun! This is the mostest beautiful thing ever! Can I play with it? Can I? Can I? Can I?"
"Pistol, this is not a toy," PJ yells at his annoying sister.
"You don't let me play with anything!"
"'Cause my things are not toys either!"
"But you promised to let me play with your new video game!"
"You don't know how to play with it!"
"Then teach me!"
"I taught you a gazillion times and you still stink!"
"Oh, I hear ya," I interrupt their quarrel with a knowing look, now leaning against the closet with my arms crossed over my chest. "Today I had to show Max how to fold his clothes." I kick the chest and a drawer bursts out with crumbled clothes. "He's a hopeless case."
"Shut up or I'll smack that smirk off your face!"
"Ah, the burden of being a big brother, ain't that right, PJ?"
He massages his temples wearily. "You betcha."
"Oops, sorry, man."
"What are you kids doing?" Goofy's voice drifts from downstairs. "Dinner will get cold."
"We're coming, Mr. G," PJ yells and drags his sister out of the room.
Max and I stare at each other for a second before he stuffs the gold sun in his pocket and walks out of the room.
We make our way downstairs and into the kitchen where everybody is helping setting the table: Peg slapping PJ's hand when he reaches for a chicken wing, Pistol steadying a clumsy Goofy as he makes his way toward the table with a hot pot. Such a strange atmosphere, loud and messy, and yet enthralling.
A bright smile blossoms in my face. "Should I get a booster seat for Max?"
Max is about to flip me the finger, but catches his father looking at him and decides to stick out his tongue instead.
It's a school night, so Peg and her kids had to leave right after dinner. I was gonna hit the bed once they took off – so exhausted I could sleep for months – but Max the menace had tricked his dad into making me wash the dishes. Apparently, since last night was Goofy's turn, going by age, tonight is supposed to be mine. All that scrubbing and washing had slapped the sleep out of my eyes.
Now I'm lying in bed, my bloodshed eyes glaring up at the ceiling. I know Max isn't asleep because he's doing the whole tossing and turning thing. Time for revenge.
"Hey, Max, you never showed me how to slide down the railing on your hands."
The mattress above me stops squeaking. I can easily imagine how flustered he is right now. "You mean a street plant?"
"No, I meant it the way I said it."
"Right. Um, I didn't?"
"I thought I did."
A sly smile plays on my lips. "Why? You scared?"
"Me? No. Told you it's nothing."
"When will you show me?"
"I wanna say tomorrow morning, but I've got school."
"I will do it!"
I turn to my side on bed, stifling my evil snicker. Now he's gonna spend the whole night obsessing over this and he won't get much sleep for school tomorrow. The sound of him tossing and turning returns as I doze off into a satisfied slumber.
A low whispering voice stirs me out of my sleep. I'm greeted by a blurred vision of our bedroom, clearing off on Goofy's face in the photo on Max's desk. I glance back over my shoulder, watching Goofy picking up a drowsy Max and lowering him to the floor.
With a yawn escaping my mouth, I feel extremely glad I don't have to wake up, and hug my pillow tightly. A sudden load drops on me, and soft snoring blares into my ears. I elbow Max out of my bed, smiling at the loud thud.
"Ouch! You jerk!"
"Should thank me for waking you up."
"Should smother you with your own pillow."
"Just go to school, buster."
Mouth hanging open, eyes wide and unblinking, I stare at Goofy working his magic on the torn button on Max's shirt. With an incredible speed, he manages to fix the shirt in no time. "As easy as stealing candy from a baby, though I wouldn't discourage that."
"Uh, you mean encourage."
"No, discourage. It's not immoral, Bradley."
I bite on my lower lip, finally seeing where Max is coming from, then focus my gaze on the fine job Goofy has done with the shirt. "Very interesting, sir," I say with a newfound respect for the man, holding the needle as if it's Aladdin's magic lamp. "So you're saying all I need to fix my clothes is putting that thin thread into this tiny opening?"
"That's what they call sewing."
"I'm learning so much from you, Mr. Goof."
"Ah-yuck, what did your dad teach you at your house?"
My lips lose the smile and set into a tight thin line. "Nothing much."
As he starts clearing the kitchen table, I slip out of the kitchen and into the backyard. I cross the grass toward the tree house and climb up the ladder, leaning my back against the closed door. I lose myself in thoughts as I look at Goofy clowning around through the kitchen window.
Resting my head back, I let the gentle breeze pinch my cheeks, breathing in the fresh spring air. My eyelids grow heavy, drooping down halfway when I hear the sound of kids bickering at each other nearby. I blink my eyes open and spot Max and PJ at a distance getting the living daylights beaten out of them by larger boys.
Poor suckers. Should I just sit here and enjoy the show? Hmmm, it's not fun when it's someone else giving Goof Boy a hard time. Better get my big brother cape.
I jump down from the tree house to the ground, in a heroic show-off manner, but the second my feet hit the ground it hurts like damn hell! I've jarred my freaking bones and my whole body is frozen into numbness. Serves me right for going all Batman to help the little goof.
I try to shake my stinging feet into working, but I give up instantly when Max's scream blares into my ears. I start hopping like a loser out of the yard and into the street. Once they're at sight, I put on my resolve face and do my best to march toward them, all threatening and dangerous.
A redheaded bully is giving PJ the wedgie of his life while his Billy Idol wannabe friend is pinning Max to the ground.
"Get the heck off of me!" Max struggles to free himself, but his small form is no match for the bulky kid on top of him.
"Give us your allowance or we'll beat you to a pulp just like we did yesterday at the comic book store."
I stop on my tracks, my mind flashing back to Max's horrible state yesterday. I thought he had an accident with PJ's skateboard. I didn't know he was bullied at the shop – which makes you wonder, who allows kids to beat other kids in their own stores?
I cross my arms and knit my eyebrows together. "Get away from them."
The kid who's just about to punch Max's face scowls at me. "Who are you?"
I nod at Max. "I'm his brother."
"Goofball has a brother?"
My glare intensified. "I'll start counting from three, and if you phonies don't skedaddle out of here, I'll jam your heads together."
Both bullies eye me with suspicion and send me into a furious rampage. I move toward them and grab them by the collars, smacking their heads together and smirking at the flying birds in their pupils.
I toss them to the ground like a pair of torn, old socks. "Listen, punk-wannabes, next time you come close to these douchebags, I'll pop your eyes out of your head and make you eat them. Got it?"
They give a terrified whimper and flee out of my sight. I plant my hands on my hips and grin widely, that look of fear in their faces brings me back to simpler times. I miss being Mr. Big Shot, though usually I have my own lackies doing the scaring for me. The moan behind me reminds me of the damsels I just saved. They got a good beating, their faces beautiful shades of rainbow colors.
"Yeah, just…" Max drags his friend toward me. "PJ, a boost."
PJ does as he's told like usual and Max jumps up to my height level and slaps me on the cheek.
"Shit!" I pat the poor spot, still sore from yesterday's bitch slap, and loom over Max.
"You called us douchebags!"
"I saved your sorry butt, you scumbag!"
PJ jumps between us, playing peace maker. "That's enough bags for today, folks. Chill out."
We shove PJ away and get in each other's faces.
"Chicken can lay eggs on your eyebrows," Max sneers.
"My neck hurts from talking to you, Grumpy!"
"Would you stop it with the short jokes? See my dad, that's how tall I'm gonna get when I'm your age!"
Knowing that things can get ugly, PJ does the wise thing and flings Max over his shoulder, carrying him away toward the house. He spins around and thanks me, ever the good kid he is.
PJ's house is as nice on the inside as the outside: classy furniture, good quality wallpapers, and their pet dog is cuter than Waffles. I spot an over-weight man sitting on a couch and spitting potato chips at the TV screen. He screams a bunch of foul words at the football players and shoves a load of chips into his mouth.
This is Mr. Pete. The business man. I feel a bit let down, this guy looks like a real scum.
Peg walks out of the kitchen in tight white pants and a pink sweater, throwing her arms up in delight. "Oooh, I'm so glad you came." She turns her sweet face toward her husband. "Sweetie Petey, look who's here."
"Who else is here? It's always them Goofs ruining my… c'mon, you bums! Don't just stand there! Chase that ball for Pete's sake." He shakes his fists over his head in excitement, unaware how stupid he appears to his guests. Or probably just doesn't care.
Peg giggles then says to us, "Excuse me." She strides toward her husband, turns off the TV, point at us, and then, "PETE! You better play host or so help me God the next time you watch a football match will be in your grave!"
To my shame, I admit that I hid behind Goofy when the tornado started. Man, who would have thought thiswould come out of a sweet woman like Peg?
"Don't sweet talk your way out of this. There's a new addition to Goofy's family and you haven't met him yet."
"That's what we need. Another Goof," Pete mutters but obeys his wife, dragging his feet toward us. He looks me up and down with complete lack of interest and shakes my hand in a haste.
"Petey, this is Bradley. He's Penny's son…"
Pete waves off Goofy, interrupting him with a, "Yeah, yeah, when is dinner?"
"Dinner isn't ready yet," Peg says. "In the meantime, you should entertain the guests."
"I'll entertain them with some football. Goofy is a big fan of football, aren't ya, Goof?"
Pete puts Goofy in a head lock and squashes the oxygen out of him. "Of course, he is. Why he's a huge fan of the Giants," he says with a nervous laugh.
Goofy breaks out of the hook. "Not really. Back when I was little, I was so afraid to play with the other kids, 'cause whenever I hear the "eenie, feeny, finey, foe", my legs tangle on each other." He winks at me and Max. "But one day I heard them say it wrong, and everything was solved. Ah-yuck."
I scratch my temple. "Uh, you mean, Fee-fi-fo-fum?"
Goofy's legs tangle around each other, just as he said, and he releases his well-known yell, dropping on the floor and slamming into everything on his way. Pete's loud laugh of ridicule comes to an unfortunate end when Goofy hits his TV and it comes crashing onto the floor.
We watch Pete crumble and lose himself into wails without a trace of sympathy. Then, suddenly, the man's eyes flash red and focus on Goofy. He leaps at the man and grabs him by the collar, his mouth running with insults.
What the hell? That fat jerk needs to be put in his place. I stare at him in utter shock, watching him shove Goofy around and eat him up with his verbal attack. My mind tells me that it's none of my business, but then I catch the look of naked hatred on Max's face. The kid looks at his father being humiliated in helpless frustration, his hands tight fists by his sides.
It's that look of pure abhorrence that makes me decide, stepping between the two grown men and holding up a hand to Pete's face.
"Enough," I say with a hard voice.
He looks at me like I've opened the doors to hell, and I think I did seeing how his eyes turn bloodshed. "Who do you think you are?!" he barks fire at me, throwing me back against Goofy.
"Is this how you treat your guests? No wonder you're a grumpy old jerk."
Goofy gasps behind me, holding my shoulders. "Bradley."
I shake his hands off and step into Pete's personal space. "We're your guests. You should treat us with respect, especially this man who always speaks highly of you." I turn my gaze to a shocked Peg. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Pete, but until Mr. Goof gets an apology, we're heading back home."
She nods in understanding. "Pete, apologize."
"But, Peanut-Butter, did you see how…"
Pete grumbles incoherent words under his breath and mumbles a lame apology to Goofy.
I wouldn't have accepted that sad excuse of an apology, but one look at Max's satisfied grin makes me settle for it. Whoa, wait, wait a freaking second… did I just… feel pleased that Max is happy?My terrified wide eyes lock with Max's grateful ones, and suddenly I lose my ability to breathe.
"Uh, Mrs. Pete, where's the bathroom?"
"I'll show you," Max exclaims eagerly, taking my hand and leading me to the bathroom.
When we're out of sight, he stops walking and turns around with a bright smile on his face. "That was really cool what you did there."
I arch an eyebrow, even though I already figured out what he's talking about.
"It pisses me off, too, when he mocks my dad," he explains, running a hand through his hair and giving a helpless shrug. "But I never had the courage to stand up to him."
He looks down and a mortified whisper escapes his mouth, "Pete scares me."
I stare at his downcast face, speechless, and unsure how to react to that confession. Not sure how to react to him confessing his weakness to me. His disgraced admission and pathetic posture send awkward tingles down my belly, and those disturbing and recent bubbly feelings come soaring through me with a force. I fight a creepy urge to fall on my knees and hug him, so I just ruffle his hair instead and dash into the bathroom.
I stand in front of the sink, looking at my terrified face in the mirror. Both of my hands clutch the basin in a white-knuckled grip, feeling the awful truth wrapping its cords around my neck. I'm developing protective brotherly feelings for the guy I despise more than Satan himself.
How the hell did this happen? Two days ago all I wanted was to rub the sole of my shoe on his face, had resorted to magic to be ridded of him, and toyed with a child's feelings to satisfy my bruised ego.
Soft knocks on the door. "Bradley, are you okay?"
His little boy voice, filled with worry and uncertainty, pushes away my brutal thoughts with a snap.
"I'm fine, Max. I'll be out in a minute."
His little boy voice, the first clue to explain the rush of these unwanted emotions, but it isn't until tomorrow night when I realize what the problem is. Goofy suggests a movie night, so the three of us snuggle onto the couch and watch a Jim Carry movie. Having spent the day doing chores I've never done before in my life, I fall into a deep sleep before the first half of the movie is over.
I wake up to a gentle shake on my shoulder, feeling some stiffness in my neck from propping up my head against the arm of the couch. Goofy smiles and then nods down at the weight on my legs. Max is using my thighs as a couple of skinny pillows and hugging my legs tightly to his chest, a poor replacement to his fluffy teddy bear. Goofy looks at him like an angel lazily lounging on a bed of clouds. The kid does look so young and innocent: snuggling against me, his hair a mess on my jeans, his lips parted with soft breath brushing on my upper thigh.
It's here when I figure it out instantly – Max is just a kid. He may have the short-temper and stubbornness of the eighteen year old jackass I remember, but overall, he's nothing more than a kid. His priorities are centered on pranks and having fun. He also seems to be really fond of his father.
That deep shame I used to sense in his older self isn't presented here at all, this little boy takes his father's clumsiness with a stride.
I blink out of my musings when Goofy bends to scoop his son up to his arms and carry him upstairs. My legs feel a bit cold without my little blanket, so I drop them to the floor and follow the older man up the stairs with a yawn.
There's so much affection and love in the way he tucks Max in bed and then kisses his forehead. It's so overwhelming to watch, I'm just not used to a man showing that much affection. I take off my shirt and pants and throw them in the basket, then slip into my bed and snuggle up my pillow.
I close my eyes and let sleep take over me, but the sudden, unexpected kiss on my forehead steals sleep away.
I bolt up in shock and fear, making Goofy jump back with a startle.
He touches his chest where his heart is and chuckles in amusement. "Gee, sensitive feller?"
"I'm not a kid," I protest, feeling the place where his goofy lips touched me burning.
He chuckles again and heads for the door. "Well, you're my kid from now on."
"That's not what I mea – what did you say?"
He smiles back at me, "Good night, Bradley," and then walks out, closing the door behind him.
I stay sitting there for almost half an hour and then start scrubbing my forehead with my fingers hoping I can wipe the feeling of that kiss away. And I thought watching him kissing Max was overwhelming!
The sun of a Saturday afternoon blazes over my face, forcing me to screw my eyes up. Today is unusually hot for spring, makes me envy Goofy who seizes the day to take a swim in Pete's pool. He climbs up the ladder and waves to me, wearing a swimsuit he probably stole from Peg's wardrobe. I wave back and whimper when I hear the splash of cold water.
I stretch my back, a strap of my denim overalls slips off my naked shoulder. I put it back on, pretending to smile and nod while I try to process what PJ is saying. He keeps explaining how to mow a lawn with the patience of a saint. Turns out he gets most of the house chores dumped on him by his old man, which makes him a young expert on everything. I've assigned him to be my to-go-to guy after Goofy had almost set our house on fire trying to teach me how to use the washing machine – how are these two events related? Don't ask. It just shows you that nothing is impossible when you have Goofy around.
Max comes over to us with his skateboard tucked under his arm. He tries to find a mischievous way to mow the lawn faster so he and his buddy can go out and play.
"No, no, no, last time I let you help me, we declared war on Mom's roses. I can't do that to Mr. G's daisies." PJ is having none of it, pushing Max away. "Go skate on the ramp until I'm done."
Max rolls his eyes, about to do as his friend said, but then stops on his tracks and starts whistling. "Bradley, look, that girl is checking you out."
I look around. "What? Where?" Oh, I see her. Silky blonde hair pulled into a high ponytail with a scrunchy, sky blue eyes twinkling under the bright sun, a simple white tank top and denim shorts – too casual, yet at that moment, she's the sexiest angel to exist.
Max pulls me down and then pushes one of my straps to hang loose down my back.
He winks and lets go of me. "Chicks dig that, trust me."
She seems to be digging it all right. I honestly don't see what the appeal is: denim overalls on a shirtless body and a cap turned backwards, in other words, I look ridiculous!
"Hey, big brother," Max says in the most innocent tone he can muster – which sounds so unconvincing, especially when you know this kid. "Can you teach me how to fifty-fifty Axelgrind?"
I blink down at him – Max as my wingman?
"I'd like to see that, too." The girl leans against the fence and winks at me.
My eyes are captivated by her full cleavage, so I pat PJ on the back, unable to take my eyes off of her breasts. "PJ, be a pal and mow the lawn for me, okay?"
"What? No! I'm not doing someone else's chores. I've got more than I can take. Besides, Max knows how to…"
Max slaps his palm on PJ's mouth. "Oh, c'mon, Peej, do it for your best bud."
PJ starts complaining, but none of us pay attention to him. Max opens the door to the lady and leads both of us to the small, old ramp. I show-off most of the skateboarding tricks I know with Max playing the fanboy role, proving to be a perfect wingman.
And now I got a date for tonight.
Everybody is fussing over this date: Peg insists on ironing my suit – not trusting Goofy to do it. Pistol is showing me hairstyling trends from her mother's magazines. Max is giving me tips on how to woo the lady. And Goofy can't stop taking pictures of me in the suit – as if I'm going to my high school prom.
I check myself in the mirror, perfecting my trademark smile, but unable to focus with the camera's flash blinding my eyes.
Peg walks into my room with Pistol in toe. She giggles and claps her hands together. "Oh, you look fabulous!"
"Thanks, Mrs. P. Where's PJ?"
"Oh, he says he's having a backache form doing too much mowing. He seems pretty upset."
Max and I share a wink. "I'll talk to him, Mrs. P," he says.
Pistol pinches my thigh and squeals, "Caliente!"
I give her a side grin, feeling flattered, when a fatal pinch rips at my side. I scream at the same time Goofy squeals, "Tabitobi!"
"What does that mean, Pop?" Max asks in sincere confusion.
"I thought we were yelling made-up words. What does "carinii" mean anyway?"
I hang my head in defeat, completely giving up on this man.
So, my date tonight was almost a complete bust. We went to this nice Italian restaurant and everything was going okay, until I caught a glimpse of Goofy and his camera. It was notjust Goofy, the whole gang were seated in a table nearby, disguised as the Simpsons. Earlier when I was leaving for my date, I thought it was cute how they all stood at the doorway waving goodbye, eyes bright with tears of happiness and pride. It made me feel loved and special, but following me to the restaurant is boarding on crazy. One thing led to another and the whole restaurant burst into flames, strangely enough, it wasn't Goofy's fault, but Peg's.
I gotta admit, the whole thing made me a hero without really working for it. I was so scared I had raced out of the restaurant before everybody, it so happened that I was holding Kate's hand when the alarm started. She thinks I saved her life.
Over my shoulder, I saw my wacky family winking and giving me thumbs up. I almost smiled back, but restrained myself and gave them a well-deserved scowl.
Now, here we are, in our formal wear eating at a very crowded McDonalds.
"So, Bradley, what do you do?" Kate asks, taking a bite out of a chicken nugget.
A woman shoves my chair out of her way as she squeezes her large body between our table and the table next to us. She knocks my head down with her elbow and my face smacks on the ketchup.
"Nothing yet," I answer with a muffled voice.
Kate's giggle makes me smile. Grabbing a handful of tissues and wiping my face clean. "Still trying to stand up on my feet after my dad died." I wipe the smudge of ketchup from my nose using the hem of my fancy suit jacket.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Her plucked eyebrows furrow in confusion. "I thought the man in the bikini…"
"That's Max's father," I correct promptly. "We're half-brothers."
"So, you're living with your mom?"
"She's dead, too."
"I'm sorry again. Gosh, I'm probably bringing you down."
"Not at all. It's all right." I dip a French fry into the new puddle of ketchup and chew on it. "It's just, it feels like I've been zapped into this town with no idea what to do. I just need time to focus."
She nods in understanding. "You need to have a goal."
The fry dangling out of my mouth falls to my lap, staining my pants. "Yeah, a goal."
She leans closer, resting her chin on her fist. "Can't go forward without having one."
I lower my gaze to my uneaten burger, losing my appetite and desire to stay. "I… yeah…"
Sunday morning, I'm perched on the top of the tree house, watching Max teaching PJ how to do frontside nosegrinds. The goal Kate was talking about is right in front of me, skillfully skateboarding on that ramp. I just… a whole week in this place, I've been so engrossed in the simplicity of Max's childhood. So attractive and addictive, I even forgot completely about the gold sun. I can't spend my whole life here, though, this was supposed to be a temporary stay. Besides, my whole life here is built on a lie that I'm pretty sure Max and Goofy will figure out eventually.
I need to find a way to achieve my goal without causing harm to Max and return to my timeline to live my life the way it's supposed to be.
A bitter smile forms on my lips as I watch them all: Max and PJ on the ramp, Goofy watering his garden, Pistol having a tea party with her dolls, Pete on his boat reading the newspaper, and Peg inside the kitchen making us sandwiches. Letting go of this life is gonna be the hardest chore.
At night, lying awake in my bed, I don't hear a sound on the mattress above me. It's a school night, so Max is probably in deep sleep at the moment. Still, I can't stop the questions nagging in my head.
"Max, is there something else you're good at other than skateboarding?"
The mattress moves slightly – good, he's still awake. "I can dance," he says in a drowsy voice.
A hopeful smile breaks into my lips. "Really?"
"Yep. Fast-dancing though. Slow-dancing gives me the creeps."
"Did you ever get into a school contest?"
"No. I almost won the spelling bee though."
"Oh, you're good at academic competitions?"
"Not really. It was dad making a point. Again." He peers down at me, his little ears dangling as his eyes blink in confusion. "Why are you asking me all that?"
I lever myself up on one elbow and rest my head on one hand. "Just think that a person should expand his horizons."
A frown clouds his face. "Hey, are you saying that because you think I can't do what you said?"
"The sliding down the railing on my hands thing."
"It's okay if you can't do everything now. You're still a kid after all."
"I can do it," he insists. "I'll show you tomorrow after school."
I jump up in bed, fixing my resolved eyes at him. "Don't. Max, you have to promise me you'll never do anything dangerous like that, okay?"
"But I can do it."
"No, I mean it. Don't do it." I hold his childish stubborn gaze with mine, watching him relent and nod. I nod back in satisfaction, not going to sleep until I'm perfectly sure he won't be doing something stupid.
I hate hospitals. I hate the wandering white coats and blue scrubs, the sight of charts and the injured, the sound of beeping machines and crying children, and the smell of antiseptics. But what I mostly hate is the reminder of human mortality lurking in every corner. The little boy standing close to his father with a touch of hopelessness in his face takes me back to an old, depressing memory.
I turn my attention to the miserable faces around me, unhappy over the recent tragedy. PJ and Pistol had skipped school, cuddled by the side of a mother who's too depressed she can't offer comfort to her children. Even Pete has a grim face on, standing next to his family with his eyes focused on the broken man next to me. I glance at the wreck of a father who hasn't lifted his face off his joined fists since we arrived to the hospital.
Max had disobeyed me and gone through with it. He'd woken up early this morning and dragged PJ with him to the highest flight of stairs in the park. According to PJ, the skateboard had slid down too fast, forcing Max to slip and fall hard on his back. Everything that came after that was pretty scary: a crying Pistol waking me up, the noise of the ambulance siren, Pete driving us to the hospital… buried emotions of loss and sorrow come rushing back enforced with a new sense of guilt.
I put a hand on Goofy's shoulder. "Want some beverage, Mr. G?"
He doesn't answer me. I can't help but think that he's ignoring me on purpose, blaming me for what happened. My chest tightens and my throat locks, suddenly there's no air around me to breathe. I rise to my feet and walk away toward the vending machine, place my palms on it and hang my head.
Fingers brush on my lower back, making me spin around with a flinch. PJ's reassuring smile confuses me more than comforts me. "It's gonna be all right."
I run a hand through my uncombed hair and look away. "It's my fault and you know it."
"It's not your fault."
"I challenged him to do it," I spit out, picturing how the accident happened in my head.
"Max told me that you warned him not to do it. But you know him; nothing can stop him from going after what he wants."
I'm about to protest when I see at the end of the hall the doctor coming out of the examining room, now surrounded by our fretting families. PJ and I race back toward the others only to hear Peg's choked up cry and Pistol's wailing.
PJ turns to his father frantically. "What-wha… what's wrong with Max?"
Pete rubs on his forehead despairingly. "Uh, it appears that he's got a spinal injury. He… the injury seems to have caused paralysis from the hips down."
The sympathy and sorrow in Pete's voice and expression would have stunned me if we're in different circumstances; right now my shock is reserved to Max's severe condition.
"No," PJ says in a dazed shock. "He can't be crippled forever." He grabs the doctor by his white coat and shakes him. "You've got to do something, Doc! There must be a way to fix his spine. Some heck of a surgery."
"Yes," Peg says through her sniffles. "Whatever that surgery costs, we'll pay."
The doctor eyes her sadly, and then places a gentle hand on PJ's shoulder. "I'm sorry, son, the chances of a surgery like that to succeed is forty prescient out of hundred. I'm so sorry."
My heart gives at the sight of Goofy's expressionless face, standing like a frozen statue before me paralyzed by sadness. There you have it, Bradley, Max Goof can never use a skateboard again.
Does it make you happy?
What used to be a happy home has turned into a cold, dark place occupied by the shells of ourselves. Goofy has transformed into a cynical, depressed man whose only means in life is to make his crippled son his three meals a day and take him on trips to the bathroom. He stopped taking care of himself, his garden, and his pet cat – poor Waffles started to rely on me to feed and cuddle him.
Visits to the neighbors became rare if ever; we don't see much of them anymore, except for PJ and Pistol coming over to cheer up Max from time to time. Goofy's new attitude has isolated us from everyone in the neighborhood, seems that all these years of suppressed anger has combusted the day Max had lost the ability to use his legs.
Peg tried talking to Goofy, even Pete tried slapping some sense into him, telling him along the lines of insults that his new hate for the world isn't doing Max any good.
Seems that it's up to me to keep the poor kid sane in the dull prison his father has locked him in. I find him seated on my old bed – now Max's with me occupying the top mattress – in his hands an upturned comic book. The kid's eyes are hollow, looking past the colored panels and into nothing.
"If you're here to cheer me up, it won't work," he says drily. "All these comic books from PJ didn't and neither did Pistol's 'glad game'."
I lift up the corners of my lips into a tiny smile, sitting next to him on bed and resting on his pillow. "Funny you should mention it, Pollyanna became temporarily disabled, but then she was able to walk again."
Max's sigh seems to have come from the depths of his soul. "It's just a children book, Bradley."
I take a hold of his bare hand, so small without the glove, and rub gentle circles on his palm. "Wanna thumb wrestle?"
He leans his head on my shoulder and sighs again. "Sure."
After a few days of gloom, I've realized that the best medicine right now is to keep things normal. PJ and Pistol try so hard to make him happy that as a result he ends up feeling guilty when he can't return their efforts with a sincere smile. There come days where he can't stand the sight of them and uses eye contact when they're not looking begging me to send them back home.
PJ and Pistol mean well, but all they do is make Max more aware of his condition and that depresses him even more.
"Darn," he grits out.
"What? You're winning."
He looks away. "I need to go to the bathroom."
I never took him to the bathroom – and I sure as hell don't intend to – but that means interacting with Goofy, and that on itself is as an unpleasant as feeding Waffles too much sardine. I watch him press on the button in dismay and wait for his father to come.
When I signed up for this, I knew that what I was getting into would probably have dire consequences on Max. And myself. I'm just… I never wanted it to be this dark. I never wanted Goofy to change into Frankenstein or for Max to be crippled, especially at this young age. Pranks and a little bit of humiliation are all I wanted out of this, not to mention securing my future as the X-Games king. But not like this, not by paralyzing an eleven year old kid.
"Max, I know a way to fix this," I say decidedly. "But you have to give me that gold sun."
He looks up at me with a hopeless stare. "You haven't forgotten about that thing yet?"
"It's the only way out of this."
The confusion is apparent on his face, yet he nods guardedly. "My school bag. Front pocket."
Hopping off of the bed, I remember Max's bag being abandoned in the corner behind the door. As I reach with my hand to shut the door, Goofy appears in the doorway with his pale vampire face.
I freeze in my place despite myself, still not used to the monster that replaced the happiest man I ever knew.
"One trip to the bathroom coming up," his attempt to joke falls flat due to his hollow tone and passive features.
I hold up my hands to stop him. "It's fine, Mr. G. I got it."
Goofy scoffs. "Don't tell me you'retaking him."
I unzip Max's bag and bring out the gold sun. "He'll be able to do it himself. Trust me."
Goofy scoffs again and crosses the room to his son as I pull out the necklace from under my shirt. I look up at the father and son, their ungloved hands clasping in a tight grip.
"Don't worry, everything will be fine," I whisper, holding the sun to the necklace. It fits into the moon with a click.
Bright, bright light shines from the joined pieces and paints everything white for a mere second. It happens in an instant, like a blur, my surroundings change in a flash and Max's room is replaced with another room – my room.
I stare, wide eyed, at the face looking back at me in the mirror – that's me, except I look different. My hair is longer, shaggy, and somewhat curly, my face is much thinner, and… and I look younger. I notice that my shirt has changed, too. I'm wearing an old Ralf Lauren vest over a striped shirt, these clothes… I remember them. I look around me in complete shock. I'm back in the mansion.
Could… could it be?
I race toward my nightstand and look at the fancy, boring calendar I remember so well. 1995! The timeline is three years to the future, and yet I've got a few years knocked out of my age. I'm sixteen.
But, if I'm sixteen, then…
A knock on the door makes me yelp – at least I already outgrew my puberty voice. I gaze at the door in suspicion, my heart raging in my chest in spite of me. I don't think I'm ready to see himyet.
"Master Bradley, are you in there?"
Yoli!It's just Yoli. I heave a sigh of relief and walk over to the door, opening it for my favorite servant. She looks the same, except for the clothes and the hair, but generally she makes me feel a bit nostalgic. Just a little bit.
I force a carefree smile on my face. "Hey, what do you want?"
"I came for the dirty clothes." She doesn't buy my act, as usual. "Are you all right? You look pale. Well, more than usual."
I shrug. "I'm fine."
She narrows her eyes at me, trying to guess what is going on but already knows she'll never be able to drag the truth out of me. "Why don't you go and ride Andrea?"
My eyes bulge out in complete horror. "What?!"
She raises an eyebrow at me. "Andrea, your horse."
I never had a horse. "My horse?"
She places her palm on my forehead. "Are you sick?"
I shake her hand away. "Right. My horse. At the stable, I assume."
"Where else would she be?"
My balcony overlooks an abandoned stable we didn't use since my mother passed away. Mom used to be so fond of horses, her favorite was an Arabian horse called Gloria. They used to make the most beautiful picture together, carved in my mind forever, whether she was feeding her, washing her or riding her. Always laughing, always happy, always attractive – my best times when I was little were when I was looking at her and Gloria together.
Mom was a gifted equestrienne and had often taken me horseback riding as a child. She'd promised to get me my own steed when I'm old enough to take care of it and ride it, but after her death, I lost my love and interest in everything related to horses. Dad sending Gloria away was the second hardest thing I had to witness in my childhood.
There it is, the old stable, doesn't look so old anymore. It's been repainted and cleaned, I wonder if it looks exactly like I remember it on the inside. I walk around the stable, glancing up at my balcony. It used to be a torture having the stable right at my view, for all his eagerness to get rid of every reminder of Mom, Dad had never gotten around to bring down this place.
The loud neighing of a horse makes me pick up my pace and I see her just exiting the stable. Gloria. Looks exactly just like Gloria, a reddish brown body color and a black mane and tail with a cross-shaped white mark on her forehead. I'd believe she's Gloria, but my mother's mare was a chestnut horse, this one looks like a bay horse.
I'm broken out of my enchantment by a boy in a white T-shirt and denim overalls walking out of the stable with a pail of hay. He places it in front of Andrea and watches her dig into it, lowering the brim of his denim hat.
Moving forward, I step on a tree branch on the ground, the cracking sound startling the stable boy and making him spin around.
Max is my stable boy?!
What? How? But… he's supposed to be in Spoonerville, what brings him to…? Aunt Broom-Hilda's words vaguely cross my mind, something about the past rewriting itself. Which means that now I have a horse, the stable isn't abandoned, Max works for me, and… and… if we're using the stable, that means that…
Mom is still alive.