Last day at school is over, and hello, summer vacation! Unzipping my backpack and holding it upside down, I watch a year worth of insufferable books and notebooks tumble out of the bag and onto the floor. I don't really see why Yoli can't wait a day or two to wash my school bag and uniform. Those charity people aren't gonna disappear overnight.
A shiny object slips out of the backpack and lands on the pile of books on the floor, and my smile of joy wavers. I've had the gold sun in my backpack for the past four days, ever since Max had given it to me. I'm supposed to be out of here, to whatever is waiting for me in the third timeline, but everything is going so well in this one that I haven't had the heart to leave yet.
I finally made peace with Max. We're becoming friends of some sort, which turned out to be more… well, peaceful. Guess I'm sick and tired of playing villain and trying to outshine him at his game when I know deep down that he'll always be the more skilled one. A hard truth that was even harder to accept, but letting go of those old grudges was a definite relief. I'm just glad I was able to get it right with Max.
But, is it enough of a reason to stall my stay? How long am I planning to stay in this timeline? Surely not forever. Of course, not.
I pad on my bare feet to my dresser and take out the gold necklace from inside the drawer. I put it on and look at myself in the mirror; the pale, thin face of an anorexic kid. God, I look awful, no wonder girls didn't look at me twice in high school. But, high school was over long ago. I'm a different person now. I'm not meant to be here. My real place is at college, getting ready for the finals and enduring ridicule from everyone on campus while watching Max receive all the love and respect.
Hearing solid knocks on the door – Yoli, – I sling the empty backpack on one shoulder and gather up the old school uniform from the floor. I swing the door open, but stop myself immediately when I'm about to throw my things at…
Unfortunately, I've yet to make things right with my old man. If only our issues are as simple as a skateboarding rivalry.
I can see the change of emotions on his face when he notices the denim overalls I'm wearing. He's probably wondering how they even made it into my closet. His eyes narrow at the moon-shaped necklace, and I clutch it nervously without thinking. Shit, I should have taking it off before opening the door.
"Figured since I can't ride Andrea yet," I explain why I'm wearing the overalls while stumbling backwards into my room to unload what I'm carrying on the desk. I take off the necklace and rush to the dresser, tossing it inside and pushing the drawer shut.
Turning around, I notice he's wearing his riding clothes and frown up at him. "You're heading to the stable, too?"
"Yeah, it's a beautiful summer day. I thought we should spend it together." He put on his black helmet and flashed a smile my way.
"What part of can't ride Andrea yet didn't you understand?"
"We can walk the horses around the estate."
I brush a hand through my hair, feeling uncomfortable with that hopeful glint in his eyes. "Actually, Dad, I thought I'd spend the day learning more about grooming and saddling my horse."
"Why would you wanna do that when your horse already has someone taking care of it?" He casts a disapproving stare at the books and papers scattered on the floor.
I rush to clear up the mess, but the books I'm carrying keep dropping to the floor as I bend to pick up more. "Taking care of the horse makes the two of you closer, Dad." I almost step on the gold sun, but catch myself in time and pick it up as quickly as possible and put it in my pocket. "I'm gonna have…"
"Max is going to teach you," he says it casually, no trace of jealousy or disdain in his voice.
I give a simple nod, feeling a bit uneasy.
"All right then," he says in a quiet tone and leaves.
I drop the books I'm carrying on the floor and hurry out to follow him. I stop in my tracks when I catch him walking past the stairs and straight back to his bedroom.
After the long thirty minutes I've spent petting Andrea and laughing at Goofy's antics in the stable, waiting patiently for Max to show his face, I finally decide to go to the servant dorms and drag him out myself. Goofy mentioned something about a phone call from PJ – did not know Max can be such a girl with the phone.
I bang on the door, resisting the old habit of barging in unannounced. "What took you so long? Been waiting for you forever," I call, ignoring the curious glances of the servants passing by.
The door swings open, and before me stands a tousle-haired, droopy-eyed Max wearing nothing but a crumpled white shirt and blue boxers. "Sorry about that. I'm on my way," he says in a hollow voice, dragging his feet toward his room.
Still caught off-guard by his skinny chicken legs – those baggy pants had given me the wrong impression indeed – I enter the apartment and close the door gently on my way in. "You don't look like you wanna get out of the apartment."
"Like I have a choice," he mutters, kicking his bedroom's door shut behind him.
Those lifeless words feel like a spiny fist punching my face. I hate it when he talks to me like I own him – which I'm aware I used to treat him that way, but I thought we were passed that now.
I hear an aggravated cry coming from the closet and I hurry inside, witnessing Max on the floor tangled in his own clothes. I help him up and watch silently as he pulls up his overalls in a jerky manner, cursing under his breath while doing the straps.
I stuff my hands in my pockets as he searches around for his cap in the dump that is his room. "Wanna, uh, talk about it?"
He scoffs. "Like you're actually interested."
"If I wasn't interested I wouldn't have asked," I say dryly.
He looks back at me about to fire a retort, but when noting my annoyed expression, his grimace fades away gradually. He drops on his bed with a heavy sigh and runs his fingers through his nest of a hair.
"There's this…" He looks up at me with an unsure glance. I sit next to him on bed and give an encouraging nod.
Another heavy sigh escapes his mouth, his hands clutching his knees tightly. "There's this party everyone at my old school is going to attend… " he trails off, casting a new hesitant glance at my direction.
"Oh." No wonder he's so pissed-off, throwing half-assed remarks about the social differences between us. "And you wanna go?"
"What do you think?"
I lower my head at his snappy response, feeling embarrassed by my silly question.
Max's tone is a bit softer as he goes on, "That's not exactly what bothers me."
I look up at him and witness the unbearable sadness in his eyes. "There's this girl… I was supposed to impress her today, ask her out right afterwards. Turns out she's going to the party with the most popular jock in school." He lets out a humorless laugh. "And I stupidly thought that life over there would be on hold until I somehow find a way to return, but the clock keeps ticking and everybody is moving on and I'm still stuck here! With no chance of leaving ever!"
A moment of awkward silence passes between us before Max scoffs and gets up, fetching his blue cap from under a pile of school books. He stands in front of the mirror and combs his messy hair with his fingers before putting on his cap.
"I'm sorry, Max," I murmur as sincerely as I can muster, not really feeling it on the inside. Having Max around made my life in this house more bearable and interesting and I'm actually glad he's "still stuck here."
"It's not your fault," he says, slipping on his white gloves.
"How… how were you going to impress her?"
"Better left unsaid." He turns around to look at me, the faint blush on his cheeks eases the tight knot in my chest.
I smile despite myself, enjoying the change in the atmosphere. "No, really, how?"
He lowers the brim of his cap to hide his face. "It's embarrassing."
I jump to my feet and turn his cap backwards like he always wears it. "Now I'm intrigued. What were you going to do?"
He pushes me away and I end up sitting on his bed again. "Well, if you must know," he starts, red covering his cheeks. "I was going to perform a song by Powerline dressing up like him on the auditorium stage before the whole school."
I blink up at him. Did not expect that. "Wow?"
He points a threatening finger. "Don't laugh."
Now that he said it, I burst into a laugh despite myself. A laugh of admiration rather than mockery. "Hijacking a school assembly? Didn't know you had it in ya, thought of you as a straight up goody-two-shoes."
He gives a mild shrug and drops next to me on bed, eyes staring at his joined fists in silence.
I feel a slight pang of guilt, thinking about all the chances and opportunities Max is missing on by laboring all day in an estate far away from home. "You really like that girl, huh?"
He hides his face in his hands and whispers, "Yeah."
There was a time when I took joy over watching him in this depressed state, but now it's making me thirsty for a smoke. I haven't smoked in a while, and to think turning into a softie was my only curse.
I give my miserable stable boy a nudge on the shoulder. "So, you like Powerline?"
"Everyone at school does." He collapses on bed with his arms stretched out and stares up at the ceiling. "The party is next Saturday. They're going to watch the Powerline concert live on pay-per-view."
I crock my head and look at him as I sit on the edge of his bed, inwardly smiling at a fun idea that's starting to form in my head.
"If this is a prank, Bradley…"
"It isn't a prank."
"Ouch! My toe! Damn it!"
"Don't be such a baby."
"Easy for you to say. You're not blindfolded and bumping your body parts against whatever's out there."
"We're almost there."
I shove the resistant boy into the living room before rushing to turn on the lights and grab the remote control. I hurry back to one fledging Max and take off the blindfold just as I unmute the TV. Stand Outblares loudly making Max jump back in surprise. His eyes grow wide watching Powerline busting a move in our large TV screen.
"Dude," he exclaims in shock, "This is… this is…"
I push him forward toward the pizza boxes waiting for us on the floor in front of the TV. Sitting down before the goodies, I notice him is still on his feet, shell-shocked, his gaze glued to the screen. With a sigh, I grab his hand and pull him down, causing him to fall on his butt and tumble backwards.
Geez, wish I brought a camera to take pictures. Who would have thought Max can be such a geek. I open my Pepsi can and laugh at Max singing along – I remember being a fan of this song, but I can hardly remember the lyrics except for the chorus.
I drink from the cold, gassy goodness and choke on it, 'cause I can't stop laughing at him nodding his head and singing in excitement. I'd be joining him by now if it weren't for the unsettling feeling at the back of my neck, like someone is watching me from behind.
I look back at the door and freeze at the sight of my father standing there. His cold face and steel eyes making me squirm, but I try not to alert Max who's too engrossed in the song to notice anything else. I'm about to burst as we stare at each other for what feels like an hour, he doesn't say a thing, just looks at me and then Max. He eyes the pizza boxes on the floor and then soundlessly escapes out into the shadows.
Something swells inside me, something about the way Dad stared at me that I can't really place it. Why do I feel like shit? Why do I feel like the biggest scum in the world? Leave it to my dad to turn an innocent little party between two friends into the biggest taboo since cannibalism.
"Pass me the Pepsi, will ya, Bradley?"
I snap out of my thoughts and hand Max the cold can, watching him crack it open and take long swallows from it. He looks so happy, so free and at ease. I smile to myself and then jump to my feet.
He blinks up at me. "What?"
"Bring out your inner Powerline and show me your dance moves."
He brushes his hair back in embarrassment but rises up to his feet. We share a smile, his bashful and mine encouraging, and then he starts dancing. I try to imitate him but he's moving way too fast, copying the same moves as Powerline on TV. He must have spent nights practicing the moves until he perfected them.
I give up trying to catch up with him eventually and just watch him with amusement. He wasn't kidding when he told me he knew how to fast dance. He's really good. Makes me wonder why he never danced like this in college – would have driven me even madder with jealousy.
When the song was over, Max drops to the floor with heavy pants through the audience cheering and applauding on the screen. I sit next to him and open a pizza box, both of us reaching for a slice at the same time.
"I know this isn't as good as being in a school party with the girl of your dreams sitting by your side, but, at least you got to watch the concert with a friend."
Max barks a laugh and shoves a slice of pizza into his mouth. "Good one, Bradley."
I feel like someone who's been punched in the gut, must have looked like it, too, 'cause Max frowns at me, and asks, "What? You were serious?"
I put down the slice of pizza into the box. "I don't see what's so funny."
Max chuckles and punches my shoulder playfully. "Man, you and I could never be buddies."
I feel my eyebrows crease together. "Why not?"
He stuffs the rest of the pizza into his mouth and shrugs. "Not under these circumstances."
There he goes again about the social differences! Suddenly, I lose my appetite and Powerline starts sounding like a cat screeching. I rise to my feet and start heading for the door. "Enjoy your concert, Max."
"Where are you going?"
I turn around and snap, "To bed!"
His features mellow into an apologetic look. "Bradley, I didn't mean…"
"Well, you did. Just make sure to clear up the mess and turn off the lights when the concert is over."
I storm out of the room and toward the stairs, my heartbeat rising with overwhelming fury. Last time I felt this angry was when my father had imprisoned Max in the basement with nothing to eat or drink. Standing up to my father on behalf of that ungrateful son of bitch! Apparently, that wasn't enough. Nor letting him sleep on my bed or getting beat up by the bully at his school for him or even dressing up as a stable boy! No, nothing is enough for that little asshole!
I bump against someone and stumble back, falling on my butt. I'm about to lash out at the idiot who interrupted my mental rant…
"Dad?" I blink up at him in confusion. Where did he come from? His room is on the other side of the mansion.
"Left the party early?" he asks casually, extending a hand for me.
I take it and let him help me up to my feet. "Yeah, I got tired. Told Max to clean up after he's done."
He nods. "Very well."
Still feeling confused, I watch him walk away to his room. He came out of nowhere, like a thief in the night.
I shake my head and make my way to my bedroom, heading straight to my bed and flopping down on it. I nestle into my pillow and curl into a ball, cursing continuously and beating the pillow with my fist. Overwhelming mixture of surging emotions are rising inside me, threatening to break into the surface.
I toss and turn in discomfort and try to wiggle out of my jeans – too tight, can't take them off while lying down on bed. I give up eventually and lay still, stretching my arms and gazing up at the ceiling, imitating Max earlier this week. The thought about him and my dad and everything wrong in this timeline makes me scoot backwards up against the headboard in a sitting position and reach out to open the drawer in my nightstand. I fetch out the gold sun – hidden it here after I had taken off my dirty overalls that day.
The moonlight illuminating the room reflects on the gold's surface making its edges glimmer. My hand closes on it. A tight, determined grip that seems to have sealed the deal for me. I'm leaving. It's time to move forward. There's no use to relive a false past and try to change it for my own benefit. None of the changes I made here are making me content, not when I know deep down that this is not where I belong. Where I'm supposed to be.
My heartbeat rages in my chest as I make my way toward the dresser. Don't think. Just do it. My hand wavers over the knob in a moment of hesitation, but then I decisively grip on it and pull the drawer open.
It's not there.
I stand in my spot for a moment, my gaze searching inside the drawer for the necklace. Panicking, I dig inside, throwing out everything at sight. Now the drawer is empty and the necklace isn't inside.
Where the hell did it go? I never… it has always been in thisdrawer… but, wait!
My reflection darkens in the mirror.
A thief in the night,indeed!
I barge into my father's room without knocking and stand with my arms crossed in defiance. "Where is it?"
He lifts his gaze from the book he's reading to give me a nonchalant stare. "This is not the way to behave around your father."
"You lost all your privileges by sneaking into my room and going through my things. Where is my necklace?" I demand again, trying my best to steady my rage.
For a moment, I think he's going to deny being in my room in the first place but instead he puts his book on the table and looks steadily into my eyes. "I'm going to have it tested first."
My mouth hangs in shock. "Tested? What the hell, Dad?"
"Whatever spell that boy has put on you must be stopped."
My mouth still hanging open, I look at him like he's gone insane, but he looks as serious as ever. "You've got to be kidding. Since when do you believe in magic?"
"Since you started to act differently three weeks ago."
I'm thrown by this. "What?"
"Good night, son." He takes his book from the table and resumes reading. It's my cue to leave, but I can't move my feet. This is just too much, but after years of living here, I know there's no way I'll get him to talk further about this now.
I walk down the hallway, shocked and scared, and then stop by the stairs leading to the lobby. I peer at the living room where Max and I had our little party. The lights are off and no sound is coming from there. Max has probably gone home before the concert is over.
My life is completely over! I'm gonna be stuck here forever, forced to relive the next four years. I'm not even sure I'd call it reliving when everything in this reality is so different from my real past – Goofy and Max working for us being the obvious change. But then so is my school life and my relationship with my father, heck by now I'm supposed to have already rebelled against his rules and met Tank. Right now I'm supposed to be packing my bags for military school.
But none of that is happening, because my past has been rewritten by Slouch's witch of an aunt. What if whoever examines the necklace discovers that it's magical? What will happen to me? What will happen to Max? Dad would obviously believe that whatever evil mojo the necklace has on me is Max's doing. Last time he thought Max had hurt me he'd locked him in the basement for three days. This time he'd do something far more drastic.
I hear strong knocks on the glass doors leading to my balcony and stare at the closed drapes with furrowed eyebrows. Did I accidently lock someone out in the balcony? But other than Yoli, none of the servants come into my room and I've already seen her this morning. The knocks return, more forceful this time, followed by the detested voice of Max Goof.
How the hell was he able to climb all the way up to the balcony? How did he even know which balcony is mine? I don't remember telling him that my balcony overlooks the stable.
I snap the drapes open and squint my eyes at the streaming sunlight that frames Max's figure. Unlocking the glass doors, I raise an eyebrow in boredom. "What do you want?"
He has a sheepish look on his face, a gloved hand rubbing the back of his neck. "You didn't come to the stable today."
"I didn't feel like it."
"Is it because of what I said last night?"
I scoff, already heading back to bed. "Don't flatter yourself."
I lie down on bed and take a hold of the gold sun, staring at it in somber silence and ignoring Max's existence all together.
He approaches my bed and rests his hand on my nightstand, looking closely at me as if he can feel my nerves. "Thought you'd put this in your necklace by now."
"Yeah, well, I can't."
"It doesn't fit?"
"No, idiot!" I slap the gold sun on my chest and glare up at him. "Dad took the necklace and locked it in his room. He said it must have some kind voodoo influence on me."
"Why would he think that?"
"I don't know, but it seems he's not the only one who thinks a friendship between us is an impossible thing."
"Oh." He breaks the eye contact, taking my small notebook and rubbing his thumb on the cover. "Why don't you go into his room and take it?"
When he starts flipping through the pages, I get up and snatch the notebook from him. "Not in the mood for stupid jokes, Max."
"Right." I put the notebook inside the drawer and raise an eyebrow at him. "Go into his room without his permission in the middle of day where everyone can see me."
He shrugs. "Do it at night. I'll help you."
I lean against the nightstand and cross my arms over my chest. "A goody-two-shoes like you?"
"Stop calling me that. You haven't met me in Spoonerville, trouble is my middle name when mischief isn't."
I consider what he says, watching him wander around my room and checking out my calendar. "So, just like that? We sneak into his room and steal the necklace?"
"Technically, it's yours so it's not stealing."
"What's in it for you?"
"The satisfaction of knowing that a stable boy like me has been into your dad's scarce room."
I smirk. "You're full of surprises, Goof Boy."
He smirks back. "You ain't seen nothing yet."
I stare at myself in the mirror, clad in black, pulling a lousy Will Smith impression. Or so I think. I can barely see a thing wearing those ridiculous sunglasses. Taking them off, I toss them on the dresser, too big for my face, must have looked like a giant bee. The cool factor is ruined without the sunglasses, now I look like some witless teen, ready to go to the prom.
The knocks on the glass doors distract me from glowering at my reflection. Finally, Max is here, let's get this over with.
"What the hell are you wearing?" I hiss in shock and abhorrence, eying the black shirt and loose dark slacks folded at the bottoms. "Are those your father's?"
He pulls up his pants as he steps out of my balcony. "Well, yeah, I don't own black pants."
"Max, I told you we're going for Men in Black."
"And here I am, in black."
I stare at him disbelievingly. "You don't know Men in Black?"
"Is it a movie or something?"
"Is it a movie…" I blink my eyes at his confused face and suddenly realize that I'm back in time. Will Smith is probably still aFresh Prince.
"Never mind. You didn't bring sunglasses?"
Before me he presents the ugliest, most clichéd dark shades I have ever seen.
I heave a disappointed sigh. "Just toss them on the dresser and let's get going."
We sneak through the hallway, tip-toeing our way in complete silence toward Dad's bedroom. The door is locked as I expected, so I throw an anxious glance at Max and he gives me a reassuring pat on the shoulder. He pulls out a paperclip and a butter knife out of his pockets and examines the door lock, apparently to see which one he's going to use. I watch the master work his magic with utter fascination and wonder if he'd ever committed a felony when he was in Spoonerville.
Max takes a step back with a satisfied smile and pushes the door open, then gestures for me to walk in. The darkness of my father's room surrounds me, and a chill runs down my spine. After Mom passed away, I was forbade to step a foot into this room without Dad being inside. Not that I ever wanted to. The room stinks with doom and gloom vibes, especially with the black wallpapers.
I flinch when Max snaps the lights on, catching me off guard. He returns my glare with a confused look.
"Man, this room is still dark even with the lights on." He walks toward the lamp on the nightstand and turns it on.
This room wasn't like this before. Not when Mom was alive. I turn my attention to the singular couch next to the small wooden closet displaying a collection of books on its shelves. I feel a pang of rare sympathy, switching my gaze from the one couch to the one pillow in the middle of the king-sized bed. The room speaks of how hard Dad had taken Mom's death, of all my gripes about him getting rid of every reminder of her, there's no doubt he'd only done it to make life easier. But one more look at the room and I can clearly see that it didn't work at all.
Suddenly, I hear the flush of the toilet coming from the bathroom and twirl around in shock. Max walks out with a dopey smile on his face.
"What did you do?" I whisper in apprehension, looking at the opened door leading to the hall, hoping no one heard that.
"I used your dad's bathroom," he says with a smug air. "Wish I could see his face knowing a stable boy has whizzed in his fancy bathroom."
I scrunch my nose in disgust. "And he never will, seeing as you flushed the evidence."
Max shrugs. "I'm a rebel, but I'm not insane."
"'Rebel' is a strong word to describe your case." I rush toward Dad's desk and start checking the drawers. "We better hurry up. Dad would kill us both if he finds us here."
We haven't searched for long when a sudden, loud noise of a car screeching comes from outside. I hurry to the window and freeze at the sight of my father's car parked outside the house.
"Out!" I snap, turning off the lamp on the nightstand. "We gotta get out of here."
I fluster around the room, trying my best to hide any evidence of us in the room. Max turns off the lights and closes the bedroom door. I stop on my tracks and look at Max in horror. "The door is unlocked. He's gonna know." I'm shaking, my eyes wide with panic. "Shit! We haven't thought this one through."
Max grabs my arm and drags me after him. "Too late to fuss up over that now."
We hear the front door of the house shut and pick up our paces, running toward my room. When I hear my father's footsteps getting closer, I shove Max out into the balcony and shut the glass doors behind him. Withdrawing the curtains shut, I turn around and stare in fright at the door.
"Bradley, can I come in?"
Heart pounding fast enough to drive nails, I try to gulp air to answer. I couldn't manage it before Dad pushes my bedroom door open.
I hold in my breath when his critical eyes travel down my black clothes. He doesn't say a thing. He just makes his way toward me, and now my heartbeats are banging in my ears.
We stare into each other's eyes for a moment, then he silently hands me my necklace back.
I look at it speechlessly, then lift my gaze up at him in confusion.
"It's ordinary," he says.
"Oh." Then all the trouble we went through tonight was pointless. He'd taken the necklace out with him and... it's ordinary. I take the necklace from his hand and narrow my eyes at it. Aunt Broom-Hilda must have put a protection spell on it somehow. That witch seemed to have thought everything through.
"Did… Max give it to you?"
The uncertainty in his eyes makes me sigh despite myself. "Max can't afford a gold necklace, Dad. Besides, why would he give me a necklace? Unless you think our so-called buddy-hood is a gay thing."
He nods, lowering his gaze to the necklace in my hand. The air thickens between us, compelling me to take a step forward and catch my father's gaze. "Look, Max is just… he's just someone I get along with. We're not friends. We can't be friends when he's my servant."
"It's all right, Bradley." He turns around and leaves my room, but something his eyes didn't look right.
I find myself rushing out of the door, calling after him, "Dad…"
He stops but doesn't look at me. "I fixed the stable and got the horses because I thought it would bring us closer. But obviously, you're not interested."
He continues on his path, leaving me standing there, shocked and ashamed.
Max has lost it again, and the usual yelling match begins in the stable – except it's only Max who does the yelling. Goofy just stands there, taking his son's abuse in melancholic silence. Sitting on a pile of hay, I can barely hold my temper watching Max explode at Goofy over the most trivial things. But then when Max goes as far as shoving his father, I can't take it any longer.
I jump between the two and shove Max back. "That's enough!"
"That's not your business."
"But Andrea is!" I point at the tense horse in her stall. Seems it's all I needed to calm Max down as his face softens into a look or guilt and worry, and he rushes to comfort her.
I feel Goofy's hand on my shoulder and look up at his sad smile. "Don't be too hard on him, Bradley."
"What he's going through isn't easy."
"I know, but you don't deserve…"
"Oh, yes, I do." He squeezes my shoulder and then leads Alexander out of the stable, head downcast and shoulders slumped. Suddenly, I'm reminded of my father retreating to his room last night and the anger inside me rises up again.
I walk to where Max is standing with Andrea, grab his arm and spin him around. "You better get over it soon!"
He yanks his arm out of my grip. "What?"
"So, your dad screwed up. And you ended up in this hell. And it makes you really, really angry. But is it worth it? Holding the grudge for such a long time."
Max regards me quietly before he grabs his grooming kit and leads Andrea out of her stall.
"He's trying to reach out to you, and here you are…"
"He beton me!" Max snaps causing Andrea to tense again, so he starts running his hand along her withers tenderly.
I stare at him in confusion. "What?"
Max's hand stops on Andrea's back, trembling slightly. "No, Pete bet on me and my dad agreed."
"I don't follow you."
He sighs, taking a brush out of the kit and starting on Andrea's back. "You know the story, Bradley."
"I don't, Max."
He scoffs. "C'mon."
"I don't. I honestly don't."
For the first time since I came into this timeline, I admit knowing nothing. Indirectly admitting I'm a different Bradley, and Max can see it in my eyes now. Probably not the whole truth, but enough to tell me the story.
He rubs the heel of his palms into his eyes and drops down on the hay, lifting a thin strand and twirling it in his fingers. "Pete and Dad met your father at some bar in Spoonerville. They were playing some card game and betting on what they own. Pete being Pete betted on my father, who stupidly enough agreed. But it didn't end there, Pete also betted on everything Dad owns, including me. And then he lost. And here we are."
I try to process what he just said, but it doesn't make sense at all. There's no way he's saying the truth. "That's… that's impossible. That's horrible. You mean we really own you? This whole arrangement isn't temporary?"
He gives me a duh face and rises up to his feet and grabs a comb from the grooming kit.
I shake my head, my eyes still wide with shock. "But that's illegal."
Max starts combing Andrea's mane, untangling the knots in a gentle manner that contrasts his harsh tone, "C'mon, the laws of this country bend their asses to people like your father."
Realization starts falling down on me like thick bricks: Mike's hesitation to tell me the story behind the Goofs' situation, Dad beating Max with a belt, Goofy saying and doing nothing to stop him, Max begging me not to talk to my father about it.
He starts combing her tail, looking up at me with a sarcastic lopsided smile. "You wanted a slave, Bradley, you already got one. And that's why we can never be friends."
My eyebrows draw together and my jaw clenches. He gives me a mock bow and resumes combing Andrea's tail.
I smack my hand on my father's desk, causing his pencil holder to jump. "What the hell, Dad? We own the Goofs?"
He looks away from the newspaper to my furious face. "Yes?"
The indifference in his expression drives me madder than I already am. "We can't own human beings! We have to un-own them now!"
"Disown," he corrects.
I throw my hands in the air. "Whatever!"
He places the newspaper on his desk and lowers his glasses to the tip of his nose to give me his best confused stare. "What happened to change your mind all of a sudden? You knew about this from the beginning."
I smack my chest in shock. "Me? Me?"
"Yes, but you were so happy with the horses and the young stable boy you didn't object to this at all."
"I didn't? Ididn't! I…. I…."
I didn't care. I didn't care. I was so happy to have Max and Andrea around I didn't care how much it was hurting Max to be some property of mine. And all this time I used to think of the pre-shift me as some sort of a saint, but turns out he was nothing but a selfish bastard.
Guess everywhere I go I'm destined to be the same selfish, spoiled, rich bastard who never stops to think about how much his actions hurt others.
Dazed, I grip on my father's desk, a fragile attempt to steady myself. This is too much to take in. My legs give out and I sink to the floor.
Hands. Hands going around me, pulling me into a hug. Panicking, I push my father off of me and crawl away, but he grabs my arm and tries to pull me into another hug.
"Let me go," I snap at him, trying to get away. "You're a monster!" I turn around, using my fist to get away. Then I blink. Look down at my fist. Look up at my father… whom I just punched.
Wide-eyed, I stare up at the trickle of blood running down my father's lip. I squirm out of his weakened hold, edging to the wall and using it to lift myself up to my feet.
"And I'm not," I continue with trembling lips. "I will… I will never be like you."
The hurt in his eyes is as unmistakable as the line of blood going down his chin. I run out of his office before I faint. I hit my father. I hit my father. I hit my father.
I spent last night in my room, listening to my old records until my brain stopped trying to think. Everything is going upside down in this timeline; Dad suddenly decides he cares about me, but then I find myself caring more about the Goofs, while Goofy cares about Max who cares about a girl in Spoonervile, and the chain of caring goes on and on.
I don't know what to do with these mixed emotions simmering inside me. It just hurts, Goofy's longing gaze, Dad'slonging gaze… two wronged children so angry with their parents, they can't accept their desperate attempts to reach out and fix the damage.
Andrea sticks her muzzle over my shoulder for another carrot, so I give her a gentle pat and then what she wants. I take one more carrot and feed Alexander as well. I'm glad I agreed to be out here taking care of the horses while the Goofs are busy cleaning up the stable – never been a fan of cleaning my own room and bathroom in the first place.
I wave a hand to Goofy as he walks out with the wheelbarrow and dumps out the filth in the manure pile. He returns my wave with a warm smile and a nod then wheels the barrow toward the new fresh straw. I head into the stable and watch Max cleaning Andrea's stall by using a pitchfork to remove manure and soiled bedding.
Goofy brings in the clean straw and starts shaking it and spreading it out in Alexander's clean stall. The Goofs used to keep the horses inside before my essential help, which caused them a lot of pain and prolonged the process of cleaning up to more than forty minutes.
Now with Alexander's stall all clean and ready for use, Goofy parks the empty wheelbarrow in front of Andrea's stall. He maneuvers it to face the direction Max will go to when the barrow is full. "There," he says with a sigh, wiping away the sweat from his forehead. "Think I'm gonna walk them horsies around 'til you're done."
"Leave Andrea," Max says dryly. "You can barely manage a horse without starting to act like yourself. Don't want her to get hurt."
No, but you'll do whatever you can to hurt your father,I think spitefully. The look on Goofy's face is enough to want to give Max a bleeding nose. Goofy must have noticed my glare because then he smiles unhappily and shakes his head no. I heave a sigh, finally understanding what he meant yesterday when he said that it isn't easy what Max is going through.
I wait until Goofy leaves, turning my sympathetic gaze to Max placing the wet bedding into the wheelbarrow. "Will you ever find it in your heart to forgive your father?"
"Bradley, my dad has been falling for Pete's traps since I can't remember. He never learns. He does whatever Pete tells him and never stands up to him, and now, I'mpaying the price."
"So is he," I say softly.
"But it's his mess!" He puts away the pitchfork and starts sweeping the floor with a stable broom. "Why the hell should I pay for his mistakes?"
I can't blame him. His situation is twice worse than mine and here I am, unable to let my own father give me a hug. Not only that, but use my own fist to prevent it from happening. How screwed up am I? How screwed up both of us are? This is getting out of hand. Max's pain, Goofy's pain, Dad's pain, and mine.
It's time. It's definitely the time.
"When you're done," I start, getting his attention. "Saddle Andrea up. I'll be back in a sec."
He frowns. "You're allowed to ride her now?"
"Max," I bite on my lips, hating the words I'm about to say with passion, "It's an order."
He presses his lips shut and nods silently.
I snatch my sketchbook and hurry out of the room, running toward the stairs. But then I stop in my tracks, my eyes wide at the sight of my father in a formalwear taking the stairs. He stops, looks up, no sign of a bruise on his lip.
"Dad," I say, the tone of my voice ashamed and low.
He nods. "Bradley."
He continues on his way down the stairs.
"Dad…" I call after him, wait until he looks up at me. "Are you… are you going out?"
"I've got an important meeting."
I blink, my lips flutter, everything I want to say dies in my throat. Even the last goodbye.
"Do you want something?"
I give a small headshake. "No, um, take care."
"You too," he says quietly, and goes on his way.
I watch him leave, my chest tightening painfully. Goodbye, Dad.
Max and Andrea are waiting for me in front of the stable. "I thought you were going to change?" His gaze falls on the sketchbook in my hands, but doesn't comment on it.
His eyebrows fly to his hairline, and he shuffles his way on his dirty rubber boots to where I'm standing. He takes a close look at my face. "You hit your head or something?"
I sigh. "I'm serious."
He gives a humorless laugh. "Bradley, we've already established this. I don't know anything about…"
"I'll hold the reins for you."
"For God's sake, Max," I snap in exasperated frustration. "Can we pretend we're just a couple of normal kids? Can you, for just one hour, pretend that we're friends?"
He stares at me, speechless for a moment, then lowers his gaze to the ground thinking about my request. It isn't easy after two months of being treated like nothing but a servant. Looked down on, shamed, and humiliated. I'll understand if he doesn't agree to this, even though it'll frustrate me like hell.
He looks up at me, eyes as hard as steel. "What if your dad saw us?"
"I won't let him hurt you."
"I wasn't just talking about me."
A faint smile curls up my lips. "We'll both be fine. Hey, we've snuck into his bedroom together. We can do anything now."
He smiles back, but says nothing.
I help him hop on Andrea's back – the kid has balance issues all right, he can barely sit upright. Once that problem is taken care of, Max starts looking around the place with wondrous awe. I smile up at him, remembering the first time I rode Andrea and how cool that experience was.
"So, uh, what should I do?" His voice drips with excitement.
"You asking me?" I say with amusement. "You were the one who taught me how to ride."
"Reading books is nothing like experience."
"Tap her gently with your feet."
He does and she starts walking. Max holds on to the reins with a startled, happy laugh. "She's moving! She's moving!"
I remember how he used to roll his eyes at my excitement when I first managed to make Andrea stop walking. If it were old me I'd have probably done the same – actually, I wouldn't have let him ride my horse in the first place. I hold the reins and start guiding them both around the estate. I thought it was going to be humiliating at first, but now as I lead them both around it feels kind of nice. Like I'm more experienced in this stuff, wiser, kind of like the big brother I used to be in the first timeline.
"Can we make her walk faster?"
"Better not risk it, Max." I look up at him and smile at his gleeful joy.
Everyone we come across drop their mouths to the ground in shock, except for Yoli who throws me a proud grin. Bet her delusion of my heroism is going up a notch.
We walk past Goofy and Alexander, nothing improves my mood like that cheerful smile that lights up the older man's face. He looks so happy in contrast to the sorrowful state he was in after Max had yelled at him earlier. Now I know I did the right thing.
After walking for a while, we stop in the wide field next to the small forest and I help Max down to the ground. I lie on my back on the green grass with a warm breeze blowing the swaying trees above me, squinting my eyes at the bright sun in the middle of a clear blue sky. Suddenly, Andrea comes to my vision and blows on my face.
I shriek and roll away in the grass, hearing Max's loud chuckles. I laugh as well, lying on my stomach now, using my arms as a pillow. Then a sudden pang of sadness hits me and the laughter dies in my throat.
"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" I mumble in sorrow. "Makes me feel…" the sentence trails off with a quiver, makes me shut my lips and close my eyes to prevent the stinging tears from falling.
"What the hell is wrong with you? You talk like you're dying."
I look at him with a shaky smile.
His eyes widen with fright. "Are you dying? For real?"
I prop myself up on my elbows and reach for my sketchbook through the grass. "Max, I… have been working on this for a while. I haven't finished it yet, but… "
I flip the pages until I find a certain drawing and hand the book to Max. "Here."
He looks at the drawing, and I watch closely as his eyebrows shoot up and his lips part in surprise. "Bradley," he whispers in a croaky voice, his eyes blurring slightly.
I give him a playful punch on the arm. "On the scale of one to ten, how similar does she look to how you pictured her?"
Max shakes his head, speechless. "This is incredible." He looks at me with eyes glistening with unshed tears. "You…"
I say nothing. Just grin.
"God, I'm… I was such a jerk to you and all that time you were…"
I tap him on the shoulder. "It doesn't matter, Max. 'Cause you're right. We have to be equals to be friends." I stand up on my feet and throw him a meaningful look. "I don't think it's possible in this timeline."
His eyebrows furrow. "Timeline?"
I wrap my arms around Andrea's neck and hug her close, feeling a burning in my eyes and a tightness in my throat. "I'm gonna miss you so much."
Max jumps to his feet and stands next to me. "Bradley, you're scaring me."
I let go of Andrea and then hug him. He freezes in my embrace, flustered and awkward. "Promise me you'll take care of her," I whisper into his ear.
He twists out of my grip. "What the hell is going on?"
"Max, I hope one day, you'll find it in your heart to forgive your father."
I pull out the necklace under my shirt and bring out the gold sun. Max looks between the two objects in bewilderment. One last look at my stable boy and my beautiful horse, this time it's harder to keep the tears locked in my eyes so I let them slip freely down my cheeks.
And then… I did it.
Bright white light surrounds me, swallowing Max and Andrea away. Their disappearance scares me, makes me regret my decision for a mere second before I feel the ground vanishing from underneath me. Unlike the last time, it's not a quick shift. This time it feels like I'm falling down into a dark loop, drowning in it, unable to stop myself from falling down. I try to scream but I can't, can't move a muscle in my body, just falling. Falling. Falling.
Suddenly, my eyes snap open.
A white ceiling, beeping sounds, and I'm lying on a mattress. It only takes me a few seconds to realize I'm in a hospital. I look at my surroundings wryly before my eyes land on my best friend absorbed in his textbook.
"Tank?" I say in the hoarse voice of someone who hasn't spoken for days.
He lifts his gaze off the book and a surprised and delighted laugh escapes his mouth. "Bradley, you're awake."
"What… what happened?"
He sends his textbook flying to the floor and brings his chair closer to my bed. "You've been in a coma for more than three weeks."
A coma. So, all that time I've been travelling through different timelines, my body has been sent into a coma. That Broom-Hilda is one sneaky bitch.
"So, I'm… I'm back?" I sound like a little boy trying to hold into the last shred of hope. "It's over?"
Tank raises his eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"
"Just… been having those weird dreams."
I watch him walk over toward his textbook on the floor and place it on a table. He's been sitting by my side for the last three weeks. I can't believe he did that after…
"Tank, about what I said…"
"You not stepping a foot in the Gamma House?"
"Oh, don't worry your pretty head about that."
"I was angry and I didn't mean a word I said."
"I know, sweetheart. I know."
We share a smile before he nods his head at the door. "Better tell the doctor."
I wiggle slightly, feeling a heavy object on my chest.
Tank stops at the door before he leaves, throwing a reassuring smile. "Hey, Bradley, don't sweat it. It's over."
I slip a hand into my hospital gown and my hand freezes on a moon-shaped metal piece. Oh, no! I pull it out and it's the necklace, minus the gold sun.
It isn't over yet.