It was all Charlie's fault, really. They moved away because he fell in the pool. It meant Max had to leave his and Charlie's bedroom with the two cartoon frogs on the wall that Charlie and Da had spent hours labouring over with their paintbrushes. "My two little frogs" Da said, beaming at his sons, his paint flecked hands on his hips as he admired his handiwork. It meant leaving the street on which he, Charlie and the McCarthy brothers spent hours racing their bikes, up and down endless times, each of them hopeful that this time, they would beat Charlie, but Charlie was always the fastest. "What's going to happen to Charlie's bike?" Max asked Ma, who didn't answer but only cried.
Max hadn’t been there for the accident, and so he didn’t really know what had happened. One day Charlie was there, a strong, sunny seven year old, pushing him on the swing in the golden afternoons, patiently showing him how to do the perfect dive, and the next he had passed away.
Passed away where? Max thought, watching from his bedroom window as two men covered the pool with blue tarp. The edge of the tarp flapped up in the wind and one of the men stomped it down with his shoe. The scene of a crime. What baffled Max is that Charlie knew how to swim; he was practically aquatic, with strong legs and arms reminiscent of an amphibian. Max would bob in the pool beside him, kept afloat with armbands and awe for his brother.
Ma and Da weren't up for answering his many questions. There was a complicated day where everyone wore black and cried, and a box was lowered into the ground, but these memories were overridden by the excitement he felt when Granny gave him a Nintendo DS complete with Super Mario Bros and told him he was the bravest boy in the world.
But the Nintendo could not assuage his anger towards Ma and Da about the move. He threw temper tantrums and snapped his new Nintendo in two and yelled for Charlie to come back. It would have been better if Ma and Da yelled at him to cut it out, or even if they had given him a clout to shut him up. But they didn’t react at all, only staring at him with the sorrow in their souls in full view. That was enough to shame him into silence. Da wrapped a seatbelt around a box of ornaments on the seat that should have been Charlie’s, and they drove away. Max looked mournful as Sam and Dylan McCarthy waved goodbye. Mr and Mrs McCarthy were holding them by the shoulders tightly.
Max stared out the window at the trees flickering by. Charlie was running on the telephone wires and waving at him, big theatrical hand gestures. Charlie was so much faster than him, just as fast as the car.
“Charlie,” he called, banging on the window. “Be careful. You might fall.” But Charlie didn’t fall and Da told him, quietly but firmly, to stop it, and so he did.
When they got to the new house, a small, two bedroom bungalow, Charlie was nowhere to be seen. Ma and Da arranged the furniture to mimic their old house, but it still felt foreign. The sofa was in the wrong place and his bedroom walls were white with no frogs. Max wandered out in a sulk to the back garden, an enormous overgrown jungle. There was a great green pond right at the end, and Max stood far away from it, but just close enough to see the little mottled frogs splashing in the murky water. He wanted to get closer, but something told him to beware of deep water.
A few days later, Charlie appeared, lounging under the sun by the pond, his arm resting lazily over his eyes. Max plopped down next to him.
“Hey Charlie,” he asked. “Where did you go?”
“The most amazing place. I can do anything I want there. I can fly and swim and dive and I never, ever have to go back to school.”
Max huffed at big breath in. He was starting school in just a few weeks and was dreading it.
“Do you want to come with me?”
“Yeah,” Max said, taking Charlie's hand.
Charlie led him to the edge of the pond. Max looked up at him for confirmation and Charlie nodded vigorously, even giving him an encouraging push. Max toppled in, his arms windmilling as he fell.
He was splashing, flailing. The little frogs were nowhere to be seen. He guessed they must be deep in the water, swimming down, down with their strong legs. He tried to lift his head, but something was pulling him down. Charlie was beside him in the water, surprisingly dry, pulling him under.
“Charlie, stop,” he gasped.
“This is how you come with me, Maxxy. You said you wanted to. Two frogs, remember?” Charlie's face was very close to his, and his hand was on Max’s head, pushing him under.
Then he was lifted under his arms into the air, water slopping everywhere.
“I’ve got him!” Da yelled, and he was crying. Ma lay on the grass. She was shaking like she’d been knocked down, her hand on her heart.
Max lay in his bed with a hot water bottle, drifting in and out of sleep. His forehead was burning hot and his vision was blurry. Charlie came to see him.
“I tried to get you to come with me. But you messed it up.”
“I want to come with you.”
“Then try harder,” Charlie said.
“Do you live inside my head?” Max asked.
Charlie looked sadly at him. “I didn’t used to.”
“Why did you go?”
But Charlie didn’t have an answer for him.
“I thought you wanted to come with me. It’s better with me, I promise.”
“I want to come.” He hesitated. “What about Ma and Da?”
“Who cares about them? They made you leave your friends. They make you do things you don’t want to do, like eat vegetables and clean up. And they’re going to make you go to school.”
Charlie had a point.
“You can come with me if you jump out the window.”
Beads of sweat rolled down Max’s hot forehead. “I can’t, I’ll hurt myself.”
“It won’t, I promise. It’s much more fun with me.”
Max got out of bed and stood by the window, looking down. “I’m scared.”
“You’re a baby,” Charlie sneered.
“I’m not.” Max stood on the window sill, gripping the edges tightly.
“Jump,” Charlie commanded.
So he did.
But he didn’t fall. He floated, suspended in the air. Charlie was holding his hand.
“See? Didn’t I say it would be fine?” Charlie pulled him alongside him in the air; he whizzed above the trees. Max felt cold, very cold, in his pyjamas.
“Charlie, where are we going?” he shouted, but Charlie wasn’t listening to him, he was just going faster and faster. So fast, in fact, that Max didn’t see where they were going anymore. Everything was blurring together. He ducked and dodged tree branches and yelped as a bird almost collided with him. It was getting brighter. They were flying into the sun.
“Didn’t I say it would be fun, Maxxy? Aren’t you having fun now? This is way better than being with Ma and Da! Why don’t we fly away together?” His voice was shrill against the wind whistling through Max’s ears. He could feel the heat scorching him; he was blinded by the powerful light.
“Charlie, stop!” he cried. “Go back! Back!”
Charlie turned around, and his illuminated face was twisted in disgust. “Have it your way!” he said, and he dropped him. Max screamed as he plummeted down, away from the light, to the murky pond below.
He woke inside his bed, feverish and mewling like a kitten. Ma was pressing a damp towel to his face and Da was pacing up and down with his head in his hands.
Charlie was there too, sitting in the dark corner, hanging his head. Max rolled back on the bed, heavy with relief.
“Hi Ma,” he said. Ma burst into tears and hugged him.
“Promise me you’ll never do that again.”
“I promise.” He looked at Da. “I miss Charlie.”
Da stroked Max’s damp hair out of his eyes. “I do too.”
When his parents had passed out asleep next to him, Charlie wandered over, his jaw set in stony jealousy.
"You can't do anything right, can you? I'm trying to help you," he said.
“Why can’t you come back?”
“I just can’t.”
“Is it better?”
“Way better. You should be jealous.”
The light above them was flickering with an old bulb. Charlie’s face was cast into shadows of darkness and light.
“I forgot you don’t know anything when you’re four,” Charlie said.
Max’s eyelids were heavy, his breathing deep. “I think I want to stay.”
Charlie shrugged. “Fine. I won’t try to make you anymore.”
A pause settled between them. Charlie watched his sleeping parents.
Charlie chewed on his bottom lip. “Don’t let them forget me.”
“I won’t,” Max said. "Charlie?"
"There were little frogs at the pond. I'll show you tomorrow, but we won't go in the water this time."
Max was fighting to stay awake. “Will you hold my hand?”
Charlie took Max's hot little hand and Max drifted off into a dreamless sleep. When he woke, Ma and Da were still sleeping next to him, but Charlie was gone, his ghost obliterated by the rising sun.
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Ooh great take on the prompt! I feel like we even had a few similar themes which is interesting (jelousy just lends itself to siblings' drama, without a care for whether they're dead or alive, right?!) The first two lines were and excellent hook - and the story didn't let me down either. Loved the little frog motifs here - as well as the detail that Charlie drowned despite being able to swim!
Well written, Mary, this had me hooked. I knew Max was younger but I didn't realise he was only four until the end. Those poor kids! Charlie's clearly confused but it seems like he has a vindictive streak as well. I got the impression he was lying about how good it is on "the other side". And I honestly thought Max was going to die from jumping out the window - glad you didn't take it into such dark territory lol. As you can tell, this was a thought-provoking read. Well done and thanks for sharing. :)
I love the venom between them in this. Very powerful.
I love the themes on this one, especially how the story features someone who "isn't really there" while also including such wonderful visual detail at every turn-- especially in a contest with these kinds of limits, every description counts, and I ate all of them up. Thanks for sharing.
Mary, this is such a sad story. You've written it beautifully and I love the way Max's voice comes across. Glad to get to read more of your beautiful writing.
Sad, yes, and very suspenseful! There's a couple times there I was wondering if that was it for Max, and that scene at the pond – good lord, those poor parents :) What a nightmare that would have been for them. It's a good take on the prompt. I must assume the ghost is real, since he's got words and ideas that don't occur to Max. So we have a ghost trying to make his brother jealous of being dead, and he himself seems jealous of Max still being alive. It's horrible behaviour, trying to suicide a four-year old, but we can't really hold it a...
Mary, welcome back! Loved this story, had me gripped with fear the Max wouldn’t make it out of the pool! It was heartbreaking with Charlie, and with Max’s lack of understanding. Could feel the parents heart break when Max would talk about Charlie. So well written, loved it. One wee minor typo I think: “ He ducked and dodged tree branches and yelped as a bid almost collided with him.” Bird?
Thanks so much for your feedback and for catching the typo! Glad you enjoyed it, it's my first foray into short story writing for many months so I'm still a little rusty :)
Hi Mary! Oh my heart ached for these characters. For absolutely everything about this story. And I loved the detail about the frogs. And I love how you made their pain so clear while capturing the child’s perspective. The imagery you wove was enchanting and I even loved the literal fever dream. This was such a beautifully written piece. Thank you for writing it!