He held a cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply. He stared out the window of his attic bedroom, over the identical houses in tidy rows with perfectly manicured lawns in the newest subdivision that seemingly popped up overnight. He was sure that each house held happy, perfect families inside their walls, with dads that played catch in the front yard and moms that had fresh baked cookies waiting for you when you came home from school.
When he was a child, this old Victorian, that had belonged to his grandmother, had felt like a castle. It was easy to pretend that you were looking out over the lands of a kingdom and deciding which adventure to embark upon next with your trusty steed and band of knights. Well in actuality it was your mutt of a dog, Burke, and your best friend Sam and his little sister Laney from the farm down the street, but they could spend hours creating a whole fantasy world that easily let you escape from reality.
He pressed his head against the coolness of the upper window pane and exhaled into the crisp night air and stubbed what was left of the cigarette into the sill. Normally, he would be more careful not to leave a trace of his less than desirable habit for his mom to find, but they were leaving and he did not care if someone saw the burn mark he had just left in the wood.
He looked around the room. Most of the boxes were already en route to Boston and the townhome that awaited him within the city limits and his mother’s new position at some public relations firm that sounded like any other place that she could get a job in any other location.
Maxwell Sanders, moving to the northeast and far away from his home in Michigan. Not that he was ever opposed to leaving and traveling and learning about the world, but he wanted to be able to come back to his attic refuge. He wanted to find comfort in the remnants of his childhood, but honestly he wasn’t even sure if that would be something that would happen now anyway. Especially after everything that happened.
“Maximus! Sam’s here!” His mother yelled from downstairs “And I hope that cigarette was your last, you sneaky punk! I’ll be in the shower!”
He rolled his eyes. She called him anything except for the name she had actually given him. There was never going to be another person in the world that knew him better than Marjorie May. She was always an extremely tough, yet loving, person and had now proved it twice over by deciding to completely uproot her life, and his in the process, and start over in a new city where they knew no one. He had graduated early but still didn’t have a single clue what he wanted to do with his life. Marjorie had agreed to a ‘very European of you’ gap year, as she called it, while he took time to be a cliché and find himself. Then, after graduation, with mediocre grades and not much direction, Marjorie dropped the Boston Bombshell.
“Listen Maximillian, this is going to sound nuts – so make all the faces you want and hopefully your eyes won’t get stuck in the back of your head,” she gripped the sides of the table with both hands, to make her look less nervous than she actually was, “We’re leaving on a jet plane,” she sang, slightly off key.
“Great Ma. Where to?” he shrugged and leaned his back into the chair.”
“You didn’t let me finish my song! The ‘Don’t know when we’ll be back again’ part except well, I know we won’t be back. I mean we’ll visit but, well this won’t be home anymore.”
His nose scrunched as he raised one eyebrow, still slouched, still with arms crossed, “What are you saying? This has been our home since forever. What is happening?”
“Maxy-Moo, I can’t be in this old, haunted house anymore. I need to be able to breathe. And I can’t breathe here anymore. And not just that stupid, Stepford Wife, subdivision taking up all my old views. Ever since…” her eyes looked a little more solemn.
“Okay. Stop. We don’t need to talk about it. Obviously it’s hard to be here, I guess. I just don’t think about it,” Max sat up slightly straighter and tucked his arms a little tighter around his body.
“I wish I had that luxury. And I can’t. And believe me I have tried. I know what this house meant to my grandmother. I know what it means to you. And to me it feels like a prison. I need out. I need fresh. I need new. I need…different. Listen. I got the opportunity of a lifetime for myself. And Max, I’ve been everything to everyone else for a very long time and you might not get it, but you’re also smarter than the average bear, ya know? If you really think about it, I’ve not done much for myself. And my love for you, my sweet boy, is absolutely endless. And once you figure out what to do, which will be something positively brilliant. You will leave and find your own life. And I am not trying to make you feel guilty. Complete opposite. I want that for you more than you know because you deserve happiness and joy and whatever greatness life has to offer you. But, Max, that leaves me here, alone in a house that brings me none of the joy that it has brought you. And I just can’t do it. Actually, more than that, I simply won’t do it,” her eyes pleaded with him not to storm off or hate her for being more honest with him than she had been about a lot of things in life.
He knew it was true. Marjorie, though not the fresh baked cookie daily mom that he imagined of the subdivision families, had been a constant in her own way. She was always there cheering like you weren’t the worst soccer player on the team and she hung up tests with C- grades on the refrigerator. She helped a lot in the neighborhood and the local town, sometimes as a volunteer when she probably should have been paid. She was at every PTO meeting, even if she was 20 minutes late. She tried. And she only had really ever expected him to try, so maybe he needed to give her the same courtesy at that moment.
“Where?” he tried to sound more unaffected than he actually was.
“Boston. I know. It’s insane. But apparently my jack of all trades resume sounded great to this company and maybe I’m just good at talking myself up but they want to take a chance on me. It sounds dreamy. The pay is more than enough for me to buy you a couple of plane tickets to go off exploring. I make it sound like it was an easy choice but you know it wasn’t. But if I never made the choice, then I would never have the chance,” she sighed and leaned back into her chair, resting her head on the back and staring at the ceiling.
“What the…Boston? Seriously, Mom,” he tried to wrap his head around it, “Can I just take a walk? You always say I can take space when I need it but this fuc..freaking Boston Bombshell? I need a minute or something, okay?”
She nodded and he left the table.
And now, two months later, he had made his peace with it he guessed. But now Sam was here, three nights before they were finally set to leave.
“Hey man,” they high fived and clenched their hands together, fists bumping, as Max slumped into the swing on the porch.
“How do you still not know that Margie May knows that you smoke even though you act so slick about it?” Sam laughed.
“Whatever dude. I probably should stop anyway but honestly, it just calms me down so she can chill and I’ll stop when I want to stop. ‘New you in Boston, Maxwell’ or whatever she says. Where’s…” his voice trailed off with what he already knew.
“You know she’s not coming over here. She’s pissed Max. And she’s pissed because she’s sad.”
Max sighed, “Yeah I know. It’s not like I wasn’t ever going to go anywhere. And mom made me promise that if I ever did go to college that I wouldn’t go anywhere in the state so I could get cultured or whatever.”
“Yeah and you know this is different from that. People move away all the time and they say they’ll come visit but they get caught up in life and they don’t come back ever,” Sam knew his best friend knew he had made a point.
“It makes sense that we can’t stay here”
“Your dad,” Sam was treading on dangerous ground, “Probably wouldn’t want you guys to stay here either.”
“Who in the hell knows what he would want because he didn’t care to stick around to let us know. And also, fuck him for not.”
The boys were both silent. Sam shuffled his feet around as he leaned against one of the porch posts. Max looked like he might self implode.
Harry Sanders had been Max’s shining beacon of light for the majority of his childhood. He worked a lot of the time. He was a contractor for a local building company and the hours were long. He was not the dad playing catch in the front yard every night. But he would spend time with Max when he could, and when he did, he made sure that it counted. They were close, thick as thieves, and as Harry’s only child, he gave the best of himself that he could to him, but he was always dedicated to his job. It distracted him from so much that Max didn’t know he needed to be distracted from in order to keep himself from falling apart.
And then, 5 years ago, Harry got laid off from his job.
And then, Harry shot himself in his office while Max was away at summer camp for Margie May to find him when she got home from her book club with only a note saying ‘I’m sorry but I can’t anymore’, the ink splashed with tears.
Only, it hadn’t worked the way he had wanted to and he ended up hooked up to machines that were only postponing the inevitable, in their guest bedroom while Margie May refused to hire a nurse and would stay by his side and sob. Finally, 4 months later, he had a heart attack and died.
The office and guest bedroom doors remained shut.
“Whatever, we’re leaving and then we definitely don’t need to discuss this again. Don’t bring that shit up again, okay? Let’s just chill here. I’d rather not be pissed at you when I leave.”
“Yeah, okay” Sam sighed.
They both looked up as the gate creaked open and Laney cautiously approached.
“Would you guys rather fight so you don’t have to show manly weakness and cry because you’ll miss each other so much?” Laney guessed that Sam had brought up Max’s dad and attempted to lighten the mood.
“I didn’t think I would see you before I left.”
“Yeah well, as pissed as I am, I get it. And next year after I graduate, Sam promised that we’ll take a roadtrip to you. Grandma Betts sent you these for the road, or well, plane. So make sure there’s room in your carry on,” she shoved a tin of cookies into his lap and plopped down beside him on the swing, “And on the bright side, I don’t have to send a letter via Pony Express and can just annoy you via Facetime.”
Max just nodded in thanks. The three of them just sat in the silence for a moment. All reminiscing in the comfort and quiet of each other about their times talking and playing games late into the night on the porch. Max sat forward and put his head in his hands, running them through his mess of almost too long, brown, wavy hair.
“I know I’m being a tool. I just hate thinking about it or talking about it. And I’m already feeling sad that we’re leaving and honestly, if I think about my dad for too long, well, I just can’t” Max held his head in his hands.
“I get it,” Sam said quietly.
“We get it,” Laney added, “We just care about you”
“I care about you guys too. That’s the part that feels unfair. But I was always going to leave. I know that. And you know it too. I just thought things would be different,” Max shrugged.
“I can’t do this goodbye stuff forever. So I’m saying, I’ll be over Thursday to wave goodbye as you leave. I’ve got class tomorrow and Wednesday and an annoying introduction essay to write, so I’ll leave you to it,” Sam fist bumped him, spun on his heels, and started to walk away, “Lane?”
“I’ll be right behind you,” she nodded, urging him to give them a minute to themselves.
Max felt his heartbeat quicken, with Laney inches away on the porch swing and her brother leaving the two of them alone.
“You know it wasn’t your fault, right?”
“Christ Laney, I asked you…”
“I know what you asked and I think you’re being stubborn and dumb. And whatever Sam said to you, you know he was trying to be helpful. Our dad died too, remember? But it was cancer so I know it isn’t the same thing, but also wasn’t it kind of?”
“I’m serious. People don’t off themselves because they’re healthy, happy people. I know that is super harsh but I wouldn’t feel right if I continued to walk on eggshells around you and didn’t tell you before you leave for a new life, that I think you’re an idiot if you think there was something you could have done differently to change what happened. What happened sucks and I get it. Probably more than other people do. And it wasn’t your fault. It is about as much my fault that my dad died of cancer. He was sad Max, about stuff we don’t know about but you know he loved you. And if he thought he could have gotten better he would have. And I decided to love everyone harder after my dad died. Meanwhile you’d rather stay here in your stuffy old attic, in this stuffy old town, than go on an adventure like we always planned to do when we were kids. You came up with the best stories of what you thought we could do. And now you have your chance. With a mom that, while a bit batty, adores you, Maxy-Moo” she said it with a bit of sarcasm and also with all of her heart.
Max felt the sadness starting to bubble up inside of him. He knew that a part of him was always scared if he let himself feel more than anger towards his dad leaving him before he was ready for him to leave, that he would end up just like him if he really let himself feel the agony of what it meant for his dad to be gone.
Tears uncontrollably pooled in his eyes and he couldn’t find words. Laney immediately wrapped her arms around him as he sobbed. The last time he cried was at his dad’s actual funeral. Marjorie had kept so many of the details of what had happened from him until she felt like he was old enough to kind of explain. Except, small towns know more about the people that live within them than they do about themselves sometimes, so he always heard the whispers despite her best efforts.
“Just go talk to her Max. I’ll come back Thursday with Sam, okay? Not for goodbye though because I’m going to text you so much that you’ll want to block my number” She pulled back from the embrace and squeezed his arm and scurried down the steps and out of the gate.
Max reluctantly opened the door and saw Marjorie, with her sweats on, getting her coffee ready for the morning.
“You okay Maximillian?” She hadn’t looked up as he came into the kitchen, “Those friends of yours are something special to be sure. We’ll set up the guest room and…” then she saw him. His eyes were red and the sadness was palpable.
“Mom,” his voice cracked.
Marjorie flew around the island in the kitchen, wrapping her arms around him, as they both collapsed into a heap on the floor.
“I miss him. I don’t want to be that sad. I can’t,” he couldn’t stop the tears.
“Oh love, you might be sad. In fact you will be sad, but your dad had a lot of things he couldn’t get past for reasons that we won’t ever really understand. I tried so hard to get him to get some help, but he never felt ready. Never felt like he could handle it. But there was no part of him that did what he did because he didn’t love me or especially you, you know that right? You were one of the things that brought him joy. The love I had for him, brought him joy. And sometimes, those demons just get too big and the joy isn’t big enough to fight it. I’m so sorry for that, my sweet boy. I love you so much.”
His mom was right, the house was haunted. And it was time to take the ghost that loved with them, and leave the ghost of tragedy, that had melded itself into the bones of that old house. It would never be the same. And it was time for Boston.