“Where’s dad?” Cordelia asks, checking the clock as she scoops out bowls of macaroni and cheese. The house is filled with the heavy aroma of bacon, the key ingredient for making homemade mac’n’chese perfect. Of course, Max thinks differently than the rest of the family. It’s the double portion of onions that make it best. Sure, he loves bacon, but the onions make all the difference. It’s just a common fact to him. He takes his bowl from Cordelia and looks at the clock too. His shift should have been over an hour ago.
“He has to work late,” their mother says, trying to hide the fact that every time she glances out that window at the white veil coming down, that she’s terrified for him. Max notices the looks and he understands her worries. They’re all scared for him on nights like this. Max walks past her and sits down at the table next to Keith who is strangely silent, especially on a day where he’s been in trouble. Usually it’s nothing but defiant diatribes spilling from his lips on these nights. Harvey’s too busy texting to notice anything around him, especially the steaming bowl of cheesy goodness in front of him. “Harv, put the phone away,” their mother says bluntly. Before Max can spear his noodles with his fork, her attention is drawn to him. “I don’t think you should go to work tonight, Max.”
“I have to,” Max says softly, but his voice is determined. “They have me scheduled.”
His mother turns and looks at him with a disapproving look on her face, not quite a scowl, but not a placid expression either. She never understands him or why he would risk going out there in this weather. It makes her nervous, but to Max it’s simple. They gave him a shift and it’s his duty to show up. He gave his word and they’re counting on him. Besides, Ashwood isn’t a sprawling metropolis. If he slides off the road, he could walk home safely, probably in the same amount of time. He bites down on the warm, perfectly crafted dinner and smiles. Cordelia drops down across form him, smiling at his expression. She blows on her fork-full and takes her first bite, giving a fluttering eyelash, rolling eyes, and groaning in euphoric delight expression that makes Max smile.
“Can I be excused?” Keith asks, his elbows leaning on the ledge of the table, his forehead resting in his palms.
“Yes,” their mother says abruptly, not having the patience or tolerance for the rebellious youngest tonight. Before she can even get the word out of her mouth, Keith hurls himself from the table and vanishes from the kitchen in a flash. They all watch him go, like a bolt of lightning from the room. His footsteps vanish up the stairs to the second floor. Harvey’s phone vibrates on the tabletop, breaking the suspended moment of confusion shared by all of them. “Harv, don’t make me tell you again.”
“I’m not answering it,” Harvey says, checking the screen before pocketing the phone.
Max shakes his head. There’s something enchanted about Harvey, the way he can get away clean from every situation, how everyone always has their back turned at the right time, and how with one smile he can charm the devil himself. Max never had that kind of luck. Finishing his bowl, he scoops up a bounty of bacon onto the tines of the fork and enjoys a mouthful of salty, greasy, onion-y goodness.
“It was perfect, Cordelia,” Max says, sliding his chair back and taking it to the sink. He turns on the hot water as his mother preps tomorrow’s lunches for her children. Since the day he entered kindergarten, Max has always had a custom made lunch from his mother waiting for him in the fridge when he woke up. Rinsing out the bowl and placing it in the dishwasher, Max hurries up the stairs, checking his watch as he goes. He’s running out of time.
Passing Keith’s door, which is closed, Max sees the dark sliver running down the slight opening of Avery’s room. Long abandoned and finally reoccupied, the room feels strange. To think that behind that door sits the slumbering Avery, back from college. Jet lagged and completely exhausted from finals, Avery barely said three words before passing out on his old bed. Max reaches out for the handle and closes the door for him to keep the light and sound out.
Pushing open his door, Max grabs his blue scarf off his desk chair, trying to ignore the unopened responses from a dozen universities sitting on his desk. Throwing on his coat, he looks at his map, pockmarked with pushpins, each color coded to his options, classified by possibility. All across the country, the myriad of fateful chances await him, haunting him. Max zips up his coat and grabs his nametag off the corkboard before scooping up his keys and heading back the way he came. Christmas is on the horizon and that means there’s supposed to be a ton of customers at the store tonight, but the snow will keep them in. It’s going to be a long shift.
“I’m going,” Max says, reporting in with his mother before he goes. Harvey is sprawled out on the couch, texting back his friends. Cordelia is helping clean up the kitchen and smiles at Max.
“Be careful,” she warns him.
“Yes,” their mother says sternly. “Take it slow and don’t worry if you’re late.”
“I will,” Max promises before turning toward the door. “Later,” he says to Harvey.
“Have fun,” he says, not even glancing up from his phone.
The night is dark and bitterly cold as the snow silently falls to the ground. It’s so strange out when it snows, especially at night. It throws everything off. There’s no sound anywhere, like the whole world has been muffled. The silence permeates the entire world and here he stands, watching the snowfall, feeling the enchanting presence of the winter. Climbing into his car, he turns it on and drives off into down the lane toward Kipling Street, which leads him straight into town where Albertsons sits on the main drag. He watches the cones of swirling white, shining down from the lights in the parking lot. There are only a handful of cars in the parking lot.
Bill’s the manager tonight, something that Max isn’t worried about. Bill’s the only male front end manager and he’s a good guy, the kind you can joke and laugh about stuff with if you get your job done. It’s probably Chris working the register, or Tuff. If that’s the case, then Bill will probably be talking with them, spending the entire shift with them. That means Max will be stuck cleaning, facing, the usual work. He’s not sure if they like him. They talk sometimes, but they claim that he’s too serious, whatever that means.
Walking across the snowy parking lot, he looks at the pristine snowy carpet, untouched. There’s no one here. It’s going to be a long shift. Walking through the opening doors, the empty aisle, the pale light, and the soft music playing in the background makes everything feel so haunting and eerie. It’s only 6 o’clock, but that doesn’t mean anyone is risking the weather right now. Walking toward the time clock, he sees Roberta finishing up in the bakery, looking out across the empty store. Not even someone from the nearby apartments looking around for late night snacks or the freshly drained gallon of milk, or something along those lines. There’s always someone in here.
Scanning his name badge, Max heads out to the front of the store. Tuff stands at register one, looking around at the empty store before checking his cellphone. There’s clearly nothing going on around here. Bill’s hiding out in the cash office and Max silently takes a spot at the end of the register, looking at Tuff who looks like he’s nursing a hangover still. It’s fairly well known that Tuff pops pills and drinks every day. Most people think it’s fairly acceptable; after all, he is a Clark.
“Slow night?” Max asks, knowing the answer.
Tuff looks at him with an expression that could melt a all the snow outside. Tuff is a man who looks just like the kind of man who would adopt a moniker like that. When he was fourteen, he pissed of some kid who smashed one of his old man’s beer bottles and slashed Tuff’s face. The scar runs like a crooked HI down the side of his face. It starts over his left eye and crosses his nose and right eye. It’s horrifying and it took several days to get used to Tuff, but eventually it just becomes part of him. His greased back, dark brown hair gives him the kind of look that you’d associate with some kind of mafia hitman. Honestly, Tuff has always scared the hell out of Max. He looks like a man who is just one quick push away from snapping and hurting people.
Tuff’s gaze moves from Max to the front of the store where two people slog in from the blizzard forming up outside. Ashwood Bend usually gets three or four good snow storms over the winter and it sort of lingers from December through February like an uninvited guest, but everyone gets used to it. Watching the two figures crossing the threshold, Max knows that they’re well adapted to this kind of weather. They’ve been here long enough that they’re used to it.
Anyone can recognize the Thompsons anywhere in town. Olivia Thompson married her husband Peter the same reason why many gorgeous women marry ambitious inventors, for the dreams of money. While Peter rose to be the successful creator of Afterglow Energy Drink, Olivia dedicated herself to being the envy of other men and being the one woman her man would ever want. After all, she had shared multiple times with Max’s mother that the best way to keep a man loyal is to be his only desire. Their two girls were fortunate enough to inherit their mother’s natural, base glamour and Tasha stole Max’s heart the year they moved to Ashwood Bend and its charming little community.
Watching Tasha walking with her mother is enough to make Max want to melt and vanish in the wind. The honey blonde beauty has only grown more and more beautiful with each passing day. Unfortunately, shyness has been the curse of Max’s personality, a crippling obstacle that he never quite surmounted and so Tasha has endured in a place beyond his reach, untouchable to the quiet, diligent youth. Looking away quickly, Tuff catches Tasha’s effects on silent Max.
“Got a thing for the Thompson girl?” Tuff grunts at Max’s enduring silence. “Got a good eye, I’ll give you that.”
The thought of Tuff finding Tasha attractive bothers Max. He’s not sure why, but it burns in him, the words sizzling deep in the recesses of his mind. He brushes off the comment and looks at the table in front of him, thinking of what he could do to avoid the girl and her mother. Inevitably, they’ll find him, unless he goes and hides in the bathroom, but that’s probably the most cowardly thing he could do. Max knows that he’s shy, but he’s never considered himself a coward. His heart beats faster. Maybe this is his chance. Maybe tonight is the night that he’ll finally be able to talk to her. Maybe it’s his chance to break the cycle.
“How are you doing tonight?” Tuff asks in a voice that fully conveys that he really doesn’t care about their night. Max looks up and sees perfect Olivia Thompson putting the gallon of milk and package of toilet paper on the conveyer belt. She smiles perfectly in the practiced fashion that made her so agreeable when she was a model. Max isn’t quite certain about the history of Olivia, but the fact that she was a model in California before she moved here is more than well known.
“Looks like a boring night to work,” Olivia says with a smile and a soft tone. “They should close up early.”
“Hi, Max,” Tasha says, looking at him with her large, bright, cerulean eyes. Her eyes have always been so huge, so inquisitive, so alluring. They’re the kind of eyes that Max can feel himself drowning in every time he stares into them. They’re the eyes that cause his heart to tremble, his nerves to snap, and his sanity to shatter. His wits flee him. Everything evacuates him as he looks at her and her crimson, beautiful smile.
“Hi, Tasha,” Max feels the words struggle, clawing their ambitious way out of his throat and past his lips. As they escape him, he feels like a champion, standing victorious in the sunlight. “How are you?” He pushes, feeling his courage burning inside of his heart, mustering his words and his bravery forward.
“Cold,” Tasha smiles at him. “Exciting plans for Christmas break?”
Max ignores the conversation that her mother and Tuff are having, focusing completely on her right now. As he looks at her perfect, pale skin, he can’t help but fixate on her. “My brother just came home from college,” Max says to her. “Nothing special beyond that.”
“Sounds like fun,” Tasha says, taking the toilet paper and gallon of milk from the rotating table in front of her. She smiles and turns away from Max. “Have a Merry Christmas,” she calls back to him.
“Merry Christmas,” Max quietly calls to her.How do you feel about Max Ashmore?