I wrote this years ago, but it’s one of my favorites. This piece is from somewhere in the middle of a sequel to an unpublished novel, but Max was the first teenager I attempted to write. He carries a lot of angst, a fifteen year old kid who grew up watching his stepfather beat the crap out of his mom. When the novel opens, his mom has been divorced for a while, and now she’s dating Gus. Max isn’t too happy about that.
Maybe his attitude would change if he knew Gus was the son of Hermes, the Greek god of orators and wit, literature, athletics, and lots of other things…
Gus stopped outside Max’s door. He wanted to tear it down, drag the kid out by force, and use every ounce of his power to pull an apology from his lips.
But he sighed and lifted a hand to knock. “Max? I’d ask you to speak with me.”
“Surely we can come to some sort of understanding.”
Gus stood there for a moment. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who would strike his mother would hide behind a locked door.”
At least he was talking. Gus stepped closer. “Open the door, Max.”
“Jesus. Go away.”
“If you think a lock will keep me out, you are sadly mistaken.”
“Break it down then. See how much mom likes you then.” But this time there was just a hint of fear behind the arrogance.
Gus smiled. “I don’t need to break anything.”
“What are you, a frigging locksmith? Good luck, asshole.”
Not even a challenge. Less than twenty seconds later, Gus threw the lock and opened the door.
He found Max sitting on an unmade bed, staring with wide eyes and flared nostrils. A black vinyl backpack and a notebook sat beside him on the rumpled quilt. “How the hell did you do that?”
“It’s a talent.” Gus hooked his thumbs in his pockets and surveyed the cramped room.
A small desk hid in the corner, with stacks of worn spiral notebooks spilling across the top. The wood of the desk was old and weathered, and Max had clearly taken liberties in doodling and scrawling phrases along just about every available surface. Old soda bottles and food wrappers were spilling out of the trash can to the side of the desk. Max didn’t have a television in his room, but there was a small stereo on the floor next to the bed, serving as a table for a lamp and a small stack of paperbacks. Homemade bookshelves of wood and cinderblocks were stacked almost to the ceiling of the opposite wall, a frightening construction that barely looked stable. A guitar in a case stood in the corner by the window, next to a pile of CDs and more notebooks. What Gus could see of the carpet was crying out for a vacuum. The rest of it was cluttered with textbooks, magazines, and some sheet music.
“Clearly you live in splendor,” said Gus.
Max hadn’t moved, but his eyes narrowed. “If you don’t like it, get the hell out of here. I don’t break into your house and whine about the décor.”
“Lucky for you.”
“What are you doing here?” But then Max’s lips found that smirk again. “Wait—did Mom make you come back here to apologize—”
“Hardly.” Gus stepped into the room and looked at the makeshift bookcase, partly out of curiosity and partly because he knew it would infuriate Max. “Did you read all these books?”
“No, they’re just holding up the sheetrock.”
“Hmm. As I thought.”
The mattress springs protested as Max lurched to his feet. “Look, dickhead, this is my room. You can’t come in here and insult me—”
“You’re the one so keen on name-calling.” Gus moved away from him and lifted the cover of a notebook on the corner of the desk.
Max slapped the cover down and shoved it out of reach. “Keep your hands off my stuff! Don’t you have any respect for other—”
“Oh, you speak of respect?” Gus raised his eyebrows. “Now there’s a bit of irony.”
“Shut up.” Max stepped closer. “You’re just back here to impress my mom—”
“No. I came back here to warn you.”
Max rolled his eyes. “Gee. A warning. I am scared.”
He was. Despite the bravado, Gus could see it. “If you lay a hand on your mother again, you and I will have a conversation. One you will not enjoy.”
Max mock gasped. “Not a conversation.”
“Hide behind sarcasm if you must.” Gus gave him a level stare. “I know you understand me.”
Max glared right back at him. “You don’t know anything.”
“Do not test me, Max.”
The quiet words seemed to have the opposite effect—a challenge instead of a warning. Max drew himself up, his shoulders tightening, his hands lifting as if readying for a strike. He was a brave kid—Gus had to give him that.
But he held Max’s eye, calling his bluff. Whatever the boy saw there must have been enough. Max scowled and stepped back, dropping onto the corner of the bed. “Whatever.”
Gus looked down, shifting the displaced notebook back to where it originally sat. “I will not—”
Then he stopped short, leaning closer to the desk, reading the words dug into the wood with a pen.
I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, and torture it endures—
“Nietzsche quotes?” said Gus. “Did you write these here?”
“You gonna bitch at me about the furniture now?”
“No.” Gus moved another notebook to read the rest of the line, though he knew it.
—and knows how to turn to its advantage.
“Which one is it?” said Max. His voice was still sullen, but there was a thread of interest there, mixed with wariness. These words mattered to him—and he wasn’t entirely sure about Gus looking at them. “Is that—is it the one about torture?”
“The line has nothing to do with torture,” said Gus. “Not really.”
“Then what’s it about?”
Gus glanced up. “Survival.”
“I don’t like that one as much.” Max stood and came over to the desk. For the first time, he wasn’t being belligerent, and Gus wondered how long he’d be able to maintain this flimsy truce.
Max shoved the notebooks into a sloppy pile and dropped them on the floor. “Here—the one about hope is my favorite of the Nietzsche ones.”
These words were scrawled in German. Hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.
Max leaned in a bit. “It says—”
“I can read it.”
Max looked a bit surprised, but shrugged. “He was kinda pessimistic, but I get it.”
“Me too.” Gus hesitated. He didn’t want to find anything about this child intriguing. “Sprichst Du Deutsche, Max?” You speak German?
Max shook his head, making his hair fall into his eyes. “Not really anymore. I mostly just read it.”
He seemed uncomfortable by the sudden scrutiny, so Gus dropped his head and followed other lines across the wood. Some were song lyrics, some were nonsense. Some, like the Nietzsche quotes, were surprising in their depth. After his demonstration in the kitchen, Gus hadn’t expected this kid to comprehend a compound sentence.
But so what if he did? Would that make the transgressions against his mother any less offensive?
Max was fidgeting, shuffling his feet against the carpet. Gus lifted his head. “Ask your question, Max.”
His eyes flared a little and he took a step back. “I, uh—well—it’s nothing. Forget it.”
Gus straightened fully. “You’ve already struck me in the head and called me an asshole to my face. Surely a question isn’t so intimidating.”
Max’s eyes hardened for an instant, but then he looked away. “Just—how’d you do the lock?”
Gus put a spark of power into his voice. “Magic.”
For the barest instant, there was a flicker of belief in Max’s eyes. So much for the pessimistic quote about hope.
But then Max scowled. “Shut up. Come on.”
“I picked the lock. How do you think?”
“Never doubt my words over such trivial things.”
“Was that, like—a yes, or—”
Gus sighed. “Yes, Max. Really.”
Max swallowed, and Gus could feel the teenager reassessing him.
“So…are you a thief?” There was something akin to hushed awe in Max’s voice. “Are those prison tats or something?”
Gus put a hand to his neck without thinking. He was so used to his markings that it still surprised him when people did not understand their significance. Here this child thought he was a common criminal. It reminded him that he had no business here, that he had duties outside this small apartment, away from these people.
“No, Max.” He sighed heavily. “I’m not a thief. And these are not prison tats.”
“Naw…I just thought maybe Mom had gone off the deep end finally.” He hesitated, fidgeting again.
“Well—would you show me? How you did the door?”
There was interest in his voice—too much. Enough to bargain? Gus looked down at him, deliberating. “Yes, but only—”
“No way, really?”
“—if you apologize to your mother.”
Max scowled and folded his arms, his brief good nature gone. “I knew it. This was some stupid trick—”
“You asked me.” Gus wouldn’t pander to this child. He took a step towards the hallway.
Then Gus stopped just outside the door and turned. “My offer has no time limit…should you change your mind.”
Max wasn’t looking at him. “Yeah. Okay. Whatever, Gus.”
Then he reached out and slammed the door shut.
But he didn’t turn the lock.