who have been yelling for so long that they have lost their voices, which is actually half true.
“I don’t care what the goddamn therapist thinks,” Max’s dad says, his cheeks turning red as he whisper-yells. “He’s a normal kid . . . he’s just a late bloomer. He plays with toys. He plays sports. He has friends.”
Max’s dad is not correct. Max doesn’t have any friends other than me. The kids at school either like Max or hate Max or ignore Max, but none of them are his friend, and I don’t think he wants any of them to be his friend. Max is happiest when he is left alone. Even I bother him sometimes.
The kids at school who like Max treat him differently, too. Like Ella Barbara. She loves Max, but she loves him in the same way a kid loves a doll or a teddy bear. She calls him “my little Max,” and tries to carry his lunchbox to the cafeteria and zip up his coat before recess, even though she knows that Max can do those things for himself.
Max hates Ella. He cringes every time she tries to help him or even touch him, but he can’t tell her to stop because it’s easier for Max to cringe and suffer than speak up. Mrs. Silbor kept Ella and Max together when she sent them onto third grade because she thought that they are good for each other. That’s what she told Max’s mom at the parent-teacher conference. Max might be good for Ella, because she gets to play with him like a doll, but Ella is most definitely not good for Max.
“He is not a late bloomer and I wish you’d stop saying that,” Max’s mom says to his dad in the tone she uses when she’s trying to stay calm but is having a hard time doing so. “I know it kills you to admit it, John, but that’s just the way it is. How could every expert we meet be wrong?”
“That’s the problem,” Max’s dad says, his forehead turning red and blotchy. “Not every expert agrees and you know it!” When he speaks, it’s like he’s firing his words from a gun. “No one knows what is going on with Max. So how is my guess any worse than a bunch of experts who can’t agree on a thing?”
“The label isn’t important,” Max’s mom says. “It doesn’t matter what is wrong with him. He needs help.”
“I just don’t get it,” Max’s dad says. “I played catch with him in the backyard last night. I’ve taken him camping. His grades are good. He doesn’t get in trouble at school. Why are we trying to fi x the poor kid when there’s nothing wrong with him?”
Max’s mom starts to cry. She blinks and her eyes fi ll with tears. I hate when she cries, and so does Max’s dad. I have never cried before, but it looks awful. “John, he doesn’t like to hug us. He can’t make eye contact with people. He fl ips out if I change the sheets on his bed or switch brands of toothpaste. He talks to himself constantly. These are not normal kid behaviors. I’m not saying he needs medication. I’m not saying that he won’t grow up and be normal. He just needs a professional who can help him deal with some of his issues. And I want to do it before I get pregnant again. While we can focus on just him.”
Max’s dad turns and leaves. He slams the screen door behind him on the way out. It goes whack-whack-whack before it stops moving. I used to think that when Max’s dad walked away from an argument, it meant that Max’s mom had won. I thought his dad was retreating like Max’s toy soldiers retreat. I thought he was surrendering. But even though he is the one who retreats, it doesn’t always mean that he has surrendered. He has retreated lots of times before, slamming that door and making it go whack-whack-whack, but then nothing changes.
It’s like Max’s dad has pressed the Pause button on the remote control. The argument is paused. But it is not over.
Max is the only boy I have ever seen who makes toy soldiers retreat or surrender. Every other boy makes them die instead.
I’m not sure if Max should see a therapist, and to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what a therapist does. I know some things that they do, but not everything, and it’s the everything that makes me nervous.
Max’s mom and dad are probably going to fight about this again and again, and even though neither one will ever say, “Okay, I give up!” or “You win!” or “You’re right,” Max will eventually go to the therapist, because in the end, Max’s mom almost always wins.
I think Max’s dad is wrong about Max being a late bloomer. I spend most of the day with Max and I see how he is different from the other kids in his class. Max lives on the inside and the other kids live on the outside. That’s what makes him so different. Max doesn’t have an outside. Max is all inside.
I don’t want Max to see a therapist. Therapists are people who trick you into telling the truth. They can see inside your head and know exactly what you are thinking, and if Max is thinking about me when he’s talking to the therapist, then the therapist will trick Max into talking about me. Then maybe he’ll convince Max to stop believing in me.
But I still feel bad for Max’s dad, even if Max’s mom is the one who’s crying now. Sometimes I wish I could tell Max’s mom to be nicer to Max’s dad. She is the boss of the house, but she’s also the boss of Max’s dad, and I don’t think it’s good for him. It makes him feel small and silly. Like when he wants to play poker with friends on a Wednesday night but he can’t just tell his friends that he will play. He has to ask Max’s mom if it’s okay for him to play, and he has to ask at the right time, when she is in a good mood, or he might not be able to play. She might say, “I could really use you at home that night” or “Didn’t you play last week?” Or worse, she might just say “Fine,” which really means, “It is not fine and you know it and if you go, I am going to be mad at you for at least three days!”
It reminds me of how Max would have to ask permission to visit a friend, if Max ever wanted to play with anyone but me, which he doesn’t.
I don’t understand why Max’s dad has to ask permission, but I really don’t understand why Max’s mom would want to make him ask permission. Wouldn’t it be better if Max’s dad just got to choose what he did? It’s doubly worse because Max’s dad is a manager at Burger King.
Max thinks that this is one of the best jobs in the world, and if I ate bacon double cheeseburgers and small fries, then I’d probably feel the same way. But in the adult world, a Burger King manager is not a good job at all, and Max’s dad knows it. You can tell by the way he doesn’t like to tell people about his job. He never asks people what their job is, and that’s the most popu lar adult question ever asked in the history of the world. When he has to tell someone what his job is, he looks at his feet and says, “I manage restaurants.” Getting him to say the words “Burger King” is like trying to get Max to choose between chicken noodle and vegetable beef soup. He tries everything he can not to say those two words.
Max’s mom is a manager, too. She manages people at a place called Aetna, but I can’t figure out what they make at her job. Definitely not bacon double cheeseburgers. I went to her job once, to try to figure out what she did all day, but everyone just sits in front of computers in these tiny boxes without lids. Or they sit around tables in stuffy rooms and tap their feet and look at the clock while some old man or woman talks about stuff that nobody cares about.
But even though it’s boring and they don’t make bacon double cheeseburgers, you can tell that Max’s mom has a better job because the people in her building wear shirts and dresses and ties and not uniforms. She never complains about people stealing or not showing up to work like Max’s dad does. And sometimes Max’s dad goes to work at five o’clock in the morning and sometimes he works all night long and comes home at five in the morning. It’s weird because even though Max’s dad’s job seems a lot harder, Max’s mom makes more money and adults think she has a much better job. She never looks at her feet when she tells people what she does.
I’m glad that Max didn’t hear them arguing this time. Sometimes he does. Sometimes they forget to whisper-shout and sometimes they fight in the car, where it doesn’t matter if you whisper-shout. When they fight, it makes Max feel sad.
“They fight because of me,” he said to me once. He was playing with LEGOs, which is when Max likes to talk about serious things the most. He doesn’t look at me. He just builds airplanes and forts and battleships and spaceships while he talks.
“No, they don’t,” I said. “They fight because they’re grown-ups. Grown-ups like to argue.”
“No. They only argue about me.”
“No,” I said. “Last night they argued about what show to watch on the television.” I had been hoping that Max’s dad would win so we could watch the crime show, but he lost and we had to watch some stupid singing show.
“That was not an argument,” Max said. “That was a disagreement. There’s a difference.”
These were Mrs. Gosk’s words. Mrs. Gosk says that it’s okay to disagree but that doesn’t mean you are allowed to argue. “I can stomach a disagreement,” she likes to say to the class. “But I can’t stand to listen to an argument in my presence.”
“They only argue because they don’t know what’s best for you,” I said. “They’re trying to figure out what is right.”
Max looked at me for a minute. He looked mad for a second, and then his face changed. It got softer and he looked sad. “When other people try to make me feel better by twisting words, it only makes me feel worse. When you do it, it makes me feel the worst.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“No,” I said. “I’m not sorry for what I said, because it’s true. Your parents really are trying to figure out what is right. I meant that I’m sorry that your parents argue about you, even if it’s only because they love you.”
“Oh,” Max said, and he smiled. It wasn’t an actual smile, because Max never really smiles. But his eyes opened a little wider and he tilted his head a tiny bit to the right. That’s Max’s version of a smile.
“Thanks,” he said, and I knew that it was a real thanks.
* * *
Copyright @ 2013 Matthew Dicks. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press.