Surprise (Short Story)

This is the second part of a story that I posted in May as the result of inspiration from a Tumblr prompt. I originally said that story was a one-shot, but I got attached to the idea and wanted to find out what actually happened to Maxine because in the last several months, she has told me conflicting stories. Anyway, the second part is under the cut, and in a few more months, I will post a third part, and maybe even a fourth, depending on how the story goes and how much Maxine tells me.

When Maxine and Kat finally lay down to sleep on the creaking pull-out sofa in the living room, it was past midnight. Kat had cocooned herself in all the covers as if the air conditioning had cooled the house to a sub-zero temperature.

“Max?” Kat’s voice floated through the darkness, soft and penitent.

“Yeah?” Maxine asked. To combat Kat taking all the covers, she had stretched out to take up as much of the pull-out couch as possible, but with her being shorter and smaller than her friend, it wasn’t that much.

“I’m sorry. About the bikini thing. I guess I did look kinda skanky, right?”

“You did,” Maxine said. She folded her arms over her chest and wished she had extendable legs like Inspector Gadget. Then she’d have the whole couch.

“Whatever. Let’s go to bed and forget about it.” Kat yawned. “Because I have a surprise for you.”

“A good surprise? Or a not-so-good one?” The pre-thirteen Kat had loved being both the recipient and the giver of surprises.

“It’s a surprise. I’ll tell you about it later.” The last word stretched into another yawn, and in a few seconds, Kat fell asleep in her makeshift cocoon.

Maxine stared at the textured ceiling until it began to swim with odd patterns. She mentally repeated the word surprise until it didn’t seem like a real word anymore.

xxx

Maxine woke up in the night and watched the ceiling pulse with afterimages of strange faces from a dream. Beside her, the cocoon of covers around Kat had opened.

“Kat?” Maxine asked the living room. She received no answer except for the ticking clock on the wall and the air conditioning whirring to a stop.

She must’ve gone to the bathroom. Maxine rolled over and covered herself in the remnants of Kat’s cocoon. She shut her eyes and waited for sleep, but the night was too still. She couldn’t hear Kat padding around the house. Two anxious minutes passed, then five.

Maxine slid off the sofa and wandered into the hallway. No light on in the bathroom. Even so, she paused outside the door and spoke her friend’s name. No response. She ascended the stairs to the bedrooms, but upon entering Kat’s room, she found no one and nothing. Kat’s parents’ room was silent, and her older brother Jared’s snores indicated that he hadn’t managed to pull the all-nighter he’d bragged about at dinner.

I should tell her parents. Or Jared. Maxine touched the doorknob to Kat’s parents’ bedroom but almost immediately reconsidered. I already told on her once today. If I do it again, she won’t give me the surprise, whatever it is. She’s got to be somewhere in the house.

Maxine went back downstairs, hoping that she would find Kat bundled in the covers again, but she was still absent. She has to be outside. She inched open the door to the deck and pool, noticing that it had been left unlocked. She remembered seeing Kat’s mother lock it before she’d said goodnight to the girls. She must be outside then. I hope she didn’t go too far.

Even the insects had stopped trilling. A faraway motorcycle roared. Everything seemed closer in the dark: the length of the deck seemed only inches, the pool had been reduced to a puddle, and even the large yard looked to be the size of the four-square court at school.

Maxine slipped into a pair of flip-flops by the pool and stepped onto the grass. “Kat?” The sound of her voice alerted the insects, which struck up their harmonic buzz again. Grasshoppers and crickets sprang out of her way and into a cracked flowerpot containing several garden tools. Maxine extracted a metal crow’s foot with rusty claws—a hand cultivator.

The insectile voices grew multitudinous as Maxine approached the woods, and when she did, she finally heard Kat’s voice.

“…I was going to bring my friend, but she’s such a tattletale. So I didn’t.” Amid the trees’ long shadows, the vague outlines of Kat and two others loomed. Maxine froze like an alerted deer.

One of the others responded. The male voice was too low for Maxine to distinguish any words. The longer she peered into the woods, the more familiar his outline became, until she recognized him as Todd, a boy in their grade. The summer hadn’t changed him. His long, girlish black hair still curtained his face, and his neck was bent at what looked like a painful angle as he contemplated his shoes. He’s so shy! It’s sooo cute! Maxine remembered Kat gushing after their teacher had reprimanded Todd for his lack of class participation. He looks like a vulture, Maxine had replied, only to be met with silent disagreement from Kat.

The second boy looked tall enough to be a man. Maxine stepped into the woods to get a better glimpse of him. The tiny rustle of leaves underfoot caused them to stop talking. Dang. Cover blown. “Oh, hi,” Maxine said. “I’m the friend Kat was talking about.” She walked toward them and tried to remember if she had seen any poison ivy in the woods.

The tallest of the three moved toward her. Now that she could see him, he no longer looked like a man but resembled a slender white mouse, with a long, narrow nose and the palest blond hair she had ever seen. When she squinted at his face, she expected his eyes to be glowing red, but they were as light as his hair—a washed-out cornflower blue. Two spikes of blond beard poked out of his chin. “You’re Kat’s friend?” he scoffed. “You look like you’re about ten years old.”

Maxine saw herself as he must be seeing her: a pale-faced, messy-haired baby wearing pastel Tweety Bird pajamas. A speech bubble above the scowling cartoon bird proclaimed, I’m not afraid of some bad ol’ puddy tats. “I’m thirteen.” Maxine hated how the word thudded out of her mouth like a heavy block. “Same as Kat.” But Kat looked nothing like her; she’d changed out of her own childish pajamas and into a halter top patterned with peace signs and a pair of athletic shorts so short they looked almost like underwear.

He laughed. “Ooh, a thirteen-year-old badass. What’s that, a big fork?” He gestured to the hand cultivator.

“It doesn’t matter,” Maxine snapped. “I was just—”

“Never mind,” Kat interrupted. “I’ll introduce you. Maxine, this is Blake, and you already know Todd,” she said. “They’re cousins.”

“Step-cousins, actually.” Todd’s voice cracked on every syllable. “We’re not blood relatives.”

“Same difference,” said Blake. He threw his arm over Todd’s shoulders. Todd looked embarrassed and slipped out of the embrace.

“So can I ask how old you are?” Maxine demanded. She slapped at a mosquito hovering over her arm. We’ll all get eaten alive out here! And not by bears.

“Blake’s sixteen,” Kat spoke up, “and he’s my boyfriend. It’ll be so cool to go into eighth grade next year and tell everyone I have a high school boyfriend.” She leaned up and wrapped her arms around Blake’s skinny neck. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him so full and deep that Maxine had to look away. The kiss had reminded her of an Animal Planet movie about elephant seals fighting for territory. She fought to stifle both her laughter and her disgust.

Todd cleared his throat. “Are we going or what?” Kat and Blake broke away from each other.

“Going where?” Maxine asked.

“Oh, yeah!” Kat said brightly. “We better get going. Maxine, I was gonna tell you to go back to my house, but you can come with us—if you promise not to tattle on me like you did earlier.”

“But where are you going? Is this the surprise you were talking about?”

“You’ll see,” said Kat. “Just don’t tattle.” She joined hands with Blake and they started off through the woods.

Maxine hung back. Todd stared at his shoes. “Do you know where we’re going?” Maxine asked him.

Todd mumbled something she couldn’t hear and began to follow Blake and Kat. Maxine wondered if she was supposed to hold his hand. I should make sure they won’t do anything stupid. If this is the surprise, it better be worth it. She kept her fist clenched around the faded red handle of the cultivator and crunched through the woods with the others. A mosquito had somehow managed to bite her on the leg under her pajama pants, and she scratched the spot as she walked along.