Max Carter laid on his bed with the coverlet draped over his head and the beam of a flashlight bearing down on the cream pages of a novel. His body warmth kept him toasty on this cold winter evening as he read each line carefully, soaking in every detail of an alternate universe created by his favorite author. Perhaps to some it might seem boring, but for him, it was an imperfectly perfect evening. It was certainly much better than the alternative, so he was thankful for that much.
In all of the stories he read, he typically became the main character (so long as it was a good person). He liked to experience the life of someone faced with hardships and triumphs so that he may laugh and cry with all of them. He liked to romance the lovers and dream with the dreamers. More than anything, he liked to save people even if he could never find the courage to save himself.
As he read himself into his illusion, he softly whispered the words. In his story, he was a man who had just become the president of the United States. The election ended, and the inauguration completed. Now he stood in the oval office at the foot of a glorious desk. The great picture window masked by thin white curtains cast a soft glow of the sun’s warm embrace into the room. He looked down to find a small note telling him to check the drawer for instructions.
“I wonder what’s in there.” Max whispered to himself as he turned the page.
The edge of the page grazed the sheets and made a subtle hollow sound that reminded him of the time he used to lay his head on his mother’s lap. She would stroke his hair, and sometimes her wrist or forearm would lightly touch his ear making a similar noise. The thought of it sent a wave of warm chills over his body and prickled his skin with gooseflesh.
That was the only thing he could really remember about her. He looked away from the book and at the clean white fabric of the coverlet hoping he could withdrawal from his memory a hidden snippet of his mother. That was his practice every time something reminded him of her, and each time he hoped he might find even the smallest thread that might lead to a larger tapestry depicting the woman who brought unequivocal warmth to his heart. However, he found nothing this time (as with every other time) because he was too young to remember her before she went away.
His eyes fell back to the pages of the book, and as he absentmindedly began to read the words, he raised his hand to his young face. The tip of his second digit lightly passed over his cheek, the fine clear hairs tickled his touch. As it reached further north, his hand began to tremble.
His finger found its destination. There was no hair in that spot, and the skin was puffy and slightly raised. The smoothness was still foreign to him, but it had been there for some time. Most times, he avoided looking at it in the mirror, and often refused to touch it. However, the thought of his mother sometimes brought him to recognize its existence upon his face. However, it was never good memories that followed.
He traced the scar from the upper part of his cheek to his eye. He gently passed over the mangled lower eyelid, feeling every bit of roughness, slope, and incline. He dared not to touch his sightless eye, though it wouldn’t matter much if he did. When he reached the other lid, he barely touched it because that was the worst one. The scar continued north to his scalp. His hair parted away from the mutilation as if shunning the part of his body that could no longer produce those long dark fibers. When he finally reached the end, he’d traced toward the right side of his head just above his ear.
Ache seemed to drive forth from his chest. It spread from deep within and wide across his body. Max’s eyes began to burn, and a thin line traced his eyelids. Small tears formed, and he felt the soft tickle as they rolled to the edge of his eyelashes and leapt off.
He brought his head back up and looked blurrily at his book. The pages looked distorted like the ocean floor in shallow waters warped by turbulent currents. He couldn’t read the words, but he saw in his mind what the book represented, and it saddened him. He knew it was only his imagination that he was the President. Reality offered a truth he continually denied through ritual, but one that he held on to dearly because that truth was something that hurt and frightened him.
Max closed the book and pushed it aside. No matter how hard he tried, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to read even one word and enjoy it. The last thing he wanted to do was destroy the only thing that brought comfort and joy to his world.
He took a deep breath, and then threw the coverlet back. The cool air nipped at his skin as if the room had filled with millions of tiny ice crystals that hungered for human flesh. He shook with a violent shudder, and crawled to the edge of the bed.
When he put his feet on the frigid surface of the wooden floor, his skin felt slightly numb. He looked around the room he’d always known to be his, but he never really felt like it was actually his. At one point, it was his home, long before in a time when he was too young to comprehend the world. Now, it was as foreign as a country on the other side of the world. One ruled by a vicious man who liked to make his people suffer.
Max walked to the door and laid the left side of his face against the cool painted surface. The unintelligible voices of the television echoed from the first floor where his father sat, probably with a cold beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The place where the subtle stench of sweat and something sour resided.
Tired didn’t quite explain how he felt at that moment as he listened to the television, one that reminded him of his terrible life in that foreign place. Well, he was tired, but he was also dejected. He felt imprisoned.
He breathed deep, and sighed. He wondered what President Max would do in his place. Would he continue to allow the dictator of this foreign nation to treat his citizens this way? No, what president would? What virtuous person could allow anything like this happen to anyone?
For a long while, he thought about how the president might stand up to a criminal. After all, evil people were still just evil people, but he wondered where the president might get the strength to be bigger than those people. He wondered how he might gain that strength and push himself to rid the country of its rain and clear the skies of those dark thunderheads.
The answer wasn’t one he liked. When reality finally fell into the matter, he was nothing but a little boy. Not even a teen and a runt who was barely tall enough to reach items on the tall counters in the kitchen. Not old enough to drive a car. Not wise enough to best adults in the game of life. Just a little boy with a blind eye and love for books; neither of those made for a very good leader or president.
Finally resolving to defeat, he began to think about his book again, which excited him. His books always did that for him. He began to imagine where he left off with President Max in that oval office, and wondered what kind of instructions he might find in that secret compartment. Maybe they were instruction on how the man might sniff out spies or perhaps it was a joke offered by one the assistants.
Maybe the message was simple, and he spoke the words aloud, “There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty that makes human nature rise above itself in acts of bravery and heroism.”
That was one of his favorite quotes by Alexander Hamilton. He read it once at the beginning of one of the books on his shelf. He could never remember which one. Back then, it really resonated with him, but he wasn’t quite sure why. Now he knew. He needed to rise above himself, take charge of his situation, and liberate himself from this terrible foreign nation. He had to be brave, and although someone other than the brave typically asserts heroism, he would be his own hero; he could assert it for himself because he was both the people and the leader.
That was it. That had to be what President Max was going to find in that desk, and even if it wasn’t, that’s what normal little Max needed. Those were his instructions, his direction in life. To be as strong and as heroic as a president should be. To stand against opposition and fight for the people that matter. True, at this point Max was the only person that mattered, but he stood to gain immeasurably from it, and he felt as though if he could do this for himself, then what might he be able to do for other people in his future. What might he accomplish by taking that first step toward salvation?
He quickly pulled his Ninja Turtle themed backpack from his closet and filled it with the necessities: a jacket, some clothes, the novel he started reading, and, of course, a pack of grape flavored Bubble Yum.
He opened his door, and the hinges betrayed his silence. The squeal seemed to scream like an alarm to alert the warden that a prisoner was about to escape. He paused mid-step with the door half open, and listened. The television continued to blare; now more clear than before. He still didn’t know what the man was watching, but after too long, it was obvious his father didn’t get up from his seat.
As he started down the stairs, he descended gently. Because the wood floor was old and he was getting heavier, he didn’t want it to call out and warn his father that he was coming. He couldn’t have that happen. Capture was not an option.
Each step down the stairs was another step toward freedom, and when he reached the ground floor, he swam through the darkness toward the living room. He stopped just shy of the door, and peered into the room.
Just as he’d imagined, there sat his father—an enemy of the state. He was watching late night television, a movie with some woman wrestling with a man in her bedroom. The cool condensation of the beer’s green glass glistened from the warm glow of the screen. Sinuous threads of smoke snaked from his other hand. The man lifted it a moment later, took a drag of his cigarette, and followed it with a swig of his brew while he blew the smoke from his nose.
The man was a dragon, a formidable foe for any hero—especially for Max. Just looking upon that man paralyzed him. He wasn’t just scared or terrified. He was damn frozen inside. He knew what it meant if he was caught trying to escape, trying to leave that prison. He knew what the man was capable of doing.
A few years ago, his mother had died. Not by any natural causes. No, it was his father. Well, it was his father’s fault, of that he was sure. They were fighting one night, as they always did, and she drank too much as a result. He didn’t blame her for trying to numb the emotional and physical pain that he caused her because there were times Max wished he could drink himself stupid to make the abuse hurt less. What Max didn’t agree with was that she stole the keys to the car, and tried to leave that night. She was too drunk to drive, and died in a terrible car accident.
Meanwhile, as she tried to escape their prison, Max was the new target for his father. Of course, Max was small so he could hide anywhere he wanted, but that night he hid in the wrong place. His father had chased him through the house, and Max found himself cornered in his bedroom. He scurried under the bed, a cockroach of a boy trying to flee the foot of an enraged human. He wasn’t fast enough, however, and his father grasped his legs and pulled him out.
The bed was made of wood, an old job put together by Max’s grandfather. It was sturdy, but it had its faults. None of them really concerned anyone except the night when Max’s father forced him from under the bed. As he passed under the bottom frame, a loose nail protruded an inch down. It first caught Max’s cheek, and when Max started crying to tell his father to stop, the man became more enthusiastic about pulling him out. The nail dug deep, and as his father pulled him out, it tore up through his cheek, split the eyelid, sliced a fissure through Max’s eye, and reentered through the other eyelid. Max tried to turn his head to get the nail out from digging under his skin, but it continued to cut all the way back until his father pulled him out completely.
Max now stood there in the soft glow of the television, trying to remain hidden in that corridor. His hand was once again gently touching the puffy skin of his scar, which had reversed the paralytic effect his father had by reminding him of why he was there in the first place. He dropped his hand, and step backwards to allow the shadows to consume him.
He went to the front door, and disengaged the lock. He pulled it as slow as possible to keep the hinges from ratting him out, and when it was open enough, he slipped into the wintery night. Once he closed the door, he ran as hard and as fast as he could down the street until the thin cold air burned his lungs, forcing him to stop.
He looked back at that foreign country lead by an evil tyrant, and was pleased with himself that he’d finally escaped. He bravely saved himself, a boy who was destined to live as a prisoner unless someone did something about it. He did something about it. President Max liberated normal Max, a brave hero.
Max turned and headed down the street. The frigid weather chilled him to the bone, making violent shivers quake through his body, but he pressed forward. He wasn’t done being brave or heroic, and he had a much more terrifying moment’s in his life that would require him to continue being brave. That night, however, he conquered one of the darkest dictators in his life, and though he may have more to face, he knew that he could face anything after having finally freed himself of the thing he feared the most.
“Welcome, President,” he told himself, “to the United States of Max Carter.”