They came back in about an hour later after the weather had started to get worse and the snow started to fall heavily again. They changed back into what they slept in, by Maxwell’s insistence. He wanted them all to be comfortable. They warmed up by the fire, blankets wrapped around them, and told Max about how the mountains looked with the low, snow-filled clouds started to cover them. And about the snow hijinks, from the snow throwing to the half-ass experiment of snowman building. Monty had put snow down Olivia’s coat that ended up getting into her bra.
Maxwell listened to all of this and laughed. He had wished he could have been out there with them.
“Then,” Abigale explained, “this idiot thought he could make a snow angel in a place where there were almost four feet of snow. He fell back, arms open wide…and immediately disappeared. Whoosh!!!” She was sitting on the floor next to the fire. She fell back laughing. Everyone did, too, except for Monty, who tried to explain that he didn’t think all the snow would fall in on top of him.
“We had to dig him out. I thought he was going to need to call mountain rescue.” Olivia, who was sitting across from Monty, kicked out to hit his foot. When she did, he pulled back in a bit of pain.
“Oww.” Monty lifted his socked foot up and took it off. He saw that the top part of his foot was a bit blue. “It still hurts.”
“Aww, poor baby,” Olivia said mockingly but with no meanness to it.
“I wish you could have come out with us,” Mindy said, looking at Max. Abigale looked at her and saw something on her face she not noticed before. Was that love? She gave Olivia a look who had noticed, too.
“I had a lot of fun just watching you four. Plus, it’s warmer in here. I’m not sure how you guys stayed out there that long.”
“It was almost too hard to come back in. It’s so beautiful out there,” Abigale said, looking past them to the large window. The wind had picked up and was throwing the falling snow in all directions. Even though it was midafternoon, it seemed dark, almost if it was dusk. “Even the blizzard out there is beautiful.”
“It is nice. Part of the reason I wanted to be here… with all of you.” Max looked at all of them, from one face to another. Monty glanced up from rubbing his foot and smiled at him. “So, I thought about what we can do. Tonight, we can have a great dinner and then after, we can open one gift. That’s the tradition, isn’t it?”
They all nodded. Olivia stood up then with a yawn.
“Folks, not to be rude, but I really need a nap. I’m going to go lay down for an hour or so. I’m wiped out from the snow.”
“That’s a great idea. I think I will, too.” Abigale stood up stretching.
Olivia and Abigale gave Max a hug and headed upstairs to their rooms. Monty patted him on the head in a silly way and limped up the stairs. Mindy and Max just sat on the couch, looking out the window. Mindy allowed herself to sit as close to him as she could.
“How do you feel?”
Max kept his eyes on the snow outside. “I’m fine. I feel a bit warm but other than that, I feel alright.”
She put her hand on his forehead and felt it. “You do seem warm.” She started to stand to get her black bag and to give him something for a possible fever. He put his hand on hers and stopped her.
“Mindy. Darling. I want to be honest with you so I need you to listen. Are you listening?”
She looked at him, her heart feeling heavy and she could suddenly feel the blood rushing through her head.
She nodded slowly, not saying anything.
He looked into her brown eyes. “I don’t think I’m going to be around after tomorrow, two days at the latest. I just… know.” She started to shake her head, not wanting to listen but he sat up, with some effort, and pulled her close to him. “I know. And I don’t want you to tell them. Please. I want this last bit of time to be good.”
She didn’t know what to say. How could he know? I mean, sure, this is what he wanted and they both knew that he came here to die. They all did. Even though nobody wanted to talk about it. But she thought he would have another couple of weeks, not just a couple of days. Of course, how can he know? He’s wrong. He’s feeling blue and he’s just being pessimistic. We still have some time. More than he thinks.
But she looked into his eyes, into his hazel eyes, and knew he believed it. She saw that he might actually, really know.
She shook her head. “Let me go get my bag. I’ll be back.” She pulled from his grip and headed up the stairs. He watched her go. He slowly turned back to the window.
I won’t make it to the day after, he thought.
Mindy came back down with her bag. She stopped in the kitchen to get some water for him.
He watched her and thought about last night. He wished he had met her years ago. Maybe a year after his Natalie died, to give him time to mourn. Things would have been different. But, he couldn’t have met her if he didn’t do what he did.
She gave him the glass and two pills to take. He did and downed all the water in the glass. She sat the glass on the coffee table and pulled out the blood pressure cuff, lifted his sleeve, and put it on. As she pumped it up, he looked at her. He saw Natalie. And he saw Mindy. He saw them both.
“I love you.”
Her pumping slowed as she heard this as if she was trying to register it. She looked at him. She continued to pump as she processed what he had said. He smiled uncomfortably.
“Please say you do, too.” He smiled. “And then let the pressure off, literally and figuratively.”
She came out of her trance and turned the silver knob and the air went down. Max mouthed a ‘whew’.
Mindy suddenly put her hands gently on his face. She looked into his eyes, his young eyes surrounded by an old man’s face. She could see the young man he had been. She had seen him that way for a while now. How could this 45-year-old man get cursed so badly at life? A young, beautiful wife to be taken away so soon. And then, not long after, he’s diagnosed with this horrible disease. And it wasn’t even a normal horrible disease. It was something harsher. All of his money had been no help.
Then she pressed her lips to his. A desperate kiss. She kissed him in hopes that when she pulled away, he would be exactly the way he should be as if she could kiss the sickness from him. After what felt like a lifetime, she pulled back and saw he was still the same. But she didn’t care.
“I love you, too.”
They held each other and watched the outside world. He wanted this so badly. Now it’s going to be harder to leave. She silently wept, gripping his shirt, holding him in this world for a bit longer. She hoped, anyway.
He thought he wished he could stay in this moment forever. But things needed to be done. His tale had to be told. And, God willing, tomorrow night, his last night on this earth, he will tell it before he goes.
Somewhere in his head, a stopwatch was ticking. Not just for him but for all of them.
A couple of hours later, they were all rested and laughing again. The dinner preparations were being made. Olivia put the pre-cooked ham in the oven to be heated. Mash potatoes and green bean casserole were on the stovetop. Mindy was cutting up bananas. This was for Max’s favorite dessert, ever since he was a kid; banana pudding. Abigale was setting the table, putting the plates and silverware down on clean white napkins.
Monty had come down from his room, slowly down the stairs, he was still a bit shy about his stumble and wanted to be careful. He started to head into the kitchen to lend a hand but Max spoke up from the couch before he could.
“Monty, can I speak with you for a moment?”
Monty looked in the kitchen and saw Mindy had stopped cutting and smiled. He came and sat down across from Max.
“How goes it, pally?” Max asked.
Monty looked at him. “Everything is fine, I suppose.”
Max smirked. Wrinkles multiplied on one side of his face. “Really?”
Monty sighed. He squirmed in his spot on the couch. He wanted to say something but wasn’t sure how to do it. It was something he had wanted to say since the plane, even before the plane, but couldn’t bring himself to do so.
Max saw the hesitation. He sat forward with a grunt. Monty leaned forward with his hand out, not sure if Max was going to fall forward. Max chuckled under his breath.
“I’m fine.” He let out a breath. “I can tell there’s something you want to say. As long as we’ve known each other, I got you figured out. I really do. So, let me tell you what you want to say because it’s always been me to make the first move.” He wanted that to not sound like a slight. “You’re not sure if you should have come. You did out of respect for me and our long friendship. But you didn’t want to watch me die.” Max coughed and cleared his throat. “I understand. As we all know, I came here to die. I wanted to be surrounded by my best friends, the only people I have left in the world.” He put his hand out for Monty and he took it without hesitation. “I know it’s not going to be easy, but you are doing me the best favor a person can ask from another. You’re giving me a friendly face to leave this world with. All of you are. Maybe the timing isn’t perfect but you’re giving me a gift. The greatest gift I have ever received. Understand?”
Max and never really seen Monty cry. But he was now. Monty was wiping his eyes with his free hand. His other was still gripping Monty’s. After a moment, he stood up, red-faced.
“I need you to stand up.”
Maxwell smiled, knowing what was going to happen. He did as he was asked and Monty hugged him, gently but securely. Max hugged him. He felt Monty’s tears on his neck but didn’t care in the slightest.
From the kitchen, they heard a perfectly sounding ‘Aww’ from all three women. The two men laughed but didn’t break away. When they did, Max put his hand on his friend’s cheek.
“Don’t take this the wrong way. I love you, brother.”
Monty had almost started tearing up again. “I love you, too.”
Maxwell took a deep breath. “Well, aren’t we being two male chauvinists. Let’s go help in the kitchen.”
They walked in, Monty’s hand on Max’s shoulder, not really as support but out of love for his friend.
Dinner was wonderful and exceptional. They all had their fill. Even Max had two helpings of Mindy’s banana pudding. He felt like that if the moment had come to die, he’d go to the next world satisfied with his last meal.
After dinner was finished and the cleaning had been completed, they all sat by the fire, digesting. Nobody said anything. They were all wrapped up in the glow from full bellies, good company, snow falling outside, and a very warm fire. It was perfect, and they all thought it at the same time.
It was early evening, just after seven o’clock. Outside was dark except for some floodlights that illuminated the falling snow. The endless falling white seemed to be on a permeant loop. Max watched it and his eyelids started to become heavy. He had wished he had taken a nap that afternoon but sitting with Mindy was too perfect to ruin it with sleep.
“OK, I’m sorry to sound like a little girl here,” said Olivia standing up. “But what about the traditional gift on Christmas Eve?” She was looking from one to another with her mouth open in an exaggerated smile.
“Right. Let’s do this.” Max took his arm from around Mindy, who was closing her eyes, drifting off. Her eyes popped wide open when he spoke.
Abigale and Monty started to stir from sleepiness. Olivia smiled from ear to ear. She made Max laugh. She did look just like a little red-headed girl. All she needed was her hair in ponytails and wearing footy pajamas.
“Ok, who’s playing Santa,” asked Abigale.
“I am.” Max stood up. Mindy had to push his ass to get him up all the way. They both laughed. “That just made my day.”
He shuffled over to the tree. “I will need an elf, though.” He waved Olivia over who seemed real eager to get her hands on the presents, any presents.
Max scanned the packages and would point to one and Olivia would pick it up and take it to each person. She gave one to Abigale and Monty. Max pointed to a medium-sized red present and she smiled all the way to her part of the couch and placed it where she was sitting. She came back and he pointed one last time. A thin blue one. She picked it up and gave it to Mindy who seems taken aback. She really didn’t expect to get a present. She wasn’t sure why.
Max came and set back down between Olivia and Mindy.
“Alright,“ he said a bit out of breath. “ Let’s let Abigale go first.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don’t think you’re aren’t opening one.” Monty stood up.
“There’s isn’t any under the tree with my name on it.”
He pointed up the stairs. “But there’s one up there with your name on it.” He went off to get it. Olivia turned the red box around and around, feeling the weight of something inside. Max couldn’t help but chuckle.
“What old man?” Olivia said in jest but then her face went ashen when she thought about what she said and who she said it to, thinking she had just insulted him. She opened her mouth to apologize but before she could, Max started to laugh so hard that he started coughing. Mindy rubbed his back and Olivia put her hand in her mouth, afraid he was dying.
“I’m so sorry. Please? I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
Max’s cough finally ceased but the giggles kept coming.
“That was too funny, the look on your face.” He patted her leg. “No need to be sorry. You don’t know how right you are.”
She looked at him curiously. At that moment, Monty came back down with a small package wrapped in blue paper. There was a bow on top that was just as big as the box under it. He put it on Max’s lap.
“Merry Christmas, buddy.”
Max looked down at it, not sure what to say. He didn’t expect anything. Whatever it was, he wasn’t going to have it long. But he loved it regardless.
“Well, OK. How about let’s let Abigale go first. We’ll make Olivia wait.”
She very lightly punched him in the arm.
Abigale looked at her green wrapped package and started to open it. She pulled the paper away solemnly as if she was unwrapping an ancient artifact. Then she lifted the flaps of the box open. She pulled the tissue paper away to reveal another box. But this one was wooden. The top was engraved with gold and ebony. A picture of a Japanese woman standing outside of a pagoda had been hand-painted on it. Abigale opened her mouth wide in shock. She lifted it out of the box and saw that it was completely engraved gold and ebony all the way around. She could tell it was very old. The workmanship said that it had been completely handmade.
“Oh, my God, Max.”
“It’s from the 15th century. The gold that’s on it is real and the black is Shibuichi.”
Abigale couldn’t shut her mouth. Her shock was too great. She had no idea how much this cost but it had to be worth a fortune. And not a small one. She turned it around delicately. She felt she should be wearing white gloves to hold it. Olivia, Monty, and Mindy stared, wide-eyed.
“I… don’t know what to say. This is too much. I don’t think I can accept this.” She looked at him, starting to hold it out to him.
“You have to. I had it officially placed in your name with the insurance company. It’s yours. With your love of Japanese gardens and the lifestyle, I knew you had to have it. ” He pointed at it. “Plus, it goes with what’s inside of the box.”
Abigale gave him wide eyes again. She looks down at the gold latch and slowly flips it up. The lid opens with no sound and she looks inside. There is a simple red folder. She lifts the folder out and opens it. Inside there are papers, some with English writing and some with Japanese writing. On the very top is a very official paper with signatures and a seal. It’s a deed.
Abigale looks up so suddenly, Olivia was afraid she might get whiplash.
“What is this?” Abigale thinks she knows but isn’t sure.
“It is what it is,” Max said. “It’s a deed to my house in Japan. It’s yours now.”
Olivia gasped and Monty’s eyes opened wide. Mindy looked at Max with an open-mouthed face.
“WHAT?” Abigale tried to get more out with it felt like all the breath and her thoughts had left her. “I can’t accept this. This… is too much.”
Max sat back and nodded toward the folder. “No, it’s not. All you have to do is sign that bottom line and initial one or two things and it’s all yours, free and clear.”
Abigale didn’t hear him. She was crying big, large tears. Some even fell on the deed. She got scared and turned it over to try and get the tears to fall off. She didn’t want to rub it, afraid it would smear the ink.
“Of course you can. Go there and live in it for a while. Enjoy it. It’ll be taken care of when you aren’t there. I have very trusted people looking after it.”
Abigale gently put the paperwork back in the folder and that she put back in the box. She sat it on the floor, stood, and almost heaved herself at Max. She kneeled in front of him and gently pulled him close. She cried into his robe.
“Thank you, Max. Thank you… so much.” She would have said more but she couldn’t.
Max hugged her and patted her back. “You’re welcome.”
After she got control of herself, she sat back down in her place and held the box to her. She was smiling, occasionally rubbing a tear away. One hand stroked the side of the black and gold box.
“OK, one down.” Max looked at Olivia. “Your turn, O.”
Olivia was still amazed at what Abigale got. She looked down at her red wrapped box and was now afraid to open it. If it was anything like what she had just seen, she might lose her mind. She looked up at everybody, nervous to rip the paper. Max nodded at her.
She slowly started to tear away the red paper. Inside, there was another white box. She opened that and saw a clear plastic case. She lifted it up and out of the box to see what was in it. Before she got a good look, Mindy let out a gasp.
“Oh, my God. Is that really them?”
Olivia looked from Mindy to the clear box. She could clearly see what was inside. Two red shoes. Two ruby red shoes. Her forehead furrowed in confusion. Then it dawned on her what shoes these were.
“No. These can’t be it. Can’t be.” Olivia shook her head comically and back at them. “Are these from The Wizard of Oz?”
“The very ones.” Max smiled at her.
Olivia was still holding the box up, unable to move. “These can’t be. I heard they had been stolen and never returned. These can’t be it… can they?”
“Those are the very ones. And you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. Look inside the box again.”
Olivia didn’t want to put the shoes down. The Wizard of Oz was her favorite movie of all time and she had the most iconic item from it. Max has never lied to her, to any of them. These have to be the shoes. Right?
She sat the clear box carefully beside her and looked again in the box. There was also a red folder in there. She picked it out of the box and opened it. There was paperwork inside. None of these were in another language, all English. There was another deed.
Olivia couldn’t believe her eyes. She didn’t even have time to look up when the tears came. She closed the folder before tears landed on the papers. She looked at Max.
“You’re giving me your movie theater?”
Max reached out and held her hand. “I couldn’t think of anybody better to give it to. Remember when we talked about running old movies on Sundays. Now, you can do that.”
Olivia just looked at his face, not stopping the tears running down her cheeks. “Abigale is right. It’s all too much.”
“No, it’s not. When it comes to you..” he said as he looked from her to everybody else, “… nothing is too much.”
Monty had tears in his eyes, though he tried desperately to stop them. Mindy couldn’t believe how amazing this all was.
Olivia sat back, still not sure of what to think. She picked up the case again and stared at the shiny red shoes within.
Max turned his face to look at Monty. “Alright, brother. Your turn.”
Monty couldn’t move for a second. Finally, he picked his blue wrapped package off of the floor and sat it in his lap. Tearing the paper off, he came to his own white box. He looked at everybody as if he was about to cut a wire on a bomb. He lifted the top and peered inside. He stared. He didn’t need to pull it all the way out to know what it was but he lifted it to show everyone else.
“What is it?” Abigale asked.
“A set of keys to only my dream car.” The key chain he held up had a key that when you pushed a button, the actual key would pop out like a switchblade. He did this and admired the shiny silver color of it. On the actual black device was engraved with a big red D and the word DEMON, also in red.
“You need to look harder,” Max said, smiling.
Monty looked back in the box and saw another set of keys. It looked just like the one he held in his hand but this one, the words on it was in purple. He mouthed OH FUCK.
“Are you saying two cars?” he asked as he picked out the other set and popped the key.
“A black one and a special purple one. They should have been delivered to a secure parking garage by now. Inside the box are the codes and all of the paperwork for the cars. Just do me a favor? Don’t wrap yourself around a telephone pole? OK?”
Monty just kept staring at the keys and answered in a whisper. “I won’t.”
“Hey, one more thing in the bottom of the box, speed demon.” Max laughed, which caused him to cough. Mindy rubbed his back.
Monty broke his stare down with the keys, sat them gingerly aside, and looked in the box again. He also had a red folder. He opened it and looked with amazement.”
“You’re giving me the club. You’re giving me THE CLUB in Miami!”
He jumped up from his chair and went behind Max at the couch and hugged him. A little too hard. Max winced. Monty stopped immediately.
“Oh, fuck. I’m sorry.”
Max scrunched up his face. Any harder and Monty might have broken something. Everybody looked concerned, Abigale getting ready to get up. Mindy focused on him.
“Are you alright?”
Max held up a hand. He coughed, checked himself, raised up.
“I’m fine. Just a delicate little flower.”
“I’m sorry, Max.” The look in Monty’s eyes was full of grief.
“It’s alright. You almost broke me with your love. Can’t go wrong there.” He chuckled. Monty lightly patted him on the shoulder. He went and sat back down, still looking at Max.
Max took a deep breath, not deep enough to start coughing but one enough to make his head from stop swimming. He didn’t let on how bad that hug had hurt. His body was breaking down.
Everyone was silent. They had even forgotten about their life-changing gifts. They just worried about Max.
Max finally looked at Mindy. “And now, it’s your turn.” He smiled at her.
Mindy looked at the package sitting next to her. She had forgotten it with all that was going on around her.
“Why did you get me something?”
Before he could speak, Olivia said it for him.
“Because he loves you.”
Mindy looked at her and back at Max. He touched her leg with the slightest of winces. “It’s true. Because I love you.”
Mindy blushed. They had told each other just earlier but saying in front of others, she wasn’t sure about. She was worried that the others, his friends, and other people might think she was a gold-digger and just wanted his money. That was the furthest from the truth. She didn’t want anything from him. The only thing she wanted was to spend more time with him.
Max nodded toward the gift. “Go ahead. See what’s in there.”
Reluctantly, she picked up the pink wrapped gift. She sat it in her lap. It wasn’t as large as the others. Hopefully, he didn’t go too far out of his way, maybe some sort of sweet memento. She pulled the paper away. Again, a white box. Olivia leaned over Max to see. Mindy opened the box and looked inside. Inside was a flat black box with a hinge on one end. She lifted it out and noticed her own red folder underneath. She turned the box opening toward her and opened it.
Inside was a large loop of black, perfectly round pearls on a silver chain.
Mindy just stared at them. She didn’t move or blink. Her mouth went wide in shock.
“What…?” She was barely audible.
Max leaned in to look at them. “Those were made for Tokugawa Masako in 1624 by her father, Tokugawa Hidetada when she became empress of Japan. She wore them on the day her father died.”
Mindy still had not said a word. She was stuck. She didn’t know what to say.
Olivia had leaned herself over Maxwell and if she had not been conscious of his fragility, would have been laying on his lap to see the pearls.
“Oh… my… God!” was all Mindy could say. She looked at Abigale and Monty would have forgotten what they had received and looked at the pearls, dumfounded.
“Max, I don’t… ahh… these are too much. They must be worth millions.”
Max just shrugged and sat back with a smile on his face.
“It doesn’t matter. I just wanted you to have them.”
“When did you get them? And from who?” Mindy had yet to take her eyes off of the neckless.
“I got them a few years ago and from who, well, that doesn’t matter, either. I can tell you this,“ Max lifted his hand to her face and pulled her attention from them by gently turning her head so she was looking at him. “I got them for you.”
She looked right into his eyes. She had known Max for just over two years and in that time, he had never talked about Japan or necklaces or having anything like this. Why did he say years? She thought maybe he had miss spoke or was just being romantic.
But what his eyes told her now was he was telling the truth.
“They are beautiful. I love them. But they are too much. I can’t possibly accept them.”
Max smiled again. “Yes, you can. You won’t deny a man a dying wish, will you?”
Mindy shut her eyes groaning. There it was. For a while, she had forgotten that he was dying, that they were up there to watch him do that. These weren’t really Christmas presents, they were going away presents. He was telling them how much they meant to him. But it didn’t make it any easier. These pearls or anything else they received didn’t mean anything as much as he did.
These gifts weren’t anywhere near filling that hole he was going to leave in their lives.
“Why did you say that?” Mindy started to cry again, tears running from her closed eyes. Max touched her leg. The other three looked on, no words came to them.
“I know. We were having such a good time and I reminded you why you are really here. But, you know, that there is no changing that. No matter what.” He looked around to the others, to Olivia, to Abigale, to Monty. “To be honest, the rest of the gifts under the tree are just simple gifts. Things that anybody would give somebody else. These, “Max pointed at was in their laps or holding in their hands,” were the BIG things. Why did I want to give them to you now?” Max sat back and sighed. He looked out the big window again. The snow had come down so hard and fast, it covered the bottom of the window by two feet.
“I’m not going to make it past tomorrow. I needed to get these out of the way.”
This caused Mindy to open her eyes again and look at him. The others also turned to look at him. Olivia did dart her eyes at Monty and Abigale quickly as if to see they had heard and reacted to what she thought she heard.
“What do you mean, Max?” Monty asked, setting his box down and kneeling down next to Mindy to look at him.
Max looked at him. “And now, the end is near… And so I face… the final curtain,” he sang to him. “Sorry, just trying to break the tension.”
He stood up then. Slowly but with no hesitation. He walked over near the big window and started to see some stars in the night sky. Seems the blizzard might be ending, ending with him.
“I was never going to last a couple of weeks. The doctor told me I’d be lucky to make it to Christmas. I’m sorry, Mindy, but I told him not to tell you. He knew how I felt about you. “ Max looked down at the floor. “He said I’d feel it, that I would sense it. He said I might actually start to feel a bit better. But he said that wouldn’t last long. Hours maybe.” He looked at the large clock that sat over the mantel. “That means I might make it to the morning.”
Monty started to shake his head. “This is bullshit. Why wouldn’t you tell us?”
“Because, my dear Monty, I wanted it to be like it was today. Today was perfect. And I needed that. My days have not been perfect for a long time.”
His three friends started to argue about how they should have been told but Mindy quieted them by speaking up. “He’s right.”
They looked at her. Even Max.
“There isn’t anything any of us could have done, even if you did tell us. This is something that can’t be stopped and it will happen regardless.” She looked up at Max. “If it means anything, I forgive you and I understand. It still hurts but it can’t be helped and it doesn’t change the way I feel.”
This started to seep into Olivia, Abigale, and Monty’s mind. She was right, of course. And after a few quiet moments, they realized the truth of what she said. He could tell them he was the king of England and live out his last few days being his royal servants if that’s what he wanted to do. If it was them in his shoes, they wouldn’t want anybody telling them how to spend their last few precious moments on earth.
“She’s right. We came up here to be with you until the end. No matter what.” Abigale said. “No matter what.”
Monty and Abigale got up and clustered around Max.
Max nodded and smiled. “I’m glad you feel this way. It means more to me than you’ll ever know.” He looked at them all one by one. “When I knew time was short, I had thought about how I wanted to spend my last few precious moments and this has been it. I got my wish.” He put his hand on Mindy’s cheek and looked around to everyone. “These gifts are something I thought about over and over. I wanted to give you something to let you know how much you meant to me and that I took an interest in what you liked, that I listened. I hope I did that.”
They nodded. No one had dry eyes.
“I’m a bit tired. I think I’m going to go take a short nap.” He saw the worry in their eyes. “No, I’m not going to go die now. It’s not time yet. It’s just a nap.”
He started for the steps. They looked on as he shuffled to them. But before he got there, he turned around.
“One more thing and this is important. Monty? I need you to do me a favor. There is a table in the extra room down the hall on the other side of the kitchen. If you could, can you bring it out here? The legs fold down for easier handling. Also, I’ll need the couches and these chairs moved back. Maybe you ladies can help with that. There are also some chairs that go with the table. They need to be brought out, too.”
Monty said, “Sure. What are they for?”
Max paused and looked at all of them. “I have one last gift to give you.” He patted his pocket where the coin was. “It’s the biggest gift of them all. And a bedtime story you will want to hear.” He started up the stairs. They watched him get to the landing. Over his shoulder but loud enough to hear, he spoke again. “It’s a story that will explain all.”
With that, he disappeared and they heard his door shut. They were all left to look at each other and wonder what he was talking about.
About an hour and a half later, Max had awoken, put his robe back on, and headed out of his room. He got to the landing that overlooked the living area and saw that the table and chairs he had asked Monty to set up were placed just as he had asked. The table was basically a 6-sided polygon poker playing table with solid green felt. It even had cup holders. But the other things that a normal poker table would have, this one did not. There were no indentions in the table to put chips and there were no poker insignias anywhere. It had been specially made for this night weeks ago and shipped here.
Max smiled down on it. There is where he would tell a secret. A secret nobody had ever known. It was a story that he didn’t want to take to the grave.
Olivia sat at the table looking down at the green felt, rubbing her fingers across it. Abigale and Monty sat on the same couch. They had turned it to face the window and they were just looking out. The night sky had cleared and the stars were in full bloom. And Mindy was sitting on the other couch, biting on a thumb, seemingly in deep thought. He wondered what she was thinking about. She hoped it was him. But it was probably the whole situation that rambled through her mind.
And the situation was, he needed to move this along. He had woken up to a deep throb in his temples. It had subsided but it was still there. He didn’t have long. If all went normally, he’d probably last until tomorrow but he wasn’t going to have that happen. He’d make sure of that.
“I see you guys are having a party,” Max called down.
They all looked up at him at the same time. None of them smiled. There was nothing but worry in their faces.
“Why so serious?” He chuckled. “I love that Joker line.” He walked down the steps and up to the table. He patted Olivia on the head. “Like the table?”
“Sure. Are we going to play poker?” Olivia asked, trying to be funny but not getting there.
“No. No poker. And no games.” He pulled out a chair and nearly fell into it. Abigale and Monty got up and came over. Mindy got up from the couch and sat down in the chair next to Max but he stopped her. “Mindy, would you get me a glass of water. I’m going to need to keep my mouth from getting dry. There’s a story coming.”
Everyone sat and Mindy brought him an ice-cold glass of water. He took a healthy swig and sat it in the cupholder. “Perfect fit.”
After Mindy sat down, Max looked at them all.
“This is a two-part gift. I’m going to entertain you and then I’m going to tell you a story. I think it will be interesting but you will have to be patient. Can we agree on that?”
They nodded, no one was wanting to say anything. The fire burned and put out some good light and there was a couple of lamps and the ambiance was perfect, Max thought. “Ready?”
They nodded again.
“OK,” he said, reaching into his robe pocket. “Here we go.”
He placed the large coin on the table so they could all see. A flowing haired man was visible and they all looked at it. They had never seen one like it before.
“The coin you see in front of you is a silver dollar that was minted in 1794. Experts in the field believe it was the first coin ever struck by the U.S. Mint. And it’s rare.”
They looked from Max to the coin. It sat there on the green felt like a strange artifact.
“This particular coin was bought in 2013 for around $10 million dollars.”
This made Olivia’s eyes open as big as the coin in front of her. They all did.
“Wow!” Olivia couldn’t help herself.
Max picked it up and handed it to her. “By all means, look at it, hold it. Feel the weight.”
She did. She stared at it and raised it up and down in her palm. “It’s pretty heavy.” She passed it to Abigale.
“It is. Silver coins minted today are made up of other materials. But this one is pure silver.”
Abigale passed it to Monty after looking.
“There are only a few left in the world but none are as expensive as this one.”
Monty reached past the empty spot and handed it to Mindy. She felt it in her fingers.
“But there is something else that makes this coin more special and rare than the others…”
Mindy gave it back to Max.
Max held it up between his forefinger and thumb. “After this coin was bought in 2013, it was immediately stolen… by me.”
They looked at each other in disbelief. They had never known Max to lie but they figured he was kidding. But after a minute, they all came to the same conclusion: he wasn’t. Not at all.
“You stole this?” Mindy asked.
“Yep. And I’ll tell you how… after this…”
Max took the coin and placed it in his palm. They could clearly see it there. He placed his other hand over it.
“Mindy, please take your finger and touch the back of my hand.”
After a brief hesitation, she did as he asked. After she lifted her finger away, he lifted his top hand up. The coin was gone.
Olivia gave a curious look. She thought, ‘he’s doing magic tricks’. He has, in his words, a few hours to live…and he’s doing magic tricks.
“What are you doing, Max?” Olivia was frustrated.
Max left his bottom hand where it was and looked at her.
“It’s OK. Just watch.”
He put his other hand back over the coin in his other hand and after a brief second, he lifted it back up and the flowing man’s hair from the coin could be seen again as if it had been there the whole time.
Monty spoke up. “Max, that’s really interesting but I think this isn’t how you… how you want to say goodbye. Is it?” Monty teared up. He’s never been a crier. He’s cried more in the past two days than his entire life. He thought he must have been saving up for this trip.
Max spoke slowly but with authority. “I need you all to pay attention to this. This is something I must show you. It’s something I’ve been holding on to a long, long time and I need to tell somebody before I die. Natalie never knew and I hate myself for that, not telling her. But I’m going to tell you and this is how I want to tell you. So, please….just wait. And watch.” He had started to let his temper flair but that might make things worse. Time was precious.
Mindy, always the caring one, the one he could count on for the past two years, put her hand on his arm.
Olivia and Abigale agreed. Abigale elbowed Monty in the side. He looked at her hard but his look softened. He knew he was wrong to have spoken out. He was just frustrated.
“I’m sorry, Max. I’m just scared. And confused.”
Max nodded. “I understand. Trust me, I really do. But this is how I need to show you something before I tell you a story. It’s got to be this way.”
Max sighed. “OK. Let’s keep going.”
Max closed his palm into a fist with the coin inside. His hand was just big enough to cover it completely. Mindy went to touch his hand again but he stopped her.
“No need. It’s already gone.” He opened his hand again and the large stolen coin had vanished.
This one stumped everyone. Mindy’s hand was still in midair when he opens his hand. It stayed there because she had forgotten it. The coin had simply disappeared. All tricks using your hands can usually be explained due to sleight of hand.
But this..? There was no place for the coin to go. Everyone looked flabbergasted. Mindy finally brought her arm back down to the table.
Max smiled. This is the reaction he wanted.
He closed his hand again and after a slight pause, he opened it again revealing the silver dollar.
“What the fuck?” Olivia exclaimed.
Abigale couldn’t take her eyes off of the round silver. “What she said.”
“It gets better.” Max closed his hand, paused and open it again to show it was, again, not there.
He turned his wrinkled hand over and side to side to show that it was not it. He did that a couple of times and looked at Olivia on his right.
“I know I said I stole the coin but that doesn’t mean you can steal it from me. Give it back.”
She looked at him, half smiling, not sure what he was talking about.
“You have the coin. You didn’t think I would know you would put it close to your heart.” He nodded toward her chest.
It took a moment but she finally got the message. She placed her hand into her shirt and didn’t feel anything. At that moment she felt something round and heavy on her left breast. She reinserted her hand to go into her bra and her fingers touched on something round. She plucked it out and dropped it on the table. The silver dollar spun a few times before settling.
Abigale and Monty both exclaimed, “What the hell?”
“Oh, OK. I see. Olivia is in on it.” Monty said. “She’s sitting next to you and helping you out.” He pointed to his head like the answer just popped in there.
Max slowly shook his head. “Sorry. She’s not in on anything.”
“I’m not. Not a damn bit. What the hell?” Olivia was touching the spot the coin had been through her shirt. “How did you do that, Max?”
Max held up his finger and picked up the coin. He laid it down flat on the tabletop and placed his hand over it. After a pause, he lifted his hand again and the coin was gone again.
Max looked around. “I wonder where it is.”
They all looked around. They felt on their bodies for it. He gave them a few seconds of searching their person. They finally gave up and looked back at him.
Max waited and then turned his attention on Monty. “You have it now.”
Monty said, “No I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. Bring your palm up, open-handed.”
Monty did as he was told. His palm empty.
“Make praying hands over the table.”
Again, Monty did as he was told. His hands were sandwiched as if he was praying.
Max pointed at his hands like his finger was a gun. “Pow.”
Monty felt something between his hands when Max said ‘Pow’ where nothing had been there before. It scared him and flinched his hands back as if they had burned. When he did, he opened his palms. A silver coin dropped onto the green felt with a heavy thud and spun, landing on the flowing haired man again.
Now, they were starting to get scared. This was beyond anything they have seen any magician do. Monty looked at his palms, thinking he might see burn marks or a hole. He saw neither, only pink skin. He even smelled them. All he smelled was the soap he had used earlier.
“What’s going on?” Monty asked Maxwell. “This is fucking weird.”
“And it’s not over yet,” Max said as he picked up the coin and looked at Mindy. She looked back. She wasn’t seeing the Max she was used to, the old age Max. She was seeing what Max must have been like long before all of this happened. Even though he was still in his old body, she could see light in his eyes that weren’t there before. But she was still getting nervous. She still trusted him but the situation was odd, not something she was used to.
“I want you to take the coin and lay it in front of everybody in the center of the table.”
Mindy looked at the coin, afraid to touch it. For some reason, like Monty, she thought it might hot to the touch. Maybe it would burn her skin and she would hear the sound and smell her skin burning before she felt any pain. She took a moment and then looked at him. In those hazel eyes, she found the trust again.
She grabbed the coin, not taking her eyes off of his. There was no burning. The coin was warm but that was due to everybody touching it. Just like how it should feel. She placed the coin in the middle of the table. Everyone looked at the coin and back at Max, waiting.
Max spoke then. “Don’t blink.”
They looked back at the coin. One second it was there, shiny and unmoving. The next second it was gone. Gone into thin air.
Olivia gasped and put her hand to her chest. Abigale looked like a cartoon character and made an exaggerated double-take though it was completely for real. Monty nearly fell out of his chair. And Mindy just looked. And the oddest thing, she thought later, she was no longer shocked or surprised. Something told her that it was going to happen.
Max just looked from one to the other. He stopped on Mindy. He was a little taken aback at her lack of surprise. But he smiled, knowingly. Yes, he wished he had met her long before all of this. Maybe even right after Natalie had died. Mindy would have understood.
“Seriously, Max. What the fuck is going on?” asked Abigale. “Did that just happen?”
The three friends all started in with questions. They were running over each other’s words, either not caring or not knowing the others were talking. Max held up his hands for them to quiet down. They ceased.
“What you saw is easily explained. This is something I have needed to get off my chest for many years now. Many more than you are aware of.” Max took his hand and lifted it up in front of him with the forefinger and the thumb pinched as if he held the coin there.
And then, he did. It was just as shiny and round. He dropped it to the tabletop with a large PING.
“What you saw is not magic. I’m not sure if real magic exists. Maybe.” He scanned their faces. Nobody was taking their eyes off of him. They were waiting on every word.
“No. I’m not sure about magic unless what I am doing is magic.”
“What can you do, Max?” asked Mindy.
He closed his eyes. This is something he had been wanting to say. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Simply said, I stop time.”
End of Part Two…