Max is sitting in the backseat of one of those generic brown cars that detectives always have in the movies. Like the kind where the guy is always in a trench coat and you can't tell if the car is old or just "of the time". Anyway, he stares hard out the window to avoid having to make eye contact with his social worker who is much too nice and who makes it very obvious that she pities him. It probably isn’t on purpose, Max thinks. Probably.
Max’s social worker is named Henrietta or something old sounding like that. He’s bad with names and anyway he doesn’t usually keep the same worker for long so who cares.
He’s used to someone taking him between foster homes and orphanages that watch him until they can’t deal with him anymore because he’s so unbearably difficult to be around for long periods of time, apparently. But this time the person is some distant relative that popped out of nowhere and wants to adopt him. It could be different, he thinks to himself. He doesn’t believe it, but it’s sometimes nice to think of positive things just because it’s not where your mind would normally go.
This might be the longest car ride Max has been on in his entire life, he thinks. He can hear pills rattling in someones pocket but he's unsure if he's the only one. They’re driving through a mountain pass and Max can only see trees in every direction. Maybe she didn’t find any distant relatives and she’s really driving him out into the middle of nowhere to brutally murder him and leave his body for forest animals to chew through his supple flesh. Max stifles a laugh at how much more reasonable that sounds than someone actually wanting to adopt him.
As it turns out, there is a little town at the end of the mountain pass and the house they’re driving to is just down the street from the gas station right next to the freeway exit. Max goes into the convenience store when they stop for gas, mostly just to stretch his legs and use the restroom since he doesn’t have any money, and notices a lot of odd things on the shelves, like plants and rocks and sand in jars without labels and some weird souvenirs that look like props from a Viking movie. The girl at the counter has long, straw-colored hair in a ponytail with round tinted glasses like she’s straight out of the seventies. She has bad posture and Max is pretty sure by the completely off the beat way she's is swaying to the classic rock coming through the speakers that she’s high. She must be in charge because her weird groovy style is spread out among the normal stuff in the store in the form of stickers and posters and a mini lava lamp that really doesn’t go.
When they get back in the car, Henrietta seems like she’s pretending to be excited. Like the way adults do when they want a small child to be excited too. Max keeps his normal blank expression on as she talks.
“So that place was neat! Was there anything cool inside the store? Did you want me to get something for you before we go?”
Max just says, “Not really,” which is a lie, but it feels like the only okay response.
He thinks one of the plants in the jars was cool. Max likes plants and he knows enough about them to know that that one was called Black Prince, which is a funny thing to call a plant, but it’s very pretty. Max thinks having a plant sounds like great company and he would probably kill anything that isn’t a succulent. But he’s done this long enough to know that social workers don’t actually want to get you something unless it’s water, maybe. So, he just stares out the window until they get to the old cabin he would supposedly be staying at from now on.
There’s a car parked outside that says SHERIFF, just like that, in all caps and Max instinctively feels nervous, as if the police are going to come out of it and arrest him just for being there. He has never done anything bad enough to be arrested for but his anxiety likes to whisper things in his ears like, “They could just make something up. It doesn’t matter. It’s your word against theirs.”
Max begins subtly pulling at his fingers and wringing them out. He doesn’t want to start freaking out here, it would be the worst timing possible to have a panic attack so he starts thinking about the succulent from the gas station instead. What was the botanical name? Echeveria? That’s right. Echeveria. He knows the names of a lot of plants, right? Maybe he should list them instead of thinking about how much he doesn’t want to get out of the car and walk past the Sheriff’s car and into her house.
Calocedrus decurrens is one. There was one outside the house of one of his foster homes when he was fourteen. It was a large tree that the other kids would play around, but Max had sat under it once and a spider landed on his shoulder and he jumped up and danced around like an idiot which was embarrassing so he doesn’t like them much anymore, but they do smell good.
Henrietta’s knocking on the door.
Felicia amelloides is another one. Once at an orphanage, a girl leaned over Max's shoulder while he was reading a plant catalog. He was pretty excited that someone was actually interested to know about his favorite topic but he stupidly chose this one to give as an example and she just laughed and started saying, “Bye, Felicia,” and then got sidetracked talking to some other girls. That was an irritating moment but Max has never forgotten the name since then. Even though he kind of wishes he would forget about it.
A woman with long white-sand colored hair answers the door. It's even lighter than Max's, he thinks. His heart hurts a little when he thinks of how similar they look, but he's pretty dark for someone who doesn't really get a lot of sun and this woman is pretty pale. She stands up straight like she owns the place and her smile is warm and welcoming but it only makes Max more aware of how insecure he's feeling. Not that he's ever not feeling insecure.
She looks right into his eyes, coal gaze meeting an equally black one and Max is probably panicking a little but he can't look away and he can't think of any more plants.
Echeveria, Calocedrus, Felicia.
Max repeats them over and over in his mind and calms down a little.
“You're, Max, right? Omigosh, you're too cute. I'm Keelie.”
Then she shakes Henrietta's hand but she clearly has no interest in her and she invites them both in. Max is screaming those three botanical names in his head and telling himself to calm down and they go inside.
They talk for a whole hour which is super awkward and mostly just Keelie prodding Max for an emotional response and Max closing further in on himself and wishing he wasn't doing that. He can tell she's looking at the scar under his eye but she won't ask about it. Then Keelie and Henrietta have to do boring paperwork, or so they say, and Max is left to wander about the house and is told to make himself at home. Except he doesn't feel at home and is way too shy to just roam around in someone else's house so he just steps out onto the porch.
The front of the house looks like there should be a guy with suspenders and a shotgun in a rocking chair on the porch.
Max is starting to feel sick to his stomach.
There's dirt all over the porch steps like someone often walks in with mud on their shoes. He half-heartedly repeats those botanical names in his head and tries to listen through the wall. He only hears an occasional muffled laugh.
He starts wringing his fingers again and he thinks he might puke.
The botanical names aren't helping and before he can think about what the consequences might be Max realizes that he's jogging. He's talking himself away from the cabin, away from the highway that leads back to the orphanage and that weird hippie guy and his gas station oddity shop. He's running now, past the street and onto a dirt path with lots of trees. Max doesn't know what kinds of trees they are because he's not looking at them even though a part of him wants to. If he stops running now he might panic. So he runs until he has that cold feeling in his lungs and his thighs are tingling and when he stops, he has to sit down but it’s more like he crumbles abruptly to the ground. He takes his time catching his breath and he realizes that he does know what kinds of trees these are. He also realizes that he's pretty lost.
Damn. It was stupid of him to run. That's clear now.