By. Kondor Haze
Wisps of fluffy white cotton clouds danced across the sky above Maxwell’s head as he lay in the hilly fields not far from his Grandparents’ home. Laying on his back, eyes skyward, he had spent the better part of the last half hour concentrating all the mental power he could muster into obliterating a peculiar cloud that resembled a soaring phoenix. His Uncle Ernest had once told him that if you focused long and hard enough you could make clouds shrink, grow or even zap them right out of the sky. He said that the energy of a thought was a lot more powerful than most people cared to realize or believe. Maxwell’s uncle promised that the power was real.
After the sun had peaked and Maxwell’s phoenix had dissipated into the ivory blue sky, he stood up and brushed off his red shirt and denim shorts. After a quick stretch and yawn, he started down the gravel road back to Grandma and Grandpa Brown’s little cottage with chipped green paint. He figured he had better get back in time for lunch before Grandma became cross.
The summer was dying, now and in only a few short weeks Maxwell would have to return to school with the others. It was time to begin his sixth grade at the place that made him so anxious. He cherished these carefree, quiet afternoons alone where the only other sounds he heard were the whispers of the pine branches swaying in the wind and the chirping of crickets hiding in the tall grass around him.
As he approached the end of the end of the gravel path Maxwell noticed that his Grandpa Brown’s white Cadillac Eldorado was not parked in it’s usual spot out front the small wooden bungalow. He figured they must be out running a few errands and continued onwards toward the small dwelling.
Inside he found a scribbled note on the kitchen table that read:
We’ve gone to town for a few hours. There is a freshly baked loaf on the window sill and a pot of soup warm on the stove for lunch. Eat as much as you like and don’t wander too far from the house. When I’m back maybe we can go together for a swim down at the beach again before suppertime?
Maxwell poured himself a bowl of soup and buttered a slice of bread he had cut from the warm, moist loaf. His Grandma’s vegetable beef soup was always his favourite. She filled it with fresh carrots, potatoes, cabbage, barley and peas from her garden and thick tender chunks of beef from Mr.Pinevale’s farm down the road. Just the smell alone could transport Maxwell back to his younger childhood when Grandma Brown used to watch him while his mother was working at the laundromat. He was glad he got to come spend a part of the summer with Grandma and Grandpa Brown. He knew they were getting older and he knew one day the smell of that soup wouldn’t be wafting down the hall anymore. After his belly was full and he was finished reminiscing, Maxwell placed his dishes in the sink for later and wandered down to the basement into Grandpa Brown’s workshop.
Grandpa Brown was an eccentric and loving man. He was an inventor – an artist – who loved playing with his toys down in the shop. He would always bring Maxwell down and sit him on a stool near his workbench while he tinkered and rambled away about his latest creation. The shelves of the room were covered in all sorts of tools, instruments, wires, hinges, PVC tubes, loose springs, bits of metal and scraps of wood. There were dozens of screwdrivers, various saws, drills, wrenches, blowtorches, a different hammer for each day of the week, and any other tool you might happen to need in any given circumstance.
Countless screws, nails and bolts littered the room. There was a shelf holding a a couple dozen completed projects, but it was the scores of half-finished gadgets scattered about that really caught your eye when you entered the place. With a quick wink and a smirk Grandpa Brown used to say, “Just works in progress me son.” Others might have called it a big junkyard, but to Grandpa Brown it was a sanctuary. You could ask him to find anything in the beautiful chaos of that basement workshop and Grandpa Brown almost always knew exactly in which pile of ‘junk’ to find it.
Maxwell’s curiosity and imagination took hold and he pictured himself as a great adventurer exploring a cavern full of treasures from a lost civilization. To Maxwell, the piles of nuts and bolts morphed into silver and gold pieces; a copper pipe transformed into an explorer’s telescope; the hammers and screwdrivers became the axes and knives of an old warrior tribe; and the gadgets and other oddities became the trinkets of an ancient past ripe for plunder.
After only a few minutes of exploration Maxwell stumbled upon the greatest of his discoveries that afternoon. It was hidden under a mess of old instruction manuals and outdated auto enthusiast magazines, but out of the corner of his eye the young boy caught a glimpse of an old worn wooden chest with a rusted latch. He immediately pulled out the box, blew off the dust and moved the magazines onto the floor. As he lifted the lid to reveal the prize inside, the weathered chest’s hinges squealed with delight.
At first Maxwell was almost aghast, and he dare not even touch it. Then, after a breath, he noticed the container of pellets and became intrigued. The rifle had an iron sight that looked down a sleek black steel barrel set into a sturdy oak stock. Like any other young boy Maxwell had a hefty collection of toy guns at home, but this was different. There was an element of danger and it was exciting.
Without another thought Maxwell grabbed the pellet gun and hurried out of the cottage, down the gravel road and back to the green fields where he had battled earlier with the phoenix. Just as quickly as he had become an adventurer looking to plunder treasure, the moment he saw that weapon laying in the chest Maxwell had transformed into a World War II infantryman. A soldier marching off to the blood fields. A soldier ready to fight. A soldier ready to kill.
In the hills Maxwell set up a firing range consisting of plastic green army men, soda cans, an apple, and some other junk. With what seemed like a near endless supply of little metal bullets Maxwell unleashed volley after volley of projectiles on the targets down field. His aim improved with each squeeze of the trigger.
There were still clouds tiptoeing across the now fading blue sky. As Maxwell peered through the iron sights looking for the next enemy to appear he saw a familiar bird float by. But it wasn’t a cloud. It was a fiery red cardinal hunting for crickets in the fields.
No – it was a monstrous fire breathing phoenix coming to destroy Maxwell. With just an itch of hesitation the boy squeezed and the bird fell.
The phoenix tumbled to the ground with a last whimper that mimicked the a flame snuffed by water. A knot welled in Maxwell’s throat.
No longer a soldier, Maxwell ran over to where the motionless cardinal lay and knelt beside it. With as much concentration as he had earlier trying to zap clouds out of the sky, he willed the cardinal to wake up and fly again. But the dirt was stained with a colour as crimson as the fresh oozing red beets that Grandma would serve at supper later that evening. The creature stayed still.
The clouds had darkened and a cool summer rain began to sprinkle down. It was then that Maxwell noticed his Grandfather’s white car in the distance, slinking along the gravel road back towards the green cottage. Maxwell grabbed the gun and pellets and rushed back to the house just in time to stash the horrid thing back in the chest before his grandparents made it through the front door with their wet, melting brown paper bags of groceries.
At supper Grandma Brown served East-coast salt-beef, creamy mashed potatoes, and a side of freshly pickled red beets. Maxwell was quiet and filled himself on potatoes and meat before excusing himself from the table. As he shuffled off to his room Grandma Brown frowned that the young boy had not touched the beets on his plate. She thought they had been one of his favourites.
After the Sun had dipped and the Moon had climbed, Maxwell emerged from his room. He went and joined Grandpa Brown out back by the lake and fire pit. Maxwell gazed up in wonder at the canopy of stars. They roasted marshmallows and Grandpa strummed guitar.
“Its a shame it started to storm so bad earlier. I know yer’ Grandma was looking forward to taking you to the beach,” Grandpa Brown said.
Maxwell nodded, “Mhmmm. It’s a shame.” All Maxwell could see in those dancing flames was the fiery red phoenix.
“Oh well, there’s always tomorrow. Right me’ son?”
After another stretch of silence his Grandfather inquired, “So what did ye’ get up to this aft while we were doing our errands?”
Maxwell paused a few moments too long, then gulped as that knot began to return to his throat. “Nothing much Grandpa,” he replied.
Maxwell didn’t say anything.
“You didn’t battle any dragons or rescue any ailing damsels?” the old man chuckled.
“No. I think I’m getting too old for that make believe, imaginary stuff.”
“Nonsense boy. Imagination is what keeps you young,” his Grandpa said with a frown.
A foggy rain began to blanket the sky and trickled down on the pair. The fire began to die with a familiar hiss.
“I’m getting tired. I think I’ll head to bed Grandpa.”
“Well… alright then. Don’t forget to wash up. I think this faery-dusting will pass. I’m going to wait it out a bit longer.”
“Goodnight me’ boy.”
Instead of going back into the house Maxwell wandered over to the garage, grabbed a shovel and snuck off down the road back to the hills. His face was wet and misty. He found the cardinal laying just as still as he left it.
He hastily dug a small hole about a foot deep and moved the lifeless creature into it. Before he covered it in with dirt a single tear escaped and dropped into the shallow grave along with the raindrops. “I’m sorry little phoenix,” he said before rushing back to the green cottage with chipped paint just before the lightning started and the sky wept with fury.