Chapter 5: Ashley's House

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On the way home from the park, Ryan rambled in his broken sentences to Papa about the events in the park. Or, about the ball game, at least. Thankfully he left out the part where Max got back at that bully. She guessed that he would expect her to tell Papa herself, when she was ready.

Occasionally, Max played her role and translated for him, interpreting the complex images and ideas he sent to her mind and saying them out loud in a way Papa could understand.

The distance without Mama was evident in the quiet moments, as if they were all so used to waiting for her opinion that they continued to leave awkward, painful silences for her. Max could see in his colors that Papa was thinking about her, too. His aura still had that outer shell of good humor, but inside of that, the darkness of grief flowed through him.

It was obvious that Ryan had noticed her quiet and knew she was keeping something from him. She didn't usually make him do all the talking. But she could sense, too, that he was trying very hard not to pry. He was too good of a brother for that. Too naively, rigidly pure.

Finally, Max simply couldn't hold herself still and silent anymore. She needed to talk to someone, needed to tell someone.

"Drop me off at Ashley's, Papa?" Max said, interrupting their conversation. "We're having a sleepover tonight."

"A sleepover?" Papa was flutter-pink surprised. "Tonight? You guys haven't had one in... Golly, I don't even know. Don't you want to stay at least long enough to celebrate?"

"The game was awful," Max pointed out. "Ryan and I can do something fun tomorrow. My stuff's already there." It wasn't, but Ashley would have spares of anything she needed.

"If you're alright with it, I guess?" He turned to look at Ryan properly when they reached a red light. Ryan nodded. Max could sense his suspicion, but it did not show on his face. "We'll, that settles it. To Ashley's house!"

-*-*-

Ashley Fairchild lived in a huge house. It was painted red with a golden yellow trimming the door frame and the windows.

The truck shivered and bumped as they made their way down the long gravel driveway. Max climbed out of the car at last, turning to wave goodbye. She wandered to the door at her own speed, running a hand along the prickly flowering bushes that lined the front walkway. She was in no rush. She'd lied, after all. Ashley wasn't actually waiting for her. It was possible she wouldn't be home at all.

Max peeked through the little window, where she could see the dim silhouette of a tall, slender girl with straight blond hair who was curled up in a sweater with a book on one knee. The girl turned a page and exhaled so that her long bangs fluttered a bit away from her face, and Max took a breath of her own. Then she knocked.

Ashley jumped and looked through the window at Max, who grinned and peeked through her bangs. The flair of red that had briefly surrounded Ashley's aura of emotion faded easily into a vibrant orange as she dashed to the door and flung it open.

"Maxine! Max, Max, you're here! How are you, where have you been?" Ashley flung her arms around Max, who sunk gratefully into her hug.

"I'm good, I think, confused. How are you?" Her voice came quietly, muffled a little into Ashley's shoulder.

Ashley laughed a little, "Surviving, as always!" she declared with a grin. The girl pulled Max into the living room, sat her on the couch, and was off again in moments. There wasn't any need to ask if she was thirsty or if she needed anything. (Max would say, no, that's quite all right, to which Ashley would declare, No trouble! and Max would eventually agree on water or tea, though they both knew she much preferred hot chocolate.)

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