Max knew that a bunk bed was the perfect structure to use when building an indoor fort. First of all, bunk beds have a roof, and a roof is essential if you’re going to have an observation tower. And you need an observation tower if you’re going to spot invading armies before they breach your walls and overtake your kingdom. Anyone without a bunk bed would have a much harder time maintaining a security perimeter, and if you can’t do that you don’t stand a chance.
Max had just done a quick survey of the area surrounding his bunk kingdom and was now down on the lower bunk, where he could be unseen and unknown. For a while, he thought about what his science teacher had been talking about earlier that day—that someday the sun would die. Mr. Malhotra had sensed that the mood in the class was darkening, that he’d scared his third graders, and had tried to brighten things: “What am I talking about? I’m being such a downer. Don’t worry about the sun dying! You and everyone you know will be long gone by then!”
It was a very strange time in Max’s life. The day before, his sister had tried, by proxy, to kill him. Her tobacco-chewing friends had chased him into his snow fort, and at the moment when he felt safest, in the cool white hollow, they had jumped on the roof, burying him. His sister had done nothing to help, and then had driven off with them, and to punish her, because she was no longer his sister, he’d doused her room with water. Buckets and buckets he’d emptied everywhere, in a furious, joyous process. It had been great, and felt so right, until his mother came home and found what he’d done. She was mad, Claire was mad, and so, tonight, the only person in the house who seemed to like him was his mom’s chinless boyfriend, Gary, and even thinking that sent a shudder through him.
Max, tired of thinking in his brain, decided to think on paper, and so retrieved his journal from under the bed. His father had given him the journal shortly after he left—how long ago now? Three years?—and had, in white-out, written the words “WANT JOURNAL” on the cover. In this book his father had written as inscription and directive, “Write what you want. Every day, or as often as you can, write what you want. That way, whenever you’re confused or rudderless, you can look to this book, and be reminded where you want to go and what you’re looking for.” His father had printed, by hand, three beginnings on every page.
Max found a pen and began:
I WANT Gary to fall into some kind of bottomless hole.
I WANT Claire to get her foot caught in a bear trap.
I WANT Claire’s friends to die by flesh-eating tapeworms.
Then he stopped. His father had explained that the journal was for positive wants, not negative wants. When you wanted something negative, it didn’t count, he said. A want should improve your life while improving the world, even if just a little bit.
So Max began again:
I WANT to get out of here.
I WANT to go to the moon or some other planet.
I WANT to find some unicorn DNA and then grow a bunch of them and teach them to impale Claire’s friends with their horns.
Oh, well. He could erase it later. Just writing it felt good. But now he was sick of writing. He wanted to do something. But what did he want to do? This was the central question of this day and most days.
Max caught sight of his wolf suit hanging on the back of the closet door. He hadn’t worn it in weeks. He’d gotten it for Christmas three years before, the last one with both his parents, and he’d immediately put it on, and kept it on for the rest of school break. It had been too big then, but his mom had pinned it and taped it to make it work until he grew into it.
Now he and it were the perfect size, and he wore it when he knew he was alone in the house and could wrestle the dog or jump and growl without anyone watching. Although the house was now full—his mother in the kitchen making dinner, Claire in the TV room pretending to do her homework, Gary on the couch in the living room—as Max stared at the wolf suit it seemed to be calling to him. It’s time, it was saying to Max. He wasn’t sure this was actually the right time to put it on, but then again he usually felt better wearing it. He felt faster, sleeker, more powerful.
On the other hand, he could stay in bed. He could stay in the fort, the red blanket casting a red light on everything inside. He could miss dinner and stay there all night. All weekend. He had some thinking to do, about this news about the sun expiring and the resulting void inhaling the earth, and he wanted to steer clear of Claire, who might yet want retribution, and he was angry at his mom, who seemed to forget for hours at a time that he existed. And any time he spent in his room was time he didn’t have to spend with Gary.
So he had a choice. Would he stay behind the curtain and think about things, marinate in his own confusion, or would he put on his white fur suit and howl and scratch and make it known who was boss of this house and of all the world known and unknown?
The howling was a good start. Animals howl, he had been told, to declare their existence. Max, in his white wolf suit, stood at the top of the stairs and, using a rolled-up piece of construction paper as a megaphone, howled again, as loud as he could.
When he was done, there was a long silence.
“Uh-oh,” Gary finally said from the living room.
Ha! Max thought. Let Gary worry. Let everyone worry.
He pounded down the stairs, triumphant. “Who wants to get eaten?” he asked the house and the world.
“Not me,” Claire said from the TV room.
Aha! Max decided. That only puts her higher on the menu!
He strode into the TV room. He lifted his claws up, growled, and sniffed at the air. He wanted to make sure that Claire and everyone knew this terrible fact: there was a bloodthirsty, brilliant, borderline-insane wolf in their midst.
Claire, seeing Max approach, rolled her eyes.
“You want me to kill something for you?” he asked.
Claire thought a moment, tapping her pencil against her lower teeth. She looked at Max, her eyes bright. “Yeah,” she said. “Go kill the little man in the living room.”
“Yeah,” Max said, getting excited. “We’ll cut his brains out and make him eat ’em! He’ll have to think from his stomach!”
Claire gave Max a look she might give a three-headed cat. “Yeah, you go do that,” she said.
Max left the room and found Gary lying on the couch in his work clothes, his frog eyes closed, his chin entirely receded into his neck. Max gritted his teeth and let out a low, simmering growl.
Gary opened his eyes and rubbed them.
“Uh, hey, Max. I’m baggin’ a few after-work Z’s. How goes it?”
Max looked at the floor. This was one of Gary’s typical questions: Another day, huh? How goes it? No play for the playa, right? None of his questions had answers. Gary never seemed to say anything that meant anything at all.
“Cool suit,” Gary said. “Maybe I’ll get me one of those. What are you, like a rabbit or something?”
Max was about to leap upon Gary, to show him just what kind of animal he was—a wolf capable of tearing flesh from bone with a shake of his jaws—when Max’s mom came into the room. She was carrying two glasses of blood-colored wine, and she handed one to Gary. Gary sat up, smiled his powerless smile, and clinked his glass against hers. “Cheers, little rabbit-dude,” he said, raising his glass to Max.
Max’s mom smiled at Max and then at Gary.
“Cheers, Maxie,” she said, and growled playfully at him.
She picked up a dirty plate and hurried back toward the kitchen. “Claire!” she yelled. “I asked you to get your stuff off the table. It’s almost dinner.”
Max entered the kitchen with hisarms crossed, marching purposefully, like a general inspecting his troops. He sniffed loudly, assessing the kitchen’s smells and waiting to be noticed.
His mother said nothing, so he brought a chair near the stove and stood on it. Now they were eye to eye.
“What is that? Is that food?” he asked, pointing down to something beige sitting numbly on a plate.
He got no answer.
“Mom, what is that?” he asked, now grabbing her arm.
“Pâté,” she said.
Max snickered and moved on. Pâté was a regrettable name for an unfortunate food. It seemed to Max a good idea to get up from the chair and to leap onto the counter. Which he presently did.
Standing on the counter, he towered over everything and everyone. He was eleven feet tall.
“Oh, God,” Max’s mom said.
Max squatted down to inspect a package of frozen corn. “Frozen corn? What’s wrong with real corn?” he demanded. He dropped the package loudly on the counter, where it made a wonderful clatter.
“Frozen corn is real,” Max’s mom said, barely taking notice. “Now get off the counter. And go tell your sister to get her stuff off the table.”
Max didn’t move. “CLAIRE GET YOUR STUFF OFF THE TABLE!” he yelled, more or less into his mom’s face.
“Don’t yell in my face!” she hissed. “And get off the counter.”
Instead of getting off the counter, Max howled. The acoustics where he was, so close to the ceiling, were not great.
His mom stared at him like he was crazy. Which he was, because wolves are part crazy. “You know what?” she said. “You’re too old to be on the counter, and you’re too old to be wearing that costume.”
Max crossed his arms and glared at her. “You’re too old to be so short! And your makeup’s smeared!”
“GeT DOWN from there!” she demanded.
“Woman, feed me!” he yelled. He didn’t know where he’d come up with that phrase, but he liked it immediately.
“Get off the counter, Max!”
“I’ll eat you up!” he growled, raising his arms.
“MAX! GET DOWN!” she yelled. She could be very loud when she wanted to be. For a second, he thought he should get off the counter, take off his suit, and eat his dinner quietly, because the truth was he was very hungry. But then he thought better of it, and howled again.
At that, Max’s mom lunged for him, but he was able to elude her grasp. He leaped over the sink and then back down onto the chair. She lunged again and missed. Max cackled. He really was fast! He jumped down, landed on the floor, and executed a perfect shoulder roll. Then he got up and fled from the kitchen, laughing hysterically.
When he turned around, though, he found that his mom was still chasing him. That was new. She rarely chased him this far. When they raced through the living room, Gary took notice of the escalating volume and urgency. He put down his glass of wine and got ready to intervene.
Then, in the front hall, a surprising and awful thing happened: Max’s mom caught him.
“Max!” she gasped.
She had his arm firmly in her hand. She had long fingers, shockingly strong, and they dug into Max’s biceps. In her hand, all his muscle and sinew turned to soup, and he didn’t like it.
“What’s wrong with you?” she screamed. “You see what you’re doing to me?” Her voice was shrill, corkscrewed.
“No, you’re doing things!” he countered, sounding meeker than he’d intended. To offset this sign of weakness, he thrashed around in her grip.
“There’s no way you’re eating dinner with us. Animal.”
Now, because he was angry at having Gary in the house, and angry at having to eat pâté and frozen corn, and angry about having a witch for a sister, he growled and—the idea flooding him so quickly he couldn’t resist—bit his mom’s arm as hard as he could.
She screamed. She stepped back, holding her arm. Max had never bitten her before. He was scared. His mom was scared. They saw each other anew. Max turned to see Gary entering the foyer. He was clearly unsure what he was supposed to do.
“He bit me!” she spat.
Gary’s eyes bulged. He turned to Max’s mom. “You can’t let him treat you this way!”
“He’s not allowed to talk here!” Max yelled, pointing to the frog-eyed man.
Then Claire stormed into the hall. Seeing Claire and Gary and his mom, everyone looking at him like he was the problem, sent Max tumbling over the edge. He screamed as loud as he could, producing a sound between a howl and a battle cry.
“Why are you doing this to me?” his mom wailed. “This house is chaos with you in it!”
That was it. Max did not have to stand for this, any of this, all of this. He threw open the door and leaped down the porch and into the night.
T he air! The moon!
He felt pulled as if by an outgoing tide. The air and the moon together sang a furious and wonderful song: Come with us, wolf-boy! Let us drink the blood of the earth and gargle it with great aplomb! Max tore down the street, feeling free, knowing he was part of the wind. Come, Max! Come to the water and see! No one could tell that he was crying—he was running too fast.
Stupid Gary was following him, trying to run, huffing mightily. Max ran faster, almost flying, his hands grabbing at the air. When he looked over his shoulder again, he saw that Gary was losing ground. A moment later, the freckled little man pulled up lame—he was doubled over, holding his leg. Max kept running, and though his face was wet with tears, he grinned maniacally. He had won. He ran to the cul-de-sac, where the road ended and the trees began.
Max was free of home and mother and Gary and Claire; he had outwitted and outrun them all, but he was not ready to rest. He ran to the lean-to he’d built in the woods by the bay, and sat inside for a few seconds, but he was too alive to sit still. He got up and howled. Something about the wind and the configuration of the trees and outcroppings gave his voice more volume; his howl twisted and multiplied in the sky in the most satisfying way. He grabbed the biggest stick he could find and commenced hitting everything he could with it. He swung it around, he stabbed trees and rocks, he whacked branches and relieved them of their snowy burden.
This, he thought, was the only way he wanted to live. All he needed to do, sometime soon, was sneak back into the house and get some of his things—his knives, blankets and glue and rope, maybe some of his mom’s matches. Then he would build a forest home, high in the trees, and become one with the woods and the animals, learn their languages and with them plot an overthrow of his home, beginning with the decapitation and devouring of Gary.
As he planned his new life, he heard a sound. It wasn’t the wind and it wasn’t the trees. It was a scraping, yearning sound. He paused, his nose twitching and his ears pricking up. It was like bone against bone, though there was a rhythm to it. He followed it toward the water, a hundred yards away. He jogged down the ravine and met the stream that led to the shore. He jumped from rock to rock until he saw the bay’s black glass, cut through the middle by the reflection of the moon.
At the water’s edge, amid the reeds and the softly lapping waves, he saw the source of the noise: a wooden sailboat of average size and painted white. It was tied to a tree and was rubbing against a half-submerged rock.
Max looked around to see if anyone was close. It seemed strange that a boat like this, a sturdy, viable boat, would be unoccupied. He had been coming to the bay for years and had never seen a boat like this, alone and without an owner. There was no sign of anyone nearby. The boat was his if he wanted it.
He stepped in. There was just a bit of water on the bottom, and when he checked the rudder and sail and boom everything seemed to be in working order.
If he wanted to, he could untie the boat and sail out into the bay. It would be even better than living out his days in the forest. He could sail away, as far as he liked. He might make it somewhere new, somewhere better, and if he didn’t—if he drowned in the bay or the ocean beyond—then so be it. His horrible family would have to live forever with the guilt. Either option seemed good.
Max untied the boat from the tree, and pushed off. He righted the boat and aimed it toward the center of the bay. He unfurled the sail and steadied the boom. The wind was strong; in no time he was chopping through the bay’s small waves.
He had sailed at night only once before, with his father, and even that had been unplanned. They’d gotten stuck out in the bay without wind, and hadn’t brought a paddle. They’d passed the time naming every candy they could remember and playing hangman with a grease marker on the boat’s floor. It occurred to Max that he didn’t have any of the safety items his father insisted on—a life preserver, a paddle, a flare gun, a bailing vessel. The boat was empty but for Max.
And he was getting cold. By the time he reached the middle of the bay and the wind began to bite, he realized that it was December, and no more than forty degrees, and the farther out into the bay he ventured the colder it would get. When he’d been running and howling, he hadn’t felt the rip of the winter wind, but now it cut through his fur—and his T-shirt and underwear—unimpeded.
He decided to sail not into the ocean but toward the city, where his father lived. This immediately seemed a better idea. He would sail downtown, dock with all the yachts, walk through the city until he found his father’s apartment, and ring the bell.
Wow, he’d be surprised! He would be astounded and impressed, and they would live together from then on. All Max needed to do was sail north for a few hours and keep his eye on the dim glow of the city in the distance.
But the city seemed to be getting farther away, not closer. Max held the rudder steady, and the sail had a constant bellyful of wind, but as the hours passed the city grew smaller. According to the compass screwed onto the bow, Max was sailing directly for it, due north-northwest, and yet the city lights were growing fainter.
There was little Max could do. He knew he was sailing straight. He hoped that sometime in the night the bay would become rational again and the city would draw closer. He would have to tell his father about this strange elastic stretching of the bay! But soon the city was disappearing altogether. For a while, it was no more than a twinkle of dwindling lights, and shortly thereafter it was gone. There was no sign of land in any direction. Max didn’t want to admit it to himself, but some part of him acknowledged that in all likelihood he’d left the bay and was now in the open sea.
Before Max was even tired, the moon had fallen through the water and the sun had risen to replace it. He’d sailed all night without sleep and was too bewildered to think about rest now. He continued sailing north-northwest, but even though it was daylight, he saw nothing. Not a fish, not a bird. The wind had slackened, and the sea grew broader and more interminable. By his rough calculations, he had to be at least seven million miles from where he cast off.
As the sun climbed higher, he was tired enough to sleep. He pulled in the sail, tied it to the mast, rigged the rudder so it would remain true, and fell asleep.
When he woke, it was already the next morning, the beginning of the longest day Max had ever known. In his boat, the straight line of ocean unbroken on any side, every minute was a day, one hour was longer than any life ever lived.
His mind ran out of things to think about. He thought of everything he’d ever thought of by midday and then could only start over. He named all of his classmates, dividing them into the ones he knew, the ones he tolerated, the ones he barely knew, and the ones he would punch in the head if he had the chance. He named all of his uncles and aunts. Uncles Stuart, Grant, Scotty, Wash, and Jeff; Aunts Isabelle, Paulina, Lucy, Juliet. Who was that last one, the one who played rugby? Theresa.
Max sailed in and out of days and nights. He endured blustery winds, cruel winds, chattering winds, and warm blanketing breezes. There were waves like dragons and waves like sparrows. There were occasional sightings of birds and fish and flies, but nothing that Max could reach or much less eat. There was rain, but mostly there was sun, the terribly unimaginative sun, doing the same things day in and day out. He loosened a nail on the boat’s bench and removed it. He used it to count the hours (as close as he could approximate) as they passed, marking them on the bench as a prisoner would. On the outer rim of the boat, he carved his name as big as he could so that any fish or whales or passing ships would know who commanded this vessel: “MAX,” it said.
T hen one day he saw something. A green blot on the horizon, no bigger than a caterpillar. Not trusting his eyes, he thought little of it. He went to sleep again.
When he awoke, the caterpillar had become an island. It towered over him—massive cliffs, green hills above.
By the time he reached the shore, it was night and the island had gone black. It was a good deal less welcoming now, as a silhouette against a gunmetal sky, but there was something high in the hills that beckoned him: an orange glow between the trees.
Max jumped into the water. He’d thought it would be at most waist-deep, but it was far deeper than that. His feet could not reach the bottom and he was quickly swallowed in the foam, the white. And the cold! The water was colder than he thought possible; it knocked the wind out of him.
He held the rope that held the boat, and tried to dog-paddle shoreward. He thought for a moment that he would have to let go of the rope, lest he drown. But just as his head dropped below the surface, and the boat tugged against his grip, his feet found the sand, and he stood.
Max dragged the boat onto the beach, placed a group of large stones around it, and tied its lead to the biggest tree he could find. He was tired and hungry and leaden; the weight of his fur when wet surprised him. He considered taking off his wolf suit, but he knew if he did he’d be even colder. The wind was bracing, and he knew that his only chance at warmth—and survival—would be to climb the cliffs and find his way to the fire he’d seen from the sea.
So this is what he did.
The cliffs were jagged but dependable. He climbed to the top in under an hour and rested at the summit. Looking back at the boat—he was easily two hundred feet up—he heard sounds coming from the island’s interior: crunching and crashing, whooping and howling, the crackle of a gigantic fire. Only in his depleted and desperate state would Max have considered that his best option would be to run, stumble, and crawl through the densest and wildest kind of jungle toward the sounds of what seemed to be some kind of riot.
But this is what he did.
He walked for hours in the moonlight. He slashed his way through the undergrowth, ducking under grasping, luminescent ferns and slithering between barbed and crosshatched vines. He waded through narrow creeks and climbed over boulders covered with a red and delicate moss that clung to the stone like embroidery. The landscape was familiar—there were trees, there was dirt, there were rocks—but then very odd: the earth seemed to be striped in brown and yellow, like peanut butter and cinnamon at the first twirl of a mixing spoon. After some time, his fur, at least above his shins, was dry, and he was warmer, but he was so tired he was dreaming on his feet. Again and again, he would shudder awake and find that he’d been walking while asleep, always making his way toward the chaos in the center of the island.
Finally, when he reached the top of a long high hill, he saw the fire, huge and snapping at the black sky. Most of it was obscured by a giant boulder in his line of vision, but the fire’s size was clear: it licked the surrounding trees orange and blotted out the stars above. It was intentional. It had a center and a purpose.
Then, movement. First, there was just a blur—some kind of creature shooting through the trees, a rushing shape silhouetted by the red fire beyond. It could have been a horse, he thought, but the animal seemed to be running upright, on two feet.
Max dropped to his knees, holding his breath.
Another shape darted between the trees. This one was the same size, but Max could have sworn he’d seen a beak. It seemed to Max’s tired eyes that a giant rooster, twelve feet tall, had just run across his field of vision.
Max had half a mind to turn and flee—for what good could come of engaging beasts of that size near a fire of that strength?—but he couldn’t leave just yet. The heat from the blaze had awakened him, and he had to know what was happening down there.
So he skulked forward. He wanted the warmth the fire promised, and he wanted whatever food might have been roasted on it, and he wanted more than anything else to find out just what was going on.
A hundred yards more and he knew.
Sort of. That is, he saw what he saw but couldn’t believe any of it. He saw animals. Animals? Creatures of some kind. Huge and fast. He thought they might be oversized sorts of humans covered in fur, but they were bigger than that, hairier than that. They were ten or twelve feet tall, each four hundred pounds or more. Max knew his animal kingdom, but he had no name for these beasts. From behind, they resembled bears, but they were larger than bears, their heads far bigger. Even so, their movements were nimble, deft—they had the quickness of deer or small monkeys. And they all looked different, as humans do: one had a long broken horn on its nose; another had a wide flat face, stringy hair, and pleading eyes; another seemed like a cross between a boy and a goat. And another—
It had been a giant rooster. This was the weirdest one by far. Max slapped himself, making sure he was awake. He was awake, and there was a giant rooster before him, no more than twenty yards away in the full glow of the raging fire. It was at once comical—it looked like a giant man in a rooster suit—and powerful and menacing.
The rooster seemed frustrated, staring at another creature, of similar height and heft but with a different shape. This one had a mop of reddish hair and a leonine face, with a large horn, like a rhino’s, extending from its nose. It looked female, if that was possible for such an ugly thing. She was in the middle of beating a large nest, resting on the ground, with a log.
And this seemed to be greatly upsetting the rooster.
Soon, Max could see a pattern to what the beasts were doing. It looked as if they’d come upon some kind of settlement, full of great round nests—each made of huge sticks and logs, and bigger than a car—and had decided to destroy them. They were systematically wrecking them all, like kids destroying sandcastles.
Max was about to turn and run the other way when he heard (could it be?) a word. There was, he was almost sure, a word: “Go!”
And just as he was repeating the sound in his mind, turning it over, analyzing it, the creature closest to him spoke a full sentence: “Is it twisted?”
Two of the creatures appeared to have fallen through the wall of a nest, and one was asking the other for help, assessing possible injuries to its spine.
“Yeah, it’s kind of twisted,” the other said.
Then the two gathered themselves up and ran off.
Max squatted down again, determined now to watch a bit longer, to try to figure out what was happening and why.
One creature seemed to be leading the melee. He had a big round face, sharp horns like a Viking’s, and dark bags under his eyes. He was getting ready to run toward one of the nests when the rooster approached him and put his hand—it wasn’t a wing; he seemed to have hands and claws—on his shoulder.
“Carol, can I speak to you for a second?”
“Not now, Douglas,” the big one, Carol, said, and moved the rooster aside. Then Carol got a running start and barrelled into the nest, knocking it flat.
Max was astounded. Had that sentence just been uttered? These weren’t grunting monsters. They spoke just like people. Gradually, Max realized that they were a kind of family.
Douglas, the rooster, seemed logical and even-tempered, and didn’t appreciate the way that Carol was trying to amuse himself. Carol was the main instigator and the heartiest of the destroyers. He was the biggest, the strongest, the loudest. He had horizontal stripes on his torso like a kind of sweater, and his claws were huge and cleaver-sharp.
The creature with the horn and the red mop of hair was called Judith, and she had a sharp, poky voice and a harsh cackle for a laugh. Ira had a bulbous nose, and he seemed to be always close to Judith. Max guessed they might even be a couple. Ira had a sad sort of aura and poor posture. There was the goat-shaped one, Alexander, with a snarl for a face and pin-thin legs. He was just a little bigger than Max. And then there was a bull, whose name seemed to be the Bull. He was gigantic, maybe thirteen feet high, and seemed built entirely of muscle and stone. He hadn’t said a word yet.
The beasts jumped from trees into the nests, they tossed each other into piles, they rolled boulders into the remains of the structures. It was just about the best mayhem Max had ever seen.
But soon there was a lull in the action. One by one, the beasts sat down, scratching themselves and nursing small wounds.
“I’m bored,” one said.
“Me, too,” said another.
“C’mon!” Carol roared. “Let’s finish this!”
There was no answer from the rest of them. Ira sat down. Carol jogged over to him—they really were agile things, these creatures, Max thought.
“Ira,” Carol said, “we’re not done yet. The job isn’t complete.”
“But I’m so tired!” Ira said. “And uninspired.”
“Hey, don’t think you can rhyme your way out of this. Uninspired? How’s that possible?” Carol turned to address the rest of the creatures. “C’mon, isn’t this fun? Who’s gonna really go crazy with me?”
No one responded. Carol jumped from beast to beast, trying to create some excitement. When he approached the rooster, Douglas said, “Carol, why are we doing this in the first place?”
A quick cloud came over Carol’s face. His teeth—what must have been a hundred of them, each as big as Max’s hand—were bared in something between a smile and a show of force. He ignored Douglas. “All I need to know now is if there’s anyone on this island who’s brave and creative and wild enough to help finish this job. Is there anyone up to it?”
No one responded.
Something clicked in Max. His thoughts lined up, his plan was orderly and clear: he needed to be that someone.
Max dashed down the hill and between the legs of Douglas and Ira, his face a knot of determination. The creatures towered over him, and outweighed him by thousands of pounds.
“Whoa, what’s that?” Ira said, alarmed.
“Look at his little legs!” Judith squealed.
“What’s he doing?” Douglas asked.
Max intended to show them. He took the largest stick he could swing and he began to hit everything he saw. He knocked over the remains of whatever nests still stood, he broke low-hanging branches from the trees, he screamed and howled.
The beasts cheered.
“See, that thing knows how to wreck stuff!” Carol said, his eyes aglow. “Let’s do one together, little thing.”
Together, Carol and Max picked up a long log and ran at a nest that had survived intact, laying waste to it. Max had never destroyed so much so well and so quickly. He followed Carol to one of the last nests, and he and Carol both lifted their sticks over their heads, preparing to crush it with simultaneous blows.
“Hey, new guy!” Judith snapped. “Don’t touch that one.”
“Don’t lay a finger on it,” she warned.
With a laugh, Carol kicked his immense foot into the structure, reducing it to splinters. “There,” he said. “Not a finger.”
Max had to laugh. That was pretty good. He watched as Carol, his comrade-in-arms, ran over to the other side of the clearing, looking for anything left standing.
Max looked, too. But as far as he could see there was nothing left to destroy. Max stood in the middle of a desolate plain. The nests were no more. He started to walk toward Carol, to celebrate the completeness of their wreckage, when Douglas appeared in front of Max, blocking his path.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“What? I’m just helping,” Max said.
“Then why are you smashing our houses?”
“These are your houses?” This was news to Max. He’d assumed they were destroying some enemy encampment. “Why are you smashing them?”
“I’m not, actually. You’re not very observant for someone swinging that big stick around.”
Max dropped the stick.
“Wait,” Alexander said, standing in the ruins, alone and teary-eyed, like a child lost at the mall. “Where will we sleep tonight?”
Suddenly, a realization seemed to spread among the beasts.
“I was trying to tell you all that,” Douglas said.
“Well, don’t blame me,” Judith said.
“Why not?” Douglas said. “You were wrecking as much as anyone else. You wrecked everything but your own nest.”
“Sure, but I didn’t enjoy it,” she said. “And, anyway, it wasn’t my fault.”
Douglas was shaking his head. “Then whose fault was it?”
Judith looked around for a moment, and her eyes settled, rather happily, on Max.
“The new guy!” she said. “He’s the one who got everyone riled up. And you know what I say you do with a problem? Eat it.”
“Yeah,” Alexander said. “He’s the problem!”
“What are you guys doing?” Ira asked.
“Oh, we were just gonna eat that,” Judith said, pointing to Max, as if picking out a lobster at a restaurant.
“O.K.,” Ira said, shrugging and beginning to drool.
Max was very quickly surrounded by the three of them, and soon Douglas and the Bull had joined the throng, and the air was very dark and warm with beast sweat. Max backed up until he found himself against a mess of sticks and mud where a home used to be. There was no escape.
“He looks tasty,” Ira said.
“Does he?” Judith said. “I don’t know. I’m thinking gamy.”
“Gamy?” Douglas mused. “Really? I say succulent.”
“He’s an ugly bugger, though, isn’t he?” Judith said.
“Close your eyes, then. I’ll feed him to you,” Ira said.
“Oh, that’s so romantic!” she said.
“Hold on!” a voice yelled from across the camp. It was Carol. Max felt some relief, and yet the creatures were still closing in on him. Max could feel their hot wet breath on his face, he could see their enormous teeth, each incisor as big as his foot. Ira licked his lips. The Bull snorted, his hands reaching toward Max.
Max knew Carol couldn’t save him in time. He had to save himself—somehow. He arched his back, and, with a voice that emerged far louder and more commanding than he had expected, he roared, “Be still!”
The beasts stopped. They stopped moving, stopped talking, stopped raising their arms to claw Max to death, stopped salivating. Max couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know what to do next.
“Why?” Judith said. “Why should we stop?”
This was a tricky question, Max knew. If he was about to bite into, say, a strawberry, and it told him to stop, he, too, would want a good explanation.
“Because . . . uh . . . because . . . ,” he mumbled.
The beasts stared, waiting, blowing roughly through their nostrils. Max knew he had to come up with something immediately, and, to his surprise, he did. “Because,” he said, “I heard about this one time that they weren’t still, and they . . .”
“Who?” Judith said. “Who wasn’t still?”
By this time Carol had arrived, standing behind the others.
“Um . . . the hammers,” Max explained, making it up as he went along. “They were huge ones and they didn’t know how to be still. They were crazy. They were always shaking and running around and they never stopped to see what was right in front of them. So this one time the hammers were storming down the mountainside and they couldn’t even see that someone was coming up to help them. And you know what happened?”
The beasts, enthralled, shook their heads.
“They ran right over him and killed him,” Max said.
There were a few gasps, but there were also a few sounds that said, “Well, what else would they do?”
“And the thing is,” Max added, “he liked them. He was there to help.”
“Who was he?” Douglas asked.
“Who was who?” Max said.
“The guy coming up the hill,” Douglas said.
“He was . . .” And again Max fumbled in the velvet darkness of his mind and found, impossibly, a gem. “He was their king.”
Carol stepped forward. “Do you like us?”
This was a tough question. Max wasn’t sure that he liked any of them, given that they had been, moments earlier, about to devour his flesh and brains. But in the interest of self-preservation, and because he had liked them a lot when they were all breaking things, he said, “Yeah. I like you.”
Ira cleared his throat and said, with a hope-filled catch in his voice, “Are you our king?”
Max had rarely had to do so much bluffing in his life. “Sure. Yeah,” he said. “I think so.”
A ripple of excitement spread through the beasts.
“Wow, he’s the king,” Ira said.
Douglas stepped forward, as if he’d just thought of a stumper of a question that might decide it all: “Were you king where you came from?”
Max was getting good at the fibbing, so this one was easy. “Yeah, I was,” he said. “King Max. For twenty years.”
A quick happy murmur rose from the creatures.
“Are you going to make this a better place?” Ira asked.
“Sure,” Max said.
“Because it’s screwed up, let me tell you,” Judith blurted.
“Quiet, Judith,” Carol said.
“Judith, of course he’s here to fix everything,” Douglas said. “Why else would a king be a king, and a king be here?” He turned to Max. “Right, King?”
“Uh, sure,” Max said.
Carol smiled. “Well, that settles it, then. He’s our king!”
They all moved in to hug Max.
“Sorry we were gonna eat you,” Douglas said.
“We didn’t know you were the king,” Ira said.
“If we’d known you were the king, we almost definitely wouldn’t have tried to eat you,” Judith added, then laughed in a sudden, mirthless trill. She lowered her voice to a confessional tone. “We just got caught up in the moment.”
Max was swept up and lifted high in the air and finally set down on the shoulders of the Bull. The Bull followed Carol into a cave under an enormous tree. Inside the cave, two torches illuminated a golden oval of a room.
The Bull put Max down and rooted around in a pile of rubble on the floor. He soon retrieved a sceptre, copper-colored and bejewelled, and gave it to Max. Max inspected it reverently. It was heavy, but not too heavy, with a hand-carved handle and a crystal orb at the top.
The Bull continued to dig through the rubble. Curious, Max peered around the Bull and saw that it wasn’t a pile of sticks and rocks but a pile of what looked to be bones. They were yellowed and broken, the remains of maybe a dozen different creatures—twisted and spotted skulls and ribs in sizes and shapes Max had never seen in any book or museum.
“Aha!” Carol bellowed. “There it is.”
Max looked up to see that the Bull had pulled a crown from the heap. It was golden, rough-hewn, and as the Bull turned to place the crown on Max’s head Max pulled away.
“Wait,” he said, pointing to the pile of bones. “Are those . . . other kings?”
The Bull glanced quickly at Carol with a look of mild concern.
“No, no!” Carol said, chuckling. “Those were there before we got here. We’ve never even seen them before.”
Then Carol and the Bull did a quick jig atop the bones, reducing them to dust.
“See?” Carol said, grinning, his eyes nervous and alight. “Nothing to worry about. Just dust. You’re the king. And nothing bad can happen to the king.”
Max looked into Carol’s eyes, each of them as big as a volleyball. They were the warmest brown and green.
“But what do I have to do?” Max asked.
“Do? Anything you want to do,” Carol said.
“And what do you have to do?”
“Anything you want us to do,” Carol said. He answered so quickly that Max was convinced.
“Then, O.K.,” Max said.
He lowered his head to receive his crown. Carol gently placed it on Max’s head. It was heavy, and the metal was cool on his forehead. But the crown fit, and Max smiled. Carol stood back and looked at him, nodding as if everything had finally fallen into place.
The Bull lifted Max and placed him back on his shoulders, and they made their way out of the cave to deafening cheers from the rest of the beasts. The Bull paraded Max around the forest as everyone whooped and danced in a very ugly—drool and mucus spraying left and right—but celebratory kind of way. After a few minutes, the Bull placed Max atop a grassy knoll, and the beasts gathered around, looking up at him expectantly. Max understood that he was supposed to say something, so he said the only thing he could think of:
“Let the wild rumpus begin!”
This week’s story, “Max at Sea,” is taken from your forthcoming novel, “The Wild Things.” The book is loosely based on the screenplay you and Spike Jonze wrote for the film “Where the Wild Things Are,” which, of course, is based on the book by Maurice Sendak. How soon after the screenplay was completed did you start working on the novel?
I started working on the book a few years after we began the screenplay. The script was pretty much done, and when the movie was about to begin filming, Maurice called me. He said there’d been some talk about doing a novelization of the movie, and he asked if I’d be the one to do it. I said yes, mainly because Maurice asked, and also because I love it when there are different permutations of the same story. I just read the unabridged version of Baum’s “Wizard of Oz,” and it’s amazing how little of the book made it into the movie. They’re both great in their way, of course—the screenplay for “The Wizard of Oz” is something Spike and I studied a lot; it’s so incredibly good—but in a book, you just have so much more room to stretch out. So I thought it would be fun to do an all-ages expansion on the screenplay. And after a few years of working on the script with Spike, we had a lot of pages and ideas that wouldn’t fit into the actual movie; a script is about ninety pages, and even then, they’re ninety pretty sparse pages. So I went into the novelization thinking it would be a place to put all these passages and scenes that wouldn’t fit into the movie. And I did end up using a few of those scenes. But while I was working on the book, it was funny, because I started going in new directions, different from any of the screenplay versions, pushing it into some territory that was personal to me. So in a way the movie is more Spike’s version of Maurice’s book, and this novel is more my version. Of course, a lot of people won’t see significant differences between the two—the movie and novel do conform to the same general arc, and the characters are largely the same. But there are some expansions and departures. And the great thing is that in a book, you don’t have to figure out how you’ll actually get something done in the real world. I can write about one of the Wild Things jumping fifty feet in the air, and I don’t have to worry about how a dozen technicians in the Australian wilderness are going to accomplish that. That was Spike’s job.
What was it like to take a book as beloved as “Where the Wild Things Are” and start expanding on it? Did you ever feel constrained by the idea of fidelity to the original book? Or to the screenplay?
The weird thing is that working within an established story was actually kind of liberating. You know the beginning and middle and end, more or less, so there’s less pressure to figure all that out. So it was a matter of probing deeper into who Max is, what he wants, what his life is like at home and at school. And on the island, looking deeper into who the Wild Things are and what they want from Max, his life as their king, and why he leaves. From the beginning, though, Maurice was clear that he didn’t want the movie or the book to be timid adaptations. He wanted us to feel free to push and pull the original story in new directions. Spike also gave me total leeway to make the book my own. He didn’t change a word, even though there were some things he was surprised by. That’s why we say the book is “loosely” or “very loosely” based on the movie.
Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” will be released on October 16th. Have you seen the final version? As you were working on the script with Spike Jonze and then writing the novel, did you have any idea what the story would look like on the screen.
From the beginning, I knew Spike was doing a naturalistic, live-action version of the book. He had a sense of all that at the very beginning, and it immediately seemed like the right choice, but difficult. He knew he wanted real trees, real dirt, and that Max would sail in a real boat on a real ocean. So from the start there was a clear sense that the look would be the sort of human, naturalistic cinematography that he’s used in all his movies. I haven’t seen the final-final version yet—the version where the effects have been added and the music is all in place. I think I’m seeing it next week. But I’ve seen enough over the years to know that Spike absolutely achieved what he set out to do, which was to make an honest and beautiful film about childhood. I always knew he would, because he’s uniquely suited to make a movie about a boy, given he’s still got a lot of boy in him. He skateboards, and I’ve seen him wrestle dogs. The last time I was at his house, he shot me with a BB gun.
You recently published a non-fiction book, “Zeitoun,” which is based on the experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born resident of New Orleans who stayed in the city during Hurricane Katrina to look after his contracting business. How did you first come across Zeitoun, and why did you decide you wanted to tell his story?
Abdulrahman was one of the narrators in “Voices from the Storm,” a book of New Orleans oral histories we published through the McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series. When I read it, it just seemed so impossible that the Bush-era anti-terror priorities had somehow trickled down to the handling of Katrina. But FEMA had been folded into Homeland Security at that point, so in a way the overwhelmingly militarized response to this humanitarian crisis was likely. Abdulrahman was picked up by soldiers in a home he owned, handcuffed, and thrown in a makeshift, Guantánamo-like outdoor prison that had been erected in New Orleans hours after the storm hit. His experiences seemed very much a manifestation of that moment in time during the Bush years, when the answer to any question was a military one, undergirded by a certain pervasive paranoia that terror and terrorists were everywhere, even roaming a flooded city in a canoe. But separately I thought the Zeitoun family was such a wonderful one, and the first time we did an afternoon of interviews, I just felt that the family was part of the story, too. There was such warmth and joy in the house—the kids were all over the place, dancing and singing and playing with the chickens (they had chickens at the time; now they have ducks). It’s hard to explain, but they’re so good to be around, Abdulrahman and Kathy and their kids, that introducing this all-American family turned into a secondary purpose in writing the book. Everyone who knows the Zeitouns cares so deeply about them, and that makes it all the more outrageous and infuriating when we know what happened to them after Katrina.
Your 2006 novel, “What is the What,” about the civil war in southern Sudan, also draws on the biography of a real person, Valentino Achak Deng, who you interviewed many times when you were working on the book. You use a first-person narrator and clearly identify “What is the What” as a work of fiction. How did you make the decision to tell Deng’s story in this way? Did you ever think about repeating this approach in “Zeitoun”?
Valentino and I decided “What Is the What” had to be fiction, because we wanted the book to have the sweep and detail and emotional engagement of a novel, and the only way to achieve that was to be able to describe days and scenes vividly, to use all the novelist’s tools. And of course, given so much of the book takes place when Valentino is a boy, we just couldn’t prove certain events happened on certain days, or that a town was attacked in a certain year. The historical records just aren’t there, so calling it nonfiction wasn’t possible. With Zeitoun, the events depicted in the book are so recent, and so well-documented, that approaching it as nonfiction was possible, and necessary. The story of the Zeitoun family, and of what happened to Abdulrahman, is so bizarre that no one would believe it in fiction. We decided that it was best to just tell the story straight.
In “What is the What,” a boy loses his home and his family in the space of an afternoon. In “Zeitoun,” a city floods and a man seemingly vanishes for three weeks. These were real and awful events, of course, but I wondered whether the almost unreal, fantastical nature of them influenced you at all while you were working on “The Wild Things.”
Most of “The Wild Things” was written back in 2005, before I started on “Zeitoun,” but I will say that there were a few weeks this past year when I was revising “The Wild Things” and working on “Zeitoun” around the same time, and that was an odd experience. Both books involve a boy or a man alone on the water, while their families aren’t sure where they are or even if they’re alive.
“The Wild Things” will come in a fur edition, I hear?
It was just an idea I had, that it could be cool to have a book covered in fake fur. I told Maurice about it, and he told me a story of someone trying the same thing, with real fur, back in the sixties. I guess they made thousands of them, wrapped in some kind of real fur, and sent them to a warehouse for a while before shipping them to stores. By the time they came to ship the books, the warehouse was full of moths, and most of the fur had been eaten. Anyway, we went to a printer in Singapore about this, and they sent us a bunch of faux-fur samples. We chose one that’s usually used to repair small holes in mink coats. I think we ordered more of this fur than had ever been ordered at one time. The result looks pretty good, though. Very creepy.