By Melinda Chapman
Max wasn’t here, in the grocery store, to steal the apple. He picked up a fine, glossy red one; good enough for Snow White, good enough for him. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the other apple, the one his mum bought only minutes ago before he dropped it on the ground outside. If only it had just rolled across the asphalt, and not down into the cold stew of fallen leaves and the wrappers of yummier things.
Mr. Tucker popped up from below the store counter, eyebrows animated, and appearing like a highly detailed sock puppet. As his lips tut-tutted stiffly, Max imagined the grocer’s mouth was controlled by a giant hand. Not a real one, perhaps a holographic hand. But the man’s eyes didn’t move from any giant holographic fingers. Instead they seemed flat pictures of themselves; cut and paste, with thick pen drawn over his curly lashes.
“Well?” Mr. Tucker’s fist faintly trembled and squeezed at a plump kiwi fruit.
Max drifted, remembering the time he took his mum’s razor and shaved a little beard on his Kiwi fruit. He returned his attention to the more immediate matter. “Well… what?”
“Are you going to pay for those?” Mr Tucker’s voice crackled loud and then quiet, and loud again, sounding like a car radio. Max thought the words might have beamed out little holes in his chest.
“No.” There was probably a better way of explaining it, but he couldn’t think of it and his mother wasn’t here. Yet. She would soon work out where he was – he always liked it when she did.
Max knew there were two extreme ways to say something with your mouth when normal words in the middle wouldn’t work. The first was to scream. The second was quite the opposite, and he believed it was a sign of his growing maturity knowing which was the most effective in a particular situation. He slowly sucked in air until his lungs felt like two overly pumped buggy tyres. Holding the air tight with the back of his throat, he exploded his lips wide open before clamping them shut like a cod fish, purely for effect. His cheeks puffed out and turned as red as the apples in his hands, and under the greenish tint of the flickering fluorescent lights, the grocery store magically transformed into his underwater world.
Mr. Tucker’s lips drained of colour and pinched in, making a cat’s bottom. Max thought the man might be holding his breath too – in his own way, and given he was clearly very old it might be a better way than Max’s. But he soon worked out the grocer was squirting short huffs of mostly air through his cat’s bum and getting red-faced all on his own. Each time the man’s eyes twitched, they were looking in a new direction – probably for Max’s mother.
Max felt giddy and excited; his lips sealed tighter. Soon his mum would plunge through the door and rescue him from the seaweed monster behind the counter. She would gently pull him upward to the safety of air, with the two apples bobbing to the surface with them. He would give her the good apple, and he would eat the dropped one. The seawater would have washed it by then.
Swivelling his imaginary diver’s helmet toward the front of the store, Max felt a stone sink in his belly. The doorway remained empty, his mum was nowhere in sight and his chest was beginning to hurt. He eyed off the swollen, slightly mushed watermelons in the bargain crate and imagined his own head sitting there. Through the window beyond them, the street outside appeared a shade darker. He managed a faint frown and a tiny blip of air escaped his lips.
Mr. Tucker released the kiwi fruit and picked up his shiny black weapon from the counter. He boldly held the telephone like a gun to his own head, only this made Max feel frightened and Mr. Tucker grin with victory. He brought his other index finger up high and back down to the dial pad and pressed a number, his fingers punching on and off the buttons slowly, deliberately, like a little fish sucking on a pebble floor. The grocer now believed he was underwater, too. When the last number was pressed, the finger swam up to his tilted chin and his eyes relaxed into circles of calm above.
Max’s lungs desperately pumped tiny pretend breaths against the tight seal of his lips. What should he do? He had never got this far! Where was his mum?
“Hello…?” Mr. Tucker’s voice boomed long and drawn into the phone, “Constable… Radcliffe?”
In one momentous pop, Max’s lips burst apart, his mouth a quivering hole in his doomed zeppelin of a head. Air rushed out from his aching lungs to the floor as his body doubled over and deflated. The apples dropped from his hands and were still bouncing along the tiles as he practically teleported to the shop door. On the pavement outside he stepped right, but all he could see were strange faces poking out of stiff coat collars, and umbrellas trying to flap away from the clutches of cold bony knuckles. Adults, dressed in all the shades of an endless, worn-out road, were heading home to their families. Max turned and stepped left at the same time and smacked into a firm, padded shape; instantly recognisable to the entire length of his body. He wrapped his arms tight around her legs and let her rain coat fall around his shoulders.
“Mum! Where were you?” He tried to push her away a little, but her feet remained cemented and he projected himself backward instead.
“Well, Max, I’ve been waiting right here for you.” His mother glanced through the grocery window, and when her eyes returned to him, she was smiling her special grin. The one where she can see something glowing around the edges of him that she thinks is funny, even though Max is clearly not being funny at all.
“What happened to your apple, sweetie?”
Max had wanted to tell her. He had wanted her to feel sorry for him, to go back inside to face Mr. Tucker and come out with shiny apple, number three. But his mother hadn’t been there, she wasn’t a part of his underwater adventure anymore and without her to rescue him, the apple was just an apple. It no longer mattered as much as, say, being shipwrecked on a deserted island, or flying through the Bermuda Triangle. He felt very grown up indeed.
“I ate it”, Max lied.