Simon wakes up to Mom’s hand soft on his shoulder. She sits on the edge of his bed in her bathrobe, her red curls lit with morning sun. She smells like blue.
His Mighty Max sheets come into focus and he bolts upright, remembering what day it is. “Did I miss it?”
“Morning, sunshine,” Mom says, brushing her yellow-stained fingers against his cheek. Dark pouches droop from her eyes. Her voice sounds like a dragging suitcase. “It’s a little after six, so twenty minutes until your cartoon. Go wash up. I’ll make breakfast.”
The way Mom says cartoon! It’s more than a cartoon. It’s Mighty Max. And not just any episode. The last one. Ever.
“Remember,” Mom says. “It’s picture day for second grade. Wear your nice clothes.”
Nice clothes. Yuck.
Mom scrunches her face as one of Dad’s snores blares through the apartment, like an old rusty engine starting up, sputtering and jerky. The snore rattles louder and louder, filling the air in Simon’s bedroom, so loud it might swallow both of them, until it fizzles and deflates like a sad birthday balloon. Dad’s snores were always loud, but since he moved into the living room you can’t get away from them.
Mom sighs. She’s got more wrinkles lately, pulling at her eyes and tugging at her cheeks. She stands and pulls a red and white pack out of her bathrobe pocket, looking out through the bedroom door and shaking her head.
“Unbelievable,” she says.
Simon looks up at Mom. He’s sitting up on his Mighty Max sheets, right under his Mighty Max poster.
“Mom,” he says, bending his head forward just so. “Don’t forget.”
Mom leans down and kisses him right on top of his head, like the start to every day.
“Brush your teeth and get ready, sweetheart,” she says, then flinches at the next eruption from the living room. Dad always chews with his mouth open and his snores sound like the food must feel.
Mom looks Simon in the eyes. “You’ll watch in my room, okay?”
Simon thought long and hard last night. He sat up in bed with his Mighty Max action figure, imagining the end of the series. Not that it was hard. Of course Max is gonna defeat Skullmaster once and for all! Simon can’t watch that on Mom’s tiny screen.
“I’m watching in the living room!” he proclaims.
“Simon, please,” Mom begs. “You remember last time?”
Does he ever. Last week he was watching TV and Dad woke up and it was like Skullmaster himself had escaped the underworld with his Crystal of Souls, roaring and threatening the end of the world.
“Mom, it’s a cliffhanger! Norman was fighting the giant spider that’s supposed to be dead from last season and Virgil told Max about the murals in the secret base and Skullmaster is gonna take over the world! It’s the last episode! I want. The big. TV.”
“I can’t fight with him this morning, Simon.”
Another snore shudders the apartment. The snores remind Simon of cartoons where dragons sleep on piles of gold. Except Simon’s family doesn’t live in a castle, they live in an apartment, and they don’t have gold, but Mom and Dad yell about money a lot, and Dad isn’t a dragon but he sleeps in the middle of the apartment and every morning Simon has to creep around on tiptoe.
Mom pulls a cigarette from her pack and lights it as soon as she passes through the doorway of Simon’s room. Simon hears her mutter that word she’s been saying a lot lately: jerk. Simon worries. He hopes he isn’t a jerk.
He frowns at the nice clothes Mom laid out. He pulls his Mighty Max action figure from under his pillow. Max wears the same plastic outfit as always: jeans, sneakers, white tee, and, of course, his bright red cap of power with its bright yellow capital M. Max’s eyes are bright, he’s always grinning. Adventure!
“Okay Max,” Simon whispers. “Open a portal and teleport us to the bathroom.”
Simon takes the fastest shower of his life. He sets Max on the soap-tray and runs through last week’s episode. How Virgil and Norman, Max’s protectors, showed Max a mural with his whole life painted on it. They wouldn’t show Max the end, though. Simon bets they don’t want Max to see how he’ll beat Skullmaster, because he has to figure that out for himself. Like how stories have a moral of the story.
Simon puts on his nice clothes while he’s still dripping wet. The blue button-down sticks to his tummy, the khakis stick to his legs. He rushes to the kitchen, feet squishing in his socks. The clock on the oven says 6:23 but he knows it runs fast so it’s more like 6:20 and he has ten minutes before Mighty Max. Mom stands by the kitchen window, blue smoke curling around her.
Dad’s snores are even louder in the kitchen, so much closer to the living room. He lets out a particularly snorty one, like a deck of wet playing cards being shuffled. Simon clutches Mighty Max in one hand and tugs Mom’s bathrobe with the other. “Mom?”
Mom’s shoulders are shaking. When she turns he sees her eyes all puffy and red and her cheeks wet. Simon hugs her thigh. Her whole robe smells like yucky blue smoke.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“Your father, sunshine. That’s what’s wrong.”
It’s been a confusing few weeks since Mom told Simon about the divorce and then Dad moved into the living room. Simon keeps running into times like this when it’s like there are sides and he needs to take one. He looks up at Mom, chewing his lip.
“Do me a favor, honey,” Mom says. She smokes the last of her cigarette, then stubs it out. “Can you get your own breakfast today? You can have the sugary cereal. Milk’s in the fridge. Mom needs to run to the store.”
“I’m out of cigarettes.” Mom crumples the empty pack in her fist, tosses it in the garbage can. She points at the microwave clock. “Five minutes until your cartoon, honey.” She kisses Simon on the head. She doesn’t even notice that his clothes are wet. Simon watches her walk away. She grabs her keys off the hook, then steps out into the hallway. The door shuts behind her.
The clock on the microwave says 6:26. That means it’s 6:23.
The cereal bowls are in the cabinet above the counter. Simon would need to climb the little stepstool to get them. There’s no time! He opens one of the bottom cabinets instead and pulls out the big blue bowl they used to use for popcorn back when they still had movie night.
Eric Fisher says it’s not normal that Dad moved into the living room. Eric says when his parents got divorced his dad moved into a new house and that that’s what Simon’s dad should do, too. Eric says that would be normal. Eric says that it stinks for a while but then you get two houses and two birthdays and that’s pretty cool.
But if Dad moves out, that means they won’t play geography at night before Simon goes to sleep, with the map that’s tacked up over Simon’s bed between the Mighty Max posters. But if Dad moves out then maybe Simon’s name will change like Eric’s did and he won’t have to be Simon Voitashevsky anymore because that’s too long and the big kids all make fun of him. But that’s his name. Maybe he doesn’t want it to change.
Now Dad’s snore sounds like when the crocodile at the zoo opens its mouth and lets out its squirty lizardy purr, only Dad sounds like a crocodile that’s choking on its own tongue, eyes bugging out of its head. If Dad moves out, he’d snore somewhere else.
Simon gets the Cinnamon Toast Crunch and pours some in the bowl. It looks like the amount he would eat in a regular bowl, but then the big bowl seems pretty silly to be so empty so he pours in the whole rest of the box.
The refrigerator still has a picture on it from last summer when Mom and Dad took Simon to Yellowstone. The geyser smelled real bad like rotten eggs, but it sounded better than Dad’s snores. In the picture Simon grins ear to ear, blue eyes and freckles shaded under the brim of the Mighty Max cap that Mom made for him: bright red with a big yellow capital M. Dad’s hand is on Simon shoulder’s but the big geyser is between Mom and Dad, exploding. Simon takes the big carton of milk out of the fridge and empties the carton into the big popcorn bowl of cereal.
He puts a big spoon in, then wraps his arms around the bowl and carries it to the living room. The hardwood floor creaks under his tiptoes. The TV is the size of a suitcase. Dad calls it the Idiot Box. The big gray couch is shaped like an L. Simon’s favorite seat is the end closest to the TV. The other end is a few feet in front of the windows and it’s there between the windows and the couch that Dad sleeps on his air mattress.
Simon sets the bowl down quietly on the endtable, gritting his teeth, while Dad lets out flappy fluttery noises like little aftershocks between the big snores. Simon climbs up onto the couch and pulls a pillow under his butt to prop himself up. He picks the cereal bowl up and sets it on the arm of the couch. The bowl wobbles, milk and cinnamon squares sloshing right up to the lip. The remote control barely fits in Simon’s hand, he has to handle it with both.
He clicks the big red POWER button, then jams the downward pointing triangle button that says VOL. The TV winks on at the middle and the sound fades as the picture fills out. Simon clicks to channel eleven and pushes the volume up a couple notches. The credits are rolling on GI Joe. GI Joe is boring, there’s too many guns and everybody’s angry and they don’t even have a talking bird like Virgil.
Simon sets his Max action figure straddling the popcorn cereal bowl. He eats his first big spoonful just as the opening credits to Mighty Max explode before his eyes, all wham bam color portals action and Max saving the world and saving his mom again and again. Max’s mom is a super smart archeologist, and it only now occurs to Simon that Max doesn’t have a dad.
Maybe he notices that because in the real world Dad starts to snore again behind the couch. Only it’s worse than that, it’s that thing he does when he’s close to waking up. The mumbling thing. Sometimes he’ll say entire sentences, like he’s talking to someone about going to the beach or drinking a Coke or traveling to France. It makes Simon worry like maybe if Dad moves to another house he’ll have another Simon to play geography with.
Simon tries to tune out the snores and mumbles, he leans forward over his bowl as the episode starts, eyes wide, a little milk dribbling down his chin.
Right away, Norman’s fighting the big spider from last week’s cliffhanger. Simon shovels spoonfuls of milky sugary crunch into his mouth, grinning, waiting to see the giant monster destroyed once and for all. Norman dodges and rolls and slices with his giant sword and then he’s in the giant spider’s mouth, but he’s dropped his sword, and the fangs are sharp and he’s fighting but they’re closing in and he’s yelling, telling Max and Virgil to leave him and run.
“No!” Simon yells, and then realizes how loud he yelled. He hears the plastic air mattress squeak under Dad’s weight.
“Turn it down!” Dad growls from behind the couch, the words all slurred and sleepy.
Simon’s eyes water as Virgil pulls a crying Max through a portal to escape. What about Norman? A choked sob squeaks out of Simon’s chest. He grabs the TV remote and clicks the volume higher.
“For god’s sake, Simon!” Dad tosses and turns. “Watch TV in your mother’s room!”
Simon squirms in his seat, spilled cereal and milk sloshing onto the couch. Now Max and Virgil pop out of a portal and they’re at Stonehenge to face down Skullmaster at last. Simon turns the volume up even higher as Skullmaster grabs Virgil and offers Max a deal: give up his cap of power and he’ll spare Virgil’s life.
“Don’t do it Max it’s a trap!” Simon yells. He grabs his face in horror as Max hands over the cap and Skullmaster takes it and then, no!
Skullmaster…Skullmaster kills Virgil.
“SIMON!” Dad roars, and Simon turns to see the top half of Dad’s face over the back of the couch. The few hairs on his balding head point in every direction, his sleepy eyes wide beneath his bushy eyebrows. “Go to your room!”
“No!” Simon yells. He picks up the remote control, blubbering, body shaking, Virgil and Norman both dead, Max without the Cap of Power, the last episode, Skullmaster winning, and he turns up the volume until it’s louder than Dad or his snores could ever be.
Dad throws his covers aside and storms out from behind the couch. On the TV Skullmaster cackles.
Dad towers over Simon, reaching for the remote. Simon stuffs the remote between the couch cushions. Dad lunges for it and Simon puts both hands under the big popcorn cereal bowl and hurls the whole thing right at Dad.
The bowl clatters to the floor. Bits of soggy cereal drip down Dad’s face and white milk is all over his arms and his face and his t-shirt. Dad stands there in his underwear. His eyes are wide and Simon’s eyes are wide and they stare at one another. Simon looks at the TV out of the corner of his eye. Skullmaster has the Crystal of Souls and he has the Cap of Power and he’s about to rule the world.
Everything is ruined.
“You are in a lot of trouble, young man!” Dad yells. “Turn the TV off and clean up this mess!”
Simon jumps off the couch and stamps his feet.
“Skullmaster isn’t supposed to win!” Simon yells. “You ruin everything!”
“You go get a towel right this instant, young man,” Dad commands.
“It’s all your fault!”
“I said NOW!”
“YOU SHOULDN’T LIVE BEHIND THE COUCH! IT’S! NOT! NORMAL!”
Simon hears a sound he hasn’t heard in weeks. It’s Mom, she’s laughing. Simon never heard the door but there’s Mom looking at Simon and at Dad all splattered in cereal and milk. She’s wiping tears from her eyes but her cheeks are bright and she looks like she could float.
On the blaring TV, Skullmaster is about to win, but Max jumps up and grabs on to the Crystal of Souls. Skullmaster screams “Noooo!” and a giant portal opens, pulling Max through. Bam! He’s in his room. It’s the beginning again, the very first scene of the first episode of Mighty Max. Max is there with his mom, and then the package arrives with the Cap of Power, and Max has a chance to do it all over again. To save Norman and Virgil and defeat Skullmaster.
“What are you laughing about?” Dad yells over the TV. “Can’t you see what a mess your son has made?” Dad digs the remote control out from the cushions and presses the power button. It’s awful quiet in the house. Milk drips everywhere.
“Simon,” Mom says gently. “Go get changed.”
Simon picks up his Max action figure, giving Dad the stink-eye. He walks past Mom.
“Can I wear-”
Mom ruffles his hair. “You can wear whatever you want, honey.”
In his room Simon strips out of his milk-splattered nice clothes. He puts on denim shorts, a white t-shirt, then climbs on a chair to get his prized possession off the closet shelf: the Cap of Power that Mom made. Bright red with the bright yellow M. It fits just right.
Mom leans in Simon’s doorway.
“Sweetie. Wearing that? On picture day?”
“You said whatever I want,” Simon answers.
“You got me there. Listen, sunshine, I talked to your father. He wants to walk you to school today, okay? As soon as he finishes cleaning up.” Mom winks.
In the elevator, Dad fidgets while Simon adjusts his backpack straps. Simon needs to talk to Eric Fisher about Mighty Max. Are they just gonna show the show all over again now that it went back in time? Did Skullmaster win or no?
It’s just three blocks to school. Dad takes his hand as they cross the street and Simon yanks it back. Dad hasn’t walked him to school in a long time.
“I don’t have to hold a hand anymore,” Simon says. “I’m big.”
“How was your cartoon?” Dad asks, in his trying to be nice voice.
Simon shakes his head, thinking about Norman, Virgil, and Max.
Right outside school Dad stops Simon and crouches in front of him, puts his hand on his shoulder.
“Simon, I’m sorry I screamed at you. Listen, I know things are hard right now.”
Simon meets Dad’s eyes.
“Soon,” Dad says, “your mom will figure all her stuff out. And it’ll all be okay. We’ll go back to normal.” Dad smiles. “To how it was before.”
Simon looks at the other kids walking into school, Eric Fischer and the rest, all of them dressed up in their nice clothes. Dad’s hand sits heavy on his shoulder. He feels silly all of a sudden, in his shorts and his sneakers and his bright red hat.