This is the last of the children’s classics-inspired flash fiction pieces–for now. Of all the many, many books I read and reread to my children, the original is one of my favorites. Don’t be fooled by the title: the Tolkien allusion starts and ends there!
Return of the King
Max crept into the house, dropped his backpack with a weary thud, and scraped off his sneakers.
“That you, hon?” his mother called from the kitchen. “Supper’ll be ready soon.”
Max paused, hand clenched on the stair rail. “I’ll be down in a moment, Mom.”
He trudged up the stairs he had once bounded down, back when every day was an adventure. At the top, he staggered into his childhood room and collapsed on the bed.
He was sore all over. The ache had even gotten into his bones, if that were possible. He lay back and stared at the popcorn ceiling.
Twenty-two years old, and he was back in his parents’ house. He had a degree in ecology no one would hire him for. He worked in a warehouse, lifting and loading, pushing and pulling. Even his blisters had blisters.
Worst of all was how numb the work made him feel. By the time he came home, his mind was blank. He’d eat, watch mindless TV, go to bed. Rinse and repeat the next day. All his bright ideas of evening school and certifications? Out the window.
His parents had said, “Once you’re used to it…”
The timber wolf on his wall stared gravely at him through a screen of green leaves. The poster had a tear in it and had come free at one corner. The other three were thick with tape.
He’d been crazy about wolves, once upon a time. This worse-for-the-wear poster was the last remnant of that obsession.
It was probably time to take it down.
The wolf’s yellow eyes looked at him reproachfully. It seemed to be saying, What happened to you? You were so full of energy, once.
Life happened, Max answered in his own head.
You can change life. The wolf’s eyes glowed.
The room darkened and sprouted strange shapes. Vines slithered from the ceiling and wrapped over the scratched-up desk and dusty, crowded bookcases. Leaves rustled as they spread over Max’s bed. His window and wall faded, revealing a moonlit path
Max slowly stood up. His bare feet struck damp earth. He breathed in the scent of rain, soil, and growing things.
I remember this.
He wandered down the path, wondering, pausing to touch a fern, stroke his fingers down rough bark. At a bend, he nearly stepped on a pile of worn grayish fabric. Max picked it up and shook it out. A head with glassy eyes and toothless mouth flopped around.
Ah, yes. His wolf suit.
It wouldn’t fit him now. Max flung it about his shoulders like a scarf.
Further along, he saw something shiny and stick-like in a bush. Max pulled it out: a toy scepter topped with a flaking gilt ball. He tucked it under his arm, as the wind brought salt to his lips and a sigh to his ears.
He hurried out of the forest and onto the rocky beach. There was the boat, which had once seemed so luxurious, a private ship for his exclusive use. Now the paint was chipped and the wood splintery. He pushed it out, waves sucking at his ankles and soaking his jeans to his knees. It listed alarmingly as he scrambled in.
Under the seat, he found the yellow paper crown, stained, with its points folded down. He jammed it on his head and said out loud to the world, “Set sail, mates!”
The ocean rolled him onward. It took both forever and no time at all when he sighted land—just as the wild things sighted him.
They watched him come with grumbles and fidgets. They saw him land out of narrowed eyes. Their fur was matted and their scales dull. Max jumped out of the boat and hailed them.
The wild things roared their terrible roars—which were feeble—and rolled their terrible eyes—which were dull—and showed their terrible claws—which were blunted.
“Be still!” Max said sternly, staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. The magic still worked. The wild things cowered, with many mutterings.
“You need a bath,” he informed them. “You stink.”
Silence, broken only by a head toss, a snort.
Max grinned. “But before that, let’s feast and have a wild rumpus! Just like old times!”
“Max!” they cried, rushing forward. “Are you really back?”
Max glanced down at himself. The old costume had become a real pelt, the crown was a circlet of gold, and the stick had transformed into a sword. He looked above the wild things, above the tree tops of the forest beyond them, to the mountains that soared into the sky.
What adventures lay on the other side?
“Yes,” said Max, softly, smiling. “I’m back.”