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“You’re not being bullied at school, are you?” Mr. Puckett had broached the subject a few minutes later, still counting the fistful of tickets he’d received for his quarry’s successful capture.
Max briefly imagined Johnny Jhonny’s face in place of the mole he was currently failing to whack. “Often... and... elaborately,” he grunted, missing his target once again. He’d borrowed a sledgehammer from the strongman game a few machines over when the dinky mole mallet failed to channel his rancor, making things far more difficult and aggravating for himself in the process. PK, still perched on Max’s cast, watched his host’s one-handed swings with sympathy, or perhaps just with the hungry hope that Max would slip and whack-a-mole his toe.
Mr. Puckett pensively passed a waterfall of tickets from hand to hand. “But that’s... not what’s been bothering you?”
Max shrugged. “Y’know, dad, me and my bullies have a good rapport. Feels like my lunch money’s going to a charity for awful little dogs.”
“Something else, then? Love trouble? Legal trouble?” asked J.J. Junior, the mascot of Jackpot Junior’s, who’d wandered up and joined the conversation several minutes back. “Believe me, we’ve all been there, little guy. Heck, I’ve been in both theres at once!” Max had been ignoring the strange intruder, mostly because he wasn’t sure if it was a person in a suit or a gaudy spirit only he could see.
Thwack! Max’s next swing lodged his hammer in a mole hole as tight as a cork in a bottle, forcing him to fight on with his sole unfettered fist.
“Maxwell,” chided Mr. Puckett, “It’s not polite to ignore J.J. Junior. And probably bad luck, too.”
His father’s acknowledgement proved the psychedelic bystander was corporeal, which gave Max license to lash out at long last; here was a much larger target than the moles that were eluding him. “Does your name stand for Jackpot Junior Junior?” he sneered, swiveling his most vicious squint to face the mascot.
J.J. Junior shrugged its cartoon shoulders. “I dunno, probably! You gotta stand for something in this life.”
Mr. Puckett nodded in sage agreement.
“...Your weird dice belly’s buttons look like cat nipples,” Max shot off frustratedly, turning back to try and roundhouse kick a mole.
Max’s dad and J.J. Junior shared a look of parental concern.
“It’s just... you seem stressed, Max. Between your arm, your scooter breaking, turning down a trip to see a Day twins...” Mr. Puckett shook his head. “And there’s nothing wrong with a monkey having cat nipples.” He glanced at the mascot apologetically. “You are a monkey, right?”
“I’m a minimum wage worker!” J.J. Junior cheerfully replied.
Mr. Puckett turned to his son with a look of “how could you” on his face. Max, shoulder-deep in a mole hole in an attempt to grapple his prey, met his father’s gaze with gray detachment.
“Max...” sighed Mr. Puckett, sinking down to kneel beside his child. “Listen. You and Zoey are the happiest accidents that ever fell into my life—”
“The happiest what.”
“—and every success your mom and I had raising you, that you turned out nothing like us, well... those were more like happy miracles.” His father’s eyes drifted off dreamily towards the ceiling, staring at fluorescent words that read HORSE RACE BIG BONUS like they were sparkling twilight stars. “You’re smart and driven, curious and kind and ambidextrous...”
Max glanced grimly toward his arm in its cast.
“But Max...” his father continued, clapping his son on the shoulder. “One thing you do have in common with your mom is how independent you are. Which is great, it really is... but she always kept her hardest struggles secret.” Mr. Puckett smiled wistfully. “It was her way of sparing the people that she cared about from the things she knew she could shoulder herself—and she could shoulder a lot, just like you!” The smile softened into sadness, and his gaze fell from his son. “But family shares the good and the bad no matter what. Love exposes you, that’s its magic and its cost.” With renewed cheer, he looked back to Max, who had been startled into meek and wide-eyed silence. “So... I want you... and I think—no, I know your mom would want it too... I want you to ask for help. Whenever, wherever you need it. I’m your dad, and... and no matter my shortcomings, I want you to trust you can rely on me.” His smile took on a sheepish slant. “That way, I can finally prove it, huh, kiddo?”
“...Okay, dad,” Max shyly said after a pause, slipping away from the intensity of eye contact.
Max looked back to his father with surprise. Those were heavy words in the Puckett family. His mom had always said a promise was a poor substitute for action... that the present was the only canvas that the feelings behind a promise could touch. If you gave them to the future, they’d escape you. That’s what she’d always said.
She’d made promises, though, in the end, and she’d broken them too.
Max thought about the weight of what he’d learned in Mayview, about the double life he’d found himself immersed in. He thought about his friends and fears, his hopes to use this chance to see his mom again, diminished as they were. He thought about his dad, and he thought about what asking him for help would mean, what it would change, what it might put in danger.
“...I promise,” lied Max, and as his eyes fell from his dad once more, he wondered if his mom had ever said and done the same.
Mr. Puckett beamed, softly squeezing his son’s shoulder.
“My father never loved me,” whimpered J.J. Junior semi-incoherently. The mascot was now openly weeping, or at least weeping as openly as one could from within a huge, sweltering mask with a smile permanently plastered on its face.
A chorus of whack-a-moles loudly proclaimed in squeaky singsong that Max had scored zero points as Mr. Puckett brought his son and J.J. Junior into a very long and very strange group hug.