3.

Max got no sleep the rest of the night. Every time he closed his eyes his saw his neighbors' red eyes staring back at him and with every bump he heard he thought it was the neighbors coming to get him.

His alarm clock buzzed and he slapped the button to shut it off. He slid his legs off the bed and did his best job to stand up. It felt like his arms, legs, and eyelids weighed a ton each. Groaning with each step, Max lumbered across his room and got dressed and then lurched down the stairs.

"Max, do you feel okay?" His mom asked when he walked into the dining room. "You look like you didn't get any sleep."

"I didn't," Max mumbled and plopped down into a chair. His moved his mouth as little as possible as even talking was a chore this morning.

"Why not?"

"Uh…" Was he going to tell his mom that he was afraid of the new neighbors? And look like a baby? I don't think so. "I don't know," he lied. "I just couldn't sleep."

"Well, here." She placed a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk in front of him. "Maybe some food will wake you up." Max ate his cereal hoping she was right.

The sugary food gave Max just enough energy to last him until he got to school. As soon as he walked through the front doors, though, he could feel all the energy just drain out of his body. He was forced to drag his weary body through the halls from class to class.

"Wow, Max, you don't look good." Max looked up from his locker to see Shannon Miller standing there and looking him over. He had just left his second period class and was gathering his things for third period and hadn't even noticed Shannon approach him. If he had he probably would've just abandoned his books and bolted for the classroom.

It's not that Max didn't like Shannon – the exact opposite, in fact. Max had been in love with Shannon since kindergarten. There were many times throughout the years that he would completely lose his focus in class just staring at Shannon. His heart would skip a beat when she would raise her hand to answer a question (always correctly, by the way) and then flip her wavy, brown hair over her shoulder and smile sweetly at the teacher.

Now, here she was, standing right next to him and even talking to him. Max almost dropped his books from the amount of sweat on his palms. "I…uh…uh, uh…" he stammered.

"Are you okay?" She asked sincerely.

"I'm okay," Max muttered shakily. Shannon smiled at him and his heart melt.

"Just don't want you getting sick in class or anything."

"Th-th-th-thanks."

Anything else Shannon might have said was cut off by a new and very unwelcome voice behind Max. "Hey, dweeb-wad!" Nathan "Barf" Huggins called out loud enough to draw everyone's attention to Max. "Nice to see you learned how to put clothes on today." He laughed a deep guffaw. Max's spirits fell to the floor. He slowly and reluctantly turned to face his tormentor.

Nathan Huggins stood a head taller than anyone else in the school and was twice as wide as Max. He wasn't fat, though, it was muscle that he used to shove his way through the halls and stuff kids into lockers. His face was one only a blind mother could love - his orange hair stuck out in all directions, his nose was upturned like a pig's, and he had a wide back between his yellow, front teeth. He'd gained the nickname Barf because that's what his breath smelled like which, after his muscles, was the second weapon he used to terrorize Stein Lovecraft Grade School. Just don't let him ever hear you call him Barf. That was one sure way to find yourself in a locker or your head in a toilet.

"Did you put your clothes on today or did your mommy put them on for you?" Everyone within earshot joined Barf laughing. Max wondered if they laughed because they though Barf's joke was funny or because they were afraid of what Barf would do to them if they didn't laugh. Or were they just happy the big bully was picking on someone other than themselves? "Did your mommy put a diaper on you too?" More laughing.

"No," Max said weakly in a feeble attempt to defend himself.

"Really? Are you big enough to put your own diapers on?"

"I-I don't wear diapers." Max was glad to see Shannon wasn't laughing with Barf.

"Whatever, dweeb!" Barf shoved Max back into the lockers then walked off laughing and sneering.

"What a jerk," Shannon said when Barf was safely out of earshot. "I'll see you around, Max." And, with that, she walked back to join her group of friends.

Max tried to say bye back to her, but his mouth has suddenly gone bone try. He managed to lift his hand in some semblance of a farewell wave.

The rest of the day went pretty much the same. Max was too tired to concentrate in class and Barf made fun of him between every class. At least by the end of the day everyone else had lost interest in Barf's teasing and wouldn't even turn their heads when they heard his sneering voice. Between the final classes Barf was fed up with being ignored, so instead of making fun of Max he just punched him in the arm. Mr. Finch saw it and added three days to Barf's already two week long detention.

The last bell rang and kids filled the halls in a rush to escape the school. Max was tossed back and forth as he lumbered through the halls at a snail's pace. "Watch it!" "Move it!" "Get out of the way, moron!" All of these, and more, were shouted at Max by kids trying to get around him. He was just too tired to move faster, get out of the way, or shoot back any smart remarks at them. Instead, he continued on his way to his locker and then out the door.

He stepped outside just in time to see the last bus pull away from the curb. "Wait! Stop!" he tried to yell, but it came out as more of a whimper and running after the bus was out of the question. Great, Max thought to himself. Now I have to walk. Was this day going to be as bad as yesterday? With a great huff of frustration Max made his way down the steps and to the sidewalk.

It was only a few blocks, but each footstep was harder to take than the last. Before he knew it Max was lost deep in a daydream. His feet moved by instinct, taking the route they'd learned over the past few years, but his mind had drifted off to the far reaches of space.

He dreamed he was his favorite comic book hero, Zap Zappington. Instead of walking down the sidewalk toward his home he was battling Galaxons in the Nubar Nebula. Passing cars were comets streaking by his interstellar starship and the bugs and birds were evil Galaxons trying to blast him to smithereens.

Before he knew it, Max was standing at the end of his block. Almost home! He picked up his pace and flew by the Anderson's house. Then the Floyd's and the Keller's and the Mitchell's and the...Max stopped dead in his tracks and looked up. He was standing at the property line of his next door neighbors.

His eyes roamed up the overgrown lawn to the house. It was a white, two-story house with black shutters and a porch lined with a wrought-iron fence. It had sat empty all last winter so now the white paint was chipping and dirty, the black shudders were fading to a dark gray, and the iron fence was rusting and falling apart. It looked bad enough before, but after seeing the new neighbors it looked so much worse and so much more haunted.

Max looked passed the house to his own. He was so close to safety. So close, yet so far. All he had to do was stay on the sidewalk and walk passed the neighbor's property and then he'd be free. His eyes fell back to the building before him. It felt like the house were watching him back, the two second-story windows were like evil, black eyes watching his every move and waiting for him to move into position so it could strike out and swallow him whole.

"Sorry, bud," Max said to the house. "No Max kabobs today." He turned and crossed the street to pass the house. When he was safely passed the property he ran back across the road to the safety of home.