He doesn’t know for how long, or how far, or where to, but he’s running.
Running through dirt. Running through debris. Running through rippling puddles of rainwater and blood. His feet slosh in their wake and they soak his socks, freezing his feet. He notices, but he doesn’t notice at the same time. There is no time to dwell on the sensation.
There are bodies everywhere. It doesn’t matter. He just keeps running. They are dead—he can’t save them. He wants to, but it doesn’t matter what he wants.
He just keeps running.
Some are still alive. He wishes they weren’t. It’s a terrible thought, but then he wouldn’t have to hear them screaming, crying out for help when he knows all he can do is run.
The wind rips cars from the streets, tosses them left and right with its ferocity. He narrowly dodges being crushed. His adrenaline spikes, almost makes him vomit, as he falls backwards onto the cracked, bloody, wet asphalt. He can feel it stick in his throat.
He screams. His lungs are on fire, but nothing comes out. Before he knows it, he’s up and running again.
There’s a glimmer in the distance. The cliff. A beacon.
Maybe he could make it. If he could just make it there he could be…
He could hear himself laugh in another plane of reality. That word wasn’t even in his vocabulary.
How stupid. How foolish. How idiotic.
Another scream with a crumbling building. A skyscraper.
This was…Arcadia Bay? It couldn’t be. Too many buildings. Too little trees.
Too much chaos.
His breathing is shallow. He’s going to collapse.
There are more bodies. This time, his scream breaks through the howling wind, conjoins with it in a cry of sorrow. He’s seen these bodies. He’s seen them alive and well. He sees their faces everyday.
Taylor, Courtney, Hayden…
Time slows. His eyes widen as a flying piece of metal slices through her stomach. Blood laces the wind and he swears he feels some hit his face. He can’t stop, but oh, God, he wants to.
‘Why is this happening?’ he wants to ask, but his voice is nonexistent, and there are no answers in this madness.
Everything’s too much. He has to make it to the lighthouse. That is his only goal, the only sane thing in his head.
He passes a muddy hole in the ground. There is someone in it, cockeyed in the pit—a girl. He knows this girl. Her blue feather earring rustles with the wind. He can’t even look at her. Not her. He just can’t…because he swears he sees him with her, a blotch of bright red. It couldn’t be. He was him…not that thing in the ground. Blood?
There is always more blood.
No. He can’t dwell. He can’t think. He has to run.
He’s getting closer. The ground feels like it’s falling beneath him, his steps crushing the concrete and slowing him further. The rain becomes a curtain of pellets lowering visibility to nearly naught.
And then there’s another person emerging through the insanity. They’re somehow alive, a bright blue landmark. He doesn’t see their face. It’s too dark and the rain is washing them out. The person calls to him, but their cry is lost in the bedlam. It’s too loud—the rushing water, the roaring wind. The person pushes him toward the lighthouse path, stating something with hazy movements of their mouth. All he can remember of them is blue until they, too, fall to the aggressive winds.
The muddy path is wracked with trenches and rocks—from small pebbles to giant boulders—and numerous fallen trees. He climbs over them with strange ease, as if he weighed nothing.
So close. Just a little further.
As he climbs, there’s a shift in the weather. Things become calm. The rain still beats down on the earth, but the wind has settled to a hefty breeze, carrying the electricity through the air and through his veins.
He approaches the sturdy, steel cylinder, debris clanging off it and flying to the sides. There’s a hollow grumble from within, the caged light at the top rotating its beam across Arcadia Bay. The pine trees sway and hiss, an ominous, yet relieving sight. Things haven’t changed here, like this place remained untouched by whatever force swept the town into its current state.
Stillness overtakes him. There is another person nearby. They stand at the edge of the rocky cliff. He glances past them toward the distant town. This was not his home. High-rises, more skyscrapers, houses that all looked the same. A city that was not familiar. A city being destroyed by the cyclone hovering in the center of the ocean. The one before him and the other figure.
And then they turn, their silhouette revealed. A girl.
He knows her. Her short, brown bob flitters with the wind. It’s hazy, but he can see her rain-spattered, speckled face. The droplets look like tears falling from her oceanic eyes. Her frown becomes a smile, and she picks up her arm and waves.
He stares. And stares. He can’t stop staring. She’s a confusing variable in this equation.
Then, he doesn’t know why, but he waves back, as if there was no vortex dragging Arcadia to its doom.
As if things were…normal—another word lost within his vocabulary.
His fears vanish, but only for a second. Because when their arms drop and he steps toward her, the wind picks up.
He watches in horror as its cruel hands wrench her over the side of the cliff.
Nathan nearly launched out of his bed. For a moment, he hovered between dream and reality, his sound-blocking earphones dangling off one side of his head. The long, drawn-out cries of the ocean’s depths were abruptly replaced with another song’s jarring vocals and shattered rhythms. He’d almost dragged the music player off his dresser with the force of his wake.
Inside - there's someone inside!
Inside - there's someone inside!
Inside - I cannot hide!
Inside - from the one inside of me!
He gritted his teeth and hit the ‘Off’ button harder than he should have to silence it. The player didn’t break, but it was flipped on its side and to the corner of his dresser from the force.
“Fuck…me…” The disjointed and aggravated whisper left his lips. Adjusting the alarm function with music from his handheld might not have been his brightest idea.
And that nightmare…
He shuddered as his head fell into his hands, pulling his knees up to his chest. Dr. Jacoby had said his prescriptions might give him messed up dreams, but that was absolutely insane. Though it was a recurring nightmare he’d been having for several months now, but that felt too close to his reality. He was relieved, for once, to wake in the dark and dismal prison that was his dorm.
‘Calm. Stay calm. Stay. Calm. Nathan. Everything’s cool. Everything’s…just…fine. It was just a dream. A really FUCKED UP dream.’
He pulled himself into a tighter ball and trembled, both out of cold and fear. His comforter was cast to the side of the bed. It never kept him warm anyway. He closed his eyes and exhaled a shaky and hoarse breath, raking his hands through his mussed hair.
Nathan only then realized how hard his head was throbbing. Last night’s alcoholic excursion was catching up with him. His dry mouth was soon filled with a sharp tang and thick bile, and he frantically grasped for his trash bin to heave. He coughed and sputtered after dispelling the disgusting mixture, wiping his mouth with the back of his calloused hand.
After several more minutes of expunging his stomach, his whole body became heavy. He leaned back against the wall, hurling his pillows across the way to his black, leather sofa. He then reached for a bottle of water under his bed and slowly drank it down to rehydrate. His throat burned and his eyes watered, gagging and coughing again after taking a few more sips.
The sunlight was trying to invade through his closed blinds with little success. What brightness that was there reflected off the shiny surfaces of his glass-top desk and back of his sleek desktop computer. Otherwise, his room was encased in darkness, his high-tech projector and artist display lights off.
And that’s just the way he liked it. His eyes were sensitive enough as they were, the hellish hangover already punishing his skull. And the sun was a constant reminder that it was just another day in Arcadia Bay, the shithole town that his family…that he owned. He half smiled at himself and creased his brows, counting in his mind to put himself at ease. That’s right. Why worry? Everything was fine.
He noticed how quiet it was, something Nathan hated. He reached over to straighten his music player, turned it back on, flipped to another song that wasn’t so heavy, and unplugged his earphones to let the music flow freely. There he sat, staring off into space for a good while, losing himself in the melodic drone while his stomach settled and his head eased to a light pounding.
When he finally roused his heavy lids, the world around him coming back into focus, he glanced over to a new invasion of light from his phone.
1 Missed Call: DAD.
He picked up the phone and slowly brought it to his ear, the action feeling like he was lifting a thousand pounds.
“Nathan. I’ll assume you’re awake and just ignoring my calls. Again.”
He winced with annoyance at the patronizing tone of Sean Prescott.
“Of course. Nathan,” Sean punctuates and lets out a quick huff, the receiver crackling, “Katherine and I are coming to Blackwell for a morning announcement. I expect you to be presentable and ready in the gym.”
An audible click signaled the end of the message. Nathan’s eyes went wide.
‘What…the hell…is he coming here for? Couldn’t have elaborated on anything, could you, old man? Fuckfuckfuckfuck…FUCK!’
Nathan pulled back his arm to throw the phone across the room, but stopped himself. No. The last thing he needed was to ask for another phone from that bastard, or to meet the back of his rage-filled hand. Then again, a busted phone could be his excuse for why he didn’t answer. Tempting.
No. Not this time. He put the phone back on his dresser and forcibly sighed into his hands, crossing his legs and hunching over. Then he inhaled and growled, taking the bottle of water and wetting his hands. He raked them through his bedhead and let stray droplets fall to the floor. They bloomed outwards in darkened navy splotches. Nathan then rested a wet, cold hand on the back of his neck and eyed several medication ampoules on his other wooden desk. Next to them, amongst a grating amount of binders and papers, sat his digital camera.
His eyes dropped and he swallowed hard, holding back a sudden onset of tears. It was time to take another dose of meds, but the haze it put him in was sickening. He felt like a goddamn robot—a frazzled, stiff, colorless machine. The barrage of self-doubts and self-hate began to sweep him under…again. He shook as he curled himself into a ball…again.
Again and again and again. Trapped and suffocating under his own weight. He’d lost track of the music, like time, breathing in and out, trying to compose himself to face the normalcy of everyone else. His wrist itched, and he absentmindedly scratched it, feeling what was left of the water on his hands cool the spot. Afterward, he looked at the tips of his fingers. They were tinged with black. He wiped them on his pants and glanced at the slightly-smeared shape at the base of his hand, his face pinching in frustration.
"Again…? God dammit."
With the new, invasive thought, he rounded his hand into a fist, raised it, and let it fall to the bed. Hard. The reverberation of springs sounded off and a wave of pain shot through his arm, cancelling out any other sensation he had previous. He didn’t even flinch.
His mind had wandered, and he recalled only her on the wet, shimmery lawn. Her small form, her bobbed hair, her speckled face, and blue, watery eyes—like the dream. That crazy, chaotic dream.
Then her stupid wave. Her stupid wave and his dumb-ass response. He didn’t even mean to counter, it just…happened. Much to his frustration and hidden embarrassment.
He frowned. Did she even know who was sitting there, who she was actually waving to?
The real question he ignored with that thought was: did he mean her…or himself?
Nathan scoffed, remembering yesterday’s beams of the sun. It blanched her out until a cloud covered the brightness, leaving room for the contrast he strived to capture—sharp blacks, bright whites, and those muted shades of gray that calmed the intensity of the world around him.
Monochrome reflections made the topic in his mind suddenly shift, and he thought of Blackwell’s feted photography connoisseur. Once a famous fashion and deco-style photographer of the early 90’s, Mark Jefferson had made his mark on the world with poise and tact through his black and white images. He also hailed from Arcadia Bay. That, along with his impeccable work, had caught his father’s attention.
With that, Nathan’s train of thought swerved to his own work and about how Jefferson actually seemed to care about his ‘unique’ imagery. It was still a strange feeling. Then again, Sean hired Jefferson for a teaching position two years ago; of course he’d care. That was his job, to actually give a fuck about the well-being and future careers of his students. Though, Jefferson had made it clear that Nathan had a greater passion than others on more than one occasion.
The boy’s shoulders slackened, thinking of the elder's unaccustomed, profound words. Nathan never paid him much mind for the first year he taught at Blackwell, couldn’t have cared less about him, in fact. Nathan just did what he did best. Alone. Hoping to rise to his father’s aspirations of art and photography, always to no avail. Not until his junior and senior years were upon him did his vies lead him to the venerated photographer. By then, the future’s fog he thought would look a little less bleak had only thickened. It was like their meeting was an unavoidable collision within that blanket of mist, guided by the eavesdropped opinion of his peers, his own father, and Victoria—one of Jefferson’s biggest admirers, much to his annoyance at times.
“You’ll eventually have to take some of his classes for graduation. He knows a lot, Nate. You might find you’ll actually like his lessons,” she had said with utmost confidence.
At the time, he highly doubted it.
The topic of Nathan’s photographs came up after an in-class critique in his junior year. Once the students had dispersed, their fearful, inhibited opinions continuously fluttered about in his head. It was the first time he had to publicly show his work to his classmates, none of who were “fans” of his. Especially with him being who he was and his actions towards peer and professor alike. Naturally, they were nervous, uncomfortable, and disturbed. Nathan already knew it was going to be that way. Somewhere inside he was…disappointed? He quickly drowned whatever emotion he was feeling and replaced it with the familiar: anger. Before he could leave, the seeds of ire watered and blooming, Jefferson stopped him.
“So, first crit blues getting you down?” Jefferson joked and sat on one of the desks in the room.
Nathan didn’t look at him as he packed his bag, his form hunched and closed off.
The professor sighed, seeing that a lighthearted start didn’t make any dent in the boy’s mood. “I wouldn’t take what they all said to heart. Your work definitely needs some improvement, but I’d say nothing too drastic. The shadows are damn near perfect, in my opinion. Of course, I know a thing or two about shadows and the balance of black and white.”
A twinge of annoyance was strummed within the adolescent. Nathan hated the way Jefferson spoke, with a certain consciousness, like an arrogant prophet, but also with an aspiring lilt that struck a chord of curious admiration. Nevertheless, who gave a shit if he was older and more experienced? What the fuck did he really know?
“Is that the reason you’re now a measly teacher in this backwater town?” The sarcasm dripped off his words as he gathered his belongings, slamming shut the portfolio his professor nosily eyed.
Jefferson’s brows rose, but he was unfazed by Nathan’s jab, arms crossed and body still.
“This ‘backwater town’ happens to be where I was born and raised. Just like you.”
Nathan shot him a glare and slung his bag over his shoulder. He was pining for a cigarette. “I wasn’t born here, I was born in Florida. We had to move back here because of my family’s bullshit business.”
“Something your father’s more bitter about than he’d like to admit, I’m sure.”
That caught him off guard. Nathan observed him with a skeptical look in his eye, as if there was more to that statement. Like he could add at any time, ‘It’s another reason why he takes everything out on you.’ Somewhere inside, it felt like Jefferson already knew that, and Nathan was relieved he didn’t say anything; the silence at the end of his sentence spoke for itself.
“Your father’s quite an infamous philanthropist and businessman, and a good number of us in the bay know what a hard ass he can be. You would know more than anyone, I imagine.”
More hidden implications. His tone made Nathan feel like he knew more than he was letting on. It unnerved him, but he didn’t move from his spot.
Jefferson continued after the pause, “Anyway. Your work has a certain…aspect about it. It’s something your father can’t see, maybe even refuses to see. And it’s not just him. A good majority of your peers don’t quite get it, either.”
Nathan anxiously fiddled with his bag’s strap. He wanted to leave, but something kept him in the room, in the dimming sunlight of the bay. It shone past Jefferson, casting the man in an portentous, dark silhouette.
“What do you mean?” he asked, his throat hesitant and strangling the question. Knowing, yet not knowing the answer, and feeling weak because of it. Why did he even bother to ask?
“I mean there are those that take pictures, and those that…capture moments. Moments in time, moments in life, moments in one’s mind, in one’s own little world. And it looks like you’ve got quite a world of your own, Nathan Prescott.”
The boy’s insides uncomfortably squirmed with Jefferson’s words. In that moment, he wished his father was the one saying them, and he was overwhelmed. He didn’t let it show, couldn’t let it show. That was the highest taboo. He could, and would, never. It quickly manifested into more anger.
“Bull. Shit. Because everyone was riveted by the crow eating the innards of that field mouse. You’re full of it.’
“Why did you take that picture, Nathan?”
There was another second take for the boy. It was something he never truly asked even himself. And nobody else bothered to question him of it, for that thought. Not even Victoria, who admired his work from a noticeable, almost discouraging, distance.
“Why did you take that picture?”
The static-like drones of distant students slowly filled the silent spaces between them.
“I…It was just…rrgh. I don’t—!” His irritability at the question grew, and the fact that he was vulnerably stuck with an answer he couldn’t find pissed him off even more. He grumbled and shifted his feet, scuffing the floor with the underside of his formal shoes. They left black marks on the pale tile.
“Think about all your classmates’ photographs,” he began, placing his folded hands in his lap, his posture lax. “Happy little people or animals doing what they do. Landscapes that portray the ‘natural beauty’ of the world. No offense to them, but…boring. And, of course, this is what my classes are for—to broaden your horizons as growing students.”
Nathan squinted with a frown, still not completely following the man’s vague words.
Jefferson sighed. “With your work, you’re already experimenting with some themes that the majority of the world won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Not unless they’re forced to.”
Nathan’s eyes glued to the black marks on the floor, but he continued to listen.
“The crow eating the mouse. A scavenger scrounging to survive. A disgusting display, but in truth, nothing out of the ordinary. The strong and the weak. Predator and prey. Natural selection.”
His orbs widened, now meeting Jefferson’s.
“Death, Nathan, isn’t always…pleasant, not always pretty. Your images tell us a story, a truth we’d rather push to the back of our minds until it rears its ugly head. They create a disturbance in society’s balance, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing, hm?”
Jefferson had found some semblance of the words in his jumbled mess of a mind, and Nathan couldn’t feel any more uplifted…and terrified. Nathan didn’t say anything, just began backing up towards the door. He had to get the hell out of there. Otherwise he was going to lose it.
“In other words: good work, Nathan. My number one rule: Always take the shot. And you did. You do.”
Nathan’s chest clenched tight and he gulped, swerving quickly to the door. Jefferson’s voice echoed behind him, causing him to pause in its frame.
“I’ll be here if you need to talk. Until next time.”
A glance and a nod, and the boy was gone.
And what the fuck did she know? How did she even get into Blackwell Academy? His school? On what merits? With what talent? All she had was that shitty Polaroid instamatic and the ‘fever to take images,’ as Jefferson would put it. What a fucking joke.
Nathan pushed his memories and indignation aside, head pulsing and limbs feeling limp. The image of his father’s ever-disappointed face made the sour taste in his mouth return, and invisible claws began scratching at the walls behind his eyes. Nathan groaned. The though of Sean’s pending arrival returned and burned in his blood.
His mind wandered momentarily before a soft sound intruded. It became louder. He realized it was knocking at his door.
“Nate? I know you’re in there. Open up.”
His father was always investing in new people and places of importance. Blackwell Academy, with the construction of the dorms in 1998, and Jefferson’s recent hiring, were just two out of innumerable cases. Another? The Chase Space in Seattle, one of the most renowned art galleries on the west coast. It was right before he started high school, before he began attending and representing Blackwell Academy, when he first met Victoria Chase and her parents.
He bit back the terrifying memory of her in his nightmare, his eyes peeking at the slit of light underneath his dorm door. He could see the shadows of her feet blocking out the rays, blotchy black masses.
He didn’t have time to further reminisce; there was another loud knock.
He exhaled sharply, yet quietly, trying not to tip her off, but she wasn’t an idiot. He felt her presence grow on the other side of the door, instinctively shutting off his music player.
“I got you some coffee and a bagel from the Bean Hip. French Vanilla. Cinnamon swirl,” she chimed in a persuasive, maternal manner. “Something to munch on with your medicine?”
Nathan scratched at one of his arms, a wormy sensation assaulting it as she reminded him about his daily doses. The skin reddened under the grind of his chipped nails.
Minutes passed before a sad hum reverberated through the wood. “You know, as much as I love chatting with your door,” she jokingly said, “you’ve gotta come out sometime. At least for classes.” She became more serious. “Unless you’re skipping again. Which…” she sighed, trying to find the words, but they failed her in that moment. She wanted to let her head fall against the door, but kept her composure. Now was not the time.
Nathan’s eyes shut and he slung his long legs over the side of his bed with a large effort. They touched the cold floor. The temperature matched that of his toes. Pushing himself up, the bed gave a small creak, and he stepped to his door in two long strides.
They shared a moment between that barrier, a long and quiet understanding between the two that only they could comprehend. Nathan could feel Victoria smile on the other side, a gesture that cracked his outer shell, if even a little. His face relaxed, the muscles in his brows releasing their strain. The unsettling images and atmosphere of his room closed around him in a welcoming way as the distance between them hovered in a perpetual silence.
“My dad’s coming to Blackwell. This morning. Soon,” he said after a long while. His voice didn’t sound like himself. The cold cut through his loose t-shirt and baggy, tartan pants. He was still thirsty, and that coffee sounded more and more like a blessing as the seconds ticked by.
“What? This morning? Why?” Her dominance shone through in demand, the quiet disrupted.
Another pass between them widened the gap.
“Fuck if I know.”
Victoria pursed her red lips and crinkled her nose, her grip tightening on the cup and bag in her hands. “Nathan, open the door.”
His fingers twitched.
He wasn’t hearing her. His hands began to shake and his legs felt like giving out. Just that small movement to the door and acknowledgment of Sean’s arrival caused a great deal of strain—body and mind. He fell back to the bed, his vision meeting the pockmarked ceiling. The shaking grew more violent and his chest, becoming hot, rose and fell with heavy breaths.
Not now. Not good.
Not good. Not good. Not good. Not—
Victoria’s voice faded and the room became a tiny box, closing in and strangling the air from him. He curled into a ball, gritting his teeth and pulling his arms inward, sweating with his own closeness. The ceiling’s creases became darkened veins of tar that spread into the shadows. He turned his head away from it, the throbbing coming back full force. If he didn’t calm down, he was sure to puke again.
Besides Victoria, he heard other voices outside. It was like they were speaking into a funnel right next to his ear, in one and out the other, echoing through his brain. Nathan caught Logan’s and Zachary’s obnoxious idioms and Victoria snapping back, Hayden saying hello, probably wanting a fix from his truly, and some other washed-out sentences that blurred together in a babbling mess. He bit his tongue and tasted iron, drifting to another plane.
There, he didn’t know how long he was. It must have been for a while, because when he returned, things were quiet again. Unsettlingly so.
Logan, Zachary, and Hayden were gone. Victoria was gone. Everyone was gone. And he had to get his ass around, even if he felt like shit. Otherwise…it was something he didn’t want to think about it.
He decided to peek outside his door. A rush of lonely, cool air greeted him. The halls were completely empty. To his left, at his feet, was the coffee cup and bagged bagel. When he picked them up, he noticed the caffeinated beverage was still lukewarm. His dorm slate caught his attention, Victoria’s handwriting replacing his own.
Nate, Dana needed me, T, and Courtney for something. Take care of yourself, okay? Please eat! I’ll call in a few to check on you. ~ Vic.
It was signed with a little heart at the end as well. He sighed, the little symbol and her efforts making him feel like a complete dick. He took a sip of the drink. It wasn’t hot anymore, but it was still just the way he liked it, and it went down smooth. Hopefully, he wouldn’t get sick again. That would not be a pleasant purge. He rubbed the crust from his eyes after reentering the room and placed the bagel off to the side, not yet ready to fill his stomach with solids.
Looking at the prescriptions on the desk, he glared at them with disdain. Today he needed something else. A pick-me-up. Not that mechanizing shit. With that thought, he cursed the lack of cannabis in his possession, and then almost laughed. Hayden wouldn’t have been able to get anything from him even if he wanted. The party favors were waiting with his supplier. He made a mental note to pick them up that evening. Everybody’s gotta have their fix…including him.
‘Until then,’ Nathan opened the bottom drawer of his black dresser and rummaged underneath some formal pants, ‘this’ll have to do. Not that I’m complaining. After all, it’s a special occasion. Right, Dad?’
The baggie of sugary-white powder illumined itself in his hands. The sunlight shifted with the passing time, shining through the blinds and casting linear bars on his form.
Nathan switched back on the MP3 player and changed it to an upbeat rap song, one that was played at one of the past Vortex Club parties. Something to prepare him for the imminent uplifting the drug would soon bring.
It’s all wrong, it’s all wrong
I can see it in your eyes that you’re livin’ off the ride
It’s all wrong, it’s all wrong
Gonna take it in your step, is this really for what you strive?
Your head’s rash, it’s hard to keep quiet
If I had to guess you’re ‘bout to start a riot
Light a match and just burn it away, thinkin’ of ways to start a new day
It’s all wrong
He bobbed his head, drowning his demons in the pulsating beats, not caring if it was too loud for whatever neighbors were left in the dorms. Fuck them. He owned Blackwell, owned those assholes. They could just deal with it.
“It was actually a really good shot…”
Nathan’s lips parted with the recollection. A mixture of unwanted emotions pushed their way to the surface. What the fuck did that even mean? Was she just making fun of him? More than likely. Or she was just trying to weasel her picture back from him. He sneered with a half grin, remembering that moment of control he had over her with that ridiculous selfie. After all, she was the dumbass who left it on the ground.
‘But you’re the one who picked it up and kept it, dipshit,’ an invasive, unknown voice chided in his ear.
He scowled with the imposition, shaking his head and disregarding it.
She snooped through Jefferson’s contest entries. She saw his photograph.
And she said it was good.
Now wasn’t the time for this bullshit. Now was the time to take it all away—the anger, worry, the pain, the nightmares. Everything.
His phone rang and buzzed with an incoming call. He ignored it in favor of the music.
Fuck everyone and everything.
Vmm! Vmm! Vmm!
And especially fuck that nosy little bitch, Max Caulfield.
All her other classes crawled by at a slow and gnawing pace. Max scarcely paid any attention in any of them.
She thought about the conversation between Nathan and Victoria. It kept going over and over in her mind on repeat.
She thought about her dreams and the ghostly voices. That feeling of being absent, yet still there. It slunk through her arms and legs, slunk through every part of her.
She thought about the ominous presence of the Prescotts—Sean, Katherine, even Nathan— their polished outer shell and their mysterious inner cores.
All of those thoughts on top of being in the now-postponed contest, and classes, and homework, and food, and sleep, and hygene, and…and…and.
Her eyes strained and she bit back the pain surfacing in her head. She thought she maybe should talk to Warren, but felt embarrassed for some silly reason. Kate was mainly busy assisting Mr. Jefferson that afternoon in Photography Lab, and she wasn’t going to see her in any other classes for the day. She didn’t want to interrupt. Lunch was her time to eat and be away from everyone, so not then. Maybe she should call her father? No. He worried enough about her going to Blackwell alone as it was. Expressing doubts would only shoulder more weight for the both of them. Her mother? No. She would be the same, even in a more harried fashion.
When the final bell rang in her life drawing class, she shoveled everything into her bag, unorganized, and immediately retrieved her phone to text Rachel. She had an unknown need for her to fill the spaces of gloom with her cheer.
Hey! You ready to get going soon?
A minute or two passed and her phone began vibrating with a call. Confused, she answered. “Hello?”
On the other end, an out-of-breath Rachel said, “Hey! Sorry…Whew! Stairs. Had to run and get some extra credit stuff.”
Max let out a light laugh. “It’s okay.”
A silence ran between them with only Rachel’s heavy breathing to break it.
“Listen. Max.” Another inhale, another exhale. “I actually have to run home right now. My parents wanted to talk to me about a few things. You think you can meet Chloe by yourself for the night?”
The world fell away and Max became nervously numb. Up until now it had been her, Chloe, and Rachel. And this would only be the second time Max would be with Chloe since her return to Arcadia. She had a weird feeling.
“Um…okay…yeah. Sure. I mean…”
She could almost hear Rachel grin on the other end of the receiver. “Don’t worry, Max. Personally, I think Chloe needs this. Y’know, some time with you. Alone.”
Max began to suspect Rachel was arranging things this way on purpose. A prick of irritation played at the back of her neck, but she quickly leveled, trying not to let it show.
“Really! I’ve got some shit I have to sort out with my mom and dad. It’s complicated.” A long pause followed. “Do you hate me?”
An odd question, one that snapped her back to reality. One that was delivered to her as a joke, but somehow had a heavy weight to it.
“Of course not…why?” Max held her breath before letting it loose with a nervous chuckle.
“I just…I’ll make it up to you two. Promise. Say hi to Chloe for me.” Her voice was a happy and breathy whisper into the receiver. Before Max got to respond, she hung up.
Max didn’t make an attempt to call back, feeling a bit incredulous about the whole situation. Instead, she texted Warren and soon found herself trudging through the emptying halls of the school to meet him at his locker.
“Hey, Max! How are you feeling?” he asked while digging through his belongings. It was quite an organized space, though there were a few granola bar wrappers and an empty energy drink can peeking out.
“A little better, I think. It’s been kind of a weird day. Slow, but…not…at the same time.” Nathan’s dilated eyes came to mind, and she had to force the surfacing fear back into her depths.
“Yeah, especially with the Prescotts coming here,” he said, giving her a side glance before returning it to his locker. “So, uh, you and Rachel. I didn’t know you two were friends.”
He sounded curious more than anything, and it made Max’s mouth curl up on one side. “Yeah. Just recently. We just started talking and…” She shrugged, not knowing how else to complete the thought without further lying to him.
“It’s cool! She’s looks hardcore, but seems pretty chill. I see her around all the time. She’s really popular around campus, I’ve noticed, but I never actually talked to her. I thought she was part of The Vortex Club’s asshole regime.” He chuckled with that last bit before adding, “She’s nice.”
“Mm,” Max agreed, holding the strap of her bag tighter. His words sort of glided over her head as she focused on her other encumbering thoughts.
Warren’s cheerful expression became neutral. “Anyway, here’s your work,” he said, finding and holding up a manila file folder. He even had the kindness to organize them into the latter and mark it “MAX.” She was reminded of a similar ritual he took with his flash drive.
“Warren…” A light flush coated her cheeks with a smile. “You didn’t have to go through all this trouble.”
“What are you talking about?” He grinned sheepishly. “It was no trouble at all!”
“Thank you. I really appreciate this.”
“So,” he paused for a second, shifting his weight to his other foot, “you still pumped about going to the drive-in? I’m thinking about reserving tickets for next weekend before they sell out. But…” His voice wavered with hesitation at the end.
Max gave him a look that told him to continue.
“You seem pretty distracted lately.”
Her gaze dropped from his to the floor. A mixture of emotions came at her in waves. Guilt was the most prominent.
“I’m sorry, Warren.”
His smile faded and he tilted his head down so his terracotta browns could meet her cerulean blues. “Max.”
The sincerity in his voice was almost staggering. She couldn’t look him in the eye, and she suddenly wished Chloe or Rachel was there with her. An awkward silence wedged itself between them. Max rubbed her arm, aware of every fiber in her sleeve, every skin cell beneath the sifting fabric.
“How about we talk more about it on Saturday?” His air grew jovial, trying to pierce through her defenses.
All she could do was muster a nod.
“Talk to you later then?”
She finally lifted her head and forced a smile. “Yeah. Talk to you later.”
Warren patted her on the shoulder and saw her off. Max placed the folder in her bag and waved goodbye, exiting the school and feeling the distance grow between them.
Striding down the spidery paths of the sidewalks, she passed where the concrete web met at the center. The fountain’s statue of Jeremiah Blackwell stared past all of Arcadia, its secrets held within his meticulously-carved, bronze eyes.
Max waited for Blackwell’s transportation bus near the street’s edge. The sign jiggled with the mounting winds, the lowering sun catching a glare off the painted metal. She huddled together, tapping her feet with impatience, and gazed at the spot where the Prescotts' vehicle once sat. Her feelings blended together, unknown. Broken from her trance, the bus pulled up and came to a halt with a screech and ksssh from its brakes.
Boarding the yellow beast, she took a lonely seat by herself, inserting her earphones once more. The sights returned to her as her music shut the world out, the lyrics rising and falling in a mesh. She wasn’t paying much attention. Conversant yet strange the sights were on the bumpy and slow ride down to the seaside shops. She was too afraid to text Chloe, praying that she wouldn’t be too upset with Rachel’s absence.
She exited the bus and stared up at the sign of the Two Whales. The backdrop of orange-kissed clouds framed the blue in complimentary tones. She sniffed; the smell of grease and fat permeated the air outside and Max’s stomach gurgled. She didn’t have much for lunch that day, and she was ready to chow down.
Max spied Chloe’s beat-up, beige truck in the parking lot, shocked that she was actually on time. She remembered her having a habit for being late. A wave of discomfort came over her. Chloe must have been excited for her and Rachel to show. Bravery pushed through her unease and she opened one of the diner doors to enter. A bell chimed twice with its opening and closing, signaling her arrival.
She abruptly stopped with a light gasp.
Everything looked exactly the same, as if she’d stepped back in time. Pamphlets and postcards stood dusty and still in their slots near the restroom entrance. Custom neon signs and old décor plastered the walls and advertised Arcadia’s highlights in fishing and tourism. The ‘high fashion’ t-shirts for the Two Whales still hung above the ventilation and cookery. Even the old gumball machine looked like it contained the same colorful, sugary, round spheres from years ago. She was in a silent awe.
Truckers of the road and fishermen of the bay stooped over the main bar, grumbling with complaints at the lack of alcohol or lack of a good catch respectively. Max remembered her father ‘shooting the breeze,’ as he called it, with them whenever he would stop in for a bite. The other customers had taken seats in the number of 50’s-style, red, leather booths to the left and right, and Chloe stood out amongst them. Her blue hair lit up with the low lights of the eatery and the setting sun of the bay. She recognized another figure standing beside her and smiled wide—Chloe’s mother, Joyce.
Meticulous yet lenient, tender yet tough, and saddled with a quick wit and tongue to boot, Joyce Price certainly wasn’t a woman of complementation to cross. That being said, she was also one of the sweetest people on earth, and was like a second mother to Max. If she wasn’t at her own home, she was at the Price’s, listening to some of Joyce’s words of wisdom or begging for her delicious cooking. The latter came to mind as her stomach sent her another signal of its emptiness. Missing warmth spread throughout her body and the bay’s cold was taken out to sea. The older woman caught her eye and her elongated face pulled into a broken smile. Max met hers with one of respect and joy.
“Max Caulfield,” Joyce said in greeting, the drawl in her voice glazing the surface of her words.
The sun caught Joyce’s blue hair clamp. It held up her blonde locks as she turned to greet the young girl. Her bangs were off to the side and held there, no doubt, by some hair spray to keep out of her eyes. The navy and black Two Whales uniform—a shirt and skirt—held tight to her body. Max thought about Warren’s previous invite to the diner and was glad she didn’t take it. Guilty as she felt about it, seeing Joyce before her daughter would have definitely been a bad move on her part.
“Joyce…” Max’s smile began to wane when she caught Chloe’s rather petulant look.
“Look at you,” Joyce continued. “When Chloe told me you were back in town, I could scarcely believe it. You haven’t changed a bit! Well, maybe you’re a bit taller. Just a bit. Your hair’s cute, too.”
Max straightened a part of her bob and swallowed, shy from the compliment. She let her grin fade naturally as she took a seat across from Chloe. The leather made a low squeak underneath her weight. “You haven’t changed, either, Joyce.”
“Ha! Meaning I’m still the same ol’ diner cook and waitress after all these years?”
Max countered, “Meaning you still look as young and as lively as I remember.”
Joyce’s mouth curved into a smirk and she nodded slowly, hands on her aproned hips. “Nice save, kid.”
Chloe exhaled with force, interrupting the conversation, and brought one of her legs up on the leather seat. She wore her black jacket, Joyce’s old boots, and another signature tank top with graphic print. Her blue hair purpled near the center of her scalp, the beanie that once concealed it now on the corner of the table. The bracketed sunlight coming through the skewed blinds glinted off something Max hadn’t noticed the other day—three bullets on a string around her neck. Once again, she admitted, the accessory suited her new look.
“Right. Yes. Hi, hi. Love all around. Max, where’s Rachel?” Chloe didn’t waste any time getting to the point. Max’s stomach tightened.
Joyce cast an exasperated look at her daughter and pulled out her pad of order tickets. With a sigh she asked, “I see y’all want me out of your hair already. What would the both of you like? You need a menu, Max?”
“Uh…” Max was caught between two different conversations. The fact Chloe didn’t even say hello to her sort of hurt inside, and she thought the Rachel topic would be harder to approach. She turned to Joyce and rubbed her hands together. “No menu. I got this. I’m thinking one of your bacon cheeseburgers!”
She nodded. “Fries?”
Joyce dotted her pen after some fancy swipes and turned to her daughter. “And you, Ms. Cantankerous Chloe? Also, feet off the booth, I just wiped them down.”
Chloe rolled her eyes and sat up straight, throwing her leg under the table and accidentally catching the corner of Max’s shoe. The momentary look of fault came and went and she gave Joyce a faux angelic smile. Max stifled a giggle at the contrast of her face compared to her grungy look.
“I’m feelin’ a chilidog with mustard on top, Momma!”
Joyce scribbled it down whilst mumbling something about fries and no onions. She knew the fine details. She was her mother, after all.
“All right. And is Rachel on her way? Or…” She addressed the girls with her pen pointing between the two.
“Well,” Max began, Chloe’s attention directly on her, “Rachel said her parents needed to talk to her after classes. Did she text or call you at all?” Max asked Chloe, trying not to falter.
Chloe’s face scrunched and she leaned back in the booth. Her mouth straightened into a thin line. She silently mouthed a profanity.
Joyce caught her little slip and frowned. “Relax, Chloe. Besides, you’ve got Max here now. You two can catch up. It has been a long five years. Rachel’s got her own life, too, you know.” Joyce then departed behind the counter to make their food.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Chloe said, crossing her arms.
Max clasped her hands together in her lap and twiddled her thumbs, sudden discomfort playing at her insides. She knew Chloe would be upset. She had a rather juvenile side that Max didn’t always get along with, even when they were younger. Her eyes broke from Chloe’s and she looked out the next booth’s window.
In the distance was another sight of the bay she had missed sorely. The truck ride with Chloe and Rachel hadn’t given her much time to really look at it before, but now that she was sitting still, she gazed out across the ocean to the familiar landmark.
The lighthouse. Smack on the tip of Arcadia Bay’s peninsula was where it stood, guiding all manner of boats to safety. A sight no one could escape, even if they were just passing through. Chloe and she used to go up there all the time when they were kids. Quite a few times was with William. He would take them during the golden hour, and the two would clamber up the spiraled steps until they reached the top. They all leaned over the metal railing and admired the bay, listening to the cries of seagulls and whispers of the wind as the ocean swallowed the sun.
“Max? Helo-o-o-o-o…” The young girl’s eyes shot back to Chloe. She was snapping fingers in front of Max’s face, trying to get her attention.
Max blinked. “Uh…sorry. Zoned out for a second.”
“The Max Caulfield mini-coma,” said Chloe, her mouth twirling up for a second. “So, Rachel texted you that she was going to head home and talk to her mom and dad?”
Joyce, in the meantime, brought the girls some sodas. Max opened her straw, inserted it in the cup, and took a sip. “Yeah. I wondered if she was going to tell you, but I guess not? I guess she figured I’d give you the message.”
Chloe’s mouth thinned again. She rested her head in one of her hands and pulled out a piece of ice from her cup with the other. Promptly, she tossed the cube in her mouth and crunched down, sitting with a thoughtful expression on her face while flicking away drops of the soft drink from her fingers.
The two sat in silence while Joyce cooked. The smell of the bacon burger got Max’s stomach to grumble again. She decided to try and talk to Chloe, though she looked less than interested in waxing vernacular. “So…you and Rachel been friends long?”
Chloe’s eyes met hers before returning to her soda cup. She focused on the carbonated bubbles and didn’t answer right away. When she did it was short. “Going on a few years.”
Max nodded, trying not to be weird as her blue eyes caught some mathematical graffiti etched in the table. It reminded her of Warren. Silverware clattered, and the corner jukebox layered a cloud of cheesy country music around them, making the atmosphere not as awkward as it could be. Still, Max felt that distance, that canyon of uncertainty. It had closed a little with their previous excursion, but not enough, Max knew, to be complete. The thought made her chest tighten.
“Um. I…” She cleared her throat. “I’m glad you found a friend after…you know.”
“After my dad died and you moved? Yeah.”
Oh. Ouch. Chloe’s bluntness was guard-breaking. Max literally winced. She had no idea how to counter that.
Before long, Joyce’s heels clicked against the floor. Both her hands held their dinners. “Order up, girls!”
The two were momentarily thrown from beneath their cloud of tension. The steaming plates of food were set down, and Chloe thusly dug in. Joyce retrieved a bottle of vinegar from behind the bar and sat it down on their table as well. Chloe sprinkled some drops of it over her fries and shoveled a handful into her mouth.
Max’s appetite had suddenly gone, but she made a small attempt for Joyce with a bite of her cheeseburger.
“How’s it tasting, Max? Just like you remember?”
Max forced a smile. “Better than I remember.”
Joyce nodded once again with that smirk. “Very nice save.”
After that bite, Max’s stomach growled, demanding more, but fearing sick. She ate a single fry and fell back against the seat, sighing and rubbing her forehead.
Chloe took a large bite out of her chilidog and gave Max a stare with a hint of concern. She knew that she and Max hadn’t talked in years, and the other day was more of a fluke than a proper meeting. She rolled her eyes and placed her hands on the table.
“Come on, Max. You can at least pretend you’re glad to be back in Bigfootville with me.”
Max looked up and her eyes widened, elated that Chloe was talking somewhat normally to her. “I am happy to be back in Arcadia Bay, happy to see you! I mean…I know when my family and I moved…it wasn’t at the best time. William was…”
What smile Chloe had faded into a frown. She broke eye contact and rolled a fry in a small pool of vinegar. “Can we not talk about that?” Her voice was low.
Max’s mouth shut and she tried to think of something else to say. She wasn’t going to lie and say Chloe’s expulsion from Blackwell didn’t make her curious, but she wasn’t going to bring it up, either. Bad topic. She felt stuck.
Chloe suddenly interrupted, “Max, can I ask you something?”
Her question made Max sit up straight with attention, relieved that she could be on the receiving end of the conversation for the moment. “Hm?”
Chloe hesitated and took another bite of her dog, washing it down with a long drink of soda. “Did,” She paused to smack her lips. “Did Rachel seem a bit off over the phone? Like, was she…fuck, I don’t know…did she sound weird?”
Creasing her brows, Max absentmindedly ate another few fries. She didn’t know how to answer. She had only just met the girl. Chloe would know more about her than anyone. For her to be concerned enough to ask Max ‘left-you-for-five-years-without-a-call-or-a-text’ Caulfield, something had to be wrong.
“What do you mean?”
Chloe tapped her foot against the floor. “Lately, she’s just been really ‘out there’. She’s been distant, and she keeps flaking on me. Yesterday was the first time I’d hung out with her for longer than five minutes in, like, two weeks.”
Max’s look urged her to continue.
“And it’s always some excuse with her parents or school. She’s got good grades and practically everyone at Blackwell likes her, but she’s not that dedicated. I mean, she loves school, but doesn't love school, you know? And her parents are kind of…oblivious.”
“Oblivious of what?”
She breathed in and just let it go. “They keep pressuring her to get more involved with law and shit and just…! Like, she acts like it doesn’t bother her, but I know it fucking does. She doesn’t want to be a goddamn lawyer or whatever the hell they’re expecting her to do! She wants to be a model and get the hell out of here, do what she wants!”
Chloe’s words were heated and sharp, but controlled so no one would overhear. She clearly didn’t have anyone else to talk to about the subject. Max felt a little staggered, and a realization hit her.
“Is that why you were taking about leaving for Los Angeles? To go with Rachel?”
Chloe’s expression turned to that of a child with their hand caught in the cookie jar. It quickly spread into a furrowed brow and vexed frown. She took another bite of her dog and said through a mouthful, “That’s none of your business.”
Another punch to the gut for Max. The worst one yet. “Have you told Joyce about any of this?”
“Why does that matter?” They both shot Joyce a glance to make sure she wasn’t listening too hard as Chloe spoke. “She’s got everything she needs here, anyway. The bay, the diner, and my fucking step-dick. So, who cares?”
Max’s body went numb. Step-dick? Stepfather? “Wait. Joyce remarried? What?!”
Chloe squinted at her before realizing they had never mentioned her stepfather. She made a disgusted noise and a silence wedged between them. Chloe crossed her arms and flicked her head to the side. “Yeah. To a fucking Nazi. Of course you’d already know, seeing as how you’re attending your precious Blackwell Academy.”
Max didn’t like her tone. “Hey! I came back to attend Blackwell, but I never forgot about you! You’re my best friend, Chloe!”
“Bullsh—” Chloe began, but was cut off by one of the diner doors opening. The air pressure around them changed, and the bell gave a ring as it slapped against the knob.
Max and Chloe turned to see the new patron. Chloe’s face contorted. Max’s eyes widened.
“Speak of the fucking devil,” Chloe hissed.
In walked David Madsen. He spotted the girls at their table and Joyce behind the counter, promptly striding up to them.
Joyce’s smile grew wide and exuberant. David greeted her and leaned over the bar to peck her on the lips. Max hadn’t seen her smile like that since…
Her stomach dropped to the floor. Max leaned in to Chloe’s hunched form and whispered in a panic, “David Madsen is your stepdad?!”
On cue, David turned to the girls, his face becoming stern and etched in seriousness. He was still in his security uniform, but his hat was now off. It revealed his dark, flat top haircut. He turned to Max and his eyes glazed over in anger, lips locked tight.
“Figures I’d find you here.” He looked at Max. “Just another one of your ‘friends’ that love to cause trouble, right? You need to stay off the campus, Chloe. That little stunt yesterday…” he trailed off. “Don’t pull shit like that again, do you hear me?” David’s tone was then gravelly, lofty, and directed right at the blue-haired girl.
Chloe’s response was nothing short of sarcastic, “What? Peeling out? Oooh, I scuffed up Blackwell’s prized parking lot! Big fucking deal.” She pointed a finger up and twirled it in the air.
Joyce stepped up to the table, catching the last part of Chloe’s sentence. “Chloe Elizabeth Price! Language!” She placed a hand on David’s shoulder in an attempt to pacify the man. “David. You’ve already grilled Chloe on the situation yesterday. Don’t make a fuss in the diner.”
David’s eyes smoldered and his lids grew heavy. He suddenly looked more than exhausted with everyone and everything around him, and let out an uncharacteristic sigh. He scratched his short, bristly hair and took a seat on one of the stools, twirling to hunker over a mug of coffee Joyce poured for him.
Max was dumbstruck. This was a lot to take in, and she was still in the middle of an argument with Chloe. She hoped that the situation would have shifted, but with Chloe’s expression, which was sourer than ever, that was certainly an amusing delusion. She couldn’t find any words to placate her…friend? Was she still?
The saddened sound of Chloe’s voice brought her out of confusion. “Max?”
Resting her head on tented arms, she looked up. Chloe was angry, but the desperation behind that emotion was unmistakable.
“Can you…can you do something for me?”
Max’s heart leapt. Through her anger, she was asking her for a favor, and Max gave her full attention in hopes of rebuilding their burned bridges. “O-okay. What do you need?”
Chloe’s eyes jerked from David to Joyce and back to Max before she exhaled. A piece of her blue hair was caught in the draft and flipped upwards. “Can you—” She sighed again, cutting herself off. “Can you keep a close eye on Rachel?”
Max sat back, uncomfortable. “You mean, like, spy on her? Chloe that’s…”
“Please! Max, this is important. Something weird’s going on with her, and I’m really worried. Please…”
She looked down at her uneaten cheeseburger. Chloe sounded anxious and paranoid, and the more she stewed in thought, the more uncomfortable she got. She wanted to help, do anything to make her feel better, to become the friend she was five years ago again. It was the least she could do after…everything. But this might be taking things too far.
“I just…I don’t think we should just pry into her business. Like Joyce said, she has her own life. I’ll talk to her if you want and—”
Chloe placed her hands on the table and stood up. She sucked in and blew out a harsh blast of air. “Of-fucking-course. You just don’t get it!”
Joyce and David turned to them, overhearing her exclamation.
“Chloe!” Max murmured, pushing her palms into the tabletop. Her heart began to pound in embarrassment and fear.
“I honestly don’t know what I expected. You didn’t come back to Arcadia for anybody but yourself!”
“Chloe!” David stepped up. “Sit down!”
“Stay out of this and get off my ass!”
By now, a few patrons were whispering amongst themselves, staring at the intensifying scene.
Joyce came between them. “Chloe, you need to settle down! What in the world is this all about?”
After inching out of the booth, Chloe stomped toward the door. “Forget it. Do whatever, Max. I’m out.”
The diner’s door opened and closed again. The bell sounded. Max’s head swarmed. She felt like a knife was stabbed deep into her chest. Chloe’s truck could be heard starting up and screeching out of the lot. Joyce sighed and David returned to his coffee and fresh order of food, both of them looking tired. David was stiffer than Joyce in his movements and rubbed his temples, shaking his head.
Joyce came over to Max and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Max. Chloe’s been flying off the handle like that quite a bit lately. I’ve tried talkin’ to her, but…well…maybe you can help, be a better influence on her now that you’re here. She’ll come around.”
‘Right. I’m nothing short of the shittiest friend in the world.’
She wanted to help Chloe, but spying on Rachel? Wasn’t that a bit excessive? Then again, Chloe and Rachel were close. She would know if something were amiss, right? Maybe she should keep an eye on her. Max scrunched her face and sniffled, trying to digest everything that happened and was happening.
Time crawled by, and she never did eat her cheeseburger. Max felt even more awful because of it. She already let Chloe down…again. Now she let Joyce down. When the maternal figure checked on her once more, she offered Max a to-go box for her food, not upset in the slightest. Max still felt like shit and decided to take just the burger. She was exhausted and most certainly not hungry, but didn’t want to disappoint anyone further.
“I’m sorry you had deal with Chloe like that,” Joyce said as David helped put on her coat. “You want a ride back to Blackwell, sweetheart? David was just picking me up since my shift's over. It’s just a small detour.”
The offer wasn’t lost on her, but while Joyce was talking, she had another thought while taking another look out one of the diner’s windows.
“Actually,” Max opened her bag and retrieved her wallet, readying a payment for the food. “There’s somewhere else I’d like to go, if that’s okay?”
Joyce gave her a smile and a wink, pushing her wallet back into her bag. “Don’t worry about it, Max. Not the ride or the dinner.”
Max’s chest tightened, both from happiness and sadness. She missed little times like this, and a lot more about the bay. She made a reminder to herself to text Chloe after giving her some more time to cool down. She swallowed, not wanting to show her tears in front of Joyce.
Beat-up cars must have been the norm for the Price household. Or, should she call it the Madsen household now? That whole thing was still a shock to her, something she still had to process properly. She sat in the back of the old vehicle, her body shifting on the leather seats as they hit some bumps and potholes. The beacon she longed to visit was getting closer as the car jerked onwards.
Joyce sat in the passenger’s seat and David was at the wheel. The sputtering of the vehicle and whizzing of other cars as they drove broke the awkward, lingering tension. They reached the entrance to the beach parking lot. David swerved in a U-turn in order to ready the car to head back once Max departed.
“You’re sure you want to head up to the lighthouse, hon? It’s getting pretty late and we’ve got some storm clouds heading in for the evening.”
Max paused, her hand already pushing the door open, “No worries. I don’t plan on being too long.”
Joyce sighed and nodded. “All right. You stay safe, you hear?”
Max nodded and her eyes glided to David. He was giving her a brusque look, like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t in Joyce's presence. She ignored it and closed the door, adjusting her bag to sit behind her once more. She was careful not to have her boxed burger flip around too much within. Joyce gave her a little wave and they pulled away, their exhaust grumbling and tires kicking up some sand around the cracked asphalt.
The beach and boardwalk were stretched out across the shoreline. There were only a few parked cars around the area, some abandoned and rusting away in their spots. There was also a trailer she swore she had seen before. Neverminding it, Max looked towards the ocean’s horizon as a breeze ruffled her clothes and hair. She inhaled the salty air and turned around to look at the looming cliffs. Eroded and layered sediments formed the rocky sides and the innumerable trees seemed to be opening their arms to guide her forward, forging an accustomed path for her to follow. She began the climb up, wanting to clear her head and relax now more than ever—from Blackwell, from the contest, from Chloe…everything.
As Max pushed her way up the steepening hill, a strange sight caught her eye. It was a large, sporty, red truck. It was parked in front of the gate that split the hiking trail and lighthouse paths. Illegally, Max might add. It almost completely blocked the entrance.
“What the hell? Who would park all the way up here? Who could? Bastards.” Max grumbled.
She heard a coo and cocked her head. On the truck’s hood was another confusing sight: A lone mourning dove. It’s head darted up and down, eyes this way and that. Its chest rose and fell with its signature, sad cry. Its contrast to the bright vehicle prompted her to reach for her camera and take a shot. With the flash, the bird flapped its wings and took flight. Max watched it go in silence and put the photo in her bag. Her expression softened as she reflected on the small moment of peace. She then squeezed past the truck with what little room was left between it and the gate’s opening.
After, she straightened her gray jacket and looked up. Amazing. The path was still the same. Today really did feel like she stepped back in time. Downtown, the diner, and now the lighthouse. Of course, the trees and rocks had grown and eroded, but everything else still felt unchanged. She could hear the waves lapping against the shore below. The orange and pink clouds were moving quickly through the skies, gray ones beginning to blanket them. That rain Joyce mentioned was coming in. Hopefully not too soon. She wanted to stay for at least a little while.
She used some round, wood pieces, fashioned in the ground as makeshift steps, to keep up her stride. A sign with an arrow indicated the lighthouse was near. And, boy, was it. She could already see the large, metal cylinder poking out above the treetops. Her pace quickened.
Max stopped, goosebumps forming on the back of her neck. The whisper was carried on the wind, and she was suddenly alert to all the sounds and things around her. Turning around, she was met with the return path. Some squirrels darted back and forth between trash receptacles, and large balls of pollen danced in the air. Other than that, nothing. She gulped and slowly turned back, continuing to the flat cliff where the lighthouse stood.
And there it was. A bit rustier, but it was still the same. Everything was. The lighthouse and its rotating signal, the old shack with the rickety roof clanging away in the wind, the map pedestal where she and Chloe marked their tree fort with a skull and crossbones…all of it. In a patch of unkempt grass was a rotted tree truck with another sight that almost brought Max to tears of nostalgia. Carved into it was: Max + Chloe, BFF Pirates, 2008. The tumult of Max’s fears was whisked away with her memories.
She took out her camera again and snapped a picture of the trunk’s etching. Turning, she angled herself by the lone bench overlooking the water and snapped another worm’s-eye view of the lighthouse. The dissipating orange glow reflected off the white metal, trees, and shrubbery. She shook the pictures and put them in her pack, which she shortly removed from her shoulder and placed on the ground.
Max brushed some leaves off the bench and sat down, the cold wood seeping into her butt and legs. She shivered, pulling her limbs in closer. Her lidded eyes gazed past the rocky cliff, noticing the barrier fence broken and rotting away. She thought someone would have fixed it by now, remembering it being already old and breaking when she and Chloe were kids. She shook her head and sat there for a while, losing herself to the memories of the past.
“I guess not everything stays the same…” she said aloud, hoping that somehow her words of regret would be carried to her friend.
Another long moment to herself passed. The clouds were getting darker and the sun was setting past its golden horizon. Max stretched and yawned, picking up her bag and looking at her newly-developed photographs. They came out perfect with the lighting Arcadia Bay provided. Max smiled, satisfied, and returned them to her bag. She thought about the cheeseburger within and the prospect of a late-night snack as well, her smile growing larger.
And then, a color flittered past her eyes.
Bright blue and riding the little currents of the breeze, a butterfly hovered and dipped in an irregular pattern. Max’s eyes widened at its beauty and how it stood out amidst the earthly palette of their surroundings. As if in a trance, Max stood with her camera and began to follow it to the edges of the cliff. It landed on one of the protruding boulders near the broken poles of the wire fence. Carefully, Max made her way to it, her stomach jumping with adrenaline at the sight of water-sloshed rocks below. She angled her camera, making sure to get every part of the butterfly in the viewfinder.
That’s when she noticed something odd. The ocean was reflected through its wings. The butterfly was completely transparent! See-through, like a ghost. Still, Max held her ground and snapped the photo. The flash surrounded her, and when she stood up, she was no longer met with the sight of Arcadia’s beach and waves.
Instead, she was met with the shining, silver surface of a bucket and the cold, blue hues of tile and dry wall.
‘What the…?’ Max looked all around. Behind here was a row of sinks, and she quickly pieced together that the wall beside her was a cubicle, one for a toilet. A public restroom…?
Again she glanced around, the butterfly waving away to perch on one of the sinks. Max was utterly confused, and didn’t feel in total control of her body. She put her camera away as well as the photo of the blue-winged creature. Wait. When did she grab her bag? What the hell was going on? Where was she?
The sound of a door opening quieted her thoughts. Unbalanced footsteps came close and then backed off. Max peered past the corner and her heart crept into her throat.
“It’s cool, Nathan… D-don’t stress… You’re okay, bro. Just count to three…”
The red jacket of his clashed with the unflattering fluorescent lighting. He held his head and then placed his hands on either side of one of the sinks, sounding more than anxious.
“Don’t be scared… You own this school… If I wanted, I could blow it up…! You’re the boss…”
‘What? What the hell is going on?’
“So what do you want?” Nathan spat as the bathroom door opened.
Chloe. It was Chloe. She was there, and she started talking to Nathan.
“I hope you checked the perimeter, as my step-ass would say. Now, let’s talk ‘bidness.’”
“I got nothin’ for you.”
“Wrong. You’ve got hella cash.”
Their conversation blurred together in a mixture of anger—drugs, money, Nathan’s family and reputation. Chloe then pushed him once with a threat.
“I can tell everybody that Nathan Prescott is a punk ass who begs like a little girl and talks to himself—!”
And then, a gleam came from Nathan’s pocket as Chloe pushed him one last time. He pointed the now-unsheathed gun at her best friend.
“You don’t know who the fuck I am, or who you’re messin’ around with!”
‘Shit! Max, do something!’ She willed her body to move, but it didn’t obey. She just stood and watched in terror. ‘Go! Now!’
She didn’t stir.
“Where’d you get that?” Chloe panicked and put up her hands, her guard shattered. “What are you doing?! Come on, put that thing down!”
Nathan now had her pressed against the cold wall. “Don’t EVER tell me what to do! I’m so SICK of people trying to CONTROL ME!” His voice rose several times in an incoherent rage.
‘No…Max! Do something! ANYTHING!’
“You are gonna get in hella more trouble for this than drugs!”
Max’s throat tightened. His next sentence was like taking a hammer to a nail, made her want to scream. But she didn’t. She couldn’t.
“Nobody would ever even miss your punk ass would they?”
Oh, God. ‘MAX! DO SOMETHING!’
“Get that gun away from me, psycho!”
Chloe pushed him away. Nathan stumbled back with her action, pulling the trigger. The gunshot rang out and Chloe’s stomach seeped with blood.
“NO!” she finally cried, stepping out of the corner and holding her hand up.
The world around them swirled, layering them in visual slow motion. Nathan dropped the gun, the clatter of steel and tile adding another stab to the sickening, hollow thud of Chloe’s body hitting the floor. A painful screech penetrated the air, like nails on a chalkboard.
Max felt the beat of a bass drum in her chest, and her body grew heavy. The room around her warped and the bathroom faded from existence. The ocean’s waves crashed against the rock wall once again. Her arm reached for nothing and sliced through the air.
She lost balance, loose rocks and soil crumbling from beneath her feet. Max fell backwards. Her backside met the ground and her camera clattered over the edge, smacking the cliff’s sides as it made a silent splash in the deadly depths below. She, too, began to slide, the dirt betraying her and seemingly pushing her off the edge. Her breath caught and she twisted her body before going over, hands grappling one of the giant rocks while her dangling feet barely scraped another for a foothold. She couldn’t hang on and was slipping with the passing seconds.
“Oh, shit! Fuck! No!” Desperate cries heard only on deaf ears.
Max’s heart squeezed in her chest, pounded in her temples, and there was another noise that began mingling with it. She couldn’t place it, didn’t have the conscious to do so. Frantically, she reached for solid ground, her feet still trying to find a proper hold on the rocks underneath. She only managed to further drain what energy she had, the muscles in her arms quickly giving out.
What the hell was happening to her?! She didn’t want to die! She couldn’t die! Not now! What about Chloe? Her family? Her future?!
Max’s throat opened and she let out a strangled scream as the adrenaline shot through her veins, through her fingertips and toes, through her strained chest, her tight stomach, her racing mind.
The unknown noise grew louder, quicker, clearer. Footsteps? A harsh raking sound followed, and stray dirt rolled by her head as red-jacketed arms slammed down to grapple her own. Her vision shot up.
Max gasped, his name silently leaving her lips as he hung on, their eyes wide and forever blue.
A familiar face. A terrifying face. A terrified face.