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The Listening

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An icy chill spread through her veins. A strong wind slithered through her legs. They grounded her there in the lamplight.

Max held her breath, squeezed her eyes open and shut several times before looking back up to the star-speckled sky. Only one moon. No illusory mirage. Just her.

She breathed, focused, and heaved herself forward through the parking lot and to the pool’s double doors. Entering the vending lobby, the cold was immediately replaced with a stagnant, uncomfortable heat. Meanwhile, her chest began to buzz with the invasion of the bass. She felt nauseated.

Rachel and the others were in a line of people awaiting entry. It was like a legitimate nightclub. Guests were dropping off their coats and bags behind a series of linked tables. It was watched over by…Stella?

‘Crap!’

Dana’s quip about her being a ‘gossip-gab’ wasn’t an exaggeration. Stella was considered head of the rumor mill at Blackwell, always in for a juicy story that had been thoroughly warped by the telephone game. There was always a puckish glint behind her thin-rimmed glasses, one she didn’t want to catch that night. Max stuck close to Rachel, hurrying her way through the black curtains as to not be recognized. That was, perhaps, not her most graceful idea as she stumbled forward into the larger open space.

Max caught her balance and was hit with a bombardment of the senses. The bass carried through her chest, down to her fingers and feet. All manner of smells, foreign and familiar invaded her nose. The lights were fire, blinding, one a swirling spiral that shimmied off the walls this way and that.

Max Caulfield was standing in the middle of a Vortex Club party. She gulped. Her shoulder was too cold, her neck too bare. In that moment, she was most vulnerable, freezing as if all eyes were on her.

Poppin’ bottles in the ice, like a blizzard
When we drink we do it right, gettin’ slizzard
Sippin’ sizzurp in my ride, like Three 6
Now I’m feelin’ so fly, like a G6

Like a G6, like a G6
Now, n-n-n-now, now I’m feelin’ so fly, like a G6
Like a G6, like a G6
Now, n-n-n-now, now I’m feelin’ so fly, like a G6


Someone bumped shoulders with her with an irritated, ‘Watch it!’

It brought her back to the present. Max then let the music level out. Everything became clearer, her eyes darting this way and that to watch for more that wanted to pass by.

There were hundreds of people, some in regular clothing, others in swimwear. Hoots and hollers echoed all around as the music thrummed while people celebrated the night in their own way—drinking, dancing, going for a swim, or an illogical combination of all three. Some were even playing games of ‘Chicken’ in the pool, girls’ screams combining with guys’ laughter at their antics. Some were having foam noodle fights. Some just lounged about on the recreation mats. More make-out sessions like outside. The DJ’s voice in surround sound on the speakers. Clinking glasses in the distance. Smoke streams. Laughter. Clapping.

Flash, flash, flash.

Bass.

It was both mesmerizing and terrifying. If Max had only one word to sum it up, it would be: Chaos.

Max spotted Rachel already getting into the groove as she greeted a number of people. This just became Mission Impossible. She would have to almost be handcuffed to Rachel to keep any sort of watch on her in this crowd. Lucky for her, Rachel came back and began dragging her along. It was like Max watched her body reluctantly go, detached in a submersed panic.

“Let’s head to the VIP section! It’s little less crowded! Plus, that’s where all the good shit is!”

“Good shit?” she asked, trying to match Rachel’s volume.

Either Rachel didn’t hear her, or she was ignoring her as they squeezed through a sea of warm, sweaty bodies toward another curtained area beside a stand. A buff and surly man watched over the entrance. Max shook her head, her mouth opening slightly.

‘This can’t be real. A VIP section with an actual bouncer? Pretentious much?’

There was another girl at the stand. She sat in a state of boredom, leaning forward in her chair, head in one of her hands, looking disinterested in everyone and everything around her, twisting a strand of her red hair until it looked like it was going to sever. She acted like there wasn’t a literal rave happening all around her.

She sighed as Rachel approached. “Name?”

Rachel gave her a look. “Sarah. We’ve been through this how many times now?”

“Whatever, Rachel. I’m just doing my job while Courtney’s off…somewhere. What about her?” She pointed the end of her pen at Max after checking her list.

“She’s with me tonight.”

Sarah curtly exhaled. “Name?”

‘Oh, shit.’

Rachel paused to give Max a glance. In that glance, behind smirk anew, she saw something.

A dare.

Max caught herself. Her determination pushed through as she looked right into Sarah’s eyes, her hands catching on the table.

“Max Caulfield.”

With a cock of her head and a risen eyebrow, the moment became anticlimactic with a few swipes of Sarah’s pen on her pad. “O-o-okay then.” She then reached behind her and grabbed some neon bracelets. “Here. Compliments of the club. Have fun.”

‘Oh. Well. That was easier than I thought it was going to be,’ Max said to herself, ignoring the stroppy feeling of the moment. She slipped on the glowing pink and blue bands over her other rubber ones.

They entered. The music droned, but the heavy black curtains blocked some of its intensity. Around the area, there were a number of fancier pieces of plush furniture and glass tabletops. Also, plastic cups and other familiar pieces of litter like in the parking lot and entrance, but among them were whiskey and martini glasses. There were even some people dancing on the tables, the laser light show creating a strobe effect like multiple flashes from a camera.

She caught a group of people near the back making a toast, Hayden in the middle of two girls sharing a bong. Logan and Zach were also spotted near the bar—Zach with his girlfriend, Juliet, and Logan looking drunk and desperate and flirting with anything that wore a skirt. Meanwhile, she located Courtney conversing with a few other members by the restrooms while Taylor danced her little heart out with some other girls Max didn’t know, her wrists all decked out with the club’s colorful bracelets.

‘The usual suspects, of course.’ Max spurned in her head. ‘No Victoria, though.’ Maybe that was for the best, though her absence created the sense that she was now walking through a field of impeccably-hidden land mines.

Dana and Trevor positioned themselves near the stage with the DJ, who Max recognized—DJ Doom. She couldn’t believe it. Just how much money was thrown into each of these things? She turned back to mention it to Rachel, start a conversation of some sort, but the beauty was already strutting her way toward the bar.

She deflated. “So much for having my back…”

Max decided to move next to one of the many light poles in the vicinity. She scuffled her feet, avoiding tripping on a handful of wires, making sure to keep Rachel ever in sight as the time slowly egged by. She went to pull up her shoulder again and groaned. Right. No fabric. She ignored the itchy feeling the best she could. So far, there was nothing too suspicious.

‘Except the underage drinking. And the drugs. And the possible bouts of sex people are having behind the scenes. Ew, Max! Just…stop.’ A wry laugh joined her wry smile as she flinched at her own inner monologue.

At least everyone was leaving her alone, too busy amongst themselves and their vices. She was blending in, just like she planned, and she texted Chloe an update thusly.

CHLOE:
thnx max. stay safe.

Max put away her phone and glimpsed through the large windows. The spiral light passed by them once again, and Max’s head began to throb. The flashing lights were getting to be too much, already. And then…

She thought she had spied the two moons again, outside through the panes’ reflections. Her vision corrected itself, and for a second, she felt her fingers twitch. It was like her hands were in their own little world, and she wanted to have someone put them together and give them a right smack.

Though this place was absolutely not where she wanted to be, she had to admit that the temporary, colorful blot on Arcadia Bay, this social that came and went like its ocean waves, was rather interesting. The sights, the sounds, the smells—all her senses pushed to their high.

Through it all, she wanted to take a photo.

Her heart sank as she then pictured that muddy cliff, the jagged rocks, the harsh ocean below and how it had swallowed her camera like a black hole. She was lucky it wasn’t her as well and felt a pang of guilt, thinking of him again. Although, this time, she didn’t shoo the thought away. She let it linger in contemplation. Biting her lip, she found herself hoping he was all right, wherever he may be in this ocean of insanity.

A strange whirring noise began raiding the area, it mixed with television-like static but much more potent, building and building until Max thought she was going to double over. She winced. Nobody else seemed to notice.

Oh, the beat's gonna bash gonna break it up
This car's goin' fast gonna speed it up
The night's not gonna last so let's keep it up
We were born to be wasted

The song had changed, and she regained a bit of poise with one or two more breaths. The world around her tinged red, and her body felt like it was being chained down, being crushed. She kept to herself, slowly moving past more partygoers and toward Rachel. There was a need to keep close to her, not caring if she was going to be the stilted bore to her gracefulness. Her head and eyes began to sting.

“R-Rachel…?”

This feeling was just like then.

Like at the lighthouse.

“Lead, follow, or get the hell outta the way!” Someone shouted as they gave her a hefty shove.

Of course, Max wasn’t prepared, and was nearly launched off her feet with a yelp toward one of the occupied sofas to the side. Her body twisted and she landed partially on someone’s leg. The person grunted, and Max was utterly mortified with her humiliating position. Others near them fell into fits of giggles or ‘oohs.’ She looked down at the person’s knee. It was right between…

“Well, well. Someone’s eager to sit on Santa’s lap tonight.”

Max’s face reddened with an intense heat as she attempted to stand up. A rough hand grabbed onto her arm, forcing her back down. She gasped, the sensation speeding up her heart to a hum.

“Hold up! What’s the rush? Stay a while and…enjoy yourself.”

She felt a shudder go up her spine, like someone had dragged ice over her bare skin. For a moment, she stopped breathing altogether. It was somewhat dark, but she didn’t have to see the person’s face to finally recognize the voice cooing into her ear.

Taking her chance, Max shot up, spun around, and backed away. Others, annoyed with her path of escape, bumped and pushed into her to get past with various muttered obscenities. Max, however, was unable to look away from the King of Blackwell himself as he sat in his infamy.

While his peons laughed with a sea of snarky remarks, making the situation all the more embarrassing for Max, Nathan’s cocky grin dispersed into an expression of disbelief when he got a good look at the victim of their plight. His eyes joined hers in width.

Her ears were ringing, body swaying. There was suddenly no loud music, no flashing lights, no air.

Just them.

“Caulfield?!”

With that, she tore away from the scene. At this point, she didn’t care where she was going. Toward Rachel, toward the door, toward death itself—as long as it got her away from Nathan.

‘Best. Ninja. EVER. Max, you idiot!’

It was his club, his party, his school! What did she think was going to happen? Why did she think otherwise? Why did she think of him before? Why did she think of him at all?

Echoing laughter, the tunnel vision, distorted voices.

Flash, flash, flash.

Bass.

‘What the hell? My head feels like it’s going to split in half!”
Her vision was blurring into another smear of red, her mess of thoughts joining the disorganized fray of her surroundings.

Getting stuck between people didn’t help. It just slowed her down, and she soon felt the same rough fingers enclose around her wrist. Nathan pulled her back to face him in the light before doubling back. The confirmation of her presence was a clear shock to his system.

“Whu—What the hell are you doing here?!” He cried, eyeing her up and down. His cheeks were rosy. Whether it was from his evident alcohol consumption or what embarrassing event just transpired between them, Max didn’t know.

Tongue-tied was putting it mildly. Her appendage could have been the shape of a pretzel at this point. She could do nothing but silently stutter while she, too, gave him a lookover.

He sported his coiffure in all its gelled glory. A blue and white baseball cap, now held in his free hand, had been concealing it until now. He wore a dark gray sweater-vest complete with a white collared shirt and red tie underneath. It was untucked and peeking out the base of the vest. His undershirt’s sleeves were pushed up to his elbows, showing off an expensive-looking gold watch and an assortment of the party’s neon bracelets. Jet-black pants and matching boat shoes were worn for his lower half, looking seamless and form fitting.

Her gaze, she grasped, may have been lingering longer than he would have liked, longer than what she considered reasonable. Judging by his expression and her insight, both were true. She abruptly dropped her eyes to the floor, her face growing even hotter at her asininity.

He also let her arm go, realizing he was still gripping it with an unneeded intensity. His head spun. One, from the various drinks and ‘remedies’ he’d taken thus far that night, and two, from getting up as fast as he had. There was a third reason, but he wouldn’t admit it even to himself: Max looked…good. And he was drunk…ish. He took a much-needed breath. He’d realized, maybe, why she had looked appealing in the moment.

“Are those Rachel’s clothes?” His face contorted at the familiar ensemble.

Max snapped her head up and looked at herself, suddenly uncomfortable in her own skin. She hated it, suddenly hated all of it. Why did this have to happen?

“And if they are?”

His brows rose at her impudence. “You…You don’t even know Rachel! So, how the fuck—!”

“For your information, she’s the one who invited me here tonight!” Max interrupted with a scowl, matching his attempted intimidation. She really didn’t want to deal with this attitude of his, and definitely not when he was inebriated. It only made her more frustrated when she thought about him last night—vulnerable and…different.

Nathan stopped, took a moment to recall that morning. Why else would she have been there with Rachel and the other girl? The more he thought about it, the bigger and droller the smile got on his face. He then started to snicker. With Max’s babyish, squished, pissed-off face, he only laughed harder, holding his stomach and hunching over for balance. He couldn’t stop himself.

“What the hell’s so funny?” she retorted, the current song doing another change as people kept pushing past them left and right. No lyrics, just a steady beat. Max tried to focus her strength with that of the music.

Nathan wiped his eyes. Pieces of him were saying he looked ridiculous, but the rest of him didn’t care, or that he was clogging traffic. His mind was on another plane. And her face. Her face…

“Holy shit. Ho-o-o-oly shit. ‘Max Amber.’ That’s fuckin’ hilarious! You don’t even know.” He was having a hard time catching his breath.

“What?”

Nathan straightened, clenched his hands, and shook his head. “So, if she invited you, where is she?”

Max creased her brows and looked to where she had last seen the girl. Rachel was gone.

‘Dammit!’ She was supposed to be keeping an eye on her!

When Max tried to leave, Nathan held her back again. She glared and exclaimed, “Let go!”

Nathan gave her a smirk. “Why are you really here, Caulfield?”

Max didn’t want to ask what he was implying, and Nathan didn’t know exactly why he implied it. Yes, she had come for Chloe’s sake, but the both of them already knew somewhere that they were going to meet again, sooner than later, one way or another.

She held his stare, forcing her hand from his. “You crashed into that doe. It was dead. We both saw that it was.”

He squinted, wishing he’d kept his loose liquor lips shut.

“For God’s sake, Nathan! You even took a fucking picture of it! I watched you take a picture of it!” she emphasized.

Nathan looked away. He didn’t want to think about that. Or this. His nightmares. The journal. His mother. Max.

Anything.

He was working on blocking it out. At least for the time. His nose crinkled and he glared at her.

“Nice, Cockfield. You seriously came here to crash my party and bitch at me about some mediocre horseshit. That’s just like your desperate, twee ass. Why don’t you just drop it and leave?”

“We both saw that ghost, and you know it. And who’s the one that showed up at my door last night? What was that all about?” She once again tried to match his expression, stay on his level, pulling the memory out of hiding as a shield.

Still, she wanted to know. Wanted to know why she gave in so easily to him in an embrace. So many questions to answers she was beginning to think didn’t exist.

“Jesus Christ, you’re even worse than Victoria sometimes! ” Nathan gave her a middle-finger salute and turned to walk away.

‘And what the hell does that mean?’ Max went to snap back in further confusion, but was interrupted.

“Well it’s about time! Thought you two’d never find each other!”

It was Rachel. In one hand she held a semi-full glass of unknown, light-brown liquid. In the other, a full glass. Both had a fancy citrus garnish. She held it out to Max with a silly smile, her cheeks almost matching the intensity of Nathan’s.

‘Oh, God. Is she drunk? Already?’ Max’s expression contorted, and she felt a sense of isolation root her to the spot.

“Thought I’d grab my date here a drink. Bit rude of me not to, you think?” She giggled, handing Max the mixture without the option to refuse.

“Umm, is this…iced tea?” she questioned with an innocent smile.

She wondered why she bothered to ask. Max knew there was no way it was non-alcoholic with its strong odor. Rachel sipped from her glass with an exaggerated ‘ahh.’ Max wasn’t about to do much else except stare at it, feeling a sense of coercion and pressure bear down on her.

Nathan’s eyes widened anew, still processing the previous proclamation Rachel had announced. “Date?”

“Mm-m!” Rachel sipped again, catching herself before fully answering. “Don’t give me that jealous look, Nathan Prescott. You had all the time in the world, but tonight, Maxine is all mine.”

Nathan’s face further reddened as he rolled his eyes and shifted his weight, stuffing a hand into one of his pockets and mumbling something to himself. Max didn’t catch it, but Rachel substantiating them being there together, no matter how embarrassingly she did it, resulted in a surge of triumph and relief.

“Oh, come on, Nate. No pouting allowed!” Rachel gave Max a nudge. “And Ma-a-a-ax? You promised me a dance, remember?”

The surge of triumph was replaced with one of terror. “I—wha? But—!”

Nathan flicked his eyes to Max’s, a low chuckle making its way to the surface. “Did she now?”

‘Bastard.’ Now he was celebrating. It was plain to see on his smug face.

Rachel quickly finished off her drink and sat the empty glass on a nearby table. With an annoyed breath, she grabbed one of Max’s hands and one of Nathan’s. “Yes! And you should join us!”

Now Nathan had his own look of alarm, albeit more subtle than Max’s. “Uh. What?”

She began pulling them toward a more open area, both of them reluctant and resisting while she added, “All you do is sit back and watch the fun from your dark and broody throne.”

“I…do not!” he exclaimed, pulling back and releasing himself from her grasp.

She swerved around, laughed, and stripped off her jacket, tossing it onto an arm of a sofa. “Come on, you two!”

Max and Nathan exchanged glances, a connection forming within their uncertainty. Max thought everything was turning into one giant mess. Nathan just wanted to get the hell out of there, a dizziness making the room sway and his head feel like it was full of water. Max felt the same, the redness returning, the buzzing growing louder and louder from its unknown source.

As Rachel began to move her body to the music, egging them to join as another new song played, Nathan made his way through the crowd toward the bar. Max was torn. Only he could give her answers she wanted, but the loads on her legs grew heavier as if Chloe herself were pulling them to the ground, making sure she didn’t stray from the plan.

I don't wanna be turned away again
‘Cause you didn't wanna dance
You know I know you wanna take my hand
So gimme another chance

You wanna kick it with me
Better start moving your feet
‘Cause you've been stuck on the wall like a wallflower
I don't wanna be turned away again
‘Cause you didn't wanna dance

Max’s mouth formed a solid, annoyed line at the lyrics. It really was like Chloe was there, yanking on the chains around her legs, calling her out in some form. She clenched her hands, letting Rachel do her thing, hopeful she would work off the amalgamation of alcohol in her system she put there so quickly.

Then, against her better nature, Max followed Nathan, taking the drink Rachel had given her. Nathan had already begun to down a few shots when Max placed the mixture in front of him, the clank of the glass giving him a bit of a start.

“What kind of drink is this?”

Nathan sighed, slurring his cynicism as he answered with another smirk, “Iced tea.”

She rolled her eyes at his mockery of her earlier inquiry. “Cut the crap, Prescott.”

He was already upset with her accusatory tone. “A Long Island Ice Tea. Now go fuck yourself.”

“What’s in it?”

He downed another shot. “Excuse me?”

“What’s in it?” she enunciated with a glare.

Nathan shuffled his jaw, fingering the shot glass with irritation. “The fuck’re you on about?”

“We’ve been here for maybe an hour and Rachel’s already buzzed!”

“Oh, wow. You’re shitting me. It’s a Long Island Ice Tea, genius. There’s a novel’s worth of ingredients in that hurricane you’re holding. You’d know that if you weren’t such a fuckin’ virgin.”

She stopped, smelled the drink again, and let out a long sigh with a bothered frown.

He added, “And haven’t you gotten the hint? Rachel loves to drink. Rachel loves to dance. Rachel loves to party. Begs the question why she invited your lame ass in the first place.” Another shot seared its way down his throat.

Max felt that blow. Besides the plan with Chloe, she honestly wondered the same. Gathering herself and clearing her head the best she could, given the incessant buzzing still in her ears, she glanced again in Rachel’s direction. She hated to admit, as the girl lost herself in her own world, that he was right. From the moment she officially met Rachel, she knew. They were complete opposites.

Max’s stomach lurched the more she sat on those thoughts, thoughts that were crashing together like a wreck from which one couldn’t look away. Back to Rachel she glimpsed, still dancing, still living it up. Max knew she shouldn’t be here. It should be Chloe. Chloe would know what to do. She’d have the gall to dance like no one was watching. She wouldn’t give a rat’s ass.

Yes, Rachel was the complete opposite of her in every way…as was Chloe. Now more than ever.

Five years had done its work, indeed.

Even so, when they were younger, Chloe was always more upfront, more daring, more courageous, more…not her. It was why she was the ‘Captain’ of their adventures, drawing the maps, plotting the course, staying the winds. Now the mast was at Max’s command, and she felt like was utterly failing at charting these unknown waters, watching her ship rapidly sink, lost in Arcadia’s vast sea.

‘God damn this headache…’

Max’s legs began to feel wobbly. She slowly descended on the stool next to a surprised Nathan, turning her attention to the amber liquid in the glass once again.

Amber.

Rachel Amber.

Max observed the glass’s shifting ice through streaming water droplets. She gave the beverage another sniff, and then, with a second’s reluctance, put the glass to her lips. A harsh, tart blast of flavors hit her tongue, made her wince before she swallowed, the sweetness coming only afterward.

The mixture encompassed its procurer to a T.

What was she doing? She never drank. Never had the desire to. But, anything past a cheap beer she could get at a backyard bonfire with Kristin and Fernando back in Seattle was nonexistent. And for her, the taste of beer was abysmal. Stuff like this she never thought she’d get her hands on until she turned twenty-one. Of course, she had her chance with Chloe and that damn wine, but again, she ruined the moment with her hesitance, her fear. Always waiting behind a safe line.

But, on the other hand, was it worth the risk to cross?

She fought with herself as Chloe’s voice repeated, “After five years you’re still Max Caulfield.”

The words burrowed into her bones. With a scowl, Max took another drink, letting it swish over all her taste buds before swallowing. This time, a tingly sensation intruded, followed by a sudden sense of stepping over that line of safety to which she couldn’t retreat.

The strangest thing about it was…Max didn’t care.

With the shot glass stopped halfway to his mouth, Nathan watched her in a state of stupefaction and awe. “Either I’m more fucked up than I think I am, or I’m witnessing Maxine Caulfield actually drink at a Vortex Club party.”

She pushed out a mini snort. “Maybe it’s both.”

Nathan actually let out an unhinged cackle at that. He let a hand cover his mouth, trying to be casual in his hidden embarrassment and turning away. His heartbeat was heavy in his ears and cheeks, could be felt over the intensity of the music with the rush. He swiveled back, slowly as to not become dizzier, and gave her another glance. There was a second where he wanted to burst out again, but covered it up by clearing his throat. Even if he was somewhat intoxicated, it was Max Caulfield who made him laugh. That was most certainly going against the status quo.

Max took a larger nip of the drink, the blend catching and going down the wrong pipe. She coughed, a hand to her chest.

“Jesus, Caulfield. Don’t choke.”

Her blue eyes, looking more watery than usual, gave him another glare. “Like you’d care if I did.”

His brows and mouth scrunched, trying not to laugh once more at her poor attempt to throw him sass. “Someone’s having a rough night.”

She didn’t answer, just stared ahead with a look of despondency.

Nathan huffed and flagged down the bartender, letting the guy pour him yet another shot. He drank it back with ease, his stomach gurgling with a warning. He took a deep breath and the feeling passed. He wanted to ignore her look. It reminded him too much of himself.

“You seem to be having a rougher night than me,” she said, allowing her finger to trace the rim of her glass.

“And what, pray tell, makes you say that?” he asked, eyes half-lidded, observing her purple nail polish with a sardonic smile on his face.

Max gave him another lookover. He could pass for Quasimodo considering the hunch he was sporting over the bar. “Don’t you think you’re overdoing it just a bit?”

“Lemme think.” He paused for effect. “Nah.”

He was about to put another round to his lips when Max’s hand pushed the glass back down. Nathan’s head snapped in her direction, his incensed expression softening only when he saw her look of concern. She dropped her vision to the floor again, his icy glower too extreme. She was just as confused with her own bravery, wondering why she kept going down this rabbit hole. She blamed the alcohol. She could use that excuse now, right?

He grimaced. “You’re doing it again.”

She pulled back. “Huh?”

“Worrying. About me. ”

Her eyes widened. “I—”

“I already told you to knock it the fuck off. It’s annoying.” He tried scooting away from her without much success, chugging the next bit of liquor.

Max doubled back in humiliation. Why was it that, even getting trashed, he could point out her folly? Was it really such a bad thing to worry? Here was the King of Blackwell, sitting on his ‘broody throne’ as Rachel had said, letting the kingdom around him become anarchy while he became the embodiment of apathy. It made her wonder…

“Where’s Victoria?” For what was a king without his queen?

“I ‘unno.” He slumped forward on his arms, but not before scanning the area, as if looking for someone.

Maybe the very person she mentioned? She couldn’t read him at the moment as she, too, came forward on her arms to match him.

Nathan then pulled out his phone, putting it away after checking it with a frown. “Sick of me already, are ya?” he added out of the blue with a strangely calm expression.

“No, I—wait, what? Um…” She shook her head, perplexed. It was like he didn’t want her to leave. Though, to be fair, she refused to go in the first place. “No. I was just wondering.”

“Why? You hate her.” He literally had to bite his tongue in order to not say more. To not say that she hated him, too, so what was her point?

“Uh, more like she hates me.”

Max sat up and tilted her glass back and forth. The drink was only half-empty, but she’d had enough and proceeded to push it to the side. Her body tingled, feeling its effects. It even dulled the loudness in her head to a light hum. She didn’t want to find out how duller it would get if she drank the whole thing, stopping while she had some sense still intact.

“No, she doesn’t.”

“What?” She could barely hear him. He was mumbling.

Nathan turned his head toward her again. Eyes dilating, they wandered over her profile, her exposed neck and her freckled shoulder, all angles reflecting with different shadows and focuses as the multicolored lights flashed. Down to Rachel’s torn jeans, a style he wouldn’t admit she was actually pulling off, to her boots resting on the stool’s steel footrest. His gaze went back to her eyes. They still looked watery. Tear-filled.

He lost sense of himself. He had to focus on something else. The problem? He couldn’t. All of his thoughts were bobbing free in a sea of spirits.

“D’you…” he started, squinting and leaning slightly closer to her. He clamped shut. Somewhere inside there was a final padlock being carelessly left open.

Max looked right and left, wondering if maybe he’d meant to get someone else’s attention. “Y-Yeah?”

He slid his tongue over his teeth, his eyes fixated on her face. “Y’ever found the Big Dipper?”

Mouthing the beginnings of words, but never having them form, Max stared. She was utterly confused. And uncomfortable. “The…Big Dipper?”

His body began to shake in a silent laugh. “Yeah.” He brought a finger to her nose, moving it in a haphazard fashion.

Max started, nearly going cross-eyed at his abrupt action. She brought a hand up to his arm and grabbed it. “What are you doing?”

His concentration went slack, his posture falling. “Whaddoes does it look like? Hold still.”

Her face twisted and corner of her mouth lifted up. “You’re being weird. And you’re totally wasted.”

It took all he had to not unleash another uncontrolled laugh. “Pfft. Not quite. And being weird’s your job.”

Her expression changed to one of doubt and offense.

He sighed when she began to fidget in her silence, bringing down his hand, away from hers in reluctance. “Whatever. Nevermind.”

Max took a moment to mull over his previous action. Her eyes then widened, her cheeks brightened. ‘Oh, my God. The Big Dipper…For the love of—’

The dejected look he had reminded her of a child. Almost like Chloe’s petulance in a way. Max rolled her eyes, remembering similar expressions from the both of them in a certain diner.

She replied in a sarcastic manner, “Well, I don’t know about the Big Dipper, but I’ve found Orion’s Belt a few times.”

“Wha-a-a-at? Bullshit.”

“No, really.”

“Hmph. Where? Show me.” He demanded, coming forth and slipping one of his hands around her jaw and neck to get a better look.

He was now way too close for comfort. She jerked back, but Nathan didn’t relent, his gaze in a deep concentration on her freckled face.

“N-Nathan…! I was kidding! B-Back off!”

But he still wasn’t letting go. In fact, he was recalling his dream from that morning, vision dropping to the sparkly gloss on her lips. A steep contrast to the crimson blood that once coated them, coated his thumb. His eyes met hers, and, like the bathroom mirror, the doe’s eyes stared back.

Nathan could almost taste the salt from the ocean’s gales. The nightmare was too close, too real.

He gasped, it grounding him, and his hand loosened. The strands of hair by her ear grazed his fingers. They dared him to repeat himself, push them to the side, reverse his hold and just…

Nathan swiveled around, hands folding themselves on his lap. He swallowed a large lump that had formed at the base of his esophagus. It nearly choked him. There was hidden shame, but he couldn’t yet feel its full effects, too numb thanks to the whiskey. Instead, he lost his thoughts within the multitude of glass bottles behind the bar, stilled on their shelves, merging colors with the lights.

Max finally caught her own breath, heart not only racing in fear, but also with a mixture of other sensations. What the hell was wrong with him?

On that thought, she asked herself, ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’

They sat in an awkward silence for quite some time before the song changed once again.

Flash, flash, flash.

Bass.

Has anything like this ever struck you?
If ever a likeness had you scraping at pockets of air
Whatever you’re like when you came in
Whatever you use, whatever you choose
Whatever your acronym

Someone in the distance shouted, “MORTAL KOMBA-A-A-T!”

Max remembered where she was, breathing in the sights and sounds once more. She stifled a laugh. The beat did sort of sound like the famous video game theme. It broke the tense atmosphere Nathan had suddenly pushed on her. It also, however, got her to realize that she was within chaos once again. Too loud, too bright.

Too ‘not her.’

DJ Doom’s voice announced over the speakers, “All right Blackwell Academy! Show me what you’ve got! Get on that dance floor!” Applause and whoops followed as the lights began another epileptic laser show.

“Nathan! Max!”

The two looked through a parting of people to Rachel. She waved her arms, begging them to come join her, even so much as placing her hands together in a prayer gesture with a pouty lip.

Max couldn’t help but smile. She looked so cute. ‘What was that about no pouting allowed, Rachel?’

“Ahh…” Nathan stretched, pushed his cap and glass to the side, and raked his hands though his hair. He stood up and exhaled. “Fuck it.”

“What are you doing?” The words had left her mouth before she could stop herself.

Nathan scoffed and gave her a look. “Something you and your Orion’s Belt are shit at. It’s called having fun.”

She hummed low, qualm taking over her façade. “I think our ideas of fun slightly differ, Nathan.”

He stood there, staring her down again, rattling his brain before throwing all caution to the wind. He lifted his palm out to her. “You willing to bet on that?”

Rachel had already begun to dance anew. Nearby were Dana and Trevor, enjoying their time together, even though it looked like Trevor wasn’t getting into the groove like his date. Nevertheless, he danced. Everyone raved. Everyone was enjoying his or her evening. Everyone was having fun.

And here was Nathan Prescott, offering his hand to her to do the same.

“Come on…Chicken!”

She could hear Chloe’s voice from the past. Beads of sweat formed on her brow, like Nathan’s, shining in the spiral light that passed over them once more. Heat re-rose into her cheeks. She tried to tuck some hair behind her ears, but caught herself in her unfamiliar form—‘Right. Hair up, dummy.’

He regarded her rather submissively. If she didn’t know better, she would say he actually looked attractive, what with his posh clothes and hair, holding out his hand to her in the guise of a gentleman. A wolf in sheep’s clothes, she was certain. Still, her heart kicked up, battling against the bass of the room, her limbs shivering with, she couldn’t believe, anticipation.

However, she couldn’t help but say aloud, “I…I can’t dance. I don’t dance.”

He produced a sly grin. “And you don’t drink.”

She hesitated, feeling more heat push its way into her cheeks. She stared at his hand as if it were some foreign object giving off an aura of death. Then again, maybe it was. She saw him pull a gun on Chloe after all. At least she thought.

And she saw a ghost doe. No, they saw a ghost doe.

And she rewound time.

Right?

Her thoughts fell into another blur. A clock ticked in her head. She was still here for Chloe, still keeping an eye on Rachel. Maybe not as a ninja anymore, but…as a cunning spy! Undercover Max. Sure. She could go with that. Whether it was her thinking straight through the alcohol, or not thinking at all because of it, she lifted her hand to hover over his, feeling the warmth he was giving off before it fully enveloped her.

A soft hand. He remembered it in the diner. It was comforting. He led her through the crowd without delay, his shrewd smile lessening, changing into something more genuine.

And to Max’s amazement, Nathan eased himself into dancing right along with Rachel. Another bombshell? Despite the number of shots she’d seen him down in the time she was there, plus the addition of whatever else he’d put in himself beforehand, he was actually coordinated, actually…good.

And did he ever look good.

And she felt good.

It was all…good!

But she still couldn’t dance. There was no way. So, she stood there, watching Rachel and Nathan groove and semi-sing to the song, lyrics to which she was catching onto. The cadence just wouldn’t accompany her.

You started what would sound
A speech on how you moved around
You told them all so well
I had them memorized
You bored us all to tears
But here’s the ground and there’s your feet
And never the two shall meet

“Look at this! What finally motivated you, Nate?” Rachel asked, bumping her hip with his with a laugh.

“Friend of mine. His name’s Jack Daniels. Maybe you’ve met him?”

“Many a time. Many. A. Time.”

Max looked all around, bobbed on her feet. The Awkward Penguin Dance at its finest. Okay, so maybe she did mind looking this dumb. Why did she take his hand again?

‘Shit.’

Nathan shook his head at her, cupping his mouth and crying over the noise, “Move your hips, Caulfield! Or lack thereof!”

“Arms in the air!” exclaimed Rachel.

Even Dana was giving her gestures of encouragement. “Just let loose!” Max finally heard.

“Shake that bony, white ass!”

Max heard it in her ear. ‘Chloe?’

She turned, but Chloe was nowhere to be seen in the out-of-control horde. She swerved back, on guard, trying to process the things her peers had said.

‘Hips. Or lack thereof…? He’s such an ass! And arms in the air…like I just don’t care…? Jesus, Max, you’re such a loser.’ She started to sway and dip, her movements gradually blending with the song, much to her own surprise.

What have we started, what became?
Don’t get found out again
What have we started, what remained?
You saved our lives again

‘Just let loose!’

She pictured Rachel and Chloe at the junkyard, high with the rain falling on their concrete sanctuary, Chloe’s smiling face as she teased with that sharp tongue of hers—“Can’t dance hippie, come on!”

Nathan and she were pushed closer in the mob as the song intensified. There was a second where she caught the scent of his cologne mixed with the heat and sweat surrounding them. It somehow increased her thrill. She did her best to meet his rhythm, mouthing along with him after getting a few of the words down, their voices lost within the bedlam, giving life to the libretti.

“They say that either you’re out or you’re in, or you’re o-o-on!”

Low to the ground, lower and back up!

“They say that either you’re out or you’ll swim, on your o-o-own!”

Repeat the moves again, and…

“Don’t get found out again!” They both ended, and, together, they laughed.

Max wouldn’t have believed it, but she was there. In the midst of this insane mosh pit, Max was having honest-to-God fun with Rachel Amber, and, dare she confess, Nathan Prescott.

The latter, who was shaking his head in utter disbelief, couldn’t help conceding himself to the happenings. He gave Max a brief round of applause. Max blushed and accepted it with a firm nod and a rather cute look of triumph, if he were to say.

She turned away, feeling awkward and elated at the same time with his silly, inebriated sincerity. She figured she’d take it while she could; outside this moment, she was sure it wouldn’t last long.

The DJ applauded, thanking Blackwell and the Prescotts for allowing him the privilege to be there, and wishing the football team luck with their game tomorrow. As the song ended, unifying with another new one, a chorus of cheers erupted.

“B-I-G-F-O-O-T!” chanted some of the all stars.

Dana joined in, reciting a part of her field routine with other members of Blackwell’s cheerleaders. “Blackwell doesn’t know defeat! Bigfoots, stomp ‘em with your feet! Bigfoots STOMP!” She high-fived Trevor afterward, who gave her a big smile and a hug in the excitement.

Max chuckled, perused the crowd, hoping to talk some of her high out with Rachel, ask her how she did as a ‘Vortex Virgin.’ The rush she was experiencing died down in a terrified haste. She couldn’t locate the party girl. Not behind, not to the sides, not at the entrance or the bar.

Rachel was nowhere to be seen.

She was suddenly pushed by another group of wild partygoers. Letting out a yelp, she stumbled right into Nathan. He caught her before she fell to the floor. Her head lay on his chest, a mixture of scents that reminded her of the Long Island Ice Tea coming to a head. The soft material of his vest and his warmth was a consolation to the cold, damp tile. She brought her reddened face up to his. Nathan’s blue eyes pierced through the purple and red haze of the large room.

And she was caught again. In the net he continuously cast with that icy stare of his. A look that was changing as the seconds passed.

Changing into the one she had only recently become accustomed with.

Last night. In the dormitory hall.

As for Nathan, he wasn’t masking his incredulity. He couldn’t. He gave her a sideways smile, trying to cover for himself. “Just, uh, can’t get enough of me tonight, can you, Max?”

He didn’t sound like himself, especially not when he used her given name. Her mouth opened. Closed. Stayed shut. She couldn’t find the words to retaliate as her head swam and blood pulsed.

The crowd erupted again, and the crowd squished them further. The two fell to their knees, having to use each other for balance. Their vision met at the low level. Both froze within their proximity, a sea of celebratory people surrounding them, encasing them in a world of their own.

Nathan began falling back into his memory, his dream, the music and screams fading into nothingness. The tendrils were coming back for him, releasing from her depths to pull him under. He couldn’t stop them.

Maybe this time he didn’t want to.

Who cared about what happened to that doe, if what they saw was real? Their fateful meeting at the lighthouse? Last night’s embraces? Who gave a shit?

Oh. Right. She did.

And maybe he did, too.

Nathan grit his teeth in secret, pushing the thoughts aside. That’s not what tonight was about. Tonight was about…He struggled to find the reason. Without the Everyday Heroes winner, by all accounts, this party shouldn’t have even been happening. Not that he was complaining…much.

To stop the swarm inside, he squeezed her limbs. She was real. This was real. It had to be. His hand then went from her arm, up her neck, and back to its position from before while at the bar. More softness. He even dared to do what he hadn’t before, and moved some of her hair with his fingertip, wading into waters he knew he shouldn’t.

Max stopped breathing. She held her ground, didn’t flinch, not even when his hungry gaze dropped back to her glossed lips. Her hands tightened on his shoulders.

Closer he leaned. His lips parted, as did hers. Nathan flicked his eyes to hers for a second. They were lax, closing like his. Heart skipping, he leaned closer still. A screaming in his head tried to penetrate his actions, telling him to stop before he crossed his own line of safety. He ignored it. It wouldn’t be the first time.

She smelled the alcohol on his breath as it mixed with hers, potent yet smooth. “N-Nathan…” Her own mind was screaming for them to halt whatever this was, but she was too lightheaded, too caught up in the unversed high in which she found herself. “I-I—We—”

“Max…” That didn’t help—whispering her name like that to hush her, his voice low and husky. It was accompanied with the smallest shake of his head.

“Listen to Arcadia Bay…” Nathan heard. It caused him to stop dead.

Her nails were now burrowing through his clothes, a tight gasp leaving her lungs and bringing the both of them fully out of their spell. The music blared and the lights became too bright. They separated and stood apart.

Max’s chest then squeezed along with her stomach. Everyone began to move slower in her peripherals, slowing to a crawl outside her cone of vision. Slowing down, speeding up, rippling, layered, red.

‘No! Not again! Not now!’

As if things weren’t bad enough, Max held her head and spied through a parting of people, Victoria. She was standing on her tiptoes over some taller members, a vexed, if troubled expression painting her visage. Her stomach did a flip. She shouldn’t have drank. She shouldn’t have danced. She shouldn’t have taken her eyes off Rachel!

She simply shouldn’t have been there.

She let Chloe down…

Victoria made it to them, slapping Nathan on his shoulder. “Where the hell have you been?”

Nathan rolled his eyes and exhaled. “Where does it look like?”

The chic girl widened hers and pointed to Nathan’s initial location, the sofa. She looked more than frazzled, her stylized pink cashmere riddled with a few wrinkles, some split ends standing up in her normally-immaculate pixie cut. “Do you know how many people I’ve had to take care of in that cool-down corner? There’s a dozen or more that—”

“Victoria, relax!” Nathan took her hands as she resisted with purse crimson lips. “They’ll be fine. It’s all good.”

Like a slow-motion effect from a movie, Nathan’s mouth formed syllables. Max felt like those words were going to haunt her for the rest of her life. It was most definitely not all good. How could she let this happen? Frozen to the spot, a bubbling panic seized her once more. Her upper lip felt wet, and she brought the back of her hand to wipe away the moisture. It came away with another smudge of red.

Blood. Another nosebleed.

“Nathan, you’re supposed to be—” Victoria was cut off again, but of her own volition this time. When her bulging orbs met those of Max’s, her mouth came ajar in stunned silence.

There was nothing for Max to drag out of her word banks, no excuse. No way she could focus on the now. There was too much that had happened too fast, too much currently happening that not even she could explain. And she was tired of having more questions than answers.

“What. The fuck.” Her livid vision flicked between Nathan and Max before settling on the former, hard, looking like a puppy he had just kicked. “You…”

Nathan must have finally realized the situation, closing his eyes in a restrained scowl, a hand to his dipped-down head. He muttered a curse.

“Are you fucking kidding me right now?! What is she doing here?!”

“Hold on, Victoria.” Max began, her body on fire from pain. Victoria was quicker, putting up a hand to Max’s face before she could further explain.

“What is going on?” Victoria’s voice had softened, but still carried that hurt-filled lilt.

“Vic. I…” Nathan trailed off. He let a hand rest on his neck, looking up from the ground, his jaw visibly tightening. When he didn’t continue, Victoria sharply turned on her heel.

There was a new commotion rising a few yards away. A deep roar from the crowd sent a group of people flying toward them. Someone had tried a stage dive off one of the tables! Like dominoes they fell with the failed attempt, various screeches and cries from boy and girl alike penetrating the music’s pulse.

Max clenched her jaw. It was like the sound was magnified tenfold. Someone elbowed her in the back and she stumbled forward again with a grunt. When she regained balance, she saw the line of collapsing people spread into something much larger in front of her, all leading toward the pool.

Victoria was headed straight for the fray. Nathan was trying to follow, but the horde of people got worse. “Fuck! Wait! Victoria!”

Several had tumbled into the water, more cries sounding off. Victora wriggled her way right into the path of mayhem, and someone instinctively reached out to catch their balance. In doing so, they grabbed a chunk of Victoria’s clothes, and pulled her straight in with them. Her scream echoed all around above everyone.

A hand came to Max’s mouth, and then, she held it out, as if she could somehow reach the girl from where she was standing, and it began to happen again. The whirring and buzzing, the garbled voices from nowhere, and then…

With her scream drawing back into her lungs as a reversed demonic shriek, Victoria rose from the pool. Droplets made their way back into the water. The spiral light came ‘round and passed over the opposite way. The music droned into a creepy inverse melody of slow synthesizers and moans.

Everything around her moved backwards.

‘Oh, my God.’

Max continued to hold out her hand, backing up the scene even further. She fell into a state of incredulity, letting herself go only when Victoria was re-talking with Nathan. Like pressing play after rewinding an old tape, the scene restarted, and it was playing out exactly like it had before.

Victoria turned to leave, Nathan tried to follow, and the girl ended up underwater once again.

So, Max held out her hand another time. Sweat formed on her brow and a dry stickiness, like syrup, coated the walls of her throat. She focused on her environment through the distortion. Again, the world around her spun, was going back, back, back. Back to the same scene.

‘Holy. Shit.’

She did it again and again and again, unable to believe it was true, unable to believe she was the only one witnessing this phenomenon, unable to believe she had control of this power, unable to believe that she wasn’t crazy.

Unable to believe she was rewinding time.

Until the black and red blotches took over her peripherals, caused gravity to converge on her skull until it felt like it was going to burst. She held her head with another groan. Victoria turned to leave, but this time, Max stuck close and followed, just missing the chance to pull her back by the arm.

“Vic…t-toria! Hey! Victoria!” Max called out, the other’s shoulders stiffening until she wheeled around with an annoyed sound.

“Ugh! Fuck off, Max! Just leave me alone!”

There was no time left to explain, not that Victoria would let her even if she tried. The crowd was falling toward them. Max held out her hand. It was the only way. However, the pain was too much, her head too full. She couldn’t go back any further.

‘Oh, no…’ A vacant horror spread across her face.

Within seconds of Max’s realization, both she and Victoria became victims of the blunder. Victoria’s scream muffled itself as chlorinated water filled Max’s nose. It burned, choked her as air left her lungs in a surfacing bubble. As she performed a somersault against her buoyancy, more water collected in her ears, pushing out the last sounds of the bass.

She opened her eyes, numb as the milky water teemed with hundreds of squirming legs. As she floated there, the imaginary weights she thought she had cast off returned in retaliation. When she needed to breathe, her limbs zapped to life and she surfaced, drinking down oxygen and flailing for the edge of the pool. She grasped it in relief, coughing up last bits of water lodged in her air canals. Vomiting sounded good right about then; Lord knew what was in this disgusting dunk tank from hell.

Max turned her head to see Victoria grabbing the side as well, looking like a drowned rat, her makeup running, her hair as flat and lifeless as her eyes. It would have been funny if it weren’t so sad…and if she weren’t in the same predicament.

Other members caught in the catastrophe were already making their way out of the water. Max just didn’t have the energy, her fingers wiping away another spot of blood from under her nose.

Then, there was laughter, a familiar kind. A harrying kind. Max looked up to see a number of people with their phones out, recording the incident with snickers and crude motions. The rest of the club couldn’t have cared less, like nothing had happened as they further indulged in their various vices. To them, it was just another hilarious haphazard to be catalogued or mediocre misfortune to be ignored.

Max wasn’t going to deny she was mortified, but she also wasn’t going to deny she felt sorry for Victoria. If only she could have stopped her…could have rewound. ‘Talk about getting a taste of your own medicine. But still, how cruel can you be?’

Nathan appeared, violently shoving the mob to the side, panting and wide-eyed. He mouthed another curse and leaned down to the both of them, focusing on Victoria.

“Check it! You’re bitch is gettin’ wet without you, Prescott!”

The look on his face made Max shiver in fear. The sudden turn from silly and inebriated to enraged and coordinated was so fast and so sudden, she didn’t have long for the feeling to settle. He was back to…normal? What was normal for him?

Nathan doubled back against the guy, pulling him up the collar. “You wanna run that by me again, dickwad?” he growled, his eyes piercing and dark.

“Nathan.” Victoria got his attention, utter defeat in her tone. “Don’t. Just…help me out. Please.”

The two boys stared each other down for another minute before Nathan let go. “Consider yourself lucky. Now get the fuck out of my face.” He then addressed the rest of the onlookers. “That goes for all of you assholes! Fuck off!”

Max, at a complete loss for words, pushed herself up and out of the pool. Her sopping clothes and hair weighed her down, but it actually gave her some form of comfort. It let her know she was still there, that she was still alive, that this was all for real. She rang out her shirt and listened to her feet squish in her boots. The jeans she wore were now really itchy. Irked, she wondered where the hell the girl who had lent her the ensemble had gone.

Rachel had pulled a Houdini, and she couldn’t be more angry at herself. She then looked down at her hands, lightly bending her fingers to her palms.

‘This can’t be real. I really am like a human time machine…”

Before anything else, Max pulled out her cell phone that had been stuck in her pocket. She was grateful this model was waterproof, but just how much? She didn’t exactly take a graceful dip. She clicked it on and swiped the screen. It looked like it was going to be fine and she sighed with relief.

Nathan leaned down and entwined his arm with Victoria’s. Much to his surprise, Max shuffled between some of the voyeurs and offered her hand. With a look of confusion mixing with dejection, Victoria allowed it. They pulled her out, and the girl let out a cry of pain. They caught her and helped her stand up straight.

“Ah! Shit!” She sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “I think—oh—I think I twisted my ankle.”

Nathan was already on it, leaning down and motioning for her to ride piggy-back. Victoria looked like she swallowed a giant gulp of pride as she agreed to the offer. Max watched them start to leave, knowing that she was now by herself, all eyes on her.

“You comin’ or not, Caulfield?”

Or…not? Max blinked as Nathan motioned for her to follow with his head. Victoria stayed quiet, looking nothing short of exhausted. Max’s empathy was on overdrive for Blackwell’s Queen Bee.

“Max! Oh, my God I saw what happened! Are you okay?” Dana and Trevor had finally pushed their way through to their position.

“I’m okay. Did you happen to see where Rachel went?” Max rang out her drooping ponytail, walking and talking between Nathan, Victoria, and the other two.

Dana shook her head. “No. I didn’t see her sneak out.” She raised her head, taking another look. “Maybe she needed some air or something. You going to change?”

Max sighed. “Yeah.”

“You thinkin’ about coming back?” Trevor asked, hands in his hoodie pockets.

“No.” And it was firm.

Dana nodded in understanding. “In that case, I’ll drop off your bag when we turn in for the night,” said Dana. “It won’t be too long from now. I gotta get some rest for the game tomorrow.”

Max thanked her and gave them a final wave, jogging lightly to at least keep up with Nathan and Victoria, but not fall on her ass from slipping. She was embarrassed enough as it were.

They made their way through the VIP curtains and through those of the entrance. Nathan snapped his fingers, signaling Stella to hand him their jackets. The girl did so with an irritated scoff. Max was just glad the darkness concealed her identity as she slipped by. Not that it mattered; she was already on camera from some of those jerks from before. Just wonderful.

She tried not to think about it and went ahead, pushing the bars on the doors to the outside. She held them open for the two. It was almost ironic, holding the doors for the king and queen. She shook her head. Humor was the only way she was going to feel any better about her situation. Soaking wet, a tiny bit buzzed, and feeling like a true fool of the court, Max ambled behind.

And Nathan…he and she almost…

‘No. No. NO. Do NOT think about that right now, Max!’

The music had died down once they were out, and all that was left was the annoying feedback screech in her ears from its overbearing absence. It mixed with the naturesque nightlife of Arcadia Bay, fluctuating between unbearable and soothing. Max’s ‘duck feet’ weren’t doing her any favors—squek, swack, squelch, skreet. Every step she took had something to say, and every one made her wince and her face burn.

Nathan, in the meantime, handed over Victoria’s coat. She wrapped it around her shoulders with chattering teeth. Nathan threw his jacket at Max with a, “Head’s up.”

She caught it and gave him a look of wonder. Both he and Victoria were silent. In Blackwell’s lamp lights, they looked different. Tired and sickly. Especially Nathan, who was sporting bluish rings under his eyes. On Victoria’s forehead she spotted the blue mark from their previous encounter, her makeup washed away. Max remembered slamming into her with the restroom door. What she thought was a humorous and just moment at the time now made her feel like an asshole.

And on the subject of bruises, Nathan’s were in view. Victoria’s mass dragged down his clothes, and Max could see the beginning of them on his clavicle. Now she felt worse, wiping her eyes with her sleeve before tentatively draping Nathan’s jacket over herself. She immediately caught the scent of his cologne and hints of nicotine, but then there was something else that was just Nathan, she guessed. That was the scent that had overwhelmed her before when they… Max cleared her throat, and her face grew warmer. She already scolded herself once, but it looked like she was going to be doing so for a while yet.

The wind whistled in their stead. As they took up course to the dormitories, Max spied the mysterious white RV once again. It hadn’t moved from that morning. Strange.

Then, Max’s heart stopped, and she right along with it. ‘Wait a minute…’

There was a man in its doorway. He looked scraggly with greasy blonde hair and goatee, was clearly older than the students from Blackwell. Next to him on the ground was a sleeping dog. The guy drank back a bottle of beer with one hand, his other wrapped around someone else’s shoulder—someone whose long blonde hair and blue feather earring shone in the full moon’s light.

Max swiftly turned away in shock. She hid it and continued on, wanting to call her out, find out what the hell was going on for herself. But she knew she had a promise to keep to Chloe. Her heart suddenly felt like breaking. Chloe was right...and Max was going to have to deliver the bad news. If anything, for the time, she at least knew that Rachel was okay, trusting that man enough to keep her warm and safe. God, she hoped that was the case. Max’s stomach squirmed, uncomfortable. All this drama was bound to kill her.

For someone who had rewind powers, something she still couldn’t quite grasp, time seemed to be constantly moving on fast-forward. Her face scrunched. She surprised herself how angry she was and pulled Nathan’s jacket tighter, hurrying along.

They walked to the dorms in silence, Victoria breaking it only when they reached the entry doors.

“Thanks, Nathan. I think I can take it from here.” She gingerly stepped down, still cringing at some pain, but working it out with a few stretches of her foot. “I’m going to shower and change. If you want to head back, I’ll be there in a bit.”

He shook his head with a long sigh, stuffing his hands into his pockets and stretching. He stayed quiet with a faraway look. Victoria nodded, an understanding between the two that Max couldn’t cognize, or rather, didn’t want to interrupt. She already felt like a third wheel…again. Whether she was wanted or not, she was always the dangling observer.

Max swallowed and handed Nathan his jacket. “Um…thank you. Sorry it’s a little damp now.”

“S’fine.” He shook it out and threw it on in a flash. He wouldn’t look her in the eye. “Not like I’m worried.” He dug in the coat pocket and pulled out his packet of cigarettes and lighter. With one stuck between his lips, he cocked his head to Max, a brow raised. “Go change, dumbass.”

“Oh. Right.” She had been standing there like an idiot. Though, she wasn’t sure where to go or what to do in that moment. This whole plan, Rachel’s affair, the Vortex Club’s spell casted upon her to commit acts of debauchery under its various floodlights…

Rewinding time.

‘Just breathe, Max. Stay calm.’ She told herself as she followed Victoria up the stairs to their floor.

The girls stayed quiet through the whole ordeal—through entering their rooms, grabbing their shower supplies, and the entire time through their showers. The gurgle of the drains hung over them in place of words.

Max finished first, dressing in some PJs and hovering in front of one of the sinks. Her mundane self was reflected in its respective mirror. She was back to normal. Looking back at the wet pile of borrowed clothes, she knew it was for the better. She had even thrown away the neon bracelets; her own had been washed out from the chlorinated water.

Whatever had happened to her in that building, she didn’t want to repeat.

Her head still felt like there was a taut rubber band strapped around it. Just how many ingredients were in that drink? She figured if she had to ask, she was better off not knowing. Never again. Max rubbed her forehead and sighed.

Victoria exited her stall. Her outfit, consisting of a white blouse and blue jeans, looked as pristine and chic as could be. Max internally shook her head. She was still as dazzling as ever, even in temporary clothes, even if Victoria herself didn’t think so. The girl then joined Max at the sinks, a headband holding back her wet hair as she reapplied makeup to the bruise on her forehead.

In the meantime, Max brought out her phone, let her fingers hover over the keys to compose a new message for Chloe. However, she decided against it. Not right now. She needed more time. Max almost laughed out loud. With this power, she had all the time in the world. Literally.

“So,” Victoria started in her typical catty fashion, “did you have fun crashing our party tonight?”

Max stared down at the sink drain. The remains of water droplets edged their way toward the plug. “Not in particular, Victoria.”

She rubbed her lips together, spreading the color of her lipstick before closing and returning it to her makeup bag. “Then how about filling me in on why you were there in the first place?”

If there was one thing Max was tired of, it was lying. And right now she imagined doing so wouldn’t save her anyway. “Rachel invited me.”

Victoria’s face stayed neutral, but her brows furrowed as she gave Max a look. “Rachel Amber.” Not a question, but a statement.

Max nodded, shuffling her bare feet on the tile below.

Victoria glanced at her from the corner of her eye as she adjusted her headband. “Great. It figures you’d be friends with that—” she cut herself off with a sigh. “Nevermind. Just…whatever.”

If there was another thing Max was tired of, it was everyone being in on the secret of Rachel…everyone but her. It seemed like everyone at Blackwell had a different opinion of her, seemed to know her in different lights. Max wondered which one was the ultimate truth, and was annoyed that she had to play these games to find out. Why was everything so damn complicated? Just…

“Why?”

Ignoring her inquiry, Victoria asked, “If Rachel invited you, then why were you with Nathan?”

She hadn’t thought that far ahead. Still, she would try to stick with the truth as much as possible. “He was—We—Rachel was there, but she disappeared. She wanted to dance with the both of us. Then I don’t know where she went.”

“Sounds like a typical Rachel thing to do. And you, dance? Uh-huh. You’re just all over the map, aren’t you, Max?”

She sighed. This wasn’t something she wanted to hear. She already felt bad enough about it all.

Victoria looked to the ground, her hands falling to the sides of the sink to hold her up as her tone took a sudden change. “How drunk was he?”

“What?”

“Nathan. How drunk was he?”

What did that have to do with anything? “He—Well…very. I think. He downed a lot of shots.”

“And he’s bound to down more once we get back,” she sadly said. “He’s such an idiot sometimes. And before you say anything, Caulfield, I get it. It’s a party. Everyone’s wasted. But…fuck me.” She finished off with a sigh.

Max did the same, feeling the night’s wear on her. She stared at her hands. For an interrogation, Victoria didn’t seem too daunting in the process. Of course, Max could only imagine the things she’d been through up to this point. Nathan’s attitude for the past several days, her ‘friends’ in the club recording the instance in which she needed help, and of course the drama in Blackwell.

“I’m sorry.” It was all she could think to say. “About all the shit that’s happened…been happening.”

Victoria paused, looking at her reflection and then to Max. “Answer me something else.”

“Um…okay?”

“Why did Nathan come to your room last night?”

‘Uh, oh.’

Max’s stomach clenched for the umpteenth time that night. She was going to have to lie after all. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to rewind this mess. She wasn’t sure she had it in her after their mishap at the pool.

“I…was hoping you could tell me, actually.”

“Huh?” Victoria turned to her, the confusion on her face clear as day.

“I mean, I think he meant to go to your room and got confused? Well, he looked confused, at least. He stumbled a bit and I had to catch him and hold him up. Was he drunk then, too?”

Victoria turned away, a look of guilt taking over the bewilderment. She muttered something under her breath Max didn’t catch.

As for Max, her own guilt was beginning to overtake her. “Sorry. I know. It’s none of my business.”

“No! It’s just—” She cupped her forehead. “I wanted to say thanks.”

Max’s eyes widened in silent surprise.

“Look. I know I can be a bitch. It’s no secret around here.”

‘That’s putting it mildly.’

“It’s just…you’re you. You know? You don’t give a shit what people think about you around here. And honestly, it pisses me off.”

“I…I’m sorry?” Victoria, she thought, was dead wrong, but it was a gallant confession for her nonetheless. It seemed nowadays Max’s list of things to worry about was growing by the second.

“Don’t be. I’m the one who’s sorry.” She frowned. “Damn it.”

Max thought about all the times she’d been given grief from the very girl she was talking to. How many times she’d done the same to Kate, to Warren, to…so many others. She grew a sense of bravery.

“So, why do you act the way you do, Victoria? It’s not like you have anything to lose here with your talent.” Max crossed her arms in defense.

“That’s just it. I have everything to lose, Max.” There were many things not said, but conveyed in that sentence. The way she said it—her latter words carrying an uncharacteristic self-doubt, the way she held herself—as if the planet itself was strapped to her back.

Victoria had a lot on her mind. For once, Max stood on an equal ground with her. She understood.

“I’m a teenager at an art school. I’m not perfect. Neither are you.”

“True. But, I’ve seen your photos. You have a great eye. They remind me of Richard Avedon’s work.”

Victoria gave her a small smile. “He’s one of my heroes. Thanks, Max.”

Max laughed in her throat. “Maybe if we weren’t so busy throwing each other shade, we could have actually traded photo tips. I do take more than selfies, you know.”

“That,” she began, her smile becoming hopeful, “sounds pretty cool, actually. Honestly, there was too much clique action at my old school. Sometimes, I just get caught up in all the bullshit. You know?”

“I know exactly what you mean, Victoria.”

“And…I meant it. Thank you. For the compliment. And for helping me out at the party. And for helping Nathan. No one else I know would have.”

That struck her. “What about Taylor and Courtney?”

“You serious? You saw how they came to my rescue in there. Plus, they both stay as far away from Nathan as possible. They don’t have to say anything to show how they feel about him.” Bitterness coated her words and a more familiar expression took over her façade.

“Hayden?”

“Yeah, right. He was probably so far off the grid thanks to his ‘dank OG bud,’” she used air quotes to dramatize with a deep mocking voice, “that we’d have to put out an APB to get his brain back to his head.”

“But…Nathan’s the one that throws the Vortex Club parties. He pays for them, right? He’s the one that basically gives everyone what they want. He,” she hated to even say it, “‘owns Blackwell,’ as he puts it.” Max used her own air quotes, lightly and without sarcasm as to not further invoke Victoria’s indignation.

“And?”

Something sank inside of Max’s heart with that one, simple word. There was a heavy weight to it that said nothing at all, yet far too much.

“Plus, his father pays for the parties, and holds it over Nathan’s head constantly. Sean’s a bastard like that. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person in Arcadia who actually cares about Nathan. And—” She stopped herself from fostering further outbursts. “Sorry. Nathan’s just…Nathan. He’s got his own shit to deal with. And it’s not all sunshine and roses being a Prescott. Or me. I can tell you that much.”

Victoria gave her a glance that said she wanted to talk, but didn’t trust her enough to disclose anything more. Further and further Max felt pulled down. Both at the lack of information Victoria would give, and how much substance was already within what she divulged. Max had trouble finding something else to say.

“He didn’t look happy at that assembly, that’s for sure,” Max replied, hoping she was still on the same wavelength with the distressed girl.

“No. His father and stepmother are quite the charmers.”

Max stopped and snapped her head up in shock. “Stepmother?”

“Yeah. Nathan’s real mom passed away when he was just a kid.”

‘Oh.’ Max pursed her lips, quiet.

Victoria shook her head. “Shit. Anyway, I’m prattling. I gotta get back.”

“Right. Um. Well…maybe we can exchange those photography tips and tricks sometime, yeah?”

“Sounds good. Hm.” She paused to think. “I planned to ask Nathan about going around the bay for some photos on Saturday. Lighting practice. Maybe the three of us could get together then.”

“I thought hanging around hipster shits like me was fatal?” Max gave her a final tease, opening herself a bit more to ease the tension.

“Touché. But we all die some day. Might as well spend it in better company.”

“For you or for me?”

And then something happened Max never thought she would see: A true laugh from Victoria Chase. “Who are you kidding? You obviously need a lesson in class and sass. And who better to give it to you? Better than anything Rachel Amber can give. I can promise you that.”

“Oh, for sure.”

Max didn’t know whether to be offended or laugh right along with her. Deadpan snark seemed like the best middle road. Plus, she was angry with Rachel, and was inclined to agree with Victoria for the moment. For hers and Chloe’s sake.

And for the fact that Rachel had told her to talk to Victoria in hopes that they would connect in some way. The beauty was right. Petty, but Max didn’t give a shit. She was upset, and she would stay that way for a while yet.

Victoria reached into her satchel and brought out an eyeliner pencil. On a dry makeup cloth, she wrote something and gave it to Max. It was her phone number. “Text me and maybe we can work something out.”

“Thanks, Victoria. I’ll…see you around?”

The other gathered up her belongings, her strut regaining confidence. “Mm. Au revoir.” And, with a lazy wave, away she went.

‘Wowser. That went a lot better than expected. So, Saturday…with Victoria. And possibly Nathan. That’s a bit short notice. Can I even trust her? I don’t know if…’ Max took a sharp breath of realization. ‘Oh, shit! The study group!’

She face-palmed. As if she didn’t have enough dilemmas to deal with.

Vmm! Vmm!

CHLOE:
hey. just checking in. it’s been a while. how are things?

And the leg weights were back. Pulling her down, down, down.



Nathan snuffed out his cigarette on the sidewalk. It was quiet. He was missing the loudness of the party. At least there his thoughts weren’t running amok. Though, all he could think of was that he’d lost it, lost his mind in the moment and fucked up.

He fucked up hard.

“Hurry up, Victoria-a-a-a…” he growled through clenched teeth, hands in his pockets, legs rocking back and forth as he sat on the bench near the Tobanga.

The totem’s eyes watched him, reprimanded him. His body tightened and he looked away. Back in the spot where he threw a rock at that group of deer, sparks of fireflies had taken refuge. Everywhere he looked seemed to hold some sort of memory he didn’t want to think about.

Victoria emerged from the doors, prompt and primped in a new outfit. Alone.

“Where’s Caulfield?”

Victoria shook her head. “She’s staying in. I think one party was too much for her.”

“Ha. Right.” Despite his deflection, Nathan felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was better that Max hadn’t come back. He could at least comprehend that in his current state he wouldn’t be able to handle any more awkwardness around her.

“But, I gotta give it to her. She had some guts to show up to begin with,” Victoria continued.

“I guess.”

The two began the trek back to the recreation building.

“Also, Max set the record straight about last night.”

Nathan’s eyes widened, the fear clutching his every fiber. Victoria should be angrier if that were the case. “What?”

“I’m sorry.”

Nathan stopped. “Wait. What for? What did she say?”

“You got the wrong room. Like you said. I mean, even she was concerned about you when you pulled that stunt. And I know your dad’s been a hard ass on you lately.” She eyed the place where his bruises would be. “And I haven’t been the best of friends, so…yeah…I’m sorry.”

Nathan closed his eyes and took in a long breath. He didn’t know whether to be angry or thankful. One way or another, he owed Max big time. “It’s fine. Let’s just head back. Our people await.” He finished dramatically.

She lightly punched his shoulder. “Just take it easy, all right?”

“All right.” In his head he said, ‘Not happening.’

He let Victoria get ahead of him. She entered before him, but Nathan didn’t follow. Instead, he was focused on someone else coming from the parking lot. His blood began to boil.

Mark Jefferson was on his way up the path. At his side, a young girl leaned on him, hunched over and looking nauseated.

“Where the fuck have you been?!” Nathan spat.

Jefferson glanced up from under his spectacles, a look of disgust coming to the surface. “Now, is that any way to talk to your superiors, Mr. Prescott?”

“I haven’t seen you around all fucking night! We could have used your help a few times in there!”

“Keep your voice down. This young lady’s had quite a night. And I have been here, Nathan. Making sure none of your guests make the wrong decision to endanger theirs or others’ lives by driving off this campus completely intoxicated.” His words bit into him, sharp and foreboding.

“Whatever. Not my problem.”

The girl by Jefferson’s side mumbled something about sleep. Her fiery red hair actually hurt Nathan’s eyes to the point where he had to look away.

Jefferson sighed, holding her up. “And that’s the kind of attitude that’s going to get you into some deep trouble one day. Now, I’m going to escort Deanna here back to the dorms. We’ll talk more tomorrow when we go over your negatives. And when you’re sober.”

Nathan watched him go, glaring at him the entire way. “So much for extra supervision of his hellhole.”

He then roughly rubbed his face. Jefferson had already warned him he wasn’t going to be around 24/7. So why was he this aggravated? He aimed to think about their meeting tomorrow. Something to look forward to. Someone who would actually be interested in his photos.

“Listen…to…”

“SHUT. UP.”

And the bay answered with naught but the sounds of nature.

He nodded to himself, turned, and reentered the party, ready for whatever round he left off on.