A tattered journal lay open on an old, wooden desk. The fresh ink on the paper bled and dried in the still air. Inches away, a man stared into a mirror, inhaling until his chest ached and burned. He’d grown skinnier in the past year, less muscular, more reclusive. He let out a long breath and raked a hand through his hair, his calloused fingers getting lost in the wavy wisps.
Shadows fell on and in between the numerous shelved books of the study, containing pieces of history hidden among fictional sentences of far-away fantasies. They fled from the dim, yellow bulb of an ornate lamp, an action he wished he could follow. To hide away in the shadows and disappear from the world…
He could only imagine such ease.
Out the spotless arched window he turned his gaze, a longing within. A serene snow fell with the setting sun, flakes floating gently to the ground and joining the masses. Milky light slipped through and mixed with the sky’s oranges, pinks, and purples. It was the majesty of his home, the majesty of Arcadia Bay.
In the circular drive below, a blemish in the interminable white caught his attention, a figure. He smiled as the young girl jumped into thick piles of snow by the giant, barren oak. Looking like a swollen grape, she was covered in layer upon layer of various purple clothes, including a new pair of snow pants from him as a birthday present. He gifted them to her early, loving the smile they brought to her face. It reminded him of his own childhood, when he would laugh and play in the same manner, all before the shadow of his family’s name blocked out that frivolous sun. All too soon.
The room was warm, but he suddenly felt frigid. The looming presence of the Prescott Estate always had that effect. Cold marble, cold metal, cold glass—all encasing and cryogenic. Winter had nothing to do with it. The study was once a welcoming sanctuary for him. Not anymore.
He sighed and turned back to the desk, allowing his eye to capture his haphazard handwriting. Numerous spirals glazed the corners of the paper. And that was just the paper. The canvas had their own bloodshed of insanity. And those left within? He lost count with how many overlapped in his aching head, lost count of the nights he woke up screaming and covered in sweat. He closed his eyes and swallowed, the hairs on his neck at attention.
With his adverse thoughts, his hands and knees began to shake, and his heart thumped in his chest. There was too much to take in, too much to handle in one lifetime. Everything was fragile. The slightest fumble from a wrongful sleight of hand, and the foundation of his family—perhaps this entire world—would shatter.
Then again, maybe this was how it was supposed to be. Maybe this was how he was supposed to bring about real change. He stood there, still, with naught a pulse of true feeling within his unrest. There was a time when he wondered where his spark was going, where it had gone.
Now, for Joseph Prescott, it didn’t matter anymore.
Now, he just accepted the darkness.
A few knocks at the door interrupted his train of thought. It was followed by a muffled, soft voice, “Joseph? Are you still in here? It’s been hours now. Your grandfather’s been looking for you.”
Squeezing his eyes shut, the Prescott murmured, “He usually is.” He then added louder, “Thanks, Susan.”
The woman opened the heavy wooden door. It let out a groan with the slowness of her entry, and her voice became clearer. “Mm. Sean and Lorraine have something to announce to everyone as well. And Kristine’s been biting at the bit to spend some time with you,” she paused to chuckle, “saying you’re going to give her some tips on coloring with her new pencil set.” Another pause was followed by light sigh. “I won’t be surprised if she heads straight to bed after romping around in the snow all afternoon!”
Though he wasn’t looking at her, he could hear the mirth in her voice, and for a moment, it made him feel the same. “I’ll make sure to be down soon.”
Her hopeful smile began to wane. “Okay. See you in a bit?”
Joseph continued to face the window that framed his frail, flinching silhouette. Dust particles floated toward the open space, carried across the smooth wooded floor. It swirled and gathered around their shoes in the light.
When he didn’t answer right away, she whispered, “I love you.”
There was a long, tiring silence between them. A rope going slack by the second.
“I love you, too.”
He didn’t turn around.
Her lips rounded out and her smile dulled. Without another word, the door latched shut, and Joseph returned to the desk. The yellow light flickered and hummed as he took his pen and scribbled out a few more sentences. The scratching was like the crack of thunder forever echoing in his nightmares.
He took in a long, strained breath, closed his eyes, and switched off the lamp as the foyer’s grandfather clock struck its hourly chord.
Like always, he just accepted the darkness.
This time, for good.
Vmm! Vmm! Vmm!
Max Caulfield lay in her small bed, slowly slipping out of a clouded, distant dream. Her body stretched across the pink sheets, and her pale, thin figure followed. She bent her knees to make her feet flat reaching over to stop her cell phone’s vibrating alarm. The lack of a good night’s sleep initiated the start of a migraine to make its way across her freckled cheeks to her temples.
The girl sighed and brought her arms over her eyes. It was a poor attempt at blocking the blazing sun that lashed through her dorm windows. Max moved her limbs little by little to adjust her pupils to the natural light. Her vision sorted itself out after a few blinks, and she rolled her blue eyes to the blanched ceiling, marveling the golden glow that got trapped in some of its poor caulking. They flowed down the walls like shimmering droplets of water.
Max sat up and cleared her throat. She then threw her legs over the bed to meet the cold, thin carpet below. The chill pricked at her toes and she shivered. She rolled her shoulders and scratched an itch through her short, brown bob. Looking past her pallid legs, her vision fell to the carpet below. It, too, shimmered with golden flecks from the sun. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, it said beneath her feet.
Her shoulder pack sat slumped against her boxy, green side stand. Max opened it, threw her pencil case on the bed, rummaged past dozens of stray papers and books—including her prized journal—and took out her instant camera.
She beamed, fiddling with the instrument for a moment before standing up on shaky legs. After a light stretch, Max took position in a stream of morning light, allowing the warmth to wash over the goosebumps forming on her exposed limbs. The glittering cracks seemed to perfectly frame the numerous photos posted on her wall. The autumn backdrop was impeccable for another ‘selfie’ to add to her collection. With composition intact and with the click of a button, her camera spit out a new picture, the familiar procession whirr a sound of comfort to the teen.
Satisfied, Max put the camera on the bed and shook the little Polaroid before setting it next to her phone to fully develop. A glance in the mirror on her wall confirmed that she looked more than tousled. Hopefully, when the picture cleared up, she wouldn’t look too horrific. Max exhaled sharply with another smile before sauntering over to her hi-fi and switching on some soothing acoustic music. That gave her a small reminder to practice on her guitar sometime that century, giving the lonely instrument a glance as it leaned against her futon.
Her mind retreated to meditate over her freckled reflection and more of her mirrored décor. Numerous Polaroids, posters, and other knick-knacks were pinned up and strewn about along with a couple potted plants—one of which she was most fond christened ‘Lisa.’ It was a mix of vintage and modern. It was also now her home away from home.
She couldn’t believe how the past month had flown by. She had made it into Blackwell Academy! The Blackwell Academy! It was heralded as one of the most prestigious and private high schools for the arts and sciences on the west coast. This was the place to be if one was to leave an impression on future college applications. To make things even better, it was in Max’s hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. She smiled, reminiscing on past times spent in the bustling fishing town. Times with her mother and father, times on her own little adventures, and times with…
Max paused, a guilt-ridden breath hitching in her throat. Time had stopped, then sped up and gave her a harsh blow to the stomach.
“Chloe,” she sighed, placing a hand on her head. She leaned forward in a halfhearted attempt to hide herself from the sunlight, like it was suddenly judging her under its fiery glow.
The best friend she left behind when she moved to Seattle five years ago.
The best friend she hadn’t contacted whatsoever in those five years she was away.
The best friend she wasn’t even sure was her best friend anymore.
And she had only herself to blame.
There were no good excuses on her part, especially since she had already been in Arcadia Bay, at Blackwell, for a full month. It wasn’t like she didn’t care about Chloe anymore, or that they had a horrible falling out when she left. No. Max purely felt like she had lost touch with her for so long that she wasn’t sure how to bridge the gap between them.
That is, if Chloe even wanted anything to do with her after all that lost time.
Max cradled her head and rubbed her eyes with her fingertips, stretching parts of her face with different octaves of groans. Self-doubt and frustration overtook her for the umpteenth time. It certainly wasn’t the first time she thought about Chloe, but every time memories of her former best friend slunk their way into her mind, she hated herself more and more. Should she call her? Shoot a text? Hell, was her phone number even the same? Max let out a disgusted grunt and let her arms hang to her sides.
An angry cry of frustration from the hall derailed the teen’s train of thought. The familiar and unwelcoming voice was unceremonious, so much that it seeped through Max’s door with ease. Another disgusted groan left her. On top of personal problems hunting her positivity to extinction, there was the everyday drama that came with high school. Homework and tough teachers were only a couple things, but then there was…
“I specifically told you I needed that paper today! Do you have it or not?”
‘’Nuff said,’ Max smugly thought to herself.
“N-not yet, Victoria, but no worries! It’s almost done! Swear!” Another stuttering, muffled voice made its way to Max’s ears. Courtney Wagner’s to be precise. One of Victoria’s friends. Max hummed to herself at the thought; maybe ‘friends’ was putting it too nicely.
“Fucking Christ.” Victoria cursed. Then came a pause and an exhale teemed with exhaustion. “Get it to me before class this afternoon, or you can forget about borrowing one of my skirts for Thursday!” With that, Victoria slammed her door, the girls’ set of footsteps marching toward the dorm’s stairwell, Courtney’s frantic voice in tow. Their bickering continued and faded down the hall.
Max pursed her lips. She couldn’t believe Victoria. Friends? More like her personal slaves. There was certainly a lot she could say about Victoria Chase—the majority negative.
She waved that drama to the side for a moment and thought about Chloe again. She wondered if Chloe had made any other friends in Arcadia Bay while she was away. The very idea caused a pang of sadness to surface, but Max thought she didn’t have the right to feel bad. She was the one who left the bay in the first place. And then to not stay in contact? It was her own fault she was in her current situation.
As for Max, she had gotten to know a small number of classmates with her recent transfer to Blackwell. Unfortunately, some of them weren’t willing to be friends. And, unfortunately, she had become a target for just about every bully at Blackwell. Like bullet points on a fancy presentation, the list went on: ‘Waif hipster.’ ‘Selfie whore.’ ‘Too shy to be relevant.’ ‘Woe is Max.’ And then some. She chose to ignore it the best she could, but it was difficult. It was Victoria who pinned most of the targets on her, and her minions followed suit with their jeers and sneers.
Though, deep down, Max thought she deserved a portion of the hate. She was accepted on a photography scholarship to Blackwell Academy with a portfolio mostly filled with old-fashioned, instamatic photographs and her own headshots. The worst part of it all was that the other students in the photography program, Victoria included, had incredibly impressive work. Work that made her second-guess herself on numerous occasions in the short time frame she had been at the acclaimed academy.
She also felt her personal image was lacking, and her fashion sense had been long abandoned, if it was ever discovered in the first place. With her skull-print canvas shoes, simple and faded jeans, graphic print tees, and bland zip-up hoodies, she always felt underdressed to un-impress. Next to Victoria’s posh Gucci, Viton, Prada, etcetera wardrobe, luxurious jewelry, perfect porcelain skin, and impeccable golden blonde pixie cut, Max felt like a hot mess…or a cold, boring mess.
She shook herself out of that mind set. She couldn’t let it overtake her. Though, the more Max told herself that, the more it all forced itself to the front of her brain, like a vicious circle.
Standing up once again, she began to rummage through her closet with fleeting thoughts of the ‘Queen Bee of Blackwell.’ Courtney Wagner and Taylor Christensen, Victoria’s right and left hand girls, were beauty queens in their own right—Courtney with her symmetrical, dark brown bob and passion for style, and Taylor with wavy, bleach-blonde locks rocking her take-no-shit attitude for miles in her denim shorts and jacket. It was too bad Victoria treated them like dirt. At least what she’d seen and heard most of the time.
Max continued her search for some decent clothes. ‘No…no…not happening…ugh! Why do I still have this stupid shirt?’ Max inquired to herself with disdain. ‘Maybe I should have burned all my stuff and started over.’
She recalled writing the idea down in her journal before moving to the dorms. However, logic had dictated over intuition that day. She certainly wasn’t bathing in enough Benjamins to afford a whole new wardrobe. Max finally settled on her gray zip-up sweater, light blue jeans, and a pink shirt with the print of ‘JANE’ on the front. A graphic of a doe accompanied the lettering.
‘So clever,’ she thought with a long sigh. She didn’t even need Victoria and her posse to pass judgment; she could destroy her self-esteem all on her own.
Max took in a breath. “Fuck it. Welcome to Black-Hell Academy! All aboard the Nerd Express!”
In a rather lethargic action, Max pulled her hand down to imitate an old train whistle with a light ‘choo-choo’ to herself. Her phone buzzed again, drawing her attention back to the device and the Polaroid she took earlier. She checked on the picture in one hand while pecking on her cell’s touch screen in the other. The photo—not quite developed, and the phone—a new message.
Max couldn’t help but smile. Speaking of the Nerd Express, she just got a text from the conductor.
Yo, Mad Max! Ms. Grant mentioned something about partners for tomorrow’s labs! You ready to get an Easy A?
Warren Graham. She couldn’t help but let out a chuckle. Max was happy she made at least one real friend at Blackwell, and Warren was cool. He was like the geeky brother she never had in a way. Her fingers began to tap at the touch screen in quick response. Warren tended to fill up her phone with a wall of messages if she didn’t answer right away. Hell, he did it even when she was on the ball. It didn’t bother her for the most part; sometimes she needed an excuse to delay herself from reality.
I don’t know. Are you prepared to fall below your proverbial genius line in that case?
Max glanced up at her photo memorial as she awaited Warren’s response. Plopping herself down next to her camera, she took note of the light reflecting off the spectrum of captured colors within the shots. All those memories. All those moments. She couldn’t help but feel a comforting warmth grow within her. She caught glimpses of Chloe, her friend’s long, honey-blonde hair and bright smile echoing from the past.
Come on, Max! Quit selling yourself short! So how about it? Max Caulfield, *gets on one knee* will you be my lab partner?
Another laugh bubbled up from her depths. The text also struck her with a sense of embarrassment. On top of being somewhat impatient, Warren could also be a bit overwhelming…and awkward. Still, she admitted his straightforwardness was refreshing amid all the chaos of high school.
Keep the ring and vows, lover boy. I’ll help you total the science lab tomorrow.
Epic! But what about that lovely organ music? I can set up the speakers to let loose when you enter the class. Caulfield consummation supreme!
Very funny. More like Graham gratification supreme.
Your puns have serious Graham-ifications.
Ouuuuch. Okay, okay, I surrender!
So, did you get to check out the movies on the flash drive I let you borrow?
I’ve only had it for a week! I barely scratched the surface of all that movie madness!
Max checked her phone’s clock. If she wanted to get a seat in the back of the class—the norm for the introverted girl—she would have to leave soon. Otherwise, Warren could, and would, keep her talking all day. He was already waiting in class, no doubt, or in the science lab cooking up some new experiment. Warren was an early bird.
Max added before sending:
I’ll make sure to watch more when I’m not swamped with homework. I gotta get going, though! History class calls!
You’re so slooooooooow! I’m gonna need that drive back soon! Contact me later if you can! I got something I want to show you!
I’ll try. Professor’s have been slamming us with shit tons of work right now. I doubt today will be any different. TTYL.
Let me know if you need any help or a study partner. I’m always around! Cya!
She looked herself over in the mirror once more. With a short exhale, Max grabbed her camera, slid her bag over her shoulder, and opened the door to leave behind her sanctuary.
Bypassing everyone and everything the best she could, Max made her way out of the dorms and to the main campus of Blackwell Academy. The sunlight was still strong and passed through the tree’s leaves, reflecting a mosaic of fall colors on the vibrant grass.
‘Mm. October. My favorite month and time of the year,’ she mused to herself.
Students moseyed to and fro. Some Max recognized, some still complete strangers. The skaters hung out by the main stairs near the street. The artists sat by the trees or at picnic tables, some all alone or only with one or two people. The science and history buffs coagulated in little blobs near the academy’s entrance. Then there were the mixed breeds, genres of teens blended together in a rare harmony.
Max observed them in silence, keeping to herself and making her way toward the school’s entrance. Her arms swayed, abruptly becoming stiff at the shoulders when some loud whoops and squeals made themselves known. The noise struck a nerve. She began to tread lightly as she made her way past the unruly crowd.
The Vortex Club.
Max exhaled slowly, trying to keep her composure. Where did one begin with The Vortex Club? Technically, any student could join the illustrious faction, but one was more likely to be accepted if one was popular, archetypal, or wealthy. Bonus points if all of the above. The wealthiest family in Oregon, the Prescotts, also personally funded their activities—i.e. extravagant parties that wouldn’t be out of place for a nightclub or rave.
Max quickened her pace to avoid them.
“If it isn’t Max Caulfield.”
Max screamed internally. ‘Great. Jaunt and flaunt, take a bow, the Bitch of Blackwell’s comin’ ‘round!’
Victoria strutted toward Max, her pursed red lips situated with a sneer. As always, Courtney and Taylor followed, ready to back up her bullshit. Max’s vision fell to the sidewalk as they surrounded her.
“So, how’s the selfie slut’s Everyday Heroes pic coming along?” Victoria’s tone was airy but filled with scorn. The makeup she wore shadowed her forest-green eyes as she gave Max a stare down. She crossed her arms. Courtney and Taylor did the same.
Max sighed. It was an irritated and tired sound. Victoria picked up on her annoyance and scoffed.
“Let me guess. Due to only having those pathetic head shots of yours, sorting out a submission is a bit…difficult. What a joke. It’s unbelievable how Blackwell’s standards have dropped in the past century,” Victoria said, circling around her like a vulture. Again, Courtney and Taylor followed suit.
Max wanted to retort. She bit her lip instead.
“Don’t worry, Vic,” said another approaching voice from behind, “Caulfield’s not even in the same league as us.”
Victoria’s expression, if possible, lit up with even more conceit. Max tilted her head to see the person in her peripherals. She didn’t have to guess who it was by their complacent tone.
Nathan Prescott—the son of the very family that funded Blackwell Academy and The Vortex Club. His slouched form made a B-line for the group of girls while taking a last drag off a cigarette. He tossed it to the ground, shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, and glowered at Max with his piercing blue eyes. His presence created a new, tangible tension.
Max observed his outfit as a distraction from his glare. It was an alarming red ensemble complete with a white cardigan and black shirt underneath to combat the cool weather. The bright red radiated against the morning sunlight, now fully out from the horizon. His reserved brown jeans almost looked black in his forming silhouette. He topped off the look with light brown, formal leather shoes. Max thought he was akin to autumn itself in a way. He stood out.
‘And why shouldn’t he?’ she said to herself. ‘He’s only the son of the richest family in Arcadia Bay!’
If Victoria was considered the queen of Blackwell, there was no doubt Nathan was the king. The spoiled, pompous, asshole king. Max ran her tongue over her bottom row of teeth.
Like Victoria, his complexion was as peachy and perfect as possible, if a bit more ashen. Accompanying that was his light, side-slicked, champagne hair. Darkened circles underlined his eyes, making his consistent scowl even more intimidating.
Victoria brushed away Courtney and Taylor. The two girls dispersed, leaving Max alone with her and Nathan.
“True,” Victoria agreed, adding to his statement. “Like Mr. Jefferson would even consider giving your portfolio the time of day.”
“Even if she did put in effort, I doubt it’d make any difference at this point,” Nathan chided, continuing their chain of insults and acting as if Max wasn’t standing right there.
A grumble came from Max’s throat. She couldn’t hold back her annoyance much longer. Her headache began to resurface as she dug her shoes into the pavement. She swallowed.
Victoria chuckled. “Hm. Looks like we hit a nerve. Anyway, we should get going. I hear too much time around hipster shits can be fatal.”
Nathan huffed, rolling on his heel to face toward the main stairway with a sarcastic, “Oh, for sure.”
Victoria brushed by Max with a small shove, their shoulders connecting. Nathan did the same on her opposite side. Max almost stumbled, but she held her ground and clenched her jaw.
“See you in class, Maxine,” Victoria added before the two bounced up the entrance steps.
“Max? Is that short for something?”
She froze. It was bad enough they had these ridiculous ‘introduce yourself’ speeches for every class. Now someone was asking about her name, and that someone had already introduced herself as classy, confident, Victoria Chase.
The remainder of the class stayed quiet. Their history professor, Mrs. Paxton, stood by the white board. She gave Max an encouraging look through her round spectacles.
“Um…” Max struggled to find words.
“Mostly because it seems like it’s short for something,” Victoria added, crossing her legs.
“M-Maxine. But I prefer Max.”
Victoria leaned back in a relaxed position, her vision never leaving the other’s. “Maxine. Cute,” Victoria said with a smile, a faux gesture, and fixated her body toward the front of the class once more.
Eyes barreled down on Max. She was still in the spotlight. The light giggles and scoffs that made their way around the room were like atomic bombs going off in her ears. They mingled with her pounding heartbeat and heat began to creep up her neck and to her ears and cheeks. Max sat down and scooted her chair up to her waist, her eyes scanning the room one last time. They were met with glances that quickly darted away.
Except for one that held. Nathan Prescott. He was sitting next to Victoria, peering past the chic girl to get a good look at the new student in his domain. She met his deprecate squint.
A freezing sensation overtook her body. Now she was the one to break the connection. Her eyes met the desk and she slid down in her seat. Her hands were trembling.
The girl next to her proceeded to stand and make her introduction. Max tried to steady herself and slid further down, no longer paying attention to the class intros. She wished there was a wormhole to seep into.
“Assholes,” Max spat and wriggled her feet from their roots. She felt the sweat and tension lessening within the soles and began to step forward, the humiliation from the first day of classes fading back into memory.
She looked up, her mien set with a deepening frown. To her surprise, Nathan was still there. Max’s face softened against her will when she saw that his expression wasn’t one of malice or conceit. He looked...sad? Exhausted? Out of it? For a moment, he was an enigma.
The exchange was quick, and Max didn’t falter. She glided past him and continued into the school.
After walking a few more feet, Max stopped and looked back. His line of sight met hers again. Unlike the first day of school, she held the look this time, a defiant action against Arcadia Bay’s poster child.
Nathan’s expression hardened, and he smirked, the enigma broken and filled with pride once again.
Max’s lips parted, and she took a sharp breath. Another cold feeling shot through her. In her head, she cursed. Her face fell, and she continued towards class, merging with the sea of other students.