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The Listening

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Max physically felt her soul leave her body. Her eyes grew wide and her fight or flight response was jammed into flight mode, but her body was stone.

Another girl across the way turned to face them. She had been talking to Justin and the other skaters of Blackwell, looking apropos and blending right in with the crowd. As she got closer, Max’s stomach painfully cramped.

This girl had rebel written all over her. She wore a black leather jacket, opened and showing off a white, tattered tank top. ‘Misfit Skull’ was printed on the front with a respective skull design. Patched, scruffy blue jeans and cowboy boots adorned her lower half. Max recognized those boots. They were once Joyce’s from her teenage years. She remembered Chloe always begging Joyce to let her wear them, but the answer was always no. She wondered what changed her mind. Max continued to marvel her friend’s rebirth, next eying the thick and thin leather and rubber bands layered on her wrists. A dark navy beanie covered her mop of semi-cropped, bright blue hair. The honey blonde was no more.

The closer she got, the harder Max’s heart pounded. She swore it was going to rupture and she would die on the spot. A part of her wished it did.

“What up, playa?” the blue, punk girl asked Rachel, giving her a fist bump.

Max was going to faint. This was Chloe? Her best friend? But she was so…different. She sat deathly still, hoping to fade from existence.

Rachel couldn’t stop smiling, her sentences getting caught between her perfect teeth. Instead, she stopped trying to explain and grappled the other girl’s shoulders, spinning her around toward Max.

Max’s eyes met hers, met Chloe’s—those swirling silver blue irises she knew all too well. They reflected back at her, an instant flash of the past. This wasn’t happening. It can’t be happening. Not like this. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Max was supposed to stop being such a pathetic coward and call her. She was supposed to stop being the shittiest friend in the world and apologize for being absent those five years on her own accord.

Now, here she was, looking at her best friend, all grown up and all so different, because of happenstance. Because some random girl who knew her insisted they meet. Max felt their distance grow larger than ever before, like the Grand Canyon had sprouted between them.

“Max…?”

Chloe’s face had changed from happy-go-lucky to something Max recognized: confusion and sadness. Max wished she didn’t have to look at her like that. It only served to make her feel even guiltier. She remembered it well; the face Chloe wore most of the time before Max left Arcadia Bay, the face when the news of her father’s untimely death was delivered…mere days before Max was to leave. The face she wore when they said their goodbyes, and kept thereafter. William meant the world to her and Joyce, and Max had left when Chloe needed her most.

Max’s tongue felt swollen. She went to speak, but only a hollow breath escaped. Her stomach was about to ask for a refund on her sandwich.

Rachel stood to the side, her smile neutralizing from big and wide to small and thin. She was silent, waiting.

Chloe’s chest heaved, released a breath she’d been holding, and Max couldn’t believe what happened next. She smiled. Brief and fleeting, but it was there. Her expression quickly returned to what it was before, her brows furrowing. Max knew the latter was a sign of disappointment and/or anger, but she was still relieved, at least somewhat, with that teeny little smile.

“Chloe…” Max finally released her own built up air, her lungs feeling cold with a lingering ache in saying her best friend’s name.

The murmur of students enveloped the girls. Their peers bustled as the three stood still in a vacuum of time. The air was anything but; a cold wind glided through the trees and their multicolored leaves, moving the clouds to block the sun in its stormy shadow once again.

Rachel stepped forward, letting out a light breath laced with a laugh. “I take it you’re surprised,” she said, trying to break the tension.

Chloe didn’t look at her, Max staying in her sights for the time. Her jaw visibly clenched, Max’s heart went with it as Chloe began shaking her head.

“How? You’re here? What?” Chloe’s voice was low and layered with different emotions—sadness, disappointment, bewilderment…Max couldn’t detect any one in particular.

“H-Hi.”

‘Oh, my God, Max. Really? Hi. That’s it? You sound more pathetic than that time with Nathan yesterday!’

“Hi?” Chloe said as more of an inquiry than a statement, crossing her arms in the process. “That’s all you’ve got to say after so long?”

‘Exactly. Shit.’

Chloe was angry. That was clear. Max’s hopes dropped along with her eyes. She noticed a nearby bird scuffle about before taking off in flight. She envied its easy escape.

“Chloe!” Rachel interrupted and slung an arm around Chloe’s shoulder, her tone ever light and playful. “Come on! Isn’t this the Max Caulfield you’ve been telling me about all this time? Aren’t you happy in the slightest to see her?”

Chloe shot her a glare, but eased up once she met Rachel’s hazel gaze, her expression settling to one more neutral. Chloe sighed and uncrossed her arms, shifting her weight to one foot.

Max became more self-aware and realized how much pain the picnic bench was causing her rear. She gulped, took in a breath, and stood up, slowly and without an ounce of nerve. Even now, Chloe was a few inches taller than her. Rachel was the middle-man between them, maybe an inch taller than Max. In her head, Max applauded Rachel’s courage in calming the beast that was Chloe Price.

Rachel squeezed Chloe’s shoulder and neck, her expression nullifying again. Chloe glanced to the side. It looked like she was chewing on the inside of her cheek, trying to find something to say without completely exploding.

There was stillness and silence before she shook her head and said, “Still wearing those Woodstock clothes, I see. After five years, you’re still Max Caulfield.”

Max felt the ice in the air thaw, if only for a bit. She couldn’t help but smile at that. She ground her foot into the moist grass and steeled herself, eventually finding her own voice.

“Yeah. You, on the other hand…” Max rubbed her arm. “You’ve changed…a bit.”

“Hmph. I sure hope that’s the case,” she scoffed with an upturned smile. She was trying to stay mad, but both Max and Rachel could see through her façade.

Another moment passed between the three before Rachel let out a dramatic breath.

“Don’t take it personally.” Rachel beamed, heading to stand beside Max. “From the beginning she would show me pictures of you and her as kids and talk about your adventures non-stop. Pirate power!”

“Rachel!” Chloe lightly flushed, and she rolled her eyes with a groan.

Rachel laughed, a clear and smooth melody of a sound. Max on the other hand was suffering from second-hand embarrassment right along with Chloe. She also felt something gnaw at the back of her brain as she imagined Chloe and Rachel swapping stories from times past. Max couldn’t recall a time where she had done the same with her two main friends in Seattle. The memories of that time seemed so far off and distant now, and Arcadia Bay felt even more estranged.

“So, what brings you back to Hicksville Arcadia?” Rachel asked, fishing in her pocket for something.

Max’s panic rose. That was a question she wasn’t sure she was ready to answer. She owed Chloe an explanation, and she didn’t want to lie. Of course, part of the reason was for Blackwell Academy and Mark Jefferson, but part of her came back for Chloe as well. There were other reasons, but Chloe was her best friend, after all. ‘Was’ being the operative word.

Rachel retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and proceeded to light up. After inhaling a desired amount, she took it away from her glossed lips, letting the smoke sit on her tongue with a look of release, and ended with a long exhale. She then handed the cigarette to Chloe who repeated Rachel’s actions with less tact. Their fumes rose and dissolved into the air, the smell of nicotine filling the spaces between.

Max imagined William chastising Chloe severely for the habit, but a part of her wasn't surprised. She wondered what else had changed in the time she was gone.

Max pushed those thoughts to the side and gave her hesitant answer, “W-well, Blackwell Academy’s got one of the best photography programs in the country…so…”

“I saw that coming a mile away,” said Chloe with a frown.

Max’s breath was light. She felt the knives of disappointment assaulting her every limb. “You were always on my mind, too, Chloe…”

Chloe took another drag off the cigarette. She stared at Max for a moment, seemingly ignoring her statement, before continuing, “You still got that janky-ass camera?”

Max smiled lightly at her quip and retrieved the instrument from her bag, shimmying it in her hands as if to say, ‘You mean this janky-ass camera?’

“Oh, wow! Vintage!” Rachel awed, coming in for a closer look.

“Yeah. My parents gave it to me when I was ten. It’s been through the ringer at this point,” she finished, the end of her sentence turning into a lighthearted chuckle.

Chloe snuffed out the cigarette on the ground and respired a final smoky stream. A snort followed. “It’d always piss her off when she couldn’t see the shots she took right away. We’d always get those shitty gas station disposable cameras, y’know? With this, though, instant results.”

“I just hated waiting for them to be developed at the local mini-mart. It was a chore to ask my parents to take me there when I ran out of shots. They always working, and I didn’t like bothering them.”

“Good thing my family loves to be pestered, right?” Chloe said in a teasing manner.

“Hm?” Rachel gave her a look of interest, imploring her to continue.

“Oh, God, she’d run all the way to my house and get this look on her face—this upset, baby-faced pout. And my dad, of course, gave in like the softie he was and took us downtown. We’d drop off the film and head to the Two Whales for a quick bite or somewhere else while we waited for the photos to get developed.”

As Max saw the scene play in her head, she also couldn’t help but remember Nathan’s snide comment about her said ‘baby face.’ She rolled her eyes and ignored the thought in lieu of continuing the tale at hand.

“Joyce would be happy if we stopped by, though,” added Max. “Man, thinking about the Two Whales makes me hungry again. I’d love to nosh on one of those tasty burgers. Or some of Joyce’s pancakes! They’re the best!”

“Oh, man. My dad would, too…if he were here. Both of you loved her buttermilk short stacks.”

“Especially when she’d add chocolate chips or blueberries. Drool!”

The two fell quiet and Max suddenly realized something. She was talking…with Chloe. Talking at a level of comfort that she never thought to discover after five long years of silence. It was an intense and filling feeling, one Max welcomed with a hint of hesitance. Maybe everything was falling into place after all.

Rachel’s face contorted into one of smug and triumph. She then placed a hand on Max’s shoulder and gave Chloe a bright smile.

“Jeeze, y’all are gonna make a girl jealous over here,” she teased, breaking the growing tension.

Max shyly smiled, and Chloe crossed her arms with another eye roll and brief grin.

Chloe then twirled on her heel and saw someone exit the school. She did a double-take and her expression altered to a mixture of concern and anger.

“Shit!” she said under her breath. “Rach, we need to go. Now!”

Rachel’s carefree demeanor dropped and her vision matched Chloe’s. Her lips parted for a second, and there was an energy-filled skip in her step as she separated from Max.

Max looked where they were facing. She spied a tall and rough-looking man dressed in a navy blue, branded top with beige, formal pants. The cap he was wearing had ‘SECURITY’ labeled across the front. Max recognized the man as David Madsen, head of security at Blackwell Academy.

He didn’t seem to be paying attention to anyone in particular, but Max understood why Chloe and Rachel were worried. David had a pretty bad reputation around campus for his obsessive behavior with surveillance and safety, taking it to levels that often involved harassing the students. In the short month Max had been at Blackwell, she heard multiple complaints about him from peers and professors alike. She, thankfully, hadn’t been in his sights…until now.

His vision squinted and settled not on her, but Chloe. In turn, Chloe looked at the ground and tried to make herself seem smaller, her body becoming awkward and stiff. David then looked at Rachel. Even from far away, Max could see his scowl and could tell he was glaring at the two. He began making a B-line toward them and Max’s stomach gave a little hiccup.

“Come on, let’s bail!” Chloe hissed.

Without hesitation, Rachel began to follow Chloe. She looked back at Max and waved her hand low to the ground, signaling for Max to follow as well.

Max looked at the resolute form of David approaching, and then back to the lessening forms that were Rachel and Chloe. She was torn, her body tilting back and forth with the choice of one way or another. In truth, she really didn’t want to get interrogated by David, so she began to jog after the two, remembering to scoop up her trash beforehand. Rachel gave her another smile when she caught up. Chloe was already ahead by a couple meters.

‘Man, how did I get into this now?!’

“What’s going on? Why are we running from Blackwell security?” Max asked, trying to catch her breath.

Rachel didn’t answer. The three of them blended into a crowd of students as they made their way around the backside of the building. Max checked behind them. David wasn’t there. The chattering of students filled her ears and her comfort level shrank, her senses becoming dulled, anxieties becoming sharp.

The three circled around the school until they were on an adjacent hill facing the parking lot. Rachel and Chloe continued down the side, their feet landing on the pavement with loud and heavy clops!

Max disposed of her garbage in a nearby trash bin before continuing, making sure not to break her ankles on the way down the slope, gingerly setting herself down and pushing herself off the side in the end. She wiped her backside and followed the girls to a rusty, beige pickup truck.

Chloe entered and started the vehicle. The engine roared to life and sputtered to an idle. The radio came on with a catchy tune as she closed the door with an audible creak. Max tried not to smile too much with how much trash had built up on the dashboard and floor. Clearly this truck had seen better days in the face of the hurricane that was Chloe Price.

Rachel opened her side and hopped in. Max peered inside to see just how old the vehicle really was. It had a dark blue, singular leather bench that stretched from door to door, large open areas for foot room, and a stick shift Chloe thusly put into place after pressing the clutch.

“Come on, Max!” Rachel exclaimed, scooting over and patting the passenger’s side of the seat.

Max looked over Rachel’s shoulder to Chloe. She gave Max a look that was saying to either take or leave the offer, because she clearly wasn’t waiting around.

‘But…I have class in less than ten minutes!’

Max looked up at the main stairs from the school to the parking lot. Her heart bulleted its way into her throat when she spotted David once again. He must have gone around the other way to flank them. This guy was determined! What was his deal?

Without further hesitation, Max jumped into the passenger’s seat, buckled up, and closed her door with another ear-piercing squeak. The three tore out of the parking lot with burning rubber, the sound echoing into the surrounding trees. David came to a complete stop at the bottom of the stairs. Max saw him clench his fists in the side mirror. Her heart pounded with the rush.

‘Well, no turning back now.’ She then gasped aloud. ‘Oh, Warren! Shit!’

Her fingers blazed across her phone’s touch screen in immediate response. She hated lying to anyone, especially her friends, but things had just gotten a bit crazy and out of control. Besides, a chance to make up with Chloe after all this time? She didn’t want to pass that up for anyone or anything.

MAX:
Hey, Warren. I got pretty sick during lunch. It’s why I didn’t answer. I went to the nurse and now I’m going to stay in my dorm for a while and rest. It might be a small stomach bug. Please don’t hate me for missing class :(

He didn’t take any time to answer, making Max feel all the more remorseful.

WARREN:
Max! Finally! I’m glad you let me know what’s up! You were pretty out of it yesterday. I guess it just escalated. I was worried. Are you gonna be okay?

MAX:

I should be. I think it was just all the stress from the past month coming to a head. I’m still the new kid after all lol. I’m sure I’ll be fine with some more rest.

WARREN:
Maaaan, it sucks you won’t be in class tho (T^T) but I can probably get Brooke to help me out. I can bring your homework and some hot chocolate fresh off the Bunsen burner afterwards! (~_^)

Max sighed with a smile. ‘God, he’s so sweet, but if he checks on me and I’m not there…big trouble!’

MAX:
Thanks, Warren. If it’s okay, could you hang on to my work until tomorrow? And I promise we’ll get hot chocolate and something tasty at the Two Whales soon! Maybe this weekend after the study group? :D

WARREN:
Wait, you’re joining our group this weekend?! Epic! I’m so up for that! Also, we can talk about getting those tickets for the drive-in! We’ll get ready to ‘Go Ape!’

MAX:
Absolutely. A Two Whales treat and movie night with a friend might just be what I need. I’ll talk to you later, then?

WARREN:
Sure thing! I’ll be here if you need anything! I’m just a text away! Get some rest so you can live long and prosper, my friend!

[PICTURE ATTACHMENT]

Max opened the photo file. Warren had a big smile on his face and was giving the Vulcan salute. In his other hand was a beaker full of blue liquid. The background gave away that he was in Ms. Grant’s classroom, probably waiting for her arrival that would now never come. A flash of sadness found its way through her limbs.

‘God, I’m the worst friend ever. I’m so sorry, Warren. I’m definitely going to make it up to you.’

“Ooh, who’s the cutie?” Rachel asked while spying over Max’s shoulder.

Max reared back in surprise. She hid her phone, feeling a little embarrassed. “Oh! Uh…! M-my friend, Warren. Warren Graham,” she answered, pushing her phone deep into her pocket.

“Oh, I know him! He’s a sweetheart. Always working on something to keep himself busy, I’ve noticed,” she answered while brushing off her shorts. She followed by tucking her long hair behind her ears and adjusting the laces on her shoes.

Chloe, on the other hand, didn't look impressed. Max noticed her countenance and slunk down in the seat, glad that Rachel was between them for the moment. A commercial came on the radio advertising Arcadia Bay’s mid 90’s – early 2000’s rock, the announcer’s voice grating enough for Chloe to forcefully turn it off with a grumble.

The sputtering of Chloe’s truck and whistling wind through the semi-open windows interposed the silence.

“Um. Anyway. Where exactly are we going?” Max asked, placing her hands in her lap. She focused on an odd Elvis-like bobble head on Chloe’s dash.

“We didn’t plan on having a third wheel, but we were headed to our hangout,” said Rachel.

The way she said it, Max knew, was as a joke, but the words ‘third wheel’ hit her harder than she thought. She began to question whether she should have stayed at school and dealt with David’s interrogation. It was more than obvious that Rachel and this new Chloe were close, maybe even closer than Max imagined. She suddenly felt like the karma fairy had come for a visit right on cue, punishing her for never contacting Chloe while in Seattle, knighting her into the position on a red carpet of shame.

Max cleared her throat and mind of uncertainties. “Your hangout?”

“Just sit tight, hippie. We’ll be there in no time.” Chloe gripped the steering wheel, fully opened her window, and leaned her elbow out while focusing on the road.

Rachel enjoyed the rushing breeze and crossed her legs. She then put her arms behind her head, closed her eyes and let out a dramatic sigh. Her hair fluttered in the wind.

Max couldn't relax. Not totally. She was still tripping on the fact she and Chloe had reunited, and with this new girl Rachel Amber. Well, new to Max. Somewhat at least. She couldn’t shake that nagging feeling that she knew Rachel somewhere…somehow. It didn’t bother her too much, but the sense of déjà vu chiseled her brain every now and again.

No one else spoke for a good remainder of the ride. Chloe focused on their destination, Rachel had her eyes closed in meditation, and Max’s eyes wandered the interior of the vehicle.

Like she noticed before, there was a lot of trash—papers, crushed soda cans, random pens and markers, etcetera. Max scooted some balled-up papers to the side with her feet.

There were also different charms hanging from Chloe’s rearview mirror, including a bejeweled pendant, a random feather, and another skull—a motif she began to associate with this new Chloe. Along parts of the doors and back of the interior were black graffiti writings. The all-seeing eye was there along with some other phrases and drawings. Interesting, Max thought, and wanted to take a picture, but stayed the desire instead to pick at some loose cotton from a tear in the leather seat.

They whisked past trees and cars that came in and out of view. Chloe turned down a road that was familiar. There was the mini-mart they were talking about only minutes ago, older and more run-down looking, between several other shops. The whole area looked ramshackle and abandoned as they passed more and more places.

‘How time changes everything,’ Max thought to herself.

Very few people walked up and down the sidewalks, some carrying closed umbrellas. The sky did look like it was going to open up any minute. Max recalled a time where she and Chloe stayed inside all day waiting for it to rain, but it never did. The clouds stayed gray, like they were laughing at the two for wasting time inside waiting on them. She halfheartedly smiled, a little sad at the memory and the sight of Arcadia Bay’s current state.

The area opened to another all-too-familiar stretch. Past a small car port and gas station to their left was Arcadia’s beach. The ocean stretched far into the distance, blurring into the gray horizon, while the waves kissed the sand at the shore. Their hiss was like a distant whisper. Max imagined the crabs spider-walking sideways with haste to avoid the hands of the whitecaps dragging them under.

To their right was the Two Whales Diner. It was a moment of slow motion for Max as she observed the neon-bordered sign of the big blue whales above the building. It still looked the same, like it was the only thing unaffected by time’s merciless flow. Max thought she caught a glimpse of Joyce inside as they passed, leaving the hope of a delicious meal for another day. Max wasn’t sure she could hold down more food right then anyway. Her nerves were still a little on edge with the mystery of where they were heading. But, this was Chloe. She could trust her, right?

A new billboard caught Max’s eye. Her insides lit up with its in-your-face advertisement.

“Pan Estates…?”

“Hm?” Rachel yawned and stretched her arms. “What was that?”

“Do,” she paused right after, wondering if she should even bring up the topic. She decided to continue if only to break the lingering tension in the air. “Do either of you know what Pan Estates is?”

They both gave her a look of surprise, like she should know what it was.

“Well, you haven’t been around for a while, so I guess you wouldn’t know,” said Chloe. “It’s just another stupid-ass project the Prescotts are working on.”

“Just another stupid-ass project? It’s one of the biggest stupid-ass projects they’re working on, Chloe,” Rachel quipped, sounding rather sad in the process. “Sean Prescott and his land development team have all but taken over Arcadia Bay at this point.”

Ever since she was young, Max heard talk of the Prescotts and their autocratic business influence. Never did she expect them to get as far as they had. A sense of guilt overshadowed her. She forced her vision back to the road as they turned on a dirt path crowded with foliage and trees. This was an area Max didn’t quite recognize. An old, wooden sign had some washed-out, hand-painted words on it with an arrow: ‘AMERICAN RUST THIS WAY.’

“So, what’s it all about?” Max asked.

“Sean Prescott’s basically buying up and deforesting the land and putting in all these carbon-copy estates for wealthy people. It’s doing nothing but ruining the economy and the land here. It’s really fucking sad.” Rachel seemed pretty upset about the whole thing. Max could see why, being an advocate for the planet in a way herself. What a mess.

“Wowser. That’s…awful.” She frowned and bit her lip.

Max didn’t know what else to say about the matter, letting it drop. She briefly wondered why Mr. Jefferson had one of the Pan Estates pens and different papers from the Prescott Foundation. A mystery for another time, she figured. Still, the thought did slightly bother her.

They entered American Rust, heading through a swinging metal gate and pulling off to the side once past it. It turned out to be a junkyard. Tens of hundreds of dilapidated and rusty cars, boats, household appliances, furniture, oil drums and other things littered the area in large piles between dirt and grass hillocks. There was even a fully-intact old school bus in the middle of the overgrowing vegetation and ruin. The rusting yellow was borderline blinding in the sun, but Max couldn’t help marvel at the sight. It was beautiful in its own way. Max smelled the decay in the air, but she didn’t turn her nose up at it. Somehow, it was relaxing.

Once out of the truck, Max equipped her camera and angled herself at the corner of the bus. The viewfinder focused on the yellow beast with some weeds blurring themselves in the foreground. Perfect. With a click and a flash, she had herself another photograph for her collection.

Chloe let her hands slide down her back. It cracked, and she exhaled in relief, adding to the girls’ conversation from earlier. “It doesn’t help that Sean’s legacy, or whatever, is going to live on through his punk-ass son. The rich just get richer.” She scoffed with an angry look and added, “What a load of shit.”

Max let out a small and breathy laugh and followed the two deeper through the metal jungle. She avoided stepping in different puddles of water and oil and on any broken glass. The last thing she needed was ruined shoes, or worse, a sliced foot.

Rachel interjected Chloe’s previous statement, “Okay, Sean’s a problem, but there’s no need to blame Nathan for all the shit happening to the bay.”

Chloe shot a glare back at Rachel. “Whatever, dude. Boo-fucking-hoo, I’m so rich I can’t see straight. Fuck him and his Vortex Club. They’re one of the reasons I’m not even at Blackwell anymore. Bunch of fucking elitist pricks.”

“Plus, all other reasons that got your ass expelled,” Rachel said. “Chill.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Chloe marched forward.

‘Whoa! So, Chloe was expelled from Blackwell? Damn. It’s no wonder she wanted to get away from David. She’s probably not allowed on the campus anymore. He might have done more than just give her an interrogation.’

Max kept her thoughts to herself, continuing to follow the girls around more piles of knick-knacks and wrecked cars. Max wanted to ask Chloe how she got expelled, but she thought better of it. That subject might have been taboo and piss her off even more. Max was also surprised at Rachel’s defensive response toward Nathan. She couldn’t help but feel the same as Chloe; maybe Nathan wasn’t the problem in Arcadia Bay, but he was a problem, especially concerning Blackwell Academy’s student body. There were plenty that didn’t deserve his aberrant actions, her included.

The girls came upon what looked to be an old frame of a small building. There were no doors and the concrete holding it together was sprinkled with cracks and holes. Different pieces of sheet metal, tires, tarp, and other debris were pushed against it to make any larger gaps secured shut. The three entered. Max stopped in the doorway while the other two migrated to different sections of the square room.

The rough place was decked out with makeshift benches made from old boards with cinderblocks underneath, a car seat turned recliner next to a spool table, and a variety of dilapidated shelves with various random baubles. On the wall was a large Indian-like tapestry with a gestural elephant design, giving it a homier feel. An American flag was draped over some boxes in the far corner. There were also a variety of posters and graffiti, much like the scribbles in Chloe’s truck, plastering the walls. A bunch of trash was strewn about. Max took note of a couple pizza boxes, dirty paper plates, and plastic cups. She thought about the two coming here to eat and be merry. It was like a small, bohemian paradise.

“So? The usual?” Chloe asked Rachel.

“The usual,” she answered while falling into the car seat, arms up, legs out. She moved a couple pieces of stray clothing to the side and relaxed.

Chloe saw Max standing in the doorframe. “Come on in. Welcome to our home away from hell.”

“A place like this inside a junkyard? Raw and rough. Somehow I’m not surprised.”

Max wasn't lying. She was discovering more about this new Chloe every second as well as this girl Rachel. It wasn’t bad, just different. Her return to Arcadia Bay was getting more and more eventful as the week went on.

“If you want I can grab a cushion for you,” Rachel suggested while clearing off the spool table.

“Sure.” Max smiled, happy to be accommodated into their secret hideaway from the world.

Max took off her bag and let it slip lightly to the ground while Rachel started a search in a pile of clothing and blankets. She retrieved a tattered, square cushion from an unknown chair and plopped it on the table for Max. She also retrieved something else Max immediately recognized: a bong. It was made of purple glass and filled with semi-translucent water.

Max frowned. ‘I really hope that water is clean. Somehow, I don’t think it is. Gross…’

“Okay! I got the kush! You got the tunes?” Rachel beamed and jiggled the glass instrument, the water inside sloshing about.

Chloe was crouched down and looking for something in one of the shelves. “Ju-u-u-ust a sec—ah! Right here!”

Chloe pulled up a small CD player, a battery-operated thing with a bent antennae that looked like it was on its last legs. She placed it on top of the shelves where she was looking and turned it on, flicking through a couple static-filled stations until it landed on a preferred one. Max was surprised it played at all.

“All right! Time to relax and blaze,” Chloe said and plonked down next to Rachel on another pile of blankets.

“Wait,” Max interjected, “you guys are going to get high? Here? Now? Where did you even get that stuff?”

Rachel and Chloe smiled at one another before Chloe said, “We know a guy. Don’t worry, it’s just skunk weed. And nobody’s around anyway. You wanna join?”

Max was nothing short of stupefied. Cigarettes were one thing, but this? What other stuff was Chloe into nowadays? She hoped it didn’t go past marijuana. And, good lord, did Joyce know? What would William say? She imagined the both of them would be losing their minds.

Her head began to spin as she recalled a bonfire night back in Seattle. She had tried weed once…and only once. That was all it took for her to never do it again. Not that she’d ever tell Chloe about that embarrassing night. All she can remember was a laughing. A lot. And then craving barbecue potato chips for some stupid reason. She could hear Chloe cackling in her mind, and knew she’d never hear the end of it if she told her.

“Thanks, but…no.” —‘Hell no.’ Her mind finished for her.

“All right. Fair enough. We’re not gonna get totally tanked, if that’s a consolation prize worthy of Mahatma Max over here.”

Max crossed her arms. “Well, I do need a designated driver to get back to Blackwell eventually.”

“As do I,” Rachel said. She took out a baggie of ground up buds and began to arrange the substance in the bong's bowl. “And Chloe, don’t poke fun just because she doesn’t want any.”

“Jesus, sometimes you’re worse than my mother,” Chloe responded, taking off her leather jacket and throwing it on the back of the car seat.

Max shuffled her feet on the ground, creating troughs in the dirt below. A burst of colors caught her eye after Chloe cast aside her jacket. A large sleeve tattoo ran down the length of Chloe’s arm. It was a beautiful design. She couldn't help but stare in awe. Green leaves, vines, roots, red hibiscus flowers, a red ribbon, a skull, and contrasting blue butterflies made up the art—all swirling down to her wrist in harmony.

Max’s chest pained as she switched her vision to the creases in her hands. Chloe had changed so much, more than Max probably knew, and yet Max had barely changed at all. Almost nothing about her was new or exciting, at least to herself. She suddenly began to worry if she bored them.

The two girls proceeded to enjoy their ‘treat,’ the bubbling noises cutting through the stereo. Max sat amongst the streams of smoke and droning music, the smell somewhat exacerbating her growing unease. Overwhelmed, she stood up, opened her bag, and took out her camera.

“Everything okay?” Chloe asked as Max headed for the door.

‘No.’

“Yeah. I think I’m gonna get a few more shots in. This place is pretty cool. The sun’s coming out for a second, too.”

Rachel inhaled her piece, held it, and coughed as the smoke was released from her lungs. “Sweet! Get one of me while you’re at it, Max!”

Max was surprised by her demand, but didn't reject it. She smiled and kneeled, holding her camera steady for the shot. Rachel posed, and it almost caught Max off guard. She was quite photogenic, as Max had seen that morning, but actually having her pose for a picture solidified that fact. She truly was beautiful, an amazing model. The camera clicked with another flash and spit out the Polariod. Max gave it a quick shake before handing it over to Rachel.

“It should be developed soon! You’re a natural!” said Max, standing straight once again.

“Thank you, thank you-u-u!” Rachel leaned her body down as if taking a bow. Max could tell the drug was starting to take effect.

Chloe smiled, but it wasn't a very happy gesture. “It’s so awesome to see you’re still into photography after all this time.”

Max frowned and cocked her head to the side with a nervous chuckle. “Of course. What else would I be into?”

The room went silent save for the music on the radio.

Awkwardly, Chloe responded with a cough, “Anyway, sun’s out now. If you wanna get some pics in. Or whatever. See you when you get back.”

Max nodded and felt another wall sprout between them. This time, she let it be and retreated outdoors. She figured Chloe needed time to wrap her head around everything like herself, needed some time to be alone with Rachel. This whole venture wasn’t even planned with her company in the first place.

With the sunlight hitting her pale skin and warming her chestnut hair, it was then that Max felt lost. Utterly lost. Things were different now, whether she accepted that or not. She had left Arcadia and Rachel had taken her place. It was clear as day. She still hoped Chloe had room in her heart for her, but after her deliberate absence and silence, what was there to do or say? She really was a third wheel.

Max’s expression dropped, and she looked at her camera. The instrument reflected its pale-yellow color, unable to answer any of her questions. It was no magic eight ball. Life went on. She sniffled, feeling a strong sense to start crying, but she held back and headed toward an abandoned fisherman’s boat. She had to snap out of this.

On the deck was a makeshift desk and old school chair. Chloe and Rachel must have put it up there, she thought, and made her way up the incline to the ship. Max imagined that if she and Chloe had found the boat when they were kids, they would play as pirates like they always did. She smiled, the thought warming her soul like the sun, even if that warmth carried a sadness within.

Max saw beyond the yard were train tracks. On top of the incline, she took another shot of the tracks, their linear metal path fading into the horizon. She took the new photo and noticed something else on the ground: used syringes. She shuddered, not wanting to know where they came from.

‘I guess it is a junk yard, but still…’

There was a sudden shock to her system. Her head began to feel like it was stuck in a vise, the crank turning and getting tighter and tighter. Her stomach sank and she felt a strong sensation to vomit.

'Ugh! W-what? What’s happening?!' She held her head with one hand and cradled her camera against her torso with the other. She was losing her balance.

“Oh, no! Please, not her!”

Max’s chest pounded, her vision losing clarity.

“What kind of world does this? WHO DOES THIS?!”
 a voice screamed in Max’s ears, through her rigid body, all the way down to her toes it seemed.

Then, as quick as the sensation came, it was gone. A train screeched past, the metal wheels tapping the tracks in rhythm on its journey. Max breathed heavily and clutched her camera to her chest, her feet anchoring to the ground for stability. The voice was Chloe’s. What on earth was happening? Did she cry out just now?

A rumble in the darkening sky led her to look up. Rain began to drizzle, some falling in her eyes. She wiped them away and headed back to Chloe and Rachel. By then, they both had large grins on their faces and were laying back in their own bliss. Max’s harried entrance got them both to give her looks of mild concern.

“Whoa, Max. You okay? You look so…intense,” said Rachel, her expression worried, but lax.

“Um…did…” Her throat was scratchy. “Chloe, did you call for me?”

Chloe and Rachel exchanged looks of confusion.

“No-o-o…” Chloe emphasized. “You sure you’re okay? You were gone for a little while. Get some good pics?”

Max stopped dead. “Wait. How long was I gone?”

Chloe lazily looked at her phone’s clock. “Mmm, I’d say, like, ten—fifteen minutes?”

Max gasped. ‘What? That long? I wasn’t outside that long! What the fuck?!’

Rachel sat up and tugged at Max’s pant leg. “Really, girl, you look a bit scary. Sit down with us. Hang.”

“Uh…B-But…”

“Yes! Come talk shit with us!” said Chloe who was pulling on Max’s other pant leg.

“We were just discussing local hotties.” Rachel’s stuck out her tongue through her teeth with a giggle.

“Ugh. We were not. There aren’t any attractive guys for miles in this shit pit.”

“Are too.”

“Are not.”

“What about you, Max? Any guys on your radar? How about Warren?”

Rachel’s question popped her personal bubble, and she blushed. “What? N-No! I mean—No—That’s not what—!”

“Aww, so no nerdy boys for you,” Chloe said with an exultant look on her face.

Max sighed and sat down with them, taking the cushion off the table and setting it under her butt. “So, you didn’t call for me?”

“I don’t think so, dude,” Chloe said and yawned. “I think I’d remember if I did, even if I am a bit toasted right now.”

“What about Zachary Riggins?” Rachel interrupted, determined to get some sort of answer out of either girl.

“Fuck. That. Shit.” Chloe made a gagging noise.

“So, no Warren for you, and no Zach for you,” Rachel pointed to Max and then Chloe respectively with a playful, pouty face. “Then who?”

Chloe exhaled sharply and shook her head. “You’re so ridiculous.”

“Fine. Max. Name a guy you think is one of Arcadia’s finest.”

Put on the spot, Max widened her eyes and gulped. Her voice was but a whisper, “W-Warren, I guess…”

Chloe started and hummed a small chord. “I thought you just said you didn’t like him.”

“Oh, no-o-o.” Rachel responded with a laugh. “She was merely in denial. Max and War-ren, sit-ting in a tree…”

Chloe and she recited the rest of the annoying, childish rhyme, much to Max’s humiliation. ‘K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”

Max then interjected with a huff, “I don’t like him, like him. He’s just a good friend! He’s cute, but…” She felt ridiculous using childish vernacular, but she was so embarrassed she could barely think straight.

The two fell silent. The stereo buzzed some babble in the background.

“Well then,” said Rachel, looking into Max’s darkened eyes, “besides Warren, name another Arcadia 'bae' and we’ll give our opinions!”

“You did not just use that pun,” Chloe said with a groan.

Rachel responded immediately, “You bet your ass I did! Now, Max…”

What did she get herself into this time? Both were inebriated and putting her on the spot. She hated this feeling of pressure. Of course, she thought Warren was nice, and he had an attractiveness about him, but…her head began to ache. Who else was there besides him that she really took note of? Zachary was a definite no; she wasn’t really into jocks. Besides, he was dating Juliet, another Vortex Club Member, so he was taken and off her radar. There was Trevor, one of the skaters at Blackwell, and she had to admit, she had a soft spot for skater boys. But he still wasn’t very…noteworthy? Was that the word she was looking for? As for other boys…This was crazy! This wasn’t the time! What about what happened outside? She couldn’t get distracted by this nonsense!

Max tried to put things in order before continuing. And then, without warning, he appeared in her head. His smug, conceited smile. His slouched, yet intimidating form. His cheeky attitude. And his icy, sometimes electric blue eyes that fixed her in place every damn time he looked at her. His name teetered on the tip of her tongue with contempt.

And yet, it slipped through her lips like water through a screen.

“Nathan Prescott…?”

‘SHIT. FUCK. WHAT? Why the fuck would you even—! Okay. Okay, play it cool, Max. You got this.’

Both girls were frozen. An awkward air formed around them during their abrupt pause.

Rachel was the first to break it with a devious grin. “Well, well! Dabbling with the bad boys, are we?

Max made her face smile wide with faux confidence. “Not! I was just messing with you guys! You’re totally blazed, and way too easy!”

Rachel pouted and wrinkled her nose. “You’re mean, Max! And Chloe said you were nice.”

“Jesus, Max. For a second there, I thought I was gonna have to kick your ass. Nathan Prescott? Really? No fucking way.” Chloe let out a snort.

Rachel scoffed. “Come on, Chloe. You can’t deny he’s…he’s…Pres-hot.”

“Am I gonna have to kick the shit out of both of you? ‘Cause I will! It doesn’t matter how ‘Pres-hot’ he is, he’s still an entitled Arcadia asshole.” Chloe put her arm over her eyes and groaned. “Can we just not? You’re killin’ my buzz.”

Rachel’s face changed to one of a faraway nature. “Honestly, he’s not all that bad if you actually talk to him. He’s got a lot on his plate. I feel bad for him. I mean, he didn’t ask to be a Prescott…he was born into it.”

It was Max’s turn to freeze with Chloe.

“Yeah, and born with a silver spoon in his mouth that he flashes in everyone’s faces. Ugh. I can’t believe you hang out with The Vortex Club in the first place. Why don’t you go schmooze all over him if you’re so ready to defend his ass?” Chloe’s expression became one of irritation.

“I only go to the parties because they’re fun. Plus, I’m on the decoration committee for the club. It’s a great addition to my record, or so they say. And I’m not interested in him like that, Chloe. Don’t be such a sour puss.” She sighed. “I can’t wait to graduate and get the hell out of here.”

“Right. Then we can kiss this place goodbye and say hello to Los Angeles.”

Max’s mind paused. ‘Wait. Did she say we?’

Before Max could ask, the radio began belting another tune. Rachel awed and stood up.

“Oh, my God! I fucking love this song! Turn it up, Chloe! Come on!”

Chloe grunted and lifted herself up, turning the dial on the radio to full blast. The song became loud and scratchy through the old speakers. Max recognized the song. It was a rather old pop-rock tune, but one she remembered enjoying with Chloe when they were kids.

Rachel and Chloe began to sing.

“Wake up kids! We've got the dreamers disease,
Age fourteen we got you down on your knees,
So polite, you're busy still saying ple-e-e-a-ase!
Frienemies, who when you're down ain't your friend,
Every night we smash their Mercedes-Benz,
First we run, and then we laugh 'til we cry-y-y!”

“What’s the matter, Max? Can’t dance? Come on!” Chloe was giddy and joyous, enjoying her high.

Max laughed as the two mimicked some of the actions of the lyrics. They began dancing and grooving, and in that moment, Max felt like dancing, too.

So she did.

And it wasn't to prove anything to Chloe; it was just to dance with her best friend again—her best friend, Chloe Price, and her new friend, Rachel Amber. She still didn’t really know much about Rachel, but Max felt at ease with her, felt a level of comfort that not many could get out of her. All of her stresses washed away for the time—her classes, the contest, her nightmare, everything. Max's moves were awkward, and Chloe and Rachel noticed, but they didn't say anything. They just enjoyed the music, the rhythm, the melody of life.

“You’ve got the music in you,
Don’t let go,
You’ve got the music in you,
One dance left,
This world is gonna pull through,
Don’t give up,
You’ve got a reason to live,
Can’t forget,
We only get what we gi-i-i-ive!”

The rain beat against the little concrete shack. It sounded like it was matching the beat of the song.

“Health insurance rip off lying,
FDA big bankers buying,
Fake computer crashes dining,
Cloning while they’re multiplying,
Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson
Courney Love and Marilyn Manson
You’re all fakes,
Run to your mansions,
Come around,
We’ll kick your ass in!”

They continued until the song faded along with the rain, dancing as their laughter echoed throughout the junkyard.



Max missed the remainder of her classes that day. She didn’t care. She had a great time. When Chloe dropped her and Rachel off at Blackwell, she was stricken with a feeling of emptiness.

“It’s great that you’re back in Arcadia Bay,” Chloe said. “How about we hit up the Two Whales after your classes tomorrow? All three of us. I know my mom is going to want to see you!”

“It’s great that you’re back in Arcadia Bay.” Max’s heart swelled.

“Yeah!” Max confirmed with a nod. “We’ll see you tomorrow!”

Chloe held up a hand and waved goodbye with a small smile. She peeled out and drove into the orange glow of the sunset.

Max was left with Rachel on the near-empty grounds of Blackwell Academy. Rachel yawned and stretched her arms upward. The two began their journey across the courtyard. Rachel flipped a penny into the fountain as they passed.

“Alrighty! That was great! I can safely say that you’re everything Chloe bragged about!”

Max felt a sudden absence. Chloe was no longer with them. Only she and Rachel were talking now, and it was a little terrifying if Max was being honest.

“Really?”

“Yo,” she smiled wide and pulled out the photograph Max took of her, “look at this picture. I think you really got the lighting down, and my good side. You've got talent! And you’re in the right place for it!”

Max laughed and was about to respond, but the two were interrupted by a noticeable figure at the picnic table. Max and Rachel stopped, both girls’ emotions at opposite ends of a spectrum. 

Only a few hours ago was Max sitting there, hating herself and wishing she could disappear from existence.

Now, Nathan sat there all alone. He was looking at pictures on his camera once again. It reminded Max of yesterday when he was alone on that bench at the dorms. He had an intense and serious expression as he clicked through his digital files in silence.

“Well, well,” said Rachel, giving Max a little nudge with her elbow. “I guess you can go tell him how ‘Pres-hot’ he really is now.”

Max quickly met her hazel eyes in a panic. “Rachel! I was kidding about that!”

Rachel squinted with a haughty smile. “Max. Even buzzed I could tell you said his name for a reason.”

“Okay. Fine. But it’s not because of…that. It’s because he’s a bully and messes with me and other students! Chloe was right about him. He’s an entitled asshole who thinks he’s better than everyone. He and Victoria Chase are cut from the same cloth.”

Rachel frowned. “I mean, yeah, he and Victoria shouldn’t be such jerks to you or other students, but…” She exhaled, her lips buzzing with a raspberry. “You should go talk to him sometime. And maybe Victoria, too.”

Max placed a hand on her hip and lazily responded, “Right. Like they would give me the time of day.”

Rachel shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. You never know.”

She looked over to Nathan again. His expression had softened and one of his hands cradled his head. He looked exhausted. Max felt a sudden sense of melancholy.

Pushing Max toward his way, Rachel gave her a reassuring smile. “You go on ahead. I’ll see you later. I have to go talk to a couple of my professors before they leave for the evening.”

Before Max could protest, she bounded away and up the stairs of the school.

Again, Max looked to Nathan. The setting sun silhouetted his form, and the orange glow casted gem-like sparkles over the wet grass around the campus. A cold wind blew and rustled the trees. A few leaves fell to the ground, one landing on the table in front of Nathan.

The piece of nature attracted his attention. He lifted his head and picked up the yellow leaf, twirling it by the stem between his elongated fingers. Max noticed the delicacy with which he did it, recalling the way he held her photograph only hours before.

He then looked up and spotted her.

For once, her nerves didn’t surge into a frenzy. In fact, she was calmer than expected, her insides a hum of stabilized energy. She locked eyes with him, but not with defiance. She thought about what Rachel said and tried to keep her cool.

Something in the air changed. Nathan didn’t avert his vision, but his hand came down and placed the leaf on the table.

Another breeze shook the trees and carried their secrets with it.

She didn't know why, but she smiled, lifted her hand, and gave him a small wave.

A confused look ghosted across his face, and he wasn't sure why himself, but he waved back. It was a stunted return gesture, but the reciprocation was there.

Max’s adrenaline barrier broke and their connection was lost. A small blush began to coat her freckled cheeks. She hurried to the dorms, not looking back to see if he was still staring.

He was.