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The Listening

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Wednesday came too soon. Max’s phone buzzed incessantly on her side stand, and she had tapped the snooze button several times in the span of half an hour. She thought around the tenth or eleventh time was when she sat up with an agitated groan.

That night she didn’t have any nightmares. She sighed with relief at that fact, but the mystery of hearing voices still plagued the back of her thoughts. It kept her from sleeping soundly. She thought that might have attributed to not having any of the latter…or any dreams at all for that matter. Max swallowed her fears, once again ignoring her troubles to focus on the day ahead.

The sun beamed through her windows like clockwork, but today felt extra special. She had Chloe in her life again, and a new friend in Rachel Amber. Max’s form fell back and sank into the bed, warmth and comfort easing her muscles and bones. She smiled wide and lingered on all the familiar, glowing cracks in her ceiling, thoughts blank and mind calm. She double-checked her phone’s clock to make sure she wasn’t going to be late. She still had an hour and a half before classes started.

She also had a new text message.

CHLOE:
this is still my number. hope this is still yours. text me when you get this.

Another smile. In all the excitement yesterday, they all had forgotten to exchange numbers. Max assured her with a return text.

MAX:
Yep. Still my number. I guess some things really do never change. See you tonight?

CHLOE:
about time you answered! i thought for sure i was going to get a random dick pic or something b/c i sent that number into outer-data-space. 

Max was horrified at the thought, but still burst out a chord of laughter. That was Chloe.

MAX:
Dude. Gross.

CHLOE:
hey don’t blame me. blame these arcadia hillbillies and their obsession with their hairy ball sacks. it wouldn’t be my first. and, yes. tonight. two whales. lets get it!

MAX:
Thanks for that mental image for the morning, Chloe. It really whets my appetite. All right. I have to get ready for classes. Text you later.

CHLOE:
laaaaame. c ya. i’m going back to bed for a few before i wake n’ bake. say hi to rachel for me.

MAX:
Will do! See ya! \ (^ ^)

CHLOE:
NO EMOJI


Another laugh erupted from her depths. She sat her phone down and sighed. It was back to World History for her, and she hoped Mrs. Paxton was feeling better. Though, the moment she thought about her professor, she felt a hint of duplicity, remembering Monday’s class when she forced Victoria and her to switch seats. She hoped that wasn’t going to happen again, her desire to deal with Victoria at a moot point. And Nathan.

Then she remembered, and her heart gave an unexpected leap.

Nathan. Yesterday. She waved at him…

And he waved back.

Warmed blood betrayed her as it rushed up her neck, sanctioning an uncomfortable blush to bloom across her cheeks and nose. It held flecks of embers at her ears. She took a few deep breaths—In. Out. In. Out.

‘Okay.’

She rolled out of bed and let her feet hit the chilled carpet for another time. Her arms rested on her legs, limp and sprouting goosebumps from coming out of the bliss that was her comforter cocoon. She yawned and stretched, her elbows and wrists giving audible cracks.

She then heard voices coming from the hall. Like her, the girls on her floor were active and readying themselves for another day at Blackwell Academy. They weren’t so different, but how she wished things weren’t so elitist and divided. She exhaled and stood up to stretch her legs and torso, more cracks coming from her knees and toes.

‘Jeeze, Max! You’re falling apart at the seams! If that’s not a sign I should drink more milk, I don’t know what is. Or at least take more vitamins. Something…’

An unexpected, heavy knock at the door caught her attention and made her jump. The voice on the other side was an unexpected surprise for her morning.

“Ma-a-a-ax? It’s me! Can I come in?” Rachel’s melodic chime came though the wooden barrier.

A light panic made Max’s nerves buzz as she observed her outfit: white pajama shorts with a baby blue tee. The design of a cartoony, smiling slice of cheese pizza was on the front. She figured she was presentable enough, if a little embarrassed to have Rachel Amber in her mess of a room. Books and papers were scattered about from her attempts at doing homework once again. A mess she would have to clean up soon if she was going to be on time and get her back-row seat again. She gave another look around, hoping the girl wouldn’t think too little of her room.

“Um, sure! Mind…the mess…” Max’s voice trailed off as Rachel entered before her sentence was over.

Rachel scoffed. “Pfft! This is nothing compared to my room right now. Or worse, Chloe’s. It looks like a tornado hit that girl’s space, I swear.”

“I can only imagine,” said Max as she began shuffling her papers and books to the side. “Speaking of, she said to say hi. She texted.”

“Aww, that’s sweet. We’ll get to hang out more later today.”

The beauty plopped herself down on Max’s bed, crossed her legs, and leaned back. Her black jean-shorts showed off what her knee-high Converse couldn’t the other day—a snake-like dragon tattoo on her right calf. Max thought it suited her and looked pretty wicked. She also thought Rachel might have been the one to convince Chloe to get her elaborate sleeve. Or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe it was a mutual decision on both their ends. Max shooed the disconcerting thought away and continued to eye Rachel’s attire. She had on regular, worn-down, black high-tops along with a baggy, forest green sweater that hung off her shoulders. Underneath was a black, form-fitting tank top. The thick straps could be seen where her top hung loosely. Her wrists were decorated with even more bracelets than yesterday, accompanied by a few rubber and metal rings on her fingers. Her blue feather earring was once again situated in her left lobe.

Rachel craned her neck to check out Max’s memorial wall. Her expression calmed, and a smile tugged at her lips.

“You’ve got quite the space here! And your wall is hella badass. You’ve really got a love for photography, huh? Look at you and Chloe! Cutie pies!”

Max laughed with a small blush. “I don’t know about that last part, but yeah. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved taking pictures. I’m just glad my parents let the habit run into my adulthood,” she joked.

Max felt unnaturally calm having Rachel in her room, opening up easily and letting down her guard. She didn’t hate it, feeling like she was a cord to Chloe in a way.

“Aww, you two were cute, though. Still are. And your parents sound cool. Chloe told me about them from time to time.” Rachel’s voice lowered and sounded distant with a sense of yearning.

It caused Max to pause and look up at the girl whose plush lips were pursed together in thought. She avoided eye contact and let her eyes graze over her multiple bracelets once again. Through them, she saw a mark on her left wrist. Another tattoo. A star. Simple and hidden, but it was there. The black ink almost reflected blue when the light hit it just right.

Max snapped back to attention and moved the last of her work to the side and asked, “You okay?”

Rachel clasped her hands around one crossed knee and smiled again. “Oh, I’ll be good once Dana gets her ass dressed. We have to talk before classes start.”

“Oh?”

“Decoration committee meeting. At least a little one before tomorrow’s full get-together at the pool.”

“I see. I wondered why you were here so early, and why you stopped by,” Max wiped her eyes and started sorting through clothes in her closet.

“Hey, I wanted to come see you, too! Dana told me you were on this floor, so why not? I mean, we’re friends now, right?”

Max couldn’t help but smile and chuckle at her innocent tone. “I think so.”

“Oh, hush. You think so.” She laughed.

Max let out another chuckle. “I take it you get up pretty early, then?”

“Ugh. I wish I didn’t, but I have to take the bus to Blackwell. I so need a car.” Rachel grimaced and gave a fake pout.

This confused Max. “Wait. I thought you lived in the dorms?” She found another mediocre outfit for the day, featuring her same gray jacket, laid it out on the arm of her futon, and took a seat on the latter.

Rachel stood up and stretched, admiring more of Max’s décor as she answered, “I used to, but it got too expensive. I have a scholarship for Blackwell, but it ended up not covering things through my senior year. It sucks balls.”

Max frowned. “That’s pre-college private schools for you. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Hm?”

“I mean, yesterday you came all the way back to Blackwell with me just to turn around and take the bus home?”

Rachel shrugged. “Like I said, I had to talk to some of my professors. It doesn’t cost that much to take the bus. And I honestly didn’t mind, believe me, or else I’d have asked Chloe to take me home.”

Max laid a hand on the back of her neck. “Mm…”

“Besides,” Rachel headed over and patted Max on the shoulder, “I wanted to see you back at the very least!”

“Which is code for leaving me alone with Nathan Prescott?” Max raised a brow.

A wry smile played on Rachel’s lips. “Har-dee-har. Chloe warned me that you were a smart ass…just like me!” She then spied Max’s guitar. “You play?”

Max shook her head. “I mean, a little. I’m not that good, though.”

“Aww, I bet you could be. How often do you practice?”

“Not enough. It’s hard to find the time.”

“You make your own time, Max,” she said, a serious tone overtaking her lighthearted character. It was a sharp change, and it didn’t last but that moment, but it stuck with Max. Rachel stroked the neck of the instrument with a sense of sadness in her hazel eyes.

A silence fell in the room, and Max knew she had to get ready, but she didn’t want to move. She sat up straight and tugged at one of her sleeves as a distraction before standing.

“Y-yeah. You make a point,” Max said, and she wasn’t being dishonest, “but I have to get dressed and ready for class.”

“Ah. Once again, I am kicked to the curb by a young maiden so fair!” She theatrically let a hand fall across her forehead and dipped backwards, all while heading toward the door.

Max shook her head with a laugh. “Okay, drama.”

Rachel winked in the doorframe. “I’ll be in Dana’s room when you get done! We can walk to class together!”

And then she was gone. Max took a moment to compose herself. She figured she would have to get used to Rachel one way or another. Her visit wasn’t so bad, she thought, even if it was out of the blue. It wasn’t totally off-putting. And Rachel wasn’t sending her any red flags that she should be concerned about. Besides, she was Chloe’s friend, and that cord of connection shone through again.

Max dressed and made her bed, smoothing out her sheets and comforter and fluffing her pillows. Shutting off her paper lanterns, she exited the room, camera bag in tow. She made a mental note to get in a post-reunion-with-Chloe selfie when she could, missing her personal quota for the morning.

She inhaled, and the musty scent of Blackwell mixed with different fragrances of the dorms’ occupants. Across the hall, Victoria, Courtney, and Taylor were making their way toward Room 218—Dana’s Room.

“Okay! We’re here. Make it quick.” Victoria leaned in the doorframe. Taylor and Courtney entered and stood idly by.

Max treaded lightly. The situation just went to a level she would rather not mess with. Rachel waved at her from inside on Dana's sofa. Max stopped on her tiptoes and shrugged, not knowing what to do.

Victoria flashed Max an enquiring glare and snapped, “Can we help you?”

Dana leaned forward on her bed. A textbook served as a hard surface for the paper she was writing on. “Hey, you! Rachel said you’d be passing by!”

Max smiled. She tried to avoid Victoria’s shadowed eyes when Dana ignored her riposte and gave a little wave. “Hey, Dana.”

Dana Ward, cheer captain of the Blackwell Bigfoots. Max had the pleasure of first meeting her on a tour of the dorms. At first, she thought Dana looked snobbish and had a 'better-than-you' atmosphere about her. She couldn’t have been more wrong. Dana was one of the most laid-back girls at Blackwell Academy. Accepting, encouraging, and brimming with personality, she was the embodiment of school spirit. It was appropriate that she was a part of the decoration committee for The Vortex Club. With her temperament, she had an eye for style that was reflected in her décor and herself. Vortex members like her gave Max hope that maybe it wasn’t all bad.

“Max! Come on!” Dana insisted, beckoning toward her cross-legged form on her bed.

Victoria had her arms crossed with an annoyed look. What was new? At least Courtney and Taylor didn’t look pissed off. In fact, they looked more serious than anyone in the room. Max made her way past Victoria’s leaning figure and sat next to Rachel on Dana’s pink, plush couch. She sank into its cushions and wriggled herself in a proper position, wishing Regina George and her posse would leave so she could get rid of the cloud of inferiority hanging over her head.

“Okay. What the hell are you doing here?” Victoria asked, immediately addressing the elephant in the room that was Max with a stiff, polished finger. The sun hit her crimson sweater and cast her in a rather macabre, bloody light. Perfect for the spooky month of October.

“Just popping in before classes! Is that a problem?” Rachel defended and lightly slung an arm around Max’s shoulder.

Max released herself from Rachel’s grip, her personal bubble popped and re-created within seconds. Rachel let her escape, knowing her reaction wasn’t without purpose.

Victoria tapped her foot and lolled her head to the side, squinting at Rachel. “Did I fucking ask you?”

Dana sighed. “Girls! Come on. Not now. I just wanted to check in with a couple things before the meeting tomorrow. All the stuff is in the pool area. We just have to set it up. The light placements—”

“For Christ’s sake, Dana! That’s what tomorrow’s meeting is for! Shit like this!” Victoria exclaimed, the structure of her sentences becoming very matter-of-factly with her impatience. She expressed her irritation with hand gestures as well, driving home her point.

Max held her ground on the sofa, her fingers picking at a stray string on the strap of her bag. Courtney and Taylor stayed quiet, as did Rachel, much to Max’s surprise.

“Chill out, Victoria! I didn’t want to call you in here so early, but since you and Nathan decided to have this party at the godforsaken pool, we have to make sure everything’s going to be safe in terms of the electrical equipment and space for the students and—”

Victoria placed a hand on her forehead. “Everything’s been taken care of in that department—equipment, safety protocol, all that bullshit. We even have the okay from Wells! We do plan outside of these little get-togethers, you know. You just need to do your job and make it look good.”

“When did—”

“With Nathan and his father. All a couple weeks ago when we agreed to the location. Wells knows too.”

Dana just stared at Victoria for a moment, her glitter-speckled, gray eyes taking in her stance and information. “Okay, then…”

Victoria’s expression loosened and she snapped her fingers at Courtney. “Print her the floor plan by tonight. It’s still early, but whatever.”

Courtney dejectedly nodded. “Got it, Victoria.”

“Now, if you don’t mind.” Victoria slowly turned to leave, her distress wanting to be masked, but was anything but. “You two can stay if you want, but I have to go.”

They didn’t. Courtney made a small affirmation to Dana about the floor plans before following Taylor and Victoria. Rachel and Max looked at each other, both on the same wavelength with their thoughts.

Dana twirled the pencil in her hand and scribbled something down on her piece of paper with a long sigh.

“She seemed bitcher than usual. You know what’s up?” Rachel asked.

“Who knows? Sometimes I wonder why I’m even in this club,” Dana responded. “There’s so much hierarchical bullshit to sort through. Jesus. They could have at least told me they got confirmation on all that crap, at least so I wouldn’t look like an ass. And what was all that about being early? The party’s tomorrow night! I’ve been trying to get back with them for days and finally…just…ugh!” She threw her arms up. They came back down, her hands clapping on her legs.

Rachel cleared her throat and leaned forward, putting her hands together. “Just another way Victoria sets ya up to knock ya down. No worries! That just means they got the hard part out of the way!”

“I guess. I know it’s not the first time they’ve held the party at Blackwell’s pool, but damn.” Dana sat her book down with the paper, lowered her legs, and kicked some clothes boxes underneath her bed containing unknown things. She then turned her attention to Max. “So, Max! It’s great that you stopped in! Hopefully Rachel hasn’t been pestering you too much. At least not like she does me.”

Rachel flipped Dana the bird with a crooked smile. Dana laughed.

Max smiled as she answered, “Not at all! Just on my way to class.”

“Gotcha. So, are you coming to the Halloween shindig?”

Max didn’t have to think long about her answer. “No. I’m not really into cosplay…or parties.”

Rachel flashed her a look. “Oh, Max! Come on! You have to at least come to the Halloween dance! It’s going to be so fun dressing up and celebrating!”

Max pursed her lips and made a sound of disagreement, her eyes wandering this way and that. “It’s not really my thing. No offense to either of you. I mean, I love Halloween, and I’m sure you put a lot of work into the way things are set up…but, no.”

“Rachel’s right, though! You came to Blackwell to discover yourself, not hole up in your room all day!” Dana exclaimed.

Dana’s words then and Rachel’s words from before began to circle in her head. ‘You make your own time.’ ‘You came to Blackwell to discover yourself.’ It was like the universe was giving her a lecture that day, taunting her. It wasn’t that she absolutely hated parties. She just didn’t want to deal with any manner of bully bro dudes or catty clique girls. And Vortex Club parties were filled with every manner of both. In truth, she wished she could be more like Rachel and Dana…and Chloe—girls just wanting to have fun, not giving any fucks. She could only muster a feeble shrug, that flame of aspiration doing a slow burn, much to her frustration.

“That’s too bad. I totally think you and Warren would make a cute couple with matching costumes!” Dana giggled. “Trevor actually asked me. I’m so excited!”

Max blushed, thinking about her and Warren arriving as a couple in some ridiculous get-ups. She felt weird.

Rachel grinned. “Trevor?! No way, that doof?” They shared a laugh. “That’s awesome!”

“I’m really glad I gave him a chance. We just…clicked!”

“He really is a nice guy, Dana. I’m happy for you! Now if we could only get Justin off his board and into the club once in a while…”

Their voices began to blur together as Max zoned out. If her messy and fumbled conversation with Chloe and Rachel in the junkyard wasn't proof enough, topics of boys and dating weren’t her thing, either. And the more Max sat there, the more out of place she felt. She stood up and adjusted her bag, a silent indication that she was readying herself to leave.

Rachel caught the action and also took a stand. She then said to Dana, “Anyway…Shortest. Meeting. Ever. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

Dana nodded, adjusted her low-cut top and holey blue jeans, and bid the two a farewell. “Sure thing. If Juliet ever gets her ass in here, I’ll discuss some of the stuff with her, too. I’ll see you tomorrow!”

Max started ahead of Rachel and they both exited the dorms. The sunlight hit their forms and warmed the chill in the air. It wasn’t as cold as yesterday. It was much warmer, in fact, but October’s gradual leave was opening the doors for winter. The girls chatted small talk and made their way past the Tobanga and some shifty squirrels. Some were making nests for storing nuts while a couple chased one another around in playful scurries. Samuel wasn’t too far away, sweeping the sidewalk and giving the girls a wave. They returned it with smiles.

The main campus seemed less lively than it had been on previous days. The light wisps of the wind barely allowed any stray leaves to dance on the lawn. Max shivered internally. Something felt…ill-omened. She turned to Rachel and, for once, felt an unalloyed connection with her. As different as they were, Rachel was rooted with a similar look to hers plastered on her visage, lined eyes squinted and brow creased. She squeezed her hands into fists and released them—once, twice, three times—to relieve some tension.

A figure waved toward Max, a muffled cry becoming strangled in the tightness of the air. Max’s attention altered and saw that it was Warren. He was at the top of the entrance to the school.

Rachel took a breath. Max heard her confidence wax back into action with her next statement. “That’s cute. He’s been waiting for you.”

“Uh…yeah. Um…” Max’s uneasy feeling grew. She and Rachel marched forward. Dana’s earlier comment about the Halloween party didn’t help and her shyness spiked.

Warren met them a fourth of the way with a little jog. “Max! I’m glad to see you! And…Rachel Amber, right?” He looked at Rachel and his face became quizzical.

“Right on the money.” Rachel smiled with her answer. “And you must be Warren Graham. Max has told me all about you.” Her head bobbed and her eyes slid to Max as she said the word ‘all.’

Warren’s face lit up with pride and embarrassment. He smiled his silly grin and looked anywhere but at Max for the time, a hand making its way through his disheveled hair. Max couldn’t meet his gaze, either. She was just as embarrassed at Rachel’s remark, the comfort wrung from her.

“Really? Hope I didn’t sound too X-Files to you, if that’s the case,” he said.

“Nah. She’s the Scully to your Mulder,” she joked.

“Rachel…” Max said under her breath. She felt like she was decreasing in size, shrinking away from the world with her humiliation.

A moment hovered between the three before a screech brought them to attention. In front of the street steps, a pristine, black vehicle came to a halt. It had tinted windows with a glossy shine, not a scratch, and was a mix of antique and modern in style. Student and teacher alike fortunate (or not) enough to be on campus stopped at the ear-piercing sound, everyone’s vision conjoining at the sight.

“Whoa. Check that out,” Warren said, his voice low and lined with awe. “Fancy set of wheels.”

Whispers began to invade their ears. All manner of surprised, irritated, and concerned voices drifted through the air. One sentence Max caught amongst the flurry. Her eyes widened when it was uttered.

“It’s the Prescotts…”

A tall, fit man in a dark suit and tie stepped out of the driver’s seat—a chauffeur, without a doubt. The man first let out an angular-looking figure from the back seat’s left side. It was a woman.

From where they stood, they couldn’t see very much of her facial details. Nevertheless, her affluent style shone through. She wore a cream-colored, stiff and straight dress coat with fitted sleeves and a notched collar. Two columns of black buttons held the ensemble together. A pair of cream pumps adorned her feet. Light black stockings showed off her smooth and young-looking legs underneath. A Louis Vitton handbag hung off her wrist. She stepped up on the sidewalk with grace, long and wavy, dark brown curls bouncing with the action, her side-swept bangs covering a portion of her eyes.

Max got an immediate case of rigamortis. Freezing cold made its way through her veins at the mention of the family’s name and sight of the woman. The chauffeur made his way around to the right side of the car, ready to release the next passenger. Never had she actually seen any of the Prescott family in person, save for Nathan, and the feeling of dread she got when the driver opened the next door was mixed with cautious interest.

The three approached the entrance stairs, moving out of the path, all huddled together in a mixture of feelings. They did it as if the school was going to reach out its educational arms and protect them from the boogeyman. Max almost laughed aloud. The Prescotts owned Blackwell, owned Arcadia Bay. What stopped them thinking that the school wouldn’t reach out with an open arm, a knife concealed in the other, waiting for the right moment?

The other figure stepped out. Male. Tall. Churlish. Intimidating. A number of other words in the dictionary could indicate his status and power, could indicate they were now in the presence of Sean Prescott. Time slowed. He wore a cream-colored suit to match that of his partner, or she wore her ensemble to match his. Whatever the case, it was still perfectly tailored and spotless. A light blue button-down shirt was worn underneath, not a wrinkle in sight. Black, leather loafers were the final touch for his feet. His formal, graying hair stayed in place, even with the light breeze. A pair of rectangular, tinted glasses blocked his eyes from what little sun was out. His presence reminded Max of when someone would drag a finger over a dusty surface, leaving the cleared layer underneath.

Max felt her heart up and punch her in the ribs, giving her a wake up call. Time returned to normal and she glanced at Warren and Rachel. They had frozen expressions of seriousness, both watching the couple as they began making their way up the sidewalk. Max’s eyes returned to the scene as well.

As the Prescotts drew closer, Max saw the woman’s smooth and plastic-like cheekbones and jowls. Her lips were glossed with a dark shade of red, like coagulated blood, and her eyes were done with the same color for shadow. It made her gold-flecked, green eyes wider. With those eyes, she stared ahead, not acknowledging anyone or anything but her goal that was entering Blackwell Academy. Sean was the same, his rounded features tired and brooding, and his vision staunch, sunken-in, and hooded. Their steps were not without purpose, and they knew all around them were those dust particles waiting to be swept away to clear that layer underneath. Max felt it, their self-satisfaction. It was so tangible she could cut it with a knife. The same air was ever-around Nathan. Except, Max thought, maybe not as strong, as permanent. It was an odd thought, yet it didn’t take her out of the current moment. She was still filled to the brim with trepidation. The couple made their way up the stairs in unison, and then they were gone.

Seconds passed before Max let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. Her stomach unclenched, throat dry and ears ringing.

“Holy shit,” Rachel exhaled. “I feel like I was just covered in all sorts of muck. Did you see them?!”

“Something’s gotta be up,” Warren said, his face tensing.

“No doubt,” said Rachel. She shook her legs to get the blood flowing and to ease herself. “Chills, man.”

There was an unusual energy inside Max. She wanted to get to class, wanted to sit down and rest. She felt faint with the overpowering sensation.

“I…I’ll catch up with you guys later,” Max said, her mouth becoming dry, and hurried into the school.

Warren and Rachel didn’t stop her. They, too, hurried to their own classes, hoping to find out what was going on.

Max fell into a light run as she made her way through bunches of students. She wanted to dispel herself, and this felt like the only reasonable way to get rid of it. Her body felt like it was getting ahead of itself as she sprung up the stairs to the second-floor classrooms.

She went to enter Mrs. Paxton’s room and almost ran right into someone. She caught her weight on her tiptoes and waved her arms to step back and regain balance.

“Whoa! Oh…” Her tongue knotted itself.

Before her was Nathan.

All manner of thoughts began to jam together in her head, but the first was that he looked awful. He was wan and gaunt, like he hadn’t eaten in days. The circles under his eyes were darker than before and his eyes looked red and puffy, a clear sign he didn’t get a good night’s sleep…or he had been crying. However, his eyes themselves were wide and his pupils were dilated, making him look outright terrifying. Max nearly fell backwards with how small she felt under his wild observation.

He inaudibly began scanning her up and down like a predator with its prey, making her all the more uncomfortable. She tried scooting to one side, but Nathan countered her. He tilted his head a bit, one of his eyes twitching. A disturbing smile formed on his lips and he stepped forward. Max stepped back. Nathan forward. Max back. This continued until he had her against the opposite wall, one of his arms blocking one exit, the well-varnished, wood corner of the hall blocking the other. Max gasped, looking for a way out. Nobody seemed to notice or care about the confrontation.

She was trapped, and her energy dispersed.

His eyes closed, and he sniffled, almost like he was struggling to focus. Opening back up, he took in her facial expression of surprise and fear. He was so close that she caught a whiff of his cologne—a mixture of mild citrus and spice, lined with the scent of nicotine from his habit. She found her bag for something to clench from losing herself and sliding down the wall.

There they stood for what seemed like minutes. Max tried to keep calm. Her thoughts muddled together even more, an amalgamation of terror and adrenaline. All she could think about was the way he held that leaf yesterday, the sun shadowing him out, and his restricted wave back to her. Now it was like that person didn’t exist at all, and in the end, it didn’t help her current situation.

Nathan backed off a bit, his unnerving smile disappearing under a layer of mystery. His hand dropped from the wall and to his side. He was still hunched over her form, but the air around him had changed so suddenly that his threatening stance deflated in an instant. She loosened, the students going to and fro, laughter and other random noises invading the space between them. Nathan rubbed his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut, his brows creating wrinkles with the strain.

“N-Nathan…?” Max didn’t know when she found her voice. It was soft and shaky.

She was surprised he’d heard her at all, but with her tone, his eyes snapped open and he grabbed her arm. He roughly pulled her close, the force causing a wave of shock and chagrin through Max.

His statement was enunciated in separation, breath hot against her ear. “Watch. Where. You’re. Fucking. Going. Caulfield.”

Max pulled her arm back and he let it go without resistance. He successfully scared the shit out of her, but Max could see something wasn’t right about the way he was acting. It was like he wasn’t in control of himself, like something was possessing him. She looked into his exposed, blue eyes, and he looked into hers. Two opposing oceans met in the eye of a warring storm. The exchange wasn’t long, and he eventually pulled away with a scowl on his face, a growl in his chest.

Nathan whirled around, his jacket waving with the motion, and started down the hallway, head low and posture bent. Max stood with her back against the wall and watched him go, heart beating fast and legs feeling nonexistent. She felt the color return to her face and touched the ear he snarled into. It was still warm.

‘Holy…shit…’ 

The five-minute-warning bell rang, and the students dispersed to their rooms. Max gathered her strength and entered Mrs. Paxton’s class. She took her back-row seat, legs trembling when she sat. Her face fell into her hands with a long, strained exhale. If not for that encounter, she would have had the will to speak with Mrs. Paxton to see if she was feeling better, and to ask about the Prescotts’ presence at Blackwell. From where she sat, Max could tell she looked a whole lot healthier than the other day. Suffice to say, she was too busy freaking out to ask about the other.

The class gathered in their seats and the starting bell rang. Kate decided to sit next to Max for another session, concern being expressed when she saw how worked up Max was.

“Everything okay? You’re kind of pale,” she asked with comfort in her voice.

Max didn’t know how to answer. Yes and no? She’d rekindled her friendship with Chloe and now had Rachel as well, but that whole thing that just occurred with Nathan…she felt like puking. What the hell was wrong with him? She tried to quell the flames in her gut by clearing her throat. It didn’t work.

“Just a bit thirsty.” Max wasn’t exactly lying, but she felt bad nonetheless for not telling the whole truth. She thought it better to not say anything, but she didn’t want to leave Kate hanging, either.

Kate seemed to catch her hesitance and simply nodded, adjusting herself in her seat, taking out a notebook and a bottle of water. She handed the latter over to Max.

“Hm? Oh, Kate!”

She smiled. “It’s no problem. I’ll get another one later.”

Max nodded and took the bottle with gratitude. Kate was so sweet, yet today she looked a little sullen. Max wanted to ask what was going on in her world, and she drank a big gulp. The cold slid all the way down and lightly quelled the fires within. She exhaled in relief.

Mrs. Paxton tapped a stack of papers on the desk and stood tall. She pulled down her mid-belted blouse and adjusted her glasses, looking more formal than usual.

“Okay, everyone. I know we planned on watching the rest of the film from Monday, however,” she took in an irritated-sounding breath, “there was a staff meeting yesterday, and today there’s going to be a morning assembly. Should be short and sweet. Nothing too…alarming.” She didn’t sound convinced of her own announcement.

The fire was suddenly back. Max cursed in her head.

And sure as the sky was blue, not even ten minutes into class, Principal Well’s smooth, bass-like voice crackled over the room’s loudspeaker, “Good morning Blackwell Academy! As your professors have no doubt informed already, there will be a prompt assembly in the gymnasium for all students. Please find your appropriate section, take your seats, and be on your best behavior. Thank you.”

Kate and Max looked at one another, Max having a more knowledgeable thought toward where this was going than her. They followed Mrs. Paxton and the other students out the door, downstairs, and into the gym.

The bleachers were pulled out from the walls and already filling with people filing in the doors. Max and Kate stuck close together, not wanting to get lost in the crowd. The high ceilings were filled with large, round, fluorescent lights that were situated between metal support beams. The basketball hoops were pulled back, their use unneeded for the time, and the floors were still polished from the night before.

“Max! Kate! Up here!” Warren called from one of the middle areas for seniors.

The bleachers were divided into quarter sections, black grippers for shoes separated each area. The girls carefully climbed the wooden benches and situated themselves next to him. Kate put her purse next to her feet and Max did the same with her camera bag. Warren was focused on the microphone that was situated in the middle of the floor.

“Did you find out anything?” Max asked.

“It’s got something to do with the Everyday Heroes Contest. That’s all I got out of Ms. Grant.”

Kate was confused. “Is something happening with it?”

As Kate asked her question, Max’s voice mixed with one of her own, “The contest?”

“Dunno,” Warren answered. “Nathan’s parents are here, too. This is kind of a weird gig, right?”

“Nathan’s parents? Oh…” Kate trailed off.

Rachel made her way down a few rows to sit on Warren’s other side. “Hey! How’s it going?”

“I don’t know. Things are just getting started.” Warren placed his hands on his knees and bobbed his legs in an excited rhythm.

“A little worked up, are you?” Rachel teased.

“I’m just kind of glad I could get out of math class for now. I love it, but homework’s got me beat down. Speaking of, I’ve got yours in my locker, Max. Since you missed classes yesterday and all.”

Kate added an agreement to that, “Warren let me know you were sick. You did look a little sick in Mr. Jefferson’s class yesterday. I’m glad you got some rest. Don’t worry. This weekend we’ll help you catch up. Don’t overdo yourself today, either.”

Rachel glanced past Warren and over to Max. They made eye contact and understood that the mention of where Max had really been was to remain secret. The guilt uncomfortably weighed on Max’s shoulders. Another thing to add to her worries.

“Also, I think I’ve seen you around here and there. I’m Kate Marsh.” She introduced herself to Rachel.

“Rachel Amber. I’ve seen you around as well! It’s nice to meet you!” She held out her hand and they exchanged a dainty shake.

“Likewise,” Kate answered with a fragile smile.

Murmurs and echoes bounced off the painted concrete walls, all of which showed off the school’s activities and spirit with posters and advertisements. The students were beginning to tail off from the entrances and take their places.

Justin, Trevor, and Dana sat in a row behind the four, the former two fist-bumping Rachel before taking a seat. They began to talk while Max, Warren, and Kate remained silent and observant.

Max scanned above the heads in front of her. David Madsen and a couple other security guards were hovering outside the gym doors, no doubt looking for any stray students that might want to skip out. She made a mental note to avoid David when this was over. He was, without a doubt, still sore about yesterday’s excursion with Chloe and Rachel.

She then spotted Victoria enter with the last of the students. Taylor and Courtney weren’t with her, and she looked like she was searching for someone. With a sigh and a palm to her head, she headed up and took a seat next to some other members of The Vortex Club several rows down from Max.

Other staff members of Blackwell Academy lined against the opposite wall or took seats on the bottom row of the bleachers. Max noticed some of her professors, including Mr. Jefferson. He stood attentive with his arms crossed, his spectacled eyes observing the sizeable room. When all were situated, and the doors closed, he stepped to the center of the area with Principal Wells meeting him in the middle.

Ray Wells was the head of Blackwell Academy, and a respectable man in many aspects. His tall and dark form stood proud and firm in the midst of the school populous. The gray tweed suit he wore allowed his darker skin to stand out, as did the luminous red shirt and tie peeking out from underneath. He placed his hands behind his back, his presence insinuating silence to fall amongst the students. A buzz of voices layered itself, attention given.

And then, in they walked. The Prescotts. Max’s breath hitched. Nathan was beside them, his hands balled into fists, still looking jittery and alert even though his body was hunched. He looked like he wanted to curl up and disappear from the world. The layer of voices became a silence so quiet that Max swore she could hear everyone’s thoughts through a dimensional tear in space. She gulped and brought her legs together to create another kind of tension away from those surrounding her. She hated being smushed like a sardine. She felt everyone’s clothing material, melded with their body heat, took in each of their fragrances. It was claustrophobic.

Stillness. Soundless. The clip-clop of Sean Prescott’s shoes echoed. His wife and Nathan followed, the former striding straight and true, the latter slow and indolent. Victoria’s vision shadowed them across the way, looking hardhearted. There was that fire again in Max’s stomach. It felt like a horrible case of heartburn. She squirmed in her seat.

Mr. Jefferson retrieved the microphone from its stand, the classic feedback screech lilting its praise upon sensitive ears from the tripod-stand speakers. He reacted with a humorous expression, one of pain and gritted teeth—fake, but funny—and cleared his throat to begin.

“Good morning, Blackwell!” He tarried afterwards, an applause making its way through the bleachers, the sound reverberating like thunder.

Of course they would applaud. Mr. Jefferson was genial and one of the main reasons a number of students came to the school in the first place, including Max. Rachel even gave a few whoops Max stayed still, feeling apprehensive.

“Okay, okay. I know. All right. Down to business. Unfortunately, we’re here today because of a change in plans.” A pause and confused beat from the crowd. “By now, you’re all aware of the Everyday Heroes Contest that’s taking place in San Francisco—at least I hope you’re all aware, I’ve shoved it into your faces enough.”

The audience laughed. Jefferson continued, “And it’s with a heavy heart that I stand here today and have to announce that the contest has been postponed until the 20th of March.”

Max’s thoughts were not unlike the roller coaster of emotions that erupted around the room. She could hear Warren and others whisper among themselves.

‘Postponed? I mean, I guess there could be worse things, but…’

“Now, I know that’s a bit later in the year, and it’s right before Blackwell’s spring break, but,” he stopped to signal Sean before continuing, “here to explain a few things personally, the man responsible for Blackwell’s current position of excellence and involvement with the competition, Sean Prescott.”

‘Wow,’ Max thought. Even Mr. Jefferson couldn’t hide that little hinge of disdain in his voice for the man.

It didn’t faze Sean in the slightest as he graciously received the microphone with a quick nod and smile, emotionless and stern, an action that flowered disquiet through Max’s every fiber. The room became deathly quiet once again. Nathan’s eyes met the floor.

Sean stood adamant. Even though the students were measured feet above him, it felt like he looked down from space on them, these insects that inhabited his world. Max unconsciously grimaced.

“Blackwell Academy. Such an honor it is to be amongst the future of this generation.” His voice was glib and melodious, much to Max’s surprise. Then again, he was a man of business. He continued, “It’s with deepest apologies that we deliver this upsetting news. The building Zeitgeist was to occupy for the event was, unfortunately, not spacious enough with the current amount of entries. However, the numerous negotiations put into this project have resulted in not a cancellation, but a postponement.”

'Blah, blah, blah.' Max understood the message.

What she couldn’t help but focus on was Nathan and his bouncy form. Fingers flexing, arms and legs trembling, eyes anywhere but focused, Nathan looked like he could burst into a 100-meter dash at any moment. He stuck out like a sore thumb, and she was sure the students and staff could see that as well. His parents didn’t seem to pay his actions any mind, which was almost baffling.

“However, that’s not what a good majority of you youngsters are worried about, is it?” His tone took a sudden shift. “But rather, the status of the party that was to announce said winner for the competition?”

A wave of anticipation passed through the crowd.

“Well, my lovely wife, Katherine,” he paused, his hand gliding over to rest on her shoulder, “and I are here to announce the party will continue. Same time. Same place. No muss. No fuss. All paid for in full. And of course…” he trailed off, his hand leaving Katherine’s shoulder to beckon Nathan to her place.

Nathan was hesitant, shuffling slowly to meet the grasp of his father’s hand on the back of his neck. Sean gave him a pat and a playful tug. Nathan went completely rigid as his darting eyes shut tight. Victoria stiffened like him, and Max’s brows creased. Hayden and other members were whispering back and forth without a care, but Victoria was straight at attention.

“My son, Nathan, as well as the other fine representatives of The Vortex Club of Blackwell Academy, are assured to make the experience another memorable one. So, from the Prescotts to Blackwell…celebrate! Enjoy your youth while it lasts!”

Some students sounded genuinely excited that Thursday’s party wasn’t cancelled, but the rest of the crowd clapped robotically, not a hint of a tip in the scales toward the hatred for the Prescotts and their hold over the bay. No one dared. Max felt out of the loop, her five-year absence catching up, but she still shared their silent animosity.

Sean returned the microphone to Mr. Jefferson, his hand still on the back of Nathan’s neck. It looked like he was giving it a rough squeeze. Katherine flashed a Barbie-like smile, an arm extending around Sean’s shoulders behind the young Prescott. Nathan himself looked completely dejected, but also like he was with an unhinged anger.

Mr. Jefferson gave a final thank you to Sean and the school, and an extra bit of information, “Since the contest’s date has been changed, so has the deadline for entries. All those who have turned in their photographs, thank you for your punctuality, and if you wish to do so, may exchange your photograph at any time due to the extension. All those who haven’t attempted, now’s your last chance. The deadline has been extended to the end of November. Find me for any further questions. It’s make it or break it, Blackwell! Don’t disappoint!”

Mr. Jefferson then handed Principal Wells the microphone. He rounded off the ceremony and wished everyone well for the rest of their week, reminding them of the party’s time the following night and about Halloween’s festivities soon to grace their presence. With a final thank you, he dismissed the room.

It took a moment, but the students began to file down the bleachers. Victoria was nearly leaping off her row, a feat that colored Max impressed with her high-design image. It was a complete contrast to the girl Max knew. She headed straight for Nathan who had been guided to follow his parents to the side of the bleachers near the equipment room.

“Well, that seemed less than productive,” Warren complained as they found the glossed gym floor once more. “Could’ve just saved everyone the trouble and sent an e-mail.”

“Yeah, but then the Prescotts wouldn’t have gotten their little time in the spotlight, now would they?” Rachel sarcastically responded, stretching her arms.

“Not that they needed it. Just to what? Show they still have complete control over Arcadia Bay? What a bunch of snobs.”

Kate interjected, “Did any of you see Nathan, though?” Max’s head perked up as she continued, “He looked weird. Like he was going to explode. He sort of always looks like that, but…"

Max’s eyes glossed over with thought. Kate was right, but so was Warren. Did they come just for show? It would be just like them, she imagined. A king dangling his piece in front of his subjects, enticing them, controlling them. Like Nathan had dangled her photo yesterday. A flame of anger burst inside her and quickly melted away. She sighed, tired, and let her head fall forward.

“Max? You okay?” Warren asked. His hand fell lightly on her back. She was surprised by the contact, but didn’t shy away.

“Still feeling under the weather?” Kate leaned down to connect her vision with Max.

Max blinked. “I’m cool. I think I’m going to use the bathroom and meet you back in Mrs. Paxton’s class,” she directed at Kate. “And, Warren, can I get my homework at the end of the day?”

Warren gently smiled. “Of course. Text me when you’re free. I’ll be around.”

Max smiled, a loose and half-hearted act, and nodded. She wasn’t feeling well. A headache began to take over her temples and spread behind her ears and across her forehead.

Kate and Warren went off together. Rachel lingered behind before she, too, left the scene, Max reassuring her that she would be fine. Rachel scribbled her phone number on a stray piece of notebook paper from her shoulder pack.

“That way we can make plans for our Two Whales trip, since I didn’t get to give you my number either. Text me and I’ll program yours in, too,” she had said.

People flowed around Max’s small form, like streams around bed-rooted rocks, paying her no mind, babbling and laughing in teen speak and profanities, nothing she hadn’t heard before. Max turned on her heel and began making her way to the opposite hall. Her stomach was doing flips and she felt like lying down. Retrieving her MP3 player from her bag, she inserted the ear buds and let the music flow, beginning her trek to the sanctuary of the women’s restroom.

If you’re going to San Francisco
Lay some flowers on the grave stone
There’s music on the station
But I’m just listening to cold wind whistling


She passed by a few professors conversing amongst themselves, their lips moving to un-synced lyrics. Mr. Jefferson was there, talking with Sean and Katherine, who, Max was surprised, hadn’t yet left. Nathan was with them, stooped and looking anywhere but at his family. She scooted past before his wandering eyes could somehow find her.

When she crossed through the metal door frame, thankful that David was nowhere in sight, her peripherals caught Victoria standing in the hall. She had a finger in her mouth, chewing her manicure. She didn’t notice Max.

Max opted to ignore her, admitting only to herself that her curiosity had piqued at the whole ordeal. However, the way she felt was also dictating her decision. She wanted to splash some water on her face and sooth the pounding in her skull.

Hey, hey, hey
Something ain’t right
Something ain’t right

And if they ever find me
Tell the papers, cold wind, cold wind
Cold, cold wind blowing
Cold wind blowing

She removed one bud as she entered, wanting to enjoy the last of the current song and to put up a guard. The eggshell tiled floors and walls did not do her any favors. Everything looked too white and burnished. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt her way to the sink, only looking down to the stainless-steel spout and handles for a chromatic rest.

‘Good lord…I feel I just got kicked in the head.’

She turned the squeaky knobs and let the water get warm before cupping it and splashing it to her face. As she did so, she heard footsteps and a couple voices in her free ear.

“Hey. You’ve been ignoring my texts and calls. What’s the deal?”

Victoria.

Another voice—low and laced with frustration responded, “Nothing.”

Nathan.

“Quit playing this game, Nate. You know I’m not a fucking idiot.”

“Whatever—! It’s just…” A pause and an exasperated rumble. “This fuckin’…business shit. And this stupid bullshit assembly. Everything. Fuck. Stupid.”

Victoria sighed. It almost sounded like a small cry. “You’re high. Did you do a line this morning?”

Silence.

“Nathan.”

More silence.

“Nate. You—”

“Shut up! Just shut up, Victoria! Jesus Christ! Everybody—and now you—Get off my ass! Why don’t you go back to sexing up Jefferson while you’re at it!

More silence. Max hid in an open stall at this point for fear of being discovered. She covered her mouth in horror at his harsh words. Though, she couldn’t help but think there may have been some truth to them. Victoria wasn’t exactly subtle about her advances. A bad taste filled her mouth. Max kept quiet despite her scrambled thoughts.

“I mean…shit. Vic. I didn’t…” Nathan’s voice had become strangled and he was making sounds of frustration.

“I know, Nathan.” A sigh. “I know.”

“Victoria…”

“Call me. Or stop by later. I’ll be in my dorm tonight.” Max heard a noise like clothing being grabbed. “Please.”

Max listened as Nathan’s heavy footsteps started down the hall, the boy mumbling to himself. Victoria’s own soon receded into the same empty space. The music in Max’s ear smeared into a muted color of confused nothingness.