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The Listening

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She was frozen in terror when he pushed her against that wall.

His nose burned from the intensity of the drug. His senses were off the charts, and he unconsciously took in her fragrance of spring-like softener mixed with the faintness of cheap coconut shampoo. The invasion of her odors only seemed to make it worse, make him feel a strange and unwanted dizziness of inner warmth. As he stared down at her, the world within a fisheye lens, her freckles stumbled over each other, danced an estranged waltz, and her blue eyes were glazed with the start of tears. The fearful and furious color that spread over her cheeks betrayed whatever life was in her step only moments ago. And with that sad, little whisper of his name, he snapped.

He didn’t remember much afterwards, but he did know one thing: He scared her.

Good.

He didn’t need her goddamn pity.

Nathan shook off the lapse in his sanity. The high came. The high went. It never lasted long with the dust, and there was always a down that came with the up. He fought the urge for more, knowing he had business to deal with, and his stash was back at Blackwell. Unfortunately.

He shook his head and blinked a few times, adjusting his sight to the black and blurry mass that was the road. He gripped the steering wheel of his truck, his cracked knuckles becoming white. Some split open. The blood bursting forth both mesmerized and inflamed him. Too much was it like the regret he tried to smother, squirming and tunneling its way to the surface through seams of red. He let it rise and dribble down his hand before bringing it to his annoyed lips to suckle away. He coughed and swallowed hard with the taste of copper and iron, trying to think of something, anything else.

His mind settled on The Everyday Heroes Contest. It was postponed, and the party was still on. Great. He was put on the spot, and while he was used to it by this point in his life, the stares of Blackwell students bearing down on him felt like strings of barbed wire tightening around his lungs. His veins pulsed with the dose, and everyone was cast in a lurid light. He was glad for that; he hated seeing their faces, feeling their groping eyes, hearing their reproving judgments. He was also glad he was too high to care at the time. Everything was a smooth inner tube ride down a lazy river…until it wasn’t.

Reality set back in, and he shivered in the privacy of his vehicle. A cold sweat formed on his brow as he felt his father’s rough and dry fingers on the back of his neck. Nathan raised his stiff shoulders, releasing Sean’s tight, invisible hand. His chest built up air until it burst forth between a scoff and a sigh. The sound was laced with odium and cut through the quiet air. Sean couldn’t simply address the change in plans in his morning message. Oh, no. Sean had to have the upper hand in every situation, had to dangle his superiority over everyone and everything, including his own son.

“Fucking asshole,” Nathan spat to Sean’s imaginary face. “Fucking bullshit,” he spat to everyone…and to no one. His grip tightened and creased the leather on the wheel. More blood. More suckling. More copper and iron.

A part of Nathan wished the party were cancelled, too. It would give him more time to relax and plan some more things, talk and work more with Jefferson. At the thought of the professional photographer, a surge of anticipation burst through him. It quickly waned, replaced by embarrassment at the somewhat foreign emotion. Still, the smile that played on his lips stayed. Beyond that, however, he couldn’t disappoint his patrons, and there were numerous people excited about the Vortex party. He had to represent, and so he would. He always did.

Nathan began to pick at some loose skin on one of his thumbs. After the assembly, Victoria was after him like a cougar with its prey, mother-henning him until he, again, snapped. He instantly lamented going off on her, especially about Mr. Jefferson. She was working her ass off for the contest, for her idol, and it was now postponed. And in the end, she was simply expressing her concern for him, like she did time and time again. He couldn’t say the same for many others in his personal hellhole that was Arcadia Bay. Remembering her grip on his arm and the distress in her voice, Nathan sighed in frustration. Even after knowing her for several years…

His head dropped against the backrest of the car seat. “Damn it.”

It didn’t help that, before Victoria had cornered him, his father demanded him to be home that night for an important discussion over a family dinner. Again, Sean kept the details from Nathan, the ultimatum a wax seal on his choice in the matter, his time cut and distributed from beneath his feet once more. He then retreated to his dorm where he spent the rest of the school day in the dark, alone, slowly eating the bagel Victoria bought for him in an unseen apology. He had wanted to sleep, but kept occupied with sorting through some film negatives, picking ones to develop later, ones to possibly show Jefferson. His lids drooped and he growled at his lack of strength to stay awake. Somehow, he managed; he didn’t want to dream.

He really didn’t want to dream.

The hours crawled. When the time came, he decided to head out before final classes ended, refusing to deal with the crowd of other students. It was easy. Nobody gave a shit if Nathan Prescott skipped class. His record would be clean, regardless. He gave a chortle at the thought as he sped out of the parking lot. Perfect.

The road opened wider to the seaside shops, and that tiredness returned with a vengeance. Nathan’s brows creased, his muscles tensing to keep his eyes open. His vision squinted toward the lowering sun as he cruised by the Two Whales Diner. Above his head, he brought down the visor to block the glare. He grumbled, wouldn’t admit it even to himself, but he was itching for a meal from the little establishment. It was one place in the bay he didn’t completely despise, and it was a much-needed break from Katherine’s insanely-rich cuisine she insisted on making any chance she got. Nathan’s stomach lurched just thinking about it.

He glanced in the rearview mirror and watched the building fade in the distance. The beach entrance got closer in its place. Impatiently, he waited for an old couple to pass in the opposite lane before turning down the sand-swept lot. Cursing out their slowness and bother, he parked across several empty spaces. The place was almost abandoned anyway. The lateness and cold of the day made it near impossible for hardcore beach goers. It wasn’t like there was going to be a fighting crowd. Also, fuck ‘em. If they had a problem, they could kiss his ass.

Nathan turned his attention out the tinted window. The dirt-encrusted RV sat across the way, the blue, decorative stripe around the hull barely visible under a layer of brown and rust. He rubbed his scratchy, red eyes with his lower palms, exhausted. His dealer wasn’t exactly the most pleasant person. Then again, neither was he.

‘All right. Let’s just get this shit over with and you can get the hell out of here,’ Nathan told himself.

Double-checking his drowsy face in one of the side mirrors, he rubbed his eyes again and allowed his countenance to intensify. Exiting the truck, he hopped down from the high seat onto the sandy asphalt. Nathan grappled the open door as his Oxfords immediately slipped on some clumped grains. An angry growl settled in his chest. He hated sand, hated the beach. Adjusting the lapels of his jacket, he slammed the door and shoved his hands in his pockets. There was a salty chill in the air, and it did nothing for his current cold state.

His approach to the trailer was swift and with purpose. He remembered to keep his head up and his façade front and center. Time to get shit done.

Rounding the corner of the RV, Nathan was met with the sight of a folded-out card table, several piled-up trash bags, all giving off a foul smell on the wind, and a tropical-print lawn chair surrounded by empty beer bottles and cans of dog food.

Nathan’s stride abated when said dog caught his scent. The creature, sitting close to the trailer’s entrance and under the awning’s shade, lifted its head, sniffed, and perked its ears.

‘Shit.’

Nathan couldn’t stand the thing. Every time he came around, it would cause a commotion with his presence. Now was no different. The brown beast slowly stood, collar tags jingling. Its muzzle vibrated with a low growl as its front fangs shone with a yellowish glint. Its snout wrinkled and it stood new ground, ready for Nathan to make any sudden movements.

He frowned, grinding his teeth with annoyance. The dog began to bark. They were braying, staccato strikes to his ears, and it took a stance that dared Nathan to come closer.

“Fuck off! Fucking mutt!” he snarled, a gesture even worse than what the dog was exampling. He tried to keep what little cool he had as his hands began trembling in his pockets.

As soon as the beast looked like it was going to launch, the RV door swung open. Several streams of silver smoke and a scent Nathan recognized followed. It wafted through the air and dissolved into the atmosphere. Muffled music could be heard in the background of the abode.

“What’s wrong, Pompi-baby? Are the seagulls terrorizing you again?”

A female figure glided out of the vehicle, blending with the dissipating streams, like she was a part of them. She hugged the creature close. The dog immediately subsided and wagged its tail in glee, kissing her cheeks with its slobbery, pink tongue.

Nathan halted, her name barely a whisper in the air. “Rachel.”

She scratched the dog’s ears and pulled away from it to meet Nathan’s gaze with an intrigued expression. It transitioned into a bright, wide smile in no time, and she feigned friendly surprise. “Nathan! Hey! What’re you doing on Arcadia’s little lonely beach?”

Nathan’s brows rose as her posture straightened and became stronger. This scenario wasn’t that surprising. He knew Rachel hung around with his dealer. She and another one of her friends—some punk Blackwell dropout he didn’t think twice about. Nevertheless, he tried to avoid contact with her during his visits to dodge awkward situations like this. She must have skipped class as well. He was at a loss. He shuffled some gravel and sand. It caught underneath his soles and etched white lines into the asphalt.

“Just,” he stopped mid-sentence and shrugged, “picking up…some stuff…” He tripped over his words and angrily cursed himself, pulsing heat radiating up his neck.

Rachel patted the dog on its head as it panted, its tail like a pendulum filled with energy. She went to answer with a curious expression, but the RV door opened once again, cutting her off. An older man stepped out. Lanky and looking like he needed several showers, the man’s squint met Nathan’s right away.

“You’re early,” he said after a beat of silence. It was short and embalmed with nuisance.

The man leaned against the frame of the RV’s door. His blonde, scruffy bangs hung in his brown eyes. They looked plastered to his head, reinforcing the idea that he needed to bathe. Even his goatee was heavy with a greasy look. His tattered, black and blue jacket with red undershirt had various stains on them, and his holey blue jeans tucked themselves into his dirt-splotched boots. Nathan sneered; the man matched his surroundings to a T.

“Nice to see you, too, Frank,” answered Nathan, fake enthusiasm coating the words.

Nathan’s steely blues looked anywhere but forward, feeling a sense of humiliation with the current exchange and Rachel’s presence. He wanted to sound more intimidating, but his voice faltered near the end. Again, he cursed himself.

Rachel’s smile faded and her vision bounced between the two, an understanding passing though them all. She tugged at her midriff halter top, tied her hair back into a loose ponytail, and let out a breath. She swiveled to address the dog again.

“C’mon, Pompidou! C’mon, boy!” Rachel clapped her hands whilst leaning down to the creature to get his attention. She took off in a graceful jog towards the sandy beach. “Let’s go!”

Pompidou followed, his interest now only in Rachel and the promise of a good run. Nathan watched them go, feeling the uncomfortable cloud lift from the lot.

Frank snapped his brown eyes toward the sun on, creating a visor with his hand. He kept a close watch on Rachel, making sure she wasn’t in earshot. However, both men knew she wasn’t an idiot. She knew what was going on. Frank sighed and shook his head.

“You’ve got a serious lack of brains, kid,” he asserted, voice gruff, and words biting. He lazily stepped down the RV’s steps and slammed the door behind. “If there were any cops around, you can bet your ass this wouldn’t fly.”

Nathan’s fuse lit with Frank’s attitude, but he sucked in a sharp breath to put it back out before things got too heated.

Instead, Nathan took out a large roll of green bills from his pocket. A smug grin stuck to his visage as he caught Frank’s pupils dilating like the junkie he was. “Yeah? And you can bet your ass the minute one of these Arcadia pigs narked on me, my dad would shut them all down. Money talks, asshole. Now, do you have my order or not?”

Frank crossed his arms and rolled his neck, showing off some of the numerous tattoos around it and his collarbone. His bottom lip jutted out when his tongue pressed against the front of his teeth. He pulled it back, releasing a tsk sound from his teeth. “Relax, Goldfarb, I got your fix. You Blackwell shits and your fuckin’ Vortex Club.”

Frank’s last sentence was mumbled, but Nathan heard every word. ‘Better watch it, Frank. Rachel is one of those ‘Blackwell shits,’ after all,’ is what he wanted to say.

Whatever. Nathan kept his arms close and his legs straight, tossing the wad of cash to Frank, who caught it effortlessly. Frank then pulled out a little book from his jacket’s inner pocket and scribbled down something, mumbling more to himself in the process.

Nathan waited, his patience leveling with the auras surrounding him, as Frank entered the RV to retrieve his parcels. He looked up at the large pine trees’ branches stationed over the vehicle, his blue eyes adrift within the details of each individual needle, lost in the liquid sunlight refracting through every branch until they struck the ground in harsh beams. His fingers twitched, wanting to take a photo, but his camera was all the way back in his truck. Nathan forcefully broke contact and kicked a rock into a nearby sand dune, scowling at the frivolous thought. What was he thinking? That kind of crap was something people would put on postcards—Postcards of Arcadia Bay left to collect dust on shelves at places like the Two Whales. Stupid. He could do better than that. He had to do better than that. He had to ‘broaden his horizons,’ as Jefferson would say.

“Always take the shot.”


Flashes of that room entered his mind. Black. White. Pristine. An orderly place filled with his newfound goals and optimism, a place with mixtures of styles and hidden entropy. Trust and bonds. Connections. Elation filled him to the brim. The next lesson…

“Innocence and corruption. The shift from black to white to gray…and beyond.”

Nathan was becoming anxious, tapping one of his feet with every passing second. Frank returned with two wrapped and twined packages. Nathan instinctively reached for them, returning from his mind to the moment. When his fingers were to close around their edges, Frank pulled them back. Nathan ended up grasping at nothing, a little more than aggravated. His vision shot toward the fiery Frank’s.

“Next time you pull this shit, my dog will be the one negotiating. I keep a schedule for a reason. No exceptions. Not even for you—little, punk ass Prescott.”

Nathan’s eyes electrified in a glare, but he didn’t dignify himself with a response. If he uttered a fraction of the choice words and phrases he was currently thinking, Frank would take the drugs back and, quite possibly, never do business with him again. That was something Nathan couldn’t afford. Aside from The Vortex Club, he had his own personal needs. He was lucky enough with that little ‘asshole’ quip earlier. Instead, he lashed out his arm and snatched the packages away before Frank could do or say anything further.

Spinning on his heels, Nathan retreated to his truck. He wanted to unwrap and check the contents of the boxes, making sure he got every bit what he paid for. Frank's stare stabbed him in the back the entire way. With all said and accounted for, he brought up his eyes and caught sight of Rachel still playing around with Pompidou. He was glad she could keep the mutt at bay. Yet, he found himself slightly…disappointed? Nathan ignored the feeling, slid out of the front seat, and opened one of the truck’s back doors. He placed the party favors in their christened duffle bag, a thing he brought it with him whenever he made these runs.

Tak-a! Tak-a! Tak-a! A sound came closer and resonated in his ears.

Before Nathan could turn around, a large weight against his back caused him to stumble and cry out. He grasped for the edge of the truck’s bed. The dog had reared up on its hind legs and forcefully tried to knock him over, the strange sound being its nails on the concrete. The creature now bounced in place. It looked like he was trying to find some way to complete his Red Rover session on Nathan, much to his vexation. Rachel ran toward them in a panic, her hair and feather earring following her bounding movements.

“Pompidou! No jumping! No! No jump! Down!” Rachel looped her thin fingers in the dog’s collar and pulled him back to give Nathan space.

Pompidou struggled and panted, excitement reflected in his eyes. Moments ago, the dog wanted to attack him, but now…Nathan’s face scrunched in confusion. Fucking animals. He growled and craned his neck to check the back of his jacket. It was stained with a couple of fresh, sandy prints.

He rolled his eyes and shuffled his jaw. “You gotta be kidding me…” He proceeded to try and take the jacket off, but was stopped by a pair of hands on his back. Nathan immediately froze in place, balancing on his toes.

“Sit!” Rachel’s sudden, commanding tone stopped Pompidou’s advances. It also stopped Nathan further, and he felt like an idiot, like she was giving him the command. That harshness was soon replaced with the melodic chime of her laugh, the sound close to Nathan’s ear. “Sorry, Nate. Here.” Rachel began to swipe away the stains to the best of her ability.

In the meantime, a call from Frank carried on the wind, asking for Pompidou. The dog’s ears perked and he was off. Another call to Rachel with a return of, “In a minute!” passed by as she continued to brush off Nathan’s back.

Nathan cleared his throat as she finished, turning to face her. She was breathing hard and there was a sheen of sweat on her skin. He felt his face begin to burn.

This was awkward. He shook his head, not being able to fully meet her hazel eyes, and gave a laugh with no amusement. “Pompidou. Jesus. The fuck kind of name is that anyway?”

Rachel crossed her arms as a breeze picked up. It rustled some sand and the trees hissed. White caps hit the shore and lapped at the coagulated sea foam as she answered, “A name given to only the finest of watch dogs. You’re welcome, by the way.”

A shot of adrenaline went through him, mimicking shame. “Uh. Yeah. Thanks.” He brushed back some loose strands of his hair, the wind taking some out of the product’s hold. He clenched and unclenched his hands into fists, an invisible stress ball within.

They stood in silence for a moment. Rachel was barely a few inches shorter than Nathan, and she was so close he caught the blend of scents she gave off, all of which seemed different from day to day. Today, he was sure he detected jasmine. It was similar to a perfume Victoria wore. Relaxing.

“You look like hell,” she said, deadpan and serious, still somewhat catching her breath.

“Mm.” Nathan exhaled, the noise an affirmation of his existence and nothing more. He brought a cold hand to the back of his neck. Sean’s presence still lingered there, and he squeezed crescent marks into his flesh to rid himself of the feeling. ‘Not now, goddammit.’

Before they could continue, Rachel’s pocket buzzed and her face brightened. She held up a finger to Nathan and checked the message. A look of realization glazed over her, and she began dialing a number. “One sec.”

Feeling jaded, Nathan nodded and stared at the cracks in the ground, sticking around for a reason he couldn’t exactly think of. Some of ground’s branching wounds were filled with sand. They looked like veins in the earth with strands of grass trying to break through the suffocating grains. He was, once again, struck with the urge to take a photograph. This time, he decided to do so.

As he reached for his camera bag, he caught the beginning of Rachel’s phone conversation before it faded with distance. “Hey! Sorry…Whew! Stairs. Had to run and get some extra credit stuff.”

He squinted and his mouth curved at her blatant lie, paying no real mind. He took out the camera and focused on an angle with the sunlight. Movement in his peripherals caught his attention. It was a child on the nearby boardwalk, a young boy. He was running away from his mother’s grasp, feet hobbling as children’s often did. She frantically pursued him, begging that he not get too far away lest he fell. The boy was wearing a dark sailor’s ensemble—a familiar and rather poignant memory for Nathan—and was like a dark stain against the silhouetting sun. Nathan’s eyes shot open and his chest tightened with the opportunity. Almost robotically, he dared to drag himself through some dunes and capture the desired image. He snapped the shot, double-checking the file on the monochrome, digital piece. There was the boy, in a buoyant, mid run, heading toward the horizon. It was as if he was lost, but still had the mindset to dream about the road ahead, about its many paths presented, without fear.

Suddenly, Nathan felt sick to his stomach. The bagel Victoria gave him that morning was long digested, and he was undeniably hungry. The thought of eating dinner with his family made the nausea worse, apprehension building uncomfortably in his gut. It re-tied neurotic threads to his body, and he was now aware of all the aches and pains in his fingers, shoulders, and even his knees and neck. There was also now an abundance of sand in his shoes. He groaned, shuffling back to his truck as the sun dove behind a large, puffy cloud. He had to sit down.

He contemplated leaving, hopping in the driver’s seat and setting his camera on the roomy dashboard. Individually, he took off each of his shoes to let steady streams of sand empty from them. Rachel was still on her phone. Nathan didn’t know who she was talking to, but she looked quite cheerful when doing so, even while blatantly lying to them about being at Blackwell. She turned and flashed him a reassuring smile that encouraged him to stay. So, against his inner judgment, he did.

Nathan looked back to the boardwalk boy. His mother had caught up and was now holding him in her arms. Smiles plastered their faces. Nathan felt his stomach clench again as he swept some stuck grains off his sock-clad feet. He knocked his shoes against the step of the truck, making sure all the sand was out before slipping them back on and tightening the laces.

Rachel quietly rejoined him, sliding the phone into her pocket. She chuckled, a grin spreading from ear to ear. “Sandy shoes by the seashore?"

He jerked up, handling the seat with shaky fingers. She surprised him. “Uh. Yeah.” He looked down at the ground and clasped his hands together in his lap, nodding without real focus. “Yeah.”

She leaned an arm on the truck’s door, her lithe body bending, feet finding a fixed point. “I saw you take that shot. Cute kid. Mind if I see?”

Hesitant, Nathan tilted his head to his camera, playing with the black and yellow cuffs of his jacket. Rachel took the gesture as an agreement, and noticed his fidgeting as she picked up the instrument. She opened the display. Her eyes intensified as she looked over the photographs, a daunting glow surrounding her. Nathan stiffened.

Sensing his discomfort, Rachel gave him another smile. “Nice, Nathan! The last one’s different than what you usually shoot. It looks great!” There was a pause as she turned off the camera. “Black and white is definitely your strong suit.”

He didn’t look at her, just nodded again.

“So, how about a shot of…this?” she dramatically and humorously posed, a Madonna-esque expression on her face. She couldn’t help but break it quickly with a laugh.

Nathan stared for a moment, then snorted. “You sure Frank won’t get jealous?”

Tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear, she lowered her eyes and cheekily replied, “Oh, I’m sure he will.”

The boy just shook his head and itched part of his nose; sand had grazed it on the wind.

Rachel replaced the camera on the dashboard and leaned down, arms folded on her knees, to meet his lowly gaze. Nathan’s eyes widened, the rest of him still.

Her smile changed to that of a funny face with crossed eyes, her tongue out through her teeth. It returned to normal with a laugh as Nathan’s face turned into one of humorous muddle. It faded with a somber tone she asked, “You still hanging in there?”

A genuine smile played at Nathan’s lips, something that wasn’t totally unwelcome. “Yep,” he said, dragging out the initial “y” sound.

Frank called out to her again. Their heads cocked upward.

Rachel gifted him another toothy smile and gave a quick pat to his shoulder. “Don’t worry, he’s just an impatient ass sometimes. More bark than bite, really.”

‘Doesn’t help that I pissed him off,' Nathan reprimanded himself.

He silently closed his eyes and released a plaintive sigh. “Like his dog?”

She jested, a low laugh in her chest. “Some waters shouldn’t be tested. Might be sharks.”

“No risk, no reward.” He shrugged in nonchalance.

She grinned. “Now you’re cooking with gas!”

Birds chirruped and more waves lightly crashed against the sandy shore. It provided some padding to their restricted conversation. Another cool breeze allowed Rachel’s ponytail weave in a haphazard pattern. Her feather earring followed suit.

She proceeded to dig into one of her pockets and pull out a plastic baggie of tablets. Opening it up, she grabbed a couple and offered them to Nathan. “Here.”

Nathan glanced at her calm face, and then down to her open hand. He took the pills, fingering their oval, chalky surface, and gave her a questionable look.

“Ambien. You look like you haven’t slept in a millennium. Been having some trouble myself. They should work for you. I know they knock my ass right out.” She cut a hand though the air and whistled, popping her mouth afterwards to signify falling asleep.

“Huh. Nice.” It came out more adverse than he wanted and he internally winced. He dropped them in one of the vehicle’s cup holders for later.

More silence. Rachel hummed and leaned down again to look at him.

“Hey,” she began, “you just keep hanging in there, okay? You’ve got your own dreams, remember, damned what your dad says. It’s time to live ‘em!”

Nathan’s vision didn’t meet hers this time. He had his dreams, and she had hers. He knew. She was the most popular girl at Blackwell, and no matter how hard he and other Vortex members wanted her to, she never officially joined their club. But he knew. How could he not? As much as he kept his head down to everyone and everything around him, he knew. And she made sure of it, made sure everyone that was anyone in Arcadia Bay knew. Beautiful, confident, radiating, unattainable…those were only a few words to describe the bold enigma that was Rachel Amber. And while she wasn’t a complete saint like some people perceived through rose-colored glasses—this, Nathan also knew—there was a sense of incorruptibility that clung to her, swirled in her intangible aura. And as endearing as that was for some, in that moment, it only seemed to infuriate him.

Yes, he had his dreams, and they were just as unattainable in his life as was her existence in his world. They were a joke, a farce, a distant wish. He recalled the boy again and gritted his teeth. It was so easy for her to talk optimism, so easy for her to rattle off words of inspire. In a way, it was just like his sister Kristine—always one for pushing, for encouragement, for never giving up. They had just enough distance that when shit hit the fan, the shrapnel would barely graze them.

‘And that’s why you’re in Brazil, thousands of miles away…’ The though of his sister pained him so. ‘And that’s why this is…nothing.’ He brought himself back to the current position.

He had to get a grip, feeling the strain through his chest and arms. Rachel kept her invisible tape measure, knowing just how far to stretch her words and actions, and so did he. Sean Prescott had been molding his son’s future since the day he was conceived, a future that he couldn’t escape. That was a fact, and it always would be.

The ocean began to turn red before his eyes and unseen masses congregated in his peripherals, whispering their decrees and jests. His stomach ached again, the overwhelming sensation flooding his heart and head. Why someone like Rachel Amber even bothered with someone like him—someone he hoped would call him “friend” without that hint of ignominy coating her words—was a mystery for another day. For now, he swept his feet to the pedals and started the vehicle. He then returned his camera to its bag, glancing to Rachel once again.

“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow night?”

It was a hopeful question. He swallowed, hating the way his voice cracked again, hating how his weakness came about the most inconvenient times. ‘Good one, Nate…’

Rachel nodded and smiled with reserves of energy, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and placing one between her glossed lips. She lit up and, with a wave, she was heading back to Frank’s RV. A new plume of smoke rose in the air and disappeared into the graying sky, like she had done from the scene.

Nathan didn’t head out right away, checking his phone for the time. He still had a bit to himself, but didn’t know where exactly to go to escape his maddening consciousness.

An image in his rearview mirror caught his eye, relighting the fuse he had put out earlier. The lighthouse. The symbol of his eternal prison. It stood over Arcadia Bay’s peninsula in a manner that made Nathan want to literally destroy it—level it with explosives, shove it off its bolted reigns and over the cliff, anything to get it out of his head. His nightmare hadn’t come to mind for a while, but now it was right at the front of his mind, taunting him.

He recklessly pressed on the gas in reverse, heated rubber grinding on sand. He stopped, and then used his shaky hands to jerk the wheel. His other placed the truck in drive as he focused on the beacon and its rotating light. Within minutes he had ground the truck through muddy soil and up the starting path to the metallic cylinder, an immeasurable fire ablaze in his gut, consuming his flesh. The only thing stopping his tirade was the metal gate, and he almost crashed through it. If not for the thought of royally screwing up his truck, he would have, but that would have only sufficed to open another can of messy worms. His self-control had kicked in, if only for a second, and he slammed on the breaks, grinding the dirt below. The top of the vehicle caught an overhung branch and the scratching noises pierced his ears. His ribs expanded and he let out an angry cry, his head falling on the wheel and accidentally hitting the horn. Nathan jerked back with the abrupt alarm, hot embarrassment sticking to his cheeks.

He angrily cursed all manner of horrible things to himself, trying to calm down, counting privately and wringing his hands together. Do what the therapist said. Count and squeeze. Count. And. Squeeze. His knuckles split again and he absentmindedly brought them to his lips. More copper. More iron.

When the fire began to somewhat settle, he stepped out, dodging as much thick, wet dirt as he could. First sand and now this, and there was no one to blame but himself. The thought only served to make him mad again. He didn’t care where he parked, and the lighthouse continued to mock him, call him to arms at the top of the cliff.

“All right, motherfucker. What do you want, huh?” he challenged as he pushed through the gate and up the tree-lined incline. Squirrels and birds scattered this way and that with his stride. He kicked up some dirt with another shout. The debris hit tree trunks and other rocks, hollow and deep ticks resonated in the cultivating winds.

He made it to the top, the bright sun blasting into his eyes. Another angry noise bubbled from his chest and he sauntered over to the edge, glancing only for a second at the inviting bench. His arms dangled loose by his sides, his legs tensing at the height of it all. The ocean’s rough waves below assaulted the jutting rocks. Aside from the rush of the wind and annoying quips of nature, it was quiet. And Nathan hated when it was quiet.

He looked down again, his eyes remaining on the ocean’s depth for some time. A picture manifested, and he imagined himself jumping over the edge into the inky blackness, sinking to the bottom and watching the light play with the surface of the ocean. He could hear the whales lament, hear their invitation into Arcadia’s depths. Inexplicable jealousy seared through his every pore as he remembered that dream. Nathan planted his feet where hers were, right in her imaginary footprints. She was the lucky one. She escaped. The bay had ripped her of life on this very edge and there, standing at the precipice, he wished it was him. She was lucky. She was. She…

The sun burned his blue eyes as he swayed. He was dangerously close. So very close.

Gasping, he quickly stepped back. What was he thinking? He wasn’t. He wasn’t thinking straight. He wasn’t thinking at all.

‘You fucking pussy,’ A dull blade of a voice echoed in his head. He wanted to clamp his ears shut, puncture his eardrums, but in the end he knew it wouldn’t help. He could never block it out. Never completely.

Nathan turned his back to the bay, gulping down air in his constricted lungs, and quickly ducked behind the shade of the nearby shed. He’d almost tripped on some empty beer bottles and smaller rocks by an abandoned fire pit, cursing to everyone and no one once more. His back hit the cold concrete and he slid down, meeting the damp earth below. Knees aching and stomach at an all-time low, Nathan reached into his back pocket and pulled out his own cigarettes. He needed the slow dose of nicotine in his blood. Now.

As he lit up, straining his lungs further with a large intake, he wished he brought some of his new order with him. He could use the bud as well. He groaned and exhaled a stream, feeling a tiny bit more at ease. Slightly opening his eyes and looking to the side, he was met with a strange triangle pattern of graffiti. Glyphs. Weird. They were like lyrics to a song he couldn’t quite place, a melody of the wind. He frowned. It was probably a stupid mark job by a random, drunken tagger. Brilliant. Ha-fucking-ha.

He leaned his head back against the cool, gray bricks and sighed. Nathan finished the cigarette and was already pining for more. He sadly smiled to himself with the unrelenting craving, eventually giving in and lighting another. He had already jumped. It was just a slow fall. A very long, lonely, slow fall. It felt like ages as he sat in the dark, in the dirt, unbecoming of the proper young man he was supposed to be.

Time passed in the gloom of the cliff. He questioned why he even came up there, the answer lost within the rage. Yet, here, it was fairly peaceful. Despite the quiet, it felt like a safe haven of sorts. He could breathe again, feel himself unwind.

Nathan had no idea how long he was there for, and he didn’t check his phone when he finally stood up. Time wasn’t on his side. It never was. It always moved forward with him strapped in against his will. He wanted to punch the wall as he rounded the shed’s corner. If it wasn’t for spying a strange figure’s silhouette, he may have done just that.

Nathan sharply inhaled and ducked back behind the building. Someone had come up the trail. How he didn’t hear them, he didn’t know. They were kneeling down by the bench. A sharp exhale later, he glanced over the shoulder of the shed once more. He squinted with the sun’s glare, the clouds moving erratically.

The figure was now sitting on the bench and staring at the horizon. He couldn’t quite make them out, not until they got up and began walking towards the cliff’s edge. Her messy, brown bob and gray jacket came into view.

‘Caulfield?’

She was alone, her movements calculated. Nathan had an unexpected thought cross his mind, wondered if he looked as lost and confused as her moments ago. He didn’t have long to think as the landscape warped into that violent, rainy scene. It was like a mirror image. His abdomen grew taut, like someone had reached into his body and squeezed their hands around all of his organs.

No. Not now. That dream didn’t mean anything; it was just a fucked up nightmare, like the majority of his nightly digressions were. It didn’t mean anything. He focused.

She was taking photographs, like always, with that instant camera of hers. Nathan shook his head and the crook of his mouth curled upwards. He shut his eyes, readjusting from the sunlight. It once again dropped behind a cloud, one that was larger and grayer than the puffy, white ones from earlier. Energy circuited in his fingertips as he tried to analyze his options. She was bound to notice him one way or another; there was only one path to the exit.

He then mentally slapped himself. Why was he worried about someone like Max Caulfield? He couldn’t believe he was second-guessing this. Nathan huffed and brushed the dirt from his pants, ready to storm out and head right past her, head held high. He had better things to do, better places to be. This was ridiculous.

Coming around the corner, he snapped up his vision, ready to defend himself when she would inevitably hear him.

But she didn’t move. He stopped only a few steps in. Something was…off. She had her right arm outstretched and her camera was barely being gripped by her other hand.

Nathan took another step forward, his eyes glued to her, perplexed. Something was definitely off. His mouth formed words, but they never came out. Her sudden cry to the twilit horizon stopped any formation of syllables.

And then she was falling. Falling over the edge. Like the dream. The dream that ‘meant nothing.’

“Haa…!” Nathan bit back a shout as her form disappeared over the edge.

The wind had snatched her with its demon-like, symphonic whispers, and all he could do was watch…again. He was completely still, freezing cold icing any fire that had risen within.

When was he going to wake up this time?

He, and everything around him, was stuck in stasis until a hoarse scream pierced the air. His body reacted ahead of his mind. Before he could fully take in his actions, he was at the cliff’s edge, his knees digging into the earth below, his hands becoming two ridged claws on her arms. Stray dirt and pebbles rolled past her as her deep cerulean eyes shot up. His own widened as they met.

A mixture of emotions stared back. “Nathan…”

His grip tightened, as did hers to the rock on which she held. Her feet dangled and struggled to find a hold in the cliff wall. Nathan’s throat closed, fear breaking through the fury. He pulled on her arms with a grunt, digging the toes of his shoes into the ground and using his knees as leverage. His heart crashed against his ribs, and it physically began to cause him pain.

This was no dream.

Max came up a little. She tried to find another place to put her feet, but failed and only managed to drag Nathan back with a short yelp. Nathan let out a compressed breath and dug his nails through the fabric of her gray sweater. Surely, there would be bruises later. More fear, and now the fury was returning.

“Dumb ass!” He breathed hard, his voice higher than normal. “Use your feet to push up!”

Max arms hurt, both from Nathan’s grip and the adrenaline’s wear and tear on her muscles. However, that didn’t stop her from snapping back, “I’m—I’m trying! Just—!”

Nathan gave another tug. They were back to square one. He wasn’t exactly in any shape to hold out forever, either. “Well try harder!”

His tone fed her fires of determination and ire. Swinging legs found open spaces and she painfully pushed up like he demanded. Nathan met her push with another pull and she found new ground. Instinctively, Nathan slid his arms under hers for balance and a better hold, hauling her further up the edge. Max’s heart felt like it was missing several beats, and her body began to slacken, exhaustion wracking her to the core. Nathan scooted back with her weight, bringing Max with him, a feeling of release making him stagger and lean back. Max’s legs dragged on the ground. Gravity was taking a larger toll on her than she ever thought imaginable, and she brought her hands to his shoulders as he sat down.

For a minute, there was only the sound of their shuddered breaths. Max couldn’t focus, the confusion of her vision still fresh in her mind. She brought her head up, her neck aching, a thrumming pulse in her ears.

Nathan had one hand on her arm and the other on the ground, his long legs stretched out either side of her. He didn’t know what to say or think. He’d tried to avoid this head-on collision with Max-fucking-Caulfield only to end up like this. He swallowed hard, his throat now dry. Her hands were tight on his shoulders, their warmth seeping through his layers and blossoming down his shaky arms. Her wide, blue orbs kept pulling him in, like she had been pulled over the cliff moments ago. He couldn’t pinpoint any particular emotion within her stare, and that freaked him out, to say the least. Heat began playing at the tips of his ears and cheeks—out of embarrassment, frustration, anger, and a jumble of other sensations—as he tried to focus anywhere but her face. It wasn’t working. He absentmindedly connected invisible lines with her prominent freckles as a desultory distraction. A part of him wondered why he wasn’t pushing her away as fast as humanely possible; her eyes were dragging him back under, anchoring him to the cold ground.

Little did he know, he was having the same effect on her. She was numb, frozen in his electrified, steel deadlock. They were once again icing every joint in her body. Strands of his slicked-back hair were a bit disheveled and hanging over his forehead. Beads of sweat clung to his temples. The hand on her arm was tight and prominent, his elongated fingers buried in the fabric of her sweater. In the gray light, the pink in his face clearly clashed with his character. And then there was Max, feeling like a complete fool. She was too weak to move, and she was clinging to the last person in Arcadia Bay…no, on Earth, that she could.

Why was he here? Where had he been? What happened to Chloe?

‘Oh, God. Chloe!’ she cried inside.

Her eyes widened and she felt the vision return. Her hands scrunched tighter around his shoulders. He hurt her. Shot her in cold blood! He killed her!

Or was it just another dream? It felt way too real to be one. She had felt the coldness from the air-conditioned tiles, smelled the cleaning chemicals from the nearby cart, felt her ears pop with the gunshot…! Her face began to burn with anger and her eyes prickled with tears. Her bottom lip, bitten and moist, now quivered underneath his intensifying stare.

She was wide awake. They both were.

The wind whistled through the grass and trees. The lighthouse released a creaky groan. Seagulls cawed. The darkening sky rumbled.

But they were silent.

Surprising the both of them, Nathan spoke first, and it was little more than a whisper. “Max?”

If it was even possible, her eyes grew wider. The candor in his voice mirrored Warren’s from earlier. Inside, frustration began to build, her self-betrayal evident in another rising blush. She couldn’t recall a time before where he used her first name, and never with such sincerity.

He felt his heart stop, finding a chord in the strain. He shut his mouth right afterward, that foreign, unwanted, calming warmth welling up in his chest, just like that morning. Unexpected is what it was.

“You—!” she squeaked, her voice cutting itself off with a sob.

Max’s control was lost and Nathan broke out of his trance from her fist slamming onto his chest.

“AH! Jesus! What the f—!” Another hit, this time to his arm. She may have been petite, but she wasn’t screwing around; her strikes actually hurt. “Hey!” Another punch, and he brought up his arms in defense. “Fucking—Christ! Caulfield! STOP!” His demands were interrupted by more sloppy poundings, her fists uncurling, becoming weaker.

Still, the hits kept coming, and words were slipping from her in an incoherent babble as the scene played over and over. “Chloe…! No…You hurt her! You—you! Chloe…Chlo—”

That was the last straw. The atmosphere grew dark once more. Nathan grabbed Max’s arms mid-swing and threw her to the ground with an audible heave. She landed with a broken cry, the wind knocked from her.

Staggering, he began to speak. “What…” He breathed hard, anger flaring to its peak. “What. The. FUCK?!” With every short word, Nathan shakily stood, threw out his arms in a gesture towards the cliff, and stared her down with a livid scowl.

Max struggled to stand, her strength returning too slowly. She coughed, her eyes darting from the peninsula’s edge to Nathan. He looked like a crazed animal. Even his teeth were bared, looking like he could take a chunk out of her jugular any second.

Rational thought returned. The bathroom didn’t exist. They were at the lighthouse. And she just hit him. She just hit Nathan Prescott. Multiple times.

‘Oh, shit.’

“Crazy bitch!” he screamed. “Are you—” He stopped to wipe his mouth from a bit of spittle. “Are you out of your goddamn mind?!”

“I…” Max stopped, taking in his exclamation.

Maybe she was. She honestly didn’t know anymore. What she saw, she couldn’t understand. Chloe Price shot by Nathan Prescott. Yet, here Nathan was, and who knew where Chloe could be. Home, she hoped, safe in her room, sleeping off her own rage. Max wiped her brow and turned her body to sit on her butt. Her stiff arms held her upright as the cold dirt stuck to her sweaty palms.

“And what fuck are you talking about? Chloe who?!” Nathan wanted just as many answers as her, and he wasn’t letting it go that easily. No way. This girl actually had the mettle to hit him! And he’d just saved her ungrateful ass!

Tense vibrations in the air held them still. Both their faces illustrated confusion and fury.

‘Wait. ‘Chloe who’…?’
Max met his eyes again. ‘He doesn’t…? But then…’ She searched for any sort of lie, scanning his face. She couldn’t tell, and her sight was starting to blur like her mind.

Nathan suppressed the urge to charge her and close his hands around her tiny throat. His head was pounding, the sudden blood rush causing a horrible twinge in his temples, and his nerves surged, high voltage.

“You…wait…” Max’s mouth felt like it was full of cotton. She fell to her knees and coughed again, salty air coating her tongue.

“Jesus Christ! What the fuck is wrong with you?!” He, too, had to clear his throat, standing up straight and backing further away from her.

“But…I…” Gravity’s power was too much, and Nathan’s words sounded like they were being spoken to her through a hollow tube. Max tried to lift her head again, but everything spun. Darkness clouded her eyes and the rest of her met the ground in seconds.

Nathan felt the weight of that gravity transfer to him. The gray sky gave another rumble. Max wasn’t getting up. His chest tightened again and more fear crept into the open.

“H-hey,” he stuttered, angry with himself for sounding so pathetic. “Caulfield. What the hell are you doing?” Nathan headed to her, assuming fortitude in his stride. “Get up.” He shook her.

Max didn’t stir, and Nathan noticed blood begin dribbling from her nose. It slid down her jaw and into the dirt.

His mouth gaped. “Oh, shit!” Nathan rolled Max to her back. Some soil stuck to her face and he brought a trembling, calloused hand to her cheek to wipe it away, noticing its softness and warmth. “Shit, shit, shit!”

As for the blood, it looked like a small nosebleed. He soaked it up with the cuffs of his jacket. The red blended with the black and yellow stripes and he swallowed some bile. Max still didn’t move.

‘Fuck! Is she…?’ Nathan inhaled and rung his hands through his hair in a panic. 'No…no, no, no! Do NOT do this to me, Caulfield! C’mon!’

Finally, a groan from her placated him, if only a little. “Chloe…”

Nathan swallowed again, making a sound of indignation. He coated the fear with it, suffocated it until it was no more. ‘Who the fuck is Chloe?’

He stopped mid thought, saw red again, and glared at the girl on the ground. A wet drop hit his face and he snapped his head to the dark sky. As if on command from the young boy’s glower, the downpour started.

Back to Max he looked…and looked. Her front teeth showed a little inside her parted lips. Water began staining the latter with a gloss, leaving traces down her dotted face. Her brown hair was splayed across the ground and framed her narrow face in a reflected, gray light. More blood trickled down her nose and Nathan’s eyes widened. He licked his chapped lips. The heat in his face and neck ignited a strong self-loathing as his mind practically screamed for him to take a photo of her. Nathan exhaled sharply and wiped droplets off his visage, steadying that escalating thirst.

Right now, it was time to get some answers. And he was going to get them. One way or another.



Max’s eyes fluttered open to the sound of harsh echoes and the smell of nicotine and leather. Her vision adjusted and she was facing a lit-up, fancy car console. Beyond it, a windshield that water rippled down, the glass akin to a mini waterfall. One of her hands pressed against her forehead and she groaned in pain. Everything hurt.

“‘Bout fucking time you woke up.”

She sucked in a pain-stricken breath and leaned against the adjacent door to escape that voice. Her eyes darted all around. She was in a vehicle. The red truck on the hill. Nathan’s truck. Of course.

Locked in the lion’s cage…with the lion.

He insouciantly sat in the driver’s seat, arms crossed and looking as pissed off as ever. Even more so that he was soaked from the rain, like an angry, wet cat. He almost blended in with the dark leather seats, his bright jacket and cardigan now missing from his person and thrown in the back seat. The black, short sleeve shirt he was wearing was relatively dry and hugged his reedy self. Only his pale skin lightly reflected in the darkness. As for Max, she still had on her gray zip-up, and it was stained dark with rainwater. All of her clothes were. She shivered.

‘Shit.’ There were no other words to sum up her situation. She shivered again from being wet and cold, and now because she was scared.

Max attempted to open the door and escape, but it really was locked. She pressed the button, but the strained sound of gears was all that came out of it. She tried the door again. Still locked. Glancing back to Nathan, she saw he had his finger pressed against his side’s button, negating any unlocking actions on her end. She couldn’t even pull the lock nub before he immediately undid the action. She gulped. This was going to be a never-ending circle unless she convinced him to let her go. She tried her best to stay calm.

“Let me out,” she said, calmly and cooly.

“Not until you start talking, camera girl.”

“I said let me out, Prescott!”

“And I said not until you start talking!”

His words sank in their teeth. Every nerve in her system was wired. She hated to admit it, but he had a right to know why she struck him—him of all people! But what he didn’t have was the right to hold her hostage like this. Yet, she knew she wasn’t going to get out of this that easily. More questions on her end rose, her tumultuous mind pushing them to the forefront. Why was he even at the lighthouse? Why did he…?

Max took in a breath. ‘Calm down, Max. Stay calm. Don’t let him get to you.’

“D-Did you carry me all the way here?” she quietly asked, trying to place the ball in his court. Her voice was still recovering from fatigue, eyes wide and alert, and her figure stiff.

He squinted and shook his head with a wry smile, letting an arm droop over the steering wheel. “No, Caulfield. I used my telekinesis.”

She just stared, pursing her cold lips. His sarcasm wasn’t helping matters. This was serious.

Nathan rolled his eyes. “Really? What the fuck do you think? Idiot.”

She sighed and hugged herself to keep warm and away from him. Damn, she was cold. And nervous, obviously. When he spoke again, the sound of his voice made her jump.

“Also, you should lay off whatever crap you’ve been eating in that diet of yours. Like, damn.”

She shot him a glare, ignoring his insulting quip, and asked, “Why?”

“Because you’re heavy as fuck, that’s why!”

‘Oh, my God.’

She clenched her temples in one hand and retorted, “Not that! Why did you take me back here? Why did you help me? And…” she paused, a terrible thought looming, “what did you do to me?!”

The implications in her query made Nathan’s features stretch in disgust. He let out a dangerous chuckle. “You are shitting me.”

Her face said otherwise.

“You think I—! Holy shit! NO! Fuck, no!” He shuffled in his seat, feeling like insects were crawling all over him.

“Then why?” Though her tension eased slightly with her successful jab, she wasn’t letting up.

Even though she already had a hunch toward his answer, she wanted to show her determination. It was a legitimate question and she wanted answers, too. All manner of worst-case scenarios ran through her head. Her arms squeezed themselves tighter.

Max continued to wait as Nathan lowered his eyes, lost in his own thoughts. He then brought them back up in all seriousness and roughly grabbed Max’s arm, pulling her close. Her breath caught with the action. She detected his cologne again, the scent stronger with the enclosed environment. It only reminded her that she was stuck here with him, unable to escape.

“Because I wasn’t gonna stand around waiting for your ass to wake up in the pouring rain, and I wanna know what the fuck you meant up there. You think you can just scream shit like that and expect me not to ask questions? Think you can fucking attack me and get away with it?! Just because you’re new here doesn’t mean you can fuck with me and play stupid. The Prescotts own Arcadia Bay, and that includes you. Got it?”

When she didn’t answer right away, he jerked her arm again, bringing them even closer over the middle armrest. “Got it?” he affirmed, more guttural than before.

A dangling piece of his wet hair shifted over her nose. She forcefully pulled back and rubbed where he’d held, like he’d burned her. “Jesus, dude! Calm down!”

“What the fuck did you mean.” It wasn’t asked as a question, but structured as a demand. “Start talking, Caulfield. Now.”

She didn’t know where to start, panic and slow-boiling anger beginning to branch through her veins. She didn’t have to take this shit!

“If you don’t let me out, I’m calling the police!”

Another burst of creepy laughter left him. “What part of ‘the Prescotts own this shithole’ did you not get? Do it. See how far you get. I won’t stop you.” He leaned back, crossing one leg over the other with a smug expression.

She wanted so badly to call his bluff, but knew there was some fucked up truth to his words. The police weren’t going to do shit if they were in his family’s pockets. Max closed her eyes and furrowed her brows. Opening them, she saw that he had also taken her bag to the truck—a sight striking her as very odd. Her phone was inside, 911 a call away. And yet, she was chained.

He saw her look down at the satchel, trying to will it to her lap. She looked so helpless, and he couldn’t deny he was somewhat enjoying it, enjoying being in control…for once. Max Caulfield, strutting about his campus with her stupid selfies, her shitty camera, and her confetti-carefree attitude. Smiling, laughing, enjoying life. Now look at her. A burst of self-satisfactory fire erupted in him.

Again, he demanded to know what she meant, and again she was silent, hating herself for not knowing what to say to satiate him, hating that she was in this position at all.

Max brought her hand to her face, feeling her skin pull from the remnants of crusted blood under her nose. Confused, she wiped dryness away with her wet sleeve, and answered with the only thing she could come up with.

“I don’t know.”

Nathan gave her a look. “Excuse me?”

“I. Don’t. Know,” she repeated, enunciating every word. “I really don’t. I don’t know what it all means.”

His upper lip contorted. “What what all means? Quit talking shit!”

“I don’t know, Nathan!”

Max wanted to scream, wanted to cry. She wanted to open up like the sky before them, but she couldn’t. Not here. Not in front of him. She didn’t dare. Fuck him. He didn’t deserve her tears.

“What about you?” she continued when he didn’t reply.

“What?”

“Why did you help me?”

Pressure kept building in him like steam. “Are you serious?” he asked through closed teeth.

Her silence confirmed that she was indeed serious. Her darkened blue eyes stared him down.

He slammed his palms on the wheel. “Oh, fuck you! I can throw your ass back over the cliff if that’s what you really want!”

Max broke contact and looked down at her bag again, wanting to focus on something other than him. If looks could kill, she’d be dead ten times over. Then again, so would he.

“Honestly, Nathan. I don’t know what the hell’s going on. This is…so fucked up.”

“Yeah, no shit,” he dryly said under his breath.

A long bout of silence ran between them. Max wiped her hands on her pants, leaving dark smears. She also wiped her cheek and under her nose again, making sure to clear it the best she could.

Nathan hesitated before he spoke, but eventually let the question out. “Are you high?”

She shot him another look and mocked in a voice similar to his, “Are you serious?”

Heat went up his neck and into his ears. “Fuck off, Max. You’re the one talking like you’re on a bad trip.” His grip tightened around the wheel.

Max felt like hitting him. Again. For now, she was just content that Nathan seemed to be calming down. His former question, while rude, was laced with what sounded like concern. At least that’s what she sensed.

“For reals. Why did you help me?”

Nathan’s mouth opened and his eyes squinted in offense. “Why the hell do you keep asking? For reals.”

She crossed her arms and scrunched her face. “Nathan.”

“Maxine.”

The way her name came off his tongue sent pinpricks of annoyance to her every limb. Yet, there was an embarrassed blush that began creeping into her cheeks. She hated when people used her full name, and it was even more humiliating when Nathan did it. Worse than Victoria. His complacent expression wasn’t helping. He knew that got under her skin.

She kept cool the best she could when giving her answer. “You obviously hate my ‘pixie ass’ and act like I’m some sort of disease walking around Blackwell. So, why did you help me.” She took a chapter out of his book and formed the question as a demand, her boldness coming out of its shell like the day he swiped her photograph.

He chuckled sarcastically, the noise staying in his chest. “You just keep pushing me, Caulfield."

“You could have just let me fall. It would have solved one of your problems, right? So why?”

His eyes widened. “What the fuck! You’re so stupid sometimes!”

“Why?” She was unrelenting.

“Because!”

“Because why?!”

“Fuckin’—! Did you want to die? Is that it?”

Max’s brows tensed again. “Of course not! That’s—!”

“‘Cause you were going to if I didn’t! What was I supposed to do?! You’re a fuckin’ annoying, whiny-ass bitch but, shit, I don’t want you…DEAD!”

The words kept flowing, and he couldn’t take them back. It was too late. Somehow, she had turned the interrogation around on him, and he felt all the more like an idiot. And somewhere inside he felt he deserved it. Nathan bit his tongue and felt it bleed. He leaned back, cradling an elbow with one arm while the other pressed to his forehead in a half-assed attempt to hide from her.

Max was floored, surprised the breath she was holding didn’t fly from her lungs. She didn’t know what to say to that. As much as she hated thinking about it, Nathan had helped her…had saved her. The thought of her ending up in the ocean as a mangled corpse was a deep, sickening feeling, something she didn’t wish on anyone. And neither did he…?

This was weird. So fucking weird. For the moment, he looked so different, like a deflated balloon curling in on itself. He wanted answers, and she couldn’t provide any, not knowing or understanding everything herself. There was no way she could tell him the real truth without sounding completely bonkers.

“I was telling the truth, Nathan. I don’t know what happened up there.” She backpedaled, wondered if he’d be convinced. Her voice faltered a little, still surprised by his outburst.

Nathan didn’t move, just let his eyes glide to her still form. He stayed quiet.

Max took that as a sign to keep talking. “One second I’m taking pictures, and the next I’m clinging to the edge of the cliff. I don’t even remember everything I said. And…” She hesitated, wondering if he merited the next part of her sentence. She went with it, trying to stay with her intuition, despite the things he had done and said thus far. “I’m sorry.”

He didn’t speak right away, but when he did it was a simple, lethargic, “Right.”

He wasn’t buying it, not in the slightest, and he was growing more tired by the minute. And that sappy apology. Ugh. There was still the matter of her almost knocking his ass out, but a stomach cramp interrupted the thought. Fuck, he was hungry. He put the keys in the truck’s ignition and started it up.

Max’s heart leapt out of more fear. “Wait. What are you doing? Where are you going?”

‘And why am I still here?!’ she added internally.

He made a sound of annoyance, her voice grating on him. “The Two Whales. I’m fucking starving.” Damn his father and his bullshit dinner date. He needed some real food.

The girl looked around as if he’d spoken to something or someone else. He didn’t seem all there. “So…let me out.”

His expression widened with a fake smile, the sarcasm dripping from his words once more, “Oh, sure! But, uh—” he cut himself off and pointed to the crazy rain outside. “You sure you wanna brave the storm?”

There was a bus stop down the hill, but she would still have to wait in the open. And who knew what time it would arrive. She cursed under her breath. ‘Right. Great. Now what, Max? There’s no way you’ll make it anywhere without getting pneumonia in the process.’

Nathan sighed and mumbled, his head beginning to pulse. He wouldn’t admit it, but the weather was causing him all sorts of anxiety. He flicked on the heat, the warmth beginning to help his and Max’s shivering. He had been cold, too. In that moment, he wondered if Rachel was taking shelter with Frank.

As if reading her thoughts, he said, “There’s a stop by the diner. You can take the bus back to Blackwell.”

Again, he surprised her. ‘What? Did he really believe me about all that?’ He sounded almost…normal. Max didn’t know how to counter, finding him hard to read.

He looked at her and immediately sank her hopeful ship. The threat was subtle, yet clearly there in his tone, adding to his last statement, “After you finally tell me who Chloe is. And explain why you punched the fuck out of me for no apparent reason. Maybe then I’ll accept your shitty little apology.”

Their blue eyes descended into each other once again, Max’s wide with dismay, Nathan’s compressed with menace. Of course he didn’t believe her. That was too easy.

‘Son of a bitch.’ She chewed on the inner part of her lip.

She then matched his penetrating stare, and for a second, she saw surprise flash in his. He couldn’t help but smirk at her defiance, like on Monday. This time, Max didn’t break away, her heart beginning to kick up. Her mind swam with ways she could make this situation any better, but all were failing her miserably.

She kept holding his gaze, thoughts losing coherence and beginning to wander. For a second, he didn’t seem as threatening as that morning, remembering his wild eyes and fury. She then recalled yesterday evening, his wave and the way he held that leaf, had held her photo. It was like there were two different people before her, and she only got to see one. The other Nathan was a mystery. Her curiosity piqued unexpectedly and she blinked, her cheeks becoming warm again. His smirk widened, creating even more awkward rigidity between them.

“I win.”

Max cocked her head and squinted. “Huh?”

Nathan put the truck in reverse, leaning against the seat to look behind them. After heading down the muddy hill, making a y-turn to face the road, he twisted back to her with another smirk.

“You blinked, loser.”

She stuttered for a second, and then went to retort just as he pressed the gas a little too hard. Max sank into the plush seat with a choking noise.

And, whether she liked it or not, they were off.