The grandfather clock chimed. Through the years, gathering dust, being cleaned to gather more, it stood and rang its dreary tone throughout the estate.
Nathan’s eyes grazed over his father’s desk in an attempt to distract himself from Sean’s resounding vocals. They captured the stray pages of a leather-bound book. It was open, and a flash of red stuck out under a pile of disorganized documents. A map of Arcadia Bay, scribbled with several heavy dark marks and phrases, lay at the very top of the mound. His brows creased as he tried to look closer, his accursed curiosity coming to a head.
His father, however, grew more impatient by the second, and finally grabbed his shoulder with a viselike pressure. The boy emitted a sharp and painful cry as the callous man pulled him back, opened a folded piece of paper, and flashed it in his face. It was a letter from his psychiatrist. He recognized the sloppy signature at the bottom, but couldn’t focus on much else. It was like he was watching the scene from above them, floating away from the turbulent situation in a haze.
Outside, the giant oak’s leaves shook and fell, assaulted by the intensifying rain. He remembered the one that fell in front of him that day, remembered how smooth the stem felt between his fingertips, remembered the girl that slowly raised her hand to gift him with an unexpected, demure wave. He remembered that she was waiting for him. It would be over soon, and he could get out of there. He descended and met his father’s ignited stare.
A woman with loose, dark curls watched in the background through the doorframe, arms crossed and mouth set. She stayed quiet, unmoving. She had already said her piece. Fucking bitch. She had no right. She never did. The boy shot her a look of pure hatred. Their gazes met and smoldered with invisible embers. Her eyes broke away, looking to the floor with a shameful indifference he was sadly used to at this point.
The open, yet suffocating, gouge of the room swallowed the clumsy rhythm of the drops like the greedy place that it was, and the boy became lost in the sounds of them and his father’s enmity. Both became like cymbals being clashed next to his ears. Inside, he was screaming. Outside, his throat sewed itself shut. He remained silent, his teeth ground tight. The grip on his shoulder became less and less painful as it numbed. It was a never-ending cycle.
The scene abruptly changed. He now stood in a sterile, white room. A studio with bright lights. A place where he could create his own greatness. He’d still have control, and he’d prove himself. He would. He’d make sure of it. Everything was going to work out. Everything was going to be fine.
An odd smell began permeating the air. His breath hitched as black and vacant eyes met the blue of his. He saw red smeared on glass, a bright flash, a saddened cry. Following the fear and cold was a warm embrace. Blue wings flickered across his vision, flooded by deeper shades until he was falling. Down, down, down beneath the ocean's waves, to the place where the songs of the deep overtook all his senses.
But now, he was drowning. The water filled every branch of his lungs, up his throat, out his mouth, his nose, even his eyes. His hands flailed, grasping for anything and everything, but settling on nothing.
Until he felt her soft tresses between his fingers. How harsh he was to her, it disgusted even himself. But…no. She deserved it. She, with her ocean-like eyes filled with innocence. Or was it ignorance? Either way, it resulted in his growth into every shade of green. She deserved to be brought down from her self-righteous pedestal. She, with her timid smile, speaking lies through pink lips like everyone else, deserved to be grounded and silenced.
Yes. She fucking deserved it.
He dug his nails into her skull, the memory alive and vivid on repeat, knowing what came next. The blood. It trickled into her fear right on cue, down her nose, mixing into that pink to become a shade of rose red. He wiped it away, like before, her skin soft and pliable beneath his fingertip.
This time, however, he didn’t stop to look at his thumb. Instead, he focused on her bewildered face, her little gasp that burrowed its way into the corners of his mind. It ignited a different sort of flame inside him, one he wasn’t unfamiliar to. Except when it came to someone like her.
When her eyes widened and she bit her lip, it became perfectly clear that he was dreaming, locked in a moment he wanted to forget. With her small, insignificant action, his heart pulsed with a violent jump on another plane. With it, he pulled her toward him. Hands loosening to cup around her jaw and neck, he brought her closer…and closer. Close enough to feel the heat of her quickening breath mingle with his as everything smeared together in gray and red.
Nathan’s eyes shot open. Blotches of color reflected behind their blue hue, fading in on themselves until they were no more.
One of his hands instantly went to his dry mouth, wiping away the imaginary, lingering sensation the dream left with him. It then migrated to his chest. His heart felt like it was trying to exorcise itself from his body.
‘The fuck…?!’ he almost burst aloud. He gnawed his tongue to stop himself when he realized he would wake the entirety of the girls’ dorms if he had. In the choice word’s place, an exasperated breath left his lungs.
He shivered and glanced at the new sun lighting up Victoria’s blinds. The rest of her room was encased in a muted darkness. Nothing stirred. The boy squeezed his eyes shut and licked his lips, his vision fuzzy and his stomach aching as he regained reality’s footing.
Nathan looked over to Victoria’s comforted, fetal form and heard soft breathing, an indication of her deep sleep. She would, no doubt, still be irritated with him when she woke. His half-assed excuse of, “I just got the wrong room,” as to why he was at Max’s door had done nothing to appease her.
“I’ve seen you make your way here in worse states than that, and you were just fine, Nathan,” she said, her voice prickly and acidic.
He sighed, tilting his head to the side with a bony crack, knowing he was in for a full-blown interrogation later. They barely even spoke for the remainder of last night. He was used to the ‘Victoria silent treatment,’ but the guilt that sank into him from it all made it worse. He was more pissed at himself than anyone. How could he even begin to explain the shit that happened with Caulfield? The lighthouse, the diner, the doe?
Her arms around him. Warm and inviting. Even after all they went through, everything he did, the way he just…was…
He felt that foreign heat form across his face in an honest blush. He couldn’t stop it. If it were possible, his heart beat faster.
‘It’s too fucking early for this shit!’ he screamed at himself.
He scrubbed his itchy, red eyes. Everything else from last night was a bit of a blur. Putting in a DVD to watch with Victoria along with popping the pills Rachel gave him—plus a few shots of alcohol and half a joint later—and he was well on his way to a blissful, dreamless sleep on the girl’s sofa. At least for a little while.
Nathan scooted himself further into the couch’s crook, sinking his toes into its opposite arm. It created a temporary imprint. He seethed, feeling the bruises that were now in their full, dulling pain. Victoria had agreed to help conceal them with her makeup; a scowl situated upon her glossed lips when she caught sight of them. Whether she was upset at him and his current secrecy or at his father for being the bastard that he was, he couldn’t say for sure. Knowing Victoria, it was a bit of both, accompanied by a dash of her own frustrations mixed into the shit cocktail called life.
A semi-filled glass of liquor sat on the nearby table. A stray beam of sunlight lit up the amber liquid within. He snatched it, drank it back in one gulp, and felt the scorching sensation flow down and settle in his stomach. It drowned the annoying fluttering and fed a craving of warmth. Yet, the tension in his chest tightened, forcing him to sit up and slump over. Yesterday’s events kept worming their way to the surface to chip away at his sanity. His body demanded he get up and move around, do something.
Gathering what belongings he could, doing his best not to disturb Victoria, Nathan carefully made his way into the dormitory hall. He paused only for a second to glare at Max’s door, as if he were directly giving her his acerbic expression, wanting to break it down and…and…
And then what?
His sleeve fell down a bit as his grip tightened around his duffle’s shoulder strap. He glanced at the stubborn, light remains of ink and jammed his hand into his pocket, making his way to the boy’s dorms in contempt.
“Way too fuckin’ early for this shit,” he muttered, rounding the corner toward his room.
He slammed his door, harder than he should have in retrospect, immediately proceeding to pour out the contents of his bag and reorganize. He put things back in their proper places with immaculate precision, anything to distract himself from the long day ahead. And long night.
No contest, no winner, no party. That’s how it should have been, but no. Everything was already set and it was time to pay his dues. Normally, Nathan wouldn’t have minded; another day, another party, another night to get fucked up and forget everything…until the next day when he’d regret everything. But his exhaustion currently spoke for him. All he wanted to do was shut himself in and vegetate.
‘Of course, that’d be too fucking easy.’
Retrieving his digital camera, Nathan plopped down on his bed, flicking on the side lamp. He lay flat on the dark comforter, not bothering to go underneath, and switched on his MP3 player. He followed by putting on his headphones, cycling through his photographs as he listened to the soothing songs of the ocean. He just wanted a moment to himself before he was forced to face the day ahead, before he was forced to face Victoria and the other members of The Vortex Club.
Before he was forced to face Max Caulfield.
The pressure of his thumb increased as he clicked through his collection, the monochrome images flowing together in a blur like that of his projector. Quickening. He was no longer truly focused on the images, until the one of the boy at the beach came up.
Nathan stopped, strangely admiring it. Rachel was right. This wasn’t like his usual pieces, and he felt a pleasant bud of warmth in his chest at her compliments. It was disappointing that he didn’t know, or rather, didn’t want to acknowledge why he took this photo in particular. He swallowed and continued forward to the next, his eyes widening at the final shot from that night.
The doe’s hollow eyes stared back. Her blood was jet black, and the rain’s highlights glistened off her fur in white glares. It all meshed together with the wet soil and grass, like she was becoming one with the earth, beautiful even in death. A harsh ache gripped his innards. This was more like it. This was what he was used to shooting—these macabre images of dark expressionism. So why now, more than any other time before, did his chest hurt when looking at the familiar and swell with the non?
He turned off and sat the camera to the side, laying back and staring at the pockmarks in the ceiling, feeling his heavy head sink into his pillow. His muscles relaxed and his eyes began to close as the selection of whale songs allowed him that moment of solitude he desired. It didn’t last long enough. It never did; the need for productivity took over once again. Begrudgingly, he sat up, feeling all aspects of gravity increase upon him. Faint, invisible whispers crept into his cognizance as he took off his headphones. It only urged him forward, to run without hesitation away from them and this place.
Within the next twenty minutes, Nathan changed clothes, primped himself, and was back in his truck and on the road. He’d grabbed what was necessary, skipped out on his meds that he felt would only further congest his crowded skull, and was on his way. He knew where he was going, what he was doing, though he scarcely believed it himself.
The bright orange glow of the morning sun was blinding as the scenery zipped by, rising over the horizon and into view. The vehicle’s stereo was cranked almost to its fullest so the loud music flooded out any other invasive sounds. A cigarette burned between his fingers. His hands and legs jittered, respectively tightening around the steering wheel or pressing too hard on the pedals below.
Everything came to a head when the bloodied asphalt came into view. Zaps of nauseating adrenaline made its way from Nathan’s arms and into his stomach.
The mangled corpse of the doe was still there, now rotting away with its red and purple innards seeping into the dew-moistened dirt and concrete.
He swerved the truck and did a disjointed y-turn to park on the same side as the dead animal, a heavy, held breath leaving his lungs. He exited the truck, letting his feet fully connect with the ground before approaching it. Below the layer of mist in the multi-colored autumn light, gatherings of ants and flies swarmed. Tangible. Real. The smell alone would confirm its true existence. That ‘cocktail of life’ began churning in his stomach as he turned away, a sleeve to his nose to block the pungent stench.
Nathan turned to lean against the vehicle. He tried not to puke, hurrying back inside and holding his now-throbbing head. Everything came rushing back in a flurry as he wiped away a new layer of sweat from his brow. He glanced into the rearview mirror, holding on to some estranged hope that he would see the creature’s ghostly form once more. Something that would show it was still alive. Something to prove the dent in his fender was a trick of the sunlight. Something to reassure him that he wasn’t the one that killed it. Anything.
Yet, another part of him battled back his prayer with logic. What would it prove? That he was as crazy as everyone made him out to be?
‘Chasing ghosts. It’s no wonder why you need to eat those fuckin’ pills like candy.’ A voice slipped through. Derisiveness mixed with a sickening jubilance.
Nathan slammed his fist on the armrest. Some loose change jangled in one of the cup holders as his other hand pulled at the roots of his hair. The only one that had somewhat of a straight answer for him was someone he was vehemently trying not to think about. Not her. Not now. Not like this.
Feeling defeated, Nathan leaned back in his seat. A cheery announcer on the radio interrupted the song flow with the weather forecast. He cursed and turned it off, instantly regretting it when the eerie silence grew within the stuffy vehicle. Even the voices had abandoned him for now; the different sounds of Arcadia substituted themselves for them—small breezes through changing leaves, chirrups of frogs and lingering crickets, and the resonating waves of the ocean in the distance were just a few to name. The constants. The ones that drove him insane the further they droned.
And so he sat, lost within himself and the humming of the bay, flickering in and out of consciousness as the noises fused to became a suffocating roar all around him.
His head snapped up when a sound chimed through it all. The ringtone was one that made him shudder. It wasn’t from his regular phone, but from another he had with him, one he secretly kept on hand when he deemed necessary. It had been silent for quite a while, but now it had his full attention.
Nathan’s mouth flattened into a line as he glanced at the expensive modern frame. A part of the top had gotten chipped on its haphazard journey across uneven ground. The drive to this place really wasn’t the smoothest, and it didn’t help that he had to carry so much stuff down into this underground mess. Couldn’t it have been in a more convenient location? So what if the Prescotts owned this piece of land? They owned practically all of Arcadia! Why all the way out here? He cursed again, feeling like an idiot with his rush of thoughts.
“Problem?” an articulate voice asked from behind. The man finished dusting off the glass desk and proceeded to open a nearby box. Parts to a new, state-of-the-art computer lied within.
“No.” The boy’s answer was short as he lined up the picture with the nail. He firmly hooked it into place, hoping the man wouldn’t notice the eyesore.
“It certainly sounds like there is.” Emerging from the shadowed corner, Mark Jefferson’s brows rose in surprise at the sight. It was a rather graphic illustration of a girl tearing open her throat. Wormy parasites burst forth from the gore as well as from the corners of her lips and eyes.
“No,” Nathan repeated. Picking loose skin from his thumbs, he tried to rid himself of his latter sensations. Now wasn’t the time.
“Well, that’s…interesting,” Jefferson commented, his vision narrowing to observant slits.
Nathan smirked. “You mean fucked up?”
“I never said that.” He didn’t take his eyes off the picture as he drank it in with a fixed expression.
“Right.” Nathan’s grin faded.
He noticed his abrupt defensiveness. “Well, Nathan, if it inspires you, I don’t see an issue.” Jefferson placed his hands on his hips. “Use these walls to your liking. After all, I’m just a guest here.”
Nathan scratched one of his arms through the thick material of his jacket. His anticipation was transforming into impatience. Still, he stayed quiet, looking around at the blank canvas of a room to which they were currently adding.
“Hm. At least this way I can focus on getting some actual work accomplished. The school’s facilities can only go so far, and sharing with Blackwell students isn’t easy. It’s times like this where I miss having my own studio, like when I lived in New York.” Jefferson paused and sighed, tracing his beard with his thumb and forefinger. “So really, Nathan, thank you.” With that, he stepped forward and placed a light hand on Nathan’s shoulder.
The boy’s stomach tightened. He awkwardly shrugged off the elder man. “Right. Whatever. I mean…” his sentence trailed as he stepped further away.
Jefferson let him go and turned back toward the desk, allowing Nathan space.
“You don’t have to, like, pretend and shit, you know,” said Nathan, speaking up.
The man casually spun around and composed himself. “Pretend?”
Nathan’s face was set like stone. He headed over and sat on the laminated, black couch in the center of the room. Staring at the bright, white backdrop in front of him, he answered with a bite to his words, “I know my dad’s got a fat check with your name on it after all this. So, yeah. You can quit acting like you actually care about shit. I’m not stupid.”
There was a long pause between them. Nathan assumed he had Jefferson against a wall, had him all figured out, and felt his ego swell and wane with that presumed truth. The boy then felt himself jump as the furniture dipped down with a new weight. Nathan snapped his head up to see that Jefferson had taken a seat on the opposite end of the sofa. The plastic released an uncomfortable whine.
Jefferson sighed. “No, Nathan, you’re not stupid. I believe Sean saw an alternative opportunity with my employment, and quickly seized it. He’s a ‘two-birds, one-stone’ kind of man, after all. And I’m not one to deny a little extra work on the side, especially when it comes from Blackwell’s—hell, Arcadia Bay’s—prime endower.”
Nathan winced, his brows rising and falling as he spoke, and his lips pursed with several small nods as he scooted further into the corner of the furniture. Of course the truth would have been thrown out there sooner or later. Jefferson, thus far, had been quite practical. He was downright blunt when he wanted to be. It was almost refreshing to Nathan, who was used to a whole different spectrum of jargon from his own kin. But Jefferson’s lofty tenor vexed him, and that annoyance came to a head with his increased fidgeting and expressions of boredom.
Jefferson continued, his voice smoother, “But, obviously, you’ve already put the pieces together on that one. Be that as it may, I’m not ‘pretending’ when I say I’m looking forward to personally working with you.”
Nathan grunted an affirmation to at least let the man know he heard him, and then averted his gaze to the white backdrop once more. It was blinding. Everything was blinding. He was tired, and wanted to go home.
“Like I’ve said before, your photos have something to them, a spark that so many others at Blackwell have yet to find at this point in their work. With my help, I can get you off your feet. Even the stubborn Sean Prescott will be impressed by his son’s improvement in photography.” Jefferson let out a rather contemptuous chuckle, pleased with that placed confidence.
Nathan tried not to show any hints of hope with the man’s statement, but despite himself, he couldn’t help it. His blue eyes met the other’s darkened browns, shadowed black by a trick of the fluorescents. They were open and reflective, mollifying. Jefferson had a small and promising smile hiding within his facial hair, one that unwillingly began to transfer to Nathan. It was strange, but even Nathan could tell that the academic was attempting to send him positivity, trying to cheer him up somehow.
“Stubborn Sean Prescott isn’t easily impressed with anything.” Nathan said, his cynicism barreling through as he stood up. His hands found their way into his jacket pockets, feeling colder than usual.
“Ha. True. Very true.” Jefferson crossed his legs and let them rest on the glass table before him. He rubbed at his temple with one hand while the other lay across the tight plastic on the sofa’s arm. “But we’ll change that.”
That lilt of his the boy detested ever-grew by the second. Nathan snapped in response, “Whatever. As long as you follow your end of this deal, you don’t have to invest otherwise.”
Jefferson’s gaze lowered, and Nathan could have sworn it was with a glare. “It’s true that I’m working for Sean on the side, mainly on photography for the Pan Estates project, but you’re a whole different matter. This is more of a favor to you than anyone. I know Sean is a harsh magnate, and he, no doubt, has a ‘plan’ set up for your future. Am I right?”
Nathan stopped—eyes thin, feet rooted, and mouth shut.
Exchanging small and meaningful conversations with the man for almost half a year now, Nathan thought he would be used to Jefferson’s enigmatic moments. Not so much; they still put him in a state of unease. It was always like he knew more than what he was letting on, but the boy could never find the courage to ask him outright. In reality, he didn’t want to in fear of a truth he’d rather not find.
Though, Nathan had to admit, getting his father to create this studio was a giant, surprising step forward for him. He never thought he’d get that discussion past its initial inquiry to the businessman. In the end, Nathan figured it was only temporary, so why not? He was sure that was the case. Humor his fucked-up kid one more time before he was to surrender to the tides that was The Prescott Foundation. Nathan’s stomach pulled taut as his thoughts further spiraled away from him, his hope draining. Why did Sean even bother? What was the point again? Of all this? Why?
His breathing became slower, more deliberate. He could only muster a cracked and throaty noise for an answer. He felt Jefferson’s familiar hand on his shoulder once more. For whatever reason, this time, he let it stay.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he answered brusquely, cutting into Jefferson’s last syllable.
There were times when those three little words infuriated him. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Are you okay?’ ‘ARE YOU OKAY?’ More often than not, they were followed by, ‘Did you take your meds?’ or ‘Are you sure?’ or a sickening silence that cut through him like a sharp knife, making him feel all the more dead inside. The latter was a specialty of his father.
All were just an assortment of add-ons that didn’t fucking matter in the end. Nobody really gave a shit past that. Nobody.
Jefferson gave his shoulder a light squeeze. “Hey. It’ll be all right. I know this is a lot to take in. It’s stressful. I can only imagine what’s going on in that head of yours, but, please, try to control your temper.”
He didn’t like the way that came out. He then jerked away, this time with more force. He sucked in a quick, angry breath.
“Nathan.” Jefferson stayed calm, even though he could see the teen was ready for an outburst.
Nathan grit his teeth and growled. “What?”
Scrunching his brows together and tucking in his bottom lip, Jefferson came around and stood in front of the angered Prescott, placing firm hands on his arms to steady the start of his intemperate shakes. His professor was nearly a foot taller than him; it made Nathan feel all the more small. Small and inferior and…worthless. Nathan grimaced and flinched, not making eye contact.
“It’s not a crime to be angry, especially when it concerns your father and his…agenda. And far be it from me to tell you how to feel, but—”
A nasty smile spread across Nathan’s face. “Hmph. You know, you talk a lot of shit for being an expendable asset. What the fuck do you really know about him anyway?” Nathan pulled away. It was, again, without resistance from Jefferson.
Adjusting his glasses and crossing his arms, the elder closed his eyes as if in meditative thought. Until his voice became dark. “I know enough.”
Nathan met Jefferson’s gaze. He stilled, feeling a strange sensation at the back of his neck, raising the small hairs there. It pinpricked its way down his spine.
“And I can at least recognize that his son has his own emotions and desires, and should be allowed to express them.” His voice changed into something that sounded poetically pretentious.
And yet, Nathan’s heart still skipped a beat, and his hands tightened in his pockets; they were now too hot. He brought them out and began toying with the hem of his pants, entwining his fingers in his belt loops. His focus was null.
“You’re an adult, Nathan, and I imagine that’s how you expect to be treated, yes? Then you’re going to have to learn to control this petulance of yours and take a little criticism once in a while! Try to be a little more open-minded. People care, you just have to listen to the right ones. Remember, I’m on your side.”
It was then that Nathan’s attention was suddenly brought to Jefferson’s opposite hand. In it was a cell phone. He took it, and Jefferson turned back to the desk to continue with his computer ministrations.
“What’s this for?”
Blowing some foam peanuts off the new keyboard, Jefferson placed it on the desk and proceeded to reach into his pocket. He pulled out an identical model to the one he handed Nathan. “Personal prepaid phones. It’ll be easier to get hold of each other that way. What do you think?”
“And we can’t use our regular phones because…?”
“Well, I’ve got work, you’ve got leisure. I figure this way when I contact you it’s easier to filter.”
Nathan’s mouth upturned, and he stepped over to another framed photograph. “I guess.”
The piece was leaning next to an industrial-sized printer. It was turned backwards. Nathan fingered the frame—not a chip in sight. He then turned the picture around. Jefferson hummed, the two of them now standing side-by-side to observe the piece.
“This place keeps getting more interesting by the minute,” Jefferson admired.
Nathan remembered this picture from his father’s extensive monochrome collection. A kneeled woman, bound exclusively in rope and turned away from the camera in a defenseless gesture, was the subject. It was one he admired for many a year, but could never find a suitable place for its décor. Its sister piece hung in his dorm at Blackwell, but this seemed like it would work better in a larger space. He wasn’t wrong.
Something else caught his eye for a moment. Next to the row of frames was a stack of boxes. The top one was opened and a blemish of color burst forth. It was filled with three-ring binders, all of them a bright red. He thought they were akin to fresh blood.
A chilling sensation crawled up Nathan’s spin, and eyes narrowed. He forcibly ignored it to turn his attention back to the frame in hand. “Guess I’ll hang this up next.”
A small smile pushed through his apprehension. In the beginning, Nathan revered these pieces for their contrasting tones that converged into complimentary and cohesive compositions. Also, he admitted only to himself, with a personal fixation on their presented content, one with which he was still gaining a paradoxical comfort as time passed. Though now, he began to realize just how much he empathized with the foci within the blacks and whites. How vulnerable and literally tied down they were. An allegory for his life if ever there was one. Yet, behind the lens, it was like he held the key to their freedom. And perhaps behind theirs, they held his.
Perhaps after all was said and done, he could impress his father. At the very least, he could impress his mouthy new mentor.
Nathan proceeded to hold the frame above the printer. “This spot looks good.”
Jefferson nodded. “Agreed.”
“Well,” Nathan sighed, leaned the frame back for later, and pocketed the new phone, “guess it’s time to get this deal going then.”
A frown situated itself on Jefferson’s lips. “First of all, why don’t you head on home and relax? Things are going to take a bit longer here, and I’m going to head home myself once I set up this computer. There’ll be plenty of time to spruce up once the contractors refurbish a bit more, especially with the water pipes. We can actually have a working dark room once that’s done and the safelights are installed.”
Nathan furrowed his brows in confusion. “But—”
“Second, despite what your father thinks is best, you still have a choice with your future. Let’s make it a good one.” He flashed a smile.
Nathan’s eyes widened and a tinge of embarrassment coated his cheeks. For once, his words didn’t sound forced or fake. He was rendered into a silent awe.
“You’re not a business deal, Nathan. You’re a human being.” Jefferson gave him a final pat on the back, light and reassuring, to fill the space the boy left behind with his silence.
“Mr. Jefferson…?” The teen was at a loss.
The elder placed the monitor on the desk to accompany the keyboard, blowing away more foam bits. “And while we’re outside of Blackwell, you don’t have to be so formal. We’re both professionals here. Call me Mark.”
“Oh? Good morning, Nathan. I expected to get your voicemail with it being so early.”
Was that supposed to be funny? “Uh. No. Busy day. Party’s still happening, so…yeah.” Nathan felt his exhaustion betray his words.
Jefferson chuckled. “Don’t get too excited, or the world might really end.”
Nathan returned the sarcastic gesture with a hummy, low sneer.
“Well? Isn’t that the theme of this party? The ‘End of the World’?”
“Is there a reason you called? Or did you just feel like getting a head start on irking me?”
“All right, all right. Relax. I just wanted to apologize for not being able to catch up with you and your new photos this week.”
“Whatever. It’s not a big deal. I’ll just talk to you about them some other time.”
“That’s a lie if I’ve ever heard one.”
Nathan bit the inside of his cheek. “I’ll leave you the negatives sometime tomorrow then.”
“Great. Also, about those still lifes we’ve been working on. Let’s talk more about them, say, next week? Give you the weekend to rest.”
“Uh…sure.” Nathan was beginning to zone out, his thoughts crowding out Jefferson’s voice.
“Jesus Christ, do you ever pay attention?” the mentor suddenly snapped.
Nathan’s stomach plummeted as he came out of his trance. “W-What? I—!”
“Everything going okay otherwise?” Jefferson asked between Nathan’s sudden panic, pausing to let out a confused sound. “Sorry? Did you want to say something else?”
“N-no. Did you?”
“No.” Another pause. “Nathan? Is everything okay?”
It was then that Nathan realized Jefferson hadn’t snapped at him. The illusion sank into his cluttered head, and he ground his teeth. ‘Shit. Fuck! Not now! Just…fucking…shut the hell up!’ He pushed a knuckle into one of his temples to keep himself on track.
“Did Sean give you any problems on Wednesday?”
Nathan shrugged, his eyes shut tight. “Not really. Same old bullshit.”
“Mm. Another lie if I’ve ever heard one.”
‘Fuck you-u-u-u-u-uuuugh!’ — “I don’t want to talk about it.” The battle between what he wanted to say and what he actually said passed by.
Jefferson sighed, a wind of static flowing through the receiver. “All right. I’ll leave you to it then. And, Nathan?”
He was about to take the phone away from his ear. “Yeah?”
“Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Just because I’m still chaperoning the party tonight doesn’t mean I can keep an eye on you twenty-four/seven.”
“The fu—I don’t need you to!” he exclaimed, a little more than irritated, still trying to keep himself together.
“Just be responsible and don’t overdo it. You know what I mean.”
The older man’s dark tone returned and made Nathan’s skin rise with goosebumps. He hung up and slammed the phone down, instantly regretful and checking if he’d broken it. He didn’t.
Fine. Good. Fuck.
His feet began to tap against the floor mats of the truck, crunching pieces of dead leaves here and there. The sun glared through the tree canopies and made him squint. He needed a shower. And another joint. That’d be nice. Seconds later, he put the truck in drive and peeled away, leaving the remnants of the doe behind.
When he pulled past the retracting gate and into the grounds of his family’s estate, he wanted to repeatedly punch himself. This was the last place he wanted to be, yesterday’s chaos still fresh in mind, but he knew that today his father wouldn’t be there. He remembered pieces of Sean’s business schedule that was rattled off between conversations after the assembly, standing off to the side in his diminishing high.
Plus it was technically his home, too. So, fuck it. Nevertheless, he was relieved to have the place to himself. Well, almost to himself, though he never counted the hired help as much company. They kept to themselves, as they should, he thought. All in all, it was better than having to share the dorm showers with the rest of Blackwell this early.
Nathan entered through the heavy door and made a B-line upstairs, down the carpeted hall, and into his old room. He didn’t take time to revisit his numerous dust-covered, familiar surroundings, didn’t even bother turning on the light. He simply migrated to the opposite wall next to a large, curtained window, pulled open a set of dresser drawers, and dug out a change of temporary clothes from within. The less time he had to spend here, the better. He retreated into the hall, clothes in hand, and backtracked to the bathroom past his sister’s room. He didn’t hesitate to think about her, either.
The sun’s glow came through the round window within the shower. It got caught in the frosted glass of its doors, reminiscent of wax crayon scribbles on textured paper—oranges and yellows creating trails through the panes.
Nathan threw his clothes on the marble sink countertop, snatched a towel from the built-in shelves, and hung it on a nearby rack. He then proceeded to turn on the water and let it become warm, stripped, and took a moment to look at himself in the large, rectangular mirror. It covered the wall above the double sinks. He frowned. The bruises on his chest and shoulder were a gray-blue. He carefully traced them, applying some pressure. They were tender.
“Motherfucking prick. God dammit…”
He stood in front of the mirror for a while yet. The steam began to fog over the glass, his tired image fading, before he snapped out of it and got in the shower. The warmth washed over him, peeled away the layers of contempt he was holding for the time being. Nathan opened his eyes, slowly took a hand to the steamed window, and wiped away the buildup. The action resulted in several squeaks that cut through the hiss of the water. Outside, the clouds were becoming thick, puffy, and a light gray. Another mediocre October morning.
Nathan scoffed, pensively dragging his tongue along the inside of his bottom teeth. “Scars…to stars…” One stray thought had made its way to his lips.
He shut himself down, harshly dragging his nails through his scalp with every scrub, and finished showering in a disgruntled silence.
After dressing and heading back downstairs, towel around his shoulders, he took a seat on a chair next to his father’s office to properly tie his shoes. Through the open doorframe, Sean’s disorganized desk caught his attention, just like it had last night. Papers were still strewn about, the map of Arcadia Bay remaining on top. Even from this distance, with the help of the light flooding through the room’s open windows, the black marks on the map were prominent.
Nathan finished tightening his laces, wriggled his feet into place, and, against his better judgment, sauntered inside and over to the mess. The sight struck him just as confused as yesterday; this wasn’t like his father, to be so unsystematic. The boy huffed, lifting some of the documents with one hand while the other focused on drying his wet hair. The multitude of business words blurred together. He ignored them in lieu of the leather book he recognized from before, frowning when he thought about what happened afterward. His head snapped up, expecting to see Sean’s figure in the doorway, but there was no one. In fact, the house was unusually quiet.
The book was still open. His eyes wandered over the exposed pages. The scrawl was a hard-to-read chicken scratch on the cream-colored surface. One corner of the page was a rusty brown. Nathan delicately moved some papers out of the way and leafed over to the next page. The crumple and resistance of the material gave away that it was once wet.
Nathan’s mouth parted at the sight of the large, dark-red stain that met him on the following page. The ink had been smeared into it, amalgamating into a brown, red, and black mess.
Paint? No. It looked too much like…
“Jesus, what the fuck?” Nathan’s heart skipped. He flipped to the front pages of the journal in hopes of finding the name of its owner.
Instead, an envelope was there, taped to the opening cover. A photograph poked out the top. He took it out and examined it. In it was a man and a woman in semi-formal summer wear. They looked happy, yet a bit bothered, as they seemed to be trying to stop a heavy wind from catching them off balance. The woman was holding her sun hat down with a big, sideways grin while the man held her up. The shot had been taken at Arcadia’s beach. It was unmistakable with the peninsula’s landmark lighthouse in the background. Nathan flipped the photo over. J & S ~ 1989 was written in a curvy, feminine script.
Nathan thought he recognized the man, but didn’t dwell on it. He slipped the picture back in the envelope and turned back to the ruined page. It was almost entirely undecipherable between the smeared words and the unkempt handwriting. Nathan could only make out a few letters and phrases:
‘Lorraine?’ Nathan repeated in his head, his skin feeling electric. ‘The hell is…?!’
He tried to even out his breathing, letting his eye scan the rest of the page with a new and quickening energy. There was one other, full sentence that wasn’t totally smudged away. It was next to, what looked like, a mess of redacted starts to sentences and…spirals?
‘Listen to Arcadia Bay.’
Nathan’s brows scrunched together. This time, he flipped to the back, trying to find some other clue toward the journal’s proprietor. Instead, he found an abundance of drawings. They could be considered professional for how laudable they were. Some had flecks of color, possibly from acrylic paint or colored pencils, while others were only done in graphite or ink. Maybe the red from before was paint? The tight feeling in his chest confirmed that he still wasn’t convinced.
Nevertheless, past his unease, he respected the illustrator’s attention to detail. The color, the shadows, the compositions, he could almost lose himself within them. There was a charcoal-esque sketch of some railroad tracks, a graphite drawing of a broken-down boat on a beach—complete with a pink and purple sunset, even some gestural pieces of flowers, birds, and other flora and fauna. Many stunning, naturesque pieces.
Nathan turned another page. He froze, his breath further sticking in his throat.
There was a near-perfect illustration of Arcadia Bay’s lighthouse and cliffs. A figure, unidentifiable as either man or woman, stood at its rocky crag. In the background, a storm raged. The violent scratches of a pen created a rainy effect, and thicker strokes outlined a gigantic tornado forming over the blackened ocean.
This feeling. It was like someone had strapped a ball and chain to his ankles and was about to throw him into those untamable waves, like he was the figure standing at the edge of those very cliffs, looking down into the blue abyss, waiting for gravity’s force to act like he had before.
The foyer’s grandfather clock rang, startling Nathan. With that warning, the estate became a void-like presence as he cast the thing aside with an abrupt gasp. He backed away, heart pounding, and took a few long strides out the door for his escape. He threw his towel in the downstairs bathroom hamper, grabbed his belongings, and finally exited the house. He’d take care of the rest of himself back at Blackwell. Right then, he had to get out of there.
Nathan’s regular phone began vibrating over and over as he reentered his truck. He let it go to voicemail as he sat in a daze. Still catching his breath, he tried to rid himself of this sensation of pure dread. He had to calm down, otherwise his heart was liable to stop from how much it was overworking itself.
“Lorraine,” he repeated aloud in disbelief. It wasn’t just that drawing that was causing him grief. In his family home, on his father’s desk, in that book—it couldn’t have been a coincidence.
That name. He knew that name. Of course, he would. He should. It was just that he knew her by another.
Missed the last train home
Birds pass by to tell me that I’m not alone
Well, I’m pushin’ myself to finish this part
Can handle a lot
But one thing I’m missing
Is in your eyes
In your eyes…
Max tapped her foot against the sidewalk. The air was a stinging cold as she listened to some music while sitting on the edge of Blackwell’s fountain. Some students passed to and fro, none acknowledging her existence past a wave or a smile.
She checked her phone. 7:53 AM. Though she didn’t have class until 11, once again due to Ms. Hoida’s absence, she couldn’t enjoy the extra time because of her ever-present anxiety. She hadn’t gotten a solid wink of sleep because of it, as she expected. She removed her earbuds only after a couple songs, the melodies blurring together in a musical mess.
Her stomach growled. How she could be hungry, she didn’t know. Her tired mind was still muddled with yesterday’s craziness. During her mini meltdown, after giving Warren some reassuring texts that she was alive and a solid goodnight, she finally worked up the courage to dial her best friend like she promised.
Max’s heart assaulted her ribs, pumping dose after dose of heated blood in her veins. Surely, it was to explode any moment. She was trying to stop crying. She needed to know.
Her form slid down the wall, scrunching her pillows as she pressed her ear to the phone’s receiver. The noise of each ring felt like they were leaking through the white plaster. She shook with every one.
But she needed to know. She needed to know that Chloe was truly okay.
Her heartbeat thrummed all the way to her fingertips.
Her lungs twisted into a knot until she released a gasp. Max’s eyes filled with tears once again.
A wisp of breath came through the receiver followed by a pause. Eventually, Chloe spoke. “Y-yeah, it’s me. Um, hey.” She sounded nervous. “You okay?”
‘That’s supposed to be my line,’ Max thought to herself, feeling more watery warmth slide down her cheeks. She held back her sobs.
“I’m okay,” she replied with a small smile. “Better than okay.”
“Ha. Why?” A small pause made itself apparent before she cut back in, “Are you getting high without me? ‘Cause that’s just rude.”
Chloe was still getting her bearings with conversation; it was little awkward and totally off-point. That was Chloe. And Max loved it. She began to laugh, and through the tears she smiled from ear to ear. Chloe was alive.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Chloe chuckled, and the slight buzz of static gave a small, crowded comfort between them. She must have been thinking of something else to say. Max just sat there, knees to her chest and hugging her teddy bear with one arm, smiling and feeling as elated as Chloe made her out to be.
“About today…I’m sorry. I’m just—I’m just fucking stressed out right now.”
Max added in her mind, ‘I can relate.’
Chloe huffed. “It’s just…with all this shit going on with Rachel, David being the cock-a-dildo that he is, and you popping up after years of not being around…”
Max winced as Chloe trailed off. “I-I know. I’m the one who should be sorry. About…everything.” She sighed and sniffled.
Another small bout of silence ran between the two before Chloe said, “You sound hella tired.”
Max’s body shook with the fleeting thought of dangling over Arcadia’s cliffs. She hugged herself tighter and pushed it to the back of her mind. Now wasn’t the time. “It’s just been a really long day.”
“I hear that.”
Max debated on telling her about what happened at the lighthouse, but ultimately decided against it. She wasn’t ready for that whole mess, and was worried Chloe might think she was completely off her rocker if she had told her, without proof of some kind, that she could…rewind time. Hell, she didn’t fully believe it as she hesitated repeating it to herself.
As she and Chloe began talking, Max decided to try and eat half of her leftover cheeseburger. Miraculously, it still tasted like heaven—cheesy, bacon-y heaven. Her stomach grumbled with approval. She was surprised it was accepting food at all, but didn’t argue it. It was better than going to bed on an empty stomach.
“Joyce’s food is still the best,” Max said with her mouth full of the half’s last bite. After, she licked some ketchup off her thumb and sat back to digest.
“Oh, don’t I know it? In that department, I’m still as blessed as ever,” Chloe replied with a hint of sarcasm.
“I’d say you are,” Max teased with a light laugh.
Chloe continued, “Yeah. I guess I’m lucky she still cooks at home at all. Mom’s been working her ass off with random shifts for extra cash. Sometimes really late at night. My step-prick's been taking more night shifts, too. So, it’s been pretty quiet over here.” There was a clear sadness coating her last words.
A large lump formed in Max’s throat. Chloe was lonely. Obviously. And with Rachel’s odd behavior, as Chloe put it, she must have been feeling even more so. Rachel and Chloe had clearly formed a strong bond while Max was out of the picture, and to have concern weighing her down wasn’t like her. Then again, what did she really know anymore? She was the one who had been gone for so long without an ounce of contact. The guilt returned with a vengeance.
Before Max could answer, Chloe gave a long sigh and cut in, “Anyway, it’s getting late. Do you think we could talk more at Blackwell tomorrow? I’m stopping by to see Rachel at the Vortex thing. I need to talk to her.”
“You mean the decoration committee?”
“Yeah,” Chloe scoffed, “that.”
Max let out a suppressed chuckle. Chloe really didn’t like the group any more than she did. “Sure. We can talk then. My classes start later, so I’ll have plenty of time.”
“All right. Cool. Sounds good.” She sounded like she wanted to say more, but Max didn’t press her; she was getting tired, too.
“Though, that’s pretty early. You sure you’re up for it?” Max commented whilst sliding down to lie flat on her bed. She flicked on her paper lanterns beforehand, the warm glow lighting up the dismal atmosphere.
“Ugh. Don’t remind me. I’ve already got six alarms set on my phone. It sucks, but it’s gonna be the only time I can avoid David giving me shit and talk to Rachel.”
“Right…” She remembered her recent run-in with Blackwell’s head of security. “I can understand that.” Another silence ran between them before Max decided to speak up again. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Mm. Totally. Tomorrow.” There was a windy scratch on the other end of the line.
“Sorry, just getting a bit blazed before I hit the hay. Helps me sleep.”
Max shook her head with an unseen smirk. “Now who’s the one being rude?”
“Please, girl. You avoid anything remotely fun, so why stand on ceremony?”
The two shared a light laugh. After they said their goodbyes, a large and warm feeling welled up and spread through Max’s veins. There were more tears, this time of a happier caliber, and more sniffling. She had to clean up and use the restroom before heading to bed herself. She decided to put off the consequences of that day and try to get some semblance of sleep.
Opening her door, she nearly ran into someone. It was such a surprise, she actually gasped aloud.
She wiped her eyes and looked up, meeting the wide gaze of a rather-stupefied Nathan Prescott.
Max’s smile faded. It suddenly wasn’t cold anymore as a giant burst of heat rushed up her neck. It went straight into her ears and cheeks.
Right. That. Crap.
That was something she didn’t expect. ‘Putting off the consequences’ hadn’t turned out like she planned. Her face only got warmer with the thought of Nathan at her door.
Her hands fiddled with the hem of her shirt, thinking of how she looked less than presentable in his presence. There he was, looking like he hadn’t just been through the same hell as her, with restyled hair and a new set of designer clothes. And there she was—messy bob, reddened face, swollen eyes—clad only in her scant, gray pajama shorts and thin, yellow tee with…a happy-go-lucky sunflower on the front.
‘Good one, Max. For fuck’s sake.’ Her hand came to her forehead as she thought of her ‘loser-like’ image.
And the way he ogled her, how his gaze just lingered, was intense to say the least. It felt like he was burying her six feet under with his eyes alone.
Max shook the intrusive thought away, feeling hotter and trying to get her bearings. Aside from that and above all else, he admitted to seeing the ghostly doe. That was the important thing.
But that truth only served to scare her more. What did it all mean? And after all that she…
Her body felt heavy, and she sank her teeth into her lower lip, dragging it back and forth in deliberation. Max couldn’t help but let her mind wander, wondering if she did the right thing in that moment. He didn’t object to her embrace, but was that okay? Why did she even decide to do that? He did hug her back, but…
She forced a swallow. Nathan Prescott hugged her back.
Her breath caught. ‘No! That’s not the point, Maxine, you moron!’
But the way he looked was so…lost. Lost and alone. She felt like it was the only right thing to do in that moment, especially after what they went through. Was that bad? Shit, she didn’t know anymore, and it was too late to do anything about it. If she had the ability to rewind time, she sure as hell wasn’t using it right.
Max took a moment to calm down and re-rationalize things. She remembered the comforting phone call with Chloe again, trying to stop the bombardment of questions in her head. So many open-ended, hanging threads. She wanted nothing more than to take and retie them all, make everything normal. What the hell was normal anymore?
The chipper voice snapped her out of her current train of thought. She looked up to meet Dana’s wide grin. Her head poked out of some faux fur around the hood of her puffy, hot-pink coat.
“Oh! Morning, Dana.”
Dana had a coffee in one hand and a large bag over her opposite shoulder. She took a seat next to Max, setting the latter on the ground and crossing her legs. “Mornin’, Max! What brings you out here at the crack of dawn?”
“Um, well…” Max played with her bangs in hesitation. “I’m waiting for a friend.”
Dana hummed. “Why so secretive? You don’t have to worry about me being a gossip-gab. I’m not Stella.”
Max looked around. She was just hoping David wasn’t in earshot, or around at all for that matter. He was the last person—next to Nathan—that she wanted to see or have overhear her conversation. “Chloe Price? She used to go to Blackwell. I’m waiting for her and Rachel.”
“Chloe? Blue hair, tattoos, kind of rough-and-tumble?”
Max nodded, though she hardly believed she was; the image Dana spoke of was the new Chloe she was still getting used to. Max was just happy she had the time to get used to it, knowing her friend was still alive.
She forced a swallow. ‘Don’t think about it, Max. You’ve already got enough to worry about.’
“Yeah, I remember her. I only got to talk with her a couple times when we all hung out with Rachel, but she was cool. Angry-looking, but cool.”
That got Max to chuckle. “Yeah. She’s kind of got a lot going on.”
“Mm. Don’t we all? Anyway, Rachel will probably be here soon. She texted me earlier. But, I’m up and at it to be ready for Miss Icky Vicky whenever her crab-ass comes around.”
Max let out a small giggle. “Yeah. She has been uptight lately. Though, she always seems that way. And we’re not exactly friends, so…”
Dana’s mouth contorted. “I’m not exactly her friend, either. Just because I’m in The Vortex Club doesn’t mean we’re all buddy-buddy. Right now, I’ve got enough of my own drama to even remotely care about hers.” She sighed and wiped her brow.
Max became concerned, if curious. “What’s going on?”
Dana gave her a small, sad smile. “Oh. It’s nothing. Just the standard high school bullshit, you know? It’s just been piling up this semester.”
“I hear that. But…I’m no gossip-gab, either. You can talk to me if you want.”
Pulling out her phone and checking it after a vibration, Dana replied, “Thanks, Max. Maybe later. I gotta get going. The Queen Bee’s on her way.” She paused for a moment, standing up to brush off the back of her jeans. “You know, Max, I’m envious of you at times.”
Max shot her a look of confusion, her brows lifting.
“Sometimes, I think you’re smart to be a loner here.”
Max was about to respond when a vehicle’s sputtering and whining hit her ears. A familiar beige truck swerved around the corner and promptly into Blackwell’s parking lot.
‘Captain Cantankerous Chloe, scourge of the seven seas has arrived,’ Max said to herself with a nervous half smile.
“I’ll see you around.” Dana proceeded to give Max a small wave whilst bringing her cup to her lips.
“Actually,” Max tarried with a shiver, “Chloe just got here, and we were headed the same way. So, we’ll walk with you?”
“Mm! Sure! It is a bit chilly, anyway. Better to get in where it’s warm.” Dana stopped to eye Max’s signature gray zip-up. “You should invest in something warmer, too, you goof!”
Dana’s cheeriness got Max to genuinely smile. Right now, she needed all the uplifting she could get, especially after what had happened so far that week. Everything felt like it had spanned an eternity by this point. Dusting off her own jeans, Max shouldered her camera bag and lagged behind Dana, observing the parking lot’s entrance for her blue-haired friend. Soon enough, Chloe strutted up the steps, hands in her jacket pockets and beanie pulled over her ears.
Dana held the pool’s entrance open for Max, who held it after her as Chloe began a little jog to meet them. Even though the two had somewhat reconciled over the phone, there was still a present barrier between the girls. Max felt it and looked down with weighted shoulders.
Chloe didn’t even cast her a look of recognition as she muttered, “Fuck, it’s cold!”
All of them entered the main area, passing the vending machines and locker rooms. As the smell of fresh chlorine invaded their noses, Max’s eyes widened at the place’s in-progress transformation. The only thing that could distinguish that this was the school’s pool…was the pool. Otherwise, it looked like the beginnings of some new modern nightclub.
There were strings of round lights between the metal rafters and fluorescents, decorative banners and streamers connected interlaced with wires from multicolored floodlights, posters and other papers covering some of the windows and walls, and gymnasium mats set up around the pool’s perimeter. Past the pool, in the center, a risen platform had several large speakers set up beside a DJ’s turntable. There was even an area being constructed past the stage and to the left that looked like a mini bar. Max recognized Taylor and Courtney moving around some new chairs and couches, talking over a clipboard every now and then like they were in a professional business.
“Holy…” Max was in awe.
On the upper level of the bleachers, Hayden, another Vortex Club member, was detangling some wires for more of the colorful lights. They were on tripods that looked like miniature versions of the ones used for football stadiums. He spotted the girls below and let out a ‘Hey!’ getting their attention.
“Da-na! What up?” He separated the cheerleader’s name into emphasized parts, waving his spare arm to them. “And is that…Max Caulfield? Wha-a-a-at? It’s a Blackwell miracle!”
Max had to admit, she actually liked Hayden. He had a carefree attitude. Despite him being in the Vortex Club, she didn’t think he was completely a judgmental asshole like the majority. Though, she might also chalk that up to his stoner lifestyle. He was another brighter outlook on the organization alongside Dana. The photographer shook her head and gave him a small wave as Dana acknowledged him with a greeting of her own.
Chloe, in the meantime, rocked on her heels with her arms crossed and eyes everywhere. Max could tell, though she wouldn’t say it out loud, she was also in a state of surprise at the place.
“Looks like things are coming along swimmingly,” Chloe said, almost out of nowhere. “Get it? ‘Cause…it’s a pool.”
Max stifled a laugh. The first Chloe-ism of the day. “Insert groan here.”
Dana agreed with a chuckle, turning to Max with a determined expression. She was ready to get shit done. “The floor plans Courtney gave me should work for what I need to do. Still, that means I have to leave you lovely ladies. Get warm, mingle, chillax—do whatever!”
“I think we’ll just stand off to the side and avoid ‘Icky Vicky,’ as it were,” answered Max with a sideways smile.
Dana laughed. “I’d do the same if I could. Maybe I’ll see you two around.”
As Dana departed, Max and Chloe migrated to a corner of the room to await Rachel’s arrival. Max grew brave and cast Chloe a smile. The punk girl returned it, though it was heavier and looked like it took effort.
Chloe’s eyes continued to wander this way and that, avoiding Max’s. “That heated water sounds like heaven right about now. Too bad these Vortex pricks’ll have run over it tonight.”
“Oh, well. We’ll just have to find some other way to warm you up,” Max teased.
“I dunno. Getting to hang out with my best friend again seems like a decent tradeoff.” Chloe placed an arm around Max’s shoulder and flashed her a cutesy grin.
Max blushed. Though her current appearance betrayed her, Chloe still had some of her babyish charm that Max remembered. She felt a sense of ease begin to grow. It was still a little awkward between them, but for Max, she had already let everything go from the past day. Chloe may have been trying to do the same, so Max tried to keep the good vibes going with another smile.
A sigh left the blue-haired girl as she adjusted her beanie. “So. You okay after I pulled a rage quit yesterday?”
There was a million ways Max could say she wasn’t. Yesterday wasn’t exactly her finest hour, either. But now wasn’t the time to bring up that drama. Now was the time for something a little more lighthearted. The less she had to think about yesterday—and Nathan—the better.
“Well, I was…”
Chloe looked like she was nibbling on the side of her mouth, awaiting Max’s continuation with bated breath.
“…until you made that awful joke. You and your puns. Some things never change.” Max crossed her arms in an ersatz irritation.
Chloe snorted and pulled Max closer. “What can I say? It’s a gift.”
Max wriggled herself free with a hum. “Or a curse. It’s way too early to face that kind of cringe without caffeine.”
“Ha, ha, smart ass.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“Of course it is.”
Slowly, but surely, things were looking up. At least, Max hoped, especially after Chloe’s expression proceeded to drop. Hers went along with it, trying to keep on Chloe’s wavelength.
“I went to the junkyard after I left the Two Whales.”
Max fingered her messenger bag’s strap, feeling something begin to creep up the back of her neck. “I…don’t blame you for not going straight home.”
Chloe swallowed. “Yeah, I—I thought maybe I’d find Rachel there, and…Max, I know she didn’t go home to talk to her parents. Like I said, she’s been doing this for a while. And now…I found this.”
Max concentrated as Chloe reached into her pocket. She brought out a crumpled piece of graph paper. On it was the start of some loopy writing. A letter. The bottom half was all scribbled out, looking like a massacre of blue ink. Max’s head cocked and she became more focused on it, beginning to read the legible parts to herself:
You can tell how much I want you to read this letter since I’ve been dragging my ass to give it to you. Maybe I just want you to find it when I’m not around so we never have to talk about it. And I don’t want you to hate me. Where to start?
I met somebody recently who’s so different from the lame Vortex Club snobs. I know you’ll have a meltdown when I tell you and think he’s gross, but I SWEAR he’s wise and unconventional. Kind of scary, not in a “bad boy” way. He’s just experienced some serious shit. Yes, I’m kinda obsessed. I won’t blame you for [illegible] freaking.
Maybe I know you’re right and this just has to be my secret [illegible].
The letter became more hastily-written.
I hate not sharing this with you except I know you’d give me that stink-eye and grill me for every stupid detail. If I even told you that ^last^ night we hooked up [illegible] near campus…
The rest of the letter was a mess of crossed-out sentences and was completely unreadable. Chloe’s eyes looked like they were glazed over with tears. Max was speechless.
“I was pissed off and ended up kicking a few things around in our hangout. I found this after accidentally knocking over the garbage can.” Her voice cracked.
Max was more than anxious at this point. The letter was disconcerting, and she could only imagine the turmoil going on within Chloe. Also, to find this on her own when she was already feeling like shit? Not good.
“Have you talked to her about it?” Max asked, her throat feeling constrained.
“I haven’t…yet.” Clearly frustrated, Chloe re-crumpled the letter and shoved it back in her pocket, shuffling her feet on the tile below. “But she’s about to get an earful, and my ‘stink-eye’ as she says.”
“Chloe…” She could see her rage bubbling beneath the surface. “Just try not to blow up on her. If she’s this nervous to tell you about a possible boyfriend then—”
Chloe grumbled and looked at the floor, cutting off Max, “I just want to know what the fuck’s been going on. We don’t keep secrets. Especially about shit like…this.” She turned away, flushed.
“I…yeah. But maybe there’s a better way instead of cornering her like this.”
“Well if you have a better plan, please, share!” Chloe snapped in her laconic fashion.
And that’s where Max fell short. She still considered herself a stranger when it came to Chloe and Rachel’s matters. If anything, she felt like a forced and unwanted wedge between the two. She wasn’t sure what to say, and was afraid of advising the wrong thing.
Max never got the chance to reply as Hayden strutted up to the two, a toothy grin greeting them after coming down from the seats above. “It really is the retro-selfie master! It’s about time you caved in and decided to check out a Vortex party!”
“Um…I’m not…Well…” Max was caught between him and Chloe.
“Gonna take some photos of my handiwork for your collection?” He joked in a lax tone, grabbing a stack of posters to the side of the girls and continuing his interruption between them, much to Chloe’s visible vexation.
“Not…at the moment.” she answered with a hand to the back of her neck, remembering the state of the instrument—‘Rest in peace, my friend.’
“Aww. Well, I tried. Anyway, sorry to rush off, but I gotta put up some more of these in the halls while the day’s young. Just thought I’d say hi. Maybe I’ll see you tonight?”
Max never got to properly answer him past a head shake before Hayden was off and running, leaving her feeling dizzy with the commotion.
“Wow. For not being in The Vortex Club, you sure have a lot of fans.” Chloe snubbed, her face fixated into a scowl anew.
“I didn’t—that’s not—wowser…” Max took a breath. “That’s not it.”
“Sure. And you didn’t say Nathan ‘Pres-hot’s’ name the other day, either.”
“That was a joke! I—”
“Or you could go hang out with your actual new boy toy, Warren. I’m sure you two have better things to discuss. Or whatever other friends you’ve made at Blackwell in the month you’ve been back to Arcadia.”
“Chloe, it’s not like that!” Max rubbed her forehead, the skin tightening with nervous tension. “And we’re getting sidetracked! What about Rachel? What should we do?”
“I don’t know Max! Why don’t you ask some of your Vortex friends for advice? I’m sure they’d be willing to give it to you.”
Max sighed. “Chloe. Please. Right now, you’re what’s important. I’m trying my best to think of something here…”
Chloe blew out a gust of air and turned on her heel. Both the girls were once again at a loss, the barrier Max sensed growing anew. As Vortex members came and went, Max and Chloe thought in silence until they heard the telltale sounds of Rachel’s cheeriness from the entrance.
‘Shit. Out of time on this one.’ Max thought about testing her supposed rewind ability, but the ridiculousness of it all stopped her once more. She doubted she would come up with anything anyway, even if she had more time.
Rachel spotted the two after a moment, and a confused expression, quickly replaced with one of joy, went across her visage.
“Chloe! Max! What’s going on?” She called, jogging over to them. The holes in her black denim jeans stretched with every movement of her legs, and her long hair bobbed back and forth.
Max cursed in her head. How were they going to explain themselves? They didn’t have a solid reason to be there except to confront Rachel about the letter. Well, that was Chloe’s initial plan, but Max didn’t know about the letter until just now! She fought with herself, trying to find some way to remedy the situation without making Rachel suspicious.
“We…just wanted to see if you were okay. After yesterday, I mean. We were worried.” Max tried her best to keep herself in line, forging a lie from the dimmed fires in her brain.
Chloe immediately picked up on the trail. “Yeah, Rach. Your parents have been nagging the shit out of you lately. What’s going on?”
‘And Chloe saves it!’
Rachel smiled, more of a sad gesture than happy, and tucked some of her hair behind her ears. Her feather earring glistened in the reflecting light from the pool. “They’re just trying to do what’s best for me. But, you know how parents can get. Laying it on thick with this being senior year and all. Being pains in the ass.”
Max nodded, trying to go along with everything, one arm caressing the other. She stole a glance at Chloe whose mouth pursed together; she was trying not to burst.
“Don’t you think you should be helping instead of chit-chatting?” snapped another familiar, approaching voice.
Rachel, who didn’t have to turn around to know who it was, rolled her eyes and answered, “Typical. Barely in the door, and you’re already bossing people around.”
Max and Chloe both scrunched their brows as Victoria strutted her way towards the group, hands across her chest, and with that sour expression that made her crimson lips look smaller than they already were. From behind her, hands in his pants pockets and hunched over in what looked to be utter dejection, Nathan emerged.
The boy looked up and stopped mid-stride as his eyes met Max’s. She did the same, unconsciously moving closer to Chloe in the process. She became aware of Victoria and Rachel spitting an insult or two at one another, but they only registered as vocal static. Nathan and Chloe in the same vicinity, within feet of one another—Max felt ill.
His gaze held. Time slowed. More wordy white noise. A heartbeat in her ears. Trembling.
Nathan then dipped his head to look at the floor and made his way past them. Max realized Victoria was done with her little jabs, and he was following her away from the scene. She was still lost within herself, adjusting to the passing change in atmosphere.
Chloe and Rachel were talking. Their voices were starting to become clearer.
“…out that, Max?” Rachel’s melodic musings flowed.
“Max?” Chloe waved a hand in front of her face.
“H-huh?” Max blinked and swallowed. Her throat was dry. “Sorry. I was just…just…”
“Just…staring at Nathan?” Rachel teased. “Subtle, Max.”
Max blushed bright red. “That’s not—!”
Chloe frowned, and Max felt even worse.
“You’re too adorable, Max,” Rachel continued, nudging Chloe who gave her a side-glance with growing annoyance.
“No! Just…stop!” The photographer exclaimed, surprising both girls.
An awkward silence began to form. Max’s fists were clenched at her sides. Seeing Nathan again…it was too soon. She was remembering everything. Her legs felt weak.
“Max, are you okay?” Rachel asked, a hand coming out to pat her on the shoulder. “I was just kidding around.”
Max didn’t answer, counting the tiles on the floor to stay calm, feeling like an idiot for nearly shouting.
“Just the Max Caulfield mini-coma again,” Chloe said with a nervous laugh.
“I’m just…stressed. Sorry.” It was a pathetic excuse, but, Max thought, at least she regained the strength to give one.
“Hm. Maybe she should come to the party with me. You need to unwind, girl!” Rachel first addressed Chloe, and then Max with a poke to her arm.
“…What?” That got Max to look up at the girls.
Rachel gave Max a smile. “Well, we were joking, but I said since this loser,” she stopped to flex a thumb at Chloe who promptly answered with a middle finger, “can’t go with me—or won’t, I should say—that maybe you would like to be my date for the night!”
Max stilled further. “Uh…what?”
“Hmm. Maybe she should,” Chloe said, placing an arm around Rachel’s shoulder. The other girl reciprocated, and they gave Max earnest, if somewhat creepy, smiles.
Chloe’s expression changed to one only Max could see, and one only Max would recognize.
Captain Cantankerous Chloe had a plan.
And Max was in it for the long haul.