Max used the tip of her finger to push the pencil off her desk.
She held out her hand. The world, as she was getting used to, blurred and reddened. Back on the desk it went for the…hundredth time? She had honestly lost count.
Her head ached, so she paused to recover for a few minutes. She was starting to see how this power worked. Or how it seemed to work. Like her, it needed time to breathe. It worked through her, her strength. At least, that’s what she assumed. With her short bursts of practice, she hadn’t had any nosebleeds, and nothing past a slight tension in her skull.
But still, there were the voices. Whispers of people she knew, trillings of days past, present, and possibly the future hiding in the crimson blur. It was all so strange. What did it mean? And more importantly…
‘How the hell can this be possible?’
Another unanswerable question stacked atop the infinite amount of others that had been filed away in the confines of her head. Yet still, more formed behind the interminable line. How long had it been since the music died down? How long since the swarm of intoxicated students could be heard filing in for the night? Were Nathan and Victoria among them, or were they lagging behind to get one last drink in? Like the number of times the pencil returned to her desk, she had lost count.
Or, maybe, no time had passed whatsoever.
But the surrounding silence said otherwise. No screaming, no bass, no flashing lights in her face. Just the bay back in its balance, the chitterings of frogs and crickets seeping through her open screen, and the breeze lazily turning her fan’s blades.
Everything was back to normal.
Normal. She almost laughed out loud. Instead, she settled for a wry half-smile. She found herself doing that a lot that night. Max sat, one hand holding up her head, eyes flicking to the plastic bag of Rachel’s borrowed, chlorine-soaked clothes.
It had been like a fever dream. One with an immense high and a horrible low. Whatever ‘novel’s worth of ingredients’ was in that glass that Nathan mentioned, she’d never know, and truthfully didn’t want to know. Why did people willingly choose to get drunk again? That was another question, and one to which she didn’t really want an answer. She groaned.
Her clammy fingers massaged one of her temples to advance its calm. And more questions formed in the line. How many students had recorded her and Victoria’s unprepared swim? Who was that man Rachel was with? How did she get so drawn in by the Vortex Club that she lost herself with Nathan and almost…
Max’s hand moved and covered her eyes, her cheeks flaring. She sighed, turned in her chair, and looked toward her bed. Her teddy bear stared back with his arbitrating, one-button eye
“I know,” she said to it, “I’m an idiot. The biggest idiot ever.”
In her personal abode, her cocoon of comfort, Max grazed her overflowing desk to look at the latest page of her open journal. A new entry was halfway started, setting incomplete with her personal foil and denial.
How does one’s life go from completely monotonous to completely fucked up in under 48 hours? No, really. I’d like to know. Because at this point, just about everything routine in my life has been turned upside down and slammed on its head. Hard.
On top of all this high school bullshit, there’s my weird visions, or whatever the hell they are, the nosebleeds and headaches, and…rewinding time.
It’s crazy, but it’s true.
Max scanned her slapdash penmanship, all the way down past her current misadventures—past her love/hate reunion with Chloe thus far, past her honest excitement about dressing up with Rachel, even past her roundabout understanding of the fact that she was literally a human time machine.
Where exactly do I start explaining? Even I don’t know everything that’s going on. Is there anything else I should add to my list of insanity for my return home?
Max squinted at her next sentence as if she’d been slapped across the face. Painfully.
Oh, yeah. How about adding almost kissing Nathan Prescott to that list?
Often, Max would add stickers, photographs, or scribble drawings next to her entries. For this addition, she stopped herself before getting that far, and proceeded to slam the tattered piece shut after reading the cringe-worthy truth.
It may have been dumb, but she promised to always be honest to herself in her journal, even if it was something she didn’t want to admit—not even to the silent lined pages that would never judge her.
‘If anybody ever saw this, what would they think?’
Somehow, the image of Nathan reading it came to mind, and his manic laughter followed. Then, he gave her a look of pity, saying more than his condescending voice ever could. Like it had all been a joke, and she was the walking definition of gullible. Her chest hurt at the thought.
Instead, Max thought about her visions and the eerie voices. She took another look at her hands, letting her eyes follow the creases of each palm. Her mind drifted, and she wondered if she should consult a psychic to give her a better reading of her future.
Max clamped her fingers down, hiding the lines, then moved her eyes over her phone. The black screen reflected some of the pale moonlight streaming through her window.
Chloe. Poor Chloe. She felt sick.
She answered Chloe not with a text message, but with an actual phone call. It rang two or three times before she answered. The silence on the other end confirmed they were already on the same level. It was time to focus on her best friend.
“Hey,” said Max.
“Hey,” said Chloe.
“You, uh…you want to meet up tomorrow? I can skip classes.” No beating around the bush. She figured this was more how Chloe would have wanted it, no matter the dread Max was carrying on her shoulders.
“I take it you found out something.”
Invisible imps pulled at the weights on her legs. She had grown used to them by this point. “I…y-yeah. Chloe. I…I’m so sorry.”
She didn’t know what else to say, and the silence that followed was tight, uncomfortable. And the Long Island she half-downed wasn’t settling well on her bubbling stomach.
“You still at the party?”
“N-no.” She was scared of her friend’s response, but she let the truth flow. “It was too overwhelming, a-and…I just wanted to get the info to you.”
“Max. It’s okay. You—” A sniffle cut the middle of her sentence. “You did what you could. I…”
She patiently waited for Chloe’s continuance, giving her time, but wanting nothing more than to be there with her. At least give her some form of physical support. Something more than this empty distance over the phone. Though, by now, Chloe must have thought that was Max’s specialty.
A half-smile came to Max’s lips. Again, she waited, sensing her friend’s words on the other end before she spoke.
“Were you able to see who it was?”
Max bit her lip. “I couldn’t really see clearly, but it was a guy, and definitely older than us. Not a Blackwell student.”
“Yeah. He…” Max trailed, remembering the shady domicile in which the man drove. “Do you know about that RV in Blackwell’s parking lot? It’s been there a while, and I think the guy owns it. They were hanging out by it together.”
A hollow static filled the air. It was long enough for Max to wonder if they had lost connection. She checked. Nope. They were still on the same line.
“That…doesn’t make sense.” There was an uneasy laugh behind her words.
Max’s eyebrow rose in query. “Huh?”
“The guy in the RV. What did he look like? Did he have blonde hair, look kind of skeevy? Did he also have a dog?”
“I—” She was struck. “Yeah. Wait. What the hell?”
“I know him. We know him. Rachel and me, I mean.”
Heart skipping, Max leaned forward. A friend of theirs? Maybe it was a misunderstanding on her part? If that were the case, she had let Chloe down. If she had gone back to the party, she may have learned more. Or maybe, the girls’ familiarity with the man was the facilitator to sealing the connection between Rachel and her mystery courtesan. Whatever the scenario, Max felt goosebumps rise and travel over her arms in waves.
“His name’s Frank Bowers.” A shamed sigh fed through the receiver. “He’s the guy we buy weed from every once in a while.”
“Why the hell is he hanging around Blackwell?” Max lightly raked her nails across her arms to stop their itching.
“A high school full of teens needing their fix? Why the hell not?” Chloe answered in a smarmy tone.
A drug dealer on campus? Max couldn’t believe it. Well, she could, but he wasn’t exactly an inconspicuous fellow in his out-of-place RV. “He sells to the students, too? And David hasn’t gone all commando on him?”
“Please. He’s Nathan’s club supplier. Meaning he’s got some kind of special exemption, I’m sure. And David’s just a security guard. It’s not like he’s a real cop who can lay the smack down on anyone—thank fuck. All he can do is stand around and bark. Like Frank’s mangy fleabag.”
And even if David went to the police, Max gathered, the Prescotts owned the force. Like they owned everything else in Arcadia Bay. Max scowled at the mention of Nathan’s family and his dealings. Plus, because of that other reason. Right. Yeah. That was stupid. She immediately pushed the thought away and cleared her throat. She had to stay focused.
“I don’t know. Rachel seemed to be cozying up to him pretty hardcore for just being an… acquaintance of yours.”
Another smidgen of silence came. Max took it in, but had to continue to rub her arms for warmth and comfort. It was more than strange when Chloe was speechless.
“It just doesn’t add up to what the letter said. Frank, wise and sophisticated? Pssh. No fucking way.”
“Maybe the letter was written a long time ago? Maybe now Rachel’s moved on from whatever she was feeling for whoever then? Maybe that’s why she threw it away.”
Chloe sighed. “I don’t know.” She paused. “Maybe.” Another pause. Max knew she was trying to find words. She gave up with a stifled, “Damn it! Nothing’s adding up!”
Max would second that, but there was a lot more to add on her end than she wanted to say at the time. Maybe it was inconsiderate, but as much as she wanted to help Chloe, she wanted to find out what was going on with herself.
Above all, she wanted to tell Chloe about her rewind power. In person.
“You want to talk more tomorrow?” Max asked, maybe a little too eagerly.
“Yeah. Definitely. Right now, I think I need to…think. You’re cool with skipping classes again?”
Glancing at her schedule hanging on one side of her closet, she spied the purple gel pen streaks across her morning hours—Ms. Hoida’s absence—and the other classes she probably couldn’t afford to miss, but after all that was going on…
“Totally cool with it.” Max took in a quiet breath and straightened herself in her chair. “What time should I be ready?”
“I’ll pick you up around noon. Or one…or two. Sometime. In the afternoon. Fuck. I don’t know.”
“We’ll play it by ear.”
“Sure. Okay. Thanks again, Max. We’ll figure this shit out. Together.” Without another spared second, the phone went dead.
“I’d like to figure my shit out…” Max sighed, relieved Chloe didn’t hear that selfish slip of the tongue.
It then hit Max. This would be the first time in five years she would be visiting the Price house. The first time in five years spending time with Chloe. Alone. A pleasant seed of warmth planted itself in her belly, flowered into her chest with pride.
The blip of a text message came through Max’s cell. The time code read a few minutes prior. It must have come through when she was on the line with Chloe earlier.
Max! I’m so sorry! I stepped out for some air. Too much to drink in too little time lol ^^’’ Dana told me what happened. Are you okay?
Max felt her anger suddenly cut through and try to pierce that warmth. It sparked like a match head. Too hot. She quelled it for her own sake.
Hey. It’s okay. I’m fine. I’m back in my dorm for the night. You enjoy yourself though, okay? Also, sorry about your clothes.
Don’t worry about them. It’s only clothes. I’m more worried about you. I’m sorry you got pushed in the pool. :(
I’m okay. I had a little bit of fun at the party otherwise!
To which Max had to wonder herself if that was the truth or the biggest lie she’d ever told in her life.
I had a warm shower and time to recover. I’ll TTYL, yeah? :)
She almost didn’t put the smiley, but typed it for good measure.
All right. You take care. Snuggle up and keep warm! You busted some impressive moves tonight and deserve a sit down! I’m glad you had fun! We’ll have to tell Chloe she missed out! Night!
An ‘ok’ hand sign and musical note emojis decorated the end of her sentence. It annoyed Max more than anything, like she rubbed salt in an open wound. Whatever excuse or lie Rachel came up with for her parents for that night, for Dana and Trevor, for the rest of Blackwell…
Another spark. ‘Chloe…’
Whatever the case, Max didn’t give a shit.
Yeah. Lol. Night.
Max let a growl fester at the back of her throat, hating herself, and wondering if she should have offered to go to Chloe’s that night. Not that she would have been in the right state of mind, but still. She had to stop herself from slamming down her cell phone. She just wanted some peace.
And some damn answers.
Max rolled the pencil off her desk again, this time letting it fall to the floor for good. She slumped in her chair and closed her strained eyes before a timid knock came to her door. The photographer lulled her head to the side toward the noise, unwilling to move.
“Max? It’s Dana. I have your bag.”
Throwing her weight forward, Max stood up and stretched, headed over and opened the door to retrieve her pack.
Dana gave her a smile. “Hey. How’re you doing?”
“Ohh, you know,” she said, putting on a smile of her own. More good measure to contest her miserable mood.
Dana’s expression reflected understanding with a raised corner of her mouth and brow. “Yeah. I get ya. Oh! These fell out of your pack, by the way.” She handed Max the photos she had taken at the lighthouse.
Max took a second to look them over. That day already seemed like eons ago. The mourning dove on Nathan’s truck was prominent on top of the stack. ‘Of course.’
Max took them and ran her thumb over the corner of the picture. “Thanks.”
“Not a problem. Didn’t want you to lose any of your pics. Your work is so awesome, you know that?”
That turned the wry half-smile to a genuine one in full blossom. It brought her back to the day that Mr. Jefferson complimented her Everyday Heroes photograph. And that thought brought about a whole new anxiety that she had to currently push away.
“You take care. Maybe we’ll get out to another party sometime. Maybe…the Halloween dance at the end of the month?” Dana said in a playfully pushy way.
Max scoffed, trying not to sound too annoyed, and shook her head. “Maybe.”
“Well, just let me know! I hope you get some sleep. Wish us luck tomorrow!”
Max nodded. “Good luck.”
Dana flashed a grin before turning to head back to her room. Max let her door gently shut, shuffling through the photographs afterward. She cycled back to the one with the dove. As she observed the picture, she swore she could hear its cry next to her ear.
With another shake of her head and a frustrated sigh, Max sat the pile on her desk, clicked off her lights, and wrapped herself in her comforter for the night.
Floodlights. Bass in his chest. Liquids at a constant decent down his throat. Solids dissolving on his tongue. He’s hot and cold, at a constant shift himself. Laughing at someone’s lewd joke to one side while another unknown individual clanks glasses with his in a trivial toast. Everyone’s vocals mix together in a disjointed harmony. Jargon and fodder in place of cruel, lonely reflections.
Another flash, and then a rumble. He looks up to DJ Doom. Above him a growth spawns, bubbling out, boiling into a heavy and gray shape. Light flickers from within it, and then lashes out like a whip, crashing to the stage below.
Then he’s sopping wet, dripping with freezing weight anew.
“Fuck!” His own voice startles him. His eyes widen and the rain invades them. He stops to wince, his feet unbalanced in wet sand.
He rubs his eyes. They hurt. “Fuck…” he says again, unable to find another word with witch to express himself in the moment.
How? Why? Where? He looks to the left. The beach. He’s on the beach. And the child is there with his mother, enjoying their stroll on the boardwalk. The storm! Why weren’t they running?
A beam of light glares through the cyclone in front of them—the lighthouse. He sees their familiar faces again. Blackwell students, the other residents of the bay, everyone. They’re all there, staring up at their inevitable fate. There’s so many. Too many to warn in time.
But they’re not moving. None of them are. Not even the mother and child. Like they’re all frozen in time. All but the light of Arcadia Bay’s beacon and the rain that soaking him to the bone.
And the tornado. At its core, Nathan sees where it meets the clouds. Red mixes with blue in a spiral. Down to the water it touches, deadly wisps conjoin and round one another. Greedily it steals the ocean and pieces of Arcadia for its growth, for its looming decent onto the small town.
Then there’s another giant form of movement. It’s to his left, in the waves. Whales. Their cries pierce through the howling wind, join the symphony of the storm before they crash beneath the surface. It’s a slow event, over and over, until the water fades back and they’re caught on the shore. Crying. Trapped.
The dark sand undulates beneath his feet until he’s met it face down with a gasp. Grains build on top of one another until they form fingers and fists that take over his pores. Gobbing up his mouth, he suffocates on them, sinks down before he can comprehend that he is alone in his struggle.
He calls out for help, but there’s just more sand.
And then, there’s darkness.
Nathan realized that he was in the middle of another nightmare when he awoke to a mouthful of plush, white sofa. Victoria’s sofa, to be exact.
“Neh…!” He wiped his tongue on the back of his sleeve. “Ugh!” That was undoubtedly a worse flavor.
Struggling to meet the demands of the sunlight through the girl’s open blinds, he waved his arm about until it hit a glass on her table. While it was near empty, the force he used caused some of its contents to slosh out. He brought it to his contracting eyes. Water? He sniffed it, put it to his lips and let it graze his taste buds. Water.
Nathan uncovered himself from the throw Victoria let him borrow and sat up. Drinking the tame and merciful liquid, he swished it in his dried mouth. The sour mixtures evened out before he swigged them down with a gag.
Afterward, he flopped back on the couch, arm over his sweaty brow as he steadied his breathing. He was still in his party attire. He must have stumbled back to Victoria’s room with her after things slowed down.
He looked at his watch that had now made an unattractive imprint on his wrist. Peeking beneath it was points of smeared ink. He frowned. He knew what it was and furiously ignored it, focusing on the time—10:47 AM.
Nathan tightened his jaw. He’d already slept through the majority of his morning class. And he wasn’t planning on going to the others with the way he felt. It didn’t matter to him. He had other things on his mind. Such as his and Jefferson’s plans to go over his negatives.
He calmed, physically feeling his tension ease as his body re-sank into the white cushions. Stilling, he laid his arms across his stomach and stared up at the ceiling. As long as he kept like this, he told himself, he could get through this hangover. Maybe.
However, the dull quiet of the room didn’t ease his hundreds of thoughts that were increasing to hyperdrive, like always. It was the same every time he opened his eyes. He contemplated going back to sleep, but he had things to do. And so he stewed. What was that phrase he adapted? ‘Drink to forget, wake to regret.’ Right. Check.
Though he had to admit, whether it was ironically sad or a blessing in disguise, that after leaving Max at the dorms, he didn’t remember much to regret. Oh, things happened. Party things. Things that were considered routine by this point in his life. Nothing really jumped out at him that told him he was more of a fuck-up than he already knew he was.
Except that thing. And then that other thing. All the damn things that involved her. A repeated playlist from hell.
And then that one thing from last night. His lips pulled up in a cringe.
“I need brain floss.” He inhaled at his own random remark, let the air fill his cheeks, held it, and let it go with a groan until he strained for more oxygen.
Nathan then lifted his eyes to glance around his friend’s room. Of course, Victoria had already gone, but he’d noticed she’d left him a few snacks and drinks on her desk, mainly crackers and juice. Something to dry the acid pit that was his stomach and give him energy. There was a note taped to one of the bottles with his name in clear view.
He rolled his eyes at her predisposition to mother-hen him to death before shifting upward. Wobbly, and bogged down by an assortment of gross sensations, he headed toward the desk. Below his name in large print was more of Victoria’s handwriting.
Figured you’d be staying in today. Don’t forget to take your medicine and eat with them. Hopefully these won’t agitate your tummy. I was partial to the cheese and peanut butter ones myself this morning. Text me later, okay?
Nathan turned up his mouth. “My ‘tummy?’ Jesus, Victoria.” He felt his cheeks redden before catching himself in her circular wall mirror. His expression dropped. Oh.
The dark circles under his eyes were in full tinge. His lips were cracked and dry. And, shit, was that a shade of lipstick on the side of them? Purplish and dark. Not bright and scarlet red like Victoria’s. A good thing. But…not…? He shouldn’t be this surprised.
Or this scared.
He spun around and ran one hands through his mess of hair and caked product, the other rapidly across his mouth. He felt it chafe and swell with heat, resisting the urge to bring it away and carry his already-cracked knuckles to his reflection.
He wished he’d fallen asleep in his own room. There was pain sinking into his arms. He wanted to get back. He had to.
So he ran. Up and out without any food or drink, past several disgruntled girls—thankfully, none of them her—and back to the boy’s section of the dormitories. There, several guys bombarded him in sarcastic bouts of congratulation or whoops of what an excellent time they all had. It all drained into a wearisome mass of noise.
He wished he could remember something past that fuck up with her—with Max. She had a damn name. ‘Use it, asshole!’
He scowled. He didn’t mean to…he just… ‘Fucking—!’
Nathan struggled to find another semblance of a memory, but he couldn’t. There was only black.
More pain, and now the trembling. He knew how this went, and hated every second of it. Nathan jiggled the handle to his room. Locked, of course. He patted his pockets, feeling the passerby’s eyes all on him, licked his lips in frustration, and sorted through his keys with difficult precision. For a second, he thought he heard someone ask if he needed help. He didn’t trust it.
Finally lurching into his door, Nathan held it, kept close, and shut it as fast as possible. It hurt to breathe, and his mouth began to salivate. He wasn’t going to make it without throwing up. And so, he did a giant stride forward, grabbed his garbage can, and went through the accustomed ritual all over again. Nathan expelled his innards and, post purge, sprayed his garbage with a random fragrance he often wore. There was a bottle nearby, and he was desperate, falling onto his bed afterward and wiping his watery eyes. Now that section of the room smelled like cologne and vomit. Wonderful.
He chuckled to himself. He didn’t know why he found it all so funny. It was pathetic.
He was pathetic.
He already told himself he had a schedule to keep. The first clear thought he had: A shower. All he knew for sure was that he needed another shower. Or did he already have one? After all, he was in a rainstorm. In his nightmare, that is. Nathan laughed aloud again.
Another one with that cyclone. How many had this been? For a second, he actually thought about contacting his psychiatrist personally on the matter. To ask him what the hell was in this new medication to make him have such insane dreams. Recurring ones at that.
Nathan proceeded to swallow his laughter. What was going on at Blackwell was pushed to the side to once again think about the journal in his father’s office. The illustrations within, like someone had entered his nightmares and drawn what he was seeing. He shivered. His anxiety grew like a stubborn weed. It wasn’t like asking Dr. Jacoby would help him anyway. He could remember having the dreams before, when he was younger. Still, they were never this intense. They were never this real.
An idea formed, caused an adrenaline spike. He could go back home and investigate. Maybe. Or not. He needed to go back to the estate to avoid Blackwell’s crowded shower rooms anyway, but…
He took a strained breath. Yeah. That sounded reasonable enough. He could go home, clean up, and get done what he needed to get done away from the prying eyes of Blackwell. And maybe look at that journal again. Maybe. As much as he hated that damned house, at least he’d have something to focus on to ignore the somersault of shit on his mind. And, knowing his parents were gone, he would have the place to himself. He could work in the empty estate and sort the negatives he wanted to present to…Mark…without interruption.
Calling his professor by his first name. Though they knew each other for a while now, it was still new for him. Jefferson…Mark…
“Mark Jefferson.” He murmured. Through all of the man's admirers and groupies, he was the one who had him as a temporary mentor. A privilege for himself, as it should be. He smirked.
It was decided. Even Nathan had to admit it was better than wallowing alone in his room until the two were to meet. When was that again? He figured Mark would let him know, keeping his secondary phone close. He was set. Fuck the rest of this school.
‘And screw Max Caulfield and her bullshit.’ While Nathan said it to himself with outward assurance, he felt differently on the inside. However, he’d never admit it, and pushed the thought of her away.
After resting a little longer, Nathan changed clothes and made himself somewhat more presentable. He then gathered his belongings and loaded them and himself into his truck after a loathsome walk of shame around the backside of the school and parking lot. Soon, after a slow and methodical drive, he found himself back at the large retracting gate, pulling into the gravel roundabout of the Prescott estate.
Today, there was another vehicle in the lot. It was parked by the other building on the grounds, situated near the cliff’s edge. The empty guesthouse. It was a stark contrast to the white mansion across the circular drive with its wooded exterior. It resembled more of a large and fancy cabin. When was the last time it had been used? Nathan had no idea.
He remembered times when he and his sister would sneak over to it in the middle of the night. Sometimes to sleep in the hotel-like bedrooms when Sean was in a particularly foul mood, sometimes to secretly hook up their video game systems to the extravagant den’s big screen television, or sometimes to head down the stairs on the side to a tiny peninsula to skip rocks in the ocean. Just him and Kristine. It was sad, he thought, that it felt homier than their actual home. He hadn’t set foot inside in years. Nathan’s head ached, and the feeling travelled down his arms and into his chest, into his heart.
Triggering his nostalgia had been one of the housekeeper’s cars. He spied a female figure through one of the front windows. The woman was within, cleaning the shareable kitchen. Nathan let her go about her business, having none with her of his own. And damn her anyway for making him remember the past, for making him remember better times.
He flinched internally. ‘Better times? Right. Not.’
Nathan put his truck in park and slammed its door, briefly pausing to recoil at the harsh action before entering the main house. The cold and empty foyer greeted him once again. Everything remained the same. It had remained this way for years. An overwhelming sense of déjà vu struck him across all senses. Almost in a floating fashion, Nathan took the same path as before to the upper floor, past his sister’s room to his. He obtained new clothes, took a silent shower, and cleaned himself up, staring in a comatose fashion at his pallid reflection in the oversized bathroom mirror. Finally, he bobbed his way back down the stairs to the mansion’s main vestibule.
And there, he stood, under the grand chandelier to which he slowly, stoically glanced. Fractors of light bounced off its crystal ornaments. They looked like broken pieces of glass littering the walls and floor. The striking pieces of white light glimmered in a rhythm. Some shorter than others, some longer. Short, long, short, short, long. Short. Long. So on, and so on. Kind of like Morse Code. He didn’t know why he thought of it that way, but in that moment, that’s what made the most sense.
Nathan brought the towel back to his hair and ruffled it to break out of his state, letting it down only to allow his eyes graze toward Sean’s office. It got his full attention in no time; his father’s desk had been organized, wiped clean, like the mess before was never there.
A sharp breath left him as he marched into the room without curb. No mess of papers. No map with dark marks.
Nathan grit his teeth, mouthing a curse, wondering what had happened. His father should have been out of town on business. Katherine should be with him. One of the helpers, maybe?
Or, his eyes widened with a scary realization, maybe there never was a journal. Maybe he had imagined the whole thing. A sad and sinking feeling grabbed hold of his insides.
“No,” he said aloud. That couldn’t be. It had to have been there somewhere! Things didn’t just grow legs and walk away!
He stopped. Why was he in such a panic over it? What did it have to do with him? He had better things to do, like get his negatives ready to present to Mark.
For another second, Max popped into his head. ‘NO.’
The drawings. His nightmares. His curiosity had piqued, got the better of him, and it was rapidly being replaced with annoyance as he began tugging at each of the desk’s handles. Nothing recognizable or of substance was in any of drawers. He abruptly slammed his fists down with an unexpected cry. It echoed amongst the wooden bookshelves and empty space. With his action, a plastic cup rattled and spilled several pens over the dark, polished surface of the wood. One rolled forward over the fastened calendar in its center—one of the Pan Estates pens. That only made Nathan angrier.
He grabbed the cup and chucked it at a bookshelf, relieving it of its other contents, them and the latter clattering to the floor. Nathan shuddered with another gasp, stopping mid-motion to not destroy anything else lest he face Sean’s wrath. He held his arms out in front of him as he slowly lowered himself into his father’s chair. Flexing his fingers, he took a reprieve from the world around him.
Everything was the same. Everything had stayed the same. Nothing was going to change. He was stuck. Why did he even bother thinking otherwise? His head fell into his hands as he slumped forward, a sob sneaking through his rage. Nathan bit the inside of his mouth, continued to gnaw at the flesh until he tasted blood. He pushed back his hair with such force that his nails grazed his scalp. It hurt, but he didn’t let up.
Then, on the floor and under the desk, he spied a corner of an envelope. The betwixt and between feeling of interest and fear stopped him internally, but his body moved outwardly without hesitance. Nathan dragged the piece out, eyes widening once again. It was the envelope he had found in the journal. To his surprise, the photograph of the man and woman remained inside. He puled it out and re-inspected it. Same figures on Arcadia’s beach, same foreign female handwriting and minor hint—J&S ~ 1989—scribbled on the back.
A rush of air from the front door opening caused Nathan to freeze and look up. For a second, he saw his father in the doorway, a look of unalloyed fury shadowing the hollows behind his lenses. Nathan squeezed his eyes shut and back open to an empty space. Sean wasn’t there. He was okay. He was safe. And without any more reluctance, Nathan shoved the photo into his jacket pocket.
Relief detained him, even if agitated, finding that the intruder was the housekeeper from before. She had a heavy bucket of cleaning supplies in one hand, a vacuum in the other. Under one of her arms was a roll of paper towels. She gasped and let it all fall in the foyer with an audible groan. The moment she looked in Sean’s office and saw Nathan, she started with a short cry.
“Good Lord above, Mr. Prescott! The least you could do is say hello and not scare me out of my wits!” She breathed in, hand on her chest. “I saw you pull up, but I didn’t think you’d be right here when I came in!” She let out a lighthearted laugh, regaining her posture.
Nathan stayed quiet, thinking. What was her name again? There were so many people that came and went in and out of employment in the household that Nathan couldn’t keep up. The woman’s strawberry-blonde hair was falling out of its frazzled bun as she threw her robust figure forward. She headed toward one of the downstairs closets to return some of the equipment.
“Did you clean my dad’s office?” He asked, not wasting any more time on figuring out formalities.
“Pardon?” She finished and patted herself down. Her black shirt and pants were doing her no favors in hiding herself from lingering dust and cobwebs. The guest house must have been a chore and a half to keep tidy.
“This…room.” The woman was looking at him dead on. He averted his eyes to the carpeted mosaic below. “There were papers and stuff here. Did you put it all away?”
Her mouth creased. “Not me in particular. I think either Olivia or Paul may have yesterday afternoon. They were scheduled for cleaning and maintenance upon request from your father. Did you need something in particular, Mr. Prescott?”
Nathan didn’t know either of those people. Hell, he didn’t know who she was. And he wasn’t about to ask her about the journal, fearing Sean’s ultimate reaction to his son’s impulsive interest. He was sure his inquiries wouldn’t go untold to the Prescott patriarch.
“Nevermind.” Nathan frowned, sucking in his lower lip in disappointment. Additionally, he wished they wouldn’t call him ‘Mr. Prescott.’ One of his arms came up to scratch the other.
The woman frowned and raised her brows. “Anything I can do for you at all, sir?”
Several seconds of awkward silence formed between the two before the woman sighed. “All right. I’m off, then.”
Nathan nodded, and the lady gathered her frock and was gone within minutes. He didn’t blame her. He never did get her name, though. Not that he actually cared. All he cared about was that damn journal.
Sinking back into Sean’s chair, Nathan brought out the photograph and gave it yet another lookover, glad that he didn’t crease the fragile thing. Both of the people in the picture looked familiar the more he stared at it, but where had he seen them before? Memories poked the back of his brain, but the more he gazed, the more fuzzy they became, especially when it came to the woman.
“J and S…?”
His tongue slid over his teeth again in thought. What was this feeling? Apprehension or excitement? And why was he feeling excited if the latter were the case? Why was he feeling the former if vice versa? Nathan knew for a fact one thing he was feeling: confusion. And he had gotten so used to this confusion, it was hard to sort through it all to truly care about anything.
“Quite the conundrum,” Nathan could hear his father say. Always in that patronizing tone he loved to use on him.
“Fuck off,” Nathan spat with a growl in his throat. He slouched in the chair, one hand on his head, the other thumbing the mysterious photo, and sighed in defeat.
So, that was it, then. The end of this little venture. Stopped before it had even started. Nathan was used to that, too. And yet, the disappointment swirled within. He contemplated putting the photograph back in the envelope and back under the desk where he’d found it. Less evidence that he’d discovered anything. Still, he held onto it, put it back in his pocket. Fuck it. If anyone asked, Nathan would plead the Fifth.
Afterwards, he fixed up his father’s desk, replacing the cup of pens. Thankfully, he didn’t do any other damage, and felt the consequent heat of shame invade his person. He got lucky. The situation could have resulted in more impairment had he not taken a breather.
Nathan stood a moment longer within the quiet domain. He thought he should get going, work on staging his negatives. He grabbed his bag by the front door. Retrieving his materials, Nathan spread them out on the kitchen’s marble island. The large windows invited the morning sun to give him natural light. Good. The overhead lamps combined with the open, high ceiling tended to give him a headache, and he was still partially recovering from his hellish night.
Thinking about that only reminded him that he was thirsty…and hungry. His stomach gave an audible grumble the second he thought about food, and he huffed, deciding to obey its command. Upon opening and closing the stainless steel fridge’s double doors, at a speed that caused the shelf contents to shake and rattle, Nathan grimaced. Katherine’s surf and turf concoction she made, and that he thankfully missed, was still inside as leftovers. He stretched his hands out, backing away. The stench alone nearly had him doubled over like in the dorms. Instead, Nathan settled for a couple chocolate-dipped granola bars in one of the cupboards above the sink.
‘Shit. How long have these been in here? Kristine used to scarf these things by the box. And then she’d bitch about getting fat. Idiot.’
Regardless, Nathan ate them, and they tasted fine. He thought, perhaps, like Twinkies, they could survive the times, even through nuclear fallout. Or however the hell that rumor went. And, whether it was out of sympathy for Victoria, or to keep the girl from getting on his case later, Nathan took his prescriptions. At least there was the somewhat stale flavor of chocolate and oats to cover up their taste, all downed with good ol’ Arcadia tap water. It was better than nothing.
Taking a seat on one of the island’s stools, Nathan began sorting. Traditional negatives went in the binder’s plastic sleeves, while digital photographs remained on his camera with markings for print. He fell into a rhythm, cutting the rolls of film with agonizing precision. After half an hour of that, Nathan figured he still had a number of digital pictures to choose from. So, the teen took his camera and began clicking through his collection once again.
The mother and child cycled back to its display. He stopped, his expression taut. The storm flickered in his peripherals. Nathan spun around, and the dun dipped behind a cloud, shadowing him in an ominous darkness. He felt his stomach drop with a zap of fear, and chuckled when the beams of light returned in the cloud’s passing. A dismal rather than lighthearted action with the reverie storm on his mind. Back to his camera he looked. Nathan told himself he’d come back to that particular photo, wanting to not think about…
And with the click of the button, he was back to the dead doe.
Nathan facepalmed. “I just can’t fucking win. Jesus.” He sat back and rubbed his head, pausing his progress.
The sun dipped behind another cloud, and he was once again eclipsed in the temporary darkness. He shivered. The creaking of the estate didn’t help.
Though, he noticed, the more he sat on his thoughts, the less the house calmed. Nathan stopped and listened, even going so far as to cock his head and lessen his breathing to further focus on the sound.
There was a steady noise at a distance. Muffled. It was coming from above, from upstairs. There were patterns he’d gotten used to in the home over the years. Rattling windows with strong winds, branches of trees brushing against the siding of the mansion, and skitterings of animals that had burrowed their way into the attic or crevices of the home’s foundation. But this was new. He would know.
It was… ‘Footsteps?’
Now, Nathan wasn’t breathing. His eyes widened, darting this way and that at the ceiling while his ears remained ever open. The rhythm of the creaks and thumps, it was unmistakably footsteps.
But he was the only one in the house.
Did someone else come in when he wasn’t looking? No. He wasn’t that checked out…was he?
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Nathan swallowed, but the lump that had formed wasn’t going down. And the haunting rhythm wasn’t stopping.
He finally took in a slow and much-needed breath, his eyes vision continuing to stay toward the ceiling. Carefully, he slid off the stool, following the sound to a heavier beat above the foyer. His mouth contorted. Above him now would be the manor’s old study. It had long since been turned into a spare storage room. What’s more, that room was off limits, even to the hired help. And it was always kept locked.
Nathan’s head felt like it was filling with helium, his feet no longer touching the ground with the lightheadedness, but floating, hovering above the floor’s surface. The flight or fight response inside him seemed to go numb with the level of dread he was experiencing. Nevertheless, his form moved forward to the staircase. When his hand fell on its newel, he realized just how much he wanted to know who—or what—was up there. His feet began falling lightly up each and every step, igniting Nathan’s impatience, but furthering his interest.
Thud. Thud. ThUD. THUD.
Faint and muffled, but there, the sound mixed with his heavy heartbeat. As unreasonable as it sounded, Nathan was afraid all the unknowns would be able to hear his every move. He feared they would kill him. He had to stop and grip the wooden railing, the sweat on his palm hot, causing an imprint on the varnish. The other was clenched tight into a fist.
Through the fear, he felt a strange elation. No amount of partying with the Vortex Club had ever made him feel this rushed. Or maybe he just couldn’t pinpoint a time because he was constantly putting himself into a state of oblivion. Though, if it meant avoiding this feeling, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. He winced at his stray thoughts. Anything to distract himself. Though, maybe that distraction was more of a distraction than he wanted. Distraction-ception.
‘Inception. That movie was a mindfuck.’ He sighed, reproving his tangent, ‘Shut up, Nathan.’ He was trying to be as nonchalant as possible, despite his heart mimicking a jackhammer.
The study door would be close, would be the first door he would come across. It was one he pretended not to be there. It would be the first time in…forever, now that he thought about it, that he acknowledged the room at all.
The last time he had been in the study was when he was a child whilst playing a game of hide-and-seek with Kristine. Their grandmother had found and scolded the both of them after they made a mess of the boxes and books. Their father was absolutely furious. That evening had been one of the nights when they snuck over to the guesthouse. She and Nathan drew pictures under an old oil lamp’s light in the den. Kristine talked about their mother for a while. Nathan recalled her doing so with a sad expression. He never tried to reenter the study.
THUD. THUD. TH—
Nathan reached the landing, and the thumping came to a sudden stop. It was like whatever was there had sensed his presence, making the teen even more apprehensive and filled with disbelief. He squinted, listening for anything else, pushing all his memories and other intruding thoughts to the back of his mind. His hand was still gripping the railing, as if it would save him if anything happened.
But…there was nothing.
Nathan pushed himself to move, foregoing the railing for capricious courage. The carpet squished below his feet, feeling like it would devour him, like the sand in his nightmare. He grasped just how much he was starting to shake again, but continued nevertheless.
‘What the hell am I doing? This is how stupid people in horror films get fucking killed!’
The study’s door was shut. Nathan stood in front of it, still waiting for the footsteps to resume. When they didn’t, the rush he had gotten began to fade into more self-doubt. This couldn’t have been his imagination. He willed it not to be. He didn’t want to do this, to go through this second-guessing session that he did every day with himself.
He reached for the doorknob, let his palm rest on the cool brass, and turned it.
It was unlocked.
He let go with a small gasp and it clicked back into place with his start. Impossible. The only way this could be was if he had the key. Otherwise, it could only be opened from the other side, and it automatically locked once shut. Nathan reached out again, abandoning all restraint, and turned the knob. No resistance.
He then threw the door open in one fell swoop. A long groan resulted from the action as it fell unto a blazing brightness. He was draped in sunlight through the arched window, cloaked as a silhouette in the frame. When his eyes adjusted, he was faced with several piles of boxes, filing cabinets, an old desk with an ornate lamp, and numerous books forgotten on the Victorian-esque shelves that lined the walls. There were even more books in stray piles combined with framed photographs and pre-purchased, decorative paintings. A number of fake plants clogged up another corner of the study. Lastly, Nathan observed some old sheets covering what looked to be tripod mounts of some kind against the far wall next to the window.
Everything was caked in layers of dust. Alone, the door flying open caused a mini squall to stir. The particles scattered in the light. Nathan scanned the room, but there was no sign of life, save for the shadow of a frightened spider in the corner of the window. It was eerily quiet now. He stepped into the room, the floor giving way beneath his weight with a groan. There was unease in his every move. If his father had come home now…
‘Don’t think about it,’ he stopped to tell himself.
He tried the switch for the overhead dome light, but it wouldn’t turn on. He figured the bulb must have long burned out, and the sunlight was bright enough for his small investigation, anyway. Not that an investigation was really needed. There was no one in the room. There was nothing. Somewhere, he wished it were otherwise. Then he wouldn’t be as crazy as everyone thought he already was. At the very least, he could dress his wounded pride in private and satiate his curiosity.
On the elapsed desk were more boxes and some old-fashioned milk crates filled with albums, folders, and other knick-knacks. He sauntered over to them, hands in his pockets from the chill in the air. There was a carousel music box sticking up past some of the other pieces. It was sea-themed, with an array of blue and green hues for the different creatures of the deep and the fading decals. Nathan’s expression softened. It had to have been his from when he was a baby. He just knew, could feel it.
He picked it up and winced when some of the ornaments began jangling about. It created a bigger tension than he wanted, and he felt ridiculous, like someone was laughing at him for playing with such childish things and waxing nostalgia. An annoyed sound stuck in his throat as he reluctantly put it back in its place.
When he pivoted his feet, his heel struck a box that led into a small domino effect. It headed toward some metal pieces against the bottom portion of the mounts next to the window. They fell with several loud clanks! Nathan recoiled again, so much so that his shoulders came up on guard. The moment passed and he relaxed, rolling his eyes with a muttered curse. Nathan scooted past more debris and toward the mess, and rested them back on the leg from which they slid. The sun made out some words on one of the plaques. He paused to lift it, contemplating just what it was: a nameplate of some sort. He presumed it was for an art piece. Quickly glancing up and down at the tripods’ guarding cloths, Nathan recognized the shape underneath. It was an easel. His brows fixed together as he read the etching.
Aritst: Joseph Arthur Prescott
He stopped, staring off for a moment. Joseph Prescott? Nathan further paused on the thought. Along with the citations of their mother, Kristine would often mention him in their ventures, too. He was their uncle, his father’s older brother. He had unfortunately passed away a year before Nathan was born. Nathan didn’t pay much attention to the explanations as to how, because he honestly hadn’t cared. Kristine would often express how she wished he could have met their uncle. Now, for Nathan, Joseph was just another family member lost amongst the others. He was dead. That was all there was to it. It was a part of life. Why should he care?
And yet, Nathan understood that Joseph would have been in the position he was in now. His uncle would have been the one to carry the family’s name as well as being the eldest son. Then that ‘honor’ had been passed to his father. Now to him. Now, Nathan was supposed to be the one to care about the future of the Prescott family, be its backbone with little to no prior knowledge of his forefathers, save for their subsequent conquest of Arcadia Bay.
‘Conquest…right.’ He sneered, the well-known frown returning to his face. He then felt a pang of sadness. Maybe it would have been nice to have met Joseph. Hell, it even looked like he was a bit of an…artist…
Nathan felt a shudder go down his spine and his blood ran cold.
He returned the etching to its pile and roughly grabbed the sheet of the first easel. Jerking it to the side, a heap of dust followed the new pattern formed in the air. Nathan uncovered a large painting.
It took a moment for it to take shape in the strong sunlight, and Nathan was busy waving away the air so as not to breathe in anything. Then, the scene on the canvas came into full view.
Nathan’s mouth came ajar and his stomach dropped to the floor.
The composition was made from a suffocating worm’s-eye view. A bright red blotch took up a large part to one side. It was a vehicle. A truck. A street lamp was constructed to the other side giving the scene dramatic, pale lighting. Flecks of paint mimicked the conveyance of rain. It was dark. There were puddles with reflections on the ground. Definitely rain.
At the front of it all, amongst swirls of browns and reds, was the dead doe he knew all too well. It’s neck sickeningly cracked to the side, innards spilling out in a bloody mess. Hovering above it, a shadowy figure held something. It was a camera. The white strokes of the instrument taken mid-flash blocked out any real features of the photographer. Another shadow stood to the side, further back by the truck, keeping a safe distance in a cowering fear.
Nathan was glued to the spot. He observed further. In the background lamplight, another doe was painted. It stood, almost menacingly, watching the scene with its heavy, black eyes. It was hardly there, blending in with the colors of the background and the darkness, purposefully incomplete. It was see-through.
It was the ghost doe.
Nathan was already cold. Cold and scared. He only grew colder when he noticed he truck’s license plate. It had numbers. They were gestural, but they were there. He recognized them. They were his.
It was his truck.
Nathan’s eyes, wide and afraid, were moving too fast for his brain to catch up. His breathing became erratic and he stumbled backward into a tower of more boxes. Trying to catch his grip only resulted in his hands landing on loose piles of books and pictures, scattering them to the ground. He heard a whimper, but only reasoned that it was himself, hyperventilating and desperately trying to claw his way out of this hell without success from an uncooperative body. Fight or Flight had thawed and kicked in, and his wings were tangled.
He pushed up from the wooden floor, ignoring the scratches and scrapes he’d gotten in the process, balanced himself on the door, and launched out from the study. He buffeted against the wood paneling on the opposite wall, and slid down. His shoulder and side of his head hurt from the impact, but the pain was dulled from pure terror. His whole being shook as he fell in on himself, squeezing and covering his eyes between sobs. The tears had begun to flow at this point, but he wasn’t acknowledging them, or anything around him. It was just him and the painting in a closing corridor of darkness. He buried his head in his arms as he sat on the floor, curling into a defensive ball.
He tried to calm down, but it was near impossible. ‘What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck?!’
Through watery eyes, Nathan looked back into the room, catching another glimpse of the macabre piece. It wasn’t disappearing. No matter how many times he twisted his wrists or squeezed and wiped his eyes, the painting remained.
That was his truck. That was him. Him and…
“Max…” His voice was choked, like an invisible force was strangling him.
He sat in the growing quiet, mouth dry and quaking all the way to his toes. His head fell back, a heavy sound resonating in the sunlit hall. Nathan twisted his features, feeling physical pain from his personal implosion. His vision honed into the painting once again, the dark corridor slowly dissipating as he pushed himself to stand and reenter the room.
Nathan placed his hand on the piece. The texture of the paint and canvas brought his cells to life. The scrapes he’d gotten pulsed and burned. It was real.
The painting was real, and its artist was dead.
There were more covered pieces, but Nathan refused to look at them. He just…couldn’t. He re-covered the one and fixed the mess he’d caused to the best of his ability. As he did so, he could feel every cell inside hum with unease. He then backed out of the room and shut the door. Quietly, carefully, and with the fear of it all bearing down on his shoulders, Nathan turned the knob for a final time. It resulted in the resistance that should have been there all along. The door was locked.
And Nathan was on his way out in a scramble. Booking it down the stairs, he nearly tumbled outside. The fresh air hit him and the heavy atmosphere dispersed into weight anew. He couldn’t do this, didn’t want to do this. There couldn’t have been any connection. It was a coincidence.
‘That’s one hell of a coincidence, you fucking idiot,’ he could hear himself say. And he was right, no matter how condescending his own inner voice sounded.
What had he just found?
Another sob snuck is way to the surface of his throat. He swallowed it back, his hand actually coming to his mouth, migrating upward to wipe sweat off his brow. His hands were still dirty and scraped, just more proof of what just took place. Nathan curled his fingers to hide them away.
He wasn’t in the study. He didn’t find that painting. That photo meant nothing. All of this meant nothing and no one was watching him through a providential eye. Not even he could will himself out of it.
Nathan got in his truck and started the engine, glancing one last time to the room’s arched window. His hand slipped into his pocket. The photo was still there. He took in another long breath and brought it out, hating himself more as he did so.
J&S. J…for Joseph? S…for someone.
Nathan looked long and hard at the man’s features. He’d only seen a couple photographs and family paintings of his uncle in his time, and it had been years ago. And Sean, ever-looking toward the future, buried the past as fast as humanely possible to make way for his own agenda, the Prescotts’ agenda. It was like the man didn’t even care about his kin. Though, Nathan didn’t find that hard to believe in the slightest.
Nathan’s heart skipped, and he put the photo back in his pocket once more. His secondary phone began to ring in its stead. ‘Right. Calm down.’
He answered, his voice still a bit shaky. “Hello?”
A confused hum on the other end was followed by, “Hello. Nathan? You okay?”
Nathan nodded to himself, but realized, of course, Jefferson couldn’t see him. It lead into a quick head shake and a vocal reply. “Yeah. Are you?”
“I’m doing well. But, you don’t sound like yourself.”
And what exactly did he sound like to him? “Tired. Hungover.” It wasn’t entirely a lie, but he recoiled after a slight chuckle from Jefferson nonetheless.
“That’s no surprise after last night.”
“Yeah. I, uh, got a bit…yeah.”
“And you were quite rude.” Nathan could hear the swishing of what sounded like water in the background. “I told you I couldn’t be around to supervise all night.”
Nathan sighed inwardly and rubbed his forehead. There was more sweat. Cold sweat. “I…I’m sorry.” Oh, how he had to push that one out. “It was a fu—screwed up night.”
“You should be, considering I’m dedicating a portion of my time to allow you a choice for your future, hm?”
What a way to say it. Like the portentous prick he could be. Nathan frowned. He forced a sigh this time. “Yeah. Whatever you say.”
There was a satisfactory sound from him before he proceeded. “I say don’t beat yourself up about it, Nathan.”
The teen raised a brow at the change of his tone.
Jefferson continued, “While you were inebriated and coarse, I can tell you that I get it. I understand. I was your age once. And I was no saint. Some would probably say I’m still not. There were days when…hm. Let’s just say those were some interesting times.”
“You don’t say.” He acted bored as his professor rattled on.
“But now I’m beginning to sound like the old man that I am. Anyway, what’s past is past. Best to look forward.”
The professor let out another chuckle. The way he pronounced his words was infused with that endearing and mysterious lilt of his. Still, Nathan figured it was just the way he was. He’d been that way for as long as he’d known him. At least he had some tact with putting things behind him, unlike his dad. He shrugged it off.
“Right. So, about my photos…”
“Your call. I’m free for the night, so, you say the word and I’ll be around. It sounds to me like you might need a few more hours to yourself.”
It was strange, but Nathan couldn’t help but feel a smile tug at the corner of his lips. He stuttered, stupidly feeling the start of tears in his eyes again. “T-thanks. I still need some time to print some others, but tonight’s still good.”
“Now that I think about it,” Jefferson started, his tone switching to one more breathy and free, “later this evening sounds for the best.”
“Okay?” Nathan had never heard him sound like that. It was a bit disconcerting. It was as if Jefferson had sipped a fine wine and immersed himself in a comfortable high. Nathan glanced at the dash clock. “Eight or nine? Maybe?”
“Perfect.” More watery sounds came through the receiver, followed by a flap of paper. Nathan wondered what Jefferson was doing, but didn’t ask.
“Uh…all right. I’ll see you then.”
And then the line went dead. Nathan held the receiver close to his ear still, slowly bringing it away and staring at it like it was a foreign object. He put the truck in drive and made his way around the old oak. He looked again at the empty guesthouse, and for another millisecond, thought of Kristine.
Maybe, he thought, he could talk to her about all this. She knew more about…
A wind whipped up, and some of the leaves fell to the ground. A hissing slunk through and shook the oak, as if it was angered.
Nathan closed his eyes. “What’s past is past.”
All of this was nothing. Or…
“Listen to Arcadia Bay.”
He weighed the sentences in his mind, like it was necessary. Maybe it was necessary. He didn’t like this. Everything felt heavy. What was that painting? What did the others look like? They were like the journal. Was that Joseph’s, too? It had to be his. What the hell happened to him? Nathan couldn’t remember how he died, what his dad had said, or his sister.
It was Nathan’s undoing as questions and worries built upon each other. They never stopped, were clustered additions to the others in a constant beat of maddening repetition within the despondent teen. They followed him all the way on the drive back to Blackwell. He didn’t know what to do, and felt like crying again.
“Stop. Just fucking stop,” he said to himself in his rearview mirror. He looked away quickly, fearing the black eyes again.
Nathan gathered his things—his duffle slung over one arm, a binder and notebook under the other—making sure he didn’t make a mess of himself. He straightened the creases in his clothes and ran a comb through his fluffed hair beforehand, slicking it back down to its coif. There were some students in the lot, and he swore they were whispering about him when some took notice of his presence.
It was like they knew. Like they had seen the painting, too.
‘Ignore them. Go to the dorms. Walk away.’
Nathan held his possessions close, the sweat on his hands returning. He didn’t like this. He didn’t like any of this.
He didn’t like this feeling!
Passing by the bench that overlooked the Tobanga, Nathan made an abrupt stop. He wondered why he felt the strong need to pause as his eyes scanned every crease and crack in the sidewalk. They followed the border of grass to meet the multiple faces of the totem. The wooden eyes stared him down as his slanting gaze moved upward. The world around him felt like it was suddenly trapped in a vacuum. He got smaller and the post got larger under its casted shadow. The burning sun blazed behind.
‘YOU’RE NOT LISTENING.’
Their eyes darkened, bore into him. Their words, a mishmash of hundreds of octaves echoed in his ears. He flinched, waiting for its strike that never game.
Everything had gone deathly quiet. His eyes opened, widened, and his lips parted at the lonely sight of a mourning dove that decided to set atop the Thunderbird ornament. It jounced its tail feathers and emitted a long, sad coo before flicking its head to the side. Its eyes closed, as if in thought, before opening and staring beyond where he stood.
Nathan turned to where it was now watching and froze. Coming out of the dorms was Max.
He almost called out to her. Almost. His mouth had even opened, his hand at a semi-lift to gain her attention.
He stopped himself. ‘DON’T. What the fuck are you doing?!’
Max dodged a group of rowdy students, looking as if she were in a hurry, fingering her phone and putting it in her pocket. She then looked up and stopped dead when her line of sight met his. Her eyes began to match Nathan’s in width, and her hands clenched at her own bag strap. She even took a step backward, on guard, an action he wouldn’t admit hurt more than he expected.
Another coo reached his ears, loud and overbearing. Too loud in fact. Way too loud to be normal. It couldn’t have been coming from the dove. It started to sound more like a wailing siren.
A large, unexpected gust of wind took hold of the campus. Various surprised cries rang out from nearby students, and even Nathan let out a grunt, holding his position against the strong gale. The loose notebook he was carrying wasn’t so lucky. It flew to the ground with an arrangement of leaves and twigs from the surrounding foliage. Others around seemed to be having trouble, too, as peers frantically grabbed at flying papers or held down pieces of their clothing. Their cries were lost within the gale.
When he came to, the students had lit up in commotion from the wind, and when he looked up, his vision directly fell with Max’s once again. Nathan swallowed as his jaw locked. She stood right in front of him. Her cheeks were powdered with a yellow-orange hue, mixing with a pink from her natural blush. It made her freckles look more faded in the afternoon sun. Her blue hues glimmered like the surface of water. She held out his notebook to him, her shy demeanor fading away to one more bold. He saw that fire more and more every time he ran into her.
Nathan’s stomach did a jump, and he felt his face begin to simmer under her glow. He wanted to snatch the notebook away in one swift motion, but it was like his energy had been sapped. Even raising an arm to take hold of it took immense effort. He relinquished the pad from her, slightly bewildered by her calm. Max then brushed some of her wind-whipped hair out of her face and shifted past him without a word.
He blinked in confusion. He was sure she was going to start harassing him about last night, and somewhere inside—to which he wouldn’t even admit to himself—he wished she did. Something to at least start a conversation…? –‘What kind of conversation would that be, you dumbass?’
But no. Nothing. Nathan turned and watched her disappear behind the corner with a foreign ache. He looked back to where the dove was perched. It was gone. He was alone again. He then regained himself and shuffled into the dormitories.
Nathan made his way to his room and opened the door. His bag fell to the floor and he neatly placed his notebook and binder on his desk, almost like a robot if he stopped to think about it.
‘You need to talk to her.’
It only took that single sentence to form in him to make an explosion overwhelm his psyche.
‘You need to talk to her.’
‘Something is happening.’
‘It all points to you.’
‘She knows something, too.’
‘She has to know.’
‘She saw the doe!’
‘You know you know.’
‘Somewhere inside you know.’
‘He knew and now he’s DEAD.’
Nathan’s hand made it to his doorknob, his teeth grinding to the point where he could hear his joints crackle in his ear. He escaped the suffocating room. The hall seemed more open than it should be as more sweat pooled on his brow and several places on his body. His feet were already carrying himself outside and across the campus. The further the world opened around him, the more his chest tightened, he smaller he became. He wished he could turn it off, this feeling. It only resulted in him following Max in a creepier, more strained manner. He was sure people were noticing, sure they were staring him down and judging him thusly, like they always did. He was torn. To turn back, or to keep going—that was the question. He was certainly going, but it was like a leash was around his neck, jerking him to turn back like one would a disobedient dog.
The two reached the parking lot, and Nathan had caught up. Max’s head cocked to the side with the sound of his heavy, half-jogging footsteps as Nathan’s hand reached out and clamped around her upper arm. Max gasped, staggered, and swiveled on her heel. She met his expression with one of worry mixed with impatience.
“W-What do you want?” Her tone struck him in a more hurtful fashion than incensing.
It was then that Nathan realized just how truly foolish he must have looked. Surrounded by wandering students, in the middle of Blackwell’s searing parking lot, grabbing a girl’s arm whose relationship with him was as confusing as the current situation. He opened his mouth to talk, but nothing came out. Only a nervy squeak that made his face flare under the hot sun and his heated blood.
“Let go, Nathan.”
“I have—we-we have to…” When he found his voice, he didn’t recognize himself. Her resultant countenance fed into his disordered identity.
“Nathan. Let go.” Max asserted, trying to pull away with a grunt.
Nathan’s grip was like a vise. The gravelly tenor made its way back, and his deprecate squint caught her like a spider’s web as he pulled her closer. “We have to talk.”
He then felt another’s hand on his shoulder. He was so absorbed with catching Max that when it gave him a hefty shove, he ended up stumbling back further than he expected.
“Back off, Prescott!”
His eyes shot up and met those of the blue-haired girl’s. She came forth in a long stride, her eyes slanted with a threatening frown situated on her lips, daring him to make any further moves.
“Mind you own fucking business, bitch!” Nathan spat before he could think.
“My friend is my business, dickhead!”
Max’s eyes widened and she set a hand on the girl’s chest to keep her at bay. “Chloe, it’s fine! Let’s just go.”
Max turned back to Nathan with an intimidating glower. There was a tension within her that wasn’t there before. Nathan felt it and took a step back, much to his own vexation. Chloe shooting him a smirk of triumph pissed him off even more.
‘Chloe? That’s Chloe? You gotta be fucking kidding me!’
He wanted so badly to tackle the punk’s smug ass to the ground, but felt the fatigue leak from his head to wear on his body. He stood still in exhaustion and watched the two of them enter a rundown pickup, squealing out of the lot and leaving him utterly humiliated.
When he got the courage to look up, there were several students staring at him with a multitude of expressions. The rigidity hung in the air amongst them all. The teen squeezed his eyes shut to an unyielding shame he was trying to keep in check. He felt so stupid. So. Fucking. Stupid.
He shut down, shoved his hands into his pockets, feeling the photograph once again in another bit of hidden ire, and shambled all the way back to the dorms. He felt every single person’s stare along the way, lip quivering.
Fumbling more with his keys, Nathan unlocked his door and let it lightly shut behind him. There was a war of static and fury in his head as he stood in the darkness of his room. He didn’t bother turning on any lights. Everything was sore, and he felt the overwhelming need for a self-medicating session.
‘You know, it really doesn’t help you outright ignored her when she wanted to talk to you. It’s called karma, bro.’
Nathan disregarded any further self-reprimands and retrieved his main cell phone, flopping on his bed with a foof! He scrolled through his contacts, speed dialing someone before his mind had fully made itself up. He had resources. He hadn’t lost this battle yet.
“What up, Nate?” The smooth and drawn-out voice of Hayden Jones filled his ear. Funny enough, his stoner inflection was actually a comfort to him instead of a distraction to which he wanted to join at the time.
“Hey. Uh.” Nathan sniffled. That unfamiliar tone within his voice made him clear his throat with an agitated grumble. “You still keep tabs with Juliet and the school paper?”
“I do-o-o-o.” He dragged out his words. “Something up?”
“She has access to the student’s records, right?” Nathan cleared his throat again, his replicated confidence returning to help him. “Get with her. I need a phone number.
Max sat in Chloe’s truck in a state of disbelief. That situation could have quickly gotten out of hand, and she was so glad it didn’t. She still wasn’t sure how well her rewind ability would work, especially in that sort of predicament. If at all.
An inanimate pencil Chloe Price was not. Neither was Nathan Prescott.
It couldn’t have been an easy task, could it? Pick up his notebook, give it back, and go meet Chloe. That’s all she had to do, and she did. And steps one and two were optional. But no. She was quickly learning it was never that easy with Nathan.
And the way he looked, so lost and confused. Desperate. Scared. Like the boy she embraced Wednesday night. She felt the need to turn back, but already knew she was committed to Chloe, and that it was going to stay that way come hell or high water. She promised.
But the way he looked and sounded, she couldn’t help but wonder if the thought of what happened between them at the party crossed his mind. She didn’t want to admit that it did her. It only made her more ashamed. She couldn’t believe herself.
“What did that freak want with you?” Chloe asked, shooting Max a look of incredulity, making her feel all the more under pressure.
“I have no idea.” Not the full truth, but not entirely a lie. Max wouldn’t have known where to start with it all.
“Fucking asshole. If he tries to mess with you again, he’s so dead.”
“Chloe, just forget about it. He’s probably just pissed I crashed his party last night.”
Chloe shot her another look with a snort. “Oh, man. I’d have loved to see his face then. Especially after finding out it was you under all that hotness.”
‘I don’t know about that, Chloe.’ Max felt a rush of blood to her head when she remembered that whole mishap. Chloe’s compliments—the one from the night before and just now—got to her as well.
“Right. The whole party was dumb. Overrated. Like I figured. I was on a mission, anyway.” Max feigned a confident answer with a shrug.
“Whatever. Arcadia’s most spoiled brat gets dumped on for a night. Big deal. Doesn’t mean he has to get on your case like a fucking loon.”
Max inhaled. “I know. Let’s just forget about it for now and focus on Rachel, okay?”
Chloe’s expression softened, but there was a hint of concern under the surface. “Right.”
When they turned onto an all-too-familiar street, Max’s eyes lit up. There it was. The Price house, just a few meters away. And…it was as if nothing about it had changed in all the years she was away.
Like the diner. Like the lighthouse. Like her. Max wanted to frown at her last thought, but she just couldn’t. Not with how soft her blood was becoming beneath her surface, easing her into security with familiar sights.
Even down to the home’s half-painted status, nothing about the exterior had been altered. William had been in the process of painting it when his car accident happened. Chloe had desperately wanted to help, but both Joyce and William were adamant to not allow their daughter to attempt any such balancing act on their wobbly ladder. Joyce was in a constant state of worry when William was the one doing so as it were. It was a moment of sad nostalgia, thinking of William again.
The rattle of the truck’s engine dying down, the neighbor’s sprinklers from across the street, and several chirping birds were the only sounds filling the quiet gap. Max attempted to make conversation as Chloe, looking more tired than usual, jiggled the keys free from her truck and opened the door.
“The place looks…nice.”
“Oh, yeah. Home, shit home.” Chloe panned, slamming her driver’s side shut with a huff.
They passed the door’s threshold, the memorable bolt and creak from the heavy wood a sound that further calmed her. Max was immediately hit with more memories upon the sun’s blockage into the shade of the hall, the small hall that lead into the living room. The corkboard with photographs on the wall, the stairway, the door to the garage—everything was the same. Even the carpet was still its brilliant deep blue. Had it been changed? No. There were too many ingrained dirt spots and thinning parts to have been. While a somewhat sad sight, it brought a smile to her face.
Chloe began bounding up the stairs. “Come on, Caulfield. Don’t be shy. This was your second home once upon a time. If you care to remember.”
Ouch. Chloe wasn’t pulling any punches with anything. She had to have been in a shit mood, though. Especially after her discovery last night. The thought brought a grimace to Max’s face. She was still upset with Rachel. She could only imagine how Chloe must be feeling. And their tousle with Nathan didn’t help. Max couldn’t rightly blame her, but did she have to be so blunt at times?
Max followed Chloe. Again, everything was the same. Same wooden landing, same aerial photograph of Arcadia Bay on the opposite wall, even the same shelves William had set up by the window next to the stairs. Different books had been shuffled in and out of it over the years, but everything was as if she had stepped back in time once again. That surreal feeling returned, not that it every truly left given everything that had been happening that week.
“I gotta grab a couple things from my room. It’s a bit different from when you saw it last, but…yeah. Welcome back to my lair.”
Now that, Max didn’t doubt. And as soon as Chloe opened her door, a difference hit Max right away. Not in sight, but in smell. Chloe had certainly grown more fond of the bud.
“Whoo…” Max blinked a few times with a silly smile. “Welcome back, indeed.”
“Don’t knock it ‘til you try it. It might mellow you out once in a while.”
“I think I’m mellow enough without. Thanks though.”
As Max entered past the multitude of stickers and signs on her door, the room opened up to a space she certainly remembered, but a space that had indeed changed. First off: posters. So. Many. Posters. Band and grunge posters, cutouts from magazines, even decals that belonged on the back windows or bumpers of cars plastered the girl’s walls. The white-tinted-yellow spaces—no doubt from the nicotine buildup and lack of cleaning—were barely visible. And if there wasn’t a massive amount of posters, there was graffiti. Scribbles and doodles aplenty. An American flag hung over one window like a curtain, while a flattop desk was pushed against the other. The latter was over the garage and the ceiling slanted pleasingly to line up with the crowded crook. All was a reflection of the renewed Chloe, the Chloe Max was still getting used to bit by bit.
Though Chloe had changed, there were still pieces of her old self. Max turned to the left and met the sight of Chloe’s old, blue dresser. She remembered when Chloe painted it. She had helped. It was now shoved into a corner as if trying to be forgotten, the paint chipping and covered in more doodles and stickers. On it, amidst a plethora of stray writing utensils, papers, makeup, and other random things was a snow globe. Inside, a lowly and lonely doe stood on a platform of fake grass. Not the best thing for Max to think about at the moment, but despite what had happened, she smiled at the figurine. William had gotten that for Chloe a long time ago.
Against Chloe’s wall and missing its frame was her bed. There was no rhyme or reason to her bedding; the sheets, comforters, and pillowcases didn’t match whatsoever. Though, Max would argue that was like the Chloe from days of old, anyway. The thing that tugged at Max’s heartstrings was the lack of photographs. None of her family, none of her friends, and especially none of Chloe and her. Though, she wouldn’t blame Chloe if she had burned all of them after their disconnection.
Other than the obvious, Chloe’s room was a mess! Rachel wasn’t exaggerating when she said it looked as though a tornado had come through. Assortments of clothes, bottles, cans, Oregon-labeled ashtrays, books, papers, and just random garbage littered the floor in spades. There was even an old-fashioned suitcase on one side of her bed filled with more bottles—empty beer bottles—and discarded cigarette packets.
Chloe headed to her other dresser by her bed. It was significantly smaller, and crowded with more junk, like the rest of the surfaces in her room. She stuck her hand in and rummaged through an assortment of her belongings, pulling out a dime bag of the very thing they were just talking about.
“Speaking of. I need my fix while Mom and David are out.”
“Mm.” Max nodded, still observing several things in Chloe’s room.
The Christmas lights around the ceiling slant were a nice touch. Another thing was William’s old stereo that used to be his workspace in the garage. Chloe had laid claim to it. The living room’s television had also been moved upstairs to her abode. Many a night were spent up playing video games or watching anime on that little guy. Max was glad they weren’t thrown away.
“So, take any new photos lately?” Chloe asked as she lit up. She took a long hit. The wisps of smoke lingered in the air.
Max answered, still zoning out in her wistfulness. “Sort of…? I mean, a little. It’s been hard since I busted my camera.”
Chloe coughed and sat up with a furrowed brow. “Whoa. Wait. You busted your camera? How the hell did that happen?”
‘Oh, crap. I forgot about—and—shit!’
“I…tripped on a rock and broke it.”
“Dude, seriously? Where’d your clumsy ass fall?”
The subject was getting dangerously close to territory Max wasn’t ready to explain. Not yet. “At the lighthouse. But it’s fine,” she deterred, “I was going to borrow one from Blackwell for a bit. No worries.”
“You went to the lighthouse?” Chloe’s head lightly shifted to the side, and her voice fell into one more familiar to Max, one of cute curiosity and wonder.
Chloe shuffled to the end of her bed, her booted feet stomping with a single, sharp note. She sat down her ashtray—another red Oregon one from her collection—and stood up, heading over to her small, buried bookshelf on which the stereo was sat. How she could keep on objective to find anything in her disorganization would remain a mystery to Max. She retrieved something white and rectangular, spinning and standing to hold it out.
It was a camera. More specifically…
“William’s camera,” Max said in awe.
“Yeah…” Chloe’s cheeks flushed. “I know it was your birthday last month. So…” She held it out to Max. When she didn’t take it, Chloe pushed it into her shaky hands.
“Whu—! Chloe, I can’t take this! It’s your dad’s!”
“And he’d be pissed knowing I don’t use it for shit. Now, I know it will be used awesomely!” Chloe passed her a genuine grin, one that got Max equally blushing bright.
“Wowser. Chloe…thank you. Thank you so much!” Max was still in shock. “You’re sure?”
“Well, I mean, if you wanna pay out the ass to borrow one from BlackHell, be my guest.”
Max laughed. “Okay. No more looking gift Chloes in the mouth. This camera’s so sweet! Again, thank you! I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll let me see your collection! Divvy up those pics!”
Max’s eyes lit up. She sat down next to Chloe and dug in her bag for the photos she took at the lighthouse. Chloe snatched them right away and lay down with a lazy smile. Max, too, leaned back on her hands, trying to match her laxness.
“Damn. I can’t believe that old tree carving is still there. We did that forever ago.”
“I know. Feels like ages now.”
Chloe continued to browse the small collection while Max’s expression began to drop. Chloe didn’t seem all that concerned with Rachel at the moment, and she could see why. She recognized this pattern, her avoidance by distraction. Despite Max wanting to relish in Chloe’s relaxation routine as well, Max brought up the popular girl to try and get down to business with the ordeal.
“So, um…about Rachel…”
Chloe sat up and handed her the photographs in a brusque interruption. “I like the sunset with the lighthouse. That thing hasn’t changed in years, except for the amount of rust. We should break in and climb to the top! Watch the sunset together or something!”
Max frowned. “Chloe.”
Chloe placed a hand on her forehead and sighed. “What, Max? What do you want me to say, exactly? I kept going over and over about who she could have meant in my head last night. Why she would keep it a secret o-or…just…I didn’t sleep worth a shit.”
Max blinked and shifted her eyes to the floor. “I’m sorry. I wish I’d have found out more. I should have stayed longer, but…
‘I found out I can rewind time and got pushed in the pool with Victoria Chase…after getting slightly buzzed and almost kissing Nathan Prescott.’ The words festered on her tacit tongue.
“…I didn’t sleep too well, either.”
“Party too hard, did you?”
Max playfully pushed Chloe’s shoulder. “ I was worrying about you, dummy!”
‘While partying too hard…’ Max felt like punching herself.
After briefly sending her a light smirk, Chloe leaned forward, elbows on her thighs. Max’s hand migrated to her back. Chloe was somewhat cold, even through her thin leather jacket. Max’s brow tightened and she dipped her head down to meet Chloe’s faraway gaze.
When the silence got too much, Max inquired hesitantly, “I know it’s dumb to ask, but are you okay?”
“That is dumb to ask,” Chloe answered with a tipped smile. “I skipped dinner last night—like an idiot, didn’t get any sleep after finding out Rachel might be running around with a backburner boyfriend, and didn’t get to wake and bake because Sergeant Pepper decided to hang around this morning and watch me like a hawk. But sure, I’m awesome.”
“Whoa. Take a breath there.” As lighthearted as Chloe was pretending to sound, she was still irritable. Max rubbed Chloe’s back for a moment, and proceeded to ask, “So what kind of ship’s biscuits does Captain Bluebeard have in stock nowadays?”
Chloe rolled her eyes, but her expression said something else. “Fuck if I know. Let’s check it out Long Max Silver!”
Max giggled, flashing her teeth in a rare grin. “Right. Just…no wine tasting shenanigans this time!”
The two made their way out of the room and headed down the creaky stairs as Chloe exclaimed, “Shit, dude, you remember that?”
“I’ll never forget that. We scrubbed the carpet for hours under Joyce’s watchful, pissed-off eye.”
Chloe laughed as she clung to the stair’s bottom pole. She swung her body around on one leg into the hall. “That stain is still there.”
“What? Are you cereal?”
Coming to a halt, causing Max to run into her back with a small oomph, Chloe turned. “Wow. Haven’t heard that phrase in a while. But, yeah. Go check it out,” she finished with a chuckle.
Max wore a sheepish expression, backing up from her mishap. Chloe smelled like weed, but also like she remembered from long ago. She had changed, but she was glad remnants of her old friend were still there. Though there was a palpable tension between them still, she was happy to be rebuilding the bridge Chloe had burned.
Chloe took a left into the kitchen and began looking around for something to eat while Max entered the living and dining area. Again, nothing much had changed about the place. The same table and centerpiece were still there. The lone, dead fireplace was diagonal from that, cold brick and mortar left unlit for what looked like years. And while the couch had been moved at a different angle to face the vertical windows, it was still the same couch the two used to pretend was their pirate ship from time to time. Perhaps a thread or two or more were torn from it, but it was the same. And Joyce did invest in a flatscreen television. Or maybe David had it when he moved in with them. Either way, It was about time, Max thought, as it sat on the wood stand of low-set drawers. They were no doubt still filled with the family’s DVD and VHS collection, or so she hoped. On the coffee table were different magazines and catalogs, all scattered with different papers stuffed inside.
Her eyes continued to scan the room. Though most hadn’t changed, some of the décor had. Photographs on the walls and around the vicinity, and Joyce’s curio cabinet pieces were the most obvious. The latter now sported some of David’s belongings, while the former were almost nonexistent, except a large, framed photograph of a proud David standing over a deer’s corpse as he held it up by its antlers. The macabre trophy disgusted Max and she couldn’t help but think of what happened between her and Nathan again.
‘Okay, enough of the reminders. Jesus.’ She reproached the world.
Furthermore, Max noticed that anything reminiscent of William was gone, and it hurt her heart. The Price’s were like her second family, and the only people she really knew who took silly photos and proudly placed them around the house for everyone to see. Her mom and dad were a little too wound tight, especially her mom, to be so frivolous. Though, Max admitted, her father had tried now and again, if only to make Max feel a little less constricted. The times he took her to sports games were some of the best moments. Otherwise, things were kept fairly orthodox in the Caulfield household.
On the desk next to the second door to the garage, there was a pile of mail. Max inspected it to find most of them were bills—bills with red stamps of urgency on their covers, bills that were overdue. Chloe hadn’t said anything, but this had to have added to her stress in some form on top of everything else, and she was keeping it to herself. Chloe had glass pride, after all. Max couldn’t think about it without feeling just as fragile, if not worse for her and Joyce.
Turning her back to the heartache, and looking down at the floor, she found the very stain they had caused. It was faded in the milky light flooding through the sliding glass door, but there was no mistaking it. Like dried blood, it stayed. Max shook her head with a silent laugh and turned to meet Chloe in the kitchen. She sat on one of the stools next to the wall-jutted island at the kitchen’s boundary. There, next to a box of cereal and a couple more empty beer bottles, sat a jar with meager amounts of change. On it was a Post-It that read: Paris. It was another stab to Max’s chest. They weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe to Portland…if that. The Prices were always planning a big vacation. Now it seemed farther away than ever before.
Chloe’s backside was bent and sticking out of the fridge. She mumbled and shut the door when she found nothing. Even the décor on the fridge seemed lonely without any photos for them to pin up. Now there were only random notes, pamphlets, and Chloe’s presence with alphabet magnets spelling out a callous 'FCK U.' It was underneath another Post-It with handwriting Max didn’t recognize. More than likely, it was David’s.
“F-find anything?” Max asked, rediscovering her will to speak through the surrounding, heavy aura.
Chloe walked over and slumped down in one of the dining room chairs after finding a bag in one of the cupboards. The heft of her weight let her legs fly up and fall back down crossed. “Eh. Some dill pickle potato chips. It’ll work.”
She reached in and took out several chips at once, shoveling them all into her mouth with a muffled, “More for me then!”
They sat, beside themselves for a moment, Chloe’s crunching making the situation more disenchanted. Max sat, legs together, hands rubbing her legs in a proper position. She began to feel like a stranger again.
Before becoming too overwhelmed, Max said, “I, uh, see Joyce redecorated.”
Chloe licked her salty fingers and plunged her hand back in the bag. “Isn’t it just great?” Her sarcasm at its finest. “Now it’s man-cave central. I totally called dibs on the old TV, though. Little guy’s had it rough, but he’s not down for the count yet!”
“And William’s stereo, I noticed. But…” she hesitated, but went for it, “where’s all the photos that used to be around?”
Chloe stopped mid chew, her face dropping.
“Joyce didn’t throw them out, did she?”
Chloe dusted her hands, stood up, and strutted over to the built-in wall shelf next to the hall. She began to sort through different books and binders. “No. She just decided to shove them in boxes, drawers, or…” She paused to open a binder and nodded, “stick them in albums. Then she’d put those in boxes or drawers. ‘Cept this one. I made sure to keep this one out. It’s the family album, after all.”
Max pursed her lips. “I feel the love.”
“There’s so much of it, I know.” She sat the binder on the island in front of Max. Sure enough, there were several photographs within that used to be framed and set on the fireplace mantle, some which used to hang on the walls.
“At least she kept them, though, right?” Max didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. She respected Joyce, but all this unfamiliarity was getting in the way of her long-time judgment of the woman. It was good to look forward, Max believed, but also good not to forget the past.
“She’d have to get past me if she wanted otherwise.” Max turned the page in the meanwhile, and she added, “Oh, wow. Feel old yet?”
An invisible rock pegged Max square in the senses. In the middle of this particular collection was the last picture William ever took. It was of her and Chloe. Max remembered. William had surprised them, even though Chloe was—and looked—more ready for the picture than Max. They were making crepes for breakfast that summer morning. Or trying to make crepes. William and Chloe weren’t much for cooking, though Chloe was at least better than her father. Or so she argued.
Then, Joyce called the house. She needed a ride home from the grocery store.
“She’s never leaving me!” Chloe said after a conversation with Max and her father about dinner. Salmon surprise, was it? With chocolate cake for dessert. Max couldn’t quite remember the cuisine for that night, but she always remembered dessert.
And she would always remember what Chloe had said. And what William said after.
“That makes all of us.”
Then William left to pick up Joyce. And then…
Max was too afraid to make eye contact with Chloe. It was cruel, but it was karma, this photograph. She really was a horrible friend. She left when Chloe needed her the most. Not on purpose; her father had gotten a new job in Seattle. But she should have kept more in contact. She should have…should have…Max’s face dipped with indignity, her bob shifting to cover her watery eyes.
“Not until I see it first! You know the rules, Dad!” The tickling of a voice at her ear got her to snap back to the photograph.
Max had to blink several times while she focused on it to make sure she wasn’t seeing things through the blur of her tears. She wasn’t.
The picture was shimmering. It was like a holographic illusion, like some of hers and Chloe’s rare Pokémon cards they used to collect. Max lifted one side of the binder, allowing the picture more movement. She sat it flat once again and traced her finger over the plastic that held the pictures in place.
There was giggling, hers and Chloe’s. Then there were mixtures of red, yellow, and orange in her peripherals. They spilled into her field of view. The laughter became louder, the voices clearer, the space around her dissolving. She felt cold.
“Someday Dad will get one of them newfangled computers,” Chloe said. Though her voice was higher, less angry. Much less angry.
“I hope the flash didn’t scare you, Max.”
Max blinked, saw spots, grounded herself. She literally felt her heart stop. She knew that voice, remembered this smell, felt the cold instantly banished and replaced with warmth and comfort. She slowly brought her head up.
William. It was William. He was there in his signature flannel, with his honey blonde hair, like Chloe’s of the past, and his boyish grin proudly plastered on his face as he shook the new Polaroid.
And Chloe was…Max’s eyes widened. Chloe had her long hair again. She was younger, smiling that smile that was lost to time, in her lavender-gray Oregon sweatshirt and pale jeans. Max wanted to reach out and hug her tight, an overwhelming sensation as they stared at her with loving, bright eyes.
The two were talking to her, but she didn’t hear a word they were saying. How was this possible? Where was she? This was back then. On the day that William…! Terror began to replace her trifling elation.
She opened her mouth to speak, but was at a loss. Then she stepped forward…
But it wasn’t her.
It was another Max. Another, younger Max. The current her stayed still, a shock running down her spine as if she were electrocuted. She wouldn’t have been able to describe her increasing mixture of emotions if her life depended on it. It was as if she had duplicated like an amoeba, like she had been cloned.
‘What. The. Fuck.’
The current Max looked down at her hands and attire, wide-eyed and speechless. She was also younger, back as her thirteen-year-old self. She had her longer hair pulled back in its ponytail, and she was wearing her blue shirt and shorts ensemble from that doomed day. She was back in that photograph, back in that very moment.
But at the same time, she wasn’t. She was observing something else with eyes the size of saucers. The floor. She was looking at her hands, but also through her hands at the carpet below. She was completely transparent. Like a ghost.
She gasped—like the doe.
Max backed up, rather, stumbled and turned around fast. She felt like she couldn’t breathe, as she was met with the vision of several other see-through younger Maxes. After glancing back, she saw that the Max that had stepped forth earlier was also otherworldly. All of them were a blur, doing different things in the static vicinity. The current Max’s eyes darted to and fro in a panic.
“Wha-What the hell is going on?!” she screamed aloud, but no one stirred. Not Chloe. Not William. None of the other ghostly Maxes.
‘Stop it, Max! Keep calm!’ she told herself through the tumult of panic with a rough shake of the head.
Max tried to keep an eye on her other selves. As ludicrous as that action sounded, she watched to the best of her ability. One Max was tossing something in the garbage by the desk. She didn’t catch what it was. Another was shoving something in her shorts pocket. Again, she didn’t catch the object she was withholding. Another threw something out the dining room window. Another dropped something in the sink. And another, and another, and another! Shifting and separating, fading in and out. There were too many and too much to keep track of, and her head began to throb with an immense pain. The same pain whenever she rewound time for too long.
“Oh, shit!” She tried to sooth the building tension, but to no avail.
While all the other Maxes were moving through space like wraiths, she spied one Max who was still, standing over the fireplace with a blank expression, flickering in and out of past and present. Max was no stranger to mirrors, but this was on another level of insane and creepy. She crept toward Fireplace Max—the name she just christened this version of her other self—and tried to get a look at what the girl was doing. She had to somehow find the logic within this madness.
In the girl’s hands was the photograph of her and Chloe, the very one that started this whole mess. Fireplace Max then looked up, the blankness replaced with a sad determination, and dropped the picture into the flames.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Without thinking, Max lunged. She tried to stop herself, but she passed right through, stupefied.
“She’s never leaving me!”
“That makes all of us.”
Chloe’s and William’s voices became distant echoes as Fireplace Max sauntered into the hall, turned her back against the wall, and clapped her hands to her face to hide away tears. It was like she knew what was going to happen, knew the fate of William on that day.
And William, nonchalantly waving a hand to his daughter, walked out the door. Out the door to his demise.
“No! William! Chloe!” Max called out, but her voice fell into the void.
She doubled over, the buzzing and ringing bloating her skull to an extreme like before. Everything was fading to white, but she could vaguely make out spidery red veins in the corners of her eyes. They were taking over, like her blood dropping into her cup of coffee in the diner. Spreading, pulsing, living. She felt herself screaming, but there was no sound.
“Max! Your phone’s going off! I swear you’re dead to the world sometimes.”
She felt a slap to the side of her arm. The force was so strong and such a shock, Max jumped with a yelp and tilted the stool. She and it landed full force on the floor. She was breathing hard, her stomach tight and her temples pounding.
“Well, damn. Didn’t mean to freak you out that much. You oka—oh! Whoa, shit! Max!” Chloe’s humored tone fell to one of concern. She kneeled down by Max who was trying to push her way up on her side.
“What…What happened?” Max asked, looking around for the other Maxes, for Fireplace Max, for anyone in that moment. But the fire was dead, its mantle barren, and there were no more ghosts to discern. Her eyes settled on Chloe, and she realized she was back. “Chloe. What…”
“Your nose. Are you okay? You must have hit it when you face-planted. I’ll get you a washcloth. Hang on!” Chloe demanded, jumping up to clamber up the stairs to the bathroom.
Max already knew what she was referring to, bringing her fingertips to the rush of blood on her upper lip. She licked some of it away, grimacing at the taste. There was a lot more of it this time. Max tried to stand, only to find she was too dizzy to do so. She almost vomited right then and there.
“Don’t put…another stain…on the carpet,” she told herself out loud, putting her hand to her mouth to hold back a gag.
Her statement may have sounded ridiculous, but she wanted to make sure she was truly back. She wanted to make sure that she was alive, and that she was not as crazy as she felt. That her voice still existed.
That she still existed.
‘Oh, my God. What the hell just happened?’
It was like the vision she had at the lighthouse, the vision of her in the bathroom with Chloe and Nathan. Though, if it were possible, she felt even less in control than that time. Way less in control. It was really like she was a ghost in the midst of that chaos. Nobody noticed her. Nobody heard her. Not even the other Maxes. Nothing and nobody.
And it was fucking horrifying.
She suddenly felt her phone vibrate against her side. Even that small action raised her disquiet and caused her stomach to do another wave. She gasped, grabbing it and squinting at the number on the screen. UNKNOWN, it read. Max swallowed. Another taste of iron met her taste buds and she coughed into her other palm. Along with the now-missed call notification, she had several text messages within ten-minute intervals of one another.
we need 2 tlk
dnt ignore this or ull b sry
i know whr u sleep dont fuk w me rn
srsly max we need 2 talk like NOW
She had one guess as to who the mysterious messenger was. She was not pleased as she checked her voicemail. She didn’t want Chloe to know who was blowing up her phone and planned on deleting both it and the messages as fast as possible.
“Hi! You’ve reached Max Caulfield…God dammit!”
Nathan’s voice mocked her greeting message. Max made a face as if he were right in front of her. However, he didn’t sound like as much of a threat as he did in his unvoiced text messages. He sounded scared and worried, like how she had left him in the parking lot. It sounded like he was trying to keep himself in order. Max felt a pang of sadness as she reluctantly continued to listen.
“Just…meet me at Blackwell’s pool when the game starts. Six o’clock. Be there. Or…” He cut off for a second, clearly frustrated. “Just be there.”
A moment of hushed static hung in the air before one last word was said.
Max dropped the line with a swipe of her finger, taken by surprise. She had enough on her plate as it were, but his final plea sounded genuine. What did he want to talk about? She hoped it wasn’t about last night’s stupidity. For the love of all that was sacred and holy in this world, anything but that. Especially now.
‘Jesus, Max! Quit worrying about that jerk for a second and focus! What the fuck was that?!’ She paused for thought, trying to sort everything out. ‘I was looking at the photo, and then I was there…but I wasn’t there. I was…between here and there?” She took in a long breath and swallowed again. ‘Shit. I have no idea.’
Chloe came back down and passed Max a warm cloth for her nose. She was thankful she didn’t have to use the back of her hand for once. After wiping the blood away, Chloe helped her up, slowly as to not further agitate her stomach or sore body.
“You okay? How’s your schnoz? Looked like you took a pretty bad spill.”
“I’m good. Thanks.” Max held the cloth to her lip, the warmth soothing as the last bits of blood soaked into the material.
“You’re not good. You’re, like, wicked pale.”
“It was just…the photo…” She felt the pinpricks of tears in her eyes already. “It was William’s last one he ever took on that day. I was—I just—I miss him.” She lost the train and simply blurted what she felt. “And I’m so sorry, Chloe. I’m so, so sorry.” Max had to bite her lip to keep from breaking down. Everything was too much.
Chloe cast her a look of worry, stepping forward to wrap her arms around the smaller girl’s shoulders. “Hey. Max it’s—don’t worry. I miss him, too. I mean, of course I do, but…”
Max reciprocated the girl’s embrace, her head shaking back and forth. “I’m sorry.”
“I get it. It’s okay,” Chloe hurriedly replied. She made an uncertain noise before adding, “But what photo are you talking about?”
Max’s eyes snapped open and she pushed herself back in total shock. “What?”
“What photo are you talking about?” Chloe repeated.
Max just stared at her, her head twitching back and forth in short bursts of denial. She turned to the island and stared at the open binder. Her mouth fell open.
The spot where the picture of the two girls should have been was crowded out by the others on the page. The photos had been rearranged differently, like they were making up for something that wasn’t there, was never there.
Like they were making up for something that never existed.
“Max? A-Are you okay? You’re freaking me out.” And it was true. Chloe sounded scared. Scared and baffled, even if she tried to cover it up with humor afterward. “I think you hit your head harder than you thought.”
“It’s gone,” Max whispered so only she could hear herself. She then lost her balance, the world around her almost fading to black, but caught herself on the countertop. She was shaking, her energy drained.
“C’mon, Super Max. Let’s sit on the couch for a minute.” Chloe grabbed her by the arms, trying to pull her toward the living room ever so gently. “You had a hella insane fucking night, and…and…”
The room fell quiet. Only the ticking clock in the background could be heard along with the faint passing of cars outside. A bird or two, some barking dogs, things outside their quiet bubble that were muffled, practically strangled, by the encompassing silence. The blue-haired girl stood, uncharacteristically patient in awaiting Max’s continuance.
It took Max several more moments lost in her own furor of thoughts to finally make a decision. Despite everything weighing on her mind, especially Nathan, Max needed to let it out. Even if she felt less than prepared, even if she sounded like a complete nutcase, she decided that she had held it in long enough.
“There’s something I have to tell you.”